Commonalities in focus at rare intrafaith dialogue on Islam

A rare intrafaith dialogue on Islam had the Asia Society Texas Center’s Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater packed to the last seat Feb. 21. The event featured four imams representing the Ahmadiyya, African-American, Shia and Sunni traditions of Islam and was co-hosted by Rice University’s Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance and the Asia Society Texas Center.

Four imams representing the Ahmadiyya, African-American, Shia and Sunni traditions of Islam participated in the Feb. 21 forum.

In a forum moderated by Mike Ghouse, president of the Dallas-based Foundation for Pluralism, the imams spoke with candor, wit and hope about the danger of superficial differences and importance of commonalities in face of relations among the traditions that, in the Middle East and Asia, have been at times marked by intense rivalry and conflict.

Ghouse said having the four traditions represented in one panel was a first-of-its-kind occurrence in Texas. “We realize that this is a pilot project and we … take the serious responsibility to set the tone for a future dialogue in the United States and, perhaps, around the world,” he said.

Above all, the four imams agreed that the Islam faith means doing good work in the world.

Imam Zia Shaikh of the Islamic Center of Irving, Texas, said good work in the Sunni tradition is not only limited to ritualistic observances. “Goodness is not turning toward east and west, but living your life in accordance with the teachings of God,” Shaikh said. “On top of that, being patient and steadfast and looking after the poor.”

In the Islamic faith, “any act of wholesomeness and harmlessness is considered goodness,” said Imam Moustafa al-Qazwini, founding director of the Islamic Education Center of Orange County, Calif. “The best amongst you is the one who believes in God and does goodness to mankind, regardless of their faith, of their origin, of their race and color. Therefore, we are encouraged in the Shia tradition of Islam to do good to others.”

Imam Azhar Haneef, vice president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of the United States, based in Silver Spring, Md., stressed the definition of goodness as provided by the Koran. “One of the beauties of Islam is that it doesn’t leave definitions up to man,” he said. “Every religion is saying that we should be like an image of God … and that is what goodness truly is. We should struggle in this together and with one another and not against one another in being good.”

Imam Wazir Ali of the Masjid Warithud-Deen Mohammed and Masjid Al-Qur’an community in Houston echoed this sentiment. “People of faith, their focus should not be competing to tear each other down or work against each other; they should be competing to take what their tradition teaches them and be the most useful and productive for all of humanity,” Ali said.

Michael Pardee, executive director of the Boniuk Center, said the panel’s focus and goal fit well with the center’s mission. “Our mission is to understand the conditions that make peaceful co-existence possible and to promote these conditions locally, nationally and throughout the world,” he said. Pardee credited the center’s founder, Milton Boniuk, for the idea for the panel. “Our recent intrafaith Bridge Builders Lecture Series theme is largely Dr. Boniuk’s own brainchild, as he recommended we explore this topic in the first place.”

The Boniuk Center is dedicated to nurturing tolerance among people of all and no faiths, especially youth, and to studying the conditions in which tolerance and intolerance flourish. For more on the Boniuk Center, go to http://boniuk.rice.edu.

About Jeff Falk