Inter-religious Dialogue: An Encounter ~ guest post by Musa Askari

To engage in inter-religious dialogue is a tremendous moment of encounter. An encounter primarily between individuals. A great challenge at the same time. For to enter dialogue is to run the risk of being transformed positively by the witness and testimony of the other. It is this challenge which at the same time holds great reward for those who partake in dialogue wholeheartedly as individuals and not simply as individual representations of a collective identity.

Here lies the first challenge to see the other as someone from whom one can learn; that their experience has something deeply meaningful to offer. Sadly, many fall at the first hurdle. The individual is missed and we are left with only a shell, an appearance of dialogue, where inter-religious dialogue is seen as the destination and not as one of many starting points to spiritual quest. Which maybe is why some remain disillusioned that the promise of dialogue did not bear more fruit after initial discussion sessions.

For purposes of context crucial we state a distinction between the term “inter-religion” and inter-religious dialogue. They are not one and the same. “For centuries this inter-religious consciousness was suppressed, the only way to redeem it is to clearly and whole-heartedly acknowledge the reality and necessity of multi-religion….inter-religious dialogue is one of the many ways in which inter-religion becomes a conscious process.” (Hasan Askari, from Inter-Religion, 1977)

If inter-religious dialogue is only about acquiring knowledge about the faith of one’s spiritual neighbour then it is not “dialogue”. It is a study of religion and there are many ways to acquire this socio-historic knowledge outside of a dialogue meetings. That cannot be the goal of dialogue. If it is then it is a secondary not a primary goal. The goal at its core surely must be of encounter, to bear co-witness leading to mutual mission.

Should inter-religious dialogue remain an institutional formality then I fear it may never rise to fulfill its promise of deep and meaningful engagement between peoples of diverse faiths and backgrounds. It is as individuals we dialogue not as collective identities. To arrive at such a door of dialogue presupposes some deep sense of inquiry about the very fact of a multi-religious world. A knocking upon an inner door followed by entry in to dialogue which is both with the other and within oneself. Both individuals become doors for each other’s entry in to a moment of “presence” before one another. A presence that is both independent of them and also within them.

To partake of inter-religious dialogue is to ask the question, consciously or not, “Why do we have more than one religion upon our planet?”(Hasan Askari). Thus to engage in inter-religious dialogue is also to peer in to the very obvious phenomenon of more than one religious and spiritual witness. It is a call to abolish exclusivity and one-sidedness, first and foremost within the mind of the individual. To break free of the grip of collective hypnosis; that one’s own tradition alone holds the truth exclusively:

“Perhaps we need more than one religion. How could the mystery of the Transcendent Reality be equated with the form of one faith and practice, or with one state or sign of a given religious experience! That there was something essentially desirable and positive about the very existence of more than one religion. Accepting multi religion as a theological necessity, almost a blessing. Religious diversity was thus a school of true humility and patience". (Hasan Askari: Spiritual Quest - An Inter Religious Dimension)

My own journey spiritually, which includes a deep appreciation for inter-religious dialogue, began at the hand of my teacher and friend, my late father Professor Hasan Askari (1932-2008) . From a young age I was immersed in the work of who many regard as one of the pioneers of inter-religious dialogue. At first it was a curiosity to know more about the work of a father before me but later it became, through love, a life’s endeavour and remains so. Religious diversity has always been a part of my life. Looking back I was fortunate in other ways too by having a childhood in both India and England. The spiritual diversity which was overtly a part of my life in India continued in England. However, it continued in a more subtle manner but nonetheless significant.

I came to accept, very early on, religious diversity as a sign of deep inquiry rather than something to confront. Furthermore, I came to accept it was not enough for me to be simply curious about the variety of religious practices, rites and rituals, but to move on from that understanding and integrate it in to my spiritual life, an inner life. I was interested in the individual before me as much as I was interested in my own individuality.

Spiritually I needed the presence of the other to help me consider the mystery of religious diversity. Without the other, who bears no outward resemblance to one’s collective history, to the faith in to which one is born, without the other there is no diversity. Without diversity there remains no self-limiting principle within the life of humanity to remind us of the dangers in making the most exclusive and one-sided claims to truth and finality.

I was not interested in pseudo dialogue. I was interested in not only what the other before me had to say of their faith but more so interested in a “sentiment” which can be shared despite outward differences. I was interested in a most ancient and beautiful term, the essence of one’s being, namely soul (atma/psyche/ruh). Overtime I realised that unless one is prepared to stand apart from exclusive truth claims, from the baggage of collective identity, breaking free from the weight of collective burden that one was somehow responsible for the entire collective faith of one’s tradition, one would never meet the individual in dialogue. There would always remain a hesitation to engage fully. There would be no dialogue let alone encounter only a repetition of well known themes and objections ending in not dialogue but monologue. There would be neither sentiment nor the rising to a moment of being present to one another in co-witness.

Is inter-religious dialogue failing? Is it yet to deliver on its promise? It maybe too early to say despite the great efforts made over the previous four to five decades. For example, from Ajaltoun consultation to Lebanon and Broumana in Colombo, Europe and the United States. From those early days of commitment inter-religious dialogue has now become a global phenomenon which must be regarded as some measure of success. Today we have the “Common Word” initiative – Love of God and Love of Neighbour. In the end as in the beginning the common word for me literally and spiritually is simply “Life”. To ponder this mighty question of “Life” spiritually one cannot help but stumble upon soul as the principle of “Life”. Perhaps, just perhaps, what is missing from inter-religious dialogue may be met by reviving the classical discourse on soul.

Musa Askari -

Musa Askari, son of the late Professor Syed Hasan Askari, is an independent thinker continuing the work of his teacher and guide. He does not belong to any religious or political organisation. Spiritually at home in any and all houses of worship and systems of thought which echo a universal outlook supporting a wholesome and meaningful engagement with the world about us. A world that is both a wonder and mystery; secular and religious, material and spiritual, physical and meta-physical. Dedicated to the revival of the classical discourse on Soul, Inter-Religious understanding & Spiritual Humanism as an alternative ideology to secularism and religious fundamentalism.


  1. This is an extremely well thought out article. I like the way your mind works. I like this statement particularly -

    "There would be no dialogue let alone encounter only a repetition of well known themes and objections ending in not dialogue but monologue. There would be neither sentiment nor the rising to a moment of being present to one another in co-witness."

    It's so good you bring up the term 'co-witness,' and equate meaningful dialogue with having an 'encounter' versus a 'pseudo dialogue.' Whether we are discussing inter-religious topics or something else, it's a matter of engaging and listening with not only an open mind, but our 'higher mind.'

    Thank you!

  2. Within inter-religious dialogue, if each person is a witness to each other’s own faith and each a doorway to the other, does it then stand to reason that with more and more inter-religious dialogue with other religious belief systems, the plurality of interactions, witnesses and doorways result in something closer to a true understanding? Would partaking in these multiple forms result in more of a true experience?

    I find the concept interesting. Multi-religious experience to come closer to a transcendence experience. The problem I find is it’s intoxicating to then say without a multi-religious experience, one’s experience isn’t as true. (Disclaimer: I do practice multiple religions.)

    The problem I see with this statement is one of interpretation. All the religious systems are interpretations of collective experiences. They may be similar or divergent in practice and principle, but I find it difficult to not label any as true.

    I believe inter-faith and inter-faith dialogue are both enriching and give a greater understanding of ourselves, others and what beliefs to carry with us. I take challenge to the notion that others are less capable within a single framework. They just might not get the chance.

    I do strongly agree with you though, through inter-religious dialogue, one can start to understand much deeper their belief systems. We can all benefit from that.

  3. (This comment was submitted via email, by Lee & Steven Hager)

    The point you make about the difference between inter-religion and inter-religious is especially well taken. As you pointed out, in the first religious beliefs are often argued and defended, in the second there is the possibility of a real exchange of feeling. In the first, the brain is engaged which will always argue and defend, in the second the heart which welcomes the opportunity to love. You pointed out your need for the presence of others to aid you in your exploration of the mystery of the Divine. Too often, religious affiliation brings with it a surety that denies the need of anything outside itself and refuses to accept the possibility of finding something more. When we approach with that surety, the heart is closed. Sadly, it is only with an open heart that that a real exchange is made. And, as you point out so well, dialogue without heartfelt exchange just leaves us where we were before. A Chinese proverb advises, ?Listen to all, plucking a feather from every passing goose, but follow no one absolutely.? But this attitude can prevail only when we have already stepped past rigid affiliation to a deep appreciation of the oneness of all things. As you said,?Unless one is prepared to stand apart from exclusive truth claims? we will be unable to open our hearts.
    Thank you for your insights,
    Lee and Steven Hager

    Lee & Steven Hager
    The Beginning of Fearlessness/Oroborus Books

    Join the discussion at:
    Oroborus Books
    PO Box 82493
    Portland, OR 97282-0493

  4. 'Perhaps, just perhaps, what is missing from inter-religious dialogue may be met by reviving the classical discourse on soul.'

    This line is something I really admire. I enjoyed the article very much Musa. Maybe, the emphasis should move away from religion and look at the soul. Then the level of diversity will be on a much grander scale. I must say that admire your father and your work. Very sincere efforts.

    Maybe one day, these discussion can lead to a discussion in live and not writing, where people share their experiences with others. A humble request to you Musa is that you should arrange this dialogue as a seminar and have speakers. I will definitely help you in arranging this. It is an idea and I feel we may all learn from it personally.


  5. Is an inter-religious dialogue different from an inter-faith dialogue? How does the conversation about the soul affect an atheist's ability to take part (or any other person who doesn't believe in the existence of the soul)? Just some questions that this article raised for me! Which is always a good thing.:)

  6. (This comment is from Mia Caruso, via email)

    I thank you for your beautifully written article. It inspires deep thought. I agree that the challenge begins with seeing the other as someone we can learn from, someone who can give insights into our own spiritual journey. One that leads us to the understanding that we are joined by our humanness, and in fact, are on the same team.

    To go even more deeply into this idea of joining is to take into one's heart the writings and work of Hasan Askari. Hasan began to offer the idea that: "Only by knowledge of the soul can we know the immortality of our essence", this coming decades before the time we live in Now, when the world is finally waking up to being able to hear it. I would like to share this passage from Hasan (2004), "Religious diversity was thus for me a deep religious experience and now I know it as the experience of my soul itself, my soul in its universal dimension. I did not arrive at this point of affirmation by first philosophizing about the necessity of interreligious dialogue on spiritual and social grounds in search of understanding and peace. Valid as they are, those reasons were extraneous to my inner being."

    I thank Hasan for helping me to understand that first and foremost, we are Souls, and that God exists inside each one of us. This is the first step to unity, knowing that the journey starts with our inner being, and that God is there most profoundly, more so than inside any religious book.

    Peace and Love,

    Mia Caruso

  7. I wish to thank the author for many penetrating insights (!), including dialogue as a journey rather than a destination. Could it be that a rabid fundamentalist or an atheist who believes that religion is necessarily violent contribute to my inner journey? I believe the answer to this question is yes - it is a part of the journey. So, there is a difference between 'interfaith values' and dialogue.

  8. Thank you for sharing Musa,
    For me this beautifully composed interaction with yourself, your father, and the interaction with a one god notion is admirable. It is thus engaged with an objective viewpoint from one soul to another from fruit which may be harvested without prejudice. This I like. We are all subject to scrutiny whilst making the statement.."I am a Hindu." This may isolate the soul during the discourse with this journey, and that's where we don't want to confuse. A very humane interaction; and content is well considered...I thank you
    Love, Nora

  9. Good that you are so attuned to your great father! I read some of the article and rings true. As I wrote somewhere else, religious diversity is nothing more than our description of our earthly fathers differently in different ages. In childhood we must obey him, in youth will love and even hate him, in middle age try to intellectual understand him and in old age directly understand or understand through experience most of his ways. Same is the case with heavenly Father which ended up giving rise to various religions. As ages could be more than four if we go in a bit more detail religions too became the religions. God's world is perfect but to understand it we too need to become perfect. Some people almost reach there though then they may find that there is not much to say. So saw your photo lol which you had hidden on twitter lol. Harb Harbwit at twitter.

  10. The notion that one particular religions viewpoint can be the only "correct" viewpoint is the exact reason that many modern enthusiasts in spirituality recoil at religion.eye of the psychic

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