Toward a Muslim Theology of Interreligious Friendship

Timothy J. Gianotti

“None of you is a true believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” the Prophet Muhammad (on the authority of Anas)

This essay marks a sincere attempt to formulate a constructive, theological framework for allowing, appreciating, and encouraging friendships between Muslims and individuals of different faith traditions, beginning with the Qur’anically-identified traditions of Judaism and Christianity and expanding beyond them to include other faith traditions, which are not explicitly identified in the Qur’an. Of course, the wider question of Islam’s relation to other religious traditions is one of considerable complexity, and so it should come as no surprise that “different periods of Muslim history have generated different interpretations of the Qur’an in consonance with the social and political conditions that the community faced.”[1] This may also be said of specific cultural and political realities within the same global, historical moment, for the world is a complex place, where some regions can witness peace and collaboration while others witness conflict, antagonism, and war.

It must be acknowledged, then, at the very outset, that the questions pertaining to inter-religious relations and interfaith friendships remain controversial – even impossible — in parts of the global Muslim mosaic today; some of the reasons for this are explored toward the end of the essay. The present discussion, while acknowledging the real complications and tensions within both the foundational sources and the contemporary world, offers a way to work through and beyond these perceived obstacles by paying careful attention to the specific contexts and scopes of particular Qur’anic passages as well as to other passages, principles, and themes that loom large within the Qur’an, the Prophetic traditions, and the post-prophetic religious literature.

While many would assume that such a discussion would and should be housed within the framework of Muslim jurisprudence, or the science of al-fiqh,[2] the approach taken here will be more foundational and teleological – exploring the theological, spiritual, and philosophical principles upon which legal opinions would and should stand. This approach admittedly reflects the scholarly interests and expertise of the author, and so what is presented here must be understood as one considered Muslim perspective that stands among a range of possible perspectives – each touched, informed and shaped in some way by the unique forces that influence each and every human perspective.[3] I thus approach my subject with an acute awareness that I do so as an American Muslim theologian, as one who believes in the cause of interfaith understanding and engagement, and as an academically-trained scholar of classical Islamic theology, philosophy, and spirituality.

Of course, before we can take up the question of inter-religious friendship, we must come to some clarity concerning the meaning of friendship itself within Islam. If by friendship we mean an interpersonal state of benevolence, loving affection, shared experience (both joyous and sad, sweet and bitter), and the placing of another’s worth, well-being, and ultimate priorities on a par with one’s own, then we can say with some confidence that the notion of friendship cuts to the very core of Muslim belief. That said, while the Prophetic quotation above seems at first glance to need little or no interpretation, a little probing reveals the concept of friendship, even as articulated here, raises many important and sometimes difficult questions: if I am to love for my brother what I love for myself, who exactly is my brother? Must my brother be a person who shares my faith or can I have “brothers” beyond the boundaries of my religious confession? Who are the individuals who might not be considered my brothers and how am I to think of them and relate to them? Is “brother” literal here and so gender exclusive, meaning only males, or does it extend to individuals who may be regarded as my “sister” and even to individuals whose gender may be more complicated or ambiguous? Also, does loving or wanting for my brother what I love or want for myself mean that I define what my brother should love or seek or aspire to become? Or am I to love for my brother the freedom to love and seek what he or she freely chooses to love and seek? Rising above the human-to-human concept of friendship, can we speak of friendship with God within Islam? If so, what is meant by friendship in this context as contrasted with the context of our normal, interpersonal relations? These are some of the preliminary questions that this essay seeks to explore as it walks through the Qur’an, the Prophetic traditions, and selected post-prophetic Muslim traditions with the question of friendship held aloft.

Because what we might today call “Islamic Theology” – or, more safely said, religious meaning-making within Islam[4] – is so squarely and deeply anchored within Muslims’ concept of revelation, specifically the revelation of the Qur’an, we must begin with a very careful consideration of the Qur’anic foundations, as embellished and expanded by the Prophetic traditions.

A Tribute To Interreligious Friendship

As we mentioned briefly above, no religious thinker is purely “objective” or universal, for each one of us is shaped and influenced by countless factors. In that light, then, for the sake of honesty and transparency, I must disclose that I enter into this discussion with a bias, for I have personally experienced what I believe to be truly meaningful, truly benevolent, truly loving, even truly faithful friendships with remarkable individuals who religiously did not or do not self-identify as Muslims. Given the time and space and patience of the reader, I could easily fill pages documenting profound and privileged experiences of hospitality, generosity, and real friendship with Jewish, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Bahā’ī, and other friends. For the sake of brevity, however, I will begin by paying tribute to two very dear interreligious “friends” who have passed on in recent years, may God’s mercy envelop and illumine their souls.

Michael Elias Marmura (1929-2009)

Many years ago, as I was travelling through the West-Bank and discussing graduate school possibilities with an American scholar who also happened to be there at the same time, I was given a word of advice that changed the course of my destiny: “if you wish to study Islamic Philosophy and Theology with someone who is both a world-class scholar and an exemplary human being,” he said, “go to Michael Marmura in Toronto.” Following that advice led to a life-changing experience of inter-religious friendship that will be with me forever.

Born the son of an Anglican priest in West Jerusalem, Michael Elias Marmura was eighteen in the spring of 1948, when he and his family fled the city for Salt, Jordan, after reports of the Deir Yassin massacre reached them. Their expectation that they would be back home in a few weeks or months slowly evaporated as their “temporary” refuge in Jordan became their permanent situation. From Jordan, then, Professor Marmura went off to the University of Wisconsin for his undergraduate studies and remained in the U.S. to pursue graduate studies in Islamic Philosophy and Theology at the University of Michigan, where he won his Ph.D. in 1959. That same year, he landed his first and only academic position at the University of Toronto, where he became a full professor and world authority in the philosophical and theological thought of Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) and al-Ghazālī. Married to an ordained minister within the United Church of Canada and raising several children with her, he remained a church-going Christian his entire life, even as he devoted that life to studying and teaching classical Islamic thought with a sympathy, respect, and generosity that touched everyone who ever had the privilege of working with him.

By the time I made my circuitous journey to join him at the University of Toronto, he had been there for more than three decades. I did not realize it (or appreciate it) at the time, but I was to have the honour of writing the last Ph.D. thesis he would ever supervise. As I learned and grew and experienced great difficulties and great changes in those formative graduate years, and even as our relationship became more obviously inter-religious, his belief in me and support – both personal and professional – never waivered. By the time I was ready to assume my first professorship, a full nine years after I had first arrived from Jordan, he had stopped calling me by my name and instead had established a habit of calling me “son” whenever we were together.

Janis Orenstein (1948-2010)

I remember well the first time I met Janis. A graduate student in my final years of dissertation writing, I was getting ready to design and teach a course I had never taken let alone taught. Appearing in the doorway of my little office, she filled my senses: massive hair unfurled by the September Toronto winds, flowing shawl and layers of natural fiber dress, a feast of fabric and color all tastefully assembled, the scent of incense filling the room. She spoke while I simply stared and took in her story – growing up Jewish in Toronto, being the first Jewish student in her exclusive, Christian, all-girls school, fleeing an emotionally abusive home and going to study voice at the Juilliard in New York, touring Europe as an opera soprano and then silencing her voice for 10 years, studying Tibetan Buddhism and undergoing many deep initiations with lamas, rimpoches, and even the young Dalai Lama in Katmandu, rediscovering the human voice among Sufis in Istanbul… And now me, my Sufism seminar at the University of Toronto… Everything had led to this, she said, and it was absolutely imperative that she be part of the class, in spite of the fact that she had no affiliation with the university and that she had, of course, no money to pay. Overwhelmed by her story and her presence, I simply said, “OK,” and so began a friendship that forever changed my life.

Twenty years and three separate rounds of intensive cancer treatments later, Janis waited until I was back in Toronto to leave this world. At that point, she had retired to an island with her Turkish Dervish-musician husband, Ayden, with whom she had reawakened her stunning voice as they sang devotional songs in their garden near the lake. It was there that she finally took her leave of this world. As I drove through the darkness of the early morning rain and fog and made my long and windy way through the countryside to the small country chapel where her family and friends – mostly Jews and Christians and Muslims – had gathered to celebrate her life and to send her off as one of their own, I vividly remember hearing – probably imagining – the land whisper to me, “a friend of God passed this way; one of God’s beloveds was here.”

Friendship Within The Qur’anic And Prophetic Foundations:

Friendship As “Brotherhood” Or Fellowship

There is no question that the bond of belief, containing a shared sense of ultimate concern or ultimate purpose (teleology), is Qur’anically and prophetically understood to be the most meaningful foundation for what we understand to be friendship, and this is why belief (al-īmān) and fraternal love (mawadda and ḥubb) are linked, as we saw in the prophetic tradition that opened these reflections. Another example comes to us in the ninth chapter or sūra (sūrat at-tawba), a very late Medinan chapter that deals quite forcefully with adversarial relations between the Muslims and their antagonists (especially the polytheist, Arab tribes who were warring against them and the hypocrites who said they were Muslims but were false), “the believers, both men and women, support each other; they order what is right and forbid what is wrong; they keep up the prayer and pay the prescribed alms; they obey God and His messenger. God will grant His mercy to such people: God is mighty, wise.” (9:71)

The wider context of this passage reveals that the contrast implicit here is between the true believers and the hypocrites, and so the idea of truthfulness or sincerity factors into this depiction of friendship as shared belief, shared purpose, shared resources, shared values, and shared loyalty. Truthfulness (ṣidq) thus becomes one of the Arabic roots that denote friendship, as in the word ṣadīq (“friend”). Common concern and mutual support are also stressed here and in other places, such as in the widely accepted and oft repeated prophetic report (ḥadīth) that states, “You will know the [true] believers in the way they [exhibit] mutual kindness, love and sympathy; it is just like [being] one body, when one limb complains, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever.”[5] In both the Qur’anic quotation and the prophetic tradition immediately above, belief can clearly be seen as the first and most important bond, the tie that makes everything else possible and natural. This is repeated again and again in the twenty-three years of oral “recitations” that make up the written Qur’an (“the recitation”), the “book” that Muslims read and recite and study today.

Many strong traditions attest to this linking of faith and friendship, both in this world and the next: for example, the Prophet (May God’s peace and blessings be upon him) is also reported to have said (in part), “You shall not enter Paradise until you believe; and you shall not believe until you love one another.”[6] The fulfillment or perfection of friendship, then, is associated with the fulfillment or ultimate realization of the religious life, a station in which everyone is viewed as the beloved friend or ḥabīb. Indeed, here loving friendship is presented as the key without which the gates of Paradise will not open.

Interestingly, the emerging Qur’anic-Prophetic concept of brotherly or sisterly friendship does not always mean easy agreement; indeed, love, mutual concern, and truthfulness require mutual interrogation and challenge, at times, all in the light of revelation and the teleological consciousness it engenders. This entails “reminding one another” of the Truth, “urging one another” to live rightly and practice patience, and even, in extreme moments, preventing one another from committing wrongful, destructive acts. In the sūra entitled “Time” or sometimes “Fleeting Time” or “The Fading Day” – sūrat al-‘aṣr (103) – we read:

[I swear] on the fading afternoon,
the human being is in a state of loss,
except those who believe, perform righteous acts,
encourage one another with the Truth,
and urge one another [to practice] patience.

Related to this and expanding upon these ideas of loving correction and faithful urging comes a report (ḥadīth) in which the Prophet Muhammad (May God’s blessings and peace be upon him) is reported to have said, “Help your brother, whether he is doing wrong or being wronged.” One of the Companions explained that he could understand helping his brother when he was being wronged, but he was puzzled by the second part. He asked, how should he help his brother when his brother was doing wrong? “Prevent him from doing it,” the Prophet replied.

Such a directive implies intimacy, closeness, constant companionship: meanings that arise from another Arabic root for friend: ṣ ḥ b (companionship, close association). When the friend is ṣāḥib or ṣāḥiba (feminine), she is a close companion, as indeed all of the close companions of the Prophet were called. This dimension of the friendship of the believers is captured in yet another prophetic tradition, “eat together and do not separate from one another…” the Prophet is reported to have counseled his companions and taught through his own example. This notion of intimate companionship is also reflected in still other Arabic roots employed within the Qur’an to illustrate and deepen this dimension of friendship: kh l l (as in khulla and khalīl), which literally means friendship, and w l y (as in walāya and walī and mawlā), a root which can mean intimate friendship but also includes notions of protection, guardianship, alliance, sometimes even involving a sense of subordination of the one favored by the walī. Interestingly, like love (mawadda and ḥubb)[7], both of these roots are used Qur’anically to refer to human relations as well as the intimate and yet eternally unequal relation between God and the human person whom God loves, befriends, protects, and accompanies. Thus one of the names or attributes of God is “al-wadūd” – Loving Kindness – and another is “al-walī ” – the Ally, Patron, or Guardian-Benefactor. Turning to the human side of this relationship, we read about Abraham (peace be upon him) being God’s khalīl (friend),[8] and we read that every believer’s “true Ally (walī) is God, His messenger, and the believers, who uphold the [practice of] prayer, pay the prescribed alms, and bow down [before God]…” (5:55)

Even from this very brief glimpse into Qur’anic and Prophetic utterances about friendship, we can see that belief factors very centrally in the traditional Islamic formulation of friendship. What, then, can be said about the possibility of a friendship that involves sincerity, truthfulness, close companionship, love, and support but lacks a unity of belief or religious confession?

The Question Of Inter-Religious Friendship

Returning to the Prophetic tradition that commenced our exploration in this essay, it would seem that, while one’s “brother” might well include a “sister,” or even a person whose gender may be more ambiguous within the ranks of the believers, it is hard to conceive of “brotherhood” beyond the boundaries of belief, at least in the light of what we have seen thus far. This impression is deepened when we read the Qur’anic verse (āya) that precedes the āya cited above (5:55) by a few lines:

“O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and Christians as guardians/allies; they are guardians/allies to one another. Anyone who takes them as a guardian/ally becomes one of them. God does not guide people who are oppressors.” (5:51)

If this āya and others similar to it[9] are where our reading begins and ends, then the prospects for interreligious friendship might seem quite bleak from a Qur’anic perspective; indeed, it seems that a Muslim-Christian or Muslim-Jewish friendships – not to mention a Muslim-Buddhist or Muslim-Hindu or Muslim-Sikh friendship – are all but forbidden by God.

Interestingly and significantly, however, this advice of the Medinan period appears within a larger section of a chapter or sūra that contains more generous and even complimentary references to Jews and Christians, to their sacred books and traditions. Consider, for example, the Qur’anic admission in 5:48 attesting to the fact that, just as Muhammad was sent a scripture or “book in truth” that confirms and guards the earlier books sent to humankind, so too did God give a religious code and way of life to each community before. The religious diversity of the human family is thus something divinely ordained in order that God might “test” each community in the light of what God has given each community. “So vie with one another in good works,” the Qur’an concludes; “God is the point to which all of you are returning, and God will reveal to you [the truth concerning] that in which you have differed.”[10] We must also consider important verses in the immediate vicinity, passages that affirm the “guidance and light” within the Torah and Gospels (5:44, 46) and call upon the “People of the Book” to be true to what God has revealed to them (5:68). More, the Qur’an asserts here (and elsewhere) that those faithful Jews and Christians and Sabeans – indeed all those who believe in God and the last day and live righteously – are among the blessed, i.e., those who are not “overshadowed by fear” and who “do not grieve.” (5:69, 2:62)[11]

The Qur’ān thus, on the whole, speaks positively of the foundational scriptures and fundamental characters of its sister, Abrahamic faiths, even to the point of arguing for their salvific validity.[12] However, it also clearly and harshly rebukes some Christians and Jews for turning away from the true teachings of their own faith traditions, for “selling the signs of God” for a miserable gain in the world, against which the Qur’an warns. (5:44) These unfaithful, “sold-out” Christians and Jews seem to be the ones targeted for harsh rebuke here and elsewhere in the Qur’an; they are the ones who are said to treat Muhammad’s message with mockery, “insolence and defiance” (5:68). When one takes the entire context into account, then, such persons seem to be the ones who are to be avoided as guardians/allies. As for the faithful Jews and Christians, who are grouped with the believers above, there exists no Qur’anic prohibition preventing the Muslims from befriending them and collaborating with them. This is because, according to the Qur’an,

They are not all alike: of the People of the Book there exists a community [of true believers] who stand (upright). They rehearse the signs of God all night long, and they prostrate themselves in adoration. They believe in God and the last day; they command what is good, and forbid what is wrong; and they hasten to perform good works. They are among the righteous. (3:113-114)

A bit further in the same sura we read,

And there are, certainly, among the People of the Book, those who believe in God, in the revelation to you, and in the revelation to them, bowing in humility to God. They will not sell the signs of God for a miserable gain! For them is a reward with their Lord, and God is swift in account. (3:199)

The question, then, of 5:55 – the āya prohibiting inter-religious alliances – seems to clear a little more when we read these verses (āyāt), together with 5:57, which has the same structure but focuses more specifically on those who ridicule and mock the faith:

O you who believe! Do not take as guardians/allies those who ridicule your religion and make fun of it – be they of those to whom the book was given aforetime [Jews & Christians] or those [polytheists] who actively reject [God’s signs]. Be ever mindful of God if indeed you are believers.

In summary, then, the prohibition of building inter-religious alliances with Jews and Christians cannot be taken as a sweeping or general prohibition in the Qur’an; rather, it clearly pertains to those Jews and Christians who are unfaithful to their own traditions and who, in addition (possibly as a result), ridicule, mock, and oppose the religion of Islam.[13] Such are the ones who receive rebuke here and elsewhere:[14] not for their religious uniqueness but rather for their infidelity to the unique way of life and religious law they were given. Thus we find the Qur’an repeatedly warning, “do not sell My signs for a miserable price,” (5:44) and lamenting, “why don’t their rabbis and learned ones forbid them from saying sinful [things] and from eating forbidden [food]?” (5:63) The more fully we read, the more clearly we see that the Jewish and Christian traditions, in essence, are celebrated in the Qur’an, as are their faithful remnants. This is why the Qur’anic phrase, “People of the Book,” is argued to be a term of relation rather than of contrast.[15] More, in the words of the late scholar, Fazlur Rahman, the difference or uniqueness of the various religions and communities is portrayed as a Divinely-ordained gift that has “positive value,” in that they compete with the Muslims and “with one another in goodness (cf. 2:148; 2:177; where, after announcing the change in qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca, it is emphasized that the qibla per se is of no importance, the real worth being in virtue and competing in goodness).”[16] In another passage, this pious competition comes as a command to “race [with one another] to do good deeds wherever you are; God will [in the end] bring you all together. Verily, God is Powerful over all.” (2:148)

In the some of the latest, Medinan revelations, we find the Qur’an moving the discussion of inter-religious relations forward a little bit by explicitly allowing for the possibility that, even when inter-religious animosity exists, today’s enemy may well be tomorrow’s beloved friend. So the Qur’an calls unequivocally for good, just, and even reverent relations with those who are not actively engaged in the persecution of believers.

It may be that God will place love between you and those whom you [currently] regard as enemies; God is the One who has overwhelming power [over all things], and God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Compassionate.

God does not forbid you from being reverent and just with those who neither fight against you on account of [your] faith nor expel you from your homes. Indeed, God loves those who are just and act equitably.

However, God forbids you from turning [in friendship or for alliance and protection] to those who fight you on account of religion, drive you out of your homes, and assist [others] in driving you out. Those who turn to such people [in such circumstances] are wrongdoers. (60:7-9)

This passage is pertinent to our discussion for many reasons. While this is not exactly a Divine call to go out and aggressively befriend the peoples of the religions of the world, it does clearly make a case for building reverent and just relationships with people of good will from other faith communities. The verb, to “relate reverently” or “treat with reverence” suggests more than getting along; it points to a relationship of the utmost respect, a relationship conceived as an extension of one’s highest religious principles.

While admitting that the Qur’anic view of inter-religious friendships is a little cautious in places, we are well served to become better acquainted with the historical reasons underlying this caution, reasons referred to in the Qur’anic citation above: forced expulsions of the believers from their homes, war waged against the believers because of their monotheistic faith, etc. Barring these tragic and morally offensive circumstances, the Qur’an can in no way be said to prohibit such friendships, especially among those “People of the Book” who are Godly, observant, humble, and respectful of their own book and tradition as well as the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition. While their beliefs and practices may be different in detail, the Qur’an seems to see them as people of shared purpose or goal (teleology), shared values, shared loyalty, shared ethical imperative. This is clearly what is intended in the aforementioned verse that emphasizes God as “the point to which all of you are returning, and God will reveal to you [the truth concerning] that in which you have differed.” In short, such Jewish and Christian “friends” can piously compete with their Muslim friends in the “race” to do good works and challenge their Muslim counterparts to be true to what God has revealed and entrusted to them, even as the Muslims are called upon to offer a similar service to them.

Might, then, the interreligious “friend” be my “brother” or “sister”? If so, then loving for my brother or sister what I love for myself might mean wanting my interreligious friend to dig deeply into her (or his) own faith and revelation so that she may have the joyous opportunity to discover the treasures God’s mercy and wisdom and generosity have hidden there, even as I accept her challenge for me to do the same. The interreligious friendship then comes as a call to be more authentically religious rather than less. This seems to be the whole point.

Can these same teachings be applied to sincere people of faith outside of the monotheistic or “Abrahamic” traditions? For example, can we speak of a shared teleology between a Muslim and a Buddhist? Certainly, when approaching this question in conventional terms, it may seem difficult to conceive of a shared “end” or ultimate purpose when one faith explicitly posits God – the Creator and Lord of the Worlds – as the ultimate end and the other refuses to speak of the “end” in positive terms but rather sees the end as a state of absence: the absence of self, the absence of suffering, etc. Such a state can also be spun positively as “bliss” or “liberation” but it certainly does not entail a specific doctrine of personal immortality in the presence of a positively-defined, singular, personal deity.

This apparent impasse pushes us to ponder more deeply the question of teleology and the question of the purpose and function of the inter-Abrahamic friendships considered just above. Teleologically, while Muslims do share a belief in a supreme and explicitly identified Divine Being, who is understood to be Truth itself and both the origin and end of our being, it must be remembered that the Qur’anic conception of God is also eternally akbar – “greater than” or “beyond” anything we can conceive or theologically formulate. Thus, practically speaking, the “end” of a Muslim life remains ineffable, ever beyond our conceptualization and understanding, even as God is believed to be intimately close to the human being, closer to us than our own jugular vein. Truth is thus inarguably transcendent and ultimately beyond any words or “signs” (āyāt) that point to it. Here, in the heart of Muslim spirituality and mystical awareness rather than Muslim dogmatic theology (kalām), we come to an understanding of teleology that resonates much more with the explicit teachings of the Buddha, who refused to give a positive or personal articulation of truth other than to say that it is “deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand…comprehensible only by the wise…lofty, deep, subtle, and hard to comprehend.”[17] When both practitioners are effaced and turned toward the ineffable, which both understand to be the supreme reality or Truth, then the conversation comes back to points of practice, ethics, spiritual psychology, and good works, back to affinities and perspectives that Muslims and Buddhists share. Here, in a spirit of piety and mutual reverence, we can learn from one another, encourage one another, and compete with one another in the performing of good deeds.

If we agree that the Qur’anically-described purpose and function of inter-religious friendship is to “test” us in what we have been given – i.e., to challenge us to more deeply explore and more fully manifest what we believe to be the essential teachings and treasures of our own faith – then it seems entirely possible for this purpose to be fulfilled as readily within Muslim-Buddhist or Muslim-Hindu friendships as it is within Muslim-Jewish and Muslim-Christian friendships. More, the Qur’anic characterization of such friendships as a pious competition to do good works remains valid for all inter-religious friendships, especially between traditions that share a transcendent teleology and agree upon the basic ethical principles of universal compassion and justice. While political and cultural obstacles may remain, this theoretical or theological exploration of the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions opens up a possibility to see such friendships as Divine gifts, as opportunities for each “friend” to find a deeper religiosity and to flourish as a moral and ethical being.

Medieval Muslim Reflections On Friendship

We find significant attention given to the theme of friendship in the post-prophetic spiritual and philosophical traditions, and here we pause a moment to consider two thirteenth-century masters, both of whom wrote in Persian: Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273), a great scholar and mystic from Konya (modern day Turkey), and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-1274), Muslim philosopher, scientist, theologian, polymath, and author of more than 150 books in Arabic and Persian.

Spiritual Friendship in Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)

Those familiar with Rumi’s biography know that his mystical awakening came through an unexpected friendship with a wandering mystic: Shams al-Tabriz, whose first question to Rumi in the fall of 1244 reportedly caused Rumi to swoon. As their friendship unfolded, so did Rumi’s spiritual awakening. Friendship, then, became for him nothing less than the theatre of Divine disclosure or “revelation” in a non-technical sense. In a poem he later wrote about two friends – a mouse and a frog – he echoed the gospel of Matthew (18:20) when he wrote,

To watch and listen to these two
Is to understand how, as it’s written,
Sometimes when two beings come together,
Christ becomes visible.
A bit further into the poem, he added,
Friend sits by Friend, and the tablets appear.
They read the mysteries
Off each other’s foreheads.[18]

For Rumi and for many other mystics within the Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Punjabi, and other Islamic poetic traditions, the lines between human friendship and Divine friendship blur as the teleological force of spiritual friendship takes hold and becomes manifest. The friend then becomes an external key unlocking something within, something that had always been present although unrecognized:

The moment I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers do not finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.[19]

Interestingly, however, for Rumi and many others, the turning of that key is a stroke of personal devastation, a stroke from which the seeker never recovers and is never meant to, for it is only in the ruins of the ego that God becomes fully manifest. Loving friendship thus becomes the tool of Divine manifestation:

The way of love is not
a subtle argument.
The door there
is devastation.[20]

Interestingly, this devastation, which takes us from a mental framework of conventional duality and into a realization or perception of underlying unity, does not require that both friends share the same religion. It can happen anywhere, with even the most unlikely person. In Rumi’s poetry, for example, we find Moses devastated and vaulted into a state of mystical understanding through a passing exchange with a shepherd of ambiguous religious affiliation,[21] and in Farid al-Din ‘Attar (d. circa 1220), a slightly older contemporary of Rumi, we see a similarly transformative relationship unfolding between a great spiritual master (shaykh) and a young Christian woman in Greece.[22] However and whenever this loving friendship arises, the spiritual sensibilities of both are quickened and their constructions of self are swept away, leaving only the naked truth of existence:

What was in that candle’s light
that opened and consumed me so quickly?
Come back, my friend! The form of our love
is not a created form.
Nothing can help me but that beauty.
There was a dawn I remember
when my soul heard something
from your soul. I drank water
from your spring and felt
the current take me.
The Lord of Beauty enters the soul
as a man walks into an orchard
in Spring.
Come into me
that way again!
Light the lamp
in the eye of Joseph. Cure Jacob’s
sadness. Though you never left,
come and sit down here and ask,
“Why are you so confused?”
Like a fresh idea in an artist’s mind,
you fashion things before they come into being.
You sweep the floor like the man
who keeps the doorway.
When you brush
a form clean, it becomes
what it truly is…[23]

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-1274) on The Indispensability of Virtuous Friendship

Even though there has been much mutual derision throughout Islamic history between philosophers and theologians and mystics, especially over their respective methods and pathways to certain knowledge, it is remarkable to find many of these same teachings concerning friendship apparent in the writings of one of Rumi’s philosophical and scientific contemporaries: Nasir al-Din al-Tusi.

Building upon the Neoplatonic and visionary political philosophy of Abu Nasr al-Farabi (d. 950), Tusi in many ways perfected al-Farabi’s utopian vision by giving voice to the most crucial ingredient that was somehow overlooked by “the Second Master”[24]: virtuous friendship. Tusi writes, “The virtue of love and friendship is the greatest of virtues, and its preservation is the most important of tasks. This is why we have spoken at such length on this matter, for this is the noblest topic in the present discourse [on politics]…”[25]

For Tusi, friendship is, by definition, teleological, and so the best friendship is the love between good and virtuous men, who share a hunger for perfection and for the Divine. “Inasmuch as their goal is the Pure Good and the quest for virtue,” he writes, their union is free of discord and altercation. More, their friendship will give rise to good counsel, justice, and the eventual perfection of one another in or with God. “This is what the Philosophers mean,” he writes, “when they say of the friend, ‘Your friend is the individual who is yourself in reality, but someone other than you as individual.’”[26] Mutual emulation and challenge thus characterize their bond, which becomes the driving force that guides them to perfection:

Now, since the true nature of Love is the quest for union with that thing with which the seeker conceives its perfection to be united to, and as we have said that the perfection and nobility of each existent thing is in accordance with the unity that has been effused upon it, therefore Love is the quest for nobility and virtue and perfection, and the more one is moved by this quest the greater one’s yearning for perfection, and the easier it is to attain thereto.[27]

Love and friendship are thus indispensable for the philosophical/religious journey to God, the Truth; indeed, for Tusi, one cannot make the journey without friends.

Obstacles To Inter-Religious Friendship In History And Within The Contemporary World

In spite of all that we have considered here, there should be no naïveté concerning the fact that suspicion of and opposition to inter-religious friendship exist within the contemporary Muslim mosaic of communities. While specific Qur’anic and prophetic dicta can be called into the service of this suspicion and opposition, we argue that this xenophobia springs from historical, cultural, and political factors, which sometimes outweigh and overshadow theological considerations. Certainly, within parts of the world that have suffered the traumas and indignities of invasion, colonization, occupation, and domination (political, economic, cultural) by western, nominally Christian nations, one can find a tangible fear or hatred of cultural and religious “pollution” arising from contact with foreign, non-Muslim entities. This can even be found in the ways certain groups see, portray, and persecute other denominations within Islam. The fear and hatred and violent rejection of any kind of diversity have, of course, been greatly exacerbated by the US-led invasion and occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have also been worsened by the perception of a western/UN double standard when dealing with the still unresolved and festering situation within Israel and the Palestinian territories. Within western societies, where Islamophobia is on the rise, where violence against Muslims has occurred, and where legislation is either in place or being enacted that targets Muslim traditions or Muslims themselves, it becomes difficult to cultivate the trust and good faith required for meaningful interfaith friendships.

Because of such factors, many Muslims have sought guidance from religious leaders and activists within the more oppositional realm of Islamic political thought, leaders such as Ayatullah Khomeini (within the 12er Shī‘ah community) and Sayyid Qutb (among the ranks of Sunni Salafists and other traditionalists). Their rejection of western hegemony and reassertion of a somewhat puritanical Muslim identity has tremendous appeal in many parts of the traditionally Muslim world, where the West, with its inescapable modernizing, secularizing, and globalizing influences, not to mention its military intervention, is viewed with anger and tremendous suspicion. This, of course, affects Muslim relations with Christians and Jews and Hindus and other religious communities in their midst, communities that are suspected of harboring sympathies with the west or, worse, of having “sold out” to western, secularist ideals. Even within the west, where many countries have legally banned the face-veil (niqāb) either completely or in certain circumstances, where the legal system has suspended habeas corpus in cases perceived or portrayed to be terror-related, where the traditional Islamic rules of animal slaughter and meat preparation have been criminalized, and where hateful and provocative Islamophobic propaganda continues to fly under the radar of “free speech,” such puritanical and xenophobic preaching has won a following among the disaffected sectors of the Muslim minority populations that reside in the west. These cultural and political factors thus make the question of inter-religious friendship a complex and controversial one in the contemporary world, regardless of what the Qur’an seems to say or allow.

Examples Of Inter-Religious Friendship, Past And Present

Whether or not one wants to admit the religious permissibility or advisability of interreligious friendships within Islam, there is no question that such friendships have existed since prophetic times. Indeed, a bounty of courageous and inspiring examples of inter-religious friendship (including inter-religious marriage) exist, both in history and in the contemporary world. We can speak of the long-distance friendship between the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the “Negus” or “Najāshī” (the Christian emperor) of Axum, who sheltered a group of Muslim refugees in Ethiopia circa 615; we can explore the intimate and trusting relationship between the Muslim hero, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi and the great Jewish theologian, Talmudic scholar, and philosopher, Musa bn Maimun (Maimonides), who is said to have served Salah al-Din (and his family) as a personal physician for an extended period; we can speak of the friendship between Pashtun activist Ghaffār Khān and Mahatma Ghandi, and their shared philosophy of nonviolent resistance to British oppression and rule;[28] we can look to the many sincere and life-long friendships that the French Catholic, Louis Massignon, enjoyed with Arab-Muslim contemporaries as well as the life-changing mystical friendship he experienced with the 10th century mystic-martyr Husayn bn Mansur al-Hallaj; and we can speak of the mutually-enriching correspondence-friendship that grew between Abdul Aziz in Karachi and the Trappist mystic, Thomas Merton, in Kentucky.[29] For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I will refrain here from delving deeply into any one of these; let it suffice for us to see and acknowledge that there exists a long and rich tradition of Muslims making friends with, and being befriended by, persons of other faith traditions.

I would like to close this section with a few words of wisdom from Father David Burrell, CSC, Catholic priest, scholar of medieval Catholic theology as well as Arabic and medieval Islamic Philosophy and Theology, and friend to many Muslims, including the author. In his conclusion to a chapter discussing the concept of friendship with God in the thought of both al-Ghazālī and Aquinas, he writes that our shared belief in the idea of friendship with God, “the Creator of all,” can transform our personal understanding and interpersonal practice of inter-religious friendship – i.e., the “friendship among this same One’s servants and friends.” In this revelatory light, he says, the Aristotelean ideal of friendship in “the good” can help us move from adversarial relationships of mutual exploitation to relationships of “genuine mutuality.”[30] He closes the book with a similar sentiment,

Friends on an intellectual journey can transform a debate into a discussion, because their care for one another is shaped by their attentiveness to the search they share for truth. Once again, friendship requires not agreement but devotion to an ideal – the good – which lures us on together…[31]

Final Remarks In Support Of A Muslim Theology Of Inter-Religious Friendship

And so we end this essay very close to where we began, with the importance of a sense of shared teleology, even if that supreme telos is understood to be an ineffable, transcendent truth or good, something eternally beyond (akbar) all of us and yet intimately and subtly woven into the very fabric of our being and identity as religious women and men. More than any other factor, it is that shared sense of transcendence which enables inter-religious friendship to exist and makes such friendships vital for spurring us on to seek the next horizon of awakening. As Rumi writes at the very end of his poem, “Moses and the Shepherd,”

When you eventually see
through the veils to how things really are,
you will keep saying again
and again,
“This is certainly not like
we thought it was!”[32]


[1] Abdelaziz Sachedina, “The Qur’an and other Religions” in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an, Jane Dammen McAuliffe, ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 291-292.

[2] The “science” or intellectual craft of al-fiqh represents the human attempt to “understand” the ideal, Divinely-inspired code for living (al-sharī‘ah) and to apply this understanding within the specific and imperfect situations of life. As such, it is often translated as Islamic jurisprudence, even though the legal sense of “jurisprudence” must be understood in an expanded sense here. The scope of al-fiqh thus includes all aspects of one’s actions and interactions in this life.

[3] Farid Esack, a contemporary South African scholar of the Qur’an and Islamic “Liberation Theology,” writes, “all non-Prophetic human experience is essentially interpretive and mediated by culture, gender, class…and personality – factors which cannot be transcended…Furthermore, all interpretive activity and conclusions are located within a particular context.” See his very readable and insightful The Qur’an: a User’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2005), p. 145. Again, on page 192, he adds, “None of us who approach the Qur’an are gender-neutral, classless, disinterested and disembowelled figures who ‘just want to understand.’ The need for understanding is driven, at least in part, by who we are and what our interests are in retaining or shedding our gender, race, class, clan, or ethnic positions. As misguided as it is to approach the text a-historically, so it is to pretend that we are a-historical human beings.”

[4] I use this somewhat clumsy expression because the word “theology” – which is traditionally taken as the technical, English equivalent to the Arabic phrase, ‘ilm al-kalām, or the “science of [God’s] speech” – has unique and rather non-contemporary connotations within Islamic traditions. It thus is frequently taken to represent a medieval, scholastic, and decidedly polemical practice of defending “orthodox” religious positions against interpretations deemed heretical or inauthentic.

[5] Found in the Ṣaḥīḥ collections of both al-Bukhāri and Muslim.

[6] Found in the Ṣaḥīḥ collection of Muslim.

[7] See 5:54.

[8] See 4:125.

[9] See, for example, the selected verses (extracted from context) 5:80, 3:28, 3:118, and 9:23: such verses are frequently cited as proof texts by those Muslims arguing against inter-religious friendship in absolute terms.

[10] A thought provoking and sympathetic, Christian exegesis of these verses can be found in Pim Valkenburg’s remarkable book, Sharing lights On the Way to God: Muslim-Christian Dialogue and Theology in the Context of Abrahamic Partnership (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), pp. 152 and following.

[11] See also 2:112, which reads, “Whosoever surrenders himself to God and is [also] a doer of good, he has his reward with his Lord. [On such people] no fear overshadows them, nor do they come to grief.”

[12] See Fazlur Rahman’s Major Themes of the Qur’an, second edition (University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 166; Echoing Rahman, Sachedina calls this the “qur’anic acceptance of the notion that other Abrahamic religions are capable of offering salvation to their adherents,” a position that he contrasts with “post-qur’anic exclusivist theology expounded by Muslim theologians…” See “The Qur’an and Other Religions,” p. 298.

[13] This point is nicely echoed by Valkenberg, p. 190.

[14] See, for example, 5:52.

[15] A point made by Valkenberg, p. 184.

[16] See his Major Themes of the Qur’an, p. 167.

[17] I borrow this quotation from Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught, second edition (New York: Grove Press, 1974), p. 52. Acknowledging that I am extending beyond my own scholarly range at this point, I will not venture further into Buddhist Dharma teachings. Instead I defer to my Buddhist colleagues and those rare Muslim colleagues who have looked closely at these questions. See, for example, Reza Shah Kazemi’s book, Common Ground Between Islam and Buddhism: Spiritual and Ethical Affinities (FonsVitae, 2010).

[18] From The essential Rumi, Coleman Barks, trans. (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1977), pp. 79-80.

[19] Ibid., p.

[20].      Ibid., 243.

[21] Ibid., 165-168.

[22] This comes from the parable of Shaykh San‘ān, narrated in the first half of ‘Attar’s famous mystical tale, the Conference of the Birds.

[23] Ibid., 101-102.

[24] Meaning the “second master” or authority after Aristotle. This was al-Farabi’s epithet among the medieval Muslim philosophers who came after him.

[25] The Nasirean Ethics, G.M. Wickens, trans. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974), p. 252.

[26] Ibid., p. 202.

[27] Ibid., p. 196.

[28] See Robert Johansen’s “Radical Islam and Non-Violence: A case Study of religious Empowerment and Restraint among Pashtuns” in the Journal of Peace Research, vol. 34, no. 1 (February 1997), pp. 53-71.

[29] See Rasoul Sorkhabi’s “Thomas Merton’s Encounter with Sufism” in Interreligious Insight, vol. 6, no. 4 (October 2008), pp. 22-32; see also the edited volume, Merton and Sufism: the Untold Story, A Complete Compendium, Rob Baker and Henry Gray, eds. (Fons Vitae, 1999).

[30] David B. Burrell, CSC, Friendship and Ways to Truth (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), p. 84.

[31] Ibid., 87.

[32] The Essential Rumi, p. 168.