Religion and Society: Contemporary Challenges

Paper presented at the Seventh Round of Discussions held between the Shia Islam and the Catholic Christianity, Tehran, Nov. 9-10, 2010.


“Say: O’ People of the Book, let us rally to a common word binding on both of us, that we shall worship only God and associate nothing else with Him, nor shall any of us take on others as Lords instead of God.”

The Qur’an  3/64

  • Introduction

I would like to start with my warmest welcome to all the participants of this seventh round of dialogue between the Catholic Christianity, represented by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the Center for Inter-Religious Dialogue of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, and especially our Christian guests and friends, and wish them a very happy and enjoyable stay in Tehran. Let us all hope and pray God to make this August gathering successful and beneficial to our respective community of beliefs.

In order to deliver a sound intellectual discussion, it is necessary to inaugurate our discussion with a sound definition of the two key words of our topic, i.e. “society ” and “religion”. Since, as we all know, in these early years of the twenty-first century, with the rapid development in all areas of science and technology, including human sciences, many of the assumptions and presumptions about different subjects in human knowledge have faced serious questions, challenges, and modifications.

As an example, previously, sociology was defined as “the scientific study of man’s social life, demonstrated in different groups and societies”[2]. While, as it is quite obvious, nowadays, human societies are no more a closed and limited circle of a group of people, but rather a part of the vast universal village called the mother earth. On the other hand, with the emergence of the new cults and sects, indulgently called “new religions”, the traditional view about religion has undergone a major change, and the modern man approaches “religions” in a different / broader perspective.

Another introductory comment is that, obviously, at the present time, there are various kinds of disagreements and antagonisms both within and without Abrahamic traditions, examples of which can be noticed in Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Spain (Basque Separatist groups), Palestine, etc. As far as external disputes and disagreements are concerned, one may recall Jewish-Christian disputes in the past, Muslim-Christian disputes in the past and present[3], and Muslim-Jewish dispute over Palestinian territory at the present time.

Also, we know that neither internal nor external disputes within and without Abrahamic religions are not inherent by nature, but are auxiliary to the very nature of all these divine traditions.

Although, as Qur’an says, such disputes and disagreements have existed from the very beginning and are going to exist forever[4]! Can any one ever imagine unity and reconciliation between, let’s say, Catholics and Protestants, or Sunnites and Shiites?

The mere existence of serious disputes and misunderstandings between the Abrahamic religions which share many commonalities, including the belief in one supreme God[5], is not appropriate nor desirable in any way. Hence we all need a new approach and understanding towards each other so that we can modify our mutual positions respectively, remove or at least reduce the existing misunderstandings, and start thinking of mutual respect and cooperation.[6]

  • Religion and Society: The Past

As we have already mentioned, Abrahamic religions, have not only disintegrated into opposing branched from within but have also developed hostile attitudes against each other[7]. In order to be brief, here we ignore the first part, i.e. internal religious splits, and only address external or inter-religious futile hostilities and rivalries; because, if we do not analyse the root causes of the past mistakes, we will not be able to come up with a sound basis for the future action. It has rightly been said that “the past is the pharos to the future”.

The reasons of past misunderstandings and quarrels between Abrahamic religions can be summarized as follows:

  1. Perhaps the most important reason for misunderstanding and confrontation between Abrahamic traditions has been an exclusive and absolute reading into each one’s specific tradition, leading to a denial and rejection of other traditions; in other words, rejection of religious pluralism[8].
  2. Another reason for misunderstanding and dispute among Abrahamic religions is their gradual deviation of these religions from their original teaching of having a common God[9], a common tradition[10], and a comment community[11].
  3. Still, another reason for misunderstanding and hostility is the rejection of the idea of continuity within the Abrahamic tradition, and consequently the denial of each of the Christianity and Islam by their precedent tradition (s)[12].
  4. The fourth reason for the aforementioned dispute is the gradual emergence of some unacceptable concepts among part of the followers of these traditions, such as the belief of being the superior nation or community amongst the Jews[13], or the belief in the divinity of Jesus the Christ by some Christians[14].
  5. Another reason for misunderstanding and (intellectual) dispute amongst the followers of the Abrahamic religions is the wrong reading and interpretation of some of the teachings of the other side, like the wrong reading into some of the verses of “ghital” (fighting and war) in the Qur’an[15], or similar verses in the Torah[16] and Gospels[17].
  6. Still another important reason for antagonism and rivalry between the great Abrahamic traditions, and especially between Islam and Christianity which are both global or international religions and are actively present in the world aurena, is a negative and destructive missionary activity party designed to damage the image of the other side, rather than winning over the hearts of new converts in a positive and constructive manner.
  7. Finally, one last comment about the reason for the past misunderstanding and hostility amongst Abrahamic traditions, at times reaching the level of war and blood shedding, may be the racial and civil discriminations imposed by some Western (Christian) powers on some Eastern (Muslim) countries[18].


Obviously, none of these misunderstandings and misdeeds is inherent to the very teachings of the Abrahamic religions, so that one can claim that these societies have just acted according to their genuine religious teachings; but it is we, the religious authorities of our own communities, that have led our societies to believe and behave in such a way. Thus, in order to correct the present situation and build a sound future, we should begin to indoctrinate our respective communities differently, and try to return to the genuine teachings of Abraham and our great Prophets Moses, Jesus, and Prophet Mohammad.


  • Religion and Society: The Future

We said earlier that the human societies, or it may be appropriate to say the “human society”[19], at the turn of century, has undergone profound material and intellectual changes; intellectual, social, philosophical, psychological, educational and, most important of all, religious changes and developments that are still in progress. Elaborating only the last of these changes, i.e. man’s new intellectual attitude and approach towards religion and religious belief, one may assert that nowadays new paradigms have emerged that require new language, new interpretation, new representation, new formulation, new approach, new interaction, and finally new “every thing” of religion, so that the old status and value of religion near men can be restored and maintained.


Some of these new necessities, expectations, and paradigms are as follows:

  1. The exhaustion and reluctance of the modern man towards war and homicide, thus negating any war related to ideological and religious beliefs.
  2. Respecting freedom of belief, as expressed in the Bible[20], Qur’an[21], the second article of International Declaration of Human Rights, and article 23 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
  3. The necessity for creating rapprochement and cooperation between Islam and Western Christianity, as it long existed between Islam and Eastern Christianity[22].
  4. Trying to solve human problems and disputes with the help of legal negotiations and civil interactions, and appealing to war only as the last resort, as recommended in the Ethics of War of both Christianity[23] and Islam[24].
  5. A collective move by all sages and learned men of different religious denominations towards unity and belief in a single fundamental religion encompassing all different religious manifestations of mankind, a task nowadays considered as the main goal of phenomenology of religion in the West[25].
  6. The need for enacting a positive, constructive and complementary missionary program on the side of the world living religions and especially the Abrahamic traditions of Islam and Christianity. In other words, replacing the present negative destructive attitude by a positive constructive dialogue and cooperation.
  7. Maintaining a comprehensive and inclusive approach towards each other’s religions, instead of a short-sighted exclusive approach.
  8. Necessity of respecting other people’s views and beliefs as a preliminary step towards fruitful dialogue and negotiation.
  9. Abandoning the wrong claim of Abraham’s belonging to one single community within Abrahamic traditions, be it the Jews or Christians[26], and leaving aside such fruitless theological exclamations and, instead, trying to present a more vivid, logical, and intellectual picture of our own respective religions within the Abrahamic tradition. Certainly, Prophet Abraham and Prophets Mohammad, Jesus, and Moses, and all other renound Prophets and messengers of God, were all appointed for the good and welfare of humanity[27] and this can not be achieved without peace and reconciliation of all parties, along with mutual understanding, respect and cooperation among different traditions.


  • Summary and Conclusion
  1. Modern religion and society, more than any other time, demands removal of the past religious misunderstandings between different traditions, and their mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation in the future. Nevertheless, this holds true for both religious and non-religious communities. For the vivid presence of religion in human society, there is no way but mutual understanding and cooperation.
  2. Mutual understanding and cooperation between great Abrahamic traditions is not only possible, but rather quite necessary. The key to such cooperation, and its religious-intellectual explanation, is in the hands of clergies and religious institutions of different communities. They are, somehow, the true spiritual leaders of their respective societies and so have a great responsibility of founding a sound future.
  3. Both inside and outside each religious tradition and community (be it Islam or Christianity) in order to remove misunderstandings and differences, we have to start from the commonalities and shared beliefs inherited by our great Prophets who had nothing in mind but to promote “کلمۀ الله” (the world of God) and achieve God’s

Let us conclude by the famous Qur’anic prayer of: “O, our Lord! Forgive us and our brothers who were ahead of us in entering into the Faith, and remove from our hearts envy and jealousity against those who have believed before us; O, our Lord! Indeed you are merciful and compassionate[28].”


[2]. Anthony Gidens, Sociology, Persian translation, Ney Publications, Tehran, 2004, p.32.

[3]. For details see Annemarie Schimmel, An Introduction to Islam, State University of New York Press, N.Y., 1992, p.1.

[4]. Holy Qur’an 2/217 , 23/53, etc.

[5]. Holy Qur’an 3/64.

[6]. For details see History of Religions: Essays on Methodology, ed. Mirchea Eliade and Joseph Kitagawa, Chicago University Press, pp. 156.

[7]. Eliade and Kiagawa (e.d.), ibid, p. 153.

[8]. For details see John Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism, 1985.

[9]. Holy Qur’an 21/92.

[10]. Holy Qur’an 3/19.

[11]. Holy Qur’an 10/19.

[12]. Holy Qur’an 2/113.

[13]. Holy Qur’an 5/18.

[14]. Holy Qur’an 5/116.

[15]. Holy Qur’an 9/36.

[16]. Bible, Deuteronomy, 20/4, 14, …

[17]. Mattew 10/34-5.

[18]. For details see Edward W. Said, Orientalism, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1978.

[19].Wilfred Contwel Smith holds that the historians of next generations will not remember the twentieth century for its profound scientific achievements, but rather for bringing the whole humanity together and establishing, for the first time, a single human community (Eliade, History of Religions, ibid, p. 33).

[20]. Eliade and Kitagawa (ed.), History of Religions; ibid, p. 135.

[21]. Holy Qur’an 2.256.

[22]. For details see Richard Bulliet, the case for Islam-Christian Civilization, Columbia University Press, N.Y., 2004.

[23]. For details see Reichaberg and others, Ethics of War, Blackwell Publishing, USA, 2006.

[24]. For details see Salehi Najafabadi, Jihad in Islam, Ney Publications, 2003.

[25]. Eliade and others, History of Religions, ibid PP. 141, 155.

[26]. Holy Qur’an 2/140.

[27]. Holy Qur’an 21/107.

[28]. Holy Qur’an 59/10.

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