Professor Sinasi Gunduz not only brings new dimensions to the concept of dialogue, but with other studies in the area of religious history he evaluates the concept of prophethood by taking into account the Christian view.
Dr. Gunduz, who also writes the "The Hues of Belief" column, asks if it is possible to explain Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to members of other faiths without taking into account their concept of prophethood. In addition, we asked this expert the following questions:
What is the definition of the concept of dialogue?
What are the 5 basic "holy" concepts which we have in common with members of other religions?
Dialogue or recognition? Or ‘Living together with differences'?
Should we be striving for dialogue or recognition? Or should our goal be ‘living together with differences?'
What methods are used to find followers in new religious movements?
Plus many more questions....We hope that you will enjoy reading the answers...
Who is Sinasi Gunduz?
Professor Sinasi Gunduz, the head of the Religious History department at the Faculty of Theology, Istanbul University, graduated from the Faculty of Theology, Ankara University in 1984. In 1991 he completed his doctorate at the Middle East Research Department, Manchester University. In 1995 he received his associate professorship from Ondokuz Mayıs University, Faculty of Theology, and he became a full professor in 2003 at Istanbul University, Faculty of Theology.
Still head of the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department at Istanbul University, Faculty of Theology, Dr. Sinasi Gunduz is a member of the Executive Board of the Faculty of Theology, Istanbul University and is a member of the Senate of Istanbul University; Dr. Gunduz has published a large number of international articles. He has written sections for international publications and presented articles in a number of refereed journals and at international academic conferences, making great contributions to the field of religious history. In 2004 Dr. Gunduz was seen worthy of the Successful Researcher Award by the Istanbul University Rector's Office and in 2005 by the Istanbul University Academic Research Projects Institute. In addition, he continues to write the column "The Hues of Belief" for lastprophet.info.
- Belief in prophets has an important place in the basic beliefs of Islam. What is the understanding of prophets for a Christian Westerner? Can the example of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) be explained without taking into consideration differences in the understanding of apostleship?
While classifying religions, we can mention two categories based on belief in prophets: 1) Religions giving a place to apostleship and 2) Religions not giving a place to apostleship. We know that in religions that do not give a place to apostleship there are generally some personalities that correspond to the apostle figure in religions that do give a place to apostleship.
Undoubtedly, religions giving a place to apostleship are those like Islam-Christianity-Judaism. However, there are basic differences among them regarding their concept of apostleship. For example, according to Christianity, prophets are people who lived during the period of the Bible's Old Testament and passed on revelation, which they received by means of the Holy Spirit, and taught divine law to people within this framework. Their most important mission was to spread the good news that God's son Jesus Christ would come to earth in physical form. Consequently, Christians examine the books of the Old Testament like Jeremiah andDaniel, each of which is attributed to a prophet, and try and find statements that give the good tidings of the coming of Jesus Christ, the son of God.
Also, in Christianity after the period when Jesus Christ came to this world, there were people who spread divine revelation to people by means of Jesus Christ. Within this framework, for example, Christian disciples are called apostles or envoys. Among the section in the New Testament related to this called The Acts of the Apostles, Paul especially takes an important place. For Paul was chosen by Jesus for a special purpose in the mission on the famous Road to Damascus. He was an apostle and envoy given the duty of teaching faith in Jesus Christ to non-Jewish people.
Consequently, each of the disciples is seen as an apostle and envoy. But in the period after Paul, apostleship was finished, for after that the Holy Spirit, which is the third element of the trinity, is active until the second coming of Christ. It is preparing man for salvation by bringing faith to their hearts and teaching morality. Also it is believed that the will of the Holy Spirit will continue in the body of the church and that it will manifest again. Thus, Christians believe that the work done previously by prophets is continued in this way by the Holy Spirit.
In the basis of Islam's belief in apostleship the prophets have a number of special qualities like in addition to their each being an apostle, they are also one who warns, one who informs, and a leader. In other words, a prophet is not one who just passes on revelation to other people; at the same time, he is an example of understanding, living and practicing revelation and a guide who does not knowingly commit sin. Also, in the Islamic belief in apostleship there is a chain of prophets from Adam (pbuh) to Muhammad (pbuh) and in the chain Muhammad (pbuh) is the last prophet. The essence of the message brought by all prophets is the same. This common message is tawhid or unity and it has 3 basic elements: accepting Allah as the only deity, taking no partners to God, and obedience to His prophets. In fact, obedience to prophets within the framework of tawhid means taking as a model the life style and morality of the prophet. In other words, this can be seen in Noah or Hud. When we look at the stories of all the prophets in the Koran, this can be seen in all their messages.
Of course, Christians do not accept the apostleship of Muhammad (pbuh), for according to them, after Jesus the son of God settled on this earth, there remains nothing for prophets to bring. What must be done after that period is to believe in the divinity of Jesus.
Together with this, there are those who accept Muhammad (pbuh) as a prophet. For example, Montgomery Watt, who has a written reference on this subject, can be given as an example. I translated an article of his written after the Gulf War entitled "Muslims and Christians." In this article he says regarding Muhammad (pbuh): "Yes, according to me he is a prophet, but not in the sense that Muslims understand; he is a prophet in the sense that we understand." In other words, he is a prophet like in the Bible. This is a very important nuance. For a prophet as in the Bible means one who conveys knowledge to people about the future derived from divine revelation, inspiration or intuition or, in other words, someone who presents apocalyptic knowledge to people. Every message presented by them does not have to be 100 percent true.
If we take all this into consideration, it is extremely important to know these when explaining Muhammad's (pbuh) apostleship to Western society, especially to Jews and Christians. Islam's belief in apostleship should be explained before describing Muhammad's (pbuh) prophet hood.
- In other words, we should not assume that the concept of apostleship in our minds is the same as the one in the minds of members of other religions.
Of course... Absolutely... When in this respect we explain what apostleship is, what we mean by it, what the Islamic belief in prophet hood is, and that Muhammad (pbuh) is the last prophet, then people begin to think more soundly in accordance with this belief. They better understand what we are saying. For when they think about what we are saying with the preconception in their minds of "prophet hood that their own cultures gave them," then very different results can occur.
- At this point, are there differences among Christians? Can we say that all Christians view it like this?
Of course, what I have discussed is a thought accepted commonly by Christians, for Christianity, as known, is a belief system that appeared as an inheritance from the Jews. Consequently, they base there beliefs on Old Testament tradition. The belief in God the Father, the belief in apostleship or a number of other beliefs, the belief in the hereafter, for example, are based on it. When you read New Testament scriptures, there are frequent allusions to the Old Testament. We know there are differences of views among different Christian sects. But on the subject of a belief in apostleship, if we take into consideration the main trunk of Christianity - Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox - there is no difference among them.
- We know that in Jesus' teaching on moral subjects there is sensitivity in regard to raising a better society and objection to moral degeneration. Why isn't this taken into consideration in today's Christian world?
This is really a very deep-rooted problem for the Western world. In other words, to what degree does Christianity take Jesus (pbuh) as a model? It is one of Christianity's most significant handicaps. When we look at Jesus' message, there is opposition to oppression, immorality and violence in society. At least there are many statements of Jesus on these topics in the current Christian Holy Scriptures.
The subject of how much Christians today, especially the Western world (I mean America and Europe) really want Jesus and how Christian they are, in my opinion, is a very debatable issue. We assume that the West is Christian. But this is not true. For example, Europe is not Christian; it is a pagan society. People carry names inherited from Christianity. Culturally people have a Christian background, but in regard to their life style and philosophy, they are definitely not Christian. Christianity does not guide them morally. A secular life style is more widespread and, if you notice, the Pope is bothered by the secular morality of the West.
When we look at North America, it is possible to say that it is a little more religious in respect to Europe. There are a number of historical reasons for this in the USA and Canada. The Puritan movement played a very important role in the occupation of America, particularly North America, by Western settlers and the formation of a white society there, because Puritanism is a purifying and cleansing Protestant movement that appeared with the teaching of a return to original Christianity of the early period. It was a fundamentalist movement and was influential in American society.
But together with this, we can ask ourselves where the violence America resorts to in places like the Middle East and Afghanistan fits into Christianity. This is a question widely debated in the West and Christianity. But what is done is this: Interpreting Christian morality, a theory about righteousness was produced in Christian history. The ‘righteous war" theory is this: "It is permissible to kill some innocent people now to disperse evil and make a better future."
- Can we say that generally a need is felt for the existence of religions in order to legitimatize some political desires?
Yes, let me give you an example. This debate was being made when I was in England. For example, same-sex marriages have been legalized or are being legalized in some countries like Holland. Whereas, when we look at this issue from the perspective of Christian morality, we see that it is totally unacceptable. For this reason, the Church has struggled against this for years. Homosexuality is interpreted in many what we can call conservative circles as follows: What is the basis of religion? Love. God is the god of love. The essence of religion is love because the way to salvation is through belief in and love for Jesus. Consequently, it doesn't matter if a woman loves a man or a man loves a man or a woman loves a woman. This is a terrifying interpretation. It is forced and, taking the current situation as a basis, Christian morality is being manipulated. This is what is happening.
- In this situation, even if they are not members of the same religion, can people with the same sensitivities take action together by strengthening their dialogue?
This is what I advocate on the topic of dialogue: Dialogue is definitely not a reconciliation of religions. Neither is it bringing religions closer together. Nor is it dispute, because that is something different. Debating religion on some theological topics or scriptures is not dialogue. Dialogue is people meeting and understanding each other and the disappearance of prejudices. One of dialogue's important pillars is getting to know the person across from you and introducing yourself to him; at the same time you know this is communication. The other pillar completing this is: Based on a moral foundation, searching for ways to struggle against difficulties that are common human problems. In other words, dialogue is common brain storming.
Today, in almost every area there is war, occupation, hunger and famine, lack of education and unequal opportunity throughout the world, isn't there? Not only is common brain storming needed, but so is common action needed. Making a common statement - that is what real dialogue is. In this respect, there are definitely many things Muslims can do together with not only Christianity, but also the Western world and the Eastern world. Within this framework there are some movements in the world, for example, in the Christian community. For example, in Latin America there is a movement called "Theology of Liberation," which is a theory for salvation developed by some theologians in Central and South America during the second half of the 20th century. The basic thesis of this movement is this: God and Jesus cannot be explained with purely theological concepts. How can Jesus be understood? By struggling against hunger, invasion, occupation, violence and drugs and by opposing oppression... In this way, by struggling against certain things, a theological movement was created. When we compare this theological movement and formation with Muslim practice towards others in Islamic history, they are not in conflict.
I remember a hadith of the Prophet. He said: "There are five basic principles that religion protects." In other words, the purpose of religion is these five things. They are: the protection of religion, property, generations, the mind and life. Of course, protection of life comes first. When we look at theses five things, we see that Islam deems sacred a person's right to live, his right to think, his right to believe, his right to own property, and his right to have a family and children. This pertains not only to Muslims; on a universal level it applies to everyone. Consequently, it means that in protecting and struggling for these, Muslims can cooperate with all people in the world. They can come together with them. This is a common denominator, a common ground. Wherever in the world there is a violation of the right to live, a Muslim takes sides there. Whose side? The side of the victim, of course. Or if there is intervention in the freedom of belief or the freedom to establish a family or chastity, then a Muslim can take sides. Thus, when we think about it in this way, then, of course, people should come together in dialogue on an ethical basis and put forth what they can do. But in the current dialogue process this unfortunately remains in the background.
- Do members of other religions make efforts for interfaith dialogue in the sense that you mentioned? What is their attitude on this subject?
On the subject of interfaith dialogue, when we look at a period of approximately the last thirty years, we see there are two main movements in the Western world. The first of these is headed by the Church, particularly the Catholic Church, and it is supported by Protestant Evangelists. They see dialogue as a part of Christian missionary activities. In fact, we know that this issue was seriously questioned after the 16th pope, Benedictus, became Pope. In fact, when Benedictus was in Venice in a lower institution, he gave less importance to dialogue. He received some serious criticism for it from within the Church.
The second concept of dialogue is based more on a secular foundation and it takes a pluralist doctrine as a basis. It is voiced by the secular community. This understanding of dialogue advocates: Everyone -including all beliefs- should leave their prejudices aside, especially their ideas about the truth, being right and salvation, and everyone should learn what they can from one another -including understandings of the truth- and come together and talk. Of course, this is an understanding that entails serious difficulty for individual devoutness and degeneration of salvation doctrines. This is an understanding of dialogue imposed by secular circles.
In addition to these two concepts, there are three pillars in our concept of dialogue. First, meeting and understanding the other party without prejudice. Meeting is one thing, but understanding is something different. In other words, empathy should be felt towards them. The second pillar is to introduce ourselves and overcome prejudice.
The third important pillar of dialogue, as I mentioned a little earlier, is to make common brainstorming in regard to different difficulties and problems. This is an indispensable part of dialogue. When we look at the Koran, Allah explains why "We created man in different nations and tribes." Isn't it so that "You can get to know one other"? It says tearuf -to get to know one another. Not just introducing ourselves, but understanding one another.
Undoubtedly, differences are the work of Allah's power, will and knowledge. Nothing appeared without Him; nothing was created without Him. This does not mean that all differences are legal, permitted and right. We have the responsibility to explain to others the values that we know and believe to be true. But while we do this, we have to understand and get to know others. This is only possible with dialogue.
Throughout history different groups have found the right to live -with the protection of those five basic rights- among Muslims under certain law. Actually, Islam has produced such a model. Consequently, as I mentioned earlier, this concept with three pillars is not anything new. We can call it living together with differences, and we have a lot to teach the world on this subject.
- In addition to divine religions, other new religions have begun to appear. Which means do new religious movements use to spread and find followers? Can you tell us about their propagation techniques?
The basic characteristics of new religious movements actually give us clues to their propagation methods. Generally speaking, all these movements are centered on a person or personality. Moreover, they are reactionary movements against current religious traditions. For example, prevalent religious traditions -it can be Islamic religious traditions or Christian- are accused of being oppressive and despotic. They are accused of being uniform. Consequently, there is anarchy and rebellion in their spirit.
A significant part of these are secret. They are based on secrecy. It can be related to outer space, to nature -like in pagan traditions- or a spiritual plane. A significant part of these are 1000 year-old movements. They are based on a 1000 year-old tradition and a Savior. They emphasize salvation and are waiting for a "golden age." Another of their important characteristics is that they advocate as liberal an ethical morality as possible. For example, many neo-pagan movements have this basic principle: "If it does not hurt anyone else, then it is permissible. Everything is legitimate."
When you take these characteristics into consideration, their propagation techniques take shape like this. They take advantage of weaknesses in faith in all societies. In places where faith has become extremely weak like in Russia, Poland, Eastern Europe and some states in the USA, they tend to propagate more.
Secondly, they speak to people about uniting with nature and they have an environmental doctrine. The secret concepts of the neo-pagan movements, that nature carries a sacred spirit so it is necessary to be in harmony with it or unite with nature or live together with it is, of course, appealing to people today. In addition, they use the internet a lot. Music, too...They constantly use things like the cinema and music as means of communication.
- Can you tell us your ideas about publishing on the internet which has become a regular part of our lives?
Internet is the most frequently used resource in the world today both in respect to sharing information and communicating information. It has entered our lives more than books and everything in the written and visual media. For example, things like traditional mail and writing letters have been completely discarded. They have been replaced by electronic mail. Regardless of where a person is in the world, he has an opportunity to express himself. Everyone is opening their own site. They open special discussion sites. Regardless of whether their ideas are absurd or not, or true or not, they are opened for discussion and reach people in the farthest corners of the world.
Internet is a resource that takes information to people wherever they are in the world. For this reason, members of mainstream religious groups like Muslims, Christians and Jews and every other kind of religious community uses the internet extensively. Consequently, the internet is an extremely important vehicle for the user. Also for accessing information...
Regarding access to information, formerly when we gave topics to masters and doctorate students, one of the first objections we heard was this: "How am I going to find reference works?" Students would move from the country to Istanbul and Ankara in order to find reference works. Or they would try and bring boxes of photocopied works from outside the country. But now I tell my students that there are no more excuses, because you can reach sources any place in the world. There are millions of books on the internet. Plus, there are a number of internet sites doing this as a business. For example, you pay 10 or 20 dollars a month as a fee and you become subscribed to the most advanced libraries in the world. For example, you subscribe to a library in New York and you can read all that libraries works on the internet. This is a fantastic resource.
Forget about that, due to the search engines there is nothing we no longer know. In fact, this has a negative aspect; there are internet scholars on the market -internet scholars, on-line scholars. Without doing any research, someone who is going to write an article or a book scans Google and Yahoo and reads 10-15 of them and then writes what he understood. It is open to every kind of abuse.
Putting all this aside, internet is a very important resource in respect to the user. Consequently, I see it like this: for example, thelastprophet.info site that you spearheaded was set up very late, but I think that from this moment on it is very important. With its English, Russian and Turkish pages, it is possible to reach millions of people who speak these languages. People can attempt to eliminate prejudices by this means.
- It is possible to reach reference sources by means of the internet, but how reliable are they. What can you suggest on this topic?
People with common sense who take this matter seriously can provide sound information to people by means of the sites they make.
Let me mention one site. You know there is an online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. It is published in 30-40 languages. Its special characteristic is this: all internet users can write an article there. You can look over an article and re-write it. Actually this brings information pollution with it. I don't know how it works, but the moderators -if the site is produced by a sensitive moderator or group of moderators- can filter incoming information, separate the true from the false and make more effective information or should do so.
In regard to this I think that in every area -not just the area related to our Prophet- we should make this kind of job and present it for the use of others. Moreover, it is not possible to prohibit some. As I said, people set up a number of nonsensical sites and they can publish them. And people looking for information on these subjects can read very incorrect information. But if we increase the alternatives and people can at least find correct information along side the incorrect, the obvious difference will provide an opportunity for people to turn towards the correct information.
- Instead of opposing such an effective vehicle, is it necessary to turn it into a platform with more accurate information?
Absolutely... Of course, I think Muslims have come a long way on this subject. Since the middle of the 1980s the religious and conservative segments have understood how important TV, the cinema and other means of communication are. It is not possible to prohibit or remain remote from the internet. Of course, the internet is like a double-edged sword. I am saying this especially for our children. If they are not given good guidance, there can be more harm than good. For example, on the internet you can find every kind of evil like pornography, eroticism, prostitution, crime and murder. But by training our children and the public and by leading them towards what is right, the positive rather than the negative side of the internet can emerge. When statistics around the world are looked at within this framework, we see that its use for crime or negativity is limited; it is used more in a positive way.