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The Importance of Listening

The Importance of Listening

Issue 73 October 2010

Listening is at the heart of interfaith dialogue and is the key to promoting peaceful coexistence. 

This month I have been working hard to complete a new website for the Woolf Institute. The design philosophy I have been following has been to maximise interaction with those who visit the site through the provision of comment and feedback forms. As an institution engaged in interfaith dialogue in both academic and community forums, I believe this two way approach must underpin all we do.

Dialogue is a process of talking and listening, yet when many people approach interfaith dialogue they do so with closed minds, closed ears and a lack of attention. I remember attending a programme in Leicester 20 years ago where Muslims and Christians came together to give speeches to each other. No real dialogue took place and the two sides each left having learned nothing of the other because in each case their firm intention was one of dawah or proselytising, not of listening and learning.

Here at the Woolf Institute, I teach on a course in Muslim-Jewish Relations and one of this course’s greatest attributes lies in the diversity of the students’ backgrounds and faiths. Within the class we build an atmosphere of trust and as the participants open up, they begin to learn as much from each other as they do from the presentations and academic papers. Over the years I have taught on many courses that targeted a single group such as a course on Islam for Jews and programmes on other faiths in Muslim institutions but the depth of understanding achieved is never the same.

The respected Hanafi scholar Shaykh Abdul-Fattaah Abu Ghuddah refers to the importance of learning how to listen in his book on Islamic Manners. He quotes Ibrahim bin Al-Junaid who once said, “A wise man said to his son: ‘learn the art of listening as you learn the art of speaking. Listening well means maintaining eye contact, allowing the speaker to finish the speech, and restraining yourself from interrupting his speech.’”

These sound words of advice could just as easily come from an educational teaching manual or a course in counselling and indeed this should not surprise us. When the blessed prophet Muhammad spoke to his companions, it was as a teacher and a counsellor and we know from the hadith that it was his Sunnah to make the person he was speaking to feel that they were the only one he was thinking about at that moment. This is echoed by what person-centred counsellors call the ‘core conditions’ required to facilitate counselling. These are empathy; unconditional positive regard (i.e. a completely positive and non-judgemental attitude) and congruence, meaning that the counsellor must be completely consistent and sincere.

As Muslims, we can feel that through accepting the prophethood of Muhammad, we have a deeper understanding of the world than those of other faiths but to refuse to listen to ‘the other’ is arrogant and a mistake. We should recall that according to our classical theologians, not all Muslims are believers, many simply obey God’s commands without faith entering into their hearts, whereas in the Qur’an and Hadith we find reference to the believers from amongst the ‘people of the book’ i.e Jews and Christians.

In surah Nahl, God guides us in the way we should approach dialogue with non-Muslims, “Invite (all) to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue (jadilhum) with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for your Lord knows best, who have strayed from His path, and who receive guidance.” (Qur’an 16:125)

Jadilhum implies a confrontational debate and yet even here God is directing us to show gracious manners. Furthermore, He then highlights the arrogance of a judgemental attitude when He reminds us that it is He, not us, who knows who has strayed from His path and who has received guidance. How better can we respond to this message, in the context of interfaith dialogue and for the promotion of peaceful coexistence, than to listen to others with sincerity and without presuming to judge them?


Dawud Bone is the Stone Ashdown Director of the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations at the Woolf Institute. To read more of his work, click here.


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