Islamic Perspectives on Inter-Religious Dialogue
Hamid Naseem Rafiabadi, author of several books on Islam in Urdu and English, teaches at the Shah-i-Hamadan Institute of Islamic Studies, Kashmir University, Srinagar. Here he speaks to Yoginder Sikand on Islamic perspectives on inter-religious dialogue
Q: You have been quite active in promoting inter-religious dialogue through your writings. How did you develop an interest in the subject?
A: While I was doing my Masters degree in philosophy in Srinagar, we had a paper on Hindu philosophy, and that is when I was first exposed to other religions. Then, I went to the Aligarh Muslim university for an M.A. in Islamic Theology. As part of our course work, we had a paper in Comparative Religions, so I got a chance to study various religions other than Islam. After that, I was regularly invited to speak on the Islamic perspective on dialogue at inter-religious dialogue seminars and conferences. In 1991 I was appointed by the World Inter-Religious Fellowship Council as their secretary at their Cochin conference. At their 1999 meeting I was made their youth convenor. The WIRFC recently held another big meeting in Kerala, at which I spoke on the role of religion in promoting harmony.
Q: What would you say about the urgency of initiating and promoting dialogue between Muslims and others?
A: I think it is the need of the hour. While in Kerala recently, I had the chance to address a gathering of Muslims, including students and ulama. There I made the point that dialogue is in fact a religious duty for Muslims. I said that many centuries ago, Shankaracharya came from Kerala all the way to Kashmir to study Buddhism in order to know what challenges Brahminism faced from the Buddhists, as at that time Kashmir was a great centre of Buddhist learning, but now I had come to Kerala from Kashmir to impress upon them the need for Muslims to have a dialogue with others so as to clear all the misconceptions that they have about Islam. I told the ulama who were present there that although it was their Islamic duty to enter into dialogue with others they were not doing little in that regard. I said that if they were not able to initiate such work on their own, at least they should cooperate with non-Muslims who are making efforts in this field.
Q: What forms do you see the dialogue process between Muslims and others as taking?
A: The Holy Qur’an tells us that we should not abuse the idols or deities worshipped by others, otherwise they would react and, in turn, abuse God out of ignorance. It commands us to call others to Islam, but there is to be no compulsion at all involved. If someone listens to that call and decides to become a Muslim, well and good. If, on the other hand, he chooses not to accept Islam, that is his own concern, and then, as the Holy Qur’an says, “to them their religion and to you your religion”. The Holy Qur’an very clearly tells us that we should present the `invitation’ [dawah] to Islam to others with wisdom [hikmat] and words of `beauty’ [hasanah]. What this suggests is that besides the content of the message what is equally important is the style of communicating that message. We believe that the content of our message-as contained in the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith [the traditions of the Prophet-are perfect, but we have not adopted the proper means and style of presenting that message. There is presently such a communication gap between Muslims and others that they cannot understand each other. Further, much misunderstanding has been created about Islam but Muslims have not been able to dispel these wrong notions. I see that as a crucial element in the dialogue process. What is more, I believe that through dialogue others may see how Islam has an answer to many of the ills plaguing the world today-the collapse of morality, alcoholism, world debt, for instance.
Q: What role do you see the ulama as playing in any dialogue process?
A: The ulama must play a central role, but I do not see that happening in any major way today. The problem with most ulama is that they have divided knowledge into water-tight categories of ‘religious’ [dini] and ‘worldly’ [duniyavi], even though in Islam there is no such distinction actually. Islam tells us that acquiring knowledge of the world, of Gods creation, for the sake of religion [din] is a religious duty [farz] binding on all Muslims. Further, Islam tells us that since God has created the world, knowledge of the world, too, must be acquired by every believer, for knowledge of the world is part of the knowledge of God. So, I am convinced that until and unless we get rid of this artificial distinction that has been created between dini and duniyavi knowledge, we cannot make much headway in promoting not only the dialogue process but also the social, economic and educational betterment of the Muslim community itself. It is also because of this rigid distinction that has developed over time as regards knowledge that the ulama are not playing any effective role in this age of science and technology today. How many ulama do we have today who are abreast of the latest developments in science? Almost none, I am afraid, and the most important reason for this is that knowledge of the world has been seen as distinct and different from religious knowledge, which, to reiterate, is a very un-Islamic way of understanding what knowledge is all about. And what is equally important to realise is that we did have Muslim ulama in the past who actually played a key role in scientific advancement as well.
Besides the ulama of the madrassas, I see our other intellectuals as having a crucial role in promoting dialogue between Muslims and people of other faiths. But here too we find ‘modern’, Western educated Muslims hardly doing anything to carry forward this mission. The education system that they have gone through is so thoroughly westernised that they have little knowledge of Islam and the legacy of their ancestors.
My point is that both the madrasa-trained ulama and those who have been through the university system have their own roles to play in promoting inter-religious dialogue, which, unfortunately, they are not really doing. The first thing to do is to do away with the artificial and un-Islamic divide between dini and duniyavi knowledge. Islam teaches us to consider anyone with knowledge, whether of Islamic law or of the laws of physics, as ulama, provided, in the case of the latter, they interpret the disciplines in which they are specialised in the light of the teachings of Islam.
Q: Could you shed some light on the historical process of inter-religious dialogue in Kashmir?
A: There has always been interaction and dialogue between Muslims and people of other faiths in Kashmir ever since Islam made its entry into our land. One of the pioneers of this process were the fourteenth century female mystic Lal Ded, whom the Kashmiri Hindus revere as Laleshwari. Although she was born and brought up in a Brahmin family, she came under the influence of renowned Muslim scholars and mystics, which then led to her crusading against Brahminical hegemony and the oppression of the so-called lower castes. In her poetry, or Vakh, she addresses both Hindus as well as Muslims, and talks forcefully about social equality and the oneness of God, which are actually Islamic concepts. Lal Ded was followed by Hazrat Nuruddin Nurani, commonly remembered as Nund Rishi, who carried forward this dialogue process, as a result of which many Hindu sadhus later became his disciples. The story is told of Bam Sadh, the priest of a temple, meeting Hazrat Nuruddin and asking him, ‘Who is a true Muslim?’. Hazrat Nuruddin answers, ‘A true Muslim is one who thinks he is even lower than a leper, one who spends his entire life serving the poor’. What is this but a process of dialogue.? It is said that on hearing Hazrat Nuruddin’s reply Bam Sadh became a Muslim and Hazrat Nuruddin gave him the name of Baba Bamuddin.
Unfortunately, we have not as yet started dialogue in an organised way, in the form of a movement. I often quote Jesus? Famous saying, Love thy neighbour as thy self, and I add that when we do not even know our neighbours how can we love them? Thus, the first need is to know your neighbour, his culture, his ethos, history, sensitivities and religious beliefs. Such knowledge is a prerequisite for organised dialogue initiatives.
Q: Do you see the dialogue process as being limited simply to exchanging views between dialoguing groups about their religious beliefs or can it go beyond that as well?
A: Explaining the teachings of one’s own religion and understanding the beliefs of others is, of course, a central element of the dialogue process. But there is another level of dialogue which Islam teaches us about-the need for people of different religious communities to act together to attain certain desirable social goals. This is dialogue at the level of social action. Thus, when the Prophet Muhammad [peace and Allah’s blessings be upon him] arrived in Madinah, he entered into a pact with the Jews of the town. This pact is remembered in Islamic history as the Misaq-i-Madinah or ‘The Treaty of Madinah’. According to this treaty, the Muslims and the Jews were to help each other in times of need and in defending Medina from outside attack. It is on the basis of this pact that some Indian ulama called for a united struggle of Muslims, Hindus and others against British imperialism. What we learn from the example of the Treaty of Madinah is that for the sake of common goals, Muslims can certainly cooperate with others.
The Holy Qur’an explicitly commands us that we should help each other in doing good and in pious deeds and in fighting oppression, but not in assisting each other in sin and oppression. We have an ideal model in this regard in the Holy Prophet Muhammad [peace and Allah’s blessings be upon him], who, even before God had announced his Prophethood, had set up an organisation of poor youth in Makkah, called the Half-i-Fuzul, to help the poor and the needy. Now this was a time before the announcement of Muhammad’s prophethood, so the other members of the Half-i-Fuzul were all non-Muslims. When the first revelation from God was delivered to the Holy Prophet by the angel Hazrat Jibrail [Gabriel] on Mount Hira, the Prophet was taken aback and he related the incident to his wife, Hazrat Khadijah. She told him not to worry and that God would protect him as he had always helped the oppressed, the poor, the orphans and widows. Now, at that time, there were no other Muslims in Makkah, and all these people whom the Prophet used to help were, of course, non-Muslims. So, this very clearly suggests that Muslims can and must help the poor and the suffering whoever they might be, and for that they can cooperate with people of good will from other communities. This, too, is a form of dialogue, and it must also be part of any inter-religious dialogue process that Muslims initiate with others.