Asghar Ali Engineer

(Islam and Modern Age, August 20008)

What is relation between religion and conflict? Is conflict inevitable where religion has greater role in public life? According to the Global Peace Index countries where religion had greater role in public life were at the bottom of the index, which means they were less peaceful. This index will lead us to the conclusion that religion and conflict go together and that religion has negative role to play. It must make all those who advocate role of religion in public life sit and think.

In view of adverse role of religion one must first discuss what in fact religion is. What was its origin and social need? Is religion bound to play disruptive role and give birth to conflict and violence? Or there are other factors which generate conflict using religion as a tool? Is violence rooted in society, social conflict or in religion and religious differences? Also what precisely is the role of religion in human life?

Before we answer this question we should ask one more question. Is religion prior to human being and human society or human life and human society prior to religion? These questions seem to be simple and elementary but can have profound implications one way or the other. Religion, howsoever important for society cannot be prior to it. Religion came to answer certain human and social needs. It is my considered opinion that religion in some form or the other would be needed even in most scientifically and technologically advanced society.

Before proceeding further first we would like to define what exactly religion is. It is apparently simple but quite complex question. There can be all sorts of differences in defining religion. Rather than defining it we can answer this question by answering what it consists of? A religion comprises set of rituals, theological doctrines about the other world, a world beyond this world, an institutional system and a value system.

While rituals, theologies and institutions of each religion differ from each other value system often coincide. But in practice value system has last priority in every religion and ritual, theological and institutional systems acquire priority and of these three ritual system acquires top priority for masses and theologies have top priority for; theologians. While common people are preoccupies with rituals, theologians indulge in challenging each others' theologies leading to conflict in society.

Also, it should be understood that ritual system and theological doctrines evolve in a particular cultural milieu though theologians would claim they are of divine origin. No religion origins in cultural vacuum and all religions carry their birth mark. Despite divine origin of a religion one should not ignore its historicity. If this is acknowledged many disputes about rituals and theological doctrines can be more easily resolved.

Every religion also throws up institutions and these institutions occupy material space and thus results in possession of properties. Also, organizations come up to control these properties and more often than not, theological disputes, in fact, are hidden form of property disputes. Once a religion gets organized it can result in various forms of struggles reconcilable or irreconcilable. Thus here lies the dilemma. Religion tends to get organized as it operates in a society, not in vacuum. Once it gets organized and it is bound to, when it has large number of followers, it becomes a powerful establishment and that in turn results in struggle for power to control that establishment.

No religion can escape this fate. All major religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and Islam have suffered this fate. All these religions were founded by persons who were dissatisfied by social conditions around them and they went out in search of truth and after years of intense quest for truth they were enlightened or received revelation and set about disseminating what was revealed to them and how they were enlightened.

This is beginning of these religions. Since these religions were result of intense quest for truth there cannot be anything inherently wrong with them. They came into existence to guide human beings. They answered both social and spiritual needs of the people among whom these religions originated. All these religions, in fact stressed inner peace, controlling ones desire and greed as desire and greed are root of all evil in the world. Some religions like Buddhism and Islam also laid stress of compassion. Some religions like Christianity laid emphasis on love and peace.

Thus these religions by preaching compassion, love and peace tried to curb individual as well as social conflict. Also, these religions devised ritual systems, prayer, fasting, giving alms etc. to give concrete shape to their value system but since these rituals were deeply influenced by their given culture and social ethos, they happened to be different from each other. They were different but not conflicting in any way.

Similarly each religion developed, in course of time, their own theologies and these theologies were developed more by followers rather than founders themselves. For, example, Buddhist theologies were developed by followers of Buddha rather than Buddha himself, of Christianity by its followers than by Christ himself or of Islam by followers of Islam rather than the Prophet himself.

So far so good. Each theology developed autonomously or independently and though different from the other, was not in conflict with the other. What was then the source of conflict between two religions? It is not difficult to see that source of conflict lay not in religion per se but in human nature and human needs. In fact religion came, as we have shown, to provide divine guidance for peace and conflict-free society and to liberate human being from excessive desire and greed and thus to eliminate sources of conflict.

But human beings, aspiring for domination and more and more desire to control, reduced religion to a source of conflict. They used religion a legitimizing tool for their domination over others. When religions got organized, two organized religions tried to dominate over the other and that could be done by proving the other false. Those human actors who sought to control religious organization tried to prove superiority of ones own religion over the other and thus vanquish the other and control the other.

Thus religion, thanks to human nature and interests, which came to liberate human beings from conflict became a powerful source of conflict. But it would be wrong to maintain that religion per se is a source of conflict. Also, it is this desire to dominate the other, it resulted not only in inter-religious but also intra-religious conflicts. No religion is free from intra-religious conflict.

Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all developed cleavages and even conflicting theologies or if not conflicting, differing theologies. Again human nature plays its own role. Some religions split along ethic lines and some along cultural lines. One ethnic, cultural or linguistic group wanted to dominate the other group or compete with the other. The religion which was result of quest for spiritual truth became instrument of power

Today all major religions are not only identified with some or the other national and ethnic groups but also are being used by these national and ethnic groupings for promoting their own interests. Thus all major religions are responding more to material needs for domination than spiritual needs of human souls for peace and inner contentment. Religion can serve spiritual needs and needs for higher truth only if it does not get organized and no major religion can remain unorganized. Thus tension between organized and unorganized religion would continue unresolved.

Well, such a tension can also result in creative efforts, given sincerity of some truly religious people. Religious as identity plays greater role in our modern lives for various reasons. This is both psychological as well as political need. Every human being has psychological urge to belong and this is very powerful urge. One feels emotional vacuum without a sense of belonging. One feels great emotional warmth and greater the sense of bondage, greater the satisfaction. This can be true of ideological and linguistic groups too but this sense of bondage tends to be strongest in the case of religion.

Naturally this emotional bondage and sense of identity can easily translate into political struggle for domination or power. This potential is much higher in modern competitive democratic politics. This competition tends to be much more intense in developing countries where for reasons to be discussed, religious appeal is much more intense and different religious, linguistic and ethnic groups use religious ethic and linguistic identities for political competition and thus religion becomes a source of powerful conflict.

Also, as Freud, Karl Jung and other psychologists have stressed religious symbols have great appeal and this appeal arises from subconscious mind and politicians use these religious symbols for mobilization of political support. These religious symbols have all the more appeal in backward and developing nations. Though no nation or country is free of conflict in the world, there appear to be greater religious conflict in the backward or developing countries.

We have to consider one more dimension of religion which plays very important role in human life i.e. sense of solace, inner peace and security. This further enhances appeal of religion for the poor who live with a constant sense of insecurity and fear. Even Marx acknowledges this aspect of appeal of religion when he says that it is sigh of the oppressed and consolation for the distressed in the vale of tears. And he describes religion as 'opium of the people not in negative sense but as it acts as pain killer for them.

Religion in its both the roles i.e. its role to provide an identity and inner solace and security will remain irreplaceable however science and technology progresses. Also, religion provides a transcendental dimension to life. This transcendence gives meaning to life. It gives a sense of meaning and dimension. Religion also provides a higher purpose in life. Human person is not borne simply to eat, drink and die. No human being will be satisfied with such life.

Modern scientific discoveries also in a way reinforce our need for such transcendental beliefs. The vastness of the universe, its millions of stars and planets and galaxies each several million or billion light years away create a sense of awe in human beings. They feel too insignificant in this vastness of universe in material sense and hence it is spiritual purpose which elevates them out of this minisculity and insignificance.

Thus seen from these perspectives religion is potential both for lifting us from simple material existence, provide us a sense of higher purpose and also in some ways potential for divisiveness and conflict. But basically it depends on us how we look at the religion: as something necessary for our spiritual development and inner joy and contentedness or as a divisive conflictual force. Whether we use it for leading life of spiritual growth and transcendental achievements or as a tool for establishing our hegemony over others.

We find both the trends among those who believe and practice religion. Same is true of reason. Rationalists often attack religion as mere superstition and a powerful obstacle for change and growth. I think it is very superficial approach to religion. Religion by itself is not irrational or opposed to change. Religion never conflicts with reason if we understand religion in proper perspective. Religion, of course tends to be transcendental in certain aspects and hence to that extent it is beyond but not anti-rational. Buddhist, Vendantic and Islamic philosophies provide ample proof of significance of reason in religion.

It is true on popular levels there are practices which are superstitious and irrational but these practices are not essential part of religion in any sense. Religion or no religion they will be found for sociological and psychological reasons. Even in primitive and tribal societies where none of these religions exist, these practices are found. Miracles too are not part of advanced religions. They can only be explained psychologically as often even highly learned people believe in miracles as it is human weakness to opt for easy and instantaneous solutions.

Thus it will be seen religion plays many complex roles in human life. It is used in many ways by human beings. It can enhance and enrich our spiritual life and also be used for enhancing our personal or group powers. It can become very rich resource for peace and also cause bloodshed and wars among people of different religions. What role we make religion to play depends on our interests and aspirations.

One needs to analyze these complex trends before we conclude whether religion leads to conflict in the society. It should be borne in mind that a large number of masses of people want to lead peaceful life and for them religion is nothing but inner solace and a sense of belonging and security in this merciless world or 'vale of tears' as Marx describes it for the poor and oppressed.

Then there are monks, yogis, mystics and Sufis in different religions. These monks etc. are basically interested in spiritual enrichment and transcendental aspects of life and busy themselves in spiritual practices. Their whole exercise is to control their desire or greed and keep themselves aloof from all worldly struggles. They become role models for millions of people and they bow before their sacrifices. However, there can be some unscrupulous elements here too who exploit masses but that cannot prove whole trend as being exploitative.

Islam which is being associated with violence and jihad in political arena has very strong sufistic trend and many great Sufis have brought peace and solace to millions of people across the world. Maulana Rum, a great Sufi from Quniya, Turkey, is considered as high priest of love and peace. His epic poem called Mathnavi Maulana Rum is considered as scripture of love. He loves all - Muslims, Christians, Jews and even those who are sinners. His Islam is beyond identity and his whole approach is human. And Maulana Rum is not alone. All Sufis stress love and peace and busy themselves with spiritual enrichment. Their basic doctrines are wahdat al-wujud and sulh-i-kul.

Wahdat al-wujud implies real existence is of one Real Being and all of us are its manifestations -Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews, Buddhists and Jains and hence there should be no wall of separation among them. Dara Shikoh son of Shah Jahan, the Moghul Emperor of India was a Sufi and wrote a seminal work Majma'ul Bahrayn i.e. co-mingling of two oceans in which he compares teachings of Hinduism with those of Islam and concludes that difference if any is of language, not of content. The doctrine of sulh-i-kul means total peace and peace with all. Thus both these Sufi doctrines are of great importance for building peace in the world.


All this does not mean religion and conflict have no mutual relationship. But what it implies is that religion by itself is not the source of conflict. Real source of conflict is not religion but human interests of varied kind. Religion because it has great emotional appeal has been often exploited by all sorts of vested interests including by priests, politicians and other social and cultural leaders.

And when politicians and priests collude with each other and religion becomes subservient to political interests, it can become great source of conflict. But only apparently. Real source remain human and political interests. Priests who collaborate with politicians do so to serve their own selfish interests. Priests are as much weak human being as any other. In Islam there is concept of Ulama-i-su' i.e. Ulama of evil character who serve rulers rather than Islam.

In democratic countries too we find many number of instances of politicization of religion and its is my considered opinion that whenever religion is politicized religion looses its sanctity and politicians gain their ambitions. One who cares for ones religion and its sanctity would never allow religion to be politicized. Of course in competitive democratic politics and a multi-religious societies the potential for politicization of religion increases infinitely.

Religious identity can play both destructive in some and constructive role is some cases but on the whole it has potential for conflict. In case of weak minorities religious identity can be used to deliver justice but then in competitive polity, a section of majority community politicians can also use religious identity in mobilizing their own people and can have devastating result.

The index referred to above at the outset of the article shows in developing countries where religion plays greater role in public life there is more conflict. The reason is obvious. In such countries because of low levels of educational and intellectual developments and greater role of religion, scarcity of resources and tendency of powerful to grab these scarce resources, religion has much greater tendency to be politicized and hence become source of conflict.

It should also be noted that religion alone has not been 'source of conflict' in the world. In advanced European countries nationalism has been much greater source of violence and destruction. Two World Wars put together in last century, mainly inspired by nationalism, brought about so much violence and destruction that preceding centuries hardly did. Europe which witnessed 'religious' war when protestants broke away from the Catholic Church was not simply religious in nature as is often made out to be.

There were complex factors involved. Many princes who wanted to break loose from political stranglehold of church backed the protestant movement. Church too was not exercising religious authority. It had monopolized political power too and exercised political hegemony over all European rulers. Protestant movement challenged Church's authority both religious and political and tried to liberate people from its exploitative grip and hence so much wars and bloodshed.

In America civil war was not inspired by religion but main question was slavery between south which wanted to retain it and north which abolished it. The 21st century wars against Afghanistan, Baghdad launched by America are not because of 'Islamic jihad' but due mainly to protect American interests in Middle East, especially oil interests. One must distinguish between perception and reality and rhetoric and truth. Both sides use rhetoric which is more deceiving than real. One side uses rhetoric of protecting world from terror and the other side that of jihad. Both are deceiving the world.

Thus one should learn to see beyond perceptions and discover reality to understand play of various vested interests. Blaming religion for all these conflicts would be more deceptive and would only serve vested interests. Religion, in the conflict torn modern world, can become a seminal resource for peace, if understood in proper perspective. Religion would liberate us if we liberate it from clutches of vested interests.


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