Religion has several meanings in the minds of people. For theologians it is a set of rituals without performing which one cannot qualify as ‘religious’. For jurists it is set of laws, rules and traditions without following which one cannot said to have fulfilled religious requirements. For philosopher and ideologues its real meaning is in its philosophy and ideology. Any deviation from it attracts the wrath of these ideologues and philosophers.

For many others who are neither theologians or jurists or philosopher and ideologues religion is nothing more than following certain age-old cultural traditions. Any deviation from these traditions attracts the fatwa of being against religion. They hardly know what is written in scriptures or what theologians say about it. For them religion is culture and culture is religion. They keep on following these cultural traditions. For them nothing else matters.

Religions get so integrated with cultures of their origin and later with cultures of societies wherein they spread that it becomes almost impossible to separate them from these cultures. It has happened with all religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, all the major religions of the world. Some other religions like tribal cults or similar other cults, are nothing but their cultural practices and some rituals developed from these practices. There is no philosophy or ideology involved.

Also, religions like Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Confucianism and Taoism etc which do not believe in conversion did not spread to other countries and hence did not acquire cultural practices of other societies and remain based mainly on the culture of their origin. The followers of these religions did migrate, for one or the other reason, to other countries and struggled to keep ‘purity’ of their religio-cultural complex.

We will, therefore, discuss here religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam which believe in conversion or have distinct laws, traditions, philosophy and ideology. Reforming these religions is much more difficult than those which have no such basis. These religions produce their own ideologues, philosopher and jurists and these ‘intellectuals’ generally defend all that they inherit.

What is interesting to note is that these ‘intellectuals’ are basically trained to defend their inherited traditions, philosophies and jurisprudence. They are hardly concerned with the original purpose and rationale behind these traditions. Not only that they try to prove superiority of their traditions which lead to tension between followers of these religions. Apart from this there are other reasons too, like competition for power, misuse of religious identity for personal gains etc. for tension between these religious communities.

Thus religion by itself may not be the real cause of inter-communal tensions but yet it appears to be so to their followers and hence some justify and others blame these religions for these inter-religious conflicts. Very few understand the real causes and those who do, are not ‘credible’ in the eyes of common people.

I would like to elaborate on what I have hinted above about the causes of inter-religious conflict or tension. Apart from other factors listed above there is what can be called vested interests which could be political, social and economic. Religion has been repeatedly misused for political power. Kings, feudal lords and democratic leaders, all have equally and unscrupulously, exploited religions for their own vested interests. They, in order to seize power, use religious sentiments. They appear to be defenders of the faithful though, in fact, they are defending their own power interests.

It is not only political but also economic vested interests are no less unscrupulous in doing so and often create conflict in order to capture land and dispossess followers of other communities. Builders, industrialists and others have done it, especially when religious structures are involved. Ramjanambhoomi-Babri Masjid issue became a crucial issue in this respect. Many riots have taken place to occupy cemetery or other plots of land even by builders.


When we discuss teachings of any religion, first we have to sift it from its cultural baggage which causes great deal of confusion. Either we have to go to original scriptures and when there is doubt about originality of scriptures too, we have to undertake painful research to establish its originality. But we often go by hearsay and believe certain popular myths about religion of others.

For example many non-Muslims believe that Islam teaches to be intolerant towards other religions and provokes its followers to kill kafirs. In fact Qur’an clearly says, Do not abuse those who worship other than Allah, lest they should exceeding the limits abuse Allah without knowledge.” (6:`109).

Not only this, in the same verse Qur’an also says, “Thus to every people have we made the deeds fair-seeming; then to their Lord is their return so He will inform them of what they did (6:109). Both these statements in Qur’an are based on practical logic: if you abuse others gods, they will abuse Allah and all people think their deeds (their rituals, customs, and traditions) are best. How can then you condemn them.

It is very clear statement and yet many non-Muslims and even Muslims believe that those who do not conform to ‘Islamic’ teachings should be killed. It is quite ironical that Muslim ulama, divided into different sects, condemn followers of other sects and not only declare people of other sects as ‘kafirs’ but some extremists among them, even condemn them to killing. And more ironical is that they consider themselves as experts of Qur’an and write copious commentaries. They conveniently ignore such verses and pick and choose such verses (out of context) which apparently serve their purpose.

Then what to speak of opponents of Islam. They gleefully quote these ulama and justify their attack on Islam. There can be different sects in a religion according to different interpretations of Qur’an and hadith but thus far and nothing further. But our Ulama would not stop here and condemn Muslims of other sects as kafirs and even wajib al-qatl i.e. deserving death. Can it be religion? Certainly not, it is outright irreligious and un-Qur’anic approach.

May be it is not possible to kill anyone today but certainly it is possible for them to spend billions of rupees on propaganda and to denounce people of other sects as kafirs and not being Muslims. This propaganda warfare has been going on in the Muslim world today. Qur’an addresses kafirs (i.e. idol worshippers) of Prophet’s (PBUH) days and says “For you is your religion and for me is my religion” (109:6). And here leaders of one sect denounce followers of other sect as kafirs and arrogate to themselves the judgment which is only for Allah to make. (See 6:109)

Religion is also not what those who follow culture as religion, say. Much of our misunderstanding of others religion can be removed if we are able to make distinction between what is cultural and what is religious. Dara Shikoh has shown this convincingly in his book Majm’a al-Bahrayn. Religion and culture both are important but then distinction between the two is equally important to know the religious truth and to increase inter-religious cooperation.

Religion, by its basic nature is transcendent and does not treat given society as perfect but urges upon its followers to bring a perfect society into being by transforming their character and controlling their base desires and purifying their souls and eradicating evil and strengthening what is good. Qur’an calls it ‘amr bi’il marouf wa nahiy ‘an’il munkar i.e. enforcing good and containing evil. Ma’rouf is what is socially acceptable and nahiy is what is considered by community of people as evil. It is true some judgments about what is good and what is evil could be cultural as well. At times there can be some contradictions in cultural practices but then it is for the communities to sort out.

Anyway transcendence is very important quality of religion. A real prophet, rishi or reformer is one whose pronouncements result in such transcendence. Buddha, for example, brought about transcendence in his given society which had become tradition bound and ritual oriented. As explained in the beginning of this essay religion becomes nothing more than a bundle of elaborate rituals and performance of such rituals becomes essential part of religion.

Buddha attacked those rituals and brought about basic transformation in his society. His pronouncements took people from rituals to spiritualism. Values like transformation brought about complete transcendence in his society. Christ, similarly, made his people realize that love and service is far more important than theological debates bereft of values and humane approach.

The Prophet of Islam saw nothing but greed all around and total neglect of justice to the poor and weaker sections of society. Accumulation of wealth had become the ultimate goal of life even if one had to commit gross injustice. Qur’an strongly condemns accumulation of wealth and neglect of poor and weaker sections of society (see 104 and 107). And it was not only justice but compassion also, compassion towards suffering of others. Thus justice, compassion and equality of all human beings are very fundamental values in Qur’an.

If a Muslim is bereft of these values in his life, he is no good Muslim even if he performs all obligatory rituals. These rituals are means and not end in themselves. These rituals have been so designed as to make a person sensitive to suffering humanity and to establish a socio-economic system to ensure realization of these values. However, believers keep on performing the rituals without understanding the ultimate goal.

Compassion is so important that it is one of Allah’s names – Rahman so is justice and Allah’s name is Aadil. Allah, as per Qur’an, is on the side of weaker sections and it is weaker sections (mustad’ifun) who will inherit this earth (see 28:5). Justice cannot be established on earth unless weaker sections are in command. So much is the importance of justice.

All Sufis also maintain that real essence of Sufism is love and service of the people. TheSufis devoted themselves to these causes. Be it Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi, Maulana Rum or Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti or Nizamuddin Awliya or Miya Mir all of them held this view. Maulana Rum maintained his very identity is love. Sufis hold love (of Allah and His creation) in very high regard.

The Sufis hold entire creation of Allah in high esteem and love it all without any discrimination. For Sufis, Allah’s creation is like a vast ocean and life is nothing but a bubble which emerges from this ocean and death is nothing but this bubble (habab) merging back with the ocean. Thus entire creation is of the same stuff and there should be no discrimination.

Again life is like separation from the beloved (Allah) and death is like visal (meeting) back with the beloved. That is why a Sufi’s death is referred to as visal meeting with beloved. Thus life revolves around love and it is love which ensures the unity of entire universe. But for love the entire creation will come crashing down. In yet another simile used by Sufis Allah is beautiful (Jameel) and this creation is His mirror which He created to see His beauty and entire creation is witness to His beauty. In Hindu tradition too Ishwara is described as Sundaram (beautiful) and one should love Him.

It is also important to note that for Sufis Allah is to be loved, not to be feared as theologians maintain. Theologians always exhort us to fear Allah, fear Allah’s wrath and fear His punishment. Sufis, on the other hand exhort us to love Allah, Allah is our beloved and Allah is beautiful. Allah is Rabb or Rabb al-‘Alamin (i.e. One Who always cares for this entire universe and takes it to higher and higher degree of perfection and who will not love such a Being who cares for us so much.

We will be entitled to love Allah when we serve His creation. Thus love and service go together. I cannot love Allah if I bear ill feeling towards His creation instead of serving it. Thus love and service are integral to each other. The Sufis, therefore, respected all creations of their beloved Allah without any distinction or discrimination. Not only that they respected their language and culture too and hence while theologians insisted on using only Arabic and for them Islam became coterminous with Arabic and Arab culture, the Sufis readily took to local languages and local cultures.

It was their love of local culture and language that they profoundly influenced the local people and attracted them towards Islam and its message of equality and human dignity. Also, in order to serve people including the poor and weaker sections of society, they ran what was called in South Asia as langar i.e. serving food to all without any distinction. Food was served throughout the year and was usually financed by the offerings they received. Whatever they received they never kept for themselves but spent it on langar

Many Sufis were so careful that in their langar only vegetarian food was cooked as they were sensitive to the needs of vegetarians. Some of them like Rabi’ah Basri or Hamiduddin Nagodi turned vegetarian themselves. This tradition is carried on till today by Sikh Gurudwaras. In Sikh Gurudwaras they cook only vegetarian food and langar service is available for all 365 days.

Sufis really lived by Qur’anic exhortation of ‘afw i.e. spending for the needy what remains after meeting ones own basic need (see 2:219). Most of the Sufis acted according to this Qur’anic injunction and never saved anything for future. For them service of the people was far more important than their own future security. For this they used two more Qur’anic teachings i.e. sabr and tawakkul i.e. patience and trust in Allah.

For any social change sabr (patience) is very important. One who has no patience cannot bring about any social change as one has to suffer tremendously at the hands of powerful vested interests who oppose any change which takes away their privileges. Tawakkul (trust) is equally important. One who has to suffer should have trust in God that they are doing something for the betterment of society. The Sufis applied this to their Rizq (provisions) also. If they have trust in God, God will provide for them.

However, some Muslims understand this in a very wrong way and think that Allah will provide for them and do not work. This is not the true meaning of this doctrine. One has to work and then have trust in Allah. Sufis had used it in different context altogether. They totally submerged themselves in the love of God and Allah provided for them through his servants who had been provided more and donated to the Sufis who in turn never saved anything for themselves but, after meeting their own needs, gave away surplus to other needy people and had patience and trust that Allah will provide for them.

In fact, in another context this doctrine of patience and trust (sabr and tawakkul) come close to Geeta’s doctrine of action without expectation of fruit as things do not go always as per our planning. This doctrine can work both ways: it can give you strength to keep on making efforts despite no immediate results and it can also paralyze a person’s faculty and give him solace that without efforts Allah will provide for him. No that is not its true meaning. For its true meaning it should be read along with other verse which says “Allah does not change condition of those who do not change it themselves” (13:11)

Both orthodox as well as rationalists have taken very meaning of religion. Religion is not mere rituals or superstitions. Religion is service and love and an active life for betterment of poor world, fighting against evil and our greed. What is life if spent only in making money and accumulating wealth and exploiting others? Active life should mean action for benefit of others.

Much of our woes will vanish if we are able to fight our own greed as every religion prescribes and dedicate ourselves to serving people, specially those who are from weaker sections i.e. poor, needy, widows, orphans and others. It will enrich our lives and provide it with meaning and will give us spiritual joy. Qur’an says “Successful are those who can overcome niggardliness of their soul.”(59:9).Those who only count and accumulate and cannot serve others are most miserable.

A truly religious person spends every moment of her/his life in bettering the lot of others, in bringing joy to others, in enriching others’ life and sacrificing his/her comforts so that others could be happy. Real joy is not in seeking happiness for oneself but for others. And one should provide service to others in an inclusive way i.e. without any thought of caste, creed or ethnic or tribal origins.

Such a service is real service and such a love is real love of our creator.

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