Asghar Ali Engineer

(Secular Perspective June 16-30, 2009)


Inter-faith dialogue is becoming commonplace these days and many organizations are organizing it in view of inter-religious tensions in many countries in the world. USA had not known it earlier or very few organizations were involved but post 9/11 Islam came under attack and tensions between Christians and Muslims increased and so many organizations came into being organizing dialogues.

In India too the decade of eighties saw eruption of communal violence and several major riots took place from Moradabad in beginning of eighties to Bhagalpur to Mumbai until beginning of nineties. Thus Indians also realized the importance of inter-faith dialogue and number of them took place. I must say Indians did not have this tradition and it is Christians who took main initiative and invited Muslims and Hindus to talk to each other.

However, most of the dialogues tend to be at a very superficial level. We often refer to what is best in our tradition completely ignoring what is worst in it and causes thereof. Thus all sides praise their own religious tradition and disperse and the problem continues. One wonders then why conflict takes place at all. Thus like other rituals we also perform one more ritual and feel duty has been done.

First of all inter-faith dialogue has to be much deeper encounter between faiths which must bring out not only good and desirable elements but also problem areas and conflict and how to resolve these problem areas. Inter-faith dialogue should be followed by an attempt to conflict transformation, to make it more useful.

Conflict transformation also needs deeper engagement with the causes of conflict and find ways to resolve it. Inter-faith dialogue per se may be useful but it can become much more so if there is deeper engagement and sincere attempt to understand causes of conflict and resolve it through mutual cooperation.

Inter-religious dialogue needs some strict discipline also. It requires true religious attitude and what is meant by it is accepting truth of all religions. Any sense of superiority about ones own religion, howsoever subtle, defeats very purpose. Sense of superiority has ways to assert itself through our ego, individual as well as collective. One must realize that no religion can ever be based on falsehood though their faith traditions may differ for number of reasons.

Maulana Azad, a great Muslim theologian and commentator of the Qur’an also realized this and maintained, quoting scriptures of all great religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity that core of religion, what he calls Deen is same but what differs is customs, traditions and legal practices what he describes as Shari’ah. These differences, he maintains, are not due to different core teachings but due to origin and manifestations of these religions in different cultures. Thus differences in cultures play greater role than different teachings.

We often miss this point and find in these differences causes of conflict. Also, we are so much lost in rituals that we completely miss spirituality of each faith tradition. A great seer like Ramakrishna realized the commonality of spirituality by practicing all three religions i.e. Hinduism, Christianity and Islam and found no significant difference in their spirituality. Both these great religious thinkers understood the problem at much deeper level and after serious engagement with theologies of these religions.

One should also understand that religion and religious communities are two different entities. Religion remains in theological domain whereas religious communities exist in secular space with secular interests and what conflicts are not religious theologies but secular interests of these communities. Often clash of communal interests are projected as clash of religions or religious theologies.

A good example of this is Huntington’s much discussed book Clash of Civilizations. In fact there is absolutely no clash between civilizations, it is clash between USA and the Arab nations during the Bush regime which was projected by Huntington as clash of civilizations. In India, it is political interests of a section of Hindus and Muslims or Christians which clash and it is often projected as clash between Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.

Also, religion is often misused by vested interests and misuse of religion becomes part of the problem. What is often discussed is politicized religion than religion by itself. There are number of examples of this in history as well as in contemporary world. Crusades are best examples of this. It was no clash between Christianity and Islam but fight for supremacy over Palestine.

Similarly the Ramjanambhoomi-Babri Masjid issue was in no sense a religious issue. It was purely an attempt to politicize a controversy related to a religious place and the right place to resolve this controversy was court of law. The issue was artificially created by the Sangh Parivar in 1948 by installing idols of Ram and Sita with a political project in mind. To fulfill the aim with which these idols were installed inside the mosque at dead of the night, the controversy was raked in late eighties.

As religion is often politicized in contemporary world so it was politicized in history too. And all that became part of religion and now we are unable to separate chafe from grain and what is more unfortunate is that we fight on these issues even in contemporary world. I would like to illustrate with some examples. One such example is the concept of jihad. Some extremist elements among Muslims are grossly misusing it for their own political project.

What is described as jihad by these extremist elements is in no sense a Qur’anic discourse. Jihad meant, as far as the Qur’anic discourse is concerned, nothing more than strenuous efforts to spread good and contain evil. It is in fact intellectual efforts and involves no fight with weapons, though some maintain that it could be the last resort if at all evil takes violent form. The Prophet of Islam himself described jihad as speaking truth in the face of a tyrant ruler and get justice to the oppressed.

However, jihad came to be grossly misused by many Muslim rulers in history for territorial expansion and every fight with non-Muslim rulers on territorial issues came to be construed as jihad. It is important to note that the Prophet (PBUH) himself was forced to fight some battles but he never described them as ‘jihad’. They were described as ghazwa which was the prevalent term in pre-Islamic Arabic also for inter-tribal raids and battles. Of course there were no major wars in pre-Islamic Arabia and violence was limited to inter-tribal fights for which the term ghazwa was used.

Had jihad been a war or battle Prophet (PBUH) would have freely used it as who could then be entitled to use that word jihad than the Prophet himself. But yet the rulers who grabbed power after the period of khilafat (30 years of rule by the prominent companions of the Prophet) called their mutual fights as jihad or any fight with non-Muslim ruler as jihad. And its constant misuse throughout history made it part of Islamic discourse.

Thus today those who are non-state actors fighting Muslim rulers and killing Muslims and non-Muslims from civil society describe it as jihad and those who have no deeper understanding of religious tradition accept it as jihad, many Muslims no exception. It should be abundantly clear to anyone who tries to engage with Islamic history at deeper levels that killing innocent people for political purposes cannot be construed jihad in any sense of the word.

Jihad as such implies only efforts, not weapons and even if it does supposedly imply weapons it cannot be permissible to kill innocent members of civil society. Right from 9/11 until today those who style themselves as jihadis have killed only innocent people. Be it in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq they are killing only Muslims as there are hardly non-Muslims in these countries.

Jihad was never so grossly corrupted as by Al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghan-Pakistan area. To describe these killers as ‘jihadis’ is great insult to the term jihad and I say there can be no greater insult to this noble concept which implies peaceful intellectual efforts for greater good in our conflict torn world. If jihad has to come in its own. However, politicized jihad of today has become a curse for the peaceful world.

It is in this sense that a deeper encounter with our own and other’s religious traditions is necessary and it is in this sense I maintain that superficial dialogues will not help in which we just mention what is best in our tradition completely ignoring what is worse and how it happen to come about. And such deeper encounter should not be restricted to few dialogue circles only.

More and more people should be involved through mass media. Today media has become a part of problem rather than solution. Media hardly takes interest in inter-faith debate. It spreads prejudices about the other rather than enlightening its readers or viewers. Media has not only been commercialized but has also been politicized. There is great need to involve media persons in such deeper encounters so that for media persons religion does not become blind spot. Inter-faith dialogue has to embrace whole society.


Centre for Study of Society and Secularism


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