By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan for New Age Islam
28 April, 2015
Q: What do you consider to be the principal teaching of your religious tradition? What has impelled you to serve your religious tradition for much of your life that one can’t simply attribute to the fact of your being connected to it by accident of birth? Is there a central message that is specific to your tradition that you wish to share with the entire humanity because you believe that we can all live in a better world if we pay heed to it?
A: I was born in a Muslim family. My education and my upbringing were on traditional lines, but when I reached maturity I developed doubts. I discovered I was a seeker. I became dissatisfied with the version of Islam that I had experienced in mosques, in madrasas and in Muslim society. It was a very painful period for me. I then decided to study about religion, about philosophy, about spirituality, to discover the answer that would address my nature.
At this juncture, I read some of Swami Vivekananda’s works, including his letters. In one of his letters, Swamiji mentions Islam in very shining words. This kindled my mind. It was one of the factors that helped me re-study Islam.
After a long study of the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad and other relevant literature, I discovered that Islam was my choice, and not something that I believed in by having been born in a Muslim family. So, I’m a Muslim by choice, and here Swami Vivekananda was my benefactor. He gave me a very important clue at a time when I was searching for the Truth.
I am a very rational person. I try to reason out everything. And because of this mindset of mine, I became dissatisfied with the prevailing version of Islam and with the existing Muslim society. But after a long study, I discovered that there is a big difference between Islam, on the one hand, and Muslims, on the other. Before this, I had conflated the two. Later, however, I realized the difference between them.
If you want to know what Islam is, you must distinguish it from Muslims. You have to gauge Muslims in the light of Islamic teachings, and not vice versa.
In the course of my study, I discovered that there are two basic tenets in Islam. Firstly, that man should make God his sole concern. And secondly, that one should have well-wishing for the whole of humankind.
These two are the basic tenets of Islam. And these two, I discovered, addressed my nature. In this I found my Creator. Also, I found the purpose of my life. I understood why I was settled on this planet, why God created me. All these questions were answered.
So, I can say that I am not a Muslim by birth, but by choice, and that Swami Vivekananda is my benefactor. I can say that in this regard Swamiji is my spiritual guru.
Q: In our collective existence, religious affiliation has a dual impact—benevolent and pernicious. No other motive has led to so much bloodshed as religion. At the same time, no other influence has taken such care of humanity and animals as religion has. Nothing makes us so cruel as religion. Nothing makes us as tender as religion.
What is at the root of cruelty in the name of religion towards people whom we don’t perceive to be members of our religious community?
What is the status of the ‘other’ in the philosophy of religion in your tradition? What teachings influence attitudes of your community when they encounter people who derive their religious identity from other sources? Are they seen as people who should be vanquished or converted for their own good? Is it thought that those who don’t convert are doomed or to be confined to a lower level and somehow tolerated?
In other words, is it possible for us to be more inclusive? Can these others be at all accepted as followers of a distinctly different path, yet recognizably a legitimate path?
A: As you know, Muslims generally divide the world between ‘Muslims’ and ‘non-Muslims’, between the ‘Muslim world’ and the ‘non-Muslim world’. This kind of thinking is completely wrong. It is un-Islamic. It has no basis in the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet. If you read the Quran, you will find that it repeatedly uses the phrase Ayyuhal insan, or ‘O man’. This means that terms likedar al-harb or ‘Abode of war’ and dar al-kufr or ‘Abode of disbelief’ that were invented by Muslim scholars or ulema in later times, after the Prophet, are wrong. The right term is dar al-insan or ‘Abode of mankind’. The whole world isdar al-insan.
So, in this world, there is only one equation—and that is between man and God, and not between ‘Muslim’ and ‘non-Muslim’. The true, right equation is between the Creator or God and man. I believe in the oneness of God, and I also believe in the oneness of humankind.
The concept of religious conversion is alien to the Quran. It has no basis in the Quran. The Quran speaks of marifat, which means God-realization. It means discovery of God. So, Truth is your own discovery, your own realization. It’s a personal choice. If you want to know what the purpose of life is, what life and death are about, and so on, you have to reflect. You have to study. You have to discuss. And after that, you may reach some conclusion. And that is your religion. So, your religion is your personal choice.
In religious ‘conversion’, there are two parties: the converter and the converted. But this is not the concept in Islam. In Islam, there is only one party—and that is you. If you want to find the Truth, you have to reflect and study on your own. And when you discover something as Truth, you opt for it.
Now about the question of religious diversity, it is a fact of life that this world is full of differences. Everywhere you have differences—in your family, in your society, and in every religious community, too. So, what is one to do?
A very appropriate answer is given by Swami Vivekananda: follow one, and hate none. This answer is also given in the Quran (109:6), in this way:“You have your religion and I have mine.” As I often stress, follow one religion, and respect all.
This is the only practical solution, the only practical and meaningful way to deal with religious differences. We can’t eliminate differences. Differences are part of life. So, we have to manage differences, instead of trying to eliminate them.
Q: Those who know Swami Vivekananda’s writings are aware that he has pointed out how noble ideas get trivialized by people of sectarian mentality. Swamiji reminded the followers of the different religious traditions to live up to the highest ideals of these traditions.
That leads me to another question. Have you noticed any event, display attitude or institutionalized custom or practice that was, or still is, carried out in the name of your religion that you abhor, because you are convinced that no matter how it has come about, it is surely against the spirit of your tradition. What do you feel should be done to eradicate this attitude, custom or practice?
A: As far as Islam is concerned, I have never found any principle in it that I abhor. But as far as the Muslim community is concerned, I have a number of complaints. For example, almost all present-day Muslims are negative-thinking. I’ve travelled to many countries, including many Muslim-majority ones, and everywhere I found that Muslims are living in negativity. They always complain against other communities. For instance, many of them call America as the ‘enemy number one of Muslims.’ This is completely wrong. I don’t believe in this notion that anyone is our enemy. But if, for the sake of argument, there is indeed an enemy, then what does the Quran say? The Quran (41:34)says: “Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become dearest friend.”
What a revolutionary idea it is, isn’t it! According to this verse, then, there is no enemy. Every human being is either your friend or your potential friend, and in the case of the latter, you need to turn the potential into reality.
So, I completely reject this idea that others are our enemy.
One aspect of this distorted mentality that Muslims have developed is that when you live in negative thinking, you will lose the greatest blessings of God, because all the blessings of God lie in positive thinking. If you are a positive thinker, you will be able to develop your mind. One’s intellectual and spiritual development are based completely on positive thinking. So, the many Muslims who are today living in negative thinking have completely denied themselves of intellectual and spiritual development. This kind of thinking is completely wrong, and I abhor it. Almost all the Muslims today are living in this kind of thinking.
Recently, I participated in a Muslim seminar. There were many Muslim scholars present. And what was the gist of what they were saying? They were arguing that the Indian Muslims are living under siege.
This is completely wrong.
I live in India, and I am glad to be an Indian because I believe in India being the best country for me. I am better off than people living in all the almost 60 Muslim countries. I’ve been to several of these countries, and I can say with conviction that in India I have found more opportunities than in those countries.
If you want to do something constructive, there are two very crucial things that you need. One is peace. The other is freedom. Without both of these, you can’t do any great thing. According to my experience, in Muslim countries you can’t find both of them. You might find one, but not both. But in India, in contrast, I enjoy both peace and freedom.
So, I am always grateful that I was born in India, otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible for me to carry outmy mission of peace and spirituality. I know so many people who were born in Muslim-majority countries. They started missions like mine, and they were gunned down for it. Some others were forced into exile. But in India, I am completely free. There’s no restriction for me.
So, as I was saying, I completely abhor the negative thinking that so many Muslims have fallen prey to. Unless Muslims abandon this kind of thinking, they cannot progress.
Q: When Swami Vivekananda was alive, there were efforts to bring religious traditions together to promote harmony. The culmination of this effort was the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893.
Swamiji was aware that harmony between religions still remains as a goal. He had frankly admitted that this goal hadn’t been reached, because of want of a plan that was practical. He wrote that that plan alone is practical that does not destroy the individuality of a person and that, at the same time, shows him a point of union with others.
In this context, can you indicate a plan of action so that a point of union between diverse religious traditions can be demonstrated as achievable on a collective plane?
What is it that we are not doing, because of which you think diversity leads to dissension, even in our own time when technology has bridged physical distances in an unprecedented manner, giving us the opportunity to know about each other’s religious traditions as much as we want to?
How do we transform ourselves so that in our zeal to emphasize our distinctiveness, we no longer feel the need to overlook the overlaps with others that exist and we recognize our shared, our common, values?
A: Differences are a part of nature. We can’t eliminate them. So, the only option before us is to learn the art of ‘difference management’, instead of trying to wipe out differences.
According to my experience, differences are not an evil at all. In fact, differences are a blessing.
Why, you might ask?
It is because differences create challenges. In turn, challenges lead to discussion. And discussion results in development.
This is the formula of life.
I, for one, always invite differences. I always invite criticism. Why? Because it is criticism and differences through which we can develop our mind and our personality.
This is my experience.
So, what is the solution to the issue of religious differences?
According to Islam, the solution lies in the same formula that I cited earlier—that is, to follow one and respect all.
Here, I’d like to cite a beautiful example from the life of the Prophet Muhammad. When he shifted to Madinah, there were two major religious groups there—Jews and Muslims. So, the Prophet issued a declaration, the Sahifah al-Madinah or the Madinah Declaration. In it, he affirmed his acceptance of the religion of the Muslims for the Muslims and of the Jews for the Jews.
This is the best example of managing religious differences.
Let me cite another example from the life of the Prophet Muhammad.
One day, when he was in Madinah, the Prophet saw a funeral procession pass by. He was seated at that time. Seeing the funeral procession pass by, he stood up, in respect. One of his companions told him that the deceased had been a Jew, not a Muslim. The Prophet replied, alaysatnafsan, which means, ‘Was he not a human being?’
The Prophet was a human being, as was the deceased Jewish person, and so he was pointing to this commonality.
This is the right approach and solution to religious diversity. According to my experience, this is the simplest and most natural formula—to follow one religion, and respect all. I have no hate for anyone. I can live, with total love and compassion, with anyone, no matter what the person’s religious or other ideological beliefs and background. Why? It’s because I recognize, in my mind, in my heart, every person as a creation of the one God. Since everyone is created by God, how can I hate anyone? There’s no difference between us.
This is the only formula for living together in harmony.
(This discussion was held as part of an International Conference organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations on the occasion of the 150thBirth Anniversary of Swami Vivekananda)