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Interfaith Dialogue

There are certain challenges that, despite our various differences, are common to almost all religions, and consequently to all liberal religious leaders. They fall into two main categories:

The first is of that of secularisation. It’s a process that is seriously eroding religious communities, and, of course, has also significant economic consequences. For when there is a shrinking of the community, its economic resources are affected. The second category is at the opposite end of the spectrum, encompassing extremism and fundamentalism, often accompanied by violence. And, of course, this phenomenon can also lead to a degree of disaffection on the part of certain sectors of the community, again adding to the decline in membership of religious congregations. -- Daniel Sperber

Here in India, welcoming Lakshmi with 'Bismillah'
Mohammed Wajihuddin and Insiya Amir

Is this an elastic quality unique to Indian Islam? Perhaps. It is certainly true that Indian Muslims, through centuries of interaction with India's dominant religion, Hinduism, have adopted several Hindu customs and traditions.

Weddings are a case in point. A qazi solemnizes the nikah, ritually recites Quranic verses and delivers, post-nikah, the khutba or sermon. Ideally, a Muslim wedding ends there. Not in India. Elaborate pre-nuptial ceremonies including haldi and mehndi, and post-wedding song and dance of late, feature in Muslim weddings, much like for Hindus.

The Quran does not recommend offering lavish food to wedding guests but Indian Muslims are often seen to outdo their Hindu neighbours in serving up multi-course feasts. Some little time ago, Muslim clerics in Hyderabad threatened to boycott weddings if more than one variety of biryani was served up.

"Celebrating marriage with a feast is not an Islamic ritual. It has reached Muslims from the Hindu custom of bhoj. But now it is part of Indian Muslim custom too," explains Mumbai-based social commentator Zaheer Ali who has written extensively on India's Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb or composite culture. -- Mohammed Wajihuddin and Insiya Amir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The transformation of what, for want of a better term, can be called 'Hinduism' into an openly and self-consciously missionary religion is one of the most significant developments in South Asian religious history. Today, several Hindu groups are active, not just in India but elsewhere as well, to bring others into the Hindu fold. These are no mere fringe groups any longer. In fact, one of the major groups behind the rise of aggressive Hindu nationalism in India today is styled the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (The World Hindu Council), one of whose stated goals is actually to convert the world as a whole to Hinduism. This transformation of the fundamental character of Hinduism over the years, which owes much to the shuddhi campaign of the Arya Samaj in the early decades of the present century, is not simply of significance to Hindus and Hinduism alone. Rather, since Hindu missionary activity as well as Hindu religious nationalism has, traditionally, been sought to be built up on the foundation of a profound antipathy of Islam and its adherents, it has had tremendous consequences of Muslim public behavior in South Asia and, indeed, as in the case of the Tablighi Jami'at, for Muslim communities in other parts of the world as well. -- Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com

This not only explains the lack of interest and enthusiasm shown by many Muslim kings during the several centuries of Muslim rule in India, as well as sections of the ulema attached to them, to fully and properly Islamise the nau-Muslims but also, as one writer observes, the marked reluctance on the part of several Muslim rulers to even encourage Hindus to convert to Islam. The fear that if many Hindus were to convert to Islam not only might they put forward a claim to equal treatment as fellow Muslims but, over time, might even compete with them for political power, seems, for some Muslim rulers, to have outweighed the attraction of earning religious merit in the after-life for spreading Islam.

As a result of this very partial Islamization of what, for want of a better term, can be called neo-Muslim groups (Urdu: nau Muslim aqwam) the practice of local customs not sanctioned by the sharia or Islamic law was widespread, but this did not appear as a problem that demanded immediate solution on the part of both the political authorities as well as the nau-Muslims themselves. So pervasive was this admixture of local and Islamic practices that as late as the fourth decade of the 20th century, a leading spokesman of the Islamic reformist party Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Punjab was provoked to cry out in great anguish that: “If a Muslim of the first century of the hijra were again sent down to this earth to see the state of religious affairs in India, he would at once say that eighty per cent of the Mohammadans inhabiting India are kafirs and that they have adopted the name 'Muslim' only to gain their political ends. Otherwise, there is absolutely no difference between the Hindus and the so-called Muslims.” -- Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com

 

It is true that cultural conflicts are increasing and are more dangerous today than at any time in history. Yet the fundamental reason for the turmoil and tension in the world is the absence of a just economic order. Ruthless exploitation by subjecting weak countries to colonialism, neo-colonialism and globalisation has brought the world to the present pass. Despite all scientific achievements, more than one-fourth of humanity is confronted with deprivation, hunger, disease and illiteracy. We find ourselves in a paradoxical situation — the paradox of misery in the midst of plenty. However, the artificial world order is collapsing, and this is the period of history when values undergo a fundamental shift. This happened in the Hellenic period when from the ruins of the classical world the Middle Ages were born. It happened also during the Renaissance, which opened the way to the modern era. The distinguishing features of such traditional periods are a mixing and blending of cultures, and of course in the process consistent value systems collapse. -- Mohammad Jamil

 
Shariah: Between Two Popes
Dr. Sherman A. Jackson

While it started out as a minor footnote, opposition tosharî’ah has now morphed into the mantra by which many justify their opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” If we allow this mosque to go forth, so the logic goes, the next thing you know, all the bars in the country will be shut down (and those infidel lushes flogged!), all the women will be draped in sheets, and Muhammad will replace Jacob as the most popular name in America. Allahu akbar! -- Dr. Sherman Jackson

The impression of Islam and the Muslims on Gandhi started at a very early age. "He was born," says Sheila Mcdonough, a renowned authority on comparative religion, "into that part of India (the coast of Malabar) where the geography situates Hindus to reach out and experience contact with others. To be a child beside the sea is already to know that a mysterious beyond beckons. The Muslims had been in Gujarat for centuries as traders. In his childhood, Gandhi knew them as representatives of those who came and went to other places beyond the seas.

In his own words: "You must know how to restrain your anger, if you desire to maintain non-violence in action for any length of time. Hazrat Ali, the hero of Islam, was once spat upon by an adversary; and it is my conviction that if he had not restrained his anger at the time, Islam would not have maintained its unbroken career of progress up to the present time." Gandhi also paid eloquent tribute to the incomparable sacrifice made by Imams Hassan and Hussain (RA).

The glorious example of Imam Hussain (RA), the grandson of the holy Prophet of Islam (pbuh), who suffered martyrdom at the hands of a cruel and hostile state, is equated by Gandhi with tapascharya, the Hindu belief in the power of suffering to transform consciousness: "All religions in the world are thus strict in regard to pledges ... Even if only a few among you take the pledge, we shall have reward through them. Muslim students have before them the example of Imams Hassan and Hussain. Islam has not been kept alive by the sword, but by the many fakirs with a high sense of honour whom it has produced ... I have nothing to give you in the way of excitement ... I want to give you quiet courage. I want you to have hearts pure enough for self-sacrifice, for tapascharya."

Gandhi believed that what he called "the Sufi aspect of Islam" taught patience and self-discipline, which Indian Muslims should learn to practice and the bhakti forms of Hinduism preached egalitarianism, which Hindus should learn to understand in its true spirit. He firmly believed that the Holy Qur'an stresses mercy and patience as essential human virtues. He refused to believe that irrational violence was a particular characteristic of the Muslims or the Hindus. He always interpreted irrational Muslim violence as corrupt understanding of Islam, as Hindu violence was equally a corrupt understanding of Hinduism. No wonder Gandhi was cut to the quick when a terrible communal riot broke out in Calcutta on August 16, 1946. In the next few years, mutual killing and destruction continued among Hindus and Muslims in many parts of the country. There were attacks on Hindu villages by Muslims in Noakhali and similar outbursts of violence against Muslim villages by Hindus in Bihar. The grief-stricken Bapu lamented: "We represented in India (the undivided India) all the principal religions of the earth, and it is a matter of deep humiliation to confess that we are a house divided against itself; that we Hindus and Muslims are flying at one another."--Syed Ashraf Ali

 

Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative is one of America’s leading thinkers of Sufism which, in terms of goals and outlook, couldn’t be farther from the violent Wahhabism of the jihadists. His videos and sermons preach love, the remembrance of God (or “zikr”) and reconciliation. His slightly New Agey rhetoric makes him sound, for better or worse, like a Muslim Deepak Chopra. But in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, he is an infidel-loving, grave-worshipping apostate. For such moderate, pluralistic Sufi imams are the front line against the most violent forms of Islam. In the most radical parts of the Muslim world, Sufi leaders risk their lives for their tolerant beliefs, every bit as bravely as American troops on the ground in Baghdad and Kabul do. Sufism is the most pluralistic incarnation of Islam — accessible to the learned and the ignorant, the faithful and non-believers — and is thus a uniquely valuable bridge between East and West. -- William Dalrymple

The irony is that Palin and Gingrich do not represent the idealism and philosophy of America, a nation that is liberal, open, democratic and secular. Gingrich is a false American; Palin is a falsetto American.

The true American patriot is Michael Rubens Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, who has supported the idea of a mosque. I use his full name deliberately: he is of the Jewish faith, from a family of Russian émigrés. Bloomberg reflects the idealism of America as well as the anguish and wisdom of his own heritage, of a people who have suffered the trauma of bigotry and threat of extinction for two millennia. He knows prejudice when he sees it; he understands the poison it injects into the human psyche; and he is willing to set aside the prospect of political advantage from hysteria in order to stand on the side of justice. -- M.J. Akbar

Is this not what some neo-Hindu groups such as the Arya Samaj also claim? I asked the swami. ‘The Arya Samaj does talk of monotheism, and opposes idolatry’, he answered, ‘but its founder, Dayanand Saraswati, was vehemently opposed to Islam and Muslims.’ ‘On the other hand,’ he explained, ‘our approach is based on love and unity, seeking to bring Hindus and Muslims together and to assert the claim that a true Sanatani is actually also a true Muslim, in the real sense of the term as someone who has truly submitted to God.’ -- Yoginder Sikand

I ask Yugal-ji to tell me his views about the Babri Masjid controversy that continues to rankle unsolved. ‘It was a mosque, no doubt,’ he insists. ‘There was no temple on the spot before. Indeed, Ram was not even worshipped in ancient times, the cult of Ram being a relatively new invention. So, there’s no question at all of the Mughal king Babar having destroyed a Ram temple and building a mosque in its place.’ Yugal-ji continues, ‘No one knows if Ram was ever born, or even if he was a historical figure at all. The Puranas claim he was born nine lakh years ago or so, but of course no recorded history exists from that period.’ But that is not all, he says. ‘As far as the Shudras, who form eighty per cent of India ’s population, are concerned, Ram is simply unworthy of worship. He worked to uphold the Brahminical social order and the degradation of the oppressed castes, though Brahmins and other so-called ‘upper’ castes, which live off the sweat and blood of the Shudras, might believe him to be divine.

I am eager to learn what Yugal-ji believes to be the cure to the curse of communalism. ‘Ultimately’, he insists, ‘the only lasting solution is for human beings to identify themselves as just that—simply as humans. As long as we continue to regard ourselves as Hindus or Muslims or whatever, the menace of communalism can never be cured. We have to move towards a stage when identities are no longer premised or bracketed with religion. Our only identities should be that of being human. The final antidote to communalism is humanism’-- Rakesh Kumar

Launched in 2005 by former UN chief Kofi Annan and the prime ministers of Spain and Turkey, the forum began with the aim of creating a comprehensive coalition which would focus on promoting the peaceful coexistence between diverse groups. Its target has since evolved to one designed to sweep aside misunderstandings and prejudices between cultures while defusing tensions between the Western and the Islamic world.

"Two contradictory narratives of truth": the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is central to West-Islam relations, but it is not on the agenda at the 3rd AoC meeting.The third Alliance of Civilizations forum was held from 27-29 May in Rio de Janeiro at a time when military confrontations taking place in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories keep armed ideological struggles in the headlines and societal issues based on religion and culture dominate the political discourse in France and other parts of Europe. -- Nick Amies

Atzmon is a former Israeli soldier who now lives in London. He is not only a renowned author and writer but also a famous award-winning jazz musician. Described as a musical genius he has recorded with the likes of Robbie Williams, Sinead O Connor, Robert Wyatt Paul McCartney, Tunisian singer Dhaffer Youssef and countless others.

With a strong presence on and off stage and a disarming smile, Atzmon has a huge following not only for his music but for being a unique thinker and philosopher.

Admired for his fearless stance against oppression, he is also at the forefront of a taboo discourse that many will not venture into out of fear of being branded anti-Semite; and that is the discourse on the Jewish identity, Zionism and Israel. -- Shabana Syed

Photo: Gilad Atzmon

 

After the most disgusting legislation of 1974, when Bhutto declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims and then the shameful Ordinance passed by General Zia ul Haq in 1984, the wife of the first Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, had this to say as reported in the Daily Dawn, Karachi, July 10th 1985:

“During the past one year, Newspapers have reported murders of Ahmadi notables in mysterious circumstances. More recently, hundreds of arrests have been made of members of this peace loving Community. Those arrested have been reportedly subjected to physical torture, while the charge against them is usually that of wearing Kalima Tayabba badges. This situation deserves to be condemned forthrightly without any reservations. It is known history that while the Ahmadiyya Community supported the cause of Pakistan, most of Mullah Community, their present persecutors, opposed the creation of Pakistan tooth and nail. The two great Quaids, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan, appreciated the contribution of Ahmadis towards the Muslim cause and recognised it by appointing Chaudhry Muhammad Zafrullah Khan as the first Foreign Minister of Pakistan. In those great days, Pakistan had not been reduced to a theocratic State, and not only Muslims, regardless of the auxiliary beliefs, but even Hindus, were given Cabinet posts. The rights of minorities and small groups were not paid just lip service, but were protected with deliberate effort.” (Daily Dawn, Karachi, July 10th 1985) -- Dr. Iftikhar Ayaz

Aarti after azaan
Akhilesh Kumar Singh

"Puja and namaz go side by side in our homes,'' says Chand Bhai. "You may say we are both Hindu and Muslim." The pradhan of Kharkheri, he says that while he and his wife solemnized their wedding after saat pheras around the holy fire, daughter Shakina had a nikaah. "The matter of faith is left to individuals,'' quips Nainu Khan, a retired soldier. "Whether one goes to the mosque or visits the temple is his or her decision. Most of us can recite the aayats of Koran as fluently as the Hanuman Chalisa. We celebrate Holi and Diwali as fervently as we observe Ramzan and Eid.''

Interestingly, no one knows how this came to be, or when. These practices, they say, have been followed by their ancestors down the ages and they intend to keep them alive. There are just three rituals of Islam that the Cheeta-Meharats have to compulsorily follow - sunnat (circumcision), dafan (burial) and eating halal meat. "These practices are a must for all members of the community, the rest is left to individual discretion," says Rustam Cheeta, a representative of the Cheeta-Meharat Mahasabha. -- Akhilesh Kumar Singh

Photo: TOGETHER IN PRAYER: Puja or namaaz, the choice is left to the individual

While studying abroad in the French city of Strasbourg in 2007, I decided to grow a bushy beard. Little did I know that in France, only traditional Jewish and Muslim men don anything but the most finely trimmed mustache or goatee. Since I did not wear a yarmulke or other head covering, people who saw me on the street assumed that I was Muslim. I felt that police officers and passersby treated me with suspicion, and even on the crowded rush hour bus, few chose to sit next to me if they could avoid it. On one occasion someone followed me home and tried to start a fight, only to find that I was a bewildered American, not a French Muslim. – Joshua Stanton

Muslims and Jews squabble over Jerusalem, making a mockery of the very reason why the city originally gained religious significance for both communities. It was here that their common ancestor, Abraham, showed that true faith calls for sacrifice. Today, they only need to be true to their faiths to live in peace….

If Muslims and Jews truly respect Jerusalem, they would respect what it originally stood for for both of them — sacrifice. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved son for his love of god, so would they be willing to give up their claims on Jerusalem for their love of god and his children. In renouncing their temporal rights, they would have truly claimed the city’s spiritual legacy.

The same spirit of sacrifice would lead them to be willing to concede rather than demand more land, relinquish their own rights rather than appropriate what belongs to others. This was the message their common ancestor once relayed to them — they only need to listen to him to end their conflict and live in peace. -- Saif Shahin

 

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - As Mahnaz Shabbir thought about a coming flight, she grew worried about the full-body scanners used at some airports. Kansas City International Airport will be one of 11 airports getting body scanners by this summer, federal authorities announced last week. The scanner coming to KCI would be installed at a security checkpoint serving Southwest Airlines.  Shabbir is concerned that the scanners might compromise the modesty teachings in Islam. Other religious groups, such as Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians, express similar views. The question is whether religious teachings on modesty will be trampled in the march toward better security. -- Helen T. Gray

Photo: A full body scanning in progress at a US airport.

Towards Meaningful Interfaith Dialogues
Dr Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid
Towards Meaningful Interfaith Dialogues
Datuk Dr Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid

In a world torn by ideologies and quest for supremacy in all domains, there are bands of good people everywhere who work quietly to promote understanding, religious integrity, unity, integration, peace and harmony. They interconnect respectfully, with humility, commitment, empathy and hospitality.....

 

At the Dar al Iftaa, Egypt's supreme body for Islamic legal edicts over which I preside, we wrestle constantly with the issue of applying Islam to the modern world. We issue thousands of fatwas or authoritative legal edicts—for example affirming the right of women to dignity, education and employment, and to hold political office, and condemning violence against them. We have upheld the right of freedom of conscience, and of freedom of expression within the bounds of common decency. We have promoted the common ground that exists between Islam, Christianity and Judaism. We have underscored that governance must be based on justice and popular sovereignty. We are committed to human liberty within the bounds of Islamic law. Nonetheless, we must make more tangible progress on these and other issues. Sheikh Ali Gomaa

 

Today, many ideological struggles continue to divide the world. However, the major ideological conflict is not between religions, but between people who believe in truth, in God's existence and in the need for cooperation, on the one hand, and on the other hand, people who deny truth, who deny holiness: – the unbelievers … This will be done by forming an alliance of all conscientious people, namely, the righteous among Christians and Muslims, along with devout Jews, who will come together and unite in this common cause.  -- Joel Richardson

 

Interview: Chandra Muzaffar on Islamic Reform and Liberation Theology

As for inter-faith dialogue, I, as a Muslim, believe that there is much that Muslims need to set in order before they can genuinely dialogue with people of other faiths. Certain deep-rooted, traditionally-held notions, shared by millions of Muslims, must be recognized as being gravely inimical to genuine inter-faith dialogue, such as common assumptions about terms such as kafir and jihad, the alleged ‘impurity’ of non-Muslims, the notion of Muslim supremacism and the belief that all non-Muslims are ‘enemies of God’ or are doomed to perdition in hell. We need to revise our understandings of these issues if we are at all to be able to proceed with the task of inter-religious dialogue and solidarity. Many of these understandings emerged after the demise of the Prophet, at a time of Muslim political expansionism. These were later reinforced in the face of Muslim political losses and traumas in the wake of the Mongol onslaught, the Crusades, and, then, European colonialism, and, now, Western, particularly American, imperialism. We need to re-evaluate our views on these matters, and bring them in line with proper Quranic understandings, which I believe to be just and egalitarian. -- Chandra Muzaffar, Malaysia’s best-known public intellectual, tells academic Yoginder Sikand

The Wandering Jew, like Cain, is Everyman. We are what we will to be: Cain or Abel, with a soul or without one, sympathetic to our fellows or indifferent, human or non-human. That is the metaphor of Melville’s Ahab, of Marlowe’s Faust, of Conrad’s Kurtz, of Hawthorne’s Doctor Rappaccini, of Bunyan’s Demas; it is the conflict inherent in everyman that has intrigued writers from the beginning of time, the chasm of duality that walks the earth, the body and the spirit, selfishness or selflessness, the ego dominant over all regardless of the consequences, the self inflicted wound that separates soul from body, and in that identity declares that he has attained the greatest good, to be not human, the ultimate loss of identity. Emptiness, mad. 

Every civilization has had its Cain, its Ahab, its Wandering Jew. The image of Olmert laughing while the mother digs through the rubble of her home captures the cold-hearted man responsible for that death, that Mother’s pain, that instance that mirrors thousands of others piled high in Gaza, but it fails to capture the reality of the metaphor that has to encompass the devastation wrought in the name of Israel that stains the very soul of Judaism. -- -- William Cook

The idea that not talking is a good strategy is based on four myths, all of which are deeply flawed.

Myth #1: The Composite Dialogue benefits Pakistan and is bad for India.

Myth #2: Stopping the composite dialogue will protect India from further terrorist attacks.

Myth #3: Stopping the Composite Dialogue helps India put pressure on Pakistan to take action against terrorism.

Myth #4: Pakistan has “not done anything” to bring the perpetrators of Mumbai to book. -- Siddharth Varadarajan

 
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