By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam
14 August, 2014
At the centre where I work, we have a wonderful way of beginning our day: with a short devotion, which anyone from among us can lead. We have people from different faith backgrounds in our team, and so our morning devotion is a wonderful way for us to get to learn a bit about different religions.
Today’s devotion was led by a student—a graduate from a Christian seminary from northeastern India. He’s been at our centre for a little more than a month now. This is the first time for him to be able to live among and interact closely with people of different faith backgrounds. This experience was what he reflected on this morning.
‘Living with Muslims and Hindus, in just a month I’ve learned as well as unlearned so much!’ he explained. ‘I don’t say that reading about interfaith dialogue and participating in seminars about it is useless. Before coming here, I did a lot of that,’ he commented. ‘But it’s only when you live with people of other faiths for an extended period of time that you can begin to really understand them—as fellow human beings, with the same joys and sorrows and fears and hopes as yourself. Only then can you begin to appreciate and, yes, even love, them. Only then can the walls of separation between the communities begin to crumble, as has happened with myself!’
‘In this one month, I’ve met and made friends with many Hindus and Muslims’, he went on. ‘It’s amazing how in such a short time I’ve begun to discover and appreciate the abundant goodness in these people, and in their religions, too. There’s really nothing like interfaith living together and personal friendships as a means to build bridges between people of different faiths!’
The young man made another very pertinent observation: ‘It’s easy to glibly sermonize about how our religions insist that we must love and accept our neighbours irrespective of religion. But that sort of love I think is possible only at a later stage. Generally speaking, you can begin to love and truly care for someone only if you have established at least some common interest with that person. This holds true at the inter-community level, too.’
‘You really can’t have much love and harmony between different communities if the members of these communities lack issues of common concern or interest,’ he explained. ‘And so, one first needs to explore such areas of possible common interest—issues of common concern to the different communities, such as, say, environmental pollution or poverty or crime or consumerism, Godlessness and irreligiousness or the breakdown of the institution of the family, issues that affect all communities. Then, one can go about encouraging people from the different communities to work together on these common issues. The interaction and shared living that happens in the course of working with each other on issues of common concern would itself engender close bonds of friendship between people of different faith backgrounds. That’s the most effective solvent of communal prejudices and stereotypes that I can think of!’
Having attended numerous interfaith conferences over the past two decades and read several dozen books on inter-community harmony, I couldn’t agree more with what the young man said. While I don’t discount the importance of ‘academic’ work on interfaith dialogue, nor the value of advocating it from the pulpits of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, I’ve realized that no amount of preaching dialogue or theologizing about it can take the place of plain and simple cross-religious friendships—as this young man discovered from his own experience of living for just about a month with people from different religious backgrounds!