New Age Islam
Fri Jun 14 2024, 06:14 PM

Interfaith Dialogue ( 17 Apr 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

Totally Present to the Other: The Dialogical Legacy of Paul Jackson




By Victor Edwin SJ, New Age Islam

17 April, 2015



In this paper I would like to reflect on his dialogical method in the light of his course on Islam for the students of Regional theology Centre at Danapur and later in Khaspur. Jackson conducted this particular course for 26 years from 1983.

I propose to illustrate that totally present to the other is at the heart of the dialogical legacy of Paul Jackson. Jackson discovered this in his pilgrimage into the writings of Sufi Saint Sharafuddin Maneri, and into the lives of many theologically thinking and spiritually vibrant Muslim friends. He endeavoured to create an ambiance for his students to learn something similar to what he has learnt from the context of Muslims of Bihar.

In the first section of the essay I will highlight some of the graced moments of his life as the Lord steered him into the mission of dialogue with Muslims. In the second section I will relate how his students experienced a sort of transformation of heart that opened them to deeper dialogical relations with Muslims. When you are totally present to the other, your heart is transformed. The transformed heart opens one to discover the beliefs of the other without ever losing one's faith convictions. This experience leads the practitioners of dialogue to discover the Spirit of God at work in one another and thus motivates them to work for the dignity of all.  Thus this part will highlight how Jackson's module of 'Experience of Islam' contributed to the contextual theological formation of the students of RTC, Patna.

Section 1

A – Paul Jackson: The Man and His Mission

Paul Jackson is from Brisbane, Australia. He is now a naturalised Indian. He joined the Society of Jesus in Melbourne in 1956. At the end of 1960, he arrived in India. On arrival he was sent to work in St. Xavier’s English Medium School in Hazaribag. There he had to teach and also supervise 450 boys in various hostels. As an educator in St Xavier's, something hurt him badly as he was expected not to talk to the boys about Jesus. He wondered and asked himself: what was the whole purpose of coming to India? Was it not to tell people about Jesus?

December 1963 was a turning point in his apostolic life. He listened to a lecture of Fr. Putz SJ, at St Xavier's College, Calcutta, who commented upon what Pope John XXIII had told the bishops gathered for Vatican II. The Pope considered the Church after the Council of Trent to be like a fortress on a hilltop defending itself. He went on to say that this was not his idea of the Church. It should open all its doors and windows and reach out to all groups of people. The lesson was that the Church, by its vocation, should reach out to all people in love and esteem. Jackson realised that in his Hazaribag Region no one was reaching out to – the Muslims. So he said to himself: “Let me reach out to Muslims!” That turned out to be the pivotal moment of his life.

Doing Something for Muslims

He began his preparatory studies in Indian History and Urdu. While studying history in Jamia Millia Islamia and Urdu in Delhi University, he was invited to attend an International Seminar in Delhi on Baba Farid, a famous early Chisti Sufi. During the seminar he met Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Sikh scholars who participated. He recognised that Sufis bring people together. He felt inspired to study the life and teachings of a Sufi. After consulting a number of scholars in the field he decided to study the life and teachings of Sufi saint Sharafuddin Maneri. Jackson learnt Persian and acquired needed skills to engage in this task. The fruit of his labour of love was his theis, The Life and Teaching of a Fourteenth-Century Sufi Saint: Sharafuddin Maneri. The thesis was examined by Annemarie Schimmel, a world-famous scholar of Sufism from Harvard University; K.A.Nizami, the leading Indian scholar of Sufism, from Aligarh Muslim University; and Syed Hasan Askari, the acknowledged expert of Sufism in Bihar. 

1P. Jackson, “The Dialogue of Religious Experience” [Lecture, Jesuits Among Muslims Meeting, Delhi, April 5, 2013].

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

One cannot but appreciate the ways in which God guides one into the mission of His Son. Saint Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises likens God's guidance of a seeker to what a school teacher does in leading the students by hand. Just overlooking from the Vidyajyoti College into the Preparatory School of St Xavier's, one will often find school teachers leading little kids by hand! It is so much consoling to feel that God too deals with each one of us in such an affectionate and compassionate way!  Jackson's story of his pilgrimage into the spiritual alleys of Islam is one such beautiful narrative.

B – Jackson: The Scholar

Jackson, as an eminent scholar on South Asian Sufism, has made a huge contribution to Christian-Muslim relations in India as the President of Islamic Studies Association (ISA) and editor of Salaam, the journal of ISA. He has written widely on Sufism particularly on the spirituality of Sufi saint Sharafuddin Maneri in a number of academic and spiritual journals. His translation of Maneri's letters: 'The Hundred Letters and Notes' was published by SPCK, London within the series 'The Classics of Western Spirituality'. The volume 'The Muslims of India: Beliefs and Practices' that he edited is a valuable and precious hand book for generation of students in the many seminaries in Asia and elsewhere.

Father Mark Raper SJ, a former provincial of the Society of Jesus in Australia formally praised Jackson's commitment to the mission of understanding and communicating the core message of Sufi spirituality, his readiness to enter into the heart of the spirituality of Sufi saint Sharafuddin Maneri and for bringing the treasures of this great personality to a wider audience through the translations of his works, his efforts to open up the spirit of Islam to the whole world, his effectively using discernment as an apostolic instrument and applying it to everyday encounters between Muslims and Christians, his engagement with Muslims and Christians both at intellectual level and at the level of the heart and for inspiring the younger generation to take up the mission of interreligious dialogue.

 M. Raper, “Foreword 2” in Journeying Together in Faith: A Collection Of Inner Pilgrimages in Honour of Jesuit Father Paul Jackson eds. V. Edwin and E. Daly [Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 2008], 17.

Section II – Paul Jackson's Experience of Islam

Methodological considerations

The methodology of doing theology at Regional Theology Centre is eminently contextual. The religious texts are studied through the optic of the poor, the marginalised and the minorities. Thus the struggles and aspirations of the poor provide the framework for doing theology. These contextual reflections are remarkably theological since peoples' issues are analysed and understood from the optic of God. Both the optic of God and the optic of the poor determine doing theology in this regional theology centre.

Jackson's course on 'Experience of Islam' is unique for its methodological considerations. He designed his module to help students to understand, appreciate, and respect Muslims and their beliefs. He inspired his students while they take this module to experience (Muslim life), explore (commonalities and differences) and thus dialogue (for mutual understanding and for working together for common good) with Muslims.

This module is aimed at helping Christian students to gently dispose themselves to Muslims and learn from them by being fully present to them. Such gentle disposition towards Muslims has brought about a new way of looking and dealing with Muslims. This experience-based learning challenged the prevailing prejudices against Muslims in the minds of students and opened their hearts and minds to enter into dialogical journey with Muslims as co-pilgrims. In this journey students learned to appreciate theological differences and discover common grounds for further dialogical efforts. 

Moreover, Jackson's method is contextual since his method is firmly based on the principle and foundation: know Islam by knowing Muslims. The students of RTC became familiar with the beliefs and practices of Indian Muslims from their interaction with Muslims of different walks of life. Their conversations with Muslims in the religious schools and in the Muslim shrines touched and transformed their heart and opened their minds to know Muslims in profound ways much beyond the run of the mill stories that are often fed by the media. Their experience was personal and deep. In the light of their experiences they read and deepened the teachings of the Catholic Church that are found especially in the Vatican II documents Nostra Aetate (NA., no. 2), Ad Gentes (AG - 9), Gaudium et Spes (GS - 16) and Lumen Gentium (LG - 8). Thus their learning was theologically contextual and contextually theological. In other words, context shapes their theology and theology impacts their way of understanding the context. 

Preparation of the Course

In 1983 when the Patna Jesuits established their Regional Theology Centre (RTC) at Danapur, the Dean asked him to give a course in Islam to the first year theology students. He was given a mandate that the course should be based on an exposure program.  The students were sent to different towns with important Muslim population and institutions. Over the years students have been sent to Bihar Sharif, Patna City, Darbhanga, Muzaffarpur, Sitamarhi, Siwan, Ara, Munger, Bhagalpur, Nawada, Masaurhi, Aurangabad, Gaya, and Phulwari Sharif. He writes:

Preparation from my side involved visiting the town where the students were due to be sent. [...] My task has been to go to these towns and, first of all, secure accommodation for the students. Normally they stay at the parish. This helps as a means of involving the priests.  [...] The ideal is for the students to meet people from various classes of Muslim society. Hence the first call is made to any important madrasas in the town.  All the towns chosen have madrasas.  I ask to speak to the Principal.  When we meet I introduce myself. Am a Christian priest and belong to a religious order called the Society of Jesus.  The next step is to tell them about my years of research at the Khuda Bakhsh Library in Patna on Bihar's greatest Muslim saint, Sharafuddin Maneri. While some people have heard of me, all have heard of Maneri, popularly known as 'Makhdum Sahib'. After a brief discussion I then inquire if it would be possible to send two young men who are studying to become Christian priests in order to learn about Islam. After seeking some clarifications they agree. I then tell them when they are coming, usually in a week or two's time. It is worth stressing that my work on Maneri is like a key that opens Muslim doors in Bihar.


P. Jackson, interview by author, March 14, 2013.

Seek Clarification ... No Arguments

Then Jackson would meet students who are doing the course with him and have a session with them for instructions with regard to the program. These instructions were: first, practical guidelines to reach the town where they are missioned, where do they stay, whom to meet; secondly, general instructions about Muslim etiquettes and meeting Muslims; and thirdly, possible questions that they could ask Muslims as they start their conversation. The students were instructed that after meeting people Jackson had arranged, they should meet a few more Muslims and have conversations. The students should write down every detail of their conversation with Muslims they met. The students should ask questions, seek clarification, agree or disagree with what has been said; but NO ARGUMENTS.  

Sharing After Fruitful Interaction

Students go off to destined towns on Monday and return on Wednesday the following week. It gave them at least eight days of fruitful interaction with Muslims. On their return they are invited to share their experience, the knowledge gained as well as their reflections on their experience. After individual sharing the whole group reflect together on what they have learned from this program.  Then Jackson deals with some issues and questions that have emerged during the sessions. The students write a short paper on their experience and reflections. These discussions are done in the light of the teachings of the Catholic Church on Muslims that are found in the documents of the Vatican Council II and the field experience of the students. Their reflections have been published in Salaam (the Journal of Islamic Studies Association) over the years. 

Most students do feel certain trepidation while they set out to meet Muslims. Some students who have good experience with Muslims do not have any hang-ups to meet Muslims. When they return, their overriding emotion is one of achievement. The hospitality they received at Muslim homes and Muslim institutions lift up their spirit in joy. They joyfully acknowledge the changed learning curve that the exposure brought in their life.

  P. Jackson, "Patna' Exposure to Islam Program," Salaam 27:3:  [October 2006]: 139.

  P. Jackson, "Patna' Exposure to Islam Program," Salaam 27:3:  [October 2006]: 140.

Over 250 students have been involved in these exposure programs over the years. Their information seeking sessions often turned into dialogue sessions. Among numerous testaments of witnesses, here one student explains his transformative experience.

It is a common belief that experiential knowledge leaves a more lasting impression on the human mind than knowledge gained through books or lectures. Experience, by influencing first the heart and only then the mind, changes one's attitude.


At my home in Mangalore, until I was sixteen years of age, I had had no direct experience of a Muslim community.  Brought up on an orthodox Mangalorian Catholic family I was indoctrinated by my parents, relatives and neighbours – practically all Christians – in the traditional approach to other religions.  I was give the impression that Muslim were cruel – only Muslims slaughtered cows in Mangalore – and that they cheat in business and are therefore not to be trusted.  The stories of Tipu Sultan's persecution of Christians and the cunningness and cruelty of some of the Muslim rulers in India –at least the way we were taught, - supported my belief imbibed from my elders at home.


Whether I acquired a lot of knowledge of Islam was not the result that I was   looking for, but I felt close to a community which earlier had hardly any place in my life. This attitudinal change was possible only by this lived experience with Muslims.  I can certainly say that today I can trust Muslim and relate to them as a friend.  Even the arch conservative Maulanas are open to friendship and dialogue.

E. Mendonca, "Five Days with Muslims," Salaam 10:2:  [October 2006]: 69-70.

First, he theoretically acknowledges the transformative power of experience. Secondly, he admits the predominant prejudices that he picked up from others in his early upbringing.  Thirdly, he shares the fruit of his transformative experience. Experience is at the heart of learning and the door that opens up new vistas for much deep dialogue with Muslims.

A number of things should be observed in this methodology. First, the title indicates that 'experience' has a decisive role in this course. A student is exposed to the reality of Islam through the followers of that faith. This experience calls for transformation. As a result what would they say about Islam or Muslims would be from what they have experienced themselves. Experience is an anti-dote to prejudice. Prejudice and bias flourish when ignorance reigns. Learning based on personal experience will remain authentic as well as deep-rooted and convincing. This also opens us new vistas for faith-based reflections with a critical bend of mind. Students learn new ways of relating with Muslims as priests and religious sent by the Church. Secondly, in this 'exposure' the local church has a vital role to play.   The priests, sisters and lay people 'help' the students to meet Muslims in their localities by making initial contacts.

Affirming the invaluable contribution to the intellectual, academic and dialogical formation at RTC, Patna, Jackson's formal provincial Joy Karayampuram wrote "for introducing younger Jesuits into the process of interfaith dialogue, the lived-in experience among Muslims is a much appreciated program for the RTC students at Danapur. It helps us to open our eyes to a great reality of the lives of the ordinary Muslims of the state. I myself benefited from such experience". 

 J. Karayampuram, Journeying Together in Faith: A Collection of Inner Pilgrimages in Honour of Jesuit Father Paul Jackson, 12.

Theological Consideration

Many Christians and Muslims ask: Is serious theological dialogue possible between Christians and Muslims? This question on the heart and lips of many appear to affirm, however, implicitly the impossibility of such dialogue. They seem to hold this position since the followers of both religions differ in many aspects of their faith at the normative and doctrinal level and hence dialogical exchange on theological level is not possible. It would be good to remind one that the Catholic Church encourages her sons and daughters to engage with the people of other religions, especially with Muslims. She advocates a fourfold dialogue with people of other faiths. These four-fold dimensions are as follows: first, 'The dialogue of life', where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations, secondly, 'The dialogue of action in which Christians and others collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people. Thirdly, dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their own spiritual experiences. Finally, 'dialogue of theological exchange, wherein specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other.  The students of RTC who have gone through 'Experience of Islam' would vouch for an experience of dialogical learning to varied degrees within the framework of Dialogue proposed by the Church. Their dialogical efforts are not something of a hobby of an individual, but it is thinking and feeling with the Church in the given context of Muslims of Bihar.

Moreover, as student of Christian theology and a student of Islamic Studies with some experience of interacting with Muslims in the field of Christian – Muslim dialogue I quite certainly recognise that to be present to the other fully or disposing oneself gently towards other or listening to the with a discerned love for him/her, in this case to Muslims, we are in small ways reflecting the love that flows within the Holy Trinity.  We give witness to such abundant love in a little yet concrete ways. In the whole process students learn to listen to their Muslim brothers and sisters as the disciples of Christ.  In listening they give witness to their faith. They share their faith by witnessing to the Spirit of God at work among Muslims in and through their spirituality.

Once I had an opportunity to listen to Prof Michel Bevans SVD. I do not remember where I heard him. But I remember vividly the point he was making. He said that the Mission is to recognize where the Spirit of God is at work and join her in the mission of God that we have come to know historically in the incarnation of the Word.  In other words, dialogue with Muslims of Bihar is an invitation to recognise the Good News in the garb of Islamic Spirituality that was unfolded in and through the life and message of Sufi Saint Maneri.  His life and message impacts the lives of large number of Muslims in Bihar and elsewhere.

Andrei Rublev depicted, in one of his paintings, with rare beauty, the story narrated in Genesis 18:1-15 in his famous icon often referred as "The Hospitality of Abraham". The three angelic figures sit in gentle repose and communion around the table. Their faces are turned in tender loving deference to one another. Many consider that this icon depict the holy Trinity, the divine community of the three coequal divine persons of the Trinity. In another level of interpretation, it could also be pointed out that the divine persons totally present to one another.  Rublev's icon is a great source of inspiration for dialogue with others. This demands total attention to the other with a total concern for the other. This total attention and total concern for Muslims is at the heart of the dialogical method of Jackson.

It is fully appropriate to let Jackson say the final words on his journey with the RTC students. His following words fittingly gather all the fruits in a most suitable way:

It is abundantly clear that this whole process of dialogue requires deep Christian faith, for it is more directly focussed on receiving than on giving. It seems to be the very antithesis of the why and wherefore of the whole thrust of the life of a Christian missionary – to share one's faith experience of Jesus Christ with other.  This is not so.  In actual fact, it is an incredibly liberative experience. It liberates us from the delusion of thinking that ultimately words, of themselves, can produce faith in another person.  Even more startling is the realization that this also applies to our deeds, no matter how noble they may be in themselves, for words and deeds can, in the ultimate analysis, be instruments by which we try to control another person.  In dialogue our focus is on the other person and we strive to be as fully open and present to that person as possible. This conscious effort to be enriched by God as experienced by this other person means that we are looking up to the [that] person as Christ looked up to His Father.  Surely it is the Holy Spirit who produces and sustains such an attitude of heart and mind and fully incorporates it into God's loving, providential plan for the welfare of all?   

A. Hunt, Trinity [Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2005], 5.

P. Jackson, "Christian-Muslim Dialogue in Patna: Past and Present," Salaam 17: 3 [July 1996]: 107. The emphasis is added by the present writer.


In conclusion it should be said Jackson's contextual methodology of introducing Islam and Muslims to his students, is first and foremost concerned about the transformation of the heart of the seeker/student. Apostolic success – success NOT in the worldly terms – is the fruit of the men and women whose hearts are touched and transformed in mission. Their labour of love produces fruits for mission of the Church. Such formation happens fruitfully in a context among real people. RTC Patna opened up for her students a wonderful opportunity, through the concern and expertise of Paul Jackson, to recognise the Spirit of God in the lives of Muslims of Bihar whose lives are in turn touched and transformed by the spirituality of Maneri!