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Interfaith Dialogue ( 13 Jan 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Muslims and Inter-Faith Dialogue in India

By Yoginder Sikand,


Hindu-Muslim tensions and conflict continue to plague India, home to perhaps the second largest Muslim population in the world. This rivalry is exhibited in its most ugly way in the form of what is called ‘communal violence’. In many cases, this violence takes the form of horrific anti-Muslim pogroms, in which agencies of the state are directly involved. At root, this violence is a symptom and expression of deep-rooted and very widespread prejudices and hatred for each other that are part of the social commonsense of many Hindus and Muslims. Such prejudices powerfully shape the ways in which vast numbers of Hindus and Muslims understand their respective religions and community identities.

Since Muslims are in a minority in India, and are also relatively economically and socially deprived and politically disempowered, it is obvious that they suffer disproportionately much more as a result of Hindu-Muslim strife than Hindus do. This also means that, objectively speaking, they have a greater stake in promoting inter-faith and inter-community harmony and peace than do the dominant Hindus. This further means that one would expect them to be far more keen on promoting inter-faith and inter-community dialogue than most Hindus would. However, as I will go on to explain, in actual practice, this does not seem to be the case at all. The fact of the matter is that genuine and effective inter-community dialogue initiatives on the part of Muslims are almost non-existent in India. Furthermore, few Muslims are actually engaged in such initiatives that have been launched by people of other faiths. I would like to dwell on in this presentation on some of the many reasons as to why this is so.

The almost complete absence of genuine inter-faith and inter-community dialogue initiatives and involvement among the Indian Muslims has much to do with the nature of the Indian Muslim religious leadership. In 1947, a large proportion of the Muslim landed aristocracy and the modern educated Muslim middle-class migrated to Pakistan, where they hoped to improve their worldly fortunes, free from what they regarded as Hindu competitors. An overwhelming proportion of Muslims who remained behind in India, particularly in the north where they are concentrated, were poor, illiterate and mainly descendants of so-called ‘low’ caste Hindu converts. The leadership of the community thus passed into the hands of the most conservative mullahs, trained in very conservative, indeed obscurantist, madrasas. Many of them, such as an influential section of the Deobandis, were close to the ruling Congress party, and worked closely with this party, ensuring Muslim votes for it in return for the party patronized them as the ‘representatives’ of the Muslims. These mullahs were vociferously against many aspects of modernity, particularly on issues related to women’s empowerment, modern education and genuine inter-faith and intra-Muslim sectarian dialogue. Almost all the outfits that claim to speak for Islam and for the Muslims of India continue to be headed by the mullahs, who jealously guard their privileges as self-appointed spokesmen and representatives of Islam and of all the millions of Muslims of India.

To understand how and why the mullahs, almost without exception, are averse to the idea of genuine inter-faith dialogue, one must understand the madrasa system itself, for it is in the madrasas where the mullahs are trained and from which they derive their authority. All madrasas in India are associated with one or the other rival Muslim sect. Each of these sects claims to represent the sole authentic version of Islam, branding other sects as deviant and often completely outside the Islamic fold and even as doomed to hell. Sectarianism is thus deeply-rooted in the madrasas and in the minds of the graduates they produce, who go on to become mullahs. Much energy is spent in the madrasas rebutting the claims and beliefs of rival Muslim sects. Students are trained in the art of munazara or polemical debates with other sects and other religions in order to rebut them and to promote the claim that their own sect alone represents the Truth and that the other sects and religions are bound to lead their adherents to hell. Madrasa-trained mullahs then spread this message to their followers, in their sermons in mosques, in their public rallies and in the copious literature they produce, and now even through CDs and websites. It is thus not surprising that the mullahs take no interest at all in promoting serious intra-Muslim sectarian dialogue. Not only would such dialogue threaten their rival claims of alone representing the true Islam, but it would also undermine their worldly interests and their following among the credulous, which is based, in part, on their sustaining, indeed constantly promoting, of sectarian divisions.

The same holds true, generally speaking, and notable exceptions notwithstanding, in the case of the mullahs’ approach to other religions. Madrasa students, would-be mullahs, are taught to believe that all other religions are wholly false, and that they would certainly lead their adherents to eternal torment in hell. Nothing good at all, they believe, is contained in these religions. A non-Muslim, they imagine, no matter how noble a person her or she is, is a rebel against God and is thus destined to hell. Often, such prejudices are taken to even more ridiculous lengths, such as believing that non-Muslims are even physically (besides spiritually) impure and that Muslims should refrain from befriending them. Often, all non-Muslims are branded as ‘enemies of Islam’, being accused of being inherently opposed to Islam and of being engaged in what is said to be a global conspiracy against God. Given these absurd beliefs, it is but natural that the mullahs, on the whole, imagine the world and Islam in such a way as to promote fierce contestation or at least condescension, rather than serious dialogue, with people of other faiths.

These antagonistic attitudes to people of other faiths are reinforced by the particular milieu characteristic of the madrasas. Madrasa students are kept carefully cut-off from the outside world, and so it is rare for any of them to have any sort of friendly contact with non-Muslims. Thus, they grow up having no non-Muslim friends at all. This further reinforces their negative stereotypes about non-Muslims and their religions. They are generally not taught local languages, and are also generally kept deliberately ignorant about many issues of the larger world around them. They are taught to believe that there is nothing good at all in the cultures and traditions of non-Muslims. All this makes them even more wholly incapable of functioning in a plural society. They find comfort in their own Muslim, or even more narrowly, their own mullah, circles. Their fiercely negative attitudes to people of other faiths and to their cultures and beliefs, in addition to the distinctly different culture of the madrasas in which they are reared, thus makes them thoroughly incapable of engaging in genuine inter-faith work. Global developments such as the so-called ‘war on terror’ and, at home, Hindutva chauvinism and terror engaged in by Hindu right-wing outfits (whose views about the Muslims are a mirror image of that of the mullahs about the Hindus), make many Muslims, including the mullahs, even more insular, resulting in prospects for genuine inter-faith work on their part becoming more remote. So does the spread of terror in the name of Islam by some groups that claim to speak in its name, which further reinforces extremely negative views of Islam and Muslims in the eyes of others.

To be fair, a few Indian mullah-led groups have, in recent years, taken some symbolic steps in a bid to address the issue of Hindu-Muslim conflict. Some have issued fatwas denouncing terror in a religious guise. Others have called on Muslims to abstain from cow-slaughter in order not to hurt Hindu sentiments. Yet others have organized rallies calling for Hindu-Muslim harmony and denouncing communal strife. All this is, of course, very important and is certainly to be welcomed. But the point is that this does not go far enough to constitute genuine inter-faith solidarity and understanding. This is primarily because such appeals can continue to co-exist with narrowly communal and fiercely supremacist understandings of Islam. In such understandings, which are fairly widely shared among Muslims, Muslims alone are believed to follow the truth, and all non-Muslims, no matter how good they might be, are believed to be bound to go to hell. Such a stance need not necessarily lead to violence against non-Muslims, although in some contexts this is indeed the case. Instead, this could impel Muslims to seek to convert non-Muslims to (their version of) Islam. This is precisely what many Indian Muslim groups, including some led by mullahs, seek to do in the name of inter-faith dialogue. For them, such dialogue is often synonymous with dawah, ‘inviting’ non-Muslims to (their version of) Islam. While in a democratic system, adherents of all worldviews ought to have the right to seek to invite others to the path they deem true, this missionary work must be regarded as quite distinct from inter-faith dialogue, however. Dawah in the name of dialogue does little to transform dominant negative images of the religious ‘other’ among Muslims, because advocates of this form of dawah view non-Muslims at best only as potential converts. But this problem does not apply to Muslims alone, but, rather, to followers of every other missionary religion or even secular ideologies such as communism or free-market capitalism. Equally problematic, this sort of what is called dawah, projected in the name of dialogue, makes communication entirely a one-way street, for it involves simply preaching (a certain vision of) Islam to others, seeking to transform others’ attitudes towards Islam and Muslims (and hopefully to convert them), while, at the same time, refusing to admit the possibility of other’s influencing Muslims engaged in the dialogue in favour of their religions and the good that they contain. It does little, if at all, to enable Muslims to transform their hostile and dismissive attitudes towards other faiths. In this way, in many cases, such so-called dawah only further solidifies the sense of Muslim supremacism.

Confusing dawah for inter-faith dialogue limits dialogue simply to preaching: uttering homilies in favour of communal harmony and announcing the virtues of (different versions of) Islam.  This ‘dialogue’ becomes yet another form of preachy-type piety, engaged in by clerics and other such ideologues, often with massive funds at their disposal, which, in some instances, are liberally provided by oil-rich Gulf Arab sheikhs. It certainly does not take the form that it should—of people from different communities working together on issues of common social concern—say addressing issues of poverty, illiteracy, the environment and so on, that are general social problems that afflict all communities. This is what is called as ‘the dialogue of social action’. Instead, ‘dialogue’ remains, by and large, an elitist endeavour, restricted to the religious ‘experts’, and is sometimes also a means for their material aggrandizement, helping them shore up their popularity among their own followers. Many clerics and other religious professionals, and this includes not just Muslim mullahs but their equivalents in other communities as well, have made a lucrative career for themselves in the name of such so-called dialogue.

Genuine inter-faith dialogue on the part of Muslims can only succeed if there is a serious rethinking of the notion of the religious ‘other’ in Muslim thought. (The same holds true in the case of all other religionists, of course). At present, as I have tried to show, this notion is often interpreted in extremely exclusivist, supremacist and combative terms. As long as the notion is understood in this way, serious inter-faith solidarity and harmony between Muslims and others will remain impossible. This is one issue that mullahs and most other Muslims who claim to be engaged in dialogue with others completely, and possibly very deliberately, overlook. Naturally, then, their efforts to promote dialogue cannot go very far. Or, to put it more bluntly, while such efforts might help feather their own nests and enable them to reinforce their claims to being spokesmen of Islam, they will do precious little to help promote genuine inter-faith love, compassion and dialogue that is not tied to a narrow missionary agenda.

It is true that there are some voices among the Indian Muslims who do champion much more inclusive and embracing notions of the religious ‘other’ in Islamic thought, which, as I said, are basic to any serious endeavour to promote effective dialogue. However, these are scattered voices that often prefer to remain silent for fear of being branded as heretics by the mullahs and hardliner Islamist groups. Unlike the latter, they have no institutional base, primarily because they lack popular support, with the general Muslim public being emotionally attached to the mullahs and Islamists, whom they fondly imagine as true representatives of Islam. These voices are often of liberal, modern-educated, middle-class Muslims who live and work in a plural society, whose friends and colleagues and even relatives include people of different faiths or of no faith at all. They realize how deeply-rooted communal supremacist understandings of Islam are, which they refuse to grant Islamic legitimacy to. They realize how difficult, indeed impossible, it is for Muslims to harmoniously coexist with others if they continue to champion such supremacist notions of Islam and continue to defend Muslim communalism in the name of Islam. They regard such notions as wholly unwarranted in their reading of the Quran. Owing to various factors, as I said, they prefer not to speak out. But it is precisely such people, who feel that the Quran mandates and demands (and not just simply allows for) genuine inter-faith solidarity, who must stand up and articulate alternate discourses about and visions of the ‘other’ in Islamic thought and critique and challenge communal supremacist interpretations. However, in the face of the tremendous odds that they face, both from the conservative mullahs and radical Islamists, on the one hand, and hardened Islamophobes, on the other, this prospect is, admittedly, extremely daunting.

What I have said above must not be seen as a problem specific to Muslims, or just to the mullahs, alone. The problem of communal supremacist understandings of religion and of the notion of the religious ‘other’ is one that most Muslims share with people of most other faiths. This indicates two related things: Firstly, that what people often regard as religious truth is generally humanly conditioned, a product of human interpretation, which explains the diverse, generally conflicting, versions of truth, both between different religions and between different sects within each religious community, that exist. Secondly, that the proponents of these conflicting brands of what they market as religious truth claim, in effect, to know and represent the will and mind of God. This I regard a heinous affront to God, a crime against Him/Her/It, although this these folks refuse to recognize.

Since here our discussion is limited to the Muslim case, I will put forward some sketchy ideas as to how one could approach the issue of the religious ‘other’ from an alternate Islamic perspective. Of course, needless to add, this perspective is not one that is shared by the mullahs, nor by most Muslims. But it is one that many God-intoxicated Sufis have, in their own different ways, articulated, and so have a number of liberal and progressive Muslim scholars. Hence, it is not my own personal, eccentric intrepretation. I am not an Islamic scholar, but I have read the Quran (in translation), and I think it provides some very useful suggestions in this regard. It speaks of revelation and goodness as universal, not being limited to any one community, not even to a community based on birth and practising a specific set of rituals, such as the so-called ‘Muslims’ of today. It speaks of God revealing His Will through messengers in every community, and it tells us that they all taught goodness and submission to God, which also includes love and compassion for all His/Her/Its creatures transcending narrow boundaries of creed, race, colour, class and gender. This, in Arabic is called, al-Islam, but one does not have to make an idol of this name, and one can refer to it by an equivalent in any other language, such as ‘the submission’ in English. After all, if all the prophets, as the Quran says, taught the same way of life (called deen in Arabic), and if they also spoke to their addressees in their own languages they must have referred their way of life by other terms in non-Arabic languages, for the vast majority of them were non-Arabs. They must have also prayed in different ways, using different rituals, if at all. Certainly the non-Arab prophets that the Quran speaks about and insists that Muslims must revere must have used their own non-Arabic languages to communicate with God. In short, what is called al-Islam in Arabic is simply being a good person (vertically, in relation to God, and horizontally, in relation to all of His/Her/Its creation) and this, the Quran indicates clearly, is not tied to any particular set of rituals or language. The Quran certainly does not indicate that only certain specific ways of performing rituals, or prayers uttered in only a particular language, are acceptable to God. It is strange, and extremely ironical I think, how the complete absence of ritualism and linguistic chauvinism in the Quran (to the point where no method of prayer is mentioned), contrasts so distinctly with the extreme ritualism found among most Muslims today, who believe that a specific form of ritual, performed in a particular language, is the sole means of communicating with the divine, and that all other forms (including those that do not imply polytheism or involve idolatry), expressed in other languages, are in God’s sight, completely erroneous and lead those who practise them to Hell. I regard this as an untenable assertion by people who claim to know and speak for the mind of God. This is, one might say, tantamount to the crime of ‘associationism’ or shirk. Furthermore, this extremely narrow and ritualized way of understanding Islam (which I believe has no sanction in the Quran) greatly limits the appeal of God’s message, which is meant to be universal, transcending boundaries of language and culture. It narrows this down to a specific culture—to that of the Arabs—and mandates that one must adopt, at least to a considerable degree, Arab culture and language in order to be considered a Muslim. This contrasts totally with what I think the Quran says. In effect, this ritualized and narrow understanding of Islam leads to deprecatory attitudes towards others based on the untenable assumption that just because others may not pray in Arabic or use certain rituals (even if these do not involve polytheism and idolatry), they are simply unable to communicate with God, and that, therefore, they are doomed to hell. In this way of understanding religious truths, specific rituals and the particular language in which these are expressed come to serve as boundary-markers between communities, thus shoring up a misplaced sense of communal superiority, enthusing people to believe that because they pray in a certain way, using a certain language, they have a much greater chance of being admitted to heaven than the rest of humankind.

Once one understands God’s universal revelation, as the Quran, as I read it, indicates, as shorn of ritual and linguistic chauvinism, and as meaning simply aimed at making us good human beings (on the vertical and horizontal planes), one’s understanding of the religious ‘other’ is totally transformed. In this way of understanding the Quran, the way of life (al-Islam as deen in Arabic, which could be called by different terms in other languages) as simply being ‘goodness’ is now seen as what all the many prophets that God has sent in different linguistic communities have taught. These prophets spoke in different languages, called God by different names, and worshipped him in different ways, stressing just good deeds and monotheistic faith. Yet, despite these differences, they were all muslims in the true sense of this Arabic term—submitters to the divine will.  A true submitter to God’s will (which is what the word ‘muslim’ actually means in Arabic, and one could use an equivalent in any other language to avoid ‘linguistic idolatry’) in this way of approaching the Quran, thus comes to be understood not as someone who is associated with a particular community defined as ‘Muslim’ in the census records, which is generally based on his or her birth in a family that belongs to that community. (This is why I think one should use the word ‘muslim’, or its equivalent in other languages, with great caution. It is not the label of a community based on birth and culture that it is generally thought of, even by many so-called Muslims themselves. Ideally, I wish we could find a different word for the community that calls itself Muslim [based almost wholly on birth], but in the absence of this, one could refer to this group as so-called Muslims, or else simply put the term in inverted commas. But, then, that would seem clumsy!).

‘Submission’ or being muslim, in this sense, then takes on a totally different meaning: of being an attribute (of good deeds and proper faith) that is not tied and exclusive to any particular community, but, rather, that is universally shared across cultures and communities to varying degrees by all people of goodwill, no matter by what communal label they call themselves: ‘Muslims’, ‘Hindus’, ‘Buddhists’ or whatever. This, therefore, means that good people among so-called non-Muslims are, in fact, more muslim (in the true sense of the term) in the eyes of God than many (or even most) so-called Muslims, and, hence, far more likely to earn the grace of God in the hereafter than the latter.

Admittedly, this task of rethinking the ‘other’ in Islamic thought is not an easy one. It involves engaging with numerous problematic issues, particularly related to the corpus of Hadith (which is replete with fabricated narrations) and the tradition of fiqh of the mullahs (which is based on the notion of ‘Muslim’ communal supremacism). But this is a task that cannot be avoided, particularly in today’s world, where ‘Muslims’ and others live in increasing proximity, where their lives are intertwined far more closely than ever before, and where, therefore, communal supremacist understandings of religion pose a very real danger to peace and harmony.

One could go on further to elaborate this, but I shall stop here. What I have tried to argue in this presentation is that efforts for genuine inter-faith dialogue and solidarity can make no headway without each of us radically transforming the ways in which we understand what is projected as the religious ‘other’, as well as how we understand our own religious systems. The dialogue needs to happen, therefore, within oneself as well, rather than being directed solely outwards.

regular columnist for, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.


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