By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
Dec 2, 2012
Conflicts over and about religion are almost wholly intractable, and this is essentially because religions are claims about Ultimate Truth. Since conceptions about Ultimate Truth are generally not open to negotiation—these being absolute claims—it is virtually impossible for parties involved in religious conflicts on what they consider to be fundamental issues to ever agree to compromise. To compromise over ultimate or absolute truths would be considered to be a sign of weak faith or watering down one’s commitment to deeply-held beliefs and as tantamount to betrayal of, or revolt against, supernatural forces. That is something that virtually all believers would dread to do. And this is primarily why conflicts between different sets of religionists over deeply-held beliefs have remained over the centuries. In some cases, rather than diluting over time, they have only become even more acute.
Inter-religious conflicts over theological matters, already so deadly, become even less open to negotiation and resolution when they are linked to rival claims over disputed territories. Throughout history, many religions have made special claims over certain physical spaces, considering these as particularly holy and blessed by supernatural forces and insisting that only their adherents have the divinely-given right to live and worship therein. When religious and real-estate claims overlap in this way they become a deadly combination. Claims by other religious groups to the same spaces simply cannot be entertained because to do so would be considered a defiance of what is believed to be the Divine Will. When two or more different religions sanctify the same physical space in the name of the divine, the chances of their adherents ever being able to live in peace are thus extremely remote. This underlies a host of deadly conflicts between different religious groups even today, as the cases of Palestine/Israel, involving Jews, Muslims and Christians, and the Ramjanmabhoomi/Babri Masjid, involving Muslims and Hindus, illustrate.
When a particular religious group argues that a certain physical space belongs exclusively to it and it backs this claim by recourse to its religious scriptures, in effect it stakes the claim of knowing the will of God or what are believed to be divine forces. When this claim is disputed by a rival religious group, which invokes its own scriptures to argue that the opposing religious group’s claim is invalid and that, instead, it alone has exclusive ownership over the same space, it is making exactly the same sort of claim as its rival. In effect, then, both parties to a religiously-blessed real estate dispute claim that they know and represent the will of the Divine. Logically, at least one of the parties to such a dispute is wrong. And I wouldn’t be surprised if both are.
I don’t know if God exists—in the form that many religionists imagine God as. But if God is, I don’t see any way in which God’s will in a real estate dispute of this sort can be discerned by ordinary mortals. One might argue that in this case the only solution is to seek guidance from religious scriptures. But, clearly, this would be unacceptable to both parties in a property dispute with theological implications, because the scriptures of one party would not be accepted as a criterion by the other. It is quite likely that rival parties would accuse each other of inventing their scriptures simply to justify their respective claims over disputed spaces. And, then, there is the added problem of multiple and mutually-conflicting interpretations of a particular scripture. For instance, some Christians believe that the Bible mandates the return of the Jews to Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel (as supposedly heralding the Second Coming of Jesus), while other Christians vehemently disagree with them, invoking the same scripture to arrive at precisely the opposite conclusion. To privilege one of these interpretations over the other and claim that it represents the will of God would, clearly, be to seek to play God—which in effect, is what actors in a religiously-blessed conflict of this sort are all engaged in, although they would resolutely deny this.
What, then, is the way out, if there really is one? Now, I don’t have the ‘right’ theological qualifications to pontificate on the matter, but my hunch is that if God is, then the whole world, being God’s creation or manifestation, is equally blessed and holy, and not just a small part of it that various religionists consider as particularly special. Why should a small part of the earth be privileged over the rest of this immense and beautiful planet if every bit of it has been created by God, or if every particle of it is God’s manifestation? I don’t see what difference it makes if you adore, remember, worship or realise God anywhere—it could be in what some believe to be a specially blessed spot or it could be in a desert, a forest, a shopping mall, in your hut in a slum or in the privacy of your palace. As far as I am concerned, it isn’t the bit of land where you recall God or the divine that’s at all important, for God—if God is—must be All-Pervasive, or so I would like to think. If God is, then the real mosque or temple or synagogue is one’s heart, not the bits of land over which countless lives have been lost in the name of a supposedly holy real estate dispute.