This is no easy matter, however, especially for people who follow one or the other religion.
Since religion is concerned with issues of ultimate concern and significance, and because each religion claims that it alone possesses the ultimate truth, accommodating religious pluralism is a particularly arduous task. The continuing conflict between people of different faiths in large parts of the world today provides ample evidence of the fact that we have yet to come to terms with how to deal in a rational manner with the religiously pluralist predicament.
Although inter-faith dialogue as organized effort is a recent development, not more than a century old, the religious traditions of South Asia offer rich resources and valuable insights for developing a contemporary theology of religious pluralism and inter-religious dialogue.
Secularists, quick to condemn all religion as false consciousness, have turned a complete blind eye to indigenous spiritualist resources that could be employed in developing an authentic and culturally rooted vision of pluralism that could be used in the struggle against inter- communal conflict and religious fascism.
By ignoring religion completely they have allowed religious zealots to stake a claim to monopolise all religious discourse. Increasingly, however, it is being realized that indigenous religious resources for inter-religious tolerance can no longer be ignored if the struggle against militancy in the name of religion is to make any headway in our part of the world.
One of the richest repositories for developing an authentic theology of inter-faith dialogue and harmony is provided by the long heritage of Sufism or Islamic mysticism in India. Shrines dedicated to Sufis, Muslim mystics, dot the Indian countryside, and continue to attract large numbers of the devout from all religions and castes.
In many cases, Hindus far outnumber Muslims as pilgrims to these shrines. Coming together in common worship at the dargahs of the Sufis, people of different faiths engage in an unstructured, informal form of dialogue, what could be called the 'dialogue of everyday life'.
One of the most accomplished Indian Sufi masters was the nineteenth century Hazrat Ghaus 'Ali Shah. He was born in 1804 at Panipat, in the present-day state of Haryana in a family of Sayyeds who claimed direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad. As his mother had fallen sick soon after his birth, he was given to a wet nurse to be looked after, the wife of Pandit Ram Sanaihi, a pious and God-fearing Hindu.
He was doted upon by his relatives. His grandfather would address him as 'Khurshid 'Ali' (One who shines in the light of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet); his father would address him as Abul Hasan ('Father of Hasan', one of the titles of Imam 'Ali); his mother would call him 'Ghaus Ali' ('One who is under the protection of Imam 'Ali); while the Pandit's wife would call him 'Ganga Bishan' ('One who is an offering to the Ganga').
At the tender age of four Hazrat Ghaus 'Ali began to learn the Holy Qur'an from his mother, while Pandit Ram Sanaihi began teaching him the Hindu scriptures. In his youth he was initiated into three different Sufi orders -- the Suhrawardi, the Qadri and the Naqshbandi. He had a total of nineteen spiritual masters, of whom eleven were Muslims and eight were Hindus.
Hazrat Ghaus 'Ali had a large number of disciples, both Muslim as well as Hindu. His sayings were noted down by one of his closest disciples, Hazrat Gul Hassan, and collected in the form of a book, Tazkirat-ul Ghausiya. The book, which is in Urdu, deals with a range of issues related to universal love and the true meaning of monotheism.
Like the Sufis of old, Ghaus Ali taught his disciples through short stories and sayings that could readily appeal even to an unlettered audience. A story that well illustrates Ghaus Ali's belief that all attempts by ordinary human beings to understand God are necessarily limited, and hence no one can claim a monopoly of the truth, runs as follows:
There were once five travelers who were journeying together in great fellowship. One was a cook; one was a drunkard; one was a hafiz [one who has memorized the Qur'an]; one was a Sufi and one was a Brahmin. They passed through a jungle and heard the call of a black partridge.
One of them asked, 'What is it really saying?'
The cook said, 'Nothing but onion, garlic and ginger'.
The drunkard said, 'No, it is saying that every religious jurist is malicious'.
The hafiz recited the Qur'an, 'When We created the heavens'.
The Sufi said, 'It is saying "Great is His power"'.
The Brahmin said, 'Ram, Lakshamn and Jasrat'.
And so everyone interpreted the partridge's call after their thought and temperament and nobody knew exactly what the partridge was saying.
Many of the stories narrated in the Tazkirat-ul Ghausiya deal with the oneness of all humankind and the essential unity of different religious paths attempting to reach the one. Each religion is unique, Ghaus Ali suggested, and behind the historical manifestations of religious difference is a common quest for the Truth.
The message of the unity of all human beings, transcending religious differences, underlies many stories contained in the Tazkirat-ul Auliya. In one story, Ghaus Ali relates: Once there were four travelers passing through a dense forest. When they stopped to rest for the night, because of the dangers from highwaymen, robbers and wild animals, they decided they should keep a watch for each part of the night.
The first watch was given to the wood sculptor. While he was sitting alone, his three companions sleeping, he took a piece of wood and began to carve. During his watch in the first quarter of the night he carved the figure of a beautiful woman. Then he woke one of his companions, a dressmaker, to take over the watch while he slept.
Noticing what his friend had created and admiring his skill, the dressmaker decided to spend the time of his watch making a beautiful garment for her. After he had made the garment and dressed the statue, it was time to wake up the third watch of the night, who happened to be a jeweler.
This man decided to adorn the girl with beautiful jewellery from earrings to necklace, from bracelets to a beautiful belt for her waist. Now the last watch of the night was about to begin. The jeweler managed to wake the fourth man who was fast asleep, a good-for-nothing fellow with no skills or arts to speak of.
The man rubbed his eyes to shake off his sleep and looked around in the pitch darkness broken only by the last embers of the fire which they had lit. In the light of that fading fire he saw to his utter amazement the figure of a beautiful woman, dressed and adorned. He looked at his three friends, now fast asleep, and admired their skills. He was perplexed because they had left nothing for him to add, and even if they had, he was unable to offer anything.
So he felt very distressed at himself and thought how useless his life had been and was ashamed before these strangers whom he had met on the journey. The night was quickly receding as he rose with tears in his eyes and did the necessary ablution to offer a special prayer. There he sat in that still land before sunrise and raised his hands and prayed thus:
'Oh Almighty and Merciful Lord, give from your boundless mercy a little portion so that I may not be ashamed before these friends as this day rises. You are the Giver of Life, who gives life to everything in the universe. You are Eternal. Bestow upon this figure the gift of life, which is in Your power alone to give'.
At the first moment of daybreak, there was a movement in the figure and there she was, a breathing, beautiful woman. So when the travelers awoke, their eyes were filled, not only with the light of the rising sun, but also by the beauty of a living form before them whose miracle confounded them. They could not believe that a form carved out of dead wood could breathe and move.
Soon their bewilderment was replaced by mutual hostility as to who had greater claim over her. Each one talked about his contribution to her making, and the fool about his prayers. They had slept the previous night as friends but when they awoke the following morning they became bitter enemies.
However, they agreed on one thing, that they should go into the city and present their case before the magistrate. This they did and the magistrate was baffled by the intensity with which each one of them stressed his part of the story. What mystified him most was the fact that the girl did not utter a single word, as if she were deaf and mute.
Finally, he brought the men before the king, hoping that in his presence at least one of them would speak the truth. But each repeated the same story, which was obviously so unbelievable that the king was also greatly puzzled. One of the princes suggested that they should invite a faqir to advise on this inscrutable problem.
On his arrival, the faqir looked at the assembly and the helplessness of everyone there with the single exception of the mysterious girl who stood amidst them as if she were all alone. Then the faqir led them out of the city and brought them before an old and mighty tree known in ancient times as the Tree of the Oracle.
As the faqir asked the tree on behalf of the king for the solution to the mystery, an opening appeared in its trunk. They all watched as the girl walked towards the tree, stepped into the opening and disappeared inside it. So from formlessness emerged the form and to formlessness it returned.
We are of God, and unto God we return, says the Holy Qur'an, Ghaus Ali noted. Such is the case, he said, with all of us. As soon as we step into this world, we are surrounded by claimants of various kinds and powers -- parents claiming us because they brought us up; teachers claiming us because they gave us education; relatives claiming us because they are our kin; friends claiming us because they gave us their love; and rulers and employers claiming us because they gave us security and livelihood; and, if we happen to be Muslim, the Imams claim that we owe them our obedience; and if we happen to be Hindu, then the Pundits claims us because they have prayed for us in the temple.
But a day shall come when these relationships and the claims that build upon them will all be nullified, and none shall ever know from where he came and where he went. On that day, each soul shall have much to worry about itself. On that day shall a man flee from his own brother, and from his mother and father, and from his wife and children, says the Holy Qur'an, Ghaus Ali instructed.
Ghaus Ali was by no means an exceptional Sufi, and numerous mystics, from within the Muslim, as well as Sikh and Hindu traditions, have taught the same message, expressing it in different ways.
These traditions need to be recovered and rearticulated today, to provide new ways of understanding religion and coming to terms with the fact of religious pluralism. In the struggle against religious fascism and terror such traditions must have a major role to play.
Yoginder Sikand is currently engaged in a post-doctoral research project on Islam and Inter-faith relations at the University of London and also edits a website.
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