May 08, 2021
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'Inter-Religious Dialogue Is Indispensable'

The head of the Department of English, Kashmir University, Srinagar on various issues related to Islam and inter-religious dialogue.

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'Inter-Religious Dialogue Is Indispensable'

How does Islam look at the question of inter-religious dialogue?

When I look at the history of Islam, I see that Muslims have had, broadly, two types of attitude, represented by two different kinds of people. Paradoxically, both have claimed their authenticity from the Holy Qur’an. On the one hand are people who have focussed on the universal teachings of the Holy Qur'an and its exegesis in word and deed by the Holy Prophet Muhammad [may peace and Allah's blessings be upon him]. The Holy Qur'an says that all divine religions in their original forms were revealed by God, and so a person is not a Muslim unless he believes in all the Prophets and in all that was revealed to them by God, in addition to what was revealed to the Holy Prophet Muhammad. Muslim tradition has it that God revealed his religion [al-Islam or 'the Surrender'] to all the Prophets, starting with Hazrat Adam and ending with Hazrat Muhammad, and they were all Muslim i.e., 'one who surrenders [to God's will]'.

There are said to have been 1,24,000 prophets in all, and the Holy Qur'an tells us that there is no community or nation where God has not sent any prophet. So, from this you can see how really universal Islam is. This runs as a central thread throughout the Holy Qur'an. It transcends the limits of time and space, and is actually the essence of the Qur'anic teachings. On the other hand, there are certain teachings of the Holy Qur'an that are specifically related to the conditions and context of the Arabia of the Holy Prophet Muhammad's times.

For instance, when the Quraish of Mecca declared war on the Muslims, the Prophet was asked by God to take up arms and defend the Muslims, and certain Qur'anic verses were revealed on this occasion. Now, those verses are not to be read outside their particular historical context. So, when the Holy Qur'an commands the Muslims to fight, it does not mean to say that they should go about killing all non-Muslims everywhere, at all times.

Rather, the verses commanding fighting have to be seen in the historical context in which they were revealed--the declaration of war on the Muslims by the Meccans and then God's command to the Prophet to take up arms to defend the Muslims. Hence, these particular verses are not universal. What is universal is that everyone has to believe in one God and that some kind of revelation has come down from God from the very beginning of the world through different great human beings for all peoples.

One such revelation, which Muslims believe to be the last revelation, is the Holy Qur'an.

Unfortunately, however, there are people who have got so enmeshed in those parts of the Holy Qur'an which are related only to a particular historical context, that they have tended to ignore the universal message of Islam, which, as I said, is really the essence of Islam. This situation needs to be carefully researched into historically, with reference to the Holy Qur'an.

The portions of the Holy Qur'an that need to be seen in their particular historical contexts do, however, have continuing relevance and applicability insofar as situations or contexts may arise and develop today or in the future similar to those that occasioned those revelations at the time of the Holy Prophet.

Thus, a subtle distinction has to be made between the universal elements of the Holy Qur'an and those aspects that are related to a particular historical context. The former, as I said, are the pivot and the spirit of the Holy Qur'an, which are applicable to all situations. Now, if it is accepted that the universal teachings of the Holy Qur'an--belief in the one God and service to humanity--are indeed the basic foundation of the Islamic scripture, you can see how positively Islam views the project of inter-religious dialogue.

You mentioned that the religion that all the various prophets of God taught was, according to Islam, one and the same. Could you elaborate further on this point?

Well, the Holy Qur'an tells us that all the prophets were commissioned by God to preach the one religion ['deen']. This 'deen' is called al-Islam, which means 'the surrender [unto God]'. However, some prophets were also commissioned to preach a set of laws or shari'at for the regulation of the particular communities to which they were sent. Now, the needs and circumstances of different societies are different, so the laws that the law-bearing prophets brought with them were different.

Muslims believe that the final law or shari'at, which is meant for all of humanity for all time was brought by the Holy Prophet Muhammad. But the Prophet Muhammad preached the same 'deen' that all the previous prophets had. The 'deen' he preached was one and the same, but his shari'at was different. We believe that the scriptures that the prophets before the Holy Prophet Muhammad had brought were, over time, distorted by those who claimed to be their followers, and that God had sent the Holy Qur'an to revive the universal 'din' once again.

Let me put it a little differently. The 'din' is the universal element present in all divine revelations. It is one and it is unchangeable. The shari'at, on the other hand, changed from time to time, from place to place, from people to people, till the advent of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, who brought a shari'at that would henceforth have universal relevance. The shari'at is, in a sense, the practical expression of the universal principles of the 'din'. The demands of the 'din' cannot be fulfilled without observing the rules of the shari'at.

How would you see the ulama of the madrasas responding to your position in this regard?

The problem with the madrasas today is that they seem to give so much stress to fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence that little attention is given to spiritualism or theology. And that is a very faulty and defective system, quite inappropriate for today's world. It may have been appropriate in the past, but not so today.

I feel that many ulama in the madrasas lack the vision to look at the whole of human history dispassionately. I have been a humble student of the Holy Qur'an right from my youth and I have had the opportunity of studying various interpretations of the scripture that have been made from time to time.

I feel pained to say that most of these interpretations have been coloured by political or economic circumstances and interests. Thus, if economics or politics was seen by the interpreter as the most important issue, an effort was made to give the Holy Qur'an an economic or political interpretation. This is indeed very unfortunate.

How do you view the impact of Western thought on the new generation of Kashmiri Muslims?

In a sense, the impact has been very negative. As the post-renaissance spirit of Europe began influencing all Muslim societies, and not just Kashmir, people began developing an essentially materialistic approach to life. As a result, today religion, and here I mean not just Islam, is being used for materialistic purposes.

Most people go to dargahs or temples to pray for wealth, health or jobs. They do not seem to look beyond that, to the cultivation of the spirit, to the achievement of what the Holy Qur'an calls taqwa or piety or God-consciousness. Our present education system is so thoroughly westernized that it has influenced the way we approach religion. I feel that there is an urgent need to cultivate the spirit to counter the materialistic, western impulse in order to resist the urge to misuse religion for worldly purposes. Islam tells us that the greatest sin is the sin of shirk, of associating partners with God.

I feel that in place of the idols of the past, we have a new idol--the worship of the world--which is really a form of shirk. And it is an even more harmful form of idolatry because it is very subtle in its working, so much so that it has transformed us without us even being aware of it.

Are you aware of any efforts being made in Kashmir today to present what you see as a more balanced perspective?

Well, as far as I know, there are no collective efforts being made in this regard. There are, of course, individuals who think on these lines, but no concerted efforts have been made to present the universal element of Islam or to see that the madrasas are brought in line with this way of thinking. I think you could trace the malaise to early Muslim history, after the age of the Prophet and the four rightly-guided Caliphs.

During the Abbasids, Harun al-Rashid and Mamun did try to open the windows to let new winds blow in and to let the universal teachings of Islam be properly understood, interpreted and applied, but the conservative core, unfortunately, has always reigned supreme thereafter. This, in fact, is true in the case not only of the Muslims but of all other religious communities as well.

The conservatives say that if we open up to other people our own religion will be in danger. The conservatives will always shut the doors and windows and try to build high walls around themselves. And that has happened in the case of all religions. See what those who claim to be true Hindus are doing in India today. For them, Hinduism seems to be synonymous with demolishing mosques, killing Muslims and burning Christian social workers alive.

Some people might think by focussing on the universal element of Islam and what it shares with other religions, the distinctiveness of Islam will be marginalized. However, personally, I believe that such an approach will only strengthen the appeal of Islam. If others were to come to know that Islam does have this unique message of universalism, that it stresses that all divinely-revealed religions have the same source in God, surely more people would be attracted to the Islamic message.

What has been the historical role of the Sufis in Kashmir in promoting dialogue between people of different faiths in Kashmir?

The Sufis have played a very seminal role in Kashmiri history. It was principally through them that Islam spread in Kashmir. They focused on the essential, universal aspects of Islam, and under their influence almost all Kashmiris embraced Islam, voluntarily. Muslims and Hindus have lived in harmony in Kashmir for centuries, and this is still the case even today.

Whatever has happened in Kashmir in the last ten years has been at the political level. It has nothing to do with the collective psyche of the Kashmiri people. If you see the poetry of Hazrat Nuruddin Nurani and Lal Ded, who are still deeply revered by almost all the Kashmiris, both Muslims as well as Pandits, you can discern a strong element of protest against social oppression, against poverty and the marginalization of the so-called lower castes. Both preached an ethical egalitarianism, the cleansing of the spirit, while crusading against Brahminism and bringing about a veritable revolution in Kashmiri society.

Islam teaches us that all human beings have come from God, we are all children of Adam. There is a famous saying of the Holy Prophet Muhammad that, ' All creatures are of the family of God, and God loves him most who most loves His family'. That was the basic message of Lal Ded and Hazrat Nuruddin Nurani and all the other great Sufis of Kashmir.

So, I see that the struggle against oppression that the Sufis launched in Kashmir is a very important form of dialogue which has continuing relevance even today. People of all religions can, and indeed, must, work together for a better, more just world.

What do you see as the role of inter-religious dialogue in the contemporary world?

I feel that inter-religious dialogue is indispensable for the modern world. We must seek to focus on the one basic universal element of all religions--which is God. I think many Muslims will willingly come forward to join this venture, because that is what Islam teaches. This venture alone can save humankind today--not the worship of money or the nation-state, for that can only lead to more and more atom bombs and eventual universal destruction.

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