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October - November 2007
ISLAM AND OTHER FAITHS: FROM CLASH TO DIALOGUE
One of the most divisive elements in our present day lives is Religion. This was never meant to be so. But extremists in many faiths are bent upon exploiting religion for thier own nefarious political agendas.
As we know, religion can be a force for peace or war, it can heal or hurt. It can create or destroy on a scale unimaginable to previous generations. History has recorded enough bloodshed in the name of religion. Moses who led his people from slavery to the brink of the Promised land, gave them a choice:
“See I have set before you life or death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life so that you and your children may live”.
When extremists inflict violence on society in the name of religion, it is often the innocent who are their main victims. This must be resisted by the community at large. Voices must be raised in protest. We withold the robe of sanctity when it is sought as a cloak for violence and bloodshed, even if the perpetrators are from our own faith.
There is much fear and hatred outside in the world. Yet we cannot be discouraged. There is enough commonality in world religions to enable us to reach out to our fellow humans. This is especially important because our faith is dead if we do not reach out to others. Let us remind ourselves of the story of Abhaham which is full of hope. At the end of the story, Abraham brought his sons together in reconciliation.
Most of us live and work in the United Kingdom. I must, first of all, voice my gratitude to this country. I am greatful to this great country for the opportunities that we have recieved to fulfil our objectives and goals.
There is, of late, however, a shadow cast on our community relations in this country. The events of September 11th in New York in 2001 and July 7th 2005 in London and what we recently witnessed the shocking news of attempted bombing in Glasgow and London brought that shadow into sharp focus. On those occasions the killing and attempted murder of innocent people created a paradox for Islam- a religion which sees itself as a religion of peace was associated with murder and mayhem. Voices were raised and questions were asked: Do Muslims hate other faiths? Is Islam mainly the religion of fanatics? Are we to witness the state of a clash between Islam and other faiths? As these questions reverberated, for many Muslims this was a time of challenge and despair.
I was born into the Muslim faith and brought up with the guiding principles of Islam, which I find now are in serious conflict with the activities and utterances of some of the extremists in my religion. I am sure that the question in the minds of many Muslims must be: how does one respond to this serious threat? As responsible citizens we need to put our own house in order by conveying to our community the true message of Islam, which is of peaceful and harmonious living with everyone.
The accepted teachings of Islam which have prevailed throughout the centuries are based on a belief in peace and compassion. Is is appropriate to say that terrorists are evil, regardless of what religion they belong to. In todays world, each community and continent is faced with this problem in some shape or form. The terrorists are a tiny minority. The majority in the world including Muslims, condemn them. The 1.5 billion Muslims who live in this world are mostly peaceful and law-abiding - they also make good neighbours and exercise responsible citizenship and resent being stigmatised with negative and religious profiling, which is inflammatory.
Human history is full of episodes involving every religion of misguided believers responsible for the slaughter of fellow humans on the altar of Religion. Rabbi Jonathan states:
“We are occasionally misled to believe that, if faith is what makes us human then those who do not share our faith are less than fully human. From that equation flowed the crusades, the inquisition, the jihads, the pogroms, the blood of human sacrifice through the ages. From this logic, when substituting race for faith came the holocaust and the ethnic cleansing that we saw recently in Europe. Humans have demonstrated their genius for creativity. However, in spite of all our glorious achievements, we have lost none of our ability to destroy and kill with impunity. In anticipation of this human fraily Islamic ethics forbids any attempt at extinguishing life, and I quote to you a verse from the Quran: “If anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the lives of all mankind” (5:35).
There is, in many faiths, a clear instruction against taking your own life with the act of suicide. The Hindu holy book says: “One should help oneself and not kill oneself”. And the Quran states: “Do not kill yourself, as God has been to you most merciful.” (4:29)
Similar sentiments are also common to Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and other faiths. Therefore, I say with conviction and reflect the thinking of all sane minded people, muslims and non-Muslims, that the killing of innocent people by any means, including acts of suicid, any where in the world under any pretext or reasoning, is totally un-Islamic and against the teachings of the Quran and all other world religions. All faiths not only condemn suicide, but also any act whch causes suffering and death for our fellow man.
Religion and politics speak to the different aspects of the human condition.Religion binds people together in communities, and politics helps to mediate peacefully between their differences. The great tragedies of the 20th century came when politics was turned into a religion. The single greatest risk of the 21st century is that the opposite may occur, not when politics is religionised but when religion is politicised.
What makes religion incapable of being politicised is what led Aristotle to criticise the Republic of Plato. Plato in the Republic sought to invest the State with characteristics of a religion. Aristotle replied by saying that, without difference, there can be no politics and without politics there can be no democracy. For democracy we need the space for diversity of views, pluralism and multiplicity to achieve meaningful global citizenship.
Globalisation and its implication on the individual is giving rise to a mixture of anger and incomprehension. There is an overriding fascination with, for those living in poor countries, Western affluence. In response, the west erects barriers to protect its borders. This leads to a frantic effort from those outside the barrier to get in, to improve their lifestyles. Globalisation, acting as a catalyst in this process, creates a challenge to the identity of the migrant. Families are split apart as individuals leave home to look for employment, sometimes never to return. There is a crisis for the individual in an unwelcoming and alien culture. For the migrant caught up in all this, religion becomes even more important as a source of identity. In this vulnerable state if he is exposed to unscruplous radical influences, the outcome can be harmful for both the individual and the state.
In the vision of the modern thinker, trade would do for a man what politics could not, ie tame passions and change the outlook of man from aggression, to consumerism and production, integrating nations for mutual benefits from trade and finance. All these notions, however, do not answer man’s curiosity about himself. His sense of comfort, however, is well manifested in his loyalty for his tribe and community. Economics does not explain his quest for self- knowledge and identity. Religion answers this human dilemma. No other system explains, as religion does, our reason for being on the planet.
Other faiths have similar advice when interfaced with some of the sane problem of strangers. The Hebrew part of the Bible commands- and I quote:
“When a stranger lives with you in your land do not ill-treat him. A stranger who lives with you should be treated like the native born. Love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
From the ancient Hindu scriptures Subhashith comes this advice:
“This man is ours, that man is a stranger, Discrimination of this kind is found only in the mean- minded people. Those who are noble, to them the whole world is one family.”
E.W.F. Tomlin, writing on Henry Bergson in “The Great Philosophers” mentions two kinds of human societies. One in which morality is imposed through pressure, and therefore a closed society; and the other, in which it is imposed through attraction, and is therefore an open society. The religion of this closed society is static whereas the religion of the open society is dynamic - of which the finest flower is mysticism.
Mysticism has its roots in many faiths, but Sufism is Islam’s tolerant mystical and universal philosophy. This philosophy is summed up in a prayer from the Naqshbandi order associated with Bahauddin Naqshband the saint of Bukhara who lived in the fourteenth century. It could be the prayers of any religion anywhere in the world- and I quote:
“Oh my God, how gentle art thou with him who has transgressed against thee; how near art thou to him who seeks thee, how tender to him who petitions thee, how kind to him who hopes in thee”
For me, personally, the message of Sufism of compassion, humility, and universal love is attractive and inspiring. The message of “Sulh-i-kul”, peace with all, has endeared it to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It appeals to all sects and social classes.
Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the greatest Sufi and mystic poets from the 13th century, embraces in his teaching the whole human race without the distinction of caste or creed. He looks at all faiths with the same love as his own faith. In his classic discourse on the form of workshop translated by Johnathon Star, he says:
“I looked upon every cross, in every church, yet He was not there.
I went to the temple of India and the shrines of China, yet He was not there
I scaled the distant peak of Mount Oaf only to find the empty nest of the Phoenix.
I visited the Kabaa, but He was not at that sacred site amidst pilgrims young and old.
I read the books of Avicenna, but His wisdom went beyond all the words.
I went to the highest court, within the distance of ‘two bow lengths’ but He was not there.
Then.......then I looked within my own heart and there I found Him
He was nowhere else”
And therefore can I, as a Muslim, recognise God’s image in a stranger who is not a Muslim? That is, can I see God’s image in a Hindu, in a Sikh in a Christian or a Jew?
Islam tackles this confusion by saying to the Muslims in the Quaran to respect all of Gods creation regardless of their religion or method of worship:
O you men- we have created you male and female and I have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. So, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the best for conduct”(Surah 49:13)
There are further instructions in the Quaran for Muslims to respect other faiths as much as they respect their own. In Surah Kafirun CIX it says:
“I do not worship what you worship
Nor do you worship what I worship
You will not worship what I worship
And I will not worship what you worship
To you therefore your way of worship
And to me, mine.”
A great teacher of the Sikh religion, Guru Gobind Singh, taught the commonality of religions and the Oneness of God. He mentioned that Ram of the Hindus and Rahim of the Muslims were the same, and the various scriptures of the main religions of the world pointed to the oneness of God.
We have here in UK a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society. Here, dialogue is the only way forward for addressing our differences. We ought to celebrate our commonality and discuss our differences based on mutual respect and trust for each other. It is imperative that we engage together in a continuing dialogue. Dialogue is no longer a luxury of a few well-meaning individuals; it has become a necessity demanding action without which only catastrophe stares us in the face.
There are also many who are concerned about the legacy we will leave behind for young people of today who take the responsibility from our generation as the next set of guardians of a civilised world
My ongoing work with the Commonwealth Youth Exchange çouncil has amply demonstrated to me that it is these young people for whom we need to leave a legacy of peace and brotherhood on which they can build a happier world of the future.
In conclusion, there is a thought I wish to share with you which I hold in great esteem. It is from a Hindu prayer which translated from its Sankrt form, goes thus:
“May there be peace in the celestial region
May there be peace in our skies
May there be peace on our earth
May there be pece in the waters
May there be peace in the plants
And may that peace be mine also.”