JAMMU, 28TH FEBRUARY, 2009
Paul Jackson, S.J.
The Islamic Studies Association was founded at a Consultation called in Agra by the Dialogue Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) in March, 1979. It functions in consultation with this Commission. Its Patron is The Most Reverend Vincent M. Concessao, Archbishop of Delhi. It is a Catholic Association. The members elect a Managing Committee of seven members who, in turn, elect their office-bearers: President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer. Among the Objectives listed in the Memorandum of Association could be mentioned:
To work towards harmonious relations among Muslim, Christian, Hindu and other religious and social communities in India.
To promote, study, research and teaching regarding the history, religion, culture, socio-economic conditions and other aspects of Islam.
The affairs of the Association are entrusted to the Managing Committee which has just held its 67th meeting. Tomorrow morning, 1st March, we shall be having our Sixteenth General Body Meeting and elect a new Managing Committee for the next two years.
You will notice that this is our Fourteenth National Convention, not the Sixteenth. The reason for this is that Fr. James Tong, when he was the Executive Secretary of the Association, suggested that we have a Convention on the occasion of our General Body Meeting, held every two years in different locations. This would enable us to choose a theme that would be of interest to local Christians and thus enable us to invite them to participate. This Convention takes up the theme of “An Experience of Muslim Life.” Our speakers are Muslims. Basically they have kindly consented to share with us their experience of what it means to be a Muslim today. It is hoped that the cumulative effect of listening to their varied stories will prove to be a veritable experience of Muslim Life.
A gathering of this nature has its inbuilt limitations. One of these is linguistic. Because our members come from different parts of India, we have been using English as the medium of our Conventions. Some speakers will prefer to speak in Urdu or Hindi. We ask you to bear with us if you may occasionally find it difficult to understand what is being said.
In order to make the best possible use of our precious time I would request you to focus your clarifications and questions on the personal experience of the speakers, which is the specific theme of our Convention.
The Association has helped foster Christian-Muslim relations through its Conventions previously held in Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Patna, Meerut, Bareilly and Jhansi. Another very important source of promoting understanding has been our quarterly journal, Salaam. This year sees the 30th volume making its appearance. Although it is a modest publication, it helps promote better understanding between Christians and Muslims in India. Another significant publication is The Muslims of India: Beliefs and Practices. This valuable handbook has been recommended by IGNOU.
It needs to be pointed out that this is an Association which has not been running any institution or research centre. Its members are engaged in a wide variety of activities some of which, of course, relate to Muslims. Thus the Association has never had more than one full-time worker and, since the year 2000, has not had a full-timer. This places severe limits on its activities. Even after thirty years, the Association has never reached thirty members.
Granted the present situation in our country, of which you are all well aware, the theme may seem to lack relevance. Some may be looking for something like a joint action programme. While I am happy with any collaborative efforts for the common good, and encourage them, I do not think our theme is irrelevant. Our Association itself, with its mere handful of numbers, highlights the difficulties involved in ventures of this nature. One major constraint is a certain diffidence felt towards Muslims by Catholics who have not had the opportunity, strange as it may seem, of having personal contact with them. They rely on the shifting sands of largely negative, sensationalist media portrayals. This Convention provides an opportunity for more personalized experience.
Gatherings of this nature have become all the more important in view of the increasing polarisation that is taking place at the international level. Events in the Middle East tend to make it more difficult for us to live harmoniously together. Viewed in this context our gathering may seem of negligible significance. This may be so, but initiatives which aim at helping people of different religious backgrounds understand and appreciate one another are urgently needed nowadays. Any human being has personal strengths as well as weaknesses, so it is not surprising that any group, of whatever kind, shares in this ambiguity. Being human means that we accept the goodness in ourselves as well as in others, while, at the same time, we strive to curb all undesirable tendencies. We all face this challenge, both individually and collectively. What has to be rejected is a mind-set which pounces on deficiencies in a few members of another group, magnifies them and completely ignores the special beauty and goodness of the vast majority of its members. In India, this warning applies in a special way to the areas of caste and religion.
There is no need for me, an outsider, to point out the special significance of Jammu-Kashmir with regard to Interreligious understanding. You live in a privileged, yet extremely challenging situation. Although only a few of our members have been able to join us here in Jammu, nevertheless, as an Association, we wanted to show our solidarity with your efforts towards understanding and peace. That is why we have come here.
It is in the realization of this special context that we pray for God’s blessing on all of us gathered here today. May His grace enable us to become ever more compassionate and understanding!