In the second week of February 2014, several organizations, including Francis Xavier Movement (Italy), Henry Martyn Institute (Hyderabad), Interfaith Coalition for Peace (New Delhi), Zakir Hussain Institute of Islamic Studies—Jamia Millia Islamia (New Delhi), Indialogue Foundation (New Delhi) and Islamic Studies Association (Delhi) jointly organised a seminar on Building Communities of Peace: Muslim-Christian Relations in Asia. The sessions were held at three different places: at St Xavier’s School, the India Islamic Cultural Centre and the Jamia Millia Islamia.
In his keynote address Building Communities of Peace: C.F. Andrews and Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Prof. Mushirul Hasan emphasized the intellectual curiosity of these two great men that paved the way for their humanistic vision. Through their by life and work, they showed that standing with the other is the quintessential aspect of dialogue. Both Sir Sayyid and C.F. Andrews recognised that an insular attitude can raise only resistant walls, whereas intellectual curiosity can build connecting bridges. Prof. Hassan noted that there is sufficient material in our own intellectual traditions that can help us to reach out to the other to grow in mutual respect and understanding.
Prior to and following the keynote address, papers were read on Christian-Muslim Relations in the South Asian neighbourhood: India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They emphasised that through dialogue and mutual openness, Christians and Muslims can be able to understand each other’s religious faiths better and learn to respect it. For better understanding, both Christians and Muslims should to be ready to listen to one another. The purpose of dialogue ought to be, therefore, better understanding, peaceful co-existence and establishment of a fellowship of faith. Through mutual respect for each other’s religious beliefs and eagerness to listen and learn from each other, we can help create a human community where all can live in peace and harmony, with freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice.
The speakers highlighted the attitude of the Pope Francis, who said, “Turning to mutual respect in interreligious relations, especially between Christians and Muslims, we are called to respect the religion of the other, its teachings, its symbols, its values. Particular respect is due to religious leaders and to places of worship. How painful are attacks on one or other of these.”
So, our future is in dialogue. We cannot afford to isolate ourselves from one another.
In the second session, held at Indian Islamic Cultural Centre, Fr Joe Kalathil SJ spoke about his initiatives for peace between India and Pakistan. The discourse on peace between these two neighbors is mainly political and diplomatic. Often, the agents of peace and mutual understanding are either ignored or seen to be unpatriotic. Following him, Rev Thomas Birla presented his understanding of the Hizmet Movement and its efforts for peace. The members of this movement are engaged in efforts to address poverty and illiteracy through education all over the world. While the first session emphasized the cognitive aspects of dialogue, the second session presented the heart of dialogue in action.
In the third session, held at Jamia Millia Islamia, Prof Leo D Lefebure (Georgetown University, Washington DC) laid out the stimulating story of change in Catholic attitudes towards Islam that was brought about by Pope Paul VI. He told his listeners that “to appreciate the new spirit that Pope Paul brought to Christian-Muslim relations, it is necessary to have a sense of the earlier relationship”. He briefly noted some characteristics of the “old spirit” of Christian, and in particular, Catholic attitudes towards Muslims and Islam. He said: “At a time of widespread suspicion and hostility, Louis Massignon played a decisive role in developing warm relations with Muslims and in preparing his friend and colleague, Giovanni Battista Montini, for his later papal ministry as Pope Paul VI”. He briefly mentioned the new path in interreligious relations and religious freedom that was begun by Pope John XXIII, and then discussed Pope Paul’s involvement in the interreligious events. Following him, Prof Akhtarul Wasey, Director of the Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia, New Delhi, talked briefly about “A Common Word” Initiative. He was one of the signatories of the document that was sent to Pope Benedict VI and 27 other Christian leaders, inviting them for dialogue with Muslims. He said that Christians and Muslims should work together for peace between them and in the world at large. They have the inner spiritual resources within their communities. These resources are also a common treasure between them.
The seminar provided much food for thought. It underlined the salience of the need for Christians and Muslims to reach out to each other. In doing so, they can learn to find connections that have the potency to build a world of mutual understanding and peace. The seminar reminded us that both Christians and Muslims have to overcome the resistance of ignorance. We simply do not know who the other is. In other words, we do not have the objective information. In the absence of the right knowledge, we tend to believe the prejudices that are spread as truth. We often share biases and internalise them. However, when we have opportunities to learn, we recognise our naivety and learn and appreciate the other.
Peace activists often caution us about another type of ignorance: wilful ignorance. This ignorance is born of intellectual stubbornness. This ignorance acts as a cognitive barrier and resists any new knowledge. Prejudices continue to dictate the heart and mind, rejecting any new knowledge. Simply providing information is not adequate to deal with this form of ignorance. In order to bring about a real change, a collective effort should be made to execute a whole set of carefully organised programs and long exposures. A sustained effort in this line can cure blind ignorance.
Peace workers warn us of a form of ignorance which is lethal: culpable ignorance. This ignorance can be ideologically-driven one. This form of ignorance deliberately refuses to know. It avoids any challenge. It effectively shuns out any evidence against prejudice. It dismisses alternative possibilities. It rejects any new interpretations. This ignorance effectively spreads seeds of social unrest. This shows that we need to overcome ignorance on a number of levels.
How do we overcome this 'ignorance'? First of all, people of goodwill, irrespective of community, should come together. We turn to the past for learning for the future. Together we could look at history and identify people who labored hard to promote peace and harmony between people of different religions. There are a number of pioneers who broke new ground in building communities of peace. They opened up new ways of relating with people of other religions. They took new initiatives to sow the seeds of peace and mutual understanding. They established centres that initiated programs for training people in interfaith education. They forged new alliances to resolve long-standing disputes. They prepared their companions for this new journey.
The seminar enabled participants to get in touch with a number of committed intellectuals and peace activists who work for peace. The intense interest of Muslims in all the sessions was indeed an eye-opener for the Christian participants.
This issue of Salaam offers readers an assortment of articles with an interconnecting theme of exploring the links between Christians and Muslims: their life, prayer, and efforts for peace in the world. In the first article Shi'a-Christian Tabletalk, C.T.R. Hewer shows how important table conversations are—they make one feel comfortable with the other without the need to hide behind lengthy academic discussions.
The second article is from Egypt. Fr Bimal Kerketta shares his ups and downs as a missionary in the heart of Islamic world. He writes: “In all ups and downs, I'm able to find signs of hope. I'm able to see more clearly than ever before the love and appreciation of people towards us, what we do, and what we stand for. Many friends, both Muslims and Christians, have been standing by our side – supporting us, defending us, and encouraging us to continue our services. These events remind us that our services are required even more than ever before”. A sense of joy and hope is palpable.
In the third article, Victor Edwin suggests that every authentic prayer binds Christians and Muslims. Such prayer guides them toward living in peace. The spiritual efforts of Muslim brothers and sisters do not leave the hearts of their Christian brothers and sisters unmoved since they stand together before one God. Christians and Muslims standing together and praying authentically according to their traditions are moving toward living together in peace. He proposes that one should not hinder a Christian who is exploring with Muslims the togetherness in prayer. And, conversely, one should not impede a Muslim who is exploring this self-same togetherness in prayer with Christians.
Zain Awan’s article emphasizes that relationship with God is at the heart of prayer. In his article, Yoginder Sikand reflects on his work at a centre for inter-community dialogue in Hyderabad. In his article, Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, an alim (classical Islamic scholar) and a Delhi-based writer, tells us about the message of universal love and brotherhood, unity, communal harmony, inclusiveness and tolerance exemplified by the glorious life and lofty teachings of Sufis, like Hazrat Khwaja Gharib Nawaz.
In his conversation with a fellow Jesuit, peace activist Joe Kalathil shares his experience of peace-building. He believes peace is indeed possible. People are peace-capable. ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. One nation shall not raise sword against another, nor shall they train for war again’ (Isaiah 2: 3-5).
In the final article, Victor Lobo studies the letters of Makhdum Sahib Sharafudin Maneri as rendered in the beautiful translation by Paul Jackson.
I wish you a joyful Spring and Summer 2014!
Victor Edwin SJ
Victor Edwin SJ