Encounters in Delhi and New Delhi
Leo D. Lefebure
I arrived at the international airport in Delhi early on the morning of February 9, 2014. Turkish Airlines had notified me that the flight would arrive twenty minutes later than originally planned, but in fact it arrived at the original time. I sped through the passport control, baggage claim, and customs, arriving outside the terminal earlier than anticipated. Because of the dense fog in Delhi that morning, my host, Victor Edwin, SJ, had not yet arrived. So I observed the people coming and going around the terminal for a while until he made his appearance. The drive to St. Xavier’s School in Delhi went smoothly despite the fog.
The following day we went to Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. Earlier, in September 2013, I had delivered a lecture on Pope John XXIII and Bediuzzzaman Said Nursi at an international symposium in Istanbul; at the symposium I had also chaired another panel, which included Professor Iqtidar Mohd. Khan, the director of the Department of Islamic Studies of Jamia Millia Islamia University. After the panel had concluded, I told him that I would be visiting his university the following February, and he had graciously invited me to address his students. As I arrived at Jamia Millia on Feb. 10, Dr. Khan welcomed me warmly. I found that the room where I was to lecture was packed with students, with more arriving all the time. Prof. Akhtarul Wasey, the Director of Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies of Jamia Millia, introduced me; and then Dr. Mufti Mohammad Mushtak Tijarwi spoke about the commitment of Jamia Millia to providing students with knowledge of comparative religious studies. I spoke for about 45 minutes on the variety of methods involved in the contemporary comparative study of religion. I began by noting the similarity between the commitment of Jamia Millia to the comparative study of religion and the priority that Georgetown University, where I teach, places on interreligious understanding. Then I distinguished religious studies, which seeks to be neutral by bracketing explicit religious commitments, from the theology of religions, which seeks a broad understanding of how religions relate to each other, and also from comparative theology, which pursues detailed investigations of particular aspects of two or more religious traditions. Students seemed most attentive. A number of professors and students posed questions after I had finished my remarks. After leaving Jamia Millia, we had an enjoyable lunch at the center for Catholic religious communities, which was nearby.
The following day, February 11, marked the opening of the conference, “Building Communities of Peace: Muslim-Christian Relations in Asia,” which was co-sponsored by Francis Xavier Movement, Henry Martyn Institute, Interfaith Coalition for Peace, Zakir Hussain Institute of Islamic Studies of Jamia Millia Islamia, Indialogue Foundation, and the Islamic Studies Association. The opening session was held at St. Xavier’s School on Raj Niwas Marg. Some participants were unable to be present in person but sent papers commenting on Muslim-Christian relations in various areas. In the afternoon Padmashri Prof. Mushirul Hasan offered an overview of the relations between C.F. Andrews and Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, stressing their intellectual curiosity and desire for respectful interreligious relations. That evening we went to the Indian Islamic Cultural Center, where Joe Kalathil, SJ, discussed his work seeking reconciliation between India and Pakistan and Rev. Thomas Birla commented on the work of the Hizmet movement, which is inspired and led by the Turkish leader Fethullah Gülen.
On the morning of February 12, the conference continued, and we returned to Jamia Millia Islamia for my lecture on Pope Paul VI and the new spirit that he brought to Christian-Muslim relations. Again the room was packed with students. It seems that originally only graduate students had been invited to join the participants of the conference, but undergraduate students had heard about it and wanted to be present as well. There was tremendous excitement in the room as extra chairs were brought in; even with the additional seating, there were still people standing near the door. The chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia spoke about the importance of Muslim-Christian conversations. Then Prof. Kahn spoke briefly, and Victor Edwin introduced me. After my presentation, Dr. Wasey spoke about the Muslim initiative to Christians in which he participates, “A Common Word between Us and You.” He was the only Indian Islamic leader to sign the original statement in 2007. Georgetown University is now the center for continuing this interreligious initiative in North America. There were a number of comments and questions from participants in the conference and from the faculty and students of Jamia Millia. One young man protested to Dr. Wasey that I had used the word “Saracen.” Dr. Wasey pointed out that I had put the word in quotation marks in my lecture, and that I was simply reviewing the historical practice of earlier generations of Christian leaders. He lectured the student on the need to interpret texts properly, he praised my remarks for being honest and objective, and he told the Muslim students that they had been privileged to hear such a talk. Afterward, a light snack was served outdoors.
I was delighted that my colleague and friend, Vincent Sekhar, SJ, was able to attend the conference. He had organized my very first trip to India in the fall of 2007, when I was teaching at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar. Now he serves as the executive director and dean of research at the Institute of Dialogue with Cultures and Religions at Loyola College, Chennai. He presented me with a copy of his recent book, Religions, Ecology and Environment: Sacred Texts That Shape Perspectives (Bangalore: Claretian Publications). He is currently traveling the world making contacts to enhance the work of his Institute, and he will be visiting me at Georgetown University this coming spring.
On Thursday, February 13, Victor Edwin and I went to Delhi University, where we met with the director of Buddhist Studies and various faculty and students of his department. We had had a conversation with a professor of Arabic Studies. Afterward, we drove past St. Stephen’s College, where Adhip Chaudhuri, a Hindu friend of mine who recently died of cancer, had studied many years ago.
On Friday, February 14, I spoke about my new book, True and Holy: Christian Scripture and Other Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), at the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi. A number of Jesuits and women religious attended the talk and posed many interesting questions for further discussion. Afterwards as we were conversing in the Jesuit lounge, the breaking news was broadcast that the anti-corruption activist, Arvind Kejriwal, had just resigned from his position as the Chief Minister of Delhi.
On the morning of Saturday, February 15, I visited the beautiful and elegant site, Humayun’s Tomb, which had been renovated since my earlier visit in early 2008. Work was still in process touching up the paint. That evening we watched a documentary film, “Muslims and Police: A Perspective,” which explored the difficulties and challenges facing the Muslim community in India today. Of particular concern was the low literacy rate and the need for more and better schools. An animated discussion followed.
On the afternoon of Sunday, February 16, Victor and I went to visit Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a noted Muslim leader and the founder of the Centre for Peace and Spirituality. In the midst of crowded Delhi, the balcony of his home overlooks a beautiful garden with trees and flowers. His daughter and a number of his followers were also present, and they discussed the work of CPS in combatting terrorism and violence in Kashmir and around the world. We discussed mutual efforts to improve Muslim-Christian relations both in India and in the United States.
That evening I gave a talk on “Spirituality and Interreligious Relations: Pope Francis and Fethullah Gülen,” to the faculty and students of Vidyajyoti School of Theology in the Jesuit Residence. There were questions both about Gülen and about the response to Pope Francis from conservative American Catholics. Afterward we had dinner with the Vidyajyoti community.
All in all, it was a week filled with discussions, with encounters with interesting people, with renewing old connections and making new ones.