Interreligious Dialogue: The Role of Vidyajyoti’s Islamic Studies Association

The Islamic Studies Association (ISA), Vidyajyoti College of Theology (New Delhi), has been serving Christian-Muslim dialogue in India for over 40 years with the aim to challenge prejudices and misconceptions, and spread a correct understanding of religions and cultures as the best antidote to intolerance, discrimination, radicalization, and violence. The collection of insights featured below springs from ISA most recent interreligious programs and activities, which were held across the country in partnership with Muslim academic institutions, NGOs, religious leaders, scholars, and representatives of the civil society. The common message they convey is the need to continue working together to advance peaceful coexistence and cooperation among different groups in India’s cross-religious and cross-cultural society, above all in this time of crisis.

Teaching Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations: A Journey into the Hearts of the ‘Religious Other’
By Dr. Fr. Victor Edwin SJ

The Jesuit superiors missioned me to ‘Apostolate among Muslims’.  I find receiving this mission from the Superiors places on me a twofold responsibility: explore, find and establish contacts with Muslims in order to help them understand the Church and her love for Muslims and help Christian men and women who prepare for ministries in the Church to recognise the importance of dialogue with Muslims. With Pope Francis leading the universal Church in his efforts to broaden and deepen contacts with Muslims as a model par-excellence, it is certainly a kairos moment for us to launch out into the deep in dialogue initiatives with Muslims. In this short article, I share with the readers of Jivan, the two most important challenges in teaching Islam and Christian-Muslim relations in the centers of theology in India.

Ignorance is far more widespread than Understanding
The first challenge is to confront the ‘layers upon layers’ of prejudice against Islam and Muslims in India. These weeds of prejudice have grown of seeds from certain types of interpretation of historical memories of certain groups or hugely drawn uncritically from the distorted images of Islam and Muslims in the mainstream media. This prejudice is underpinned by ignorance. Such ignorance is often expressed through cynical comments on Muslims, their morality and way of life. Often students make comparison of the ideals of Christianity with the realities of Islamic world and judge Muslims negatively. In his book, ‘Christians and Muslims: From double standards to mutual Understanding’, the author Hugh Goddard relates an incident of gross ignorance of a Jesuit. A British-based Muslim who was born and educated in South Asia told him the story of his Jesuit teacher who surprised him one day by asking him why Muslims worshipped pigs! Further conversation between teacher and pupil revealed that what lay behind the former’s question was this: he had observed that in South Asian society members of the Hindu community do not eat beef, and he had gathered that the reason for this was that cows were considered to be in some sense sacred animals and so their meat was not to be eaten. He had also observed that members of the Muslim community did not eat pork, and he simply assumed that what lay behind this was a similar belief, that pigs were considered sacred and worshipped. The question therefore did have certain logic to it, but it cannot be denied that it was based on ignorance. Goddard comments that it had to be said that an absolutely basic understanding of Islam should be enough to make it clear that, whatever else Muslims do, they certainly do not worship pigs, since Islam is an insistently monotheistic faith. Helpfully, he adds a footnote that today’s Jesuits are considerably better- informed and educated concerning other religious traditions!

I have learnt that overcoming ignorance is no easy task. Christian scholars in interfaith relations such as David Cheetham, Douglas Pratt and David Thomas give some helpful classification of ignorance in reference to the religious other. In my teaching experience, I have found that some students display ignorance that could be termed as innocent ignorance or ignorance simpliciter. This group is simply ignorant of the faith and praxis of the religious other. They do not display any intentional prejudice. They have to be supplied with information. They acknowledge their cognitive deficit and correct their perception on receiving information. The second-type of students display blind ignorance. Their ignorance is born of intellectual stubbornness that effectively prevents ‘coming to know the other’. Though not necessarily malicious this blindness draws from close-minded conservatism. Sustained educational efforts, especially personal experience of the ‘positive other’ brings about desirable changes. The third type of ignorance, culpable ignorance, is sustained by refusal to know, avoidance of the challenge of cognitive change, and the reinforcement of a prejudicial perspective by deliberately shunning any evidence to the contrary. This is an ideologically driven ignorance.

In my experience most students come under the first two categories. They need good information gleaned from the scholarly works of Christians and Muslims as well as personal experience of meeting Muslims. I place before them such works and humbly reflect on the intellectual labor of others with the students. Besides such class room presentation and interaction, following the model of my teacher and Guru Paul Jackson, I make efforts to provide opportunities for meeting with diverse Muslims. I have realized meeting Muslims and having conversation with them is the real game changer. I am convinced that there is no alternative to personal experience. If the heart is touched and moved, one learns to recognise the preciousness of the religious other. I have also noticed to my great joy some students display gently the capacity to reflect theologically on the Christian faith in the light of the insights that come from the Islamic Lights. In such occasions I join them in touching the avenues of comparative theology. I invite some of them to read deeply the contributions of Paul Jackson who sailed into deep waters of comparative theology in his lifelong commitment to Maneri Studies. I propose them also to read the works of the leading exponent of this field Francis Clooney.  I must confess I have met some Christians who display culpable ignorance with respect to Muslims. They often express it their insensitive comments laced with heavy doses of prejudice and even hatred for Muslims. I am yet to develop a method to confront and help such people.

Avoid Reductive Essentializing and Pluralizing
The second intellectual difficulty is a tendency to ‘essentilize’ Islam that is reducing Islam to one or other dimension. I found this more of a theoretical challenge. ‘What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic’ by Shahab Ahmed helped me to deal with this question. I find myself fortunate to meet and have long discussions on this work with some of the leading lights in the field such as Jesuit Dan Madigan and Franciscan Michael Calabria. Shahab Ahmed presents a view that Islam is a human-historical phenomenon and it cannot be labeled simply as such as ‘religion’, ‘culture’, civilization’, or ‘symbol-system’ nor it could be identified with some ‘essence’ or ‘core’. He argues that Islam has to be conceptualized in such a way that it accounts for  as Shahab Ahmed puts it ‘Balkan-Bengal-Complex’ where from 1350 CE to 1850 CE Islam has settled across the geographical and cultural situations holding diversities and even contradictions. Such broader conceptualization will avoid reductive essentializing like ‘Islam is the legal core of the religion or pluralizing Islam by giving up the search for coherence and thus not taking Muslims seriously when they define themselves. Further, the author in responding to the question, ‘what is Islam?’ notes that ‘Islam is a hermeneutical engagement which is search for meaning in the Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text’.

The Pre-Text is Truth that lies beyond and behind the Text of revelation given to Muhammad. This Pre-Text is ontologically prior to the Text. The Sufis and philosophers engage with the Pre-Text. They engage with the Pre-Text through mysticism and philosophy. The Sufis, for example the Chistisufis, embraced the concept of Wahdat al-wujud. This concept emphasizes that there is only one existence, one wujud that is God. True existence belongs to God alone. Though in the phenomenal world we perceive diversity, in reality everyone reflects the existence of the One. In other words, everyone is one in the One. The philosophers emphasize that through reason one has access to truth, the mind of God.  Here the premise is that the Universal Reality of God-in-the-Unseen whose truth is knowable. The simple believers engage with ‘Text’ which is revealed from the Unseen-God-beyond-this-world to a human messenger-in-this-world i.e., Muhammad. In this level the premise is that God-in-the-Unseen whose truth is seen in the Text. The con-Text is the way Muslims historically lived in through cultural, linguistic, expressions often expressed through art, poetry, and architecture. The problem with the contemporary conceptualization of Islam is, in Ahmed’s view that it is defines Islam solely by the Text of Revelation. Revelation has, in effect, been downsized to Text alone, whereas historically Islam has been “nothing other than the hermeneutical engagement with Revelation in all its dimensions and loci” (p. 355-6).

This theoretical position clarifies that those Christian students who are preparing for ministries must learn to conceptualize Islam through a wide-angle lens: ‘hermeneutical engagement with Revelation’. It is my hope that a few students grasp this challenge and equip themselves with intellectual curiosity towards Muslims, their histories, cultures, spiritualities and their expression through poetry and arts and open up new avenues for theological and cultural dialogue with Muslims.

Serving Humanity Inspired by Faith: Celebrating the Islamic Studies Association
By Franklin Rex SJ

Islamic Studies Association (ISA) celebrated the Ruby Jubilee of both its foundation and the launching of ‘Salaam’, along with its bi-annual convention on 13 October 2019 at Navjivan Renewal Centre in St Xavier’s Senior Secondary School Campus, Delhi.  This occasion brought Christians and Muslims together as one family.

Fr. Pushpa Anbu SVD a former Secretary of ISA while welcoming the participants of the convention recalled the contributions of the founding members like Jesuit Fathers Paul Jackson, Christian W Troll, Terrance Farias and Sr. Fatima ICM. He insisted that we continue the process of dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters that St. Francis of Assisi had started 800 years ago when he met the Sultan of Egypt. To commemorate the 800th anniversary of the historical meeting of St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil a portrait that featuredboth these men of God was unveiled. Fr Bosco SJ, a former provincial superior unveiled the painting and honoured the artist Jesuit scholastic F. Devadoss.Respecting the faith of Muslims and Christians, the meeting began with the recitation of the first chapter of the Holy Quran and a text from the Holy Bible.

In appreciation of ISA and Salaam passing the milestone of 40 years since its beginnings in Agra, many important persons had sent their messages and greetings. They included Fr. Arturo Sosa SJ the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Msgr. IndunilJanakaratne, Secretary, Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and Fr. George Pattery SJ the President of South Asian Conference.

Fr. Arturo Sosa noted: “It is certainly gratifying to recognise the pivotal part that Salaam has played through four decades in building bridges of understanding and harmony between Islam and Christianity.” He also congratulated to all those who collaborated to carry the missionforward. In his congratulatory message, Msgr. IndunilJanakaratneacknowledged that “ISA has helped to impart extensive and accurate knowledge of both Christianity and Islam through its various activities and initiatives, duly noted in the bulletin ‘Salaam’ which this Pontifical Council receives regularly.” In his message Fr George Pattery SJ encouraged ISA to remain hopeful in their mission of creating alternate and sustained narratives in the context of majoritarianrule, mob lynching and violence. Fr. Thomas V Kunnunkal, the president of ISA in his message highlighted the importance of building more bridges between peoples.

Fr. Pushpa Anbu also introduced the speakers: Mr. Faisal Khan, the coordinator of the Khudai Khidmatkar Movement, founded by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan that draws inspiration from the Gandhian principle of non-violence and Father Bob McCahill, a Maryknoll missioner in Bangladesh.

Mr. Faisal Khan and Fr. Bob McCahill enlightened the gathering with a deep and personal sharing of their disinterested service to people of all faiths. Mr Faisal Khan spoke on Serving Humanity Inspired by Faith. He invited all to invoke the compassionate God within them. Regretting that some spread hatred among the people in the name of religion and insisted that we should bring love to society and take care of the needy. God created all of us and every life is precious. We need to respect human life. All of us need food, water, shelter, love not weapons.

Fr Bob’s talk was real inspiration. He spoke on “I am Indeed Their Brother: Loving and Serving Allah’s Poor”. He began his sharing saying, “I am a brother to the Muslims. We are one human family.” He stressed four things; living among Muslims in Bangladesh as a brother, serving the sick poor, demonstrating respect for Islam and Hinduism and explaining the reason for his lifestyle and service. He ended his sharing by asking not to concentrate on one’s own family “for our family is bigger than the biological family”.

Victor Edwin, a long-time friend of Brother Bob commented that to imitate Christ is to strive at all times to act as he himself would have done; to treat each person as ‘not a wo/man, but Jesus’ is, from the Muslim point of view, the most eloquent way to espouse the authenticity of the Gospel. Brother Bob is indeed attempting this in a beautiful way among the poor Bengali Muslims through his disinterested service for the last 44 years. The programme came to an end with the thanksgiving by Victor Edwin SJ the secretary of ISA.

Recognizing Differences and Seeking Togetherness
By Pravin Polonki SJ

It is widely acknowledged that Pope Francis in his relations with Muslims (in his relations with people of other faiths) puts his emphasis on personal relationships. One may be tempted to say that he is a beautiful model for contextual theology. He doesn’t start with doctrinal exposition, but by simply reaching out to them to ‘feel one with them’ in their faith journey. Inspired by the model of Pope Francis, we a few of us from Vidyajyoti made a visit to the Jammat-e-Islami Hind’s headquarters, in Okhla, Delhi as part of our program ‘Engaging with Muslims’. JHH is one of the important Muslim institutions.

We met Janab Bashiruddin Mashraqi and Janab Iqbal Mulla the general secretaries of JiH. From our conversation we picked up that relationship of religion to politics and society in Islam is essential. We were told that Allah is the central fact of reality for Muslims. Allah revealed his will to people through prophets and finally through Muhammad through the eternal words of the Holy Qur’an. Muslims are duty bound to submit them to the will of God as revealed in the Qur’an. Submission to the will of God is not passive recognition of doctrines about God but active bending of one’s will to the will of God and also to actively realize the will of God in history. Simply put, God crated human being as God’s vicegerent and given creation as a divine trust and human person is ordered to carry out his vicegerencey. Thus the human person has the obligation to implement God’s rule on earth. Religion is not a private affair for Muslims; religion includes every aspect of human life including prayer, fasting, politics, law and society, an overwhelming reality. Islam covers every aspect of life.  The ideology of State is thus shaped by Islam and Islamic history stands a clear witness to this truth.

JHH is an Islamic organization in India established by Maulana Maududi.   Maududi basing himself on the Qur’an affirmed that the Will of the creator governs the world and all that it contains.  All reality is ruled by God and human person should have no illusion that he has independence to create a new humanly thought order. However, God has given freedom to obey or disobey God’s will. Submission to Divine will brings joy and eternal reward and rebellion against God’s will brings unhappiness and eternal punishment.  Moreover, Maududi held that God is the rightful law-giver and God has make know the Shariah through the agency of Prophecy. This Islamic Sharia does not recognise does not recognize any division between religion and other aspects of life, most specifically religion and state. Maududi certainly envisioned an Islamic State which would create an ambience for Muslims to live according to the will of God as enshrined in the Qur’an. Our interlocutors informed us that after the partition of the sub-continent that the JHH has been described as having undergone an ‘ideological transformation’ from working to make India an Islamist state to preserve it as a secular democratic state, that is the best alternative in given situation.

They further pointed out that JiH follows a policy of promoting education, social service, and ecumenical outreach to diverse faith communities. It has involved itself in various humanitarian and relief efforts across many parts of India. On 18 April 2011, it facilitated the launch of a national political party ‘Welfare Party of India’, under a leadership that included top functionaries of the organization and members from the wider Muslim community and outside including a Christian priest. Officially, the organization describes its objective as “Iqaamat-e-Deen” or “Establishment of (Islamic) way of life in all aspects of life” with “achievement of divine pleasure and success in the Hereafter” as the sole motive of the effort.

JiH has a unit called FDCA (Forum for Democracy Community Amenity) which promotes dialogue with people of different faith convictions. We were told that FDCA’s main agenda is to strive against the poison of communalism that is spreading like forest fire in India under the present dispensation. He has also expressed his concern over the growing trends of incidents wherein people are denied basic dignity. FDCA also launched many initiatives in helping people during the time of floods and other natural disasters. The members of JiH believe that 2.5% of zakat(tax) has to be given to God since it is granted by him.

We all of us enjoyed the hospitality of our interlocutors during the interactive session. Their readiness for dialogue was also very much striking. Our interactive session brought us closer to our JiH friends though their conviction on religion-state continuum is clearly not the choice of the Church.  We learnt that our differences need not necessarily lead to conflict but to engage with one another positively and to harness our strengths and strive for Justice and peace in the world. We learnt that in knowing differences and seeking togetherness we recognise the divine in one another.

Engaging with Muslims: An Afternoon Conversations
By Jojappa Murikipudi SJ

On October 1, the first-yeartheologians of Vidyajyoti College of Theology (Delhi), had an interactive session with a group of Muslims from the Centre for Peace and Spirituality, New Delhi.Prof. Farida Khanam, the Chairperson of the Centre for Peace and Spirituality, Ms. Maria Khan and Mr. FarhadUmeriinitiated the conversation. The conversation was built around the following themes: the Message of the Prophet Muhammad to Muslims, the Holy Qur’an in the life of Muslims and State of Muslims in the present environment”.

Victor Edwin SJ, Director of Vidyajyoti Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations, pointed to the world’s painful reality of the tension, suspicion and hostility that exist between followers of the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He suggested that Christians and Muslims must recognise the similarities and profound differences between the faith convictions of these three monotheistic religions and offer a constructive narrative for developing mutual understanding, trust and co-operation.  He further pointed out that interfaith reflection and interreligious dialogue could help us to overcome prejudices and develop respect for one another’s faith.

Ms. Farida Khanam pointed out that Muhammad is a beautiful model for Muslims as he lived out the word of God, the Qur’an, in his daily life. She said that the Prophet lived a principled, sincere, and honest life. He was a positivist thinker. Muslims draw inspiration from his life. He promoted peace with courage and patience while walking along the path of non-violence. Prophet Muhammad strived hard to sustain peace and love despite several hurdles. Pointing to a Tradition of Muhammad, Prof. Khanam said that in the story of Cain and Abel, Abel refused to respond to the violence of his brother and died a victim of his brother’s mindless violence. Muhammad advised his followers to imitate Abel. In this way peace would certainly reign over violence, she said. Muhammad did not encourage violence but in a few cases he could not avoid fighting in wars for the common good. She further said that women enjoyed full freedom in the time of Prophet Muhammad. He had high regard and respect for women. They were allowed to enter Mosque. Today many Muslim women are educated and have good jobs. Some people try to dominate and restrict their freedom but it is women who need to exercise freedom. In other words, freedom is not given, it is exercised.

Mr. FarhadUmeri said that Muslims believe that the Holy Quran is the word of God as it was dictated to Prophet Muhammad by Angel Gabriel. The Revelation from above coming upon him was a shocking experience for him. He taught people what was revealed to him. He invited his listeners to ponder over the verses of the Holy Book and live out the will of God.Umeri feels that many Muslims today misrepresent their own religion for their personal interest. They violate the norms of their own religion when they indulge in violent acts. It is very important to be enlightened by the teachings of Muhammad in order to attain peace. Enlightenment dawns upon the one who meditates on the word of God, the Qur’an. If the Qur’an remains the centre of their lives, Muslims, will live in peace and promote peace with much greater conviction and dedication.  “Peace is the need of the hour, isn’t it?”. he asked. He felt that Peace could be promoted through religious dialogue, ‘especially when you involve the youth who often look for proper guidance”. Muhammad believedthat those who work for peace could be called true servants of God. The Centre for Peace and Spirituality is striving hard to promote peace and to educate the youth to bring peace.

Ms. Maria Khandisagrees with those who think that Muslims are living in constant fear and anxiety,in India. According to her the Constitution of India has ensured the rights of Muslims.  She further said that India has rich potential and can provide better opportunities to all and, therefore, Muslim youth should make best use of it. Moreover, young Muslims are secular minded and feel proud of being Indians. Negative narratives need to be abandoned.  Many Muslims live in poverty due to lack of higher education. Education will certainly empower them and bring in changes. Therefore, they need to be educated well. In the contemporary world it is very important for a Muslim to follow the moral teachings of Prophet Muhammad to establish kingdom of God on earth.

It was a wonderful afternoon. We could discusssubjects of mutual interest. This engagement helped us to know each other better and grow in esteem for one another’s faith. There were also points of disagreement, especially in our assessment of the present context of India. Many of us felt that Maria’s views reflected an ‘Ostrich policy’. She appeared to ignore how the Indian Constitution is undermined, democratic Institutions are damaged, lies and hatred are spread against Dalits, minorities and tribals by those attached to the ruling dispensation. Focused discussion on ‘justice-peace’ continuum may help both the Jesuits at the Vidyajyoti College of theology and the members of CPS to deepen their commitment to peace and harmony.

Interfaith Beyond Boundaries:
Christian and Muslim Students Discuss Faith and Culture
By Cajetan Antony SJ

A group of students of theology from the Vidyajyoti College and the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Hamdard, an institute of higher education, located in New Delhi, met to have a conversation on their faith on 4th October 2019. The informal engagement was held at the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Hamdard.

Prof. Waris Mazhari of Jamia Hamdard welcoming the Christian students affirmed that the aim of such meetings is not to search for unity, but to look for mutual encounter, understanding, cooperation and common ground. Victor Edwin SJ in his introductory note drawing inspiration from the writings of the Canadian political philosopher John Taylor said that engagements such as this encourage us ‘to taste the other in ourselves’. Further he noted that ‘meeting people of other faith in person can be life-transforming’. He stressed upon appreciating the similarity and understanding the diversity in us. He added that: “I have learnt from scholars like Christian W Troll and Paul Jackson that as a student of Christian-Muslim Relations our Interfaith engagement must be exercised beyond the boundary, deep into the territory of Muslim belief”.

Muslim students asked a number of questions seeking response from Christian students. Most of their questions arose out of curiosity and of the desire to know more about the other. Some of their questions included regarding the Bible, Trinity, Jesus, Catholicism, Protestantism, priesthood in the Catholic Church and celibacy. The responses of the Christians students reflected the spirit of giving “answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

Christian students asked many questions with regard to the faith and praxis of Muslims. Many Muslim students joyfully explained what it means to be a Muslims in the modern world. Through this interacting session we learnt a lot about Islam and their way of life from Muslim brothers and sisters who treasure their faith with great love. What is remarkable here, is that the students of both the group felt enriched with the interactions and began to feel a kind of closeness and oneness as well. One of the students from Jamia Hamdard institute indicated that it is the first time that he has come for such an interacting session and was impressed as well as and called this session an eye-opener. We are grateful to the staff and students of the Islamic Studies Department, Jamia making this session a meaningful and fruitful one.

An Experience in the House of Islam
By Joy Fernandes SJ

Cultural diversity has emerged as a key concern in the pluralistic context of our county. Culture embraces the totality of people’s life, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and art. Homogenization of cultures has strengthened religious fundamentalism. Cultural diversity strengthens universality, opening up multicultural spaces for dialogue resulting into possibilities for Interculturality. Interculturality seeks rootedness in one’s own culture, then into the culture of others, going beyond the social and religious boundaries. Intercultural theology demands profound respect towards other faith with the ability to listen and engage in dialogue. It challenges us to cross, or rather to plunge into unfamiliar realms.

With the study of Sufism we began our journey to immerse ourselves into the world of religious faiths and traditions.  The lectures delivered by Prof. Khurshid Khan, Dr. Herman Roborgh and Dr. Farida, besides our instructor Victor Edwin help clarify doubts and get to enter into the  mystical worldview of Islam.

On 10 August we visited a Dargah, the final resting place of Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan. It is situated in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Delhi’s Nizamuddin basti, not very far from the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya. A modern Dargah, quite unusual for one I had seen earlier, surrounded with beautiful gardens and complexes, echoes the symphony of universal brotherhood. Dr. Farida, the director of the Hazrat Inayat Khan trust helped us understand Sufism through her life experience and interaction with her Sufi mentor. When asked about mysticism and music, her spontaneous response was, “music is a prayer to the divine, which resonates in our very being, an effective conductor that transports the soul into universal worship”. More Fascinating is the fact that Hazrat Inayat Khan was instrumental in popularizing Hindustani music and spreading the word of what he called “Universal Sufism” in the West.

Every Friday evening there is a traditional Qawwali performance at the Dargah. We were blessed to witness, as to how the sounds of a harmonium and compelling voices soaked in the aura of the place helps individual transcends all self restricting boundaries. Sufi way of life and music synergizes spirituality and culture for the interests of all of humanity. It was a moment leading me into deep harmony and syncretism of beliefs. A Big Thanks to Victor Edwin for organizing this memorable exposure, which brought sacred fusion in my understanding of different faith traditions.