An innovative approach to Hindu-Muslim dialogue
by Yoginder Sikand
55 year-old Syed Abdullah Tariq runs an Islamic group based in Rampur, a town in western Uttar Pradesh, that focuses on dialogue with Hindus. An engineer by training, he was one of the chief disciples of the late Maulana Shams Naved Usmani, a noted Islamic scholar who had also a deep knowledge of the Hindu scriptures.
Tariq collected and published the thoughts and sayings of Maulana Usmani in the form of several books in Urdu and Hindi, the most well-known of these being ‘Agar Abhi Na Jagey To’, later translated into English under the title ‘Now Or Never’. Maulana Usmani and Tariq have been one of the pioneers of a particular Islamic approach to dialogue with Hindus, one that is based on the commonalities that they perceived in Islam and Hinduism.
In a recent meeting in Rampur, Tariq related his own story and his association with Maulana Usmani to Yoginder Sikand, as follows:
Having finished my engineering degree from the Aligarh Muslim University, I was not sure what I wanted to take up as a career. In 1974, when I was in my early twenties, I first met Maulana Shams Naved Usmani in Rampur. I was really impressed by his teachings, his enthusiasm for dialogue between Hindus and Muslims. I decided to stay in his company and to take down whatever he used to say to his disciples. Later, I had these published in the form of several books.
Maulana Usmani, or Chacha Jan as I used to fondly call him, was a very modest man, a Sufi. Originally from Deoband, he was from the famous Usmani family which had produced numerous well-known ulema, including Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani and Maulana Atiq ur-Rahman Usmani. He did his Master’s degree from Lucknow University, taught History and Geography in a small semi-government school in Rampur. His lifestyle was austere. He lived in a small, two-room rented house. I remember that he constantly had tears in his eyes. People would come to him to ask him to do dua for them, which he always did. Even at the height of summer, he would use a fan only if a guest visited his house. If he bought a fruit, he would keep a small part of it for the lady who would come to clean his house every day. Once, there was a dispute between two of his relatives over some family-owned property in Deoband. He told them to stop quarrelling and said that they could take his share of the property if that would satisfy him. His wife got a little upset about this, but he sought to comfort her by composing a poem, one line of which said, ‘Oh, my life companion! Our house is not in this world!’.
Chacha Jan did not receive a traditional education in a madrasa, but since he came from a family of noted ulema he learnt about Islam at home itself as a child. Later, he learnt Sanskrit on his own. He then began studying the various Hindu scriptures, and was surprised to learn, or so he believed, that some of the original Hindu texts, when shorn of later accretions, also talk, as the Quran does, of monotheism, oppose idolatry and polytheism and caste inequality. This he felt might be a reconfirmation of the Quran’s announcement that God has sent messengers to every community, and that they have all taught the same primal and eternal religion or deen of al-Islam, the surrender to the one God. This means, obviously, that God must have also sent prophets to India, and it is quite possible that some figures whom the Hindus revere might actually have been such prophets, although later a large number of corruptions and accretions crept in and people began worshipping these prophets as deities.
This was Maulana Usmani’s basic contention. He argued that the Sanskrit term sanatan dharm or ‘Eternal Religion’, if understood in this manner as submission to the one God, was the same as the deen al-qaim, which again means ‘Eternal Religion’, which is what Islam is. It was on the basis of this core similarity that Maulana Sahib wanted Hindus and Muslims to come together. He also claimed that the Prophet Muhammad had been prophesied about in some of the Hindu scriptures. This meant, he argued, that the Hindus, in accordance with the teachings of these scriptures, should recognize the Prophet, in addition to other prophets of God, including those who had been sent to India. At the same, he wanted Muslims to recognize the validity of these scriptures insofar as they were of divine origin and not corrupted by human hands. In other words, what he was trying to advocate was that Hindus and Muslims must come closer together based on precisely what he believed their religious scriptures said about each other’s prophets and on their common stress on the worship of the one God. This was the crux of almost all the writings that have been attributed to him, most of which I have compiled.
After Chacha Jan’s sad demise some years ago we have been trying to carry on with the Maulana’s unique work of inter-faith dialogue. I am often invited to address inter-faith and dawah meetings in different parts of India, often even by Hindu organizations. When I am in Rampur, I and some young colleagues of mine, many of them students and self-employed youth, meet on Fridays in the house of Chachi Jan, the wife of the late Maulana, where we together study a selected portion of the Quran. After that, I generally deliver a lecture to the Juma congregation in a mosque nearby, where I try to discuss issues of contemporary concern, say violence, women’s right, education, the importance of dawah and inter-faith dialogue and so on. Then, we divide ourselves into groups and go to nearby villages, where we meet with Hindus and Muslims and discuss with them about religion, focusing on the concept of tauhid, or, as it is called in Hindi and Sanskrit, ekishwarvad, which, we point out, is common to both Islam and what we think were the original Hindu texts. We also talk about the predictions about the Prophet Muhammad in some Hindu texts that Maulana Saheb said he had discovered, and also about the possibility that some key Hindu personages were actually prophets of God. In this way, we are trying, in our own very modest way, to bring Hindus and Muslims to understand their commonalities and thereby to come closer to each other.
To our Hindu brethren we try and convey that Islam is not a radically new or alien religion. Rather, it is the same religion of monotheistic submission that was taught by all the prophets, starting from the first of these, Hazrat Adam, whom some have identified as Shiva in the Hindu tradition. Hence, we tell them, to recognize the teachings of the Prophet, the core of which is monotheism, is to actually fulfill the teachings of their own original scriptures rather than constituting a departure from or betrayal of them. Some Hindus will readily recognize other religions that had their roots in India, such as Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism, although their teachings might differ, on some counts, considerably with Hinduism, but refuse to recognize religions that are thought to have their origins outside India. So, we tell them that true religion is universal. It is not meant for any one country or race alone, and we say that some Muslim traditions have it that the first prophet of God according to the Islam, Hazrat Adam, was actually sent down to Sri Lanka, which is part of the imagined Greater India.
We tell them all this, and many people’s minds have been changed as a result, but still, I believe, that in general people are impressed and influenced not so much by speeches and sermons as by one’s personal example, and that is something that Chacha Jan used to exemplify. So many Hindus who met him changed their views about Islam and Muslims as a result of this interaction. His approach was one of seeking to find similarities, to point out our commonalities, rather than play on and magnify our differences. I think this is the right approach. I also believe that people who go around condemning other religions or mocking them in a bid to stress the claim of the superiority of their religion actually do their own religion a disservice because in this way others become alienated from and hostile to them and their religion rather than attracted to it. And I believe that Chacha Jan’s approach to dialogue with Hindus was quite in line with what the Quran says when it advises us to address others with good words, gently, with love.
In this regard, while talking about the need for inter-faith dialogue between Muslims and Hindus, I also want to stress that some ulema as well as radical Islamists who insist that all non-Muslims are ‘enemies of Islam’ and that we must not have any relations with them or even that we should be stern towards them and demean them are not just incorrect from the Quranic point of view but are also insulting Islam. They take one small verse in the Quran completely out of its context to insist that Muslims must not befriend people of other faiths. But this is wholly incorrect. You must look at the particular context in which this verse was revealed, who exactly the people referred to here whom Muslims are told not to befriend were. You must also examine all the verses in the Quran that talk about people of other faiths. That would lead one to the conclusion, which the Quran itself states somewhere, that God does not forbid Muslims from befriending those non-Muslims who have not persecuted them on account of their faith. In other words, the Quran insists we should relate to such people with love and good intentions. That sort of relationship is crucial for any meaningful inter-faith dialogue.
Islam is the religion taught by all the prophets, who have been sent to all peoples in the world, as the Quran itself says. It is, therefore, a truly universal faith, not tied down to one particular ethnic or cultural group. It is meant for all peoples, and so when some Muslims erroneously conceive of it as indelibly linked to a particular culture, dress, cuisine or language I feel they are really negating its universality. This naturally makes Islam appear culturally alien to people who have a different sort of culture. In turn, that makes our task of inter-faith dialogue as well as telling others about Islam particularly difficult.
In this regard I would like to cite a particular Hadith report that has been attributed to the Prophet, according to which he is reported as having said that differences (ikhtilaf) were a blessing for his community. Some ulema have wrongly interpreted this to mean that the Prophet was here indicating intra-Muslim sectarian differences. Not at all! Their petty bickering on the basis of sectarian differences has not proved to be a blessing at all, but, rather, a curse. Perhaps one sort of difference that the Prophet was referring to here was actually the diversity of cultures, food styles, dress, languages and so on. Unfortunately, some of our ulema think in quite the opposite way. They want to stamp out this rich cultural diversity, which is a real blessing actually, and impose a single culture on everyone, at the same time as they actively seek to promote sectarian differences by incorrectly interpreting this Hadith report.
Cultural diversity is a blessing ordained by God, and without it the world would have been a very drab and boring place indeed! So, in our inter-faith dialogue work we must recognize the validity of those things in others’ cultures that do not transgress basic human and Islamic norms. These things are actually quite acceptable to Muslims, who can also adopt them without fear of having diluted their faith thereby. Likewise in the case of others adopting some aspects of the culture associated with different Muslim groups.
If religion and culture are considered in this expansive way, I am quite confident that we can overcome numerous hurdles in the path to inter-faith understanding. Further, this would also help is in our task of telling others about our faith, which is something that Chacha Jan devoted his life to.
For a detailed account of Maulana Usmani’s views and approach to inter-faith dialogue, see my essay titled “An Islamic ‘Hinduism’?: The Inter-Faith Dialogue Project of Acharya Maulana Shams Naved ‘Usmani”, available on http://insaf.net/pipermail/insafny_insaf.net/2005-January/000846.html