Wednesday, July 13, 2016



Dr. Ishanand Vempeny

(Published in Jeevadhara, Vol.XLVI, No.273, May 2016, pp.66-85)


a.       Islam and Inter-religious Dialogue

In inter-religious gatherings, the Hindus and Christians often ask whether the Muslims are interested in the welfare of people outside Umma, outside the Islamic fold. The works of Aga Khan Trust for universal welfare is looked upon as an exception rather than the rule. Of course nobody called into question the universal love of the Sufis. But the truth is that the Quranic Justice includes all, including one’s enemies.

“O ye who believe  stand out firmly for God as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just - that is next to piety - and fear God.” (Quran 5:8).

“It is part of the mercy of God that thou dost deal gently with them. Wert thou severe or harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from about thee: so pass over (their faults), and ask for (God’s) forgiveness for them; and consult them in affairs (of moment).” (Quran 3:159)       

“Nor can goodness and evil be equal. Repel (Evil) with what is better: then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate!” (Quran 41:34)

At the beginning of Islam, it came in contact with the Jews and the Christians whom the Quran calls the “People of the Books”. Since these two religions are monotheistic the Muslims found it easy to be open and collaborative towards them. The Quran says in the context of the Jews and Christians: “Our God and your God is One; and it is to whom we bow (in Islam)” (Quran 29:46). We read in the Rigveda, Ekam Sat vipra bahudha vadanti” (=Truth is one but sages interpret diversely (Rg. 1:164:46) and “Ekam santam bahudha kalpayanti” (=though truth is one, it is diversely imagined (Rg. 10:1l4:5). The Vedic Hinduism is basically monotheistic though the Ultimate Reality is imagined diversely during the different stages of its evolution. With this understanding of Hinduism Muslims may find easy to cooperate with the Hindus also. The tolerant attitude towards other religions is pretty much obvious in the following texts: 

“O ye that reject faith. I worship not that which ye worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship.” (Quran 109:1-3)

“To you be your way and to me mine.” (Quran 109:6)

“There shall be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands our clear from error.” (Quran 2:256)

“If it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed, - all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!” (Quran 10:99)

To each among you have prescribed a Law and an open way. If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute (Quran 5:48).

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair), of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other. (Not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all these things) (Quran 49:13). (Cfr. Also 2:213; 10:19; 30:21)

The Persian mystic Sa’di (AD.1292) gives the following mystical interpretation of this universalistic spirit of the Quran:

“Adam’s posterity is like the members of a body, since they are all made of the same matter. If fate gives pain to one, all the others get to feel it too. You who do not feel sympathy for the pain of another, you cannot be called human.”[1] 

The Muslim call for prayer is for falah (welfare): “Come ye unto the salat. Come ye unto the falah”. Kenneth Cragg in his well-known book The Call of the Minaret Explains falah thus: “Falah is not then, some pietistic abstraction, nor the indulgence of a private sanctity. It is the true state of welfare, the prosperity of the people of God, fulfilled in communal existence and realized in social life.”[2]
In the context of Inter-religious dialogue these concepts for universal welfare are rightly interpreted to include not only the ‘People of the Books’ but also all the children of Adam and Eve, created in God’s own image. In Islam there is the prescription of legal almsgiving (zakat), one of the five pillars of Islam, and of ribaa (prohibition of interest), an invitation to practice the values of the Universal Family. Asghar Ali Engineer says:

“However, many radical thinkers among Muslims rightly feel that ribaa should not be taken to mean interest only but exploitation in general. Any practice which leads to exploitation of man by man including unjust profit (industrial as well as commercial) should be treated as ribaa.[3]
It is obvious that there are a number of texts in the Quran which give universal openness and concern beyond the Umma, though we cited just a few texts.[4] The Prophet himself and the early Caliphs like Umar Ibn-al-Khattab and Harun al-Rashid were concerned about the welfare not only of the Muslims but also of that of the conquered people. Here we have not given the true interpretation of jihad which is an injunction to fight against evil as perpetrated by certain tyrants who chase out poor and helpless people from their homes (Quran 2:39-40). Even in such jihads too there should be justice. “And fight in the way of God with those who fight with you, and do not exceed, for God does not love those who exceed the limits (Quran 2:190).

b. Two Basic Principles for openness to Other Religions

1. The Axiom ‘The Context Changes the Text’

One of the chief assumptions of contextual theology, especially of Liberation Theology is the saying that context changes the text. This assumption is today accepted almost as an axiom. The context of a person is not just his mind-set but some sort of mental category, a la Kantian Categories, through which the subject tries to reach the Noumenon. Let us take the example of a film like The Bandit Queen. In this film what would strike the high-caste Hindus and what would strike the oppressed caste of Phoolan Devi herself must have been very different. The high-caste Hindus might not have found anything abominable or even strange in the approving looks of the wives of the men who were raping her or parading her naked through the length and breadth of the village. How different must have been the perception, both in details and in substance, of the women of the caste of Phoolan Devi! One might say that in films people would perceive what they are interested in, on the conscious or the unconscious level. This is the psychological aspect of the influence of the context. 

Oxford Companion to Mind says: “…the direct realism of immediate experience of the object world has been abandoned. It is now, however, fairly, generally accepted that stored knowledge and assumptions actively affect even the simplest perceptions.” There is a hymn in the NT sung by Mary, the Mother of Jesus. After citing a few verses we shall point out the problem:

        ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
        and my spirit exults in God my saviour;
        because he has taken upon his lowly handmaid.
        He has shown the power of his arm,
        he has routed the proud of heart.
        He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly.
        The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away. (Lk. 1:46,47,51,52)

According to the Liberation Theologians, a poor and downtrodden person would see in the above well-known Biblical hymn called Magnificat, the challenging cry for justice by an oppressed and unjustly treated woman rather than the lyrical song of praise by a leisurely, rich lady thanking God for her abundance. In the past it was the elite of society who interpreted this hymn and sung solemnly in five voices. But for persons who suffer oppression and injustice it is a revolutionary song, which needs completely a new revolutionary tune and a thoroughly new interpretation. But there are other epistemological aspects too in the above-said axiom that context changes the text. 

From the time of Heisenburg even scientists began to take for granted the subjective elements even in the most ‘objective’ physio-chemical sciences. It is much more so in human sciences like history and sociology. William James used to say that in Love, Politics, and in Religion people prove what they want to prove because they have to prove it. The same thing happens to the terrorists. They interpret the Quranic texts according to the needs of their terroristic activities.

2. Re-reading the Scriptures according to the Contextual Challenges

Some time back, I had the privilege of attending an international seminar organized by a group of secular persons from different parts of the world. One of the main topics of this seminar was The Humane Face of Socially Engaged Hinduism. The participants including those from the West, were well aware of the common and uncritical understanding of Hinduism, as a world-denying religion with no concern for the sufferings and miseries of fellow human beings, be it poverty, disease or caste-discrimination.

They were also aware of another uncritical assumption about Hinduism. It is that because of the Hindu belief in Sanchit Karma (accumulated evil effects of the actions of the previous birth) the victims of contagious diseases, social marginalization, economic injustice etc. suffer in the present birth as a just punishment for their sinful deeds in the previous birth. Hence, others would have no serious responsibility of trying to alleviate their sufferings since they suffer what they deserve. Some would go so far as to say that Hinduism does not consider society or evil social structures having anything to do with man’s present miseries. 

        Not only the Hindu participants but also the Non-Hindus felt that such views are downright exaggerations. All the same, most were aware that there is a grain of truth in these assumptions. It is precisely the awareness of this grain of truth, which made some Hindu and Non-Hindu scholars come together and organize this seminar for discovering and exposing the compassionate and socially engaged face of Hinduism.

During the reading of a number of scholarly papers and during the discussions that followed, we could come across a number of traditions, rituals, festivals etc. which showed the deeply compassionate face of Hinduism. There were scholars who could parade numerous scriptural statements from the Vedas to the mediaeval and modern bhakti literature (sacred writings of the saints and mystics like Jnaneshvar, Manickvasagar and Kabir), which teach compassion and concern for fellow human beings. Here we had the experience of what the Liberation Theologians call “hermeneutical suspicion and re-reading the scriptures from the context”. This was followed by an action plan highlighting these traditions and scriptural injunctions, which promote compassion and socio-economic justice.

A Word more on this concept of re-reading the scriptures in a situation of religious pluralism is in order. The ISIS and other terrorist groups pick up a few Quranic verses which are challenges to other religions. But they ignore many other texts which are open to other religions. But to be open to such texts we should have desire for peace and unity. If we are approaching other religions with hatred and revengefulness and carrying AK-47, we can never find the friendly texts in the Quran or the similar texts in other religions. When the Christians and the Muslims begin their inter-religious dialogue, both groups should develop openness towards each other and desire to be a true “child of God”/to be a “true witness to Allah”.

[1] Quoted by Dr Sebastian Vempeny, Minorities in Contemporary India, New Delhi: Kanishka Publishers and Distributors, 2003, p.361
[2] New York: OUP, 1956, p.140
[3] Justice, Women and Communal Harmony in Islam, New Delhi: 1989, p.20
[4] For a more extensive study, Cfr. Sebastian Vempeny, Op. Cit., pp.354-67

Tuesday, July 5, 2016



Dr. Ishanand Vempeny

(Published in Jeevadhara, Vol.XLVI, No.273, May 2016, pp.66-85)


a.       Fundamentalism:

‘Rootedness without Openness’: This could be a brief description of fundamentalism, accurate as far as it goes. The word comes from the Latin word fundamentum which means, base, foundation, root and the like. Fundamentalism can be not only in Religion but also in history socio-political theories, chemico-physical sciences, etc.

The word fundamentalism began to be applied to religion primarily in the context of American Protestantism at the turn of the 20th century. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language gives the following description of Religious Fundamentalism: “A movement in American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century and that stresses the infallibility of the Bible, in all matters of faith and doctrine, accepting it as a literal historical record.” A little more satisfactory description of this concept is given by Collins Concise Encyclopedia: “Conservative, mainly Protestant, religious movement of 20th century upholds traditional interpretations of Bible against modern textual criticism and scientific theory (e.g. Darwinism). Movement organized in 1909, esp. influential in US.”  

b.      Fundamentalist and Scientific Interpretations of the Bible

A brief note:

          For a man of science and modern thinking, the first two chapters of the first book of the Old Testament known as Genesis can be dynamite to his brain. The first question one would ask is the division of God’s action of creation into seven days. Let us read verses 1:3-5 from the book of Genesis: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness. God called light ‘day’, and darkness he called ‘night’. Evening came and morning came; the first day.” (Gen. 1:3-5)

In this verse we read about light and darkness and day and night. After this God creates the sky, the waters, the earth, vegetation, etc. And in verses 14-16 we read: “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of heaven to divide day from night, and let them indicate festivals, days and years. Let them be light in the vault of heaven to shine on the earth.’ And so it was, ‘God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, the smaller light to govern the night, and the stars.” (Gen. 1:14-16)

The above descriptions are just a part of the creation story consisting just 6 of 56 verses of the first two chapters. In these 6 versus a critical mind can see a number of inconsistencies. We shall just pay attention to a couple of the obvious ones. The Bible says about the division of day & night and of the first day of creation. How were the day & night recognized without the sun, moon and the stars? How were the days of the week reckoned without the heavenly bodies?

An orthodox and critical Christian would consider the narrations of the creation in the Bible are stories said thousands of years ago to communicate an important message. At that time people from different religions worshipped sun, moon and stars and some people worshipped certain animals and trees. Here the author wants to teach that these have been created by the Supreme Being, Yahweh, and they all depend on Him as creatures.

A fundamentalist, however, would not like to look at the Biblical passages with the critical mind of a scientist. They would find answers to the critical questions in very farfetched ways. They do not like to think that light has to depend on the heavenly bodies. They try to understand the descriptions literally. A man of science can remain faithful to his religious teachings and at the same time he may postulate the scientific theory of the ‘Big Bang’ and the theory of evolution.

In Christianity one of the typical examples of the conflict between science and religion was the Galileo Controversy. Galileo with his own telescope proved Heliocentric (sun-centered) while the fundamentalist Christians, quoting some Biblical passages insisted on Egocentrism (earth-centered) as the normal eye-cite warrants. On the other hand if Christ had said 2000 years ago that the earth is round and the sun moves around the earth, he would have been crucified in the first year itself of his public life.

The critically orthodox Christian scholars have developed various scientific methods (Historical Criticism, Form Criticism, Redaction Criticism, etc.) which help one to find out the meanings which the sacred authors had intended. These methods to understand the real meaning of a text in the modern context are generally known as ‘hermeneutical methods’. The truth of the Bible or any scripture can be found out through these hermeneutical methods. Dr. Sukthankar of the Bhandarkar Institute, Pune, used these methods to prepare the critical edition of the Mahabharata.

c.       The Holy Quran interpreted by the Medieval Holy Men

          In the history of Islam too there were many commentators who interpreted the Holy Quran according to the contextual challenges. Al-Ghazālī was one of the most revered commentators of the Holy Quran. This is what the Wikipedia writes about the status of Al-Ghazālī in early Islam:

“Al-Ghazālī has been referred to by some historians as the single most influential Muslim after the Islamic prophet Muhammad within Islamic civilization he is considered to be a Mujaddid or renewer of the faith, who, according to tradition, appears once every century to restore the faith of the community. His works were so highly acclaimed by his contemporaries that Al-Ghazālī was awarded the honorific title ‘Proof of Islam’ (Hujjat al-Islam). Others have cited his opposition to certain strands of Islamic philosophy as a detriment to Islamic scientific progress. Besides his work that successfully changed the course of Islamic philosophy – the early Islamic Neo-Platonism that developed on the grounds of Hellenistic philosophy, for example, was so successfully criticized by Al-Ghazālī that it never recovered – he also brought the orthodox Islam of his time in close contact with Sufism.”[1]

There was in the middle ages another famous Islamic interpreter called Avicenna:
“Avicenna (Latinized form of Ibn-Sīnā, c. 980–June 1037) was a Persian polymath who is regarded as one of the most significant thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age. Of the 450 works he is known to have written, around 240 have survived, including 150 on philosophy and 40 on medicine.”[2]
He was an orthodox Muslim very much loyal to the Islamic tradition. He was struggling to reconcile Islam with the contextual philosophies and religious trends. He was somewhat influenced by Neo-Platonism. Avicenna memorized by the age of ten, and as an adult, he wrote five treatises commenting the various on suras from the Quran. One of these texts included the Proof of Prophecies, in which he comments on several Quranic verses and holds the Quran in high esteem. Avicenna argued that the Islamic prophets should be considered higher than philosophers.
The Wikipedia writes about his theological interests:
“His aim was to prove the existence of God and His creation of the world scientifically and through reason and logic. Avicenna's views on Islamic theology (and philosophy) were enormously influential, forming part of the core of the curriculum at Islamic religious schools until the 19thcentury. Avicenna wrote a number of short treatises dealing with Islamic theology. These included treatises on the prophets (whom he viewed as "inspired philosophers"), and also on various scientific and philosophical interpretations of the Quran, such as how Quranic cosmology corresponds to his own philosophical system. In general these treatises linked his philosophical writings to Islamic religious ideas; for example, the body's afterlife… Avicenna considered philosophy as the only sensible way to distinguish real prophecy from illusion.”[3]  

Apart from these two great and orthodox Islamic thinkers of the Medieval Golden age of Islam, there have been many other Islamic theologians in different parts of the world. Our purpose in citing the examples of these two stalwarts is to point out that Islam was open to reinterpretations and renewal from its origin till the recent times. But due to the lack of recognized Mujaddids, fundamentalism like Wahhabism began to dominate modern Islam.

d.      The Semitic Religions and the Fundamentalist Exclusivism

Exclusivism is another aspect of fundamentalism. This exclusivism is expressed by the belief that the members of a particular religion belong to a “Chosen People”. All the three Semitic Religions believe that they had been specially chosen by the Creator God (Yahweh-Allah).  Because of this belief they consider themselves specially privileged and other religions secondary. The Jews called the members of other religions “Gentiles”, the Christians “Pagans” and the Muslims “Kaffirs”. This leads to ‘exclusivism’ which is another face of fundamentalism. This exclusivism leads to intolerance and paves the way for terrorism.

1.      Christian Ways of getting out of Exclusivism

There are a number of exclusivist passages in the Bible especially in the Old Testament (OT). These passages led the Christians consider the non-Christians not chosen by God. Yahweh tells his chosen people (Israel) to exterminate the people of Canaan. This is precisely what Joshua did. Here we shall cite a few exclusivist verses:  
“The same day Joshua captured Makkedah, putting it and its king to the sword; he delivered them over to the curse of destruction, with every living creature there, and let no one escape, and he treated the king of Makkedah as he had treated the king of Jericho. Joshua, and all Israel with him, went on from Makkedah to Libnah and attacked it and Yahweh put this, too, and its king at Israel’s mercy; and Israel put every living creature there to the sword, and left none alive, and treated its king like the king of Jericho. Joshua, and all Israel with him, went on from Libnah to Lachish and besieged it and attacked it. Yahweh put Lachish at Israel’s mercy, and Israel took it on the second day and put it and every living creature in it to the sword, as they had treated Libnah. Horam king of Gezer then marched up to help Lachish, but Joshua beat him and his people until not one was left alive.” (Joshua 10:28-33)

After the Vatican II (11 October 1962 – 8 December 1965) Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular began to be open to other religions and consider other religions as ways of Salvation. Vat. II declared: “The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.” (Nostra Aetate, The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, No.2). Here the Church takes almost a U-turn from the previous exclusivistic thinking to this inclusivistic one.

A few years ago I attended a panel discussion with five Christian fundamentalists in Manila. According to them, only baptized Christians could be saved. Even in this matter they limited salvation possibilities to only those who have been baptized by the Spirit, with the implication that the members of the main-line Churches who do not claim such a baptism would be excluded. When I asked them whether they believed in a God of love, they insisted that God is love and that His love is unconditional. I told them: “In spite of your parroting about God’s love, in practice your God is unjust, unwise and cruel. Your God fits in pretty well with my definition of the devil. He seems to watch with cruel pleasure a 1250 million Chinese, a 1500 million Muslims, some 800 million Hindus, some 500 million Buddhists and a 1750 million Christians of the mainline Churches moving towards eternal damnation. He does not seem to be willing to do anything effective to change this situation except appointing some fanatic preachers whose message is often philosophically illogical, psychologically unhealthy and ethically immoral.” Though they went on shouting “blasphemy, blasphemy!” I managed to put across the above thoughts.

Christian faith is rooted in the belief that God is love as taught by the New Testament (1 John 4:8 & 16, Rom. 3:24-25, 5:8, 8:31-39, Lk 15, et passim). How can a God of love can send millions of his children into hell with no fault of their own? The Holy Quran too teaches that God is merciful and loving.

In my books Krishna and Christ, Conversion, Inspiration in Non-Biblical Scriptures, I have enumerated a number of texts both from the Old Testament and New Testament, which are open to other religions. If however Christianity begins to be inclusive and open to other religions it is not only because of the Biblical texts but also because of other fundamental Christian beliefs. One of such beliefs is that God is an unconditionally loving ‘Father’. (Lk 6:36, 10:29-37, Mt. 25:31-46, et passim)

2.      Islamic Exclusivism and Opposition to Other Religions

Dr. Samir Kahlil Samir, an Egyptian scholar on Islam point out that the scriptures of the Semitic religions exhorted their followers to oppose the other hostile religions even with violence. As a typical example he gives the anti-gentile statements in the OT. He says: “In the OT, we have a lot of violence: When Jews entered the so-called Holy Land, they used violence – not because they were fanatics, but because they believed God ordered it. They had to use it, and when they refused, they were sinners.”[4]
Opposition to Other Religions in the Quran

As in the OT of the Bible, in the Quran too there are verses which are opposed to other religions demanding violence towards them. These texts have to be read in relation with the ones which are friendly towards other religions. After giving a few hostile texts we shall get into the friendly ones. 

The Google gives a number of Quranic verses which admonish people for war against those who do not believe in Islam. It gives 109 verses which teach to oppose the enemies especially those who do not believe in Allah. We shall cite just 3 or 4 verses for samples after verifying them from the Holy Book itself[5]:

Quran (2:191-193) - "And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief or unrest] is worse than killing... but if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful. And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and worship is for Allah alone. But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against Az-Zalimun (the polytheists, and wrong-doers, etc.)". 

Quran (4:95) - "Not equal are those of the believers who sit (at home), except those who are disabled (by injury or are blind or lame, etc.), and those who strive hard and fight in the Cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives. Allah has preferred in grades those who strive hard and fight with their wealth and their lives above those who sit (at home). Unto each, Allah has promised good (Paradise), but Allah has preferred those who strive hard and fight, above those who sit (at home) by a huge reward." This passage criticizes "peaceful" Muslims who do not join in the violence, letting them know that they are less worthy in Allah's eyes.”

Quran (5:33) - "The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement."

            The fundamentalistic and exclusivistic Muslims quote verses like the above independently of those which are friendly and open to other religions. We shall first give some of the texts friendly towards and inclusive of all other religions. Below we shall see the meaning and method of re-reading the scriptures in situations of Religious Pluralism.