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

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