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The Unity of Religions 
By M. Zeyaul Haque

Religions do share a wide common ground, which is encouraging. But the point today is that religious diversity too is an asset and has to be accepted as such.

M. Zeyaul HaqueRecently Ziau-s-Salam of The Hindu wrote an interesting piece on parallels between Hindu and Islamic scriptures. Most readers brought up on a steady dose of news reports describing communal strife find a welcome relief in articles which talk of the larger shared ground rather than the narrower terrain of inter-faith dispute. ‘I got quite a few laudatory calls and letters," Zia enthuses. ‘And also some nasty mail," he adds with a little less enthusiasm. Many people may wonder why such a well-meaning piece by such a nice young man should annoy anyone. Unfortunately, there are quite a few people among us who do not like to talk about our common humanity, shared history and common future. They would much rather talk about things that divide people on caste, class, faith, race, region and myriad other grounds.

In the din of global anti-Islam bivouac, few people care to remember that Islam does not recognize boundaries of race, class, region and most other boundaries that divide us today. It would bear some repetition to say that Muslims created the first ever multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious European societies in Andalusia (today’s south Spain), the Balkans and Sicily. These were also the last of such societies which consisted of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The experiment is yet to be repeated in the entire West. The courts and aristocracy of Mughal India had a generous mix of Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Parsis and even Europeans.

The creation of such societies from southern Europe to Balkans, Mid-East to Africa and the Sub-continent was possible only because Islam recognizes the triad of Abrahamic faiths as a family of the ‘people of the Book". Going beyond the obvious kinship of the three Semitic faiths, Islam clearly recognized the fact that God would have created a single faith for the entire humanity if He, in His infinite wisdom, deemed it wise. Instead, He opted for lush diversity of belief and practices. This is a clear injunction for tolerance of diversity.

There have been any number of ulema and sufis in India who stood by the well-known Islamic position that God sent his messengers to every people in every nook and cranny of the world. That calls for similar tolerance for faiths outside the Abrahamic triad. One of the earliest sufis of India, Mazharul Haque Jan-e-Jaanaan had constructed an ideological framework that almost brought Vedic Hinduism (as opposed to the Smaller Tradition) on a par with the people of the Book.

Historians have taken note of this and identified Imam Ghazali as the pioneer of comparative religious studies and an early propounder of liberalism. Muslims did all that with supreme confidence only because they were sure in the knowledge that Islam believed in unity of God and unity of humanity. They could find sustenance for such ideas in the life and traditions of the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions. The first Islamic state in Madina Munawwarah, with the Prophet as head, envisaged a commonwealth (Ummah Wahidah) of people of all faiths being practised in the area. The idea failed to take off not because Muslims backed out of it, but because others were hesitant.

Nearer home, the ulema by and large favoured a composite polity and the Two-Nation Theory was consistently rejected by the largest body of ulema, the Jamiat-ul-Ulema, which took the position that nations are from awtaan (homelands) not adyaan (faiths). The ulema warriors who fought against the British in 1857 included Haji Imdadullah Makki and his disciple Maulana Qasim Nanautawi, who founded the seminary at Deoband. Maulana Qasim stood by his idea of composite Indian nationhood despite the gravest provocations from Arya Samajists. The tradition of common nationhood continued with his illustrious linear disciples –– Maulana Mahmood Hasan, Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, and today’s Jamiat-ul-Ulema chief, Maulana Asad Madani. The communal typhoon not withstanding, the Jamiat has stood its ground over the decades.

Some of the best Muslims of their times, these men found support for their stand in the scripture and the life of the Prophet (PBUH) itself. A Hadith that gave Maulana Abul Kalam Azad sustenance in his multi-cultural belief describes the Prophet as saying that all men are brothers unto each other. This was Islam’s way of stressing the common humanity, in line with the supreme authority of the Qur'an, asserting that all humans are from Adam, who was from clay.

In our own time, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan narrates a Hadith in one of his writings which has the Prophet (PBUH) sitting among his blessed companions. When some people pass by carrying a dead person for burial, the Prophet (PBUH) stands up in honour of the dead man. That makes the companions wonder as to why should the Prophet (PBUH) stand up for a non-Muslim. The Prophet (PBUH) replies to the effect that he stood up to honour a man on his last journey. The clear message here is that people don’t necessarily have to be Muslims to deserve the highest honour in life and death from Muslims.

There are quite a few people who argue that ‘because all religions are the same, we should live in peace". Swami Aghedanand Bharati, one of the most learned Hindus of the 20th century (originally, he was a Polish Jew), was extremely unhappy with this line of reasoning. He said that all religions were not the same. Nonetheless, it did not give any body the licence to fight others just because the religions were not the same. The basic idea is to recognize the common ground and work together to expand it for common good, and still be mature enough to recognize distinction and accept religio-cultural diversity as an element enriching and enhancing the quality of life of a society.

Wonder where is the reason for sending hate mail (via hotmail) to a young journalist valiantly trying to identify some common ground between estranged brothers? The answer is that there does not have to be a reason for all the insane acts we commit. Finally, our fatherly advice to Zia: ‘Don’t worry, son. Carry on with your sadbhavna writings, and leave the durbhavna folk to stew in their own brew".

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