Delhi hosts international interfaith conference

New Delhi: The International Dialogue between Islam and Oriental Religions, a two-day conference aimed at building better relations between believers of various faiths in South Asia, was held at Ansari Auditorium of Jamia Millia Islamia here during 20-21 February.

The conference was held jointly by major Indian Muslim organisations, Jamia Millia Islamia’s Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies, the Delhi-based  Interfaith Coalition for Peace, the Qatar-based World Union of Muslim Scholars.(WUMS) and The Milli Gazette. It was the first endeavour of its kind to open channels of communication and understanding between various communities living in the South Asian countries. Around 180 delegates representing Eastern religions across the country as well as Nepal, Pakistan, Srilanka and some Arab countries took part in the conference. Though Islamic dialogues have been held earlier with Christians and Jews, this was the first time that an international dialogue was organised between Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.

The conference was inaugurated by eminent intellectual the Vice President of India, Muhammad Hamid Ansari. In his inaugural speech (see full text on page 5 inside), he said that interfaith dialogue has emerged as a prominent civil society initiative between nations and groups in the post-Cold War world, amidst the "Clash of Civilisations" debate and the raging ethnic and religious conflicts in various parts of the globe. He said that the "The Alliance of Civilizations" initiative under United Nations auspices connects people and organizations devoted to promoting dialogue among political, religious, media and civil society leaders, particularly between Muslim and Western societies. Other such dialogue frameworks include the Cordoba Initiative on improving Muslim-West relations, the Madrid Dialogue Conference which is a Saudi-Spanish effort, the Assisi Interfaith Work of the late Pope John Paul II and the Common World Initiative of Muslim scholars.

The Vice President, who was the chief guest, emphasised on the need to go beyond tolerance. He said "The imperative for religious concord in a framework of equality is evident and compelling. This would be achieved only through a sustained, candid and uninterrupted dialogue without a syndrome of superiority or inferiority and with the objective of locating common values conducive to the maintenance of ethical standards essential for social harmony and furtherance of common objectives. The process of locating these values would bring forth other commonalities." Experience over time of shared public space and national common resources in everyday interaction, and mechanisms that blur boundaries through management of differences, would assist the process, he stated.

He added, "Initiation of the dialogue is timely as such dialogues have already started between Islam and Judaism and Christianity." "While there is a dialogue between Islam and Judaism and Christianity in the West, there is no such dialogue between Islam and Oriental religions in this part of the world. Initiation of such dialogue is timely," said Hamid Ansari. "There is a need to establish contact between Islam and Hinduism," he stressed and added: "Religions share common values but politics and government sowed hatred."

Najeeb Jung, Vice Chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia, in his welcome speech, said "This international programme is an honour to the great visionaries who founded the Jamia Millia University." Observing that all religions were under attack, he said that this has fostered mistrust among Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians. "Truth lies in mysticism of all religions which their followers miss to understand," he pointed out.

Prof. Shaikh Ali Al-Quradaghi presenting WCMS memento to the Vice President

Maulana Arshad Madani, President of Jamiat Ulema-e Hind, who chaired the inaugural session, said, "No clash among followers of religions has ever been in the past in India as Muslim rulers had Hindu officials at high ranks while Hindu rulers had Muslims. There was no religious conflict. "It was the British government which sowed religious discord through their divide and rule policy," said the Maulana adding that communalism can't be checked by another brand of communalism. "We have to strengthen peace and communal harmony in the society," he asserted.

Prof. Shaikh Ali Muhyuddin Al-Quradaghi, Chairman of the Minorities Committee and vice-president of WUMS, while representing Shaikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi who couldn't make it to the conference due to ill-health, said, "We have come to India, the country with rich culture and civilization, so that we could be acquainted with each other through mutual talk, live peacefully and do something unitedly for the building and progress of our countries. In fact, the good of all of us lies in living together peacefully and in this way only we can bring about economic progress, prosperity and security for all of us."

Jagatguru Shankaracharya Onkaranand Saraswati of Prayag Peeth called for unity among followers of religions for the sake of the country. "The unity once needed for freedom of India is again needed today," he said. Comparing the basic tenets of Hinduism and Islam, he said that: "Islam does not teach terrorism, nor does it instigate communal hatred. We all are creatures of one God. We all are equal. There is no conflict between Islam and Sanatan Dharma. There is a need to highlight values and teachings that call for unity."

The conference proceedings were compered by Dr. Zafarul-Islam Khan, the chief coordinator of the event. At the end of the inaugural session, Shaikh Ali Al-Quradaghi presented the memento of WUMS to the Vice President of India.

The second session on Shared Values was notable for the thought-provoking speeches of the delegates most of whom had written papers on the theme. The papers explored the shared ground and suggested different ways to build harmony in society.  Justice Abdul Gafoor of Kerala, presenting his paper on the "Scope of Cooperation between Islam and Eastern Religions," emphasised that the imperative need of our times is to foster greater understanding between our communities.

Dr. Ibrahim Al-Na'imi, President of the Doha International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID) and former vice chancellor of Qatar University, praised India for its great hospitality and inclusive spirit. "The culture and tradition of India are unique and great," he said. He stressed the need to increase the network of dialogue among believers of all faiths. "The Qur’an asks Muslims to indulge in dialogue rather than picking up quarrels with others. It also asks to respect the beliefs of others. To increase the network of dialogues, we have to peacefully coexist with all other religions. Only a civilized society can coexist with each other. India is the best example of peaceful coexistence," he said. DICID will always support India in its efforts in interfaith dialogues, he said. 

Shri Yugal Kishore Sharan Shastri, editor of Ayodhya ki Awaz, said that Hindu dharma and Sanatan Hindu dharma lay down the code of conduct for all human beings to live in harmony. "If you find truth in something, do not hesitate to tell it out. If you find wrong in something, you should show guts to spell it out," he said adding that though people follow different religions, the soul of them is pretty same.

Swami Laxmi Shankaracharya of Lucknow, in his speech, emphasised on the stunning similarities between the Sanatan Dharma and Islamic principles. He quoted examples from Gita and Upanishads to prove that there are striking similarities between Islamic principles and those of Vedas and Upanishats. He said that one can also find Tauhid in Sanatan Dharma. If a person wants to enter heaven, he should know God, he said. "Since the principles of Islam are there in Sanatan Dharma, Islam can never be considered as a new religion in the Asian countries," he pointed out.

Maulana Waris Mazhari and Maulana Abdullah Sa'ud Salafi of Varanasi’s Markazi Darul Uloom presented their papers on different topics stressing on the need to find shared values with believers in other faiths. Concluding the second session, Shaikh Ali Al-Quradaghi read out a message from Shaikh Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The message emphasised on the historic relations that bind Arab countries with India and its people. Recalling his earlier visits to India, Shaikh Qaradawi said that he has cherished memories of great Muslim leaders of India who had offered tremendous contributions to the rich history of the country and the world.

The Muslim Perspective
During the third session, Dr. Syed Zafar Mahmood (President of the Interfaith Coalition for Peace) speaking on "Interfaith in Islam," said that the message of interfaith dialogues is to build mutual cooperation. People were created in different regions, languages and colours just to distinguish them from each other and not to make discrimination.

Prof. J S Bandhukwala (President of PUCL Gujarat) presenting his paper on the "Soul of Islam,." said though religion is a very good force, it can also be used as a horrible and disruptive force. Speaking about the massacres in Gujarat, he said that those who played behind the incident were not ready to introspect and accept their wrongdoings. "Despite my efforts of 8 years, I didn't find such a single person," he said. Speaking the language of Quran is the best way to reach out to the people living in the streets, he said adding that the "Quran does not allow the unjust killing even of a single person. There are wonderful incidents in the history of Islam where we find examples of how to behave with the people of other faiths," he said adding that Muslims in India are very fortunate. There are great similarities between Islam and Sanatan Dharma and it is our duty to strengthen this idea, he asserted.

Justice P K Shamsuddin of Kerala said scholars like Shah Waliullah Dehlawi had opined that Hindus are also People of the Book (Ahlul Kitab). "Islam rejects all discrimination. If you save the life of a person, you save the entire humanity. That's what Islam teaches," he said adding that Jihad and Jizya are two words which have been misunderstood by the people of other religions. Jihad is a defensive war and Jizya a tax on able-bodie males for military service exemption. He called upon all people to stand for peace and mutual respect.

Maulana Burhanuddin Qasmi, a Deobandi scholar and editor of Mumbai’s Eastern Crescent, said all the major religions emerged in the eastern world. He said that there were four aspects through which a Muslim can have relations with the people of other religions: Moral and friendly relations, Love and Sympathy when others are in need but dealings which demand a loss of one's identity are not allowed for a Muslim, he stated.

Muhammad Ilyas Nadwi Bhatkali said that the interfaith dialogue becomes successful only when the people at the grassroot level realise the need for it. Aziz Belgaumi of Bangalore said "Though followers of other religions are keen on studying about Islam, Muslims themselves are not making serious study about it. That has to take place."

Prof. M D Nalapat of Manipal University who chaired the session said, "Though the top religions emerged in Asia, only four percent of top discoveries in the world are from Asia. The region has the potential to make a huge contribution. One of the reasons for the huge gap between Asia and Europe today is the poverty of the masses.  Despite all the developments, 400 million people of India are still living in terrible poverty. 
(Left to right) Dr. J.K. Jain, Dr. Araish Kumar, Giani Ranjit Singh & Swami Sadyojathah

Hindu perspective
During the fourth session of the conference, Swami Sadyojathah of the Art of Living said that those who do not have respect for other religions are not religious themselves. "Dialogues are the only way to bring peace in the world. The purpose of such dialogue is to bring about harmony among human beings.

Justice Dr. M Rama Jois, Member of Parliament, said that dialogue was the call of the nation. "Mutual respect among religions is most important. Tolerance and respect are quite different. Rather than tolerating a religion, we should be respectful towards it," he stated. Dharma is not religion, he stated. It is a code of conduct and a way of life. There is no difference between Islam and Hinduism on the concept of God, he stated. The Supreme power that exists in the world is one and same according to both religions. Only people call it by different names. All are from one father and mother. So there is no question of fighting between brothers, he said. "The sense of Dharma prevents one from committing an offence. Dharma suggests that the state should give protection to all the peoples irrespective of religion just like the mother earth gives space to all," he said and stated that it was politics that divides people.

Damodar Gautam of Nepal said that prophets were sent to the world from time to time, not only for a particular religion. "Though people follow different religions, they should respect all other religions,” he asserted. Jagatguru Shankaracharya Onkaranand Saraswati, Prof. Muhsin Usmani, Prof. Mateen Ahmad Siddiqui, Prof. Shiv Baran Shukla, Mrs Shiela Keneria of Pakistan and AM Ashrof also spoke at the session.

Sikh perspective
The fifth session of the conference and the first session of the second day was devoted to the Sikh perspective on dialogue and shared values. It was chaired by Dr.MM Verma, President of the Interfaith Foundation. He said, "Truth is one. People call it by different names. God is one and supreme. The subject matter of all religions is same...Holly books, if placed together, won't feel uncomfortable. It is people who feel uncomfortable. That has to be changed. Guru Nanak was kind to all, irrespective of religion," he said adding that Guru Nanak was the pioneer of interfaith dialogue in the modern history.

Giani Ranjit Singh, head priest of the Gurduwara Bangla Saheb of Delhi, said that all the Sikh gurus had met Mughal emperors and had indulged in dialogues with them. The dialogue can be successful only through democracy. "What happened to Sikhs in 1984 and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 is history. Such things should not be repeated. We have to look forward," he said. Former IFS officer Sangat Singh, Harnek Singh of Jaipur and Prof. Masood Alam Falahi of Lucknow University also spoke on shared values among Islam and Sikhism and explored ways to promote dialogue between the two communities. Sikh memmber of the Pakistani parliament (National Assembly) Dr Araish Kumar, spoke on the shared vision of both Sikhism and Islam and the condition of Sikhs in his country which he described as satisfactory. Prof. Shafeeq Ahmad Khan Nadwi of the Jamia Millia Islamia also spoke at the function.

Jain Perspective
The sixth session was devoted to the Jain perspective and was chaired by Dr JK Jain, chairman of Jain TV. Prof. Anaykat Kumar Jain, in his speech emphasised on the concept of Ahimsa as a core Jain concept. "Ahimsa is the soul of Jainism. Islam and Qur'an also emphasise on Ahimsa. It is prohibited to hunt once you wear Ihram during the Haj. All the religions teach ahimsa and Dharma," he said. There should be a department in all universities to teach religions, he said.
Prof. Phoolchand Jain Premi said the religion visualised by Emperor Akbar has a lot of principles picked up from all major religions in India. "A religion should not be identified with any language. Language is the medium for interactions among the people of the world," he said.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the J&K Hurriyat Conference urged people to be good human beings. Qur'an addresses the world calling 'O People,' not  a particular nation or religion. All are from one mother and one father. God made people into different tribes, colours and names just to identify them. "There is no force in Islam. If you learn Qur'an properly, you will find that it does not teach harm or violence," he stated.

Dr. Veer Sagar Jain of Lal Bahadur Shasri Sanskrit University said that there are many similarities between the words used in the holy books of different religions. Zakat in Islam has a word in Jainism too. You are not supposed to accept something in return when you donate something. You only expect the reward of God. He said that there is no grade system in the Jain religion.

Dr. J K Jain who chaired the session called upon all the people to follow their own religions properly and to love other religions at the same time. "To hear other people is very important. When you start listening to the other, dialogue will happen gradually," he pointed out.

Indu Jain of All India Radio, Dr. Sudeep Kumar Jain and Swami Dharmanand also spoke at the session.

Bhudhist Perspective
Buddhist perspective was the theme of the seventh session whcih was chaired by Dr Araish Kumar, Sikh member of the Pakistani parliament who said that peace is the most important value and if we achieve it we will achieve everything else. Dr. K J Yesudas, the famous singer and social activist of Kerala spoke during this session. He said that there are two kinds of people in the world: believers and non-believers. "Believers have to come together to build peace in the country. It does not matter which religion you belong to," he said. He sang a beautful song during his speech which called upon all the people to lend their hand to build peace in the world.

Buddhist monk Losang Tempa of Bodh Gaya, who spoke in chaste Urdu, said that it is peace that the present day world requires most. "I do not want anyone to be sad. Everyone should be happy in this world," he said. There are three steps to build harmony among people: the readiness to hear the other, to indulge in dialogue and to understand each other and stick to what you feel good, he said.

Ven. P Seewali Thero, the deputy general secretary of the Bodh Society of India and a high priest of Bodh Gaya, said "Everywhere you find violence these days. So it is very important to build up a mindset of non-violence. Love has no discrimination. It is very important to follow your religion very honestly." We have to be dedicated to cultivate love in ourselves. Then it starts flowing to the rest of the society. This process has to start from each person. Then only it will spread into the world, he said. "This programme may be an initiative to bring peace in the world. We need people who are able to understand and listen to others. Islam is peace. So whenever Muslims in the world are in trouble, we will be there with you," he said.

Mahendra Singh, chairman of Dhamma Society of India and a former special secretary to the government of Uttar Pradesh, called upon each one to take a decision that “I will not hurt anyone...We have to bring compassion back to the society. We should be ready to forgive others. That is a great quality. We need to have unlimited patience and compassion. If you know yourself, you will know the world. People are ignorant of themselves when they do some wrong," he said adding that these kinds of dialogues have to go international and the message has to be spread all over the world.

Prof. M D Nalapat said, though everyone wants money power and political power; nobody wants moral power which is the most important thing in this world. Ours is an inter-dependent world. You cannot escape dependence on others. There have been dialogues in the history of all religions. Non-violence is very important in the Buddhist perspective. "Respectful learning has to take place. Not even one Indian university is on the list of the top 500 universities in the world. This shows where we stand," he pointed out.

Dr. M A M Shukri of Srilanka said "Diversity brings beauty to the humanity. Pluralism and diversity are the beauty of the world." Muslims have always been open to the other religions and to learn about and from them. There are many books written by Muslim scholars that talk about other religions, he stated. Tolerance is the virtue that makes peace in the world.
Azmat Husain Khan, Tameemuddin Humble, Tek Chand Rahul and Prof. C D Naik spoke at the session.

Valedictory Session
The Valedictory Session was chaired by Jamia Millia’s Prof. Akhtarul Wasey. Shaikh Al-Quradaghi speaking at this session said that the programme was conducted to build a common platform for all religions. "It is very difficult to reach out to the mainstream media these days. This kind of dialogue has to get media coverage in order to become successful. Books are helpful to spread peace among people. The message of peace and coexistence has reached all the religions," he said. "In Arab countries, people love India with all its rich diversity and civilisation. Whatever happens to you, we will share that with you and we will always be there at your side," he assured.

Nusrat Mirza, a senior journalist from Pakistan, said that this attempt has to be followed up with more such measures in other parts of the region. We must indulge in dialogues. He said that, if possible, this kind of conference should be organised in Pakistan too. "This is a unique conference and this is the first time I am seeing this kind of a gathering in recent times," he said.

K P Ramanunni, the well-known Malayalam script writer and novelist, said that the foremost duty of any religion is to uphold the human values. All religions refuse to accept the evolutionary theory of Darwin because it is against the religious principles. Prophets lived just like common people. He said that there were striking parallels and similarities between Sri Krishna and Prophet Muhammad in many aspects.

Prof. Yoginder Sikand, famous writer, said that there are four hurdles in the path of dialogue between Islam and other religions. The first one is language where we associate a particular language with a religion. Islam has been connected with the Arabic language and that creates certain problems. The second hurdle is the obsession with rituals and the third one is idealisation of religious figures. The fourth one is communal conflicts carried out in the name of religion. Community and religion have to be understood separately, he pointed out. Other speakers included Uzma Naheed, Veteran journalist GD Chandan, Manzar Mehdi, Maulana Badrul Hasan Qasmi, Nigar Ataullah, Satyawat Samvedi and Maulana Asghar Ali Imam Mahdi Salafi.

Shaikh Ali Al-Quradaghi presented mementos to the programme organisers: The chief coordinator of the conference, Dr. Zafarul-Islam Khan said that the coordination committee would think of conducting such a programme in Pakistan and other regions. He said that around 50 papers have been printed as booklets for this programme and that a selection will be made in a book for wider distribution. While proposing vote of thanks, he appreciated the efforts of all the people that contributed to the success of the programme.

The conference resolved to continue the dialogue process as a national movement and to carry out the message of this conference by holding similar kind of conferences on small and large scales in all the major cities of India and beyond. (With inputs by Zafarul-Islam Khan)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 March 2010 on page no. 1

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