Summary prepared by Pratiksha Nair, Programme Coordinator, CSSS
The Centre for Study of Society and Secularism along with G.D. Parikh Centre for Educational Studies organised a talk by Dr. Imtiyaz Yusuf on the topic “Critical Issues in Muslim-Buddhist dialogue in Contemporary Asia” on 22nd July 2016 at J.P. Naik Bhavan, University of Mumbai, Kalina Campus, Mumbai.
Dr. Imtiyaz Yusuf is the Director of Centre for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding in the College of Religion Studies, Mahidol University, Thailand. He specializes in Religion with a focus on Islam in Thailand & Southeast Asia and also Muslim-Buddhist dialogue.
In the lecture he said, the religions of Buddhism and Islam both have common theological grounds. The growths of both religions were parallel, while Islam flourished in Central Asia and Middle-East, Buddhism flourished in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Encounters between Islam and Buddhism are as old as Islam itself. It dates back to the Muslim engagements with the Asian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism due to the commercial relations, immigrations and political interactions between the worlds of Islam and Asia. Buddhism has been a non-theistic religion, whereas Islam has been a monotheistic religion. They both believe in liberation and following the middle path. In religious terms, this led to the meeting between the Hindu view of moksha (liberation) through the Hindu notion of monism, the Buddhist notion of Dhamma (truth) through the realization of sunyata (emptiness), and the Islamic concept of fana’ (passing away of one’s identity by its merging into the Universal Being) as expounded in the monotheistic pantheism of the Sufis.
Buddhism and Islam are essentially parallel religions that share values like morality, liberations equality, justice and freedom. They have always coexisted peacefully in South Asia and Southeast Asia for so many centuries. Despite the long record of Muslim-Buddhist interaction, such contact is at present non-existent or rare, largely due to the strong trend of reified interpretations of religion in the contemporary world – interpretations which in turn overlook the historical exchanges between both the religions.
However it is during the colonial period that the boundaries of nation-states were drawn and this led to the construction of the concept of minority-majority. The resulting aspirations of power by the majority led to the creation of fear of the minorities or ‘the other’. This creation of fear helps consolidate power in the hands of the few. Religion had taken a back seat during the colonial rule but post-colonization these new nation-states, who were grappling with issues of identity, saw in religion the possibility of building a new identity. Thus religion came back but came back with a vengeance, stronger and more powerful. Dr. Yusuf believes that today, ideology has become religion and religion has become an ideology and the fine balance between the two have been lost.
Today Islam and Buddhism have taken a strong ritualistic and ethno-nationalistic identity and are concerned about maintaining their ethno-religious identity and protecting and preserving their political status as citizens in the face of rising conservative Buddhism or Islam. In Theravada Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka due to their ritualistic orientation, do not have enough space for dialogue and tolerance with other religions. Whereas, in Mahayana Buddhist states like Taiwan, Korea and Japan, Buddhism assumes a more spiritual and philosophical orientation giving more space for dialogue between religions. The most critical way of maintaining stable, non-violent relations between religions is by having constant dialogue between them. Dr. Yusuf believes that dialogue is an enriching experience. It is about learning about oneself first and then the other, growing and changing. Understanding oneself and one’s own religion is the first step towards dialogue. Conversion is not and should never be the purpose of dialogue. We need to understand and learn about the other religion and no one should be a spokesperson of any religion. We need to understand problems and conflicts from the other person's perspective and try to analyse how we would react if something unfair and violent were to happen to us. Both religions need to be understood in their own terms, individually.
According to Dr. Yusuf, one response to rise of religious conflicts, violence and hatred is to educate the positive role of religions rooted in spiritual and humanistic traditions of Islam and Buddhism. Inter-religious dialogue is necessary to improve understanding and tolerance among people. Muslims need embark on a continuous process of critically reviewing and revisiting their understanding and practice of Islam in the light of the conditions and requirements of our age and the clarifications provided by our collective historic experiences. There is a need to strengthen the Muslim reformist tradition and to create bridges between the Muslims and the rest of world.
Dr. Imtiyaz Yusuf furthered stressed on the importance of educating the youth about ways of expressing support and dissent within democratic means. Inculcate democratic values through school curricula early on to form and develop a culture of democratic tolerance in young minds. There is a need to realize and accept plural identity. This would lead to a much needed multicultural citizenship. He fears that the world today is headed towards ‘global’ fascism which is not limited only to the German borders anymore. He also emphasizes on the need to promote science, economic development and Human Resource development. Lastly he concluded by saying, there two types of interreligious ignorance – One is when the followers of one religion do not know the other religion and second is when one does not want to learn the religion of others. It's up to us to make a choice.
The audience that consisted of approximately 40 well-known academicians, professors, journalists and students raised questions about the status of women in both religions, extremism prevalent in both religions, the rising intolerance for diversity leading to the domination of certain communities in a religion and about creating a platform for humans to realize humanity and embark on a journey of spiritualization and natural humanization.
It was one of the most enigmatic lectures held as part of the Study Circle under CSSS’s Dr. Asghar Ali Memorial Activities, with an engaging Dr. Imtiyaz Yusuf delivering a humanistic, enlightening talk that left us thinking about our ways of dealing with religious conflicts and diversity.