"Evolve Consensus on Common Factors, Join to Combat Evils"
"Evolve Consensus on Common Factors, Join to Combat Evils"
Ejaz Ahmed Aslam is the Assistant General-Secretary of the Jamaat-i- Islami of India. Here he speaks to Yoginder Sikand about the Islamic concept of social liberation and Inter-Religious dialogue
Q: What is the Islamic concept of social service?
A: Islam is based on the concept of one God and of the unity of humankind as His fellow creatures. It stresses Man’s responsibilities to God and to the whole of God’s creation. Life is a gift from God and must be used appropriately in His service. Religion has always been a force that has impelled people to serve others, but it has also been subjected to misuse by politicians, governments and people with vested interests for their own worldly concerns.
Q: How does Islam view the question of inter-religious dialogue ?
A: Religion is playing an increasingly important role in the world today, and so it is crucial that people belonging to different faiths should understand each other. Mutual misunderstandings need to be removed and every religion should be studied in its proper perspective. While there is still room for discussions on religion in a comparative perspective, the focus should be on trying to explore those common factors in the various religions and, on that basis, efforts can be made for people to co-operate with each other. If people from different faiths closely interact, it is likely that they will come to appreciate the good points that the others have and may become aware of their own shortcomings leading to a consensus. Moreover, their differences may narrow down in the process. Islam wholly supports this sort of dialogue. Islam believes that it is the truth, and that the basic message of the Holy Quran is essentially the same as that revealed to all the other prophets of God that appeared in the world before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh). The revelations to the other prophets, as scholarship in the field has also proved, have been modified or corrupted over time, and it is only the Holy Quran that is still preserved intact. Whatever good there is in the other scriptures may be a remnant of the original revelations that survived the process of tampering around with and we must respect that. As the Holy Prophet Muhammad says: “A word of wisdom is the lost property of the believer [mumin]. He deserves it wherever he finds it”. And words of wisdom can also be found in parts of other scriptures, too. That is why I can freely quote the Rig Vedic saying: “Let noble thoughts come to you from every side”. That is also why when I read certain portions of the Holy Bible tears come to my eyes.
Q: According to Islam, the religion taught by the various prophets was the same. Could you elaborate on this point?
A: Islam tells us that God has been sending prophets to the world right from the advent of the human race. Thus, the first human being, Hazrat Adam, was also the first prophet. The Holy Quran says that there is no nation to whom prophets have not been sent. They all taught the same religion or deen, which is al-Islam, an Arabic word which means “the Surrender” [to God]. The only point on which there were differences was in the matter of the law or shariat, to suit the needs of different social context. Thus, the law of the prophet Moses was different from that of the Prophet Muhammad, but even here there are many similarities. The shariat is the practical expression of the deen. The deen consists mainly of the conception of God and the universe and the status of Man, and this is common to the revelations that all the prophets, taught. While the shariat brought by one prophet may differ from that brought by another, their basic principles, such as prohibition of stealing or murder, are the same. In this way, Islam is a universal religion, since it has been taught by all the prophets, the last of whom was the Prophet Muhammad. It is universal in another sense in that it says that all human beings are children of Adam and Eve, and there is no question of discrimination on the basis of caste or race. There is no concept of a chosen race or caste in Islam.
Q: What has been the role of the Jamaat-i-Islami in promoting inter-religious dialogue in India?
A: An important aspect of inter-religious dialogue is the clearing up of misconceptions and prejudices that people of one religion have about the followers of another. This the Jamaat has always been very concerned about. We have sought to present Islam before others in its true perspective. We also stress that Muslims must appreciate whatever is good in other religions and peoples. For example recently, we published a book on the similarities between the Holy Quran and the Vedas. Furthermore, we have been very keen in establishing friendly relations with our non-Muslim brethren. We have contacts with many non-Muslim journalists, lawyers, priests, social activists as well as ordinary people, and we often invite them for our meetings or attend theirs. It has been our practice, ever since we were established in 1941, to seek to cultivate friendly ties with non-Muslims, even with RSS people. They are invited to our seminars and get-togethers where they present their own points of view about issues of social, economic and political concern. Some years ago we set up the Forum for Democracy and Communal Amity. This is a non-political organisation, and consists of people of different religions and political persuasions. In all of this the guiding force is unity of mankind and that we should move towards one world, one large brotherhood.
Islam attracts the oppressed people because of its quality of liberating the lowly, poor people
Q: Some scholars and activists who have written about inter-religious dialogue speak about two levels of interaction—firstly, at the theological level, and then at the level of co-operative efforts for social action. Where does the Jamaat’s work stand in all of this?
A: Through dialogue at the first level differences may narrow down but the major differences—as far as basic religious beliefs are concerned—may still remain. However, despite this, through dialogue we may come to the realisation that we all agree on certain basic issues. For instance, we may discover that we are all equally concerned that poverty should be eliminated or that corruption should be combatted. Based on this realisation, the way is open for co-operative work at the level of social action to jointly struggle to achieve those aims. However, I must confess, we in the Jamaat have not as yet been able to effectively operate at that second level of dialogue.
Q: What message of social liberation does Islam have for the oppressed?
A: Historically, Islam came as a source of liberation of the oppressed, even in India. Islam stresses that the whole world belongs to Allah and He alone is the true Sovereign. There is absolutely no notion of caste or racial hegemony in Islam. Furthermore, the concept of priesthood or intermediaries between human-beings and God, is also absent in Islam. Anyone can lead the prayers, and there is no special class of priests. All believers, rich and poor, pray together in the mosque. This is why Islam has attracted oppressed people wherever it has spread. It liberated people not only from false beliefs and false gods but also from false and oppressive social, economic and political structures.
Q: That may be true in theory, but among the Muslims in India caste does seem to play an important role, in it?
A: That, unfortunately, is true. However, the role of caste among the Muslims of India is quite different from that among the Hindus. There is no notion of “purity” and ”pollutnio” in Muslim society, and inter-caste marriages are allowed. The presence of caste among the Muslims in India is a result of their having lived for centuries in a predominantly Hindu milieu. The Jamaat is concerned about the caste issue among the Muslims, and is making efforts to combat it. We insist that Islam does not recognise any such thing. Islam says that the true measure of a persons worth is not his race or ethnicity but his piety [taqwa] and devotion to God.