Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine

Shaban 1424 H
October 2003
Volume 16-10 No : 202
Camps \ Workshops

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Fact to Face


"Muslims In Kerala Are More Open And Flexible To Changes"

"Muslims In Kerala Are More Open And Flexible To Changes"

Shaikh Muhammad Karakunnu is the director of the Calicut-based Islamic Publishing House, the largest Islamic publishing company in Kerala. He is a senior leader of the Kerala wing of the Jama'at-i Islami and head of its Dialogue Centre. Here he talks to Yoginder Sikand on the inter-faith dialogue work that the Jama'at is engaged in in Kerala.

Can you tell us something about the Dialogue Centre, of which you are the director?

The Dialogue Centre was set up by the Kerala unit of the Jama'at-i Islami some four years ago. It has, broadly, two basic aims. Firstly, to promote dialogue and discussion among people of different faiths so that they can jointly work together for communal amity. The second objective is to present an objective and balanced picture of Islam to the general public. As part of the inter-faith dialogue work that we are engaged in, we have organized several lectures and public meetings in various parts of Kerala. Generally, each dialogue is focused on a particular issue, say the concept of God or social service or peace or the status of women in different religions. We invite Christian and Hindu priests and Muslim scholars to speak about the issue from their own religious perspectives, after which there is a question and answer session. The audience is mixed, so you have Hindus, Christians and Muslims among them and they are all free to ask whatever questions they want to. But all this is conducted in a spirit of discussion and dialogue, free from polemics. The intention is not to win over the other or to denigrate the other or to prove one's superiority but simply to allow a free discussion and exchange of views.In the four years that we have been working, we have conducted several such dialogue meetings. Some two years ago we organized a Hindu-Muslim dialogue meet at Ernakulam, the convenor of which was a senior leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. There were around a thousand people in the audience, Muslims and Hindus, including some RSS workers as well. The subject was the meaning of life in Hinduism and Islam, and three Hindu leaders and the same number of Muslim scholars spoke. It generated a lot of very interesting discussion. Excerpts of the discussion were even broadcast on local television, and it was widely reported in the press. After the meeting, Dharma Dhara, which is the communications unit run by the Jama'at here in Kerala, prepared a set of six audio and two video cassettes based on the discussion for sale to the general public. Likewise, we conducted a similar dialogue meet at Kottayam with Christian leaders and another at Palaghat with senior Marxist scholars. So, in this way we are trying to get intellectuals and leaders of different communities to meet and to discuss and to clear up the misconceptions that they might have about each other. I believe that the only way that we can survive in a multi-religious society is by promoting this sort of healthy discussion, free from polemics. From an Islamic perspective, this is also a binding duty on Muslims, for the Qur'an tells us that we should cultivate good relations with people of other faiths and to address them with kindness. Our task is simply to create an atmosphere of tolerance and openness for only then can we explain what we believe in to others and only then can others be willing to listen to what we have to say. We are not seeking to convert others to Islam, for only God can guide people. All that we want to do is to remove people's misunderstandings about Islam, and then they are free to make whatever decision they want.

You just mentioned Dharma Dhara. Can you tell us something about it?

Dharma Dhara is a communications unit run by the Kerala wing of the Jama'at, which prepares audio and video material based on Islamic themes. These include lectures on various Islamic issues, and issues of social concern, including communal amity, all from an Islamic perspective. Now this sort of work you would, I guess, find in north India as well, though I am quite sure it is not done in as organized and professional a manner as here in Kerala. We've done a large number of cassettes of Islamic music as well, which use various musical instruments. Now, in the north you have many 'ulama who would readily condemn this as un-Islamic, but here we think it is perfectly acceptable. In this, and in other regards, the Kerala Muslims are considerably more open and flexible than their counterparts in the north. I think this is because here we have a well-established tradition of ijtihad, of recognizing the need to revise our understanding of jurisprudence in the light of changing conditions.

To come back to the inter-faith dialogue work that the Dialogue Centre is engaged in, besides these public meetings what other work has the Centre been doing?

Another way in which we have been trying to promote dialogue is what we call 'table talks'. We invite a group of say thirty or forty scholars, activists, journalists and so on to discuss issues of common social concern, and not simply religious issues. This is based on the understanding that such issues can be dealt with only if people of different communities who are equally concerned about the issue or affected by it work together in solidarity. So, for this we have organized several 'table talks' on a wide range of subjects such as communalism, religious intolerance, gender inequalities, neo-colonialism and so on. Besides the public meetings and the 'table talks' we have also done a few programmes specifically devoted to Islam. As you know, a lot of misconceptions exist about Islam among non-Muslims, and so we felt that we should have programmes which deal specifically with these troubled issues. For this we organize meetings to which we invite non-Muslims, who are free to ask the Muslim scholars present any question, no matter how provocative, on Islam, and the scholars then try to answer them and provide the correct Islamic perspective. The intention of this whole exercise is to promote goodwill between Muslims and others, and that is why we have called this programme Sneh Sangama or 'the Union of Love'. Last year we organised a large and very successful programme of this sort in the campus of Calicut University, which more than a thousand non-Muslim brothers and sisters attended. The questions that they asked and the answers that were given were later put together and published as a book by the Islamic Publishing House, under the title 'Devam, Madham, Vedam: Sneha Samvadam' ('God, Religion, the Book: The Dialogue of Love'). The book is now into its sixth edition. Since the questions raised in the discussions are broadly the same as those that are often raised by non-Muslims in other parts of India, we are thinking of translating the book in other languages as well.As part of our inter-faith work we have also started inviting Christian and Hindu priests to the camps that we organize for our own workers. They address them on issues related to their own religions, which we feel is important for our own members because we live and work in a religiously plural society. So far we have conducted 21 such training sessions, and they have proved to be very useful.

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