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Viewpoint: To be religious is to be inter-religious

  • Joseph Victor Edwin SJ

Joseph Victor Edwin SJ

Joseph Victor Edwin SJ

I would like to share with you some personal anecdotes that provide a setting for this conversation about being religious and inter-religious.

A very long time ago, when I was a school student, I was with a few other Christian children, and we were making fun of a picture of a Hindu deity. One of the Hindu teachers saw this. She was very upset about what was said about the deity. She informed my mother (who was also a teacher) about my misbehaviour. My mother was very upset with me. In the evening, she did not allow me to enter the house. She told me that I should remain out till my father came back. When my father returned, she told him what I had done in the school that day. My father was very upset with me. He took me to the Hindu teacher's house and asked me to apologize for what I had done. And he himself also apologized to the teacher on my behalf. He said that our religion is very precious to us, and in the same way, the religion of other people is also very precious to them, and that, so, we must respect their religion. That is a great lesson that I learnt from my father. It happened some 52 years ago. A beautiful lesson: Respect the faith of others.

Later, after my college studies, I joined the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. In our initial course of studies, we were introduced Hinduism, which was taught by a Jesuit teacher. As part of the program, this teacher took us to a Hindu temple. I did not have any difficulty entering the temple because I had learnt the lesson of respecting the faith of others. We are all co-pilgrims, the Jesuit teacher explained: We are all children of God; we come from God, and we return to God.

I have a 'sister' who is a Hindu and I have a 'sister' who is a Muslim. Whenever I visit my Hindu 'sister', she takes me to a Hanuman temple. I have learnt to see the deity Hanuman through her eyes. For her, Hanuman is a benevolent deity So, this has helped me to recognize the deity Hanuman as benevolent. Similarly, when I meet my Muslim 'sister', she takes me to a dargah, a Muslim saint's shrine. I have learnt to see her piety towards God through her devotion and respect for the Sufi saint.

What I learnt from this was the ability to see God through the eyes of our brothers and sisters of different faiths. It has taught me respect for the faith of other people and has also enabled me to recognize the fact that we, no matter what our religion or absence of it, are all co-pilgrims. This is the foundation on which I have built my relations with people of other faiths, especially my Muslim brothers and sisters.

It was in 1992, I was in Patna, Bihar, doing studies in Humanities, that includes studying Hindi language and peoples' literature. On December 6, the Ayodhya incident happened. I heard the news on radio, and I felt sad. That was also the time when I listened to a scholar on Sufism, or Islam mysticism from the classes of the late Jesuit Father Paul Jackson, a Jesuit who was deeply engaged in promoting Christian-Muslim relations. He introduced to us students the faith and practices of Muslims of Bihar. Through him, I learnt a very important lesson. He told us 'knowing Islam means knowing the religion through the lives of our Muslim friends'. He mentioned that Christian Ministry among Muslims is like swimming against the stream, like sailing against the wind. "If it is God's will, you will enter into this ministry," he told me. Gradually, I began to develop an interest in Islam. I began meeting Muslims. My ministry among Muslims became my personal vocation. It greatly satisfies my soul.

The integral insight "to be religious is to be inter-religious" is found in the document of the General Congregation of Jesuits (GC 34/130). This insight served to widen the frontiers of Interreligious dialogue. I read the document with great interest and discussed it with Fr. Paul Jackson. In line with the document, I understood that we Jesuits, the servant of Christ in mission need to acknowledge, preserve, and promote the moral good found in other faiths. We should relate positively with people of different faiths. We should collaborate with others to achieve common goals. We should seek to develop ways in which people of different faiths can work together towards the common good. We live in a world that is exploitative, derisive, with conflicts born out of religious motives. In this context, we need to seek to develop a unifying and liberating understanding of Religion. These are some of the great insights I drew from the document.

The document and the conversations around it encouraged me to learn from Muslims and their cultures. When I began learning Urdu and went to Baramulla, Kashmir for my Regency, I really began to love Muslims. Then I began studying Islam in greater depth and reflected more deeply on the teachings of the Church, especially that is found in the document Nostra Aetate. It is worthwhile to quote the concerned paragraph from the document. It reads:

The Church also looks upon Muslims with respect. They worship the one God living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to humanity and to whose decrees, even the hidden ones, they seek to submit themselves whole heartedly, just as Abraham, to whom the Islamic faith readily relates itself, submitted to God. They venerate Jesus as a prophet, even though they do not acknowledge him as God, and they honor his virgin mother Mary and even sometimes devotedly call upon her. Furthermore, they await the day of judgment when God will requite all people brought back to life. Hence, they have regard for moral life and worship God especially in prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Although considerable dissensions and enmities between Christians and Muslims may have arisen in the course of the centuries, this synod urges all parties that, forgetting past things, they train themselves towards sincere mutual understanding and together maintain and promote social justice and moral values as well as peace and freedom for all people.

The document points out the common related points as well as the essential differences between the two religions. This opens the possibility of collaboration between the two religions. The document emphasizes that the Faith one God - adoration of One God is at the heart of both Christianity and Islam. This makes it clear that the God of Muslims is not a God invented by human reason but the transcendent God who spoke and entrusted his Word even if it is not the same Word. Muslim faith is essentially Islam, the active submission to God. Islam demands the believer to submit to the will of God whole heartedly reminding them the model of Abraham. Jesus and Mary are revered figures in the Islamic mysticism and spirituality. The document also highlights the common elements of the Muslim eschatology and Christian eschatology. The document recognizes ritual prayer, alms giving, and fasting as essential elements of spiritualities common to Christians and Muslims.

At this context what John Renard, a Catholic scholar on Islam writes become meaningful for me. He writes: "What then has Islam to say to us? I believe that Islam is itself one of God's signs. Its implications for us as individuals, as Christians, and as members of the human community are enormous. Islam is a challenge, a risk, a source of encouragement, and a summons to take a bigger view of what life on our planet is about. The way we respond to Islam will have a great deal to do with what we consider true and holy."

I spent several years studying Islam deeply, doing MA, MPhil and PhD in Islamic Studies and also master's in theology deepening my knowledge of Islam and Muslim culture and practices-not simply as an academic or theoretical exercise, but also through interacting with Muslims personally. It has been my way of life for the last thirty years.

In long conversations with Paul Jackson, I have deepened my understanding of Islam and Muslims in India. I learnt that the oneness of the transcendent God is at the heart of Islamic faith affirmation. For Muslims, the Qur'an in its entirety is the vehicle of a Word of God. Islam has enriched the lives and reflections of the Muslim believers over the centuries and enables them to reach the one God, to imbue their lives with God and thus to be way of salvation. I further learnt that 'God's majesty', 'our creatureliness', and 'our need to repent and be forgiven' could be themes for our conversations.

At times, I have not failed to notice certain expressions of political Islam in their conversation with me. I feel that such expressions should not immobilize our understanding of Islam. We Christians should not see Muslims solely as warriors of Allah. Patiently engaging with them we could discover the gems of authentic religious wealth behind the crust of certain legalism, and thus we can learn to appreciate the real, healthy, and constructive aspirations of Muslims towards a deeper spiritual life.

Further I realized that friendship and relationship are at the heart of dialogue. Dialogue partners need to recognize the goodness in others, and they need to be in constant and sustained contact with each other for their relations to unfold and for dialogue to be meaningful.

I have come to understand that every religion has its space in our immensely pluralistic world. In inter-religious dialogue, what we discover is not just religious beliefs and practices but also people-real, living fellow humans, who simply happen to follow a different religion-people as human as you and me. As a Jesuit among Muslims, my only prayer is that I always remain humble and open to the spirit of the Lord who leads Christians and Muslims in humble conversations.

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