Members from the Centre for Peace and Spirituality (CPS) were invited to address first-year students at Vidyajyoti College of Theology, New Delhi on August 21, 2015. Theology students at Vidyajyoti have a course on Islam taught by Father Victor Edwin SJ. Realizing the need to interact with followers of Islam to know how they understand their faith and respond to the various situations facing them today, Father Victor invited CPS members to address students on ‘Islam and its Message to the Modern World’.
CPS International, based in New Delhi, is an organization founded by the Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan. CPS members are pursuing studies in Islam. Rajat Malhotra is a research scholar in Islamic history at Mewar University. Maria Khan is doing PhD in Islamic Studies at Jamia Hamdard and Sufia Khan has completed her Master’s in Islamic Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia. Each member spoke on the position of Islam on certain aspects of the modern age. Rajat Malhotra spoke on Islam and Freedom of Expression, Maria Khan spoke on Spirituality in the Modern Age, and Sufia Khan spoke on Peace and Nonviolence in Islam. The talks were followed by a question and answer session.
Initiating the discussion, Mr. Rajat noted that in the present times there had been many incidents involving Muslims which had caused people to conclude that their religion, Islam, does not allow freedom of expression. Mr. Rajat informed that according to the Quran, Islam allows complete freedom of thought and action. The reason, Mr. Rajat explained, lies in the creation plan of God. According to Islam, this world has been created in order to test individuals. Therefore, God has given freedom to all human beings, because without freedom they cannot be tested. A person can either misuse his freedom or make proper use of it, depending on which he shall be rewarded in the Hereafter. Therefore, the freedom to act and think is an essential part of the divine scheme of things. Mr. Rajat also said that intellectual freedom was essential for all kinds of developments, and so any society that placed curbs on freedom of thought was bound to suffer stagnation. It is often believed that in Islam dissent and critique are looked at with disfavour. However, dispelling this notion, Mr. Rajat cited several incidents from the Prophet’s and his companions’ lives which demonstrate that criticism was indeed encouraged at that time. Similarly, while talking about religious freedom, Mr. Rajat quoted an injunction from the Quran: ‘There shall be no compulsion in religion.’ (2:256) In the context of the multi-religious societies of the present day, the policy of ‘Follow one and respect all’ adopted by the Prophet of Islam is quite relevant. This teaching is enshrined in the following verse of the Quran: ‘For you your religion, for me mine.’ (109:6)
A phenomenon very widespread in the modern age is that in spite of reaching the peak of material prosperity, people are still searching for a higher purpose. The next speaker, Maria, shed light on the changes brought about in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries leading people to abandon faith in religion and belief in God. Great advancements in technology made people think that acquiring a life of comfort would bring them well-being and happiness. Moreover, after numerous scientific discoveries, religion came to be considered as redundant because it was held that science could explain everything. Today, however, there is greater knowledge than ever before of the world we live in, and deeper study of the universe has revealed that science can provide only a partial knowledge of reality. More than 96% of the universe has not yet been studied and our understanding of that which has been studied is not complete. These findings, Maria said, have reaffirmed faith in religion as a source of knowledge for matters which we inherently cannot know on account of our limited understanding of the nature of our existence in this universe. Even the pursuit of materialism failed to satisfy people, who are now looking for meaning. In this context, Maria explained that according to Islam a human being has two aspects to his personality: the physical and the spiritual or intellectual. Material fulfilment caters to the former, but if we want the spiritual aspect of our personality to be satisfied, we will have to develop ourselves along spiritual lines.
Islam does not enjoin going to the mountains or the jungles to attain spirituality, rather it teaches living in the world and converting material experiences into spiritual lessons. Spirituality in Islam, as Maria put it, is the direct result of the intellectual development that takes place when a person ponders over the Creator and His creation. Reflection of this kind makes one discover the wisdom of the Creator in creating us and the world around us. Such remembrance of God during our day-to-day lives helps us connect with God and develop closeness with Him. And, according to the Quran ‘surely in the remembrance of God hearts can find comfort.’ (13:28)
Sufia addressed the students on the issue of peace in Islam. The most important message that the modern world wants to hear is the message of peace and non-violence as peace alone that holds the key to all kinds of progress and development. Peace holds great importance in all religious traditions of the world. But people have mistakenly come to think of Islam as an exception in this regard. This is because the followers of Islam, Sufia pointed out, were perpetrating acts of violence in the name of their religion. A general belief about Islam is that it is a religion that sanctions violence. However, Sufia stressed that this notion was far from the truth.
Islam arose in Arabia in the seventh century CE. At this time Arabia was a tribal society. In this society, inter-tribal wars were the norm. Even though Islam arose in such a climate, Sufia said, the Quran upheld the principle of peace, pacifism and patience. In one of its verses it states: ‘Reconciliation is the best.’ (4:128)
The Prophet Muhammad followed these very teachings of the Quran throughout his missionary life. As a preacher of the ideology of monotheism in a land where polytheism held sway, many people became his opponents. But he strove to avoid confrontation with them. Initially, his opponents resorted to persecution but the Prophet exercised patience and advised his followers to do the same. When it became impossible to continue preaching in Makkah, he along with his followers quietly migrated to Madinah. The Prophet and his followers were also compelled to engage in defensive battles against their opponents, however, the Prophet’s general policy was to avoid war.
The Quran refers to war in some of its verses, but these relate only to defensive war. All other kinds of war such as proxy war or guerilla war are unlawful in Islam. The Quran states, ‘Permission to fight is granted to those who are attacked.’ (22:39)
Sufia said peace acquired great importance in Islam because the Prophet’s mission was to bring about spiritual awakening in an individual. His mission can be summed up in these words of the Quran: Kunu rabbaniyin, that is, to be God-oriented in one’s speech, actions, and thoughts (3:79). Such an intellectual mission necessarily requires a peaceful atmosphere.
After the presentations, many questions were put to the speakers on various issues relating to Islam. One of the students asked if Islam had been hijacked as a particular interpretation of the religion had become widespread which had made Muslims develop animosity for others. Mr. Rajat replied that indeed a great number of Muslims were influenced by the political interpretation of Islam, which is based on a misinterpretation of Islamic teachings. According to this political theory, Muslims are duty-bound to establish the political rule of Islam in the world. Naturally, such kind of target involves considering others as one’s rivals as political authority can be acquired only by initiating a campaign against those in power. This kind of a political goal has made Muslims think in terms of ‘we and they’. Maria added that a fundamental Islamic teaching was to communicate the message of God to all mankind. This could be achieved only if Muslims regarded other people as God’s creation to whom God’s message had to be conveyed. This task requires genuine well-wishing for others. Thus, those Muslims who have developed hate or anger for people of other communities go against spirit of Islam. A student wanted to know the core teaching of Islam. To this Maria answered that there were two essential teachings of Islam which contained all other teachings: first, belief in God and second, well-wishing for humanity. A student asked Sufia if killing a person for murder was justified in Islam. She said that punishing a murderer was important so that it served as a deterrent for others from engaging in this evil. If this deterrent were not there, society would be marred by incidents of killing and murder. However, Sufia clarified that punishment for any crime had to take the due course of law. If a court holds a person guilty of offence, those in authority will then duly execute the verdict. No individual could take the law in his hands and punish the offender for the crime. A student asked whether there was any meeting point between science and Islam. Islam was a religion that encouraged scientific education, Mr. Rajat explained. The Quran itself repeatedly enjoins contemplation and reflection in nature and the universe. This cannot be carried out without undertaking a study of scientific disciplines. Moreover, Maria said that scientific findings serve to fortify religious beliefs, such as the existence of God, and this is why Islam lays importance on acquiring knowledge that exists outside scriptural texts.
The interaction ended with a vote of thanks from a student who said that the talks helped him to clearly understand many teachings of Islam and that the students looked forward to more such discussions with CPS members.