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Finding the common spaces between religions

In Tanzania in 1965, a young Imtiaz Yusuf was confused by a headline in a local newspaper: “Pakistan declares jihad on India.” He asked his father if Islam was a threat within Pakistan,. but Hhis father explained that wars are actually a result of corruption, but are given religious colours.

That young Imtiaz is now Dr. Yusuf, a religious studies scholar, an alumnus of Pune University and Aligarh Muslim University, who has been teaching in Thailand for 27 years and is currently Director of the Center for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding in the College of Religious Studies at Thailand’s Mahidol University. He was recently at Mumbai University to deliver a talk on Buddhist-Muslim dialogue in contemporary South-East Asia.

The similarities between the two religions sometimes get obscured by their ethnic origins. “The time and chronology of the birth and evolution of a religion is not important; what is important is the ideas that emerged and are exchanged,” explains Dr. Yusuf. “Both Buddha and Mohammad were against being deified. The Sharia and Koran are not the law, but only the way. Even ‘Bhagwan’ doesn’t mean god; it means the enlightened person. But humans want to make god out of everything. This is merely a human condition.”

“Since god can’t be proven in a lab, the Orientalist understanding of religion reduces it to its rituals. “It is the colonial legacy of interpreting religion in their secular fundamentalist ways, and then dividing people on religious lines, thereby creating ignorance of one’s neighbours, which then leads to violence.”

On the recent terror in Europe, Dr. Yusuf is fatalistic; he says these attacks are likely to increase. “Radicalism has always been there, and today it is the turn of Islam, as a result of sociological, political and racial circumstances.”

Closer home, things aren’t better, he says. “Buddhism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka is actually racism, a dominance of the Burmans and the Sinhala, respectively, over other ethnic groups. India and China are not far behind in facing similar challenges, as they attempt to be significant players in a global market.”

Dr. Yusuf finds the rise of the RSS and the changes in education curricula in India alarming. “The Constitution of India is one of the most democratic and it should be India’s holy book. But we end up talking about secularism and fundamentalism and not the essence of the Constitution.”

His experiences convinced him of the need to teach religion beyond ethnicity, starting from primary school. “American universities are now actively teaching world religions in universities, Asian countries still follow the British secular education system.” But for religious studies to work in Asia, he says, “we need teachers who can teach in a non-biased manner.”

He is angry that the US does not condemn Saudi Arabia’s proselytisation of Wahhabism, which he says foments fundamentalism. He is also aggrieved by the lack of spirituality among Muslim youth, as evidenced in violence. “Sadly, some Muslims have made Islam into a missionary religion, as was Christianity. All religions have taken the extreme violent path towards liberation. But the church bell and azaan from the mosque externalise the call to god, while the drum in Buddhist temples stirs one within. This common search for liberation should not be forgotten.”

The writer is a freelance journalist

The rise of the RSS and change in school curricula is alarming; Constitution should be India's holy book


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