With courtesy from Monthly 'Qalander' interview pages on issues of Islam and Interfaith Relations in South Asia of May 2002.
What do you see as the root cause of the unrest in many Muslim countries?
In order to understand what is happening in much of the Muslim world today, you must remember that at one time the Muslims had a vast empire, stretching from Spain in the west to India and beyond in the east. All these territories than came under European colonial rule. The Muslim intellectuals of that time, however, failed to properly respond to the European challenge. They did not give their society the sort of leadership that was required. They saw European colonialism in terms of an anti-Muslim conspiracy, a replay of the Crusades. They bitterly criticized the Europeans as enemies of Islam. But that, I feel, was a completely wrong explanation of the European success. Actually, it is one of the laws of history that at one time one power is dominant and then it fades away and then another power emerges. So, in India you first had the Rajas, then the Mughals came and finally the British. Then India became independent, and even now you sometimes have the Congress and sometimes the BJP.
So, as I see it, the Europeans were able to conquer the Muslim world not because of any anti-Islamic conspiracy but simply because of their technological superiority. I mean we knew of water only as water, or at the most we used it to propel water mills to grind flour, but the Europeans went ahead and used water to generate steam power. We fought with swords but they used guns, so naturally they were victorious over us. Now, as I was saying, the Muslim intellectuals of the last hundred years, and even today, generally saw, and continue to see, European and now American superioority in terms of a so-called grand anti-Islamic conspiracy. So, you have these seemingly never-ending cycles of violence in much of the Muslim world even today. This hatred of all others that is filled into the minds of ordinary Muslims is really very scary. When I was a child I was taught to believe that the British were wholly evil and that nothing good could be attributed to them. It was only later that I discovered the many good things that they had done in India, such as building modern schools and the railways. I think if our intellectuals had told us that the decline of Muslim power has nothing to do with any so-called anti-Islamic conspiracy but because of the West's technological superiority, we would not have had the sort militancy that we are witnessing today.
So that trend of thinking is still very strong in much of the Muslim world, is it?
Indeed. If you look at the sort of so-called Islamic literature that has flooded the market you will see that most Muslim writers continue to propagate the so-called conspiracy theory, branding non-Muslims as evil enemies of Islam whose only mission in life is to destroy Islam and the Muslims. Just yesterday I got a letter from somebody in Kashmir, who wrote saying that till recently he had been only exposed to the writings of militant so-called Islamists, because of which he had been led to believe that all Hindus, and all non-Muslims in general, are the sworn enemies of the Muslims. And then he said he had come across some of my books, which really radically changed the way he saw the world. He said that he had had a complete change of heart and that now he realizes that Hindus, too, are God's children who deserve to be loved.
But, as Islam sees it, all non-Muslims are kafirs. Isn't that discriminatory?
Not at all. The word kafir literally means 'one who denies something'. If I tell you something and you don't believe in it then as far as that thing is concerned you are a kafir. It's not a term of abuse, but a statement of fact. So, if you believe in the Hindu theory of reincarnation and I deny then I am a kafir or 'denier' as far as that theory is concerned.
Is there any scope for inter-religious dialogue between Muslims and others?
Inter-religious dialogue is an absolute imperative, and Islam insists upon it. After all, wherever progress has occurred in history it has been because of interaction between different peoples. This must start right from the school level. Some maulvis say that if children are taught about other religions they will turn away from Islam. But is their faith in Islam so weak that if they hear the truth about other religions they will renounce their own? Islam is not a glass vessel, which can easily break into pieces. It's as strong as an iron vessel. We really must get to know the truth about each other's religions and clear up our mutual misunderstandings, because most prejudice is based upon simple ignorance or misrepresentation. As far as Islam is concerned, inter-religious dialogue is a binding duty according to the Quran. In his last pilgrimage to Mecca, the Prophet addressed 1,25,000 of his followers and told them to travel all over the world to spread Islam. So, they went to various countries to preach Islam, but that was only one aspect of their work. They also traveled in search of knowledge, interacting and openly discussing with people of other religions. So, for example, some of the early Muslims came to India. Here they studied Sanskrit and translated many Sanskrit texts into Arabic. Or, for that matter, when Spain was under Muslim control many Christians would come there to study even the Bible from Muslim scholars.
Do you feel that as part of the inter-religious dialogue project madrasa students, too, should be exposed to other religions?
Yes, of course. And there needs to be a major overhauling of the madrasa system. Modern disciplines need to be introduced in the madrasas, but the problem is that we do not have the teachers to teach the new subjects or even to teach the old subjects in a new way. Some maulvis attached to madrasas have attempted to start dialogue efforts. So you have Ali Miyan from the Nadwat ul-Ulama madrasa in Lucknow who regularly invites secular Hindu intellectuals to seminars and conferences. But that's not really cutting much ice, because he interacts with what I call the 'no-problem' Hindus, people who are already convinced of the need for Hindu-Muslim dialogue and understanding. We should also try to reach out to 'problem' Hindus, like people in the RSS. That's what I've been doing, for which many Muslims have bitterly opposed me. Actually, I have found that many RSS workers are anti-Muslim simply because of their ignorance or misunderstanding of Islam, and that once you begin to dialogue with them and explain to them what Islam is really all about, they begin to shed their prejudices. And then there is this large section of Muslims who prefer to send their children to Muslim-run secular schools, most of which are really sub-standard. Here again the notion that all non-Muslims are anti-Muslim seems to be at work, leading to this terrible ghetto mentality. As a result, many Muslim Children have no interaction with non-Muslim children of their own age, and that, in turn, leads to further ignorance and misunderstanding about others. I strongly feel that this should be changed and that Muslim children should study alongside with others, because if you isolate yourself from the wider world around you will only stagnate further.
Sufis, Muslim mystics, too, had a major role to play in promoting inter-religious harmony, didn't they?
Yes, indeed. Sufism or Islamic mysticism played a central role in promoting dialogue and harmony between Muslims and other peoples. In Sufi lodges or khanqahs in India only vegetarian food was served so that Hindus and Muslims and others could eat together, and this was a very radical thing at a time when Untouchability was so severely practiced. But Sufism is today in a very sorry state of decline.