No time in history was possibly more conflict-ridden than the present one; and no time in history possibly needs peace and confidence-building measures among peoples more than the present one. The reason behind this is the world seems more mired with unconventional ethnic conflicts than in the past. Ethnic and religious conflicts seem more prominent than conventional warfare and conflicts. Unlike conventional conflicts, ethnic and religious ones are long-drawn conflicts, killing more people in the process.
It was in this backdrop Muslim and Jewish leaders from across the world had gathered in Brussels in the first week of January this year [2005] in an effort to quell rising tensions between Muslims and Jews in Europe. The organisers said they were seeking to “create dialogue and an enduring partnership between Islam and Judaism”, promoting personal friendships and joint initiatives. Joseph Sitruk, the chief rabbi of France, was quoted as saying: “The assembly is an important moment because it carries hope and freedom for a disillusioned world.”
Many understand that the world today is truly disillusioned. Keeping that in mind, Jews, Muslims and Christians had an opportunity to learn about each other during an interfaith study in Brooklyn in February 2003. This study group is usually organised for holding conversations between people of various faiths for understanding one another. This New York dialogue is not an end to these types of initiatives. In December last year in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam, Jews and Muslims had started a religious dialogue in an attempt to face the mounting tensions between their communities and to get a clearer idea of each other’s religion. In November, the Jewish and Muslim communities in Adelaide were trying for a different kind of reconciliation. For the past year, members of the two communities have held forums to highlight what their faiths have in common, organising an exhibition at the Migration Museum in Adelaide.
If we monitor the global news media, simply looking at the volume of such initiatives would amaze us. Holding inter-faith dialogues are not new, but the rate of occurrence has increased in recent times, especially when, it seems, religious and ethnic divides look like the only sources of conflicts. People of one religion are being branded as “terrorists”; people following the others are being labeled as “kafirs” and “pagans” etc.
It’s true that conflicts began on earth since the beginning of human habitat. Sometimes, it was conflict of interest, sometimes, it was one group’s hegemony over another and sometimes it was a third party’s intervention that ignited conflicts among humans belonging to opposing ideals and faiths. For example, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians placed a strain on the relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities across the world. This conflict has always been stereotyped without attempt to find real solutions. On the other hand, there have been wise men who wanted to find a solution by identifying commonalities between these two peoples. However, these set of wise men have always been treated in a trivial manner. Conflicts were treated with more importance than peace because conflicts have always satisfied the egos of statesmen, and social and religious leaders.
Looking away from other parts of the world, at home, the South Asian region – popularly called as Indian subcontinent – has also been mired with religious and ethnic conflicts that have killed thousands of people. Here, mistrust and misunderstanding between Hindus and Muslims stalk the two communities. Allegations of mistreating Hindus in Bangladesh, Muslims and Christians in India and Christians in Pakistan have always hit the headlines of the media in this region. Without making co-habitation an imperative, hate always got priority. No one tried to understand that one group couldn’t wish away the other. We kept on shedding unnecessary and illogical blood for centuries; nobody was willing to take the first step for bridging the apparent gaps between religions especially of Islam and Hinduism.
Yes, on the surface, you cannot find two more dissimilar religions like Islam and Hinduism. The first is a monotheistic faith, proclaiming that Allah is the only God and that believers of all other religions are to be treated as “infidels”. The second swears by polytheism and adores thirty three million Gods and Goddesses. Hindus face East to pray; Muslims turn to the West. Hindus love the colour saffron, Muslims dote on green. While Muslims are regarded as Mlechhas (unholy) by Hindus, Muslims consider Hindus Kafirs (infidels). While the Quran condemns idolaters to Hell and grants permission to the faithful to kill infidels, Hindus are sitting and waiting for the Kalki Avatar to redeem the world of Mlechhas. Yes, it is because of these differences, both these creeds have been at loggerhead.
But take a deeper look. Isn’t there at all any similarity between these two religions? In a recent book, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the worldwide Art of Living movement, has tried to highlight the fact that contrary to common belief, Hinduism is as monotheistic in its creed as Islam. ‘Advaita’, for instance, keeps speaking about non-dual monotheism, while the Bhagavad Gita says: “Eko devah sarva Bhutantaratma” (one God who dwells in everybody). Or elsewhere: “All the 33 crore devi devtas are nothing but the rays of one Paramatma (the Supreme Being)”.
It is true that Islam abhors the worshipping of God in stones or images and that this has been the prime motivation for Arabs and other Muslims to destroy so many Hindu temples and statues in the subcontinent. But do Muslims know that many Hindus, at the end of a puja, say: “Hritpadma karnikaa madhye shivena saha sundari; Pravishadvam mahadevi sarvai aavarnai saha” (You return back to my heart from the idol). Though Islam strictly adheres to the formless, it has nevertheless recognised the importance of the Form and the Symbol, symbolised by the Kaaba; honouring it is worshipping the Formless through the Form (sagun saakar). Offerings like Chaddar at the Dargah is also a common traditional practice among Hindus, who like offering Chunni to the Mother Divine in the temple.
Again, Namaaz comes from two Sanskrit words: Nama (to worship) and Yaja (to unite with God.) Vajrasana (a yogic posture) is an essential part of the Namaaz, which is prescribed five times daily in the Quran. Friday, the holiest day for Muslims, is as well the holy day for Hindus to worship of the Mother Divine (the Rahukal puja or the noon puja on Friday is considered very auspicious by Hindus). “The 30 days of prayer and fasting”, says Ravi Shankar, “is akin to the Mandala puja and the name of the Islamic month of Ramadan comes from the Sanskrit word Rama-dhyan. Dhyan means to meditate and Ram in Sanskrit means ‘the one who shines in the heart’. Thus Ramadan refers to a time to meditate on God. Fasts are also associated with Vedic worship, and Islam has retained that fasting and praying tradition for Ramadan”.
Again, how many of us know that Mecca was also a holy place for Hindus. The ancient Vedic scripture Harihareshwar Mahatmya mentions that Lord Vishnu’s footprints are consecrated at three holy sites, namely Gaya, Mecca and Shukla Teertha: “Ekam Padam Gayayantu MAKKAYAANTU Dwitiyakam Tritiyam Sthapitam Divyam Muktyai Shuklasya Sannidhau“. Though Islam prohibits idol worship, the black Kaaba stone is held sacred and holy and is called “Hajre Aswad” from the Sanskrit word Sanghey Ashweta: Non-white stone (The Shiva Linga is also called Sanghey Ashweta). The pedestal Maqam-e-Ibrahim at the centre of the Kaaba, is octagonal in shape. In Hinduism, the pedestal of Brahma the creator is also octagonal in shape. Just as in Hinduism, the custom of circumambulating (Pradakshina) the Deity is practiced at the Kaaba also. The pilgrims go around the entire building (Kaaba) seven times in the anticlockwise direction.Without being excited and angry, we should take a real close look at these facts. There are remarkable parallels between Islam and Hinduism which could show that Muslims and Hindus spring from the same family. It may sound unbelievable and unacceptable, but why don’t we start a dialogue between Muslim and Hindu scholars – similarly the Jews and Muslims have started in another part of the world – for finding out a common root? This may lead the Hindus and Muslims to respect each other more so that this senseless clash of religion, which in turn leads to a clash of civilisations, slowly fades away. After all, don’t we trust in divinity?

Ekram Kabir is a Dhaka-based journalist. This article was written in 2005 and was turned down by newspapers in Bangladesh.

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