Islam in Bangladesh: «Ignorance is the mother of hatred»
Interview with Kazi Nurul Islam
By Francesco Rapacioli from Dinajpur
Professor Kazi Nurul Islam, how did you get the idea of founding a department of religious studies at the university of Dhaka?
I need to go back to my family history, to an experience that forever marked my father’s destiny and my own. Once, when I was a boy, I asked my father what areas I should study. He replied: “I was born into a Muslim family, but for the first years of my life I received my mother’s milk from a Hindu woman. In this country, these two communities hate each other. If you could somehow help the Muslim and Hindu communities to coexist peacefully, you would make me the happiest person in the world.” At that moment, I made a sort of promise that marked all of my later professional choices, and my life itself.
What studies did you undertake?
Initially, political science. But since I had an exceptional philosophy teacher, Aminul Islam, in the end I turned toward philosophy, and in 1971 I obtained my master’s.
What are your memories of your years at the university, and those immediately following?
During my years at the university, I considered myself an atheist. In 1971, during the war for the liberation of Pakistan, I became a partisan. One day I was captured by the Pakistani army and condemned to death. I remember that, while they were bringing me and one of my fellow fighters to the place where we were to be shot, I made a sort of prayer: “God, if you exist, save me!” I experienced a tremendous peace, and I was convinced that Allah had truly heard my prayer. Our captors suddenly changed their minds, and instead of wasting a bullet they decided to throw us into the river. I come from Barishal, in the south of Bangladesh, where there are many rivers and the children learn to swim at a very young age, so I was able to save myself. After this dramatic experience, I again began to believe and to practice my Islamic faith.
Didn’t you have any other crises of faith?
Just the opposite: later experience confirmed my faith in God. I often think about everything I have received in my life, and I thank God for it. I also feel a serious responsibility toward others and toward all of creation. Many in this country are tempted to fanaticism, and I feel a responsibility toward them. On the day of judgment, perhaps I will be able to tell God that I accomplished something.
How did you continue to cultivate your interest in religion?
Even though I had received a number of invitations from universities in the West, in 1976 I decided to go to Varanasi, known also as Benares, the sacred city of the Hindus, where I remained for five years. I learned enough Sanskrit to be able to do research on the original texts of the Hindu scriptures. I wrote a thesis on the Vedantas, or Upanishads. I had been married the year before that, in 1975, and I convinced my wife, who is also a teacher, to accompany me to Benares to study Buddhism. My wife wrote a thesis on the nature of the suffering in Islam and Buddhism, and as far as I know she is the only Muslim woman who has systematically studied this religion.
Then you returned to Bangladesh.
In 1980, I returned to teach philosophy at the university of Dhaka. Already at Varanasi I had realized the necessity of founding a department of religious studies. Three years later, I tried to persuade the college of professors of the necessity for a department of comparative religious studies, but the attempt failed, mainly because the teachers’ group was not convinced that I was really capable of meeting the challenge. At that point, my wife and I went to England: my wife studied Christianity at the university of Birmingham, while I studied Islam and Judaism. The following year, in 1991, I went to the university of Tokyo to study the field of aboriginal religions. I learned to speak Japanese fluently.
One might say that your understanding of religion is essentially academic.
That’s not the case. My approach to the religions has never been simply based upon books: I have always wanted to encounter a concrete community living out the faith in question, visiting their temples and participating in their rituals and prayers. For me, the encounter with a religion is primarily a living and existential experience.
Can you give an example?
In Varanasi, I was able to enter a temple where Muslims are forbidden access. I don’t have the religion to which I belong written across my forehead! This seems very important to me: it is only by participating in a community’s religious life that I can know that community from within and understand its faith. Following this, I spent some time in China in order to study Taoism and Confucianism. I also learned the rudiments of Mandarin Chinese.
How were you received in Bangladesh after returning from this long period spent abroad?
The teachers’ group at the university was finally convinced that my proposal to institute a department of religious studies was serious, and that I would be able to see it through. In 1996, when the Awami League, the party that is currently in the opposition, won the government, I finally obtained permission to establish the department, and in 1998 it received its definitive approval. But it was not easy.
What difficulties did you have to face?
The first problem was the very name of the department, “comparative religious studies,” which did not correspond to the nature of the courses proposed and left room for misunderstandings. After much reflection, I thought of the name “World Religions Department.” I spoke about it with some friends, both in Bangladesh and elsewhere, and they all responded enthusiastically. The department was renamed at this time, even though the syllabus, the catalog of study materials, remained the same.
How does this department distinguish itself?
As far as I know, it is the only example of its kind in Asia, and the only such example in the Muslim world. Here each religion is taught by a person who, in addition to understanding the religion he teaches, also practices it. This is true of each of the five major religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism.
More than a university career, this seems to be a vocation that you have.
I feel very strongly my responsibility to illuminate the minds of my students, helping them to cultivate a strong ethical fiber. I feel this as my mission.
Was there much opposition to the department at the beginning?
Yes. At the beginning of this adventure I received anonymous telephone calls at home and at the university, threatening me with death, threatening to kidnap my family, etc. I always tried to convince the person I was speaking with to come visit me so that I could explain the reasons that had driven me to undertake this initiative.
Is the number of fanatics in Bangladesh increasing?
Yes, and in an alarming way! If the governors do not give adequate attention to the problem of education, above all in the Qur’anic schools, the future of Bangladesh is decisively in peril. Those who are now being educated in the madrassas will in the future constitute a burden and a real threat to the country. The madrassas do not teach history, geography, or science. Even though there are provisions for the teaching of the various religions, like Christianity and Hinduism, these subjects are absolutely not among the material studied. Unfortunately, the government seems hardly concerned about this worsening situation.
How would you describe the situation today?
There continue to be some forms of opposition. Last August, after the simultaneous explosion of around 400 bombs all over the country, I was interviewed on television. I said that those who had carried out this act should be considered not only as not Muslim, but even as not human. I am not afraid of dying for a cause that I consider just and worthy. I do not belong to any political party, and I feel free to say what I think.
What is the situation in nearby Pakistan?
The situation in Pakistan is worse than ours. I have visited the country many times, as recently as a few months ago. The people there are generally more fanatical than our people are. In Bangladesh the majority of people are peaceful and peace-loving. But we still need an enlightened leadership in order to confront the growing fanaticism.
What are your dreams?
The first is to create a library at the university where the students and even the common people who wish to can obtain all the information on the major religions. There are no libraries of this sort in Bangladesh, where anyone, from morning to night, can consult texts of this kind. The department’s current library is open to students from morning until midnight.
My second dream is for a museum of the religions. I have already seen how effective it is to show videos on the various religions, with pertinent explanations before and after them. Approaching a religion is an experience of life, and I would like to permit everyone to form an idea of the rituals, art, and different traditions of each religion. The university faculty seems willing to grant me the necessary space, but the funds must be found. I don’t know if I will succeed in my intention, but I want to try, and to make in this way my little contribution to fulfilling the task my father entrusted to me those many years ago.
(This article originally appeared in Mondo e Missione in May 2006, translated into English by www.chiesa.espressonline.it)