My experience of dialogue among the Muslims
by Francesco Rapacioli
Dr. Kazi Nurul Islam is the founder and Chairman of the World Religions Department at the University of Dhaka. The Department is probably unique in Asia as well as in the Muslim world. What is distinctive to the department is that religions are taught by those who know and practice them. For instance, a Catholic priest – with a degree in Theology – teaches Christianity. The five major world religions are now regular subjects – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism.
I met Dr. Islam a few times. In 2004 we Xaverian and PIME missionaries invited him to address a seminar on: “Emerging Bangladesh”. We wanted to analyze the recent evolution of the country from the religious, social and political point of view. Dr. Islam spoke about the transformation taking place especially within the Muslim community. In that occasion he mentioned the difficulties he faced while trying to establish the World Religions Department at the university. I was touched by his talk and by the warmth of his person and so I decided to interview him.
I came to know that the foundation of the Department of World Religious was related to Dr. Kazi’s personal experience as a boy. Once, he asked his father what areas he should study. His father replied: “I was born into a Muslim family, but for the first years of my life a Hindu woman nursed me. The two communities have bitter relations and in many cases they hate each other. If you could somehow help Muslims and Hindus to coexist peacefully, you would make me the happiest person in the world.” Touched by these words, Dr. Kazi made a sort of promise that marked his life and all his later professional choices.
He undertook the studies of political science just to turn to philosophical studies under the influence of an exceptionally good philosophy teacher. He got his master in 1970.
Dr. Kazi used to consider himself an atheist. In 1971, during the liberation war against Pakistan, he joined the freedom fighters. Captured by the Pakistanis and condemned to death, on his way to the execution spot a sort of prayer spontaneously came to his mind: “God, if you exist, save me”. Immediately he felt that Allah had heard his prayer and he experienced a tremendous peace. Their captors suddenly changed their minds, they decided to save two bullets by throwing him and another freedom fighter with him into the river. Dr. Islam comes from the south of Bangladesh, a region of many rivers where he had become a good swimmer since his childhood, and he survived. After this dramatic experience, he began to believe and to practice his Islamic faith again.
In spite of a number of invitations from Universities in the West, in 1976 Dr Kazi decided to go to Varanasi, known also as Benares, the sacred city of the Hindus, where he remained for five years. He learned enough Sanskrit to be able to do research on the original texts of the Hindu scriptures. He wrote a thesis on the Vedantas, or Upanishads. In 1980, Dr. Kazi returned to teach philosophy at the University of Dhaka. He felt that the University needed a department of religious studies. He tried to persuade the University Professors to create a Department of Comparative Religions, but he failed. The teachers’ group thought that he would not be able of meeting the challenge. At that point, in 1990, he went to study Islam and Judaism in England, and the following year he moved to study Japanese Religious Traditions at the Kakusikan University in Tokyo, where he learnt Japanese.
Dr. Kazi’s approach to the religions is never based upon books only: he wants to encounter a concrete community and to live out the faith in question, visiting their temples and participating in their rituals and prayers. He sees the encounter with a religion primarily as an existential experience. In Varanasi, for example, he was able to enter a temple where access is forbidden to Muslims. He thinks that only by participating in a community’s religious life we can know that community from within and understand its faith. He spent long time in Japan to study and approach Shintoism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism with this method. He also learned the rudiments of Mandarin Chinese.
After many years abroad, when he goes back to Bangladesh the teachers’ group at the university finally believed that he could establish the Department of Religious Studies he had been longing for. In 1996, when the Awami League, the party that is currently in the opposition, won the government, he was granted the necessary permission, and in 1998 the Department got the final approval. It was not an easy job indeed. Dr. Kazi used to receive anonymous calls at home and at the university; they threatened him with death, or kidnapping his family, etc. He always tried to invite those persons to come and visit him so that he could explain the reasons that had driven him to undertake this initiative.
Dr. Kazi dreams to create a Library of World Religions at the University where the students and even the common people can obtain all the information on the major religions. There are no libraries of this sort in Bangladesh. His second dream is for a Museum of World Religions. He has already seen how effective it is to show videos on the various religions, with pertinent explanations. Approaching a religion is an experience of life, and he would like to permit everyone to have an idea of the rituals, art, and different traditions of each religion. The University authorities seem willing to grant him the necessary space, but he needs funds. Will he succeed? He will try anyway, to fulfill the task his father entrusted to him many years ago.
Dr. Kazi is a person of vision. He is a man who believes he has been entrusted with the mission to promote reconciliation among people of different religious traditions, especially between Hindus and Muslims. He has the courage to denounce publicly those who, in the name of God, pursue their own political and ideological interests. He thinks that people belonging to different religious communities can coexist in a secular society where everyone has the right to profess and to practice one’s own faith. He also strongly believes in education as an antidote to fundamentalism.
Ainal Hok is a completely different person. He is not an intellectual, but a very simple man. Married with three children, he owns a small textile factory in Dhaka.
Ainal belongs to a Sufi community. Some time ago he came to know that not far from where his daughter lives there is a Christian “mission”, and he went there to meet the “guru” of the Christians. That “guru” happens to be Fr. Enzo Corba, a friend of mine with almost fifty years of missionary experience in Bangladesh. He lives in an “ashram” where lay people learn to pray in an atmosphere of silence.
There I met Ainal and immediately the depth of his faith impressed me. With him it is not easy to speak about something different from religion or spirituality. I would describe him as a mystic, always absorbed in God and his word. Since his childhood, Ainal showed great interest in religion and spiritual matters. He used to go every day to the mosque to pray, he fasted during Ramadan, and did whatever is prescribed by his religion. Ainal is a devout Muslim who kept asking different Imams how to find Allah in his life. Though he was not satisfied with the answers, he did not give up reading the Koran in Arabic, and going regularly for prayer.
One day a friend told him that if he really wanted to realize Allah in his life he had to surrender himself to Him through a guru. Ainal was quite skeptical, but when his friend invited him to go to meet his own master, he decided to go. Ainal was touched by the simplicity and by the depth of the guru’s teaching. He says that through him eventually he found what he had been looking for the whole of his life, that is, Allah. Ainal’s guru did not quote the Scriptures in Arabic, but he delivered his sermons in Bengali. He did not tell Ainal to believe in God and read the Koran without understanding it, but he explained its spiritual meaning and its relevance to his life. After a few months Ainal surrendered himself to God through his guru, committing himself to follow his teaching. A teaching quite different from the one Ainal was used to.
His guru taught him that everyone is called to surrender himself or herself to God even without becoming a Muslim, and that this is the actual meaning of Islam. He told him that he could go to pray in the mosque, but that prayer is actually “remembering the name of Allah”, and he was called to do it always. Again, according to his teacher, the real meaning of fasting is “continence and self-control”, and so he was not called to fast just now and then, but to control himself all the time.
It was a unique experience of transformation in his attitude and behavior. Asked about it, he answers that through his guru eventually he could “see Allah”, and since then “he keeps seeing Him in every human being!”
Of course his wife, his children, and the people of his community were surprised by this change. They started questioning his decision of not going to the mosque anymore. Gossips went around that Ainal had become crazy, “intoxicated” with God! Ainal remembers that time as particularly tough. He tried to explain that he was not crazy; just he had found what he had been looking for his whole life. He had also to argue with the Imam who led the prayer in the mosque where Ainal used to go before his conversion. By quoting the words of the Koran, Ainal explained that he was just living according to the teaching of the Prophet Mohammed, which now he could understand.
Now his community does not persecute him anymore, but the most dramatic change took place within his own family. His family to convince him that he was wrong called Mohammad, a friend who knew him since his childhood. In fact, his friend turned to be the one who persuaded his wife and his children that Ainal was neither crazy nor mistaken; rather he was a more committed believer. His wife now says: “My husband used to cheat people, to tell lies, and to get angry with me and the children; after meeting his guru he is a completely different person. He does not lie anymore, he does not get angry with us and does not cheat anyone”. If such encounter – it was the argument of his friend – brought about such a change in his life, this could not be wrong!
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke writes that before his ascension, Jesus told his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Christian mission even today consists in witnessing the good news of Jesus “to the ends of the earth”. Christians are called to preach the Gospel and “make disciples of all the nations” (See Mt 28:19-20), even when people persecute them and do not accept the Gospel, as the martyrs of all times remind us. But the Church is also called to collaborate with committed believers like Dr. Kazi Nurul Islam and Ainal Hok to build a better and a more just society. People belonging to different faiths and cultures can learn to coexist side by side, and even to exchange the spiritual gifts God has granted to their respective communities. Not necessarily in order to change their beliefs, but to emulate one another and convert themselves to become more committed believers.