Dr. Saleha Mahmood Abedin
Sociologist, Muslim Scholar
Director of Institute for Muslim Minority Affairs, London, UK
“In the light of Islamic religious principles, religion as a means, not a hindrance, to social and political peace and mutual tolerance.”
“I begin with the greetings of peace: “May the blessings of Allah, or God, or Bhagavan, whichever you call Him, be on you all.”
“It is a great pleasure for me to be here after an arduous and almost a doubtful journey that I thought I would not be able to undertake. But I will tell you that little story a little later.
“First of all I would like to convey my greetings to Ammaji. I want to thank Her for inviting me to this great occasion. It was a pleasure to see Her again after I met Her in Geneva last. And I would wish Her on this particular auspicious day many happy returns of the day. May You live 100 years and may You continue to bring Your blessings and Your joys to humanity at large, and not just to this particular part of the world, which I know that you are sharing with the rest of the world.
“Your presence and Your influence has been felt everywhere—and in my little incident that I experienced in coming here, which was made almost impossible by all kinds of diplomatic red tape. They said I could not make the journey, and I missed the flight that I was supposed to take two days ago. And, lo and behold, when we were running up and down from different offices in the consulate, this one gentleman comes up and says, ‘Oh, you are going to Ammaji’s birthday? My wife is a devotee of Her! And she will be delighted, and I will do it for her.’ He got onto the telephone with Delhi. He made all kinds of phone calls, and he said just please give my regards to Ammaji and tell Her to pray for Meena Karta—that’s his wife. She is Your devotee for the last 15 years. So, Ammaji, Your magic works in all lands and all places, including Saudi Arabia, where this little magic happened.
“I have been given a topic—it’s not a topic of my suggestion but I am delighted to deal with it anyway. And the title of this talk is ‘In the light of Islamic religious principles, religion as a means to social, political peace and mutual tolerance.’ I am happy to talk about that because myself having lived as what you may call a minority community I find it extremely important. Wherever I have lived, through most of my years, I have found that tolerance and acceptance of ‘the other’ is very crucial and essential to our very survival and existence.
“The world has become a very heterogeneous, very complex and—as a demographer, I know—a booming place in terms of numbers. There is a multiplication of people, of nations, and tribes and races. And there is—thanks to the improvement in technology—greater migration, greater movement, greater exposure. No longer are there isolated communities that were discovered in the mountains of the Himalayas 2,000 years later of decedents of Alexander’s army who lived in isolation and who knew nothing about the rest of the world and had no tensions and conflict to face with. We are all living in heterogeneous, diverse societies. We are all encountering daily ‘the other’—however we define ‘the other’—and we all have to learn our ways of dealing with ‘the other.’
“But I think also the most important thing when you have to deal with ‘the other’ is to first know yourself. Often what has happened is that most of us—no matter what faith traditions we belong to or we come from—have either abandoned or ignored our spiritual and religious and moral values. We’ve become too preoccupied in our daily living, in our so-called secular lives, and we have put religion under the carpet as a personal matter and removed it from public space. And we are paying—those societies that have ignored or abandoned religion perhaps as a result of a backlash because religion once dominated many societies around the world. So now religion has been removed from public space, and we are, in a sense, paying a price, in many ways, by losing the important treasures, the important heritage that religion has provided for us. The resource is there for us, but we have turned away from our faith traditions by just simply ignoring it, or allowing special-interest groups to utilize religions to promote their own self-interests. And that has also been damaging. So we have either used religion in a negative way, or abused it, or we have ignored religion. And in all these ways, we are paying a heavy price, that we see around the world what is happening today.
“All countries, all peoples, all cultures are going through this phase of suffering from so-called religious fundamentalism and the consequences of that kind of extremism and fundamentalism that comes along with it. But we have to really look into the reasons and the causes. We are responsible for it. The mainstream traditions have ignored religion for too long. We’ve got to address it; we’ve got to bring religion and spirituality back into our lives, into our daily affairs. And this was one of the points that, when the Millennium World Peace Conference was held in the United Nations with Bawa Jain and my friend Dena Merriam, was involved in that conference in 2000, if you recall. I thought that that was the first triumph of religion entering the United Nations and being recognized as a powerful force.
“We need to invite our religious and spiritual leaders to get more proactive and take part in our lives, not simply in terms of rituals and ceremonies on particular religious festivals or occasions, but daily, normal affairs, such as celebrating the birthday of Ammaji—that is a happy occasion. It’s not a religious ritual—although they told me when I came here that this looks like the Kumba Mela for Southern India, and that again is because of Ammaji’s personality and Her presence.
“I would like to share with you my deep concern with the way religion has been either neglected or abused, and I think it is now the responsibility of all of us, first of all, to find out what our religious heritage is, to inform ourselves more, to educate ourselves more and then take advantage of that aspect of it. And I say that particularly for women in all faith traditions. Women have been the victim of the misapplication of religious faith and practices, and we are the ones who who should be taking the initiative in informing ourselves as to what our own respective faith traditions offer to women, as women. Perhaps we will take that topic tomorrow in the Women’s Conference, but this is an important issue and concern for half of the humanity which is represented by us women. (And I might as well add: it is the better half of humanity—with due apologies to all my brothers.) I think it is time we take some responsibility for the affairs of the world, that we take some participation in what is happening to the world and to ourselves.
“As to what Islam has to offer—I don’t want to give you a lecture on Islamic principles and so on. It’s too hot at this time under this tent to go into serious talk. But I simply say that Islam, as I understand it, is a religion that emphasizes the social aspect rather than just the personal or individual aspect. All requirements of faith in Islam, all that the Muslims have to do, the five requirements of faith, they all are social in nature. You’ve to pray, but pray in a congregation. You’ve got to fast, but you fast with your whole community and your family. And you pay the poor due, or the zakat, and that way you help the community. You make the pilgrimage to Mecca once a year, if you can afford it—oh, once in a lifetime, sorry; nobody would do it once a year. Actually, you are asked not to do it once a year so that you allow others to make the pilgrimage. That is about two-million people gather for five days in the plains of Mina in Arafat around Mecca, and it is a scene to see: it is two-million people coming together for a short period of time once a year. That, again, is a reflection of the focus on the social aspect of Islam. This is a time that Muslims find their brethren from far off places speaking strange tongues and strange languages and different cultures and so on.
“There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today—as a demographer, I like to use some numbers—and they are found in all parts of the world. So there is not one Islam the way it is practiced; there are many ways that Muslims practice their faith tradition—how they interpret, how they exercise and so on. So there is a great deal of variety. And there is a general misunderstanding among others who do not know Islam—and I don’t think that I have to worry about this at this gathering; I think all of you are very aware and alert to different faith traditions, but those who are less exposed to this, they think Islam is just one faith, it’s one people and they can all be lumped into one category. And that is indeed a very wrong interpretation and a very wrong view. And that costs us in a way because then you are not able to deal with this huge, monolithic giant that is really not one; it is diverse. It has a variety of interpretations of the same teachings and so on. So, you have to understand the religion as it is, not as it is projected by the media or by people who do not truly understand it. And I think this responsibility also falls on the Muslim community itself, because we have not done a good job of conveying the message or reflecting the true situation of the Muslim community around the world, and, as you know, right now we are in the spotlight in many ways, and many painful ways. And we want to address that. We want to find out for ourselves as to who we are and what we are and so on.
“Well, those are serious issues, but this is a happy day and we want to keep our spirits high and celebrate the big bash that we have launched today with Ammaji’s presence. And, again, I wish Her many happy returns of the day. Thank you again for inviting me. Bye-bye.”