India: 'Dialogue-Plus' with Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

Sophia Schäfer | Independent Catholic News | June 20, 2016 | Salam, Oct 2016


Together with the Jesuit scholar Father Victor Edwin (who teaches Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Vidyajyoti College of Theology, a Jesuit centre in Delhi) I met Maulana Wahiduddin Khan twice in March 2016, in New Delhi. In this article I would like to present a portrait of this great Islamic scholar who is internationally recognized for his engagement in efforts for peace and interfaith understanding. He has been awarded many peace prizes, including the Demiurgus Peace International Award (under the patronage of the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev), the Padma Bhushan, the Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavna Award and the National Citizen's Award. A recent book, 'The 500 Most Influential Muslims of 2009' by Georgetown University, Washington DC, has named him "Islam's Spiritual Ambassador to the world."

Wahiduddin Khan was born on 1 January 1925 and grew up in Azamgarh (Uttar Pradesh, India). He was educated in a traditional Islamic seminary, the Madrasatul Islah in Sarai Mir. Afterwards, he gained modern knowledge through self-study. His brothers had studied in secular, Western-style institutions in the 1940s, and members of his family were engaged in India's independence struggle. So, the young Wahiduddin found himself exposed to many questions about religion, politics, society and his own future. Highly influenced by Gandhian ideals, he stood for non-violence, peace dialogue and peace. In 1970, he founded the Islamic Centre in New Delhi, and in 2001, the Centre for Peace and Spirituality.

The Islamic Centre publishes a monthly journal in Urdu called Al-Risala, while the journal Spirit of Islam contains his articles in English. He has translated the Quran into Urdu, with versions in English and Hindi, and has authored over 200 books on Islam, Prophetic wisdom, spirituality, and peaceful co-existence in multi-ethnic societies, including The Prophet of Peace: The Teachings of Prophet Muhammad, Jihad, Peace and Inter-Community Relations in Islam, The Ideology of Peace, and The Age of Peace. Even at the present age of 91, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is actively engaged in scholarly work, interacting with people with people and engaging with groups working for interfaith and peace efforts.

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan invited Father Victor Edwin and me to his house in New Delhi. As his granddaughters Maria and Sufia (who are graduates in Islamic Studies) led us up the stairs to his living room, I already felt happy and blessed to be welcomed so openly at his home--I, a "stranger", a "foreigner", having grown up in a completely different context and following another religion, too.

I asked the Maulana how he understands interfaith dialogue. There are three types of dialogue, he replied. The first is debate, that is when someone wants to win by showing or proving his or her theology's superiority. The Maulana says that this actually is no dialogue at all. It even kills the spirit of dialogue and makes people either scream in anger or be silent. The second is the search for unity. This means that you try to unite all religious doctrines by seeking to eliminate their differences. But by this people also deny their own identities and the distinguishing thoughts, understandings and behaviors that characterize their lives and communities. Nature, traditions and social structures are never uniform and cannot pretend to be, the Maulana says. The third form of dialogue is intellectual partnership. In this case, we learn from and about each other, and even about ourselves by being shown a mirror from another perspective. This, the Maulana says, is the only genuine way of dialogue.

These days, the Maulana says, many Christians are skeptical of Islam and do not listen to its wisdom and see its beauty. Many Muslims, on the other hand, he says, have developed a certain arrogance and are not interested in others anymore. But the Maulana wants to remind us of something that Jesus says: to love our neighbours, and even to love our enemies! Solidarity and harmony in religiously-plural societies are possible if we not only love only people of our own faith communities but also those who do not belong to our religion or subscribe to our way of thinking.

According to the Maulana, Islam seeks to establish peace and bring people together. Yes, some Muslims got lost on the way and began to take to the course of violence. But people should follow the path of peace that Moses, Isaiah, Jesus and Muhammad and all the other prophets have shown: "Those are the ones whom God has guided, so from their guidance take an example."(Quran 6:90) The key is never to be extreme in your religion, but to believe in the goodness and justice of God. Interfaith dialogue brings people together to talk about their lives and become partners, working on this in the spirit of God, who is there for the entire humanity, even if we may understand God differently. We might learn to see a different face of God's grace in the other's eyes.

How can we do this? The Maulana explains this by invoking something that Jesus teaches us: that man shall not live by bread alone. The Maulana says (in a video podcast) that for him this means that although bread is just baked flour, in the eyes of a believer it can become more than bread: we could call it "bread-plus". That is, he or she will be able to see the deeper spiritual lesson in everything. When a believer eats food, he will not simply engage in the act of eating. Rather, he would also think about all the many processes in nature that help in the production and development of food. This would engender profound thankfulness to God for creating so many beneficial things for human beings. In this way, a believer would try to see the spiritual in every material event, causing him to develop God-consciousness. Accordingly, he would exist not only at the physical level but would be nourished at the spiritual level also. This is how a believer converts "bread" into "bread-plus", or the material into a non-material or spiritual lesson.

By understanding the spiritual character of things, we see things and people who are with us as gifts from God. God nourishes us, makes our environment and life beautiful, gives us love and wisdom, which we cannot produce out of ourselves. Water not only quenches our thirst, it also freshens and cleanses us. In hot weather, a glass of water can cool us down. It becomes "water-plus". Likewise, two persons are not only two, but a community, if they come into contact. They become a community, "people-plus". The ones, who see the "plus" in life, will flourish.

I was very inspired by a great Muslim scholar sharing his view of Biblical stories and sayings of Jesus, and even asking Father Victor Edwin and me to share our opinions on his camera. This was the dialogue we talk about all the time! The Maulana went further and asked Father Edwin to pray for all the Muslims in the room who had come to hear the Maulana speak before they started to offer their namaz (prayer). `

Did we pray together?

Yes, everybody prayed--to God, the One and Only!

I cannot say exactly what was on other peoples' minds--the other Christians and the Muslims--but I'm sure God heard and knows. Many people came to us afterwards and the whole room was filled with conversation, and I realized: Yes, God had brought us together! This was 'dialogue-plus'!

Sophia Schafer is a student of theology in Germany.