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World Council of Muslim Communities

World Dialogue Is a Global Dialogue

ISLAM AND BUDDHISM

 

A PART OF THE “TOLERANCE AND SOLIDARITY FOR ALL RELIGIONS” PROJECT

 

A series of lectures that have been delivered all over the world on the level of heads of state, ambassadors, governments, UN NGOs, grassroots, public, and clergy

 

By Dr. Malik S. Khan and Dr. Muhammad Nasseef

 

The following speech is part of a compendium of the work by Dr. Malik S. Khan for world peace and understanding under named as “Tolerance and Solidarity” performed under the auspices of, and with the cooperation and input from, such bodies as the United Nations and major religions. The underlying theme has been toward education for tolerance and understanding, dialogue and cooperation among civilizations, and the role of religions in evolving a peaceful world, with the United States playing a pivotal role in building cordial relationships with all communities of the world. I am very thankful to the United States of America, the World Muslim Congress, World Council of Muslim Communities, Muslim World League, and International Islamic Council of Da`wah and Relief. I am equally grateful to the government of Saudi Arabia and in particular to the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., H.E. Adel A. Al-Jubeir, for his assistance and facilitation for the project involving giving lectures all over the world.

Under the “Tolerance and Solidarity” initiative, the societal premises of mankind have been propounded. Within this context, mutuality and fortitude, justice and equality have been elaborated, while Islamic provisions therefor have been highlighted. The world clergies, scholars, moderates, and others, have cooperated for this dialogue. The religious teachings of several faiths have been elucidated.

The concept in the United States of America grew out of the search for cooperation amongst the Abrahamic religions. I was especially approached because of my prior work on tolerance after 9/11, in which I was energetically vocal. I carried on that great task on all levels: (grassroots, Internet, NGO, United Nations, clergy). By the grace of the Almighty, sermons were received well across the continents. Magazines published dynamic articles that built bridges on different international issues for the betterment of humanity, scholars produced materials that enlightened the minds of the people, and educational programs were launched with the media.

The media globally published our thoughts, for which we are thankful to them for granting us a position which is second to none. We are particularly grateful to my mentor/ advisor, Dr. Abdullah bin Omar Nasseef. We could not have accomplished this mission without the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and physical support he provided. He himself worked with the team to launch the programs: supervising and conducting symposia, conferences, and dialogues worldwide, carrying the work to Europe, Africa, Asia, and other locations, especially working with the team of specialists  in Saudi Arabia, Barcelona (Spain), Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Kuwait, and Africa.

A decade has passed since 9/11 and we have succeeded in making a difference. We have achieved much and produced a book, which is highly commendable treatise on the subject. I pray to the Almighty to provide rewards to everyone who has been part of this program worldwide.

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Honorable Chairman, distinguished speakers, ladies and gentlemen, Assalamu alaikum, peace be upon you. I come to Sri Lanka and see Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Christians and others living in peace and harmony. This peace and harmony has been made possible largely by the amicable and tolerant attitude of the Buddhist majority’s practice of their religious precepts, as well as by the government of H.E. President Mahinda Rajapakse’s inclusive policies. President Rajapakse, by bestowing even ministerial positions on Muslims in a spirit of tolerance and teamwork,  is practicing his religious beliefs pragmatically and creating an environment of confidence and mutual trust within the community. Everyone of us feels very comfortable in the friendly coexisting communities. President Rajapakse, with his dynamic leadership springing from the noble attributes prescribed by his religious beliefs, has won the hearts of Muslims and others alike among the citizenry of Sri Lanka.

Many times we Muslims have come to Sri Lanka and found our beloved Buddhist brothers to be perfect hosts, who gave us opportunities to find our community with equality and justice. We pray for this benevolent nation to live long in peace and harmony.

I want to present to President Rajapakse, the President of the Buddhist association, and H.E. Mohamed Hanifa Mohamed my humble appreciation for providing me this opportunity to offer a brief view of the commonalities between Islam and Buddhism.

The Holy Quran says:

يَـٰٓأَيُّہَا ٱلنَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقۡنَـٰكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ۬ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلۡنَـٰكُمۡ شُعُوبً۬ا وَقَبَآٮِٕلَ لِتَعَارَفُوٓاْ‌ۚ

 “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other …” (Surah 49, ayah 13)1

That is, within the unity of our all being members of the humankind, or as Islam would put it, our all being the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Allah in His wisdom has allowed for the richness of the human experience through proliferation into many races, ethnicities, religions, languages, and cultures. And, it is the divine purpose that through this diversity, we should know one another. This implies respect for the various human flowerings. Hence, ultimately, respect for one another.

All too often though in our own fallibility, we human beings see those unlike ourselves as utterly foreign and strange. They are treated as un-understandable and, ultimately, of lower value than ourselves, even subhuman. It is this mentality which incites nations to go to war and shed innocent blood without any qualms. In the current era, when the devil could literally create conditions rendering human life unlivable on the earth, the worst could be expected. Therefore, given the human tendency to the “us-versus-them” mentality, it is spiritually as well as physically desirable, for human survival to work continuously to enlarge the circle of the “us.” While acknowledging real differences in beliefs and outlooks, we must seek out and cherish our commonalities, not to let our divergences to blind us ignore the fundamental truths.

It is indeed the case that on the level of formal religious doctrine (`aqidah) and ritual, the differences between Islam and Buddhism are so vast as to be apparently irreconcilable, so that a person comparing the two only within this context would see no common ground. Indeed, someone approaching even his own religion in such a superficial paradigm alone cannot be said to have grasped its spiritual truths. We must seek the reality on a deeper level, that which is called ma`rifa in Islam, the spiritual wisdom whose divine light illuminates the dynamics on which the creeds and rituals are based. Ma`rifa is the spiritual intuition that goes beyond intellectual understanding; it is a living sublimity that guides to the Truth and moral behavior. Those who seek ma`rifa engage in prayer, fasting, and practices that aim at the purification of the practitioner from all negative states that lead one astray to from the Divine (such as anger, jealousy, distrust in Higher Guidance). Both Muslims and Buddhists alike seek the Higher Wisdom through such exercises. Among the Muslims, Al-Ghazali was a great beacon whose literary works are as fresh and full of insight today as they were when written centuries ago.

Seeking common ground then, from the perspective of ma`rifa, we will touch upon Absolute Reality as the basis of belief, Detachment as an essential attitude for the believer, and Compassion as a supreme virtue on both the divine and human levels.

Absolute Reality. Both Islam and Buddhism have at their core a belief in the underlying unity of all existence, expressing itself as an Absolute Reality, an Absolute Truth. Islam grounds this belief in the existence of One God, Allah, the Creator and Sustainer of All the Worlds. Buddhism does not refer this Absolute Truth back to a godly source, but neither does it specifically deny the possibility of a divine creator. Let us not let our different perspectives blind us to the common underlying concept of an Absolute Reality, the “Truth” transcending the facts and natural laws governing material existence, which could be called “truths.”

The audience is invited to compare the following two texts, the first from the Buddhist Udāna, the second from the Holy Quran:

“There is, monks, an unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded; and were it not, monks, for this unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded, no escape could be shown here for what is born, has become, is made, is compounded.

“But because there is, monks, an unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded, therefore, an escape can be shown for what is born, has become, is made, is compounded.”(Udāna 80-81)

Compare:

قُلۡ هُوَ ٱللَّهُ أَحَدٌ (١) ٱللَّهُ ٱلصَّمَدُ (٢) لَمۡ يَلِدۡ وَلَمۡ يُولَدۡ (٣) وَلَمۡ يَكُن لَّهُ ۥ ڪُفُوًا أَحَدٌ (٤)

“Say: He is Allah, the One and Only;

“Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;

“He begetteth not, nor is He begotten;

“And there is none like unto Him.” (Surah 112, ayat 1-4)2

Muslims can appreciate the Buddhist assertion that any attempt by the limited human intellect to encompass the Infinite Ultimate Reality is bound to fall short. The Buddha said:

“This Reality (Dhamma, Pali for Dharma) that I have reached is profound, hard to see, hard to understand, excellent, pre-eminent, beyond the sphere of thinking, subtle, and to be penetrated by the wise alone.”3

Detachment. Although detachment is a concept more emphasized in Buddhism than Islam, it is present in both faiths. There is much going on behind the scene in the worldly life that we cannot perceive. We misunderstand other people’s motives, or don’t even understand our own subconscious urges that drive us to do what we do. Our faith may be challenged by the loss of health, or the death of a loved one, or by our becoming a victim of war or natural disaster. Buddhism and other Oriental religions call life as it superficially appears “illusion.” The Holy Quran says:

ۗ وَمَا ٱلۡحَيَوٰةُ ٱلدُّنۡيَآ إِلَّا مَتَـٰعُ ٱلۡغُرُورِ 

“…And the life of the world is naught but an illusory enjoyment” (Surah 3, ayah 185).4

A person caught up in life as it superficially appears lives an unending struggle to find happiness and security outside himself, be it through wealth and possessions, or social standing and power, or spouses and children, etc. Such happiness as he may find through such means is never reliable, based as it is on conditions outside the person. This continuous and ultimately futile chase for bliss and contentment through externalities results in all kinds of negative mental states, which the Buddhists collectively call suffering. True happiness, contentment, and security, though, are recognized by Buddhists and Muslims alike to be pursued within oneself at a spiritual level. This recognition, that the most important pursuits in life are within, is called by the Buddhists detachment. In Islam it is referred to as the greater jihad or, to say, living a God-centered life. The Holy Quran urges this attitude in verses such as:

وَٱصۡبِرۡ نَفۡسَكَ مَعَ ٱلَّذِينَ يَدۡعُونَ رَبَّہُم بِٱلۡغَدَوٰةِ وَٱلۡعَشِىِّ يُرِيدُونَ وَجۡهَهُ ۥ‌ۖ وَلَا تَعۡدُ عَيۡنَاكَ عَنۡہُمۡ تُرِيدُ زِينَةَ ٱلۡحَيَوٰةِ ٱلدُّنۡيَا‌ۖ

And withhold yourself with those who call on their Lord morning and evening desiring His goodwill, and let not your eyes pass from them, desiring the beauties of this world's life … (Surah 18, ayah 28)5

            Compassion. Compassion is what the Buddhists call karūna and, the Muslims refer to rahma. It is seen by both sides as not merely one of the foremost human virtues but as springing from the Essence of Absolute Reality. That rahmah is one of the Attributes of Allah given the most weight by Muslims is evident whenever a Muslim begins any action, from momentous to everyday, by saying Bismillah hir-Rahman nir-Rahim, invoking Allah with particular respect to his attribute as Rahmān. Gautama Buddha’s life of teaching humans how to release themselves from suffering was motivated by compassion.

            It is a fair question to pose to both faiths that if compassion is a kind of love that flows from feeling the suffering of another, then how can compassion exist on the level of Absolute Reality or God, where there is no suffering? A Muslim could answer that since Allah is All-Knowing, He is aware of and therefore responsive to suffering in His creation. Allah is Absolute, but He assumes the qualities identified in His 99 Beautiful Names in order to interact with His creatures.

            Buddhism recognizes the compassion of Gautama Buddha as not a self-created state but as having a transcendent Source attributed to the Dharma, a word roughly equivalent to Arabic al-Haqq. Mahayana Buddhism develops the concept of “Cosmic Buddhas” whose grace and mercy are essential for human salvation. This precept comes close to the personal-God belief of the Occidental religious tradition.

To properly explore the commonalities between Islam and Buddhism, with convincing argumentation and citations from the respective religious and historical texts, would take a book-length literary work. The present effort must be considered a bare introduction designed to interest the audience in further exploration on the topic.

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            1Yusuf Ali translation

            2Yusuf Ali translation

3 Cited from the Majjhima Nikāya, in Some Sayings of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon, tr. F.L. Woodward (London: Oxford University Press, 1925), p. 4.

            4Daryabadi translation

            5Shakir translation