New Delhi, India - Upwards of 350 people filled the auditorium at the India International Centre today to attend a conference focussed on the theme, ‘Celebrating Diversity in the Muslim World’. Inspired and encouraged by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the event was organized by the Muslims of Ladakh.
On arrival, His Holiness was welcomed by Dr Abdul Qayoom of the Anjuman Moin-ul-Islam and Ashraf Ali Barcha of the Anjuman Imamia Leh. In the auditorium he personally greeted the numerous Muslim clerics present, before taking his seat on the stage.
In his preliminary remarks he mentioned that Ladakhi Muslims came to Lhasa during the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, who gave them a piece of land on which to construct a mosque. Subsequently, representatives of their community we always invited to Tibetan government functions.
Despite having heard no reports of disputes between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in India, elsewhere members of these different denominations are killing each other. His Holiness expressed dismay that this could happen between people of the same faith, who worship the same God, read the same Holy Scripture and follow the same pattern of praying five times a day.
“I felt that Indian Muslims should be more active in promoting religious harmony,” he explained. “I thought that a meeting of Indian Muslims here in Delhi could be helpful and I really appreciate your having arranged it. I’m also happy to know that brothers and sisters from Iran are joining us here. We have to make clear to the eyes of the world how important it is to maintain religious harmony.”
Siddiq Wahid welcomed the guests and participants, explaining that the Guest of Honour, former Vice President Hamid Ansari had been unavoidably delayed, but would come later. He alluded to the longstanding interaction between Muslims and Tibet that dates back to the 8th century. He also noted that the Tibetan language is employed in four SAARC countries—India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan. He requested Hafiz Ghulam Mohammad to recite the Tilawaat e Quran Sharief, the gist of which was to say—”Do not become divided; Allah brings you together; you are brothers.”
A. Qayum Giri declared that the intent of the conference was to celebrate diversity in the Muslim world. Although the Muslims of Ladakh are few in number, they were providing this opportunity in anticipation that such meetings will continue and grow in the future. “We want to make the world aware of the harmony we maintain on the ‘roof of the world’ and ask how this can be applied elsewhere in this country and further afield. We intend to learn, to take home what we learn and spread it in the Muslim world.”
Ashraf A. Barcha observed that Ladakh is a remote region and Muslims are in a minority there, but are stable, calm and peaceful. He hoped that speakers would identify steps to avert any future problems that might arise and stimulate constructive dialogue.
In his address His Holiness noted that of seven billion human beings alive today, one billion have no interest in religion, leaving six billion who follow one of several different religious traditions. He noted that the Indian practice for cultivating a calmly abiding mind, shamatha, gave rise to the traditions of non-violence and compassion (ahimsa and karuna). He suggested that, compared to the ancient civilizations of China and Egypt, that of the Indus Valley had resulted in particularly sophisticated philosophical developments.
“Today, everyone wants to live a happy life. No one wants to suffer. Indeed, happiness is part of the basis of our survival. Scientists have concluded that basic human nature is compassionate. This is linked to individuals’ survival being dependent on the rest of the community. Those who grow up in a more compassionate atmosphere tend to be happier and more successful. On the other hand, scientists suggest that living with constant anger or fear undermines our immune system. Interdependence means that all seven billion human beings belong to one human community.
“In today’s world, despite material development, many problems we face are of our own creation. They are provoked by our tendency to see others in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Children don’t make such distinctions. They don’t care what religion, race or nation their playmates belong to so long as they smile and play happily. We need to remember the oneness of humanity, that in being human we are all the same, and I am committed to letting people know this.
“All our religious traditions convey a message of love. In Buddhist terms we talk about feeling that all sentient beings are as dear to us as our own mother. Muslims in Tibet were very peaceable. In Turtuk, the northernmost village in India, an Imam told me that a Muslim should love every member of Allah’s creation. Elsewhere another elder told me that someone who causes bloodshed is no longer a proper Muslim.
“We are peaceful here and now, but among our neighbours in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen children are suffering deeply. Why is that? We have to make an effort to create a more peaceful world, by cultivating inner peace within ourselves. Of course, we follow different traditions, we have different philosophical points of view, but the underlying message is one of love.
“Theistic faiths suggest we are all creatures of a merciful God, like children of a single father. We have to think about what unites us rather than what makes us different. All religions have the same potential to create a happy human being; they convey the same message of love. There are wonderful people belonging to all these traditions.
“Meanwhile, killing among Muslims and Buddhists in Bangladesh, Burma or Sri Lanka, among Muslims and Christians in Egypt, in the name of religion is unthinkable. If we have peace of mind within ourselves, peace in the world will come about. But religious harmony is essential. If you ask—”Is religious harmony possible?” the answer is—look at India. Look at the example of Zoroastrians or Parsees who barely number 100,000, but who live among millions of Hindus and Muslims in Mumbai completely without fear.
“It seems to me that Shias and Sunnis are brothers and sisters and yet in our neighbour Pakistan they are killing each other. I feel that Indian Muslims should show the rest of the world, especially people in other Muslim countries, that religious harmony is possible, which something else I’m committed to sharing with others.”
His Holiness explained that as a Tibetan in whom Tibetans inside and outside Tibet place their trust, he has a responsibility to consider their well-being. He is also concerned to protect Tibet’s natural environment, the source of so many of Asia’s great rivers. He warned that there is a real danger of a reduction in the amount of water available due to the climate crisis. He added that he tries to educate people about Tibet’s cultural heritage and the advanced centre of learning at Nalanda from which it is derived. Allied to this is his commitment to trying to revive interest in ancient Indian knowledge of the workings of the mind and emotions.
After a short break for tea, His Holiness answered questions from the audience. He expressed great sympathy for the Rohingya refugees from Burma along with his conviction that the Buddha would have protected such people. He reported that Aung San Suu Kyi had told him that due to military involvement the situation was difficult to deal with.
When asked to explain how to cultivate inner peace, His Holiness suggested that believing in ‘God, the father’ can help. Otherwise, recognising that things do not exist as they appear, and cultivating altruism, can counter the destructive emotions that disturb us. He added that both ‘ahimsa’ and ‘karuna’ involved training the mind.
His Holiness told a questioner who wanted to know about nirvana that it was complicated. Nirvana, he said, is a state of mind purified through a deep understanding of reality. He clarified that since ignorance is not part of the nature of the mind it can be dispelled from it. However, to achieve that requires study, reflection and meditation.
A teacher wanted to know how teach schoolchildren about love and compassion. His Holiness suggested pointing out that genuine friendship is not based on money and power, but on trust, which in turn develops as a result of showing concern for other people’s well-being. In other words, explain to schoolchildren that friendship is founded on warm-heartedness. His Holiness acknowledged that we have a natural sense of self-interest, but made clear that there is a difference between pursuing it wisely and foolishly.
Invited to suggest how to reconcile differences between Shias and Sunnis, or between Iran and Saudi Arabia, His Holiness pointed out that politicians make assertions in the name of religion which tend to provoke an emotional response. He remarked that some people view Iran with suspicion, which he doesn’t, describing it as a democratic country that follows a Shia tradition. On the other hand, he remarked, Bin Laden came from the Sunni side. He declared that we can’t generalize about Shias as a whole, nor about Sunnis as a whole. It’s not possible to generalize about a whole community on the basis of the misbehaviour of a few individuals.
Finally, His Holiness answered an enquiry about meditation by making clear that there is a difference between mental consciousness and sensory awareness. He pointed out that we have clearer access to mental consciousness when we dream because at that time our sensory consciousnesses are dormant. Training the mind, cultivating compassion and an understanding of reality, all involve mental consciousness. Success in developing a calmly abiding mind and analysis depend on how much effort you exert and how well you understand the workings of the mind and emotions.
There followed contributions from representative Muslim clerics. Maulana Abdul Qadir Noorudin from the Bohra tradition in Mumbai spoke of the diversity that is India, but also of the harmony that prevails here. He mentioned that the Holy Quran encourages the finding of shared values with others, which serve as confidence building measures. The people of India, he suggested, are bound by a shared life-style. Nevertheless, people of ill-intent try to promote division, whereas those of good heart foster friendship. He concluded that all human beings need tolerance and forgiveness.
Maulana Syed Kalbi Jawad Naqavi, a Shia teacher from Lucknow, confessed that using English he learned 40 years ago left him short of words. Of the three points he made, the first was that most of us are not real Muslims; we are not actual but artificial Muslims, because real Muslims are expected to help others, to work to serve all human beings. A Muslim is one who helps other human beings, whatever faith they follow.
His second point was to ask the meaning of victory in Islam. We tend to think that victory involves conquering or overcoming others, but victory is to establish peace among human beings. Thirdly, the Maulana asked, what is ‘jihad’? He explained that when darkness is dispelled by lighting a candle—that is ‘jihad’. When you work to eliminate illiteracy—that is ‘jihad’. When a mother feeds her child to allay its hunger—that is ‘jihad’. Shedding blood is not ‘jihad’.
He ended by remarking that it is a sorry state of affairs when it takes a non-Muslim like His Holiness to remind Muslims about the value of non-violence and reconciliation.
Maulana Mahmud Madani, from Deoband, spoke of visiting Ladakh and Turtuk. There he met Shias and Sunnis and came across some who prayed together. He noted that communal harmony exists when Muslims work not only for Muslims but for everyone. He agreed with His Holiness’s observation that very often it is not religious issues that underlie conflict but political considerations. Too often religion is used as a weapon for short term political gain. He recalled that it was ‘fakirs’ who captured the hearts and minds of people and who could be called their rulers more than kings or emperors.
Dr Mohammed Husain Mokhtari (Chancellor of University of Islamic Denomination or Madhaheb University, Tehran, Iran) told the audience that it is a religious duty to respect each other. He commended accepting diversity among followers of religions, but also that in following religion they are united. He said we have to recognise diversity as a fact and that to do so is beneficial for everyone.
Mutual respect is important. Acceptance and recognition of each other is the preliminary to dialogue and if the goal is unity, there has to be dialogue. He encouraged the recognition of similarities as well as the acceptance of differences. Ignorance and negligence are significant obstacles to the spirit of diversity. We cannot achieve unity if we view some groups of people with fear. Nor is it helpful to criticize others as non-believers.
Former Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari spoke of diversity as such a desirable and simple concept. He asked what we find in nature—no flowers, trees or human beings are exactly the same; there is diversity. He commended the efforts made to convene this conference, but wondered if it would have been necessary if we properly understood diversity.
Muslims are a global community, Mr Ansari said. They number 1.6 billion. Of those, 66% live in Asia; 15% live in West Asia or the Middle East; 20% live in Africa. India, with 190 million Muslims, has the second largest Muslim population after Indonesia. Muslims, he suggested are united in their belief and religious language, but diverse in their manners and customs. The unity of their faith is demonstrated during the annual pilgrimage of the Haj. Wherever they’re from the ritual is the same. There is unity in diversity and diversity in unity.
“Islam has been present in India for a long time and has shown not only diversity but also adaptability. It can be a model for others around the world to emulate. Living together in diversity as we see in India is as unique as it is rare; let’s take it further.”
In bringing the morning session to a close, Siddiq Wahid recalled something he learned from His Holiness long ago when he was about 13 years old—to practise one religion explicitly is practise them all implicitly. He thanked His Holiness for coming and expressed the hope that what was learned today may be impressed on Ladakh, J&K, India and South Asia. He went on to thank everyone who had contributed to making the conference a success.
The delegation from Iran presented gifts to His Holiness and to Mr Ansari. His Holiness ate lunch with the Muslim clerics, while the public ate on the patio.
In the afternoon, the conference was to hear from other members of the Iranian delegation, as well as from Prof Ali Khan speaking about Dialogue within the Muslim World; from Ms Farah Naqvi about Gender in the Muslim World and from Ms Seems Mustafa about Muslims and the Media.
His Holiness returned to his hotel and will return to Dharamsala tomorrow.