Conflict among communities established on the basis of religion is a major issue in large parts of the world. Of course, this is not anything new. Examples of wars between individuals who claimed to practise various religions are replete with human history. Given that today, as is often said, the world has become a ‘global village’ with considerable interconnections between individuals from different religious backgrounds, it is a major challenge to deal adequately with the reality of religious differences such that these differences are not used to promote conflict. What requires special attention is how diverse societies identified on the basis of faith can live in harmony and work together for their mutual benefit.
For the promotion of inter-community harmony, various mechanisms are offered. I think that inter-communal peace is something that those who strive to it must first start carrying out in their own personal lives, while they may have their merits, this is expressed in the way they relate to people from different religious backgrounds. It is important for the fostering of inter-community harmony to maintain cordial interpersonal relationships with people from different religious groups. In cultivating such peace, perhaps nothing will take the place of strong friendships between people from distinct backgrounds of faith. This is something I learned through a personal experience of my own.
Something About Myself
By sharing something about myself, I’d like to begin this essay. That way, you will get an idea of the context from which I come and some of the factors that have affected my view of inter-community relations and my role in fostering understanding and harmony of interfaith.
I was born in 1972 into a Muslim middle-class family in a small village called Kinalur, in the district of Kozhikode in northern Kerala. My dad was a building worker and my mother was a housewife. From a nearby government school, I completed my schooling. I then enrolled for a pre-degree course as a private candidate. I graduated in Arabic from Calicut University and received a postgraduate degree from Aligarh Muslim University in Arabic literature. I have also received a B.Ed. In teaching the Arabic language. I am currently teaching Arabic at a school. I do a decent amount of writing alongside this. For many years, I have been writing for various Malayalam publications, on a broad range of issues.
How Things Were Back Then
My village consists of Muslims and Hindus.There have never been any communal riots or fights in or around the village, as far as I know. While there are different political parties and community groups participating in the village, there is a pleasant environment there. We’ve had Hindu neighbours since childhood, belonging to various castes. With them, we had good relationships. As a child, in the name of faith, I never sensed any alienation. In the name of religion, as a child, I did not experience any discrimination. At that time, there was a small degree of caste-based segregation among Hindus, but in the name of religion, there was not even that much segregation. When I was young, most of the teachers who taught me were not Muslims, and they all loved me and encouraged me. My memory is of a caring neighbourhood where people shared with each other their joys and sorrows.
Many of my friends from my childhood were from Hindu families. All the activities we did together were going to classes, sitting in class and playing in the evenings. Then, I didn’t feel any discrimination or sense of otherness. There was a library near our house when I was a child; it still exists. For girls, it was a secular platform. It brought together children from distinct backgrounds of faith and caste. I borrowed and read lots of library books. I was an active participant, along with other children from the city, in the art and cultural events conducted in the library. The first time I acted in a drama was at that time. At the primary school I attended, the play was part of the annual celebration. I played the role of a middle-aged Brahmin man.
Many of the closest friends my father had were Hindus. He wasn’t a man of faith. He read periodicals daily and was interested in politics. He was a socialist-leftist. But people with other political views were among his friends, including those who believed in Hindutva politics. His schedule included listening to them, greeting them and visiting their homes. For festive occasions and special receptions at our home, he used to invite his friends over. Similarly, we used to go to their houses during festivals like Onam and Vishu and for wedding ceremonies. They all very much loved me.
My grandmother was a woman who was well-read. Until her death, she kept in contact with her old Hindu relatives. From time to time, they used to see one another. When faced with financial problems, they will support each other. They would pawn their gold jewellery to support each other if they had no money. All of them had a great love for me. I grew up seeing the friendship and affection. The first person to give me sweets and compliments and encourage me when I passed the SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate) examination was a Hindu woman who I would address as ‘Amma’ or ‘Mother.’
My mother’s uncle had a small shop that sold stationery and vegetables. I will also go to the shop during my school days and help him out. The bulk of his clients were not Muslims. With them, he built a relationship that went beyond buying and selling. At that time, all such affairs were based on love and concern, whether they were trade or wage labour or whatever. Human values were the basis of all relationships.
My uncle had a tradition of giving gifts to his customers during the Onam festival and Diwali. As presents, he gave them sweets, vegetables and fruits. I recall going with him to give his client’s friends gifts. What wonderful traditions there were to preserve caring friendships in those days in the villages!
In the villages back then, there was a mechanism for villagers to support each other in times of financial hardship. This was a kind of chit fund (locally, it was called Payat), which was known as ‘Tea Party.’ He would invite other local people over with a special invitation letter when a villager was in financial difficulties. People would respond to his invitation, and either at the person’s home or in a nearby tea shop, there would be a small tea party.Guests would contribute as much money as they wanted to, and the sum they provided would be registered by a cashier. When the latter’s turn came, those who raised money through Payat would later return a greater sum than the amount they had earned to the donor. His children or other heirs would take over if a person died, and then it would continue to be a network. Payat was a system that fostered social trust, friendship and compassion among people, apart from being an interest-free loan transaction. It has enabled people to connect socially, to renew their relationships and to establish stable local connections. Local traditions such as these have made interfaith or iinter-community harmony most beautiful and, at the same time, unpretentious at the interpersonal stage.
In the old days, whenever there was a wedding party or celebration in any village house, neighbours and friends would be there to help prepare the tent and make and distribute the food, no matter what their religion. The basis of rural life in the area where I grew up was a noble culture of interaction that brought together individuals from various religious backgrounds.
There have been enormous changes in the last half-century. Nearly all the experiences above have become myths. For this, there are several explanations. The lack of poverty now in the villages is one of the main factors. Migration to the Gulf countries in much of Kerala has vastly changed the living standards of villages. All aspects of life have been institutionalised with the rise of new capitalist society and rapid urbanisation. Professional service-providers entered spheres which were earlier governed by local practises that brought people together in interpersonal relationships based on mutual assistance. In this respect, developments in politics have also played an important role. Among Muslims, the demolition of the Babri Masjid caused concern, and it led them to communal narrow-mindedness.It should also be noted that new trends in religious fundamentalism have begun to spread across various religious groups, having a negative effect on inter-communal relations.
So, things are really different today than they were back when I was a child.
Historical Tradition of Inter-Community Harmony
It is a fact, in terms of religious harmony, that Kerala is a model state in India. Behind this, a long historical history remains. With great respect, the Muslim Arabs who came to Malabar for trade centuries ago were received by the Hindu kings of Calicut, who gave them all their support. The Hindu Zamorin kings married the Arabs to local women and encouraged the building of mosques for the worship of Muslims.The Muslims became loyal navigators of the Zamorin kings. This is documented authorized history.
I believe that continuously remembering this great heritage is an important way of preserving religious harmony in Kerala. It is crucial that the members of the groups be loyal and honest in order for love and friendship to prevail between cultures. The explanation why the ancient Hindus were prepared to acknowledge as trading partners the Muslim Arabs was the loyalty of the latter. This is something the Muslims of Kerala need to remember today. In social ties and relationships with others, they need to determine whether they can preserve the loyalty and honesty of their ancestors. And the Hindus of Kerala must analyse themselves without any biased thought to see how they can relate to the Muslims, just as the Zamorins did.
I had the opportunity to organise several history seminars and to talk about the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in Malabar, the part of Kerala where I reside, at such functions. This historical experience of the Hindu-Muslim brotherhood is represented in my little Malayalam novel, whose title translates as Religious Harmony and Muslims of Kerala.
It’s really necessary in social life to build opportunities for people of different religions to get to know each other. In our village, I recall setting up open galleries for Hindus to watch the Eid prayers. We welcomed our Hindu friends to the venue on these occasions, distributed sweets to them and greeted them. Similarly, during the Onam and Vishu celebrations, in my youth, under the auspices of some cultural organisations in the region, various arts and sports competitions were organised in which everyone in the village, regardless of religion, participated. But those things don’t happen anymore.
Promoting Inter-Community Harmony
Communalism is a deadly virus that causes social havoc. Communalism is not compatible with religions’ fundamental beliefs. Communalism must, therefore, be opposed by religious people themselves. In my view, secular groups should be formed for this reason, and people of all religions should work together in those groups to promote inter-community harmony. To promote such unity, there should be plenty of political and cultural platforms. Many citizens have, for a number of reasons, turned to communalism. Without seeing people who might be communal as rivals in their thought, we need to condemn communalism. And for those who are currently communal in their thought, being closer to human beings and respecting them without prejudice or conditions will make a big difference.
By sloganeering or mere preaching, inter-community harmony does not come about. It needs close interpersonal relationships between individuals from various religious backgrounds. The way people from different community backgrounds view each other may make a big difference in such friendships.
I’m someone who values relationships that are personal. I do not hesitate to make friends with any ideological individuals. By birth, most individuals become religious, not by choice. And then, in every religious community, there will be good and poor individuals. So, my view is that, on the basis of their faith or politics, no one should be excluded from one’s circle of friends. I have some very close non-Muslim friends myself. And not only religious believers, but even those who do not believe in any religion are included. With them, I can get along well.
There is no question that my relationship with people of various ideologies has affected my views greatly. What they believe or do not believe, I don’t care. I do not feel I have to convert them to my religion. I believe I have been liberated from ideological narrow-mindedness by my conversations with them.
Let me share one of my experiences. Muslims have a negative view about befriending Jews in general. Among many Muslims, there is an impression that Jews are corrupt. Years ago, I met a woman named Dominique Sila-Khan, a well-known scholar who researched the universal values of different religions. She was a Jewish-born European woman who had married a man from India.In Jaipur, I visited her house once. During a lengthy discussion, we addressed several subjects. I spent a night at their home, at the insistence of her and her husband. I was taught a great lesson by my friendship with them. The walls of preconceptions and misconceptions will crumble if we can individually get closer to other people.
Votaries of religions often have a tendency to be hostile not only to different religions but also to to other sects of the same religion. Many Sunni Muslims, for instance, consider Shia Muslims to be heretics and adversaries. Sunnis are regarded by many Shias in the same way. Many individuals may hate members of rival sects of the same religion bitterly, but they have good ties with people of other religions at the same time! My two visits to Iran have had a huge influence on my thinking about this topic. Shias are the majority of Iranians, and I come from a Sunni background. I met some very nice people when I went to Iran who were Shias. I even spent a few nights at home with Shia. These people have been so kind to me.
In dissolving walls founded on prejudice, such personal experiences between members of various sects or religions can work wonders in a way that no amount of lecturing can possibly do.
Responding to Religious Differences
There is no greater objective for me than to do the best I can for others, regardless of what religion they may claim to practise, and for the world in general. Without hurting others, I want to live, even though I can’t do any good. Similarly, I would like to be able to consider people as they are. I believe that true spirituality is to love all human beings, to do justice to them and not to hate anyone, no matter what their faith or philosophy.
The material world is highly complex, and diversity is intrinsic to the universe’s beauty. Similarly, by diversity, the universe of ideas is made beautiful. Everyone is free to believe that they are right about their faith or ideology. I need to give my friends the freedom to believe in their beliefs and ideas, just as I believe my own beliefs and ideas are right for me. Then, I do not have to argue and confirm my correctness. I do not need to impose my faith on others. Every religious person can live in harmony with others while being themselves. They can help each other at the same time as they choose to believe in this or that ideology. Adherents of different religions need to be able to live in harmony with each other. Every religion should teach its followers that.
The Holy Qur’an says: “Indeed, We have honoured the children of Adam” (17:70). This sentence means that God has respected all human beings, regardless of their religion, nationality, color or gender. That being the case, one has no right to disrespect those whom God respects.
It is a fact that on many topics, there are differences of opinion between religions. It is not possible to remove such gaps through disputes. Although these differences may continue to exist, the truth is that on a variety of other topics, there is absolute peace between religions. It is possible to solve several problems on Earth if believers unite on common grounds.
There are many crises facing humanity. Several personal and social disputes make human life intolerable. Many common crises plague us, such as poverty, disease, unemployment and environmental issues. We need to work together, regardless of what religion, caste or ethnic group we may identify with, to find a solution to such problems. Religious harmony is not a mechanical action, but the product of different processes instead. With love and compassion, human beings must live and work together, and then inter-community harmony can naturally improve.
Let me cite an example. In the last two years in Kerala, there have been two big floods. On these occasions, without being impelled by divisive prejudices based on religious affiliation, people worked together in rescue operations. The Hindu temples were cleansed by young Muslims. Churches were opened for Muslims to pray in. Their bodies could not be brought to the hospital when some Christians died in the flooding, as the road was blocked, and their postmortem was held in a nearby mosque. Several such inter-community harmony models have made headlines. These interactions teach us some natural ways in which human beings who may believe in various religions can achieve oneness.
One of the easiest and most powerful ways to foster inter-community harmony and to develop into a better individual is, I believe, to be supportive to others in their time of need.