The other day, I was waiting to get a vehicle to go to ‘my’ place of worship when an autorickshaw came my way. The driver wore a telltale Muslim-style cap.
I told the driver the name of the locality where I wanted to go. He asked for more details and I mentioned the name of ‘my’ place of worship. At this he cheerfully responded, “Then I just cannot say no to you!”—or something to that effect.
I was pleasantly surprised. The man’s enthusiastic response touched me. I was moved by his respect for a faith tradition other than his. Such things aren’t very common in an world that’s increasingly polarised in the name of religion.
I climbed into the autorickshaw and we headed off. In just a short while we were chatting like long-lost friends! You know how it is with some people: you’ve never met them before but almost immediately you feel an inexplicable bonding with them. That was how I felt with Aslam Khan. His respect for ‘my’ religious tradition and place of worship had worked a miracle! Soon, I had learnt many details of his life, including about his childhood, several things about his family and also something of what seemed to be his impressive knowledge of different religions and his desire for harmonious inter-community coexistence. He insisted he wasn’t much educated, but clearly he was wise. The way he spoke indicated a positive attitude towards life’s challenges. What made him even more endearing were his good manners and the cheerfulness and warmth that he exuded.
In the course of our conversation Aslam Khan mentioned to me about his daughter who he said was studying to become, if I remember correctly, a software engineer. He had dreams for this child which he was working hard to fulfil.
I thought of my friend Venku, one of whose major passions in life is to help people in need, including through things like scholarships for students. Perhaps he could help out here? I called him up and told him about Aslam Khan and his daughter. I got Aslam Khan to speak to him too. When I later met Venku, he told me that he might be able to do something to help Aslam Khan’s daughter with her studies.
When we reached ‘my’ place of worship I was glad to give Aslam Khan a sizeable tip as we departed. He really deserved it!
If I reflect on this brief incident I guess I could draw many important lessons. But I’ll confine myself here only to some of the things that I can learn from this experience with regard to the ethics of interfaith or inter-community relations, which is an issue of global importance today.
- If you relate to someone from a different faith tradition with respect for him and his faith, you are very likely to earn his appreciation. Aslam Khan’s spontaneous expression of respect for ‘my’ religious tradition immediately endeared me to him.
From this it follows that genuine respect and love—understood here as concern and care for another—is the only way to win hearts and melt barriers, including between people who follow, or claim to follow, different religious traditions.
- Interfaith harmony comes from interfaith kindness. That means that no amount of theological discussion and preachy sermonising—which is often what happens in often heavily-funded interfaith meetings—can take the place of simple random acts of kindness between people from different faith backgrounds in helping them overcome deeply-rooted prejudices, recognise their common humanity and bond together despite their religious differences.
- Sometimes, one can learn much more about the ethics of interfaith living from a single spontaneous act of kindness and courtesy of someone like a ‘simple’, ‘semi-educated’ autorickshaw driver than from an academic religious discourse by a learned theologian or a professor of religion.
- A single act of kindness can have a multiplier effect and can become the basis for friendships and solidarity across and beyond faith boundaries, a sure means for building inter-community harmony.
Aslam Khan’s act of kindness in enthusiastically agreeing to take me in his autorickshaw made me respond by doing another good deed—contacting Venku to help with Aslam Khan’s daughter’s education. Hopefully, Venku will do what he can in this regard—which would make it three good deeds, all little acts of ‘interfaith kindness’!
Our respective acts of kindness have brought three people from three different community backgrounds together based on a common concern to go beyond ourselves and be of service to others despite our diverse religious beliefs. One can hardly think of a better way for one’s own spiritual growth and for building interfaith and inter-community harmony!