Understanding Islam and accepting diversity

By Frances Bulathsinghala, Daily FT

http://southasianmonitor.com: In post-conflict Sri Lanka, where extremism has taken diverse forms and has over the years extended to religious extremism as witnessed in the anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama in 2014, the opportunity to listen to a world renowned non-Muslim writer describe Prophet Muhammad and the social contexts and background of Islam in a descriptive easy-to-understand manner, especially so that non-Muslims could rectify their perceptions, is a reward.lead—Lesley-Hazleton

Even more rewarding is to see Muslims of Sri Lanka, sitting side by side with non-Muslims, listening with an open mind, to a writer who approaches all religions, including Islam from a non-religious but very secular-spiritual dimension as she did in her public lecture ‘Getting Muhammad Right and Wrong’ at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) on 17 January.

Hazleton’s books focus on politics, religion and history in a narrative form laced with vibrant story telling.lead---Lesley-Hazleton

The visit of Hazleton to Sri Lanka was supported by the Esufally Trust and her talk at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute was organised in Colombo by the Compassionate Initiative, an endeavour by a section of Sri Lankan Muslims and led by Hanif Yusoof, internationally renowned entrepreneur of Sri Lanka.

Having arrived in Sri Lanka last week to attend the Galle Literary Festival where she delivered an audio-visual talk drawing on two of her books on faith and Islam, ‘The First Muslim’ and ‘Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto,’ Hazleton has been open to questions from various dimensions including on her own faith.

British-born Hazleton, who is of Jewish origin, and who calls herself an agnostic, is a veteran Middle East journalist who has authored books such as After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split, Finalist of the 2010 PEN-USA book award, The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad , (New York Times Editors’ Choice) and a range of other books such as Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography, Winner of the 2005 Washington Book Award.

In addition to her books, having run a series of TED Talks on Islam such as ‘The doubt essential to faith, ‘A tourist reads the Koran’, ‘On reading the Koran,’ ‘Seeing Muhammad – and each other – whole,’ Hazleton uses the term ‘accidental theologist’ to describe herself.

A psychologist by training, she attempts to understand the historical context and the individuals who lived in those contexts in a beyond the surface manner as she narrates at a deeper and empathetic level, transporting those characters into the minds of ordinary people. Her popular audience is especially from opposite divides of belief who are caught in the global turmoil of viewing Islam as violent owing to the acts of a small minority in the world.

Her stand on her own personal belief however remains as that of an observer and a pilgrim of the diverse combined paths of faith-wisdom-science-philosophy-physics-psychology-poetry and many other truths known so far and unknown so far, without affiliating herself to any dogma or religion.

“I do not believe. I do not disbelieve,” she said after her lecture on ‘Getting Muhammad right and wrong’ when questioned as to her belief in the revelations of the Prophet Muhammad. It is the same response when it comes to all forms of faith, including the one she inherited through birth.

The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad

Sharing an honest account of the trepidation she felt when sitting down to write a biography of Prophet Muhammad, The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad which was published in 2013, she spoke of the fear she initially felt on being misunderstood.

There was this fear of fatwas that came from her non-Muslim circle who warned her against the project and the fear from her Muslim brothers and sisters who felt that she might just inadvertently offend the Islamic sentiments in her writings.

“I could understand their concern for me as I planned to delve deep into the life of the revered prophet of Islam but I reassured them that my intentions were in good faith. I also told them that I could not start the project with them all breathing over my neck” laughs Hazleton, describing how she comes to near sinking in the house boat she lives in Seattle when she fills her home to brim-full with books every time she starts writing a new book.

“As I sat down to read all that was written before on the life of the Prophet I was fascinated,” she said, pointing out that she was also surprised that much of the earlier writings on the life of Prophet were so dry and academic.

“Here is a boy whose father died before he was born, who was adopted for five years by a Bedouin woman and who was so poor that he worked as a camel boy in a caravan and who changed the course of history.

“He was an orphan after his mother died when he was still at a young age but he resolutely worked himself up till he was a reputed member of the society in the social context that existed at the time”.

“I was also fascinated by the love that existed between [Prophet] Muhammad and his first wife, an older woman who proposed to him. It was she who he came to when he had the first revelation.”

Throughout the journey of taking herself back to the time of Prophet Muhammad and what he lived through, the guiding principles she had followed were pointed out to be empathy and integrity and reverence to the beauty of the wisdom of the man she was researching on.

Prophet Muhammad is grossly misunderstood

The most important point made by Hazleton was on how Prophet Muhammad is grossly misunderstood so as to completely and absolutely miss his wisdom of attempting to avoid violence.

“He was opposed soon after he began sharing his teachings and left Mecca to Medina and remained in exile for 12 years. When he returned on a negotiated settlement he had to face opposition, from the same kind of people who are going about acts of terror today in the name of Islam.”

It was further explained that the teachings of Muhammad were mostly in response to the questions that were put to him by those who wanted clarification on existing tribal customs of the time, such as stoning for offenses.

Prophet Muhammad as projected by Hazleton is of one who attempted progressive social reform to discourage taking another’s life as far as possible.

“When asked if disbelievers could be killed, his response was: “Only if they attack first and only if there is no other way to solve the issue.” As pointed out by Hazleton, there are in fact so many conditions put by [Prophet] Muhammad that in the end it boils down to don’t.

A strong factor of Hazleton’s writings is the bringing out of the tribal socio cultural context that existed at the time, taking us with consummate skill, to the mind of the man who would have struggled with opposition as he attempted to dissuade killing, revenge and violence by proposing so many possibilities of peace before counter attack could be carried out, as a virtual very last resort.

As Hazleton pointed out, ‘Ponder’ and ‘Consider’ are two key words that appear consistently in all the teachings of Muhammad and it is this wisdom that many miss in the correct reading and understanding of Islam.

Given the fact that being born into a religion and having a self-pontificating ‘belief’ in ‘God’, ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ or whatever other dogma makes a mockery of religion unless we attempt to ponder and consider the practice the actions in reaching a higher aspect of our human goodness as preached by Prophet Muhammad and other religious founders, the need for correct interpretation of scriptures in general is a dire need. Writers such as Hazleton, by distancing themselves from any dogma in particular, including the one into which they accidentally fell into, through the chance of birth, hold hope for the future of peace.

Easily conveyed to non-Muslims

The main purpose behind Hazleton’s writing on Islamic thought is for it to be easily conveyed to non-Muslims.

In the Lankan context, her visit and her interaction with diverse sections of society may have a lasting impact in how we broaden our minds to seek knowledge and attempt to understand the current key religions of the world philosophically, theologically, spiritually and finally practically.

In her public discussion facilitated by the Compassionate Initiative, she provided direct answers, but maintaining her ground on the largeness of knowledge and the limitedness of humans of that knowledge that are wide ranging, from quantum physics to poetry.

The personal interpretation of the audience would have been diverse as she maintained that “God is too small a word to describe this large power.”

Her reaction to belief was described by “I do not believe. I place my trust.”

The strength she draws to do her best for world peace through her writing could be from inculcating the spirit of thankfulness and wonder she maintains in her life, highlighting that ‘religion’ should not be a narrow strip that drains the joy, beauty and poetry from life.

To the question that was asked from her by a member of the audience as to who she is thankful for, her answer could be summarised as ‘I am just thankful.’

The Sri Lankan endeavour by Muslims: Compassionate Initiative

The Compassionate Initiative is a new initiative in Sri Lanka that seeks to work in depth with diverse schools of religious philosophical thought looking at the common ground of compassion that is the foundation of every religious founder.

“I was thinking through this issue of how religion is today mainly used for division and how one act of fundamentalism impacts others and I pondered on the concept of compassion which is an essential ingredient of being human which is the purpose of religion,” says Hanif Yusoof, the founder of the Compassionate Initiative.

The step in facilitating the public talk by Lesley Hazleton was one of the attempts taken by the Compassionate Initiative to discourage cocooned and narrow thinking beyond and within religious boundaries.

Given the fact that the understanding of the philosophy given by great men such as Muhammad require stamina of the mind, broad reading, wisdom in understanding and tolerance in acknowledging and growing in acceptance of dissent and opposing views, it is thereby hoped that initiatives such as the Compassionate Initiative will be a harbinger not only in Sri Lanka and South Asia but also globally to kill the disease of ignorance and wrong understanding.

“The moderate Muslims of Sri Lanka are attempting to keep the Sri Lankan identity of Muslims strong. We are now working on the non-ethno-religious segregation of schools in Sri Lanka. We cannot work out these changes overnight when there are influences from so many quarters, but we are trying to make our change,” says Hilmy Ahamed, spokesperson of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka.

Ahamed, the CEO of Young Asia Television, a pioneering multimedia organisation for youth, is joined by several other individuals connected with Compassionate Initiative, such as Amjad Saleem, a peace building activist.

As Sri Lanka, a small island in the Indian ocean, with a Buddhist majority, battles with its own share of issues as diverse communities; namely mainly Sinhala Buddhists, Hindu and Christian Tamils, Sinhala Catholics and Christians, and Muslims struggle for racial and religious identity and thereby at times, become polarised, ghettoised and misunderstood in the local socio political context, the need for having religious people of diverse faiths listen to an agnostic historian maybe the best thing to happen.