PROF James Ron of Carleton University, Ottawa, complains that mainstream students in Canada are oblivious to the role of religion in contemporary life. He says that they achieve competence in secular politics but have no interest in learning the basics of different religions, even their own.
This is an interesting observation on Canada. But it holds true only partially for most young people in our society. Given the religious environment and our religion-centric syllabi, students pick up quite a bit of knowledge of their own faith. But unfortunately they learn little about other religions — even those of the minorities living in their midst.
If there is to be inter-faith harmony, it is time people tried to learn something about the religious beliefs of others. Lack of knowledge and awareness of another community’s beliefs, lifestyle and customs can only breed misunderstanding and distrust. It also promotes discord and intolerance.
In that context Religions of South Asia: Unity in diversity is a book that should fill this vacuum. The authors, Dr Viqar Zaman who is an MD and is interested in comparative religion and his daughter Gul Afroz, a student of Sufism, have briefly explained the basic tenets of eight religions that have followers in the subcontinent. These are Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Bahaism and Sikhism. There is an extensive chapter on Sufism too which has drawn people from different faiths who share the love of God and seek union with Him as their ultimate goal.
What emerges clearly from the book is that all religions are based on more or less identical concepts of morality and ethics. Their rituals and form of worship and observance of various rites differ. This diversity can be attributed to the variety of cultural and customary backgrounds from where they rose. According to the Zamans, this common thread of morality and ethics makes it possible for people of different religions to live together in harmony. There is so much commonality between various faiths that the authors can compare the beliefs of one with the doctrines revered by another. Take some examples quoted in the book. According to the Semitic religions, God sends His prophets to guide and teach humans from time to time. The Christians say that Christ, the ‘son of God’, is sent to earth as a redeemer. Krishna declares in the Bhagwad Gita that he descends among men himself whenever there is a decline in their religious practice. The Islamic belief is that God has sent prophets to every nation to guide it. This common concept should facilitate understanding among the followers of different religions.
Another profound observation made by the authors is that most people follow the religion they were born in and not out of considered choice — the only exception being converts. If this point were to be driven home to people, it should help the orthodox believers change their attitude of self-righteousness that is not at all becoming.
The authors cite Kahlil Gibran from The Prophet to show how religion is closely intertwined with a man’s life and provides him a support system in times of crisis.
Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupation?
Who can spread his hours before him, saying, ‘This for God and this for myself; This for my soul and this for my body?’
This is a book all — believers and non-believers — must read to know what others believe and they will discover that the diversity in their thoughts does not have to divide them into irreconcilable units. It is possible for people of different beliefs to live together in harmony and peace in a spirit of live and let live.
The authors could have further enhanced the readers’ understanding of their fellowmen of other faiths had they devoted a few pages to explain the customs, rituals and festivals observed by them.
Religions of South Asia: Unity in diversity (RELIGION) By Viqar Zaman and Gul Afroz Zaman Paramount Publishing Enterprise, Karachi ISBN 978-969-494-6672 134pp. Rs295