A Discussion with Kazi Nurul Islam, Head of the Department of World Religions, Dhaka University
August 7, 2014
Background: Kazi Nurul Islam heads the Department of World Religions at Dhaka University and also acts as director of the Center for Inter-religious and Inter-cultural Dialogue. In this conversation with Nathaniel Adams in Dhaka, he describes how his passion for interfaith understanding was inspired by a promise he made to his father as a young boy to improve relations between Hindus and Muslims in Bangladesh. He details the many decades he has spent studying diverse religious traditions at academic institutions around the world and the struggles he encountered on his quest to establish the Department of World Religions at Dhaka University. He also offers keen insights into some of the recent interreligious violence in Bangladesh.
I wonder if we can go back to the beginning. What was the inspiration behind your lifelong dedication to interfaith work?
I suppose you could say it began with instructions that my father gave me in 1961 when I was an eighth grade student. In our country, you have to decide whether you study science or humanities in ninth grade. I wanted to know from my father what he wanted me to become. In many cases in this continent, such as in career ambition or marriage, traditionally a father has a strong influence. In the Western world this is different. Children have absolute freedom. In our countries we do not. I wanted to know from my father what he wanted me to pursue. He told me a story.
My father was born in 1908 and when he was very young he lost his mother. There was one woman that took a special interest in him and this was the wife of his father’s friend. They were so close and she used to visit my father’s home frequently. Slowly, my father became attached to her. When he was a young boy, he used to call her his “ma.” He used to respect her as his mother. My father told me, “I got all the mother’s love and affection from a Hindu woman.” You could say I was born by a Muslim mother but brought up by a Hindu mother. So he felt a strong connection to both the Hindu and Muslim communities. Unfortunately, however, Hindus and Muslims were fighting.
This was not always the case, Hindus and Muslims had lived in a very harmonious state for ages, in Bengal particularly, ever since the Muslims had arrived there. Only during the British rule did religion become a problem. The British rulers had a policy of divide and rule. That continued for many years, and even continues to some extent today. My father used to feel very bad when he heard about Hindus killing Muslims and Muslims killing Hindus. Both sides were equally responsible. Both the sides had fanatics; there are fanatics in every religious tradition. When these fanatics become terrorists, when they become assassins, they can wreak havoc on a society. That used to pain my father. He couldn’t bear seeing Muslims and Hindus killing one another. It was his dream that I dedicate my life to promoting Hindu-Muslim relations, even on a small scale, to remove Hindu-Muslim bitterness and hatred by promoting better knowledge of the different religions of the world.
My father knew Islam and Hinduism very well. He didn’t find anything wrong in Hinduism, nor did he find anything in Islam that suggested that they would fight against one another.
I touched my father’s feet and made a promise. In our continent, as a sign of respect, we touch the feet of our elders, and put our right hand on our head. So that was a kind of covenant between father and the son. I told him, “I do not know what I want to become.” My father would say, “I am not a rich man. I will not be able to send you abroad for higher studies.” He could never imagine that I would visit so many countries and study so many religions. “Whatever you become, even a schoolteacher, even if you are working in a grocery shop, you will meet people of different faiths. You can continue the work.” I said “Okay.”
So what was your first step towards this dream?
By the kind grace of God, I did well in my exams and I was admitted into university. I studied philosophy and religion. Whenever I met with people of different faiths, I would inform my father. I used to keep him informed. I studied a number of religions in a practical way. I might meet a Christian one day and a Buddhist the next. My main target was to remove Hindu-Muslim hatred because where I was raised there were only Hindus and Muslims. After I came to Dhaka, I met many Buddhists, Christians, Jains, and others. Then I started learning about different religions and quickly realized that it is not religion that is the problem, but our lack of knowledge of religions. We mistrust people of other faiths. In 1970 I completed graduate school. I was supposed to join as a lecturer of Philosophy at Dhaka University in 1971, but that was the year of the Liberation War. I had to wait until after the war was over. Since my interest was to study Hinduism, I became a teacher of Indian philosophy and culture. I studied Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, during this period. But I didn’t have any guidance. I studied all on my own. Learning Islam, I had guidance. There were quite a good number of renowned Islamic scholars, but there were no renowned Hindu scholars.
One of my professors told me, “If you want to learn about religion, first of all you must go to India. Then go to the USA.” He told me that India is a department store of religions, and the USA is a supermarket of religions. America is so accommodating, you cannot think of any religion that is not practiced there. They accommodated everybody. No problem. India is the birthplace of many great religions, but people of other continents do not feel accepted and settle there.
So first I went to India research philosophy at Banaras University on a scholarship from the Government of India. This was 1975. I went there along with my wife. She studied Buddhism and I studied Hinduism. In 1980, I did a Ph.D. on Hinduism, and my wife did a Ph.D. on comparative religion—Islam and Buddhism. But, during our time in India, we had the opportunity to meet renowned scholars—Jain scholars, Buddhist scholars, Christian scholars, Zoroastrian scholars. We felt attracted by all of these incredible traditions, and moved from one part of India to another. We used to spend all of our money, whatever we used to get. Sometimes, we had to ask people to send money to us because the scholarship was not sufficient.
How did the idea of a Department of World Religions at University of Dhaka come about?
After spending time at the Center for Comparative Religion at Banaras University, I became convinced that Dhaka University must have a Department of World Religions. I think that people in Bangladesh, for the most part, have very poor knowledge of other faiths. Some have erroneous knowledge, very erroneous. In many cases, they do not even know their own religions. My wife and I discussed these problems and decided that, if we could establish a Department of World Religions at Dhaka University that could teach different religions, we could create a generation of enlightened young boys and girls and contribute to a more peaceful country.
This was 1980 when I was already a professor. I talked to my fellow professors about this dream and they gave me their support. I sent my proposal to the vice-chancellor in 1983. By that time my wife had come here and joined the department. The vice-chancellor wanted to meet with me. He said that the proposal was good. He told me your dream is praiseworthy, but who is going to teach these different courses?
We just didn’t have the scholars. He told me that I wouldn’t be able teach all the courses, I needed more time. We didn’t even have a sufficient number of books in our library. So he told me to start collecting books. He said I needed to start laying the groundwork to ensure that my dream could be translated into reality. He didn’t say anything strongly negative, but he pointed out certain things—he was quite convincing. Afterwards my wife felt upset, but I never felt upset.
In 1990 my wife was awarded a Commonwealth Academic Fellowship and I was also awarded a Birmingham University postdoctoral research fellowship. So we went to England to study Judaism and Christianity. My wife studied Christian-Muslim relations throughout the ages. Before I could complete my research in Birmingham, I was awarded a Japan Foundation fellowship and I didn’t want to give up this opportunity. I kept my wife and children in Birmingham and went. While I was in India I learned Sanskrit and some local languages. In Japan I had to learn the Japanese language very well. I had to interview many Japanese who did not understand any English. In the end I was offered a professorship at Kokushikan University, but I couldn’t accept the position because I couldn’t give up on my long cherished dream of interfaith dialogue in Bangladesh. It was my commitment to my father. If I had remained in Japan, I could have made money, but I could not keep the promise.
I came back and in 1994 I became chairman of the Department of Philosophy. At that time, I became very close to some of the higher ups in the university, those whose opinions matter most. I kept on persuading, convincing people to support the Department of World Religions. In my approach I was very slow, but steady. In 1996, we had a new vice-chancellor, Professor Azad Choudhury. I shared my interfaith journey with him, and he became so happy. He said; “Okay, give me all of the proposals. In the next academic council, I’ll get it approved.” In the following academic council meeting, he himself read out the proposal, and except a few all of the members supported the proposal.
So that was the start of the department?
It took many years, and the department only finally came into being in 1999. There are so many formalities. First of all I was appointed as director of the project because it had to start as a project. A strong committee was formed to prepare a syllabus—what kind of courses we could offer. I was also given time to raise funds because Dhaka University doesn’t have funds to buy books and all these things. I received a lot of support from our Christian brothers. We received 5,000 pounds from one organization to buy books.
I want to emphasize that our approach is objective—it is a purely academic study of religion. All the religions of the world—major, minor, living, dead—are taught in this department. I call it a scientific study of religion and in order for the approach to be scientific we need to teach the history of religion, sociology of religion, anthropology of religion, psychology of religion, and philosophy of religion. Only if you have all of these elements will you have a scientific study of religion. Max Muller originated this approach and later on scholars like Edgar Brightman supported it. It is purely objective. There is not subjective bias. We do not favor any religions and we do not condemn any religion. This is our method of teaching.
What was the reaction to this approach when the department was finally established?
Well formally, at first it was established with the name of “Department of Comparative Religion” and almost immediately I had a problem. I used to receive phone calls almost every day—“You are against Islam!” “You studied in India, and you are an agent of India!” “You want to compare Islam with other religions? Islam cannot be compared with other religions of the world!” One day, I was even threatened. They said; “One day your daughter will be kidnapped. Your son will be kidnapped. Then you will understand. Your department will be bombed.” I said, “Please, by the kind grace of God I beg you, come to the Department. Come meet me and let me explain everything. If you feel insecure, I will meet you anywhere.” Then, I explained to them the partners of the department and the background. Slowly things improved, but the idea remained in my mind, that these people are just the ones that spoke their mind. Maybe there are other people who do not say anything, but feel bad about comparing religions. I was thinking, what can we do? I contacted many professors through the internet. Many professors in the USA, particularly, where different religions are taught, in many colleges and universities. Then, suddenly, one idea came into my mind. Why not a Department of World Religions?
There is the academic side of what you do, but you are also dedicated to the practice of interfaith dialogue. How has this practice been an important aspect of the Department?
For this story I might have to go back a bit. In 1983, when our initial proposal was refused, I felt very bad. I was worried that I could not keep my commitment to my father. Then, I was speaking with the Archbishop of Dhaka—he is the head of the Catholics in Bangladesh, Archbishop Michael Rozario. He encouraged me and told me “If you want to establish a dialogue center, we will support you.” Then I met with the head of the Ramakrishna Mission, and he also supported the idea. He knew me from before—I studied Hinduism and I used to give lectures at the Ramakrishna Mission. I went to the Buddhist community and met with Suddhanada Mahathero as well as the very renowned Buddhist scholar Bishu Dhanado Mahathero and they were also interested. I met some Muslim scholars. I made them all advisers. In this process I was supported by Dr. Shamsher Ali. He is a renowned physicist and sound Islamic scholar. He supported me in preparing the constitution. In our constitution we said we want “word-armament” not “war-armament” so we called the organization Word Armament for Moral and Hearty Religious Thinking. That is the full name of the organization and it became Warm Heart Association. It’s an acronym. This idea came from the mind of Dr. Shamsher.
Was that the first major interfaith organization in this country?
It was the first initiated by a Muslim. The uniqueness of that association lies there. There are many interfaith organizations—but up until then all of the interfaith organizations had been initiated by Christians. A kind of interfaith dialogue has been going on through the Ramakrishna Mission for many years as well. That is different. They are holding interfaith dialogue in a different way. Not face-to-face, I express my opinion, you express your opinion, we discuss and then we come to a conclusion. This kind of dialogue is not happening; rather they invite people of different faiths who give speeches on interfaith harmony, read passages from the Qur'an, the Torah, etc. That also helps. But our program was different. For example, we had a daylong program on fasting in different religions. The Hindus talked about fasting and Hinduism, the Buddhists came, the Christians came. We had another event exploring marriage and family values in different religions around the world—that was an international program. We have many scholars—they volunteered, and came on their own, but we offered them accommodation and local hospitality. I kept the responsibility of secretary-general since the organization was established in 1983 until 2000. Then, when I became too busy with the new department, and saw that I could hold interfaith dialogues in my department, I thought it would be better for someone else to take that responsibility.
How did you decide to bring these efforts to Dhaka University through the Center for Inter-religious Inter-cultural Dialogue?
Between 2000 and 2007 I went to the United States more than 25 times for international conferences and for my studies. I studied religious pluralism while I was in University of California Santa Barbara. I studied Islam at the U.S. State Department. Then as a senior Fulbright fellow I went to study Judaism and interreligious dialogue at Temple University. I was very impressed with the interfaith activities of the Dialogue Center and this is how the idea of a center at Dhaka University came to my mind. I talked to Jewish scholars, Christian scholars, particularly Dr. Leonard Swidler who is one of the founders of the Dialogue Center. His is truly a legendary figure in the field of interfaith dialogue. So he inspired me and he pushed me to open a center of my own. I realized that without a hospital, a medical college would be worthless and it follows that without a center for interreligious dialogue, the Department of World Religions would be worthless. I came back, submitted a proposal, and believe it or not, within two months, my proposal was approved, and the center came into being. The government pays every coin that we spend. I do not know if there is any other center for interreligious dialogue, where the government pays every coin. They have been very supportive.
As you know 2013 was a very violent year in the country and a lot of the violence, while not necessarily inspired by religion, broke along religious lines. There were attacks against Hindus and Buddhists. I wanted to get your perspective on what is changing now that made that year so violent?
I will tell you one thing. This is what I have understood—maybe I am wrong. People of this country, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, they live in a very peaceful manner. Hindus come to Muslim homes during Muslim festivals. Muslims go to Hindu temples and houses to attend their festivals. I think that this openness and acceptance was partly because of the teachings of two great traditions—Vaishnavism in Hinduism and Sufism in Islam. Both teach the philosophy of love. Because these teachings laid the foundation of Bangladeshi society, the people have not become intolerant. They have not become violent.
The current problem partly lies in the fact that in the country there are two systems of education. One is madrassa education and the other is general education. Now, the madrassas can be seen as having two groups. One group is supported by the government and offers Islamic studies and secular subjects such as physics, chemistry, science, humanities, art, and other things. This is the Alia madrassa. Graduates can get jobs, they can enroll in university, they can become secretaries and generals. There is another type of madrassa called Quomi, which do not have the support of the government. They are run by the local people. What is very alarming is that Middle Eastern governments have begun sending large amounts of money in the name of madrassa development and mosque development. They send money and we have seen an explosion in the number of madrassas during the last 25 years. There have been many graduates but they are not getting jobs because their diplomas are not recognized. They are frustrated and many are living in poverty. These people can be easily manipulated and used. They’re educated, but they are not enlightened. They have problems. They were given the impression that if this government is overthrown they will get equal status. This was a very important motivator for them. They have become inspired to fight against the government. Their numbers are very high and increasing.
That is one important thing to understand. The other is that there was a group of people who did not support our independence. They collaborated with the Pakistani army. During the final days of the Liberation War, they killed hundreds of the country’s leading intellectuals. They wanted the country to be intellectually ruined. These were the top intellectuals at University of Dhaka, scientists and journalists. They went into their homes, dragged them out and killed them. In 1972, the government had decided that those who were involved with killing our fathers and brothers and raping our mothers and sisters should be brought to justice. In the end this was not possible because Sheik Mujibur Rahman was killed in 1975. The general who came to power entered into an agreement with this group to ensure his own existence. Even those who were in jail, they were also set free.
Once the Awami League was back in power in 1996, they took up the initiative again, but before they could begin the trials they were defeated in 2001. This was mainly because of the support of Jamaat-e-Islami. Jamaat has very committed supporters, and they are getting huge amounts of funds from the Middle East. They have been able to buy influence by establishing the Islamic Bank, Islamic hospitals, and other NGOs throughout the country. In 2009, Awami League again came to power, and they were finally able to proceed with the trials. One of the criminals was hanged and others were in line. People thought that, if this government remains in power, then others will face the same fate. They believe that it would be better, even if they die, to fight to remove this government forever so an Islamic government can be established and Islamic people can be safe.
There were of course some failures of Sheikh Hasina; some of her ministers were criminals. Criminals of the highest order! She didn’t remove them initially and because of all these things she was becoming unpopular. So with the election nearing and Sheikh Hasina weakened they saw their chance. They have international support. I am convinced because they have such a large amount of funds and such powerful weapons. They could cut down very old trees within two minutes with a machine gun. Jamaat and Hefazat, they created all of these problems. The main opposition party the Bangladesh Nationalist Party could not support this unrest outright, but indirectly they have supported it because they think that if Sheikh Hasina’s government falls, then Khaleda Zia will ultimately come to power.
So now that that’s the state of affairs, how do you engage Jamaat? How do you engage Hefazat? How do you reach these people and start a dialogue?
It is very difficult. Sheikh Hasina has done some kind of negotiation with Hefazat. Increasingly, people of Hefazat do not like Jamaat. So, she sent some messenger to the leader of Hefazat to persuade him to withdraw his support from Jamaat. Sheikh Hasina unofficially assured them of doing something for all the students whose certificates are not recognized by the government. Hefazat leaders are not as hostile toward the government as they were in 2013. This has been helpful for Sheikh Hasina. There is a rumor that she is trying to negotiate with Jamaat as well. She will not hang the head of Jamaat, Moitur Rahman Nizami. Right now the government is not taking any action on his case. After the present government came into power, there have been no developments in their cases. Several months had already gone by and nobody knows what is going to happen. There is a rumor that they will try to keep the status quo.
Nizami is someone who a very important player in the Middle East. He has very intimate relations with all of the Middle Eastern governments. He knows Arabic. Whenever he used to go to the Middle Eastern countries, he was received by the kings. A friend of the king is now in jail. Will the Middle Eastern governments tolerate that? They are keeping pressure on Sheikh Hasina, particularly the Saudi government. The Saudi government can send back all the workers who are working there; maybe 50,000 workers would be forced to come back within 10 days. There is pressure coming from all different sides. Sheikh Hasina started following an approach of take it slow. But now those who really want these people to be punished are starting to turn against her.
The complexity of the issues surrounding religion in Bangladesh go to show just how vital this interfaith dialogue is in the nation.
This is the way I kept my promise to my father. I have tried my best. I have one more dream, though, and that is to establish a museum of world religions. I want to name it after Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism because of his tremendous contributions in the field of interfaith understanding. It would be called the Guru Nanak Museum of World Religion