A Discussion with Zeenat Ali, Wisdom Foundation

With: Zeenat Ali

August 22, 2016

Background: As part of the International Higher Education Interfaith Leadership Forum, in August 2016 Melody Fox Ahmed conducted an interview with Zeenat Ali, who is the director of the Wisdom Foundation in Mumbai, India. Ali reflected on her interfaith interactions growing up, her work promulgating gender justice in Islam, and peacebuilding through the cooperation of religious leaders from diverse communities.
Please tell us about your current work/role, and in what capacity it influences/incorporates interfaith efforts?

Presently, I am the director general of the Wisdom Foundation. We are a peace, nonviolence, and dialogue foundation with a distinguished group of national and international advisors. We create programs for social cohesion and peace through the medium of sports, art, music, seminars, and publications. Several religious leaders, scholars, and civil society heads participate in events fashioned by us such as “Cricket For Peace,” “Art for Peace,” and “Chanting for Peace,” with the shared motto “One for all and all for one.”

How do you define interfaith service, and what are the essential components of interfaith service work?

Interfaith service is an alliance among religions. It is also an alliance among civilizations and cultures. The essential components of compassion, inclusiveness, humanity, respect, finding commonalities, bridge-building, and peaceful coexistence are a part of all religions and therefore the common denominator of interfaith service.

Can you share a story about your personal background to illustrate how it inspired you to engage in interfaith service efforts?

Raised in a congenial cosmopolitan atmosphere in Mumbai, India, with a formal convent school education at the Convent of Jesus and Mary and a college education at St. Xavier’s College, I am really a product of cross-fertilization between Eastern and Western cultures. I learned Islam from respected liberal Muslim teachers. While reading was my passion, activities like badminton, swimming, and horseback riding brought me into contact with cultured people irrespective of their diverse cultures and religions. I did not face the onslaught of gender discrimination.

As a student of English literature, I learned to love the English language and absorb some of the profound thoughts of great writers of the Renaissance and also romantic, Victorian, modern, and post-modern writers. I went through the pain of the French Revolution, the two world wars, the violence of the post-Cold War period, and the wars that are ongoing today. Simultaneously, my liaison with Eastern thinkers, poets, philosophers, and writers enthralled and captivated me. I learned about peace and nonviolence as the core of Islam and that the pen is mightier than the sword.

Hence, being human is central to my religious philosophy and work. Religious extremism and the killing of innocents are barbarous and condemnable acts that need to be extinguished.

To me, the core principles of unity, liberty, equality, and fraternity are found in all religions, including Islam. Formal interfaith service was never carved or designed as a part of my education or life. Perhaps it was part of my destiny.

Can you share some highlights from your academic and professional background?

As a scholar, it has been my privilege to have been invited as a delegate to several renowned national and international universities and conferences, including as one of the 100 world religious leaders invited to the Millennium Peace Summit held in the United Nations on September 6 to 8, 2000. At the time, the meeting was the largest gathering of world leaders in the history of the United Nations.

I have also stood as a champion for the cause of promulgating gender justice in Islam and authored two books on the subject. I am presently involved in the process of codification of Muslim personal law in India along with distinguished Muslim jurists, legal luminaries, and liberal ulama.

To what extent should higher education institutions play an active role in interfaith service work and projects?

It can play an enormously constructive role, but it is important that it remains non-partisan. It can be a major step in establishing the temple of understanding.

What is one thing you would like to see change in your community in terms of interreligious relations and understanding?

I want to see more scholarship on peace and nonviolence, and far less extremism and radicalization. I want to see more people promoting the understanding that we are all creatures of God and form the family of God. The perennial message of universal toleration and assimilation rather than destruction, harmony, and peace in Islam needs to be augmented and amplified.

My community should also endeavor to work on mobilizing resources for transformation, humanitarian service, promotion of education for peaceful coexistence, empowerment through knowledge, help for the underprivileged, and promoting gender justice.

What kinds of support have you received—from your government, friends and family, institutions, organizations—in pursuing interfaith service-related work?

From its inception, the officials of the Indian government and ministry have honored the Wisdom Foundation with their presence at its events. St. Xavier’s College, eminent citizens, and film personalities have stood with us on the interfaith journey. Our forthcoming publication, titled The Legacy of India’s Pluralism, Tolerance and Peace Co-Existence: Religions in Dialogue, is due to be launched this November and has nine distinguished religious leaders who have contributed to it.

What have been your greatest challenges regarding peacebuilding and interfaith/intercultural dialogue and cooperation?

Fostering peaceful engagement at various levels, designing programs, creating and executing strategies for peace through the use of positive resources, precluding conflict by facilitating dialogue, deepening understanding, and building cooperation and collaboration are challenging. We hope to also invoke the media for positive coverage of peace activities.

We have received cooperation in our peacebuilding initiatives from religious leaders of all communities. We have been like a rainbow: beautiful different colors standing together, offering peace to the world at large.

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