What Is Wrong with the Muslim World?
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Clamor from the left and right for moderate voices of Islam to speak up and transform the faith from the inside received a resounding response in the form of a productive dialogue and the rock-star power of the 14th Dalai Lama this weekend.
His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama broke his regular schedule -- normally planned seven years in advance -- to accept an invitation from the global Muslim community to discuss how to mitigate religious intolerance and promote understanding and -- above all else -- compassion among Muslims and peoples of all faiths.
"Nowadays, to some people, the Muslim tradition appears different, more militant," the 70-year-old Dalai Lama said at the weekend "Gathering of Hearts" conference, which aimed to bring Muslims and Buddhists together. "I feel that's wrong. Muslims, like any of the major traditions, have the same message, the same practice. That is a practice of compassion," he asserted.
The conference took place during one of the most religiously significant weekends of the year -- the Prophet's Birthday, Easter and Passover. It was also a week full of open sores.
The release of the chilling recordings of the hijacked plane on 9/11, the continued polarization on immigration, the ongoing inaction regarding the victims of the Gulf Coast, growing tension between the United States and Iran -- all set the backdrop for this momentous dialogue.
The Dalai Lama was joined by close to 100 world-renowned scholars, teachers, and leaders from 30 countries of Christian, Hindu, Jewish and other faiths who met their Muslim and Buddhist counterparts and took part in the landmark discussion.
Leaders -- who included Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, founder of the Zaytuna Institute; Imam Mehdi Khorasani, head of the Islamic Society of California; and Dr. Sayyid M. Sayeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America -- are all respected members of the Muslim community in the United States and could be characterized as progressive in their attempts to reach out to Buddhists when traditionally Muslims do not.
Surprisingly absent was the undersecretary U.S. ambassador to the Muslim world, George W. Bush's personal friend, Karen Hughes. Her presence at this year's Islamic Society of North America was hailed at the time as an important step in improving the image of America in the Muslim world by reaching out to Muslims in the United States
His Holiness often used humor to make serious topics palatable. In the general session this was his style. Within the first five minutes of his talk, he mentioned the suicide bombers and 9/11. So much for keeping things simple, yet as complex as the issues are.
Mayssa Sultan, an American Muslim acupuncturist and founder of Integrative Clinics International, which brings Eastern and Western medical practitioners to clinics around the globe agreed, "It is fundamentally important that religious leaders across the globe are able to reach a place of understanding with people whose belief system, at the essence, is not that different," she said, "but through politics of their governments have been forced to war and to view one another as opposites, when the essence of their messages is the same -- one of faith and compassion."
There were other reasons for moderate Muslims to bring the most prominent Buddhist in the world.
"Buddhism gets the best press of any religion in the world," said Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, founder of the Zaytuna Insititute in Hayward, Calif. "Islam gets the worst press, because it is associated with war and belligerence."
The Zaytuna Institute has gained an international reputation for its dedication to the revival of traditional study methods and sciences of Islam.
Prior to the general session the Dalai Lama met behind closed doors with spiritual leaders and took time to take pictures with the army of volunteers and staff that helped pull the event together. Over 600 participants of these sessions were draped around the shoulders with thin, white scarves embossed with lotus flowers -- a symbol of rebirth.
Imam Khorasani who called the Dalai Lama and "ocean of wisdom," called the meeting as historic as the 1945 meeting of nations that created the United Nations. He urged the crowd to "bring this message to the youth."
But what is this message?
Professor Robert F. Thurman of Columbia University said, "The test for any of us is if any of us were a head of state, who would not be safe in our country?" The first western Tibetan monk continued, "If we were in His Holiness' country, we would all be safe."
Thomas Cleary who has translated both the Chinese Art of War and the Quran spoke of the compassion in the Quran and Buddhist texts. He read from his translation of the Quran imparting a lesson very clear -- The Creator could have made us as one people, but did not. Underscoring that the best amongst us are those who compete in performing good deeds and good works.Â
Hamza Yusuf spoke of the shared "challenge of modernity that people of all faiths face," he said, "but none more so than Islam."
The message was illustrated by the presence of a small contingent of Tibetan Muslims who told the tale of how the 5th Dalai Lama noticed a man praying every day at the same time, prostrating and standing. Over time he asked the man what he was doing, and the man told him that he was a Muslim and that he was praying outside because he did not have a house of worship there. The 5th Dalai Lama then instructed one of his archers to shoot an arrow in each of the four cardinal directions. Once this was done, the Dalai Lama proclaimed that the land encompassed by the arrows would be set aside for Muslims.
His Holiness acknowledged that at times the relationship has not been so wonderful. Yet in a foreword to the book "Islamic Tibet and Tibetan Caravans," he noted, "When we were free, we all lived together like members of the same family many of us have experienced the ups and downs of life as refugees together."
Shaykh Hamza cited the destruction of the Buddhist temple in Afghanistan by followers of the militant Taliban movement and added, "The essence of pain and suffering in this world is ignorance."
The most resounding message of the day was that in the core of each faith, each path, and each religion lies a heart of compassion. There are many names for the Creator, for the Ultimate Reality or Ultimate Truth, and many paths to follow. That each person is unique and therefore their paths are unique and their unique understanding is subjective -- it is impossible, senseless and counterproductive to tell others what to believe. Instead the participants spoke of a combating ignorance calling members of all faiths to get to study, and learn about the healing core of compassion that embodies all the paths of humanity.
What resonated best was not the illumination from all the religious leaders and enlightened people, but an agreement that a diversity of faiths should compel believers to do good, and support one another, and that faith-based communities can no longer ignore one another.
ibrahim abdul-matin, from the Planet of Brooklyn, is a writer by night and organizer by day living in Oakland, Calif.