Straddling the religious divide

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The editor of this book, Bernie Keating, describes himself as an “infidel cowboy” who was raised in the frontier town of Dakota by a “lukewarm Catholic father and a fallen away Methodist mother”. His childhood companions were mostly Sioux Indian children whose parents were nature worshippers. After growing up, he travelled widely, meeting and discussing religion with people of different faiths.

He realized how religion is used to draw fence lines and separate people into groups. He further asks if there is a God, then why does he give conflicting signals through different religions? To answer this question he seeks the help of five co-authors representing the five great religions. These are Dr Amjad Hussain, a Muslim from Pakistan; Dr Siegen Yamaoke, a Japanese Buddhist; Father Michael Kelly from Ireland, Rabbi Paul Gordon, a Canadian Jew, and the Reverend Joel P. Miller, a missionary from North Africa.

The quality and length of each article varies a lot, as is likely to happen in any multi-authored publication. Furthermore some articles have many typographical errors which should have been corrected.

Dr Amjad Hussain’s article provides food for thought for all Muslims. Dr Hussain was born in Peshawar in a conservative family where “religion was very much a part of our lives”. He qualified as a doctor, and went to the US in 1963 for post-graduate studies and training in surgery. He works in Toledo, Ohio.

In his article, Dr Hussain covers topics pertaining to Islam and the Indian independence movement. In addition, he describes his encounter with the tablighis, and the experience of living with a Hindu colleague. He discusses the concept of ijtehad in Islam and finally makes suggestions for the re-awakening of the Muslim Ummah.

His article is peppered with a number of thought-provoking incidents. An example of this is in a section entitled, “The lingering smell of burnt flesh”. This is the time of partition and Hindu-Muslim riots are taking place across the subcontinent. Some Hindu families near his home in Peshawar are trapped in a lane and burnt alive. He writes, “It was surreal even for a nine-year-old boy to smell the stench of burning human flesh permeating the air.” As the burning was going on, the muezzin in the nearby mosque was calling the faithful to prayers, in the backdrop of the billowing smoke and muffled screams of the trapped Hindus. Not mentioned in the book, but similar brutality was perpetrated by Hindus against Muslims in Ahmadabad recently.

In 1982 Dr Amjad went for Haj, but feeling insecure he decided to forgo the ritual of “pelting the devil” and instead spent his time in one corner “contemplating and meditating”. Her writes, “Ever since that visit to Makkah I have been collecting pebbles but have been throwing them at the demons of self-doubt and uncertainty within me.”

The most important message Dr Amjad coveys is that Islam provides a unique concept of interpretation of religious law, according to the times we live in, using ijtehad. This should prevent Muslims from sliding back into the past and progress like the other forward-looking nations.

Keating has produced a very readable book, with the purpose that the man-made fences can be crossed, and humanity can live at peace with each other. He ends with the following poem, which is the gist of his philosophy.

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