Seminar In India Promotes Religious Coexistence Though Some Remain Skeptical Of Its Motives
“Every year I come to Delhi to attend this seminar,” said 36-year old Jalil. “I really identify with the message.”
The two-day seminar, organized by the office of the Al-Mustafa International University of Iran in New Delhi aims to promote India’s secular society and religious tolerance through Sufi mysticism. Attendees listened to scholarly papers in the hopes of passing along the information that might dispel misconceptions about Islam.
But for some scholars, the seminar serves another purpose: To make Sufism “acceptable to ecumenical values for people who are uncomfortable with the notion of religious difference,” said Carl Ernst, a professor of religious studies who specializes in Islamic studies, with a focus on West and South Asia at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
According to Ernst, the American and Indian governments, among others, have been looking for ways to make Sufism a useful alternative to Sunni and Shiite Islam. Its members define Sufism as the inner, mystical dimension of Islam. Classical Sufi scholars have defined Sufism as "a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God.”
However, according to Idries Shah, who is an author and teacher in the Sufi tradition, the Sufi philosophy is universal in nature-- its roots predating the rise of Islam and the other modern-day religions, save for perhaps Buddhism and Jainism; likewise, some Muslims consider Sufism outside the sphere of Islam.
“This is a politically motivated event, very calculated,” said Ernst. “As oppressive as the Iranian government has been, to Sufis and the Baha’i faith, it is very peculiar that a university headquartered in Iran would put on an event to promote unity and tolerance… The government knows how they are perceived by the world; they are trying to give the impression that they have changed their ways."
“I am doubtful that they will change their ways anytime soon,” he said. “It is just not in their nature to change for no beneficial reason for them.”
Not everyone agrees with Ernst’s point of view.
“People always hear about the bad stuff that happens in the Muslim world. But they don’t ever hear about all of the positive things that happen,” said Jalil who is a practicing Sufi Muslim. Jalil insisted that the seminar was about promoting unity among religions rather than positioning Sufism as the normative form of Islam. Jalil’s biggest disappointment was that so few foreigners came. Of the 500 participants, almost all were from Asia.
Others echoed his plaint.
“We want to search for the soul of life in this world,” said Dr. Gholam Reza Mahdavi, president of the Al-Mustafa International University of Iran-India branch. “We need solace and serenity. We are tired of wars and massacres and deadly weapons and everything else which harms the soul of human beings.”
But Ernst finds the seminar perplexing.
“[The event] is sponsored by an Iranian university based in Delhi. That suggests to me that there is some backing from the Iranian government,” he said. “And what’s interesting about that fact is that the Iranian government has been very suppressive to Sufi groups within Iran.”
Ernst said that the Iranian government has traditionally persecuted Sufis and forced them to make public apologies. Moreover, the Iranian government has not shown a track record for promoting religious tolerance.
“That may be true of India, but the thing is, is that peaceful co-existence is not exactly the hallmark of Iranian government,” said Ernst.
In light of this and the fact that Iran’s oppressive nature towards Sufis and the Baha’is, he wonders what the Iranian government will have in common with Hindus.
No matter what officials or attendees like Jalil say, Ernst thinks the seminar was a smoke screen.
“India is having problems getting its oil supply from Iran at a time when there is an international point to the Iranian government,” he said. “This was not an academic event. This was something else. It appears to be a piece of theater.”
The organizers for the Third Annual International Seminar of Peaceful Coexistence With Focus on Mysticism and Spirituality in Islam and Indian Religions declined to comment on Ernst’s assertions.
Reach Contributor Jennifer Whalen here.