The Role of Religion in Promoting Peace and Social Justice

Paper presented in the second round of dialogue between Iran and Korea, Seul, Dec. 4, 2012.

 

Introduction

To start with, I would like to thank my friends at the Cultural and Islamic Relations Organization who prepared the way for my attending this august gathering and our dear Korean hosts who have extended the invitation and made all the necessary arrangements in order to make our meeting possible. I sincerely hope that our meeting will further promote Iran-Korean cultural relations and also enhance world peace and justice.

Since it is the first time that I meet my Korean friends, it seems appropriate that I briefly introduce myself to our dear hosts. I am a graduate of the theologiska Institutionen or the Faculty of Divinity of Uppsala University-Sweden in Comparative Religious Studies (1986), a high cultural expert of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1990-2009), a lecturer on “foreign” (non-Islamic) religions and comparative religious studies (since 1986), the Head of Future Studies Department of the Academy of Sciences of the Islamic Republic of Iran (since 2008), the President of an NGO called World Religions Research Center (since 2006), and finally the author/translator of more than 50 books and 120 articles on social, humanitarian, philosophical, cultural, and religious matters. For a rather long time, I have also been involved in various cultural/religious dialogues between Islam and the West, Islam, and Christianity and Judaism, and between Iran and Japan-where I was an ambassador from 1981 to 1986. My continued cultural interest and engagement with Japan earned me the highest cultural order of that country, the Order of the Rising Sun: Gold and Silver, which was bestowed on me by His Majesty the Emperor of Japan April 29, 2010. I earnestly hope to bring part of my thirty years of dialogue experience with Japan to our present meeting.

 

  1. Cultural/Religious Dialogue: Promoting Peace and Justice

In my opinion, in all the great civilizations of mankind, religious traditions have been an important constituent, and thus have played an important role, to the extent that one cannot imagine Western culture and civilization without its Christian element, nor the Middle Eastern culture and civilization without its Islamic component.

On the other hand, it is also true that cultural understanding and interaction has always paved the way for political understanding and interaction between nations. Thus, one cannot imagine of a sound and lasting political relation between two countries or nations without a prior cultural relation and interaction.

That is why, in the light of the above two premises, one can rightly conclude that any sound cultural/religious understanding and dialogue will certainly lead to a sound and permanent socio-political understanding and interaction, and that, in turn, will inevitably lead to the promotion of friendship and peaceful coexistence between nations, thus leading to world peace and justice.

 

  1. Conceptual Background of Peace and Justice in World Religions

In the light of my long involvement in teaching “foreign” (non-Islamic) religions and comparative religious studies at different Iranian colleges and universities, I have come to the firm conviction that all world religions, and especially the three divine religions of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam, based on their original divine teachings reflected in their sacred books, are genuinely peace-loving and justice-oriented religions.

Generally speaking, this is not only the commandment of God and Law that a true (divine) religion and all the great prophets of God have to invite people to peacefulness and justice, but it is also the rule of sound reasoning and vital intellect that one has to do so and call the people to friendship, fraternity, and coexistence. Because of space and time limitations, let me give a few examples only from the Holy Quran, the sacred book of more than a quarter of world population, and skip the other divine texts.

What is quite obvious, and is openly mentioned in the holy Quran, is that all the divine prophets are assigned with the mission of “establishing justice amongst the people”
(لِيَقُومَ النَّاسُ بِالْقِسْطِ) (Holy Qur’an, 57/25), since the very foundation of the cosmos and the whole universe is based on truth and justice: “Verily, God testifies that there is no deity except Him, and so do the angels and persons possessing knowledge, standing firm on justice, testify that there is no god but He, the Exalted in power, the Wise” (Holy Qur’an, 3/18).

Furthermore, the Holy Qur’an, citing Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h) says that: “Say: My Lord has commanded me justice” (Holy Qur’an, 7/29); or, in another verse, addressing the whole mankind, says that: “Be just, that is next to piety” (Holy Qur’an, 5/8).

Regarding peacefulness and making friendship towards the others, the Holy Qur’an has only one red line which is not to be surpassed, and that is the very fair pre-condition that the adversaries do not attack the Islamic land, do not loot or plunder Islamic properties nor kill innocent Muslims, and do not expel Muslim habitants from their motherland, conditions which are explicitly elaborated in the following verse:

لَایَنْهَیکُمُ اللَّهُ عَنِ الَّذِینَ لَمْ یُقَاتِلُوکُمْ فِی الدِّینِ وَلَمْ یُخْرِجُوکُم مِّن دِیَارِکُمْ أَن تَبَرُّوهُمْ وَتُقْسِطُوا إِلَیْهِمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ یُحِبُّ الْمُقْسِطِین  “

“God forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for your faith, nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them. For Allah loves those who are just” (Holy Qur’an, 60/8).

These are only three examples of the Islamic jurisdictions on how the Islamic community should be just and peaceful towards the others.

 

  1. Historical Background of Peace and Justice in World Religions

Perhaps it is a big mistake or misconception that one assumes that since all the great founders and the sacred books of the world religions have instructed peace and justice to their followers, then the leaders and top authorities of these religions have always followed the path of peace and reconciliation, and so the long religious life of man has always been devoid of any kind of religious hostility, enmity, and war. Nay, unfortunately, this has not been the case and, to the contrary, during the long history of man’s life on earth, religion too, like many other highly-valued concepts such as freedom, democracy, human rights, the right of protecting one’s life, property, and family, the right of defending one’s homeland, and even the right of supporting the needy and the oppressed, has been widely manipulated.

Verily religion, per se, has never been combative and pugnacious, nor willing to oppress and exploit people. But the very agents and commanders (the priests, clergies, and so on) of religions, using powerful religious establishments and agencies, along with simple-hearted sentiments of zealous and fanatical masses, have sometimes shown extreme cruelty, oppression, and exploitation against their own people and the others, all in the name of religion! In Christianity, samples of this extreme behavior can be seen in the Crusades and the Thirty-Years War (between Catholics and Protestants), and in Judaism one can notice the same behavior of rigidity, extremity, and blood shedding against both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews), especially against Christian initiates during the early years of Christian era. In the same way, nowadays, such extreme terrorist activities like the Sep. 11 attack, or attacking girl schools in Pakistan under the banner of Shariah and Islam’s opposition to women education!, performed by Taliban, al-Qa’idah, and similar groups, are very good examples of religious extremism and misdeed.

As it was said earlier, to save time and space, we refrain from giving examples of non-Abrahamic religions, otherwise, the same pattern can be shown in such traditions as Buddhism (with monk-soldiers in Kyoto outskirts), Shintoism (state or governmental Shintoism), Hinduism, Sikhism, etc.

Thus one can say that the issue of “religion”, like other subjects, depending on one’s social, cultural, and even political position, may be misread and misunderstood rather widely, hence leading people to misjudgment, error, and misbehavior. In this respect, sure there is no difference between divine (sky) and undivine, or Eastern and Western, and other categories of religion. In other words, sound and proper understanding and practice of a religion depend on the proper thinking, reasoning, presumption, intellectual basis, reading, the impression of the individual believers and religious leaders.

According to a famous Farsi poem:      Islam, in itself, has no defects,

Any defects are due to our Muslimhood!

That is why one has an arrogant and hostile understanding of Islam, while the other has a kind, friendly and passionate impression of it; One’s impression of Islam is combative and the other is peaceful; One draws unity from the Islamic teachings and the other division and discord; One promotes traditionalism and the other modernity; One has a peaceful reading of Islam and the other a hostile one; and so on.  Moulana Jalaluddin Rumi Says:                                            Though the book is intended for reading,

You can use it as a pillow too!

Nowadays, in my home country Iran, Christianity is being advertised as a pacifist and peace-loving religion amongst some youngsters, as if with such exaggerated missionary propaganda, one can deny some the past unhealthy activities of a religious tradition. While Annemarie Schimmel, the famous German Islamologist, and Orientalist of our time, openly states that:

“Among all the religions Christianity had to confront and deal with, Islam was both misunderstood and attacked most intensely. For more than a millennium, Islam seemed to be a major-if not the major- threat for the people of Europe, and this feeling has contributed to the fact that Islam and those who confessed it, the Muslims, were regarded as arch enemies of Christianity and western civilization.”

(An Introduction to Islam, State University of New York Press, 1992, p. 1)

It is interesting to note that this same author asserts that “the widespread idea that Islam made its way through the world mainly through fire and sword cannot be maintained; … the term “holy war” goes  back to the Crusaders who used it for their own undertaking; it is unknown in classical Islam” (ibid., pp 69-70).

 

  1. Towards a Peaceful and Just Future

As we said earlier, the great religions of the world and their religious leaders have always had the capacity and power of turning their religious tradition and all of its beliefs, rites, practices, manifestations, etc., into a very rational, positive, constructive, modern, progressive, peaceful, and just force capable of benefiting mankind in the direction of establishing and maintaining a very reasonable, just, peaceful, and sustainable life all over the globe. Nevertheless, this worthy goal will not be attained except through the following steps to be taken by world religious leaders, intelligentsia, different kinds of priests and clergies, and political leaders at large:

  • That they withdraw from one-sided missionary activities, presenting their own tradition as a peace-loving and just one, and all the other traditions as combative and unjust;
  • Cleaning one’s eyes and hearth from any kind of misunderstanding and biased enmity and hatred, trying to see the whole universe and the mankind as genuine divine manifestations full of dignity, love, and respect.
  • Putting aside all sorts of Jealousity, fanaticism and exclusivity, and accepting – at least in practice, if not theoretically – some sort of religious pluralism, thus achieving a pluralistic and comprehensive view vis-a-vis world religions and religiosity, a point well established in the holy Qur’an when it says: “O prophet! Say: Everyone acts according to his own disposition, but your Lord knows best that who is best guided on the way” (17/84).

A more explicit Qur’anic declaration is that: “To each of you we have prescribed a Law and an Open way” (holy Qur’an, 5/48).

  • Put aside all sorts of destructive oppositions, and try to build up their own tradition and make it sound more attractive than destroy those of the others.
  • Abandon all kinds of extreme, coarse, and combative interpretations of religious beliefs and practices, as those of Taliban and al-Qaeda, and stick to a more modern, rational, progressive and constructive interpretation of religion found in genuine Shi’ite Islam or near such (political) leaders.
  • Try to maintain a friendly, peaceful, and cooperative attitude towards the other peoples, communities, and nations, rather than a hostile, combative, and competitive attitude that does not benefit anyone, including its own advocates.
  • Stop thinking of one’s own personal, doctrinal, regional and even national interests, and think of more global and international issues such as global warming, the environment, poverty and unemployment, economic crisis, social and ethical problems, diminishing family values, political and military disputes, population increase, illiteracy, food shortage, etc.
  • Finally, as the holy Prophet of Islam was declared to be “A Mercy to the whole Universe” (holy Qur’an, 21/107), so every true believer, be it a Muslim or not, should rinse and wash out his heart and inside from all sorts of negative feelings, and think of his/her fellow brothers and sisters first, thus promoting a more kind and humane world in the midst of the present clamorous chaos.

I sincerely hope that our today’s meeting will enhance our mutual understanding and will pave the way towards a better dialogue and cooperation in the future. Let us hope that we will have even more fruitful discussions in the years to come, thus achieving our goal of promoting peace and justice all over the world.

Thank you again for your kind hospitality, and thank you for giving me the chance for presenting my views in this august meeting. God bless you all.

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