The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

An interview with Professor Ian Markham

By Muhammad Ashraf Thachara Padikkal

“After the core conviction in my religion, I believe in conversation with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews; it is an act of fidelity to our traditions.” (Ian Markham)              

Dr. Ian Markham is an American professor, a popular author and an Episcopal priest. Presently, he serves as the dean and president of the Virginia Theological Seminary, Virginia. He is one of the noted propagators of the belief that peace and tranquility will be possible only in a plural condition, where different communities are constantly in conversation. For that, as he opines, inter-faith dialogues are to be staged. We will witness peaceful co-existence only where there is at the very least a possibility for this interfaith dialogue. He subscribes very deeply to the understanding that we have to deal with our traditions very carefully and the great Turkish Sufi scholar, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, is a master model for staging such interfaith dialogues. His counter-activism for religious morality in order to check the threats of secular humanism with a practical modus operandi is quite interesting. Prof. Markham is regarded as a distinct voice in the western academic world. In this interview, he talks to Muhammad Ashraf about multiplicity of religious traditions in South Asia, while addressing his concerns for India.


Muhammad Ashraf: First of all, a very good morning! I am very thankful to you for graciously agreeing to this interview. What distinguishes you from others in the field of popular writing and academic engagement is the importance that you accord to inter-faith dialogues, which makes harmonious living in a plural society possible. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right wing political party, which aggressive propounds Hindu nationalism, is ruling my home country, India. The right wing party’s ascension to power has witnessed an increased communal polarization in the country. What do you think about the urgent need for interfaith dialogues and how did interfaith dialogue exist prior to the present time of extreme religious polarization in India and around the globe?

Ian Markham: First of all, thank you for interviewing me and it’s my honour to talk to you. Yes, I am really committed to inter-religious dialogue. I think it’s a key obligation on people, who believe in God to recognize one of the shared obligations that God places on each and every person is the commitment to peace. And peace is made possible with dialogue and conversation. Therefore, this is very key area. I think the situation in India means that the conversation between Hindus and Muslims is particularly important because they are major parties. But also the Christian contribution can be useful. One of the most important things that we need to do in the important understanding of inter-faith dialogue is to know that it is not a  betrayal of our traditions to talk to each other, but  this is an act of fidelity to our traditions. In other words, when we participate in conversation, we don’t do this because we do not believe in the Quran or for Christians, we don’t do this because we do not believe in incarnation. In both cases, we don’t do this because we don’t believe the God revealed in our traditions; instead, we do it because we properly interpret what God said in the Quran and because we properly interpret what God has said in the holy scriptures. One clear thing that comes to us from both the Bible and the Quran is an obligation to commit to peace and to commit to conversation and to do so is what the scriptures teach. So, I am really interested in authentic interfaith dialogues. We are not betraying the principles of our traditions. Instead, we do it because we believe in the real principles of our traditions.

MA: In the modern era, secular humanism has embedded itself deeply in the public sphere. Contrarily, some of the academicians and thinkers are foregrounding religion and religious spirit, too. We witness such an extreme revival of religion after the Second World War. You have written a book titled, Do Morals Matter? A Guide to Contemporary Religious Ethics and wrote some other books on the importance of faith and ethics. As people seem to be leaning toward a more pluralist stance, what is the importance and role of religion in today’s society?

IM: I think that’s a very good question. One dilemma we face is that the major secular argument for eliminating religion from public is that when we have religion in the public square, we just fight. The public square is the space for public discourse about laws and how society should organize itself. Therefore, for the secularists the proper solution to peace is to eliminate the religion from public sphere. All religions are just private and they are not allowed to have any proper social implication. So if we can successfully stop that threat from secular humanism, we need to witness to the possibilities of faith contributing in a constructive way in the public square. We need to behave. We will need to behave in such a way that religions demonstrate that we can play constructively in the public sphere. Therefore what we need to do is to illustrate that we can talk to each other, listen to each other and seek to learn from each other. And these three things are important. One of the main reasons why I am a huge fan of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, the great Islamic theologian of the Ottoman Empire, who was in constant conversation with secularism with the rise of Ataturk in Turkey, is because what we get in Said Nursi is the right  from Quran. He loves the Quran and what he does is explain how properly understanding the Quran helps you to get consistent witness that you should honour other people and that you should be in conversation with other people and that you listen to other people and that the Muslims and Christians and others should form an alliance and struggle to get justice for the marginalized and excluded. It is for these reasons that Said Nursi is one of the most important Islamic thinkers of late 20th century.

MA: You have engaged greatly with the Turkish Sufi scholar, Said Nursi. That is presumably reflected in your books, An introduction to Said Nursi, Engaging with Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and Globalization, ethics and Islam: The case of Bediuzzuman Said Nursi. These books demonstrate the fact that Sufism and Sufi scholars are being studied in modern academic disciplines. Why is an engagement with Sufism important at this time?

IM: Yes, I think you are right. The energy embodied in Sufism is something that every religion can learn from. And Sufism stresses the importance of being shaped and formed by the love of God. Sufism is a hugely important contribution not simply to Islam but all other faith traditions. The reason why it is important is because Sufism captures the heart of all faith. It’s about the relationship with God. It’s about love for God. It’s about life transformed by prayer and meditation. It’s about a sense of God that surrounds us all the time. In the end, everything is secondary to that, to our relationship with God. This is what Bediuzzaman Said understood. He understood that the heart of faithfulness is the relationship with God and that is the key component to being a person of faith. I mean what distinguishes the person of faith from a secularist or a humanist or an atheist is the belief that we live in a universe intended, we believe this universe is created and we are invited to the relationship with God through prayer. And that the Sufis got entirely right. And that is one great achievement and that is the reason why such a movement is important among world religions and also in every discussion related to religion.

MA: Considering the multiplicities of religions and traditions in this plural world, we are trying to make a world of harmonious co-existence possible. And the public sphere intends to let even the minority live with their belief. Then, can you briefly explain why you wrote a book titled, Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are Fundamentally Wrong.

IM: I do think one feature of modernity that will now be with us forever is that every part of the world will be increasingly plural. It is because of globalization.  By that I mean you can now see significant minorities in every part of the world. Europe has got a significant minority of Muslims. The United States has got a significant minority of Non-Christians whether they are Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus. The United States is increasingly a pluralist culture. You will find that India has always been a pluralist culture. So every country has to learn to live with its diversity and it is a social imperative. Countries either can erupt into war or they can live with diversity. That’s the only choice either to live with the diversity or be at war. The secular atheist argument is that the only way to live with diversity is to eliminate the religion from public sphere and to take the religion out of the conversation. The only way to push back against such an argument is illustrating to the people that is not true. The best way for that is to form alliances by which we struggle for the environment, by which we struggle for the powerless and by which we struggle for those who are hurting and we illustrate the religious and moral insights grounded in our respective faith  can actually make a difference to the vision of the society that we want. And we can provide compelling non-violence and dialogical option. In our society then there is a real future for faith. In the highest grounds of leadership of the society, if we fail to do that, then the secularism will continue to attract adherents. So the reason I would be sad because it’s not the way the world is. I mean, I really do believe that there is a God; I do believe that it is appropriate to pray to God and I really do believe that the God has revealed to humanity an ethic that calls on us to live justly with a neighbor. These are obligations that God placed upon us. And therefore it’s really important for us to learn to work together. So we can push back against militant atheism and illustrate the constructive religious presence in the society.

MA: The evolution of Western academic structure was made possible by the intellectual contributions of some atheist thinkers and also by some philosophers who were rooted in the Christian knowledge-tradition. How could it then accommodate other religions and Sufism?

IM: It’s an interesting question. I think there are really two important things to remember here. The first is we must not be afraid of atheists. Let’s have a conversation with them.  Now numerically, they are never going to be a large group, but they can still be interesting conversation partners.  The reason why atheists are not going to be a large group is that I think that the vast majority of people are religious.  If I think who we are and what we are, if I think about the nature of the love, if I think about beauty, if I think about morality, then we will find themselves saying they must be underpinning everything with a God. Therefore I don’t think atheists will ever persuade a significant percentage of world’s population. But it can still be influential. And people of faith should never be afraid of conversation or questions. I completely oppose the censorship. It is interesting to talk to people who disagree with you.   Talk to them, it’s really interesting. And be confident about your own understanding of the world. So you will be willing to listen and learn from a critique which is opposite your own. So I read Nietzsche, I read Marx, I read Sigmund Freud, I read Emile Durkheim. I read these people because I am interested in a critical society. And their insights I learnt from them. So never be afraid of listening to the forces you disagree with. Then, yes, you are right, and you know my project is to illustrate that faith in religion make sense. I am a Christian, a priest. So therefore I am grounded in the belief that the God has spoken Christ and God has disclosed truth about God in a life. So that for me is my core conviction. And after that core conviction, I believe in conversation with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews and I think some of the conversations are important and illuminating. And what I hope for is Muslims, who love the Quran and affirm Muhammad as the last prophet, will come into the conversation. And they come into the conversation rooted in those convictions and ready to engage in conversation with me, a Christian. They will then illustrate that to be a faithful Muslim you have to be in conversation. And the goal is a faithful witness to God that is not afraid of the questions. We should learn from science, learn from contemporary technology, and let’s not be afraid of the changes happening in the global world. But be faithful to what we believe is true and illustrate that the timeless truths embedded in our traditions can be applied to the problems facing today.

MA: Tradition and culture are important, which could help humanity deal with harmony, peace and friendliness in a typical manner. I do have an experience, which is a result of my living in the Malabar region of Kerala in India. When Islam came there through the Arabs, the natives treated them harmoniously. Seeing the innocence and nobility of their character, many people from the Malabar region converted to the new religion. Also, I remember your magical phrase – ‘tradition constituted theologian’ – in reference to Said Nursi. The deviation from the ‘real’ tradition has caused hazardous damage to human history. How do you observe the importance of tradition?

IM: Yes, the phrase ‘tradition constituted rationality’ is actually from Alasdair Macintyre. He is a philosopher I admire a great deal. He wrote two key books After Virtue and a book titled, Whose Justice? Which rationality? Both were very influential in my thinking. And what Macintyre has spotted is that the traditions are living entities that are part of communities. First learning in a tradition within a community is actually the only strategy in which we as humans can discover the truth about world. You describe the development of a tradition: the Arabs bring Islam to India and, in so doing, they populate a new community over centuries. This is how religion grows and develops. And you can see a beautiful engagement between the best of the past traditions and the insights of the new. And it creates a distinctive form of Islam in India. And that is very exciting and you know there is a beautiful verse in the Quran which reads something like, ‘God could have made one community because God chose not to’. And what this verse recognizes is that God could have made all of us the same.  God could have implanted in our brains the truth about the universe. But, God chose not to.  Instead God invited us to learn to love the processes of knowing; God wanted it to be hard work, and to involve living in community and to be shaped by traditions and to learn from each other and to appreciate the complexities of the world and to be in conversation and to encounter people who fundamentally disagree with us. The Quranic insight is that God did not make us all the same because God wants a world with its differences, conversations, dialogues and struggles. And so traditions are living entities discerning what is true. As for the work of discernment in any particular time or age, we should do this work with some humility because God is a very complicated topic.

MA: You have dealt with the religious perspectives and consequences of September 11.  How do you address the extremist interpretations within the traditions?

IM: The extremists in all of our traditions are born in insecurity. You know what’s happening? The world is changing. The population of the world is growing. Every part of the world is now embracing significant minority. The movement of people is possible everywhere. Some people find the differences and pluralism as exciting. But some others find it very, very painful. What is an extremist? It is one who trapped into the insecurity of the change. And he will have anger that is damaging. The anger is the source of the extremist; it is their way of fighting against the drawbacks of modernity. Of course, there are drawbacks to modernity.  The global market can be harsh.  People lose jobs and refugees are created as regimes in countries are changed. It’s a complex time. These complexities have been reasons for the extremist forms of Islam and also of Christianity and Hinduism and other faith traditions. So what’s the answer to that? The answer is to read our scriptures carefully and broadly. The vision of hatred and bigotry some people find in sacred texts is due to ignoring the overarching themes of our scriptures. Now if you go to take the broad reading of the Quran, if you go to take the broad reading of Christian scriptures and the incarnation, and if you go to take the broad reading of Upanishads, then you get a different picture. You get a shared message about the priority of love and the importance of peace. If you go to the primary things of faith traditions, and if you are doing it carefully, faithfully and prayerfully, you realize that the primary message here is God is calling us to be in loving relationship with God. And we are obligated to be agents of peace and justice among our fellow humanity. That’s the primary message.

MA: Prior to the US aid to fund al-Qaeda during the cold war in order to take on the  USSR, my assumption is that  the USA was trying to uproot Muslims from a ‘pure’ tradition and later on, they were transplanting on to a secular cultural space, which had  no religio-cultural lineage to  real Islam.  What’s your opinion on that?

IM: You know, I think it’s true. The powerful nations in the world need to do it carefully. And the United States is a powerful nation and needs to deal very respectfully with the cultures around the world. That was true in the course of history. When the British were powerful, you know, they too had to learn the importance of respecting indigenous cultures and where they are coming from and of appreciating the traditions and, well, the beauties of Africans and Indians and other countries around the world. So yes, it needs to always be an important part of economical and political sensitivity. We need governments who love to shape systems and constitutions that protect minorities and that commits to the peaceful resolutions of disagreement. On the hardest things for cultures to learn is toleration. Toleration is an interesting concept. True tolerance is the goal of allowing something you that you disagree with. But it’s one of the great challenges of the tradition.  But the truth is that tolerance is actually very difficult to do. When a country’s power is used by either economic or military power to handle disagreements, then the world is in trouble. To solve the problems in our country, we must learn to live together and to tolerate the fundamental disagreements.

MA: My final question to you is: how can one learn from other faith traditions when one is not a part of the respective traditions?

IM: It’s an interesting question. Let me try the analogy of science. Let us imagine that we get twenty scientists together.  They are all talking about nature, black holes, and origin of the universe, cosmology or whatever.  Inevitably there are lots of disagreements, lots of arguments. But, these scientists are not afraid to listen to each other and to take insights from each other. This is the right way to handle disagreements.  We don’t hide them.  We recognize them.  We listen to each other.  We learn from each other.  Disagreements are exciting.

So when you are in conversation with another faith tradition, this is what happens.  You start by listening and understanding.  You appreciate the belief or idea or practice.  And then you reflect on your tradition.  And you see whether there is something that parallels the experience in the other tradition.

So for example, I love Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s description of the five daily prayers of Islam.  I love his account of what is happening.  I then went to the Christian tradition and started to appreciate afresh the beauty of the monastic prayer practices.  I found in the Christian traditions what Nursi was suggesting was true for the Muslim practices.

The purpose of dialogue is to see things differently because we are in conversation with each other.

MA: Thank you!

Muhammad Ashraf Thachara Padikkal is completing his graduation from Madeenathunnor, Calicut, Kerala. He is an interviewer, writer and independent research fellow, specializing in the areas of Sufism, Islamic studies and cultural anthropology. He is also interested in tradition, philology and subaltern literature.

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Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Disability: Art and Culture’, edited by Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad & Nandini Ghosh, IDS Kolkata.

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