Talking about jihad with the Dalai Lama

Talking about jihad with the Dalai Lama
Posted by Michael Paulson May 7, 2009 03:31 PM

This is a scene that immediately captured my imagination: last week, in the preacher’s room at Memorial Church in Cambridge, the Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of non-violence, turned to one of Harvard’s leading scholars of Islam and asked him about the meaning of jihad.

The Tibetan Buddhist leader briefly mentioned the exchange in his speech to at the church; it took me a few days to get more details, and now, here they are:

The 73-year-old Dalai Lama had been to Harvard multiple times, and on a couple of occasions had met Professor William A. Graham (right), a noted Koranic scholar who for the last several years has been the dean of Harvard Divinity School. The Divinity School, as well as the Harvard Graduate School of Education, co-hosted the Dalai Lama’s Harvard event last week, so Graham was with the Dalai Lama in a room behind the sanctuary while the assembly watched Tibetan dancers and listened to the strange sounds of a dhung-chen, a traditional Tibetan horn that sounded to me like a cross between a didgeridoo and a shofar. The Dalai Lama, preparing to give his speech about the teaching of compassion, was apparently thinking about the role of a divinity school at an institution like Harvard – he later talked about the importance of teaching comparative religion in university settings -- when he turned to Graham and asked him about Islam. I later caught up with Graham by phone, and here’s what he told me:

William_Graham.jpg "We were simply talking about the virtues of doing comparative religion studies, which he believes in, and he said so many things are misunderstood, like jihad. He said he was thinking about the differences between greater and lesser jihad in Muslim jurisprudence. He had a few things to say about it – I didn’t get much of a chance to respond to anything – but he’s quite correct that the word jihad has been misused. Any traditionalist who knows his Islamic law knows that jihad is fundamentally defensive. The tendency has always been, with Muslim religious thought, to say the real jihad is the inner struggle with oneself, and the lesser jihad is actually having to take up arms. And, even then, Muslim law has ruled consistently that it has to be for defense of Islam. Obviously, various political leaders have taken and misused that -- rulers have always been able to find someone who can give a fatwa, saying it’s because they’ve been threatened or attacked or whatever, to say this is legitimately a jihad. But that’s why 9/11 was so thoroughly condemned by mainstream Muslim legal scholars and clerics, saying this should not be construed as an act of jihad."

Graham described the exchange as a form of "chit-chat" and said the point was "we need to understand more about other traditions – he was mostly just saying we need to know more."

But the Dalai Lama also seemed to draw a second lesson from the exchange, because in his opening remarks he not only paid tribute to the importance of educating students about religions other than their own, but he also made a more specific point, that Islam, like Buddhism and other religions, emphasizes compassion (the Dalai Lama’s most frequently mentioned priority). The Dalai Lama made his point visually, as well as verbally, pulling off his wrist his Buddhist prayer beads - called a mala -- while referring to Muslim rosaries and talking about how Islam fits into the family of faiths. Here’s what he said as he began his speech (his English is a little rough, but his meaning is clear):

"It is very, very important for religious school: comparative study of different traditions. Sometimes, unfortunately, the different religious faiths, sometimes instead of helping people, sometimes divide. In worst case, even bloodshed take place in the name of different faith. That not only in the ancient time, but also modern times sometimes it happen. So therefore the study of different traditions is very, very helpful, and I think make familiar to people there are many different tradition, and all tradition, in spite different philosophy, all have same purpose, to bring inner peace. And with that, I think all religion talks about sense of spiritual brothers, sisters, and also love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, self-discipline, all tradition consider these are very valued, these are important.

So, while we just were waiting there, I asked you, from the special field of Islam…I asked the meaning of jihad. In certain way, when threat towards one’s own tradition happening, then, for protection or defense one’s own faith, then certain kind of appropriate action. So that kind of concept I think all religion have the same sort of use. So sometimes people, it’s a little exaggerated: Islam is more militant, because of few individuals misuse to action. So since September 11th event, in many occasion I always come forth, with a defense of Islam. Islam like any other major tradition. I think the very praising Allah means love, infinite love, compassion, like that. I understand Islam, they usually carry rosary, all 99 beads, different name of Allah, all refer compassion, or these positive things.

No religion, no religious tradition say their god is full of hatred, full of anger, nobody say that. So Allah means infiniteness of love. So genuine follower of that kind of god, the meaning is, must practice love, compassion, because they are genuine follower of that kind of god. So in that case, more faith towards one’s own god, the person should be more compassionate person. That’s logical like that.

So it’s wonderful, comparative study. Usually my approach, about interfaith, and promoting religious harmony: firstly make clear all the differences. Then try to analyze the purpose of these different approach, different philosophy. Then more or less you can find that all different approach, all different method, different concept, meant for promote love, compassion, forgiveness, honesty, truthful, these things. So like medicine. There are a variety of medicine. Each medicine different. But all same purpose: cure illness. Some medicine serve to some illness. Some medicine is very harmful, very dangerous. But overall, all meant for better health, cure illness. So similarly, all religion like that."

(Photos of the Dalai Lama at Memorial Church by Mark Wilson of the Globe staff, 4/30/09. Photo of William Graham by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University News Office.)

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