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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Buddhism and Islam > Is There a Common Ground between Buddhism and Islam?

Is There a Common Ground between Buddhism and Islam?

Alexander Berzin, Berlin, Germany, January 2011

Theoretical Approach

There are many difficulties and dangers in exploring the common ground between any two religious or philosophical systems. One of the main difficulties concerns which theoretical approach one takes in terms of the academic discipline of comparative religion. I’d like to mention a scheme for classifying different approaches to such comparisons in Christian theology, as outlined by Kristin Beise Kiblinger in an article, "Buddhist Stances toward Others: Types, Examples, Considerations," published in Buddhist Attitudes to Other Religions.

In this article, Kiblinger outlines three approaches: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.

  • The exclusivist approach is that only one religion has the true path to salvation or liberation. Although other religions may treat the same topics in common with us, nevertheless their positions are false. Many Buddhist texts have this attitude toward not only non-Buddhist views, but even toward other Buddhist ones.
  • According to the inclusivist approach, there are many paths to salvation or liberation, but one is superior. In other words, other religions may share common grounds with us, and although all are valid, ours is better than theirs. Some followers of the various Tibetan traditions tend to have this toward other Tibetan traditions – they all lead to enlightenment, but ours is the best.
  • According to pluralism, there are many paths to salvation or liberation, and none of them is superior. This is the nonsectarian view, which just presents the various positions of different religions concerning topics in common, but with no ranking of them.

Within the inclusivist and pluralist approaches, there are degrees of how much one accepts real differences and how deep these differences are thought to be.

  • Type one emphasizes similarities, and although it recognizes differences, it downplays them by recasting differences as being similarities, equivalencies, or unimportant side issues. It views other religions as doing the same thing that we do, just in a different way – in a sense, they are following our religion without actually knowing it. For instance, Gelug explaining Nyingma dzogchen practices in terms of Gelug anuttarayoga theory.
  • Type two respects genuine differences and finds dialogue as a valuable tool to stimulate growth, whether or not it considers its own religion as superior.

For type one (they’re actually asserting what we do, just in a different way), the danger is that it can be presumptuous, arrogant and narcissistic – it assumes that we know what their religion actually means better than they do. In terms of the inclusivist variety of this, which believes that our religion is superior, this view can take the form that the other religion is actually aiming toward our goal, without their knowing it. Or they are just a lower stage of our path. With those types of attitude, there is nothing that we can learn from them, but only many things they can learn from us. The subcategories of this are:

  • All or most religions are heading toward the same goal; and although their path is not as good as ours, it will in the end naturally lead to the same goal as ours does.
  • They need to be led in the end to our path to reach the same goal we attain with our path and which they were aiming for, but could not get to if they followed only their own path. An example within Buddhism is the anuttarayoga tantra assertion that sutra or the lower tantras can only lead you to the tenth-level bhumi- mind (the tenth bhumi), but then you need anuttaryoga methods to actually reach enlightenment.

Other variants for type-one inclusivism (the one that downplays differences and says they are actually similarities) are to assert that:

  • Words, concepts and doctrines are inexact expressions of meditational experiences, and all religions are talking about the same experience.
  • There is a common core theory or core assertions of all religions, and only cultural and historical circumstances account for the differences. For example, the usual presentation of the various forms of Buddhism in different countries – India, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Tibet, etc.

Further, when we explore a possible common ground between Buddhism and Islam, it touches on the topic of conversion.

  • With an exclusivist view, then if only our religion is true, then for you to be saved, you need to abandon your religion and adopt ours.
  • With an inclusivist view, it’s OK for you to follow your religion, because it is actually a lower form of our religion, and in the end either you will naturally come to realize our view (for example, Chittamatrins practicing anuttarayoga tantra will naturally become Prasangikas when they reach the mind isolation stage of the complete stage practice), or we will have to convert you at the end.
  • With a pluralist view, each religion leads to its own ultimate goal, and they are all praiseworthy – with two variants: the goals are equivalent; or they are not equivalent – and none is superior. So no need for conversion. This would be like if you follow Buddhist practices, you get to Buddhist heaven, not Muslim paradise; and if you practice Muslim practices, you get to Muslim paradise, not a Buddhist heaven.

As for type two inclusivism and pluralism (the type that respects differences between religions, while accepting that they are all valid, whether it considers itself superior or not), the delicate issue is how to understand another religion and compare it to your own religion.

  • Can you understand another religion exclusively in its own terms, or do you need to put their assertions in terms from your own belief system in order to make them intelligible?
  • If you do the latter (put their assertions in terms from your own belief system in order to make them intelligible), can you do this without this approach devolving or degenerating into type one, with which you assert that their beliefs are just variants of your own?

On the other hand, if you can find common issues or themes that two religions, such as Buddhism and Islam share, then even if you need to express these themes and the approach of the other religion in the conceptual framework of your own system, you can understand and respect the differences. You can respect the differences with a tolerant nonjudgmental attitude, without asserting that your own religion is the best and without having a condescending attitude toward the other religion. It is on the basis of such understanding and respect that you can establish religious harmony.

This is the approach His Holiness the Dalai Lama takes. When asked, “What is the best religion?” His Holiness replied, “That set of beliefs and practices that helps you to become a kinder, more compassionate person.”

Historical Perspective

The Historical Muslim Approach toward Buddhism

Now, let’s look more specifically at Buddhism and Islam. Concerning Islam, in addition to my own research on the topic, I have also drawn from a book written by Reza Shah Kazemi called Common Ground between Islam and Buddhism, with forewards by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan. I have especially drawn relevant quotations from the Quran from Dr. Kazemi’s work.

Historically, both the Muslims and the Buddhists (and here let’s limit ourselves to the Indo-Tibetan forms of Buddhism), have adopted an inclusivist approach. The Muslims, for example, included Buddhists as People of the Book, the same as Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. How did this come about?

During the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 CE), the Arabs spread their rule and their religion, Islam, throughout the Middle East. Thus, at the beginning of the eighth century, the Umayyad general Muhammad bin Qasim conquered the predominantly Buddhist region of Sind, in present-day southern Pakistan. The Buddhists and Hindus of Brahmanabad, one of its major cities, requested that they be allowed to rebuild their temples and maintain religious freedom. General Qasim consulted with the governor, Hajjaj bin Yusuf, who in turn consulted the Muslim clerics. The religious clerics, in what became known as the “Brahmanabad settlement,” declared Buddhists (Hindus too) as People of the Book.

The Umayyad governor Hajjaj decreed: “The request of the chiefs of Brahmanabad about the building of Buddhist and other temples, and toleration in religious matters, is just and reasonable. I do not see what further rights we can have over them beyond the usual tax. They have paid homage to us and have undertaken to pay the fixed tributary poll tax (Ar. jizya) to the Caliph. Because they have become protected subjects (Ar. dhimmi), we have no right whatsoever to interfere in their lives and property. Do permit them to follow their own religion. No one should prevent them.”

Subsequently, the Buddhists were allowed to rebuild their temples and monasteries, and were granted the status of non-Muslim protected subjects, as long as they paid the tributary poll tax. The Umayyad Caliphs and later the Abbasid Caliphs ruling from Baghdad (750 – 1258 CE) and subsequent Muslim rulers of India held in principle this same policy, although, of course, it was not always followed by all rulers or generals. Nevertheless, the implication of this ruling is that Buddhism was not analogous to the pagan polytheistic religions, whose followers were not granted such privileges.

Now, you could argue that granting Buddhists legal recognition was more political than theological, stemming more from pragmatism than subtle philosophical analysis. This was probably so. After allowing the rebuilding of the Buddhist and Hindu temples, the Arab governors taxed the pilgrims who came to worship at them. But nevertheless, the scholars of Islam did not, and still do not regard this “pragmatic” policy as violating or compromising any fundamental theological principle of Islam. The implication of granting Buddhists legal recognition, political protection and religious tolerance is that the spiritual path and moral code of the Buddhist faith derive from a higher authority, namely an authentic revelation of God.

What was the basis for declaring the Buddhists as People of the Book? Was it merely on the basis of shared customs of worship? For example, in the beginning of the eighth century, the Iranian historian al-Kermani wrote a detailed account of Nava Vihara Monastery in Balkh Afghanistan and described some of the Buddhist customs in terms of analogies in Islam. He described the main temple as having a stone cube in the center, draped with cloth, and devotees as circumambulating it and making prostration, as is the case with the Kaaba in Mecca. He did not, however, discuss any of the Buddhist beliefs.

So is there a doctrinal basis for declaring Buddhists as People of the Book? This is an important question since, if Buddhists are recognized as being People of the Book, then they are implicitly to be included in the spectrum of “saved” communities, as expressed in the following verse from the Quran (2:62): “Truly those who believe and those who are Jews, and the Christians and the Sabeans – whoever believes in God and the Last Day and performs virtuous acts – for such, their reward is with their Lord. No fear or suffering will befall them.”

This indicates the common ground between Buddhism and Islam according to the Quran – belief in God and the Last Day of Judgment and in performing virtuous, constructive acts. Even if the views are not the same, Islam regards them as at least similar enough to be compatible. As it says in the Quran (2:137): “And if they believe in the like of that in which you believe, then they are rightly guided.” This approach, then, is clearly inclusivist. Buddhists too will reach the salvation taught in Islam, because they follow similar views.

The question is what are the boundaries of what can be included in the concepts of God, a religion revealed by God, the Last Day of Judgment, the oneness of the truth, and so on? On both the Muslim and Buddhist sides, there have been some clerics who make the definitions of these quite strict. But some have left them quite flexible as well.

The Historical Buddhist Approach toward Islam

Before we explore the boundaries of these concepts, let us look first at the historical approach of the Buddhists toward Islam. The singular Buddhist textual tradition that mentions any Islamic customs or beliefs is the Sanskrit Kalachakra Tantra literature, which emerged in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries CE, most likely in the area of southeastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. At that time, the Buddhists in this area were facing the threat of a possible invasion by the rulers of Multan, in central Pakistan. The Multan rulers followed an eastern form of Ismaili Shia, a subsect of Islam. Multan, in alliance with the Fatimid Caliphs in Egypt, was the rival of the Arab Abbasids for gaining control of the Muslim world. The Buddhists and Hindus in southeastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan were caught in the middle of this rivalry.

[See: The Kalachakra Presentation of the Prophets of the Non-Indic Invaders – Summary.]

The Kalachakra texts mention some of the beliefs and customs of the potential invaders. Some beliefs that are described seem to be specific to the Ismaili thought of the time, such as the list of prophets; while others contradict that thought, such as adding Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, to that list. Most of these beliefs, however, are fundamental to Islam as a whole. Some concern ethical behavior and echo Buddhist assertions of ethical discipline, although the literature does not identify them as being similar. These points, however, could be considered common ground between the two religions. For instance, in The Essence of the Further Tantra of the Glorious Kalachakra Tantra (dPal dus-kyi ‘khor-lo’i rgyud phyi-ma rgyud-kyi snying-po, Skt. Shri-Kalachakra-tantrottaratantra-hrdaya) , it says, “They have one caste, do not steal, and speak the truth. They keep clean, avoid others’ wives, follow definite ascetic practices, and remain faithful to their own wives.”

Elsewhere, we find more of an inclusivist approach when the Kalachakra texts start to describe the invaders’ beliefs in Buddhist terms. For example, The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra (bsDus-pa’i rgyud-kyi rgyal-po dus-kyi ‘khor-lo, Skt. Laghu-Kalachakra-tantra-raja), II.164cd, states: “Created by the Creator is everything that arises, moving and unmoving. From pleasing him, as the cause for liberation for the Tayis, there is heaven. This is indeed the teaching of Rahman for men.” “Tayi,” a name that the Kalachakra texts apply to the invaders, is the Arabic word (Persian: Tazi) used for the Arab invaders of Iran. “Rahman,” the Compassionate One, is an epithet of Allah.

Pundarika elaborates on this verse in Stainless Light: A Commentary Explaining “The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra,” (bsDus-pa’i rgyud-kyi rgyal-po dus-kyi ‘khor-lo’i ‘grel-bshad dri-ma med-pa’i ‘od, Skt. Vimalaprabha-nama-laghu-Kalachakra-tantra-raja-tika), “Now, as for the assertions of the Tayi invaders, the creator Rahman gives rise to every functional phenomenon, both moving and unmoving. The cause for liberation for the Tayis, namely the white-clad invaders, is pleasing Rahman, and this definitely brings a higher rebirth (in Paradise) for men. From not pleasing him, comes (a rebirth in) Hell. These are the teachings of Rahman, the assertions of the Tayis.”

Pundarika elaborates further: “The assertion of the invader Tayis is that humans who die experience happiness or suffering in a higher rebirth (in Paradise), or in Hell, with their human bodies, through Rahman’s decision.”

The common ground, here, between Buddhism and the Buddhist understanding of Islam is rebirth in heaven and hell based on one’s ethical behavior. It is interesting, concerning these passages, that the Kalachakra texts do not comment on the assertion of a creator, nor on the role of the creator in determining the afterlife based on whether or not a person pleases him. On that last point, by the way, concerning Allah’s judgment based on whether or not someone pleases him, the Buddhist presentation is not fair. According to a hadith (accounts of Muhammad), Allah said, “O My servants, it is but your deeds that I reckon up for you and then recompense you for.”

In any case, the Kalachakra texts focus merely on the nature of the afterlife and the effect on it by a person’s deeds in this life in general. In discussing the issue in this way, the texts reveal an inclusivist approach in identifying the invaders’ assertion of an eternal rebirth as a faulty view that is explained more correctly in Buddhism. The Regal Abridged Kalachakra Tantra, II.174, states: “Through an (eternal) afterlife, a person experiences (the results of his) earlier committed karmic actions of this world. If that were so, then depletion of humans’ karma from one birth to another would not occur. There would be no exiting from samsara and no entering into liberation even in terms of immeasurable existence. That thought, indeed, appears among the Tayis, although dismissed by other groups.”

If we want to look at this point concerning eternal damnation within a larger Buddhist context, the common ground between the Buddhist and Muslim views becomes a little wider. However, it becomes wider because you can view the Muslim position on rebirth and liberation as a step leading to the Buddhist one. In Buddhist terms, then, you could say that Islam speaks only of liberation from the suffering of suffering or from the worse rebirth states. This liberation is a higher rebirth in a paradise. This, after all, is the initial scope of motivation in the lam-rim graded stages of the path. Buddhism goes on to speak of liberation from the all-pervasive suffering of rebirth, which is the aim of the intermediate scope of motivation. In this light, following Islam becomes an initial step in following Buddhism.

But, you can look at the Muslim assertion of eternal suffering in a different way, so that it is not so different from the Buddhist view. In the Kalachakra texts, the objection to the Muslim concept of hell is that once in the fires of hell, it is eternal and that you can’t get liberated from that. But if one looks at Buddhist descriptions of samsara, one wants to get out of it like getting out of a burning building. Also samsaric rebirth will be eternal unless one does something about it, namely turning to the Dharma.

The nineteenth century Nyingma master Mipam (Mi-pham ‘Jam-dbyangs rnam-rgyal rgya-mtsho.), in his Illumination of the Vajra Sun, Clarifying the Meaning of the Words of “The Glorious Kalachakra Tantra”: Commentary to Chapter (Five), Deep Awareness (dPal dus-kyi ‘khor-lo’i rgyud-kyi tshig don rab-tu gsal-byed rdo-rje nyi-ma’i snang-ba, Ye-shes le’u’i ‘grel-chen), followed an even stronger inclusivist approach than the original Kalachakra literature. Hinting that, with skillful means, Buddha taught methods for leading Muslims to enlightenment, Mipam wrote, “The non-Indic invaders have two (philosophical points) that they hold. They hold external phenomena to have the nature of a collection of atoms, and they hold the existence of a self of a person that temporarily takes birth or that has an aspect that takes birth in samsara. The goal is to achieve the happiness of the gods as the fruit. Aside from this, they do not assert any other type of nirvana.”

Mipam goes on to point out that the invaders’ assertion of the atomic nature of matter fits into the Buddhist beliefs. He explains that the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika schools of Hinayana Buddhism assert indivisible, partless atoms; while the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka schools of Mahayana Buddhism assert atoms that are endlessly divisible.

Concerning the self or soul, Mipam continues, “Knowing their dispositions and thoughts, Buddha taught sutras of what they (the invaders) could accept. For instance, in The Sutra of Carrying Responsibility (Khur ‘khu-ba’i mdo), Buddha said that persons carrying responsibility (for their actions) do exist, but without speaking of the soul of a person as being either permanent or impermanent. These points are true on the face of their (the invaders’) assertions. Buddha’s intended meaning is that persons do exist as continuities of a self that bears responsibility for karma, but which is merely imputed onto a continuum and, by nature, is neither permanent nor impermanent.

In the occasion of a dream, which arises merely from habits of mind, the embodied individual experiencing joy and sorrow is nonexistent. Since this is mere appearance, (the individual’s) impermanence in that case is not even like that of the nature of an impermanent thing. This is because it is without the nature of an individual. On merely being examined, it is (obviously) an object with no interpolations of permanent or impermanent, so it is taught. By this teaching of the Thusly Gone One, (the invaders) gave up the dharma of the invaders and subsequently became Vaibhashikas holding a Buddhist system.”

The inclusivist attitude here is that Buddha gave teachings that would accord with the invader’s assertions, and through this skillful means, he would lead the invaders to liberation. Muslims would clearly find this offensive and this attitude would clearly not lead to religious harmony.

Common Grounds on the Basis of Buddhists Being Considered People of the Book

Let’s return to the implications of Islam considering Buddhists as People of the Book in order to examine further common grounds. As we saw, the common grounds from this assertion are that Buddhism is a religion revealed by a higher authority, namely God. That, of course, brings in the question of God as the source of the revelation and the person who received that revelation and shared it with the world.

Both the Buddhists and the Muslims follow an inclusivist approach concerning this question about revelation. For example, the Kalachakra commentary Stainless Light explains, “Concerning the invaders, Muhammad was an avatar of Rahman. The indicator of the invaders’ teachings, he was the guru and master of the invader Tayis.” In Hinduism, an avatar is an incarnation of the soul of a god into another form. Thus, Muhammad being an avatar of Rahman parallels the Hindu assertion of Krishna as an avatar of the god Vishnu. In Buddhist terms, this analogy would be equivalent to asserting that Muhammad was a Nirmanakaya emanation of Allah.

On the other hand, could Buddha be considered a prophet or messenger of Allah? The Persian historian, al-Biruni, accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni on his early eleventh century CE invasion of the Indian subcontinent. Based on what he learned there, al-Biruni wrote A Book about India (Ar. Kitab al-Hind). In it, he described the basic Buddhist customs and beliefs and noted that the Indians regarded Buddha as a prophet. That does not necessarily mean that he was suggesting that Muslims should accept Buddha as a prophet or messenger of Allah. Nevertheless, the Quran (4:163-164) says: “Truly We inspire you, as We inspired Noah, and the prophets after him, as We inspired Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the patriarchs, and Jesus and Job and Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and as We bestowed unto David the Psalms. We have mentioned to you some Messengers sent previously, while other Messengers we have not mentioned to you.” Buddha could be included among those messengers not explicitly mentioned.

For example, according to the presentation of the twelve enlightening deeds of a Buddha, a Buddha comes at different times, when beings are ripe, and teaches Dharma differently in each age, in order to suit the beings there. Although there are a thousand supreme Nirmanakaya Buddhas for this eon, with an enormous number of eons between each of them, there are many Supreme Being Nirmanakayas that come in between. Both of these groups of Nirmanakayas could be labeled “Messengers of the Dharma.” Also each Buddha uses skillful means for teaching the Dharma differently for different people. For some, Buddha even taught that there was a self. Islam, too, has its own version of teaching with skillful means. The Quran (14:4) says, “And We never sent a messenger save with the language of his people, so that he might make it clear to them.”

We must be careful here. Although Islam could accept Buddha as a messenger of God; the Muslims, as well as the Christians and Jews, would be quite offended if told that Muhammad, Jesus, Abraham and David were Nirmanakya Buddhas or avatars of Allah. This is a major drawback of the inclusivist approach to comparative religion. However, how are we to understand the Buddhist assertion that Nagarjuna revealed the Prajnaparamita teachings that Manjushri entrusted to the nagas, who hid them under the ocean? Or the assertion that Asanga received the widespread action teachings on love, compassion, and bodhichitta from Maitreya, when he was taken to Tushita heaven? How are we to understand the pure vision and revealed treasure text teachings in the Nyingma tradition? Are these Buddhist assertions so different from the Muslim assertion of prophets revealing the word of God?

As for God, the only aspect that Buddhism refutes is that of an omnipotent creator that can create without being affected or influenced by anything, even by the wish to create.

[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Chapter 9 (118-125).]

It does not refute other qualities of God, or even creation itself. For instance, anuttarayoga tantra explains that each individual’s clear light mind is the creator of all appearances that that person experiences, and this is influenced by both this person’s individual karma and by collective karma. Moreover, as deepest truth, the clear light mind is beyond words and concepts, as is Allah. The Quran declares: “Glorified be Allah above and beyond what they describe.”

Nevertheless, there are ninety-nine names of Allah, and these refer to Allah’s essential qualities. Similarly, in A Concert of Names of Manjushri (‘Jam-dpal mtshan-brjod, Skt. Manjushri-nama-samgiti), Manjushri refers to the clear light mind in its primordial state, and the verses of this Kalachakra text explain its qualities.

[See: A Concert of Names of Manjushri.]

Like Allah, the clear light mind Manjushri, is (58) “the primordial one, the highest one, beginningless,” (100) “He’s the one without a beginning or an end.” And like Allah, the clear light mind Manjshri is (97) “the unmanifest one, the one not appearing, the one with no sign that would make him seen.” Further, Allah is One, and similarly, the clear light mind Manjushri is (47) “non-dual, the speaker of non-duality.”

One of the essential qualities of Allah is al-haqq – the real, the true, what is proper, also in an ethical sense. This has a conceptual affinity to Dharma in the sense of dharmata – deepest truth, deep awareness Dharmakaya. The clear light mind Manjushri is (55-56) “the hallowed Dharma, the ruler of the Dharma … the superb imperishable sphere of reality.” Elsewhere, (47) “He’s what’s perfectly so, the lack of identity-nature, the actual state,” (157) “He’s the purity and glory of the deepest truth.”

Allah is always referred to as al-Rahman, the compassionate one, and al-Rahim, the merciful one – compassionate in the sense of being compassionate to create, and merciful in saving others from suffering. In dzogchen, the quality of rigpa, pure awareness, that makes appearances is referred to as “compassion.” Moreover, Manjushri, the clear light mind, is (38) “composed of great love, he is the foremost mind of great compassion,” (88) “He’s the agent fulfilling the aims of all limited beings. The wisher of benefit, he’s the one with parental affection toward limited beings.”

Also, like Allah, clear light mind Manjushri is (152) “the one worthy of offerings, worthy of praise, the one for prostration…. worthy of shows of respect, most worthy of veneration, worthy of homage.”

All these features concerning Allah, the clear light mind, revelation of the truth, compassion, and so on, indicate a common ground between Buddhism and Islam, in addition to basic shared ethical principles. Many other features could also be mentioned, such as recitation of dhikrs in Islam and of mantras in Buddhism, an emphasis on charity, study, honest livelihood, and so on. If we approach all these common features in a respectful pluralistic manner, without being judgemental and without trying to include each other’s teachings as mere variants of our own, then we have a firm basis for religious harmony.