The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Buddhism and Islam > Islamic-Buddhist Dialogue

Islamic-Buddhist Dialogue

Alexander Berzin
November 1995, revised November 2006

Personal Involvement

My own personal involvement in Islamic-Buddhist dialogue has developed gradually over many years. In my travels around the world lecturing on Buddhism, I have visited a number of Muslim countries. In some of them, I did not directly engage Muslim audiences. For example, in Malaysia and Indonesia, I addressed Chinese Buddhist groups, although I occasionally discussed with them their relations with the Muslim majorities in their countries. I also have spoken to groups of university students, faculty and spiritual seekers in the Central Asian Islamic Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan who knew very little about their country’s Islamic heritage. They were interested to learn what Buddhism and other world religions and philosophies have to offer for dealing with post-Soviet problems. I only entered into a specifically Islamic-Buddhist dialogue after an extensive tour throughout Central Asia in 1994, when I became more aware of the potential for Islamic-Buddhist co-operation in dealing with some of the more pressing social issues there.

Mauritius

Later that year, I began this dialogue on a trip to Africa, specifically in Mauritius and Zanzibar. These two islands are the main intermediary points for the heroin traffic from South Asia to the African mainland. In a meeting with the Mauritian President, an ethnic Muslim Indian, I discussed the problem of drug abuse among unemployed, disheartened youth in Tibet and how his religious community was dealing with the similar issue in his country. He shared my concern about the problem and agreed on the importance of religion for instilling a sense of self-worth, community support, and ethics for uplifting those who have been affected. Later, ­at the University of Mauritius, I lectured on “Reclai­ming Moral Values in the Modern Age: What Can Tibe­tan Buddhism Offer.” There was an enthusiastic response.

Zanzibar

In Zanzibar, which is 95% Muslim, I met with local leaders and learned of the modest success in using Islam to help those who wish to break their heroin habit. When former addicts are kept busy with ritual washing and prayers five times a day, they do not have much empty, idle time to fill with drugs. This example gives much food for thought in terms of the possible benefits of such physical activities as prostration for ethnic Buddhist addicts.

Turkey

In the Spring of 1995, on a visit to Istanbul, Turkey, I met with the dean and a group of professors of Islamic law and philosophy of religion at the Ilahiyat Islamic Theological Faculty of Marmara University. I had requested the meeting to discuss the view of Islamic law toward Buddhism as a way to help support Buddhist-Islamic religious harmony in face of the present situation of the large influx of Hui (Chinese Muslim) settlers in Tibet. There has been a community of Muslims living in Tibet since the seventeenth century, well-integrated into the predominantly Buddhist community, and traditionally enjoying special legal privileges granted by the Fifth Dalai Lama. However, the current strained situation in Tibet with the large population transfer from areas of Han China has produced understandable tensions.

[See: Historical Sketch of the Hui Muslims of China, Historical Sketch of the Muslims of Tibet, and The Relation between the Hui Muslims with the Tibetans and Uighurs, 1996.]

The professors felt there is no problem from the side of Islam toward harmony with the Buddhists, and they cited three reasons. Certain modern Islamic scholars have asserted that the Prophet Dhu'l Kifl – the “man from Kifl” – mentioned twice in the Quran refers to Buddha, with Kifl being the Arabic rendering of the name of Buddha’s native kingdom, Kapilavastu. The Quranic mention of the fig tree, they continued, refers to the bodhi tree under which Buddha manifested his enlightenment. The Quran states that the followers of Dhu'l Kifl are righteous people. Secondly, al-Biruni and al-Shahrastani, two Islamic scholars who visited India in the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE respectively and wrote about its religions, called Buddha a “Prophet,” in the context of explaining how the Indians regarded Buddha. And thirdly, Kashmiri Muslims who settled in Tibet from the seventeenth century CE married Tibetan Buddhist women within the context of Islamic law.

The professors explained that Islam tolerates all “people of the Book,” which is defined as people who accept a creator God. Islamic law, specifically during the Arab rule of Sindh from the eighth to the tenth centuries CE, however, extended the concept of “people of the Book” to the Buddhists there and granted them the same status and rights as the Christians and Jews under Arab rule had. I pointed out that the Muslim Arabs in their eighth-century expansion into Central Asia first had contact with Buddhism in present-day Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan. There, the Buddhist texts most widely used were in Old Turk and, later, Sogdian translation. In these languages, “dharma” was translated with the Greek loan word “nom,” which means “law.” The Uighur Turks and Mongols borrowed this term from Sogdian, and used it also to mean “book.” Thus throughout medieval Central Asia, Buddhists as “people of the Dharma” might also have been understood as “ people of the Book.”

Indonesia

The primarily Muslim state of Indonesia officially permits six religions – Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism – on the grounds that they all accept a creator God. In order to fulfill this requirement, Indonesian Buddhists posit Adibuddha, the primordial Buddha of The Kalachakra Tantra, as the creator. The Kalachakra teachings had flourished in Indonesia, especially during the late tenth century, as reported by Atisha during his visit. Nowadays, there is very little knowledge of those teachings there.

During a lecture tour of Indonesia in 1988, I had many discussions with Buddhist monks about the issue of God in Buddhism. Since Adibuddha can be interpreted as the clear light primordial consciousness, and since all appearances of samsara and nirvana are the play or “creation” of that mind, we concluded that there is no reason to feel uncomfortable in saying that Buddhism accepts a creator God. The fact that Buddhism asserts Adibuddha not to be an individual separate being, but something present in each sentient being, is just a matter of theological differences concerning the nature of God. Many Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu thinkers assert that God is abstract and present in all beings. As the Muslims say, “Allah has many names.”

Therefore, from my experience in Indonesia, I agreed, on the basis of Adibuddha, that Buddhism does accept a creator God, but with its own unique interpretation. Once this common ground was established, I was easily able to begin a comfortable dialogue with the Islamic theologians in Turkey. They invited me to return to their university later that year to lecture to the student body and faculty on Buddhism and the relation between Islam and Buddhism.

Dialogue between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a West African Sufi Master

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has had contact with Islamic leaders around the world for many years. After my return to India from Turkey, I accompanied Dr. Tirmiziou Diallo, the hereditary Sufi religious leader of Guinea, West Africa, to Dharamsala to meet with His Holiness. In the days prior to the audience, he and I discussed further the meaning of “people of the Book.” Dr. Diallo felt it refers to people who follow the “Primordial Tradition.” This can be called the wisdom of Allah or God, or as I suggested to him in Buddhist terms, primordial deep awareness. Thus, he readily accepted that the primordial tradition of wisdom was revealed not only by Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, but also by Buddha. If people follow this innate primordial tradition and wisdom, they are “people of the Book.” But, if they go against this basic good and wise nature of humankind and the universe, they are not of the “Book.”

In this sense, then, it is acceptable to say that Buddha was a prophet of God and this fits in well with the interpretation of the Turkish professors that “people of the Book” refer to those who accept the creator God. Adibuddha, as the clear light mind, is not only primordial deep awareness, but the creator of all appearances. Dr. Diallo was very happy with this discussion and cited a hadith (personal saying of Muhammad) enjoining his followers to seek wisdom all the way up to China.

Dr. Diallo himself followed the principles of this hadith. He attended the last day of His Holiness’s discourse on Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara (Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior), including the Avalokiteshvara empowerment His Holiness conferred. He was especially moved by the bodhisattva vows. In the Sufi traditions of West Africa, there is also a total commitment to seeking the perfection that is beyond words and serving all creation.

On the last day of his visit, Dr. Diallo had his private audience with His Holiness. Dressed in elegant white robes, the majestic African spiritual leader was so moved upon first being in His Holiness’s presence, he began to weep. Without asking his attendant as he normally would, His Holiness personally went to his anteroom and brought back a tissue, which he offered the Sufi master to wipe his tears. Dr. Diallo presented His Holiness with a traditional Muslim headdress, which His Holiness put on without hesitation and wore for the remainder of the audience.

His Holiness opened the dialogue by explaining that if both Buddhists and Muslims remain flexible in their thinking, fruitful and open dialogue is possible. The encounter was extremely warm and emotionally touching. His Holiness asked numerous questions about the Sufi meditation tradition, specifically concerning the West African lineages that emphasize the practice of love, compassion, and service. Dr. Diallo had been living in exile for many years in Germany after a communist takeover of his country. There were many things in common that the two men shared. Both His Holiness and Dr. Diallo pledged to continue the Islamic-Buddhist dialogue in the future.

Return Visit to Turkey

Toward the end of 1995, I again visited the Middle East. Returning to the Ilahiyet Islamic Faculty of Marmara University, Istanbul, I lectured to the faculty and graduate students of the Department of Philosophy. This department trains Islamic religious teachers as well as secondary school teachers of Islam and other religions, including Buddhism, for all of Turkey. The teachers were extremely enthusiastic in establishing an Islamic-Buddhist dialogue and we discussed such issues as creation, revelation, and the source of ethics. Islam asserts God not as a person but as an abstract creating principle, and some schools of Islamic theology assert that creation has no beginning. Speaking in terms of the clear light mind as the beginningless creator of beginningless appearances, and of Buddha as a revealer of higher truths, we had a good basis for lively and friendly dialogue.

The interview I had given during my previous visit to this university had been published in a popular magazine of the local Islamic fundamentalists, read not only in Turkey, but throughout the Central Asian Islamic Republics. The faculty coordinator of my visit said he would publish in the same magazine a Turkish translation of the prepared written lecture I delivered this time on the principles and history of Buddhism, especially its history among the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, and the present situation of Buddhism throughout the world. I was invited not only to return to this Islamic faculty for further talks in late 1996, but also to hold similar meetings with Sufi religious leaders in Konya and with faculty and students of other universities in Turkey.

Egypt

After Turkey, I went to Egypt, where I had been invited to lecture at Cairo University. The first group I met with was the faculty of the Center for Asian Studies of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science. They had asked me to lecture on “The Impact of Buddhist Thought on Asian Political and Economic Development.” They were particularly interested to know how Buddhist principles have contributed to the economic success of the “Asian tiger” nations so that they can somehow use Islam to support a similar phenomenon of Egypt’s becoming an “African and Middle Eastern tiger.” They also wish to understand Asia and its religions in order to form better political and economic links with the region. They do not wish to be isolated under the misconception that all Muslims are fundamentalist, fanatic terrorists.

This was the first lecture ever given at this faculty on Buddhist thought, and the interest and enthusiasm were enormous. They asked me to submit a paper on the basic Buddhist teachings presented in a manner readily understandable from an Islamic perspective for publication in English and Arabic as one of their Asian Monograph Series, which is distributed throughout the Arabic-speaking world. This was published in June 1996.

[See: Introduction to Buddhism from an Islamic Point of View.]

The next day, I lectured about the basic teachings of Buddhism to three hundred first-year undergraduate students in a course on Asian philosophy at the Faculty of Arts, followed by a lecture to a graduate philosophy seminar. The students and staff were as starved for information about Asia as people used to be in the former communist world. This is not, however, in terms of a spiritual search as in the former communist countries, but more in terms of gaining contact with the rest of the world through understanding and mutual respect. On the morning of these last two lectures, fifteen Egyptian diplomats were killed in a terrorist bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan and there was a large student protest at the university. There was a huge military and police presence, with armored vehicles, arrests, and so on, which we had to skirt in order to enter the campus. It was wonderful how, in that atmosphere going on outside the classroom buildings, there was such interest in Buddhism.

Jordan

My last stop on that tour was Mafraq, Jordan, where I had been invited to Al al-Bayt University. This international university, built mostly by the Jordanian government, was founded in 1994. It has two thousand students, half of whom are from other Muslim countries, with a handful of European and North American Christians, and a large foreign staff. It was founded to broaden mutual understanding among all seven traditions of Islam and between Islam and other world religions. I met with the president of the university, who was going in December 1995 to Japan as the keynote speaker and co-organizer of a conference on Buddhist-Islamic understanding. He expressed interest in hosting such a conference in Jordan in the future. He invited me to return to the university in late 1996 to deliver a series of lectures on Buddhism and Tibet, their relation to Islam, and to continue the dialogue. He wishes to build a Buddhist section in the university library and asked me to prepare a book list for that.

I had a dialogue with the faculty of the Bayt al-Hikmah Higher Institute of Political Science of the university about the interaction between Islam and Buddhism in modern and ancient Asia. They are particularly focused on the Malaysian-Indonesian area, but are very interested to learn about other regions. They requested information about Tibetan Muslims for their pan-Islamic data base survey and invited me to return to discuss the role of Buddhist ethics in economic development. I also met with visiting professors from Morocco and Syria, who were likewise keenly interested in a similar dialogue.

Future Prospects

The main aim of the Islamic-Buddhist dialogue, then, as I have experienced it, is educational – for each to learn more about the other’s beliefs and cultures. The Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, in Dharamsala, India, has taken a leading role in fulfilling this aim. They have begun a program of exchanging journals and books with the various universities in the Islamic countries with which I have established contact. Likewise, they are establishing programs of cooperation with institutions in the Central Asian Islamic Republics of the former Soviet Union to conduct further research on the history of the interaction between Buddhists and Muslims in that part of the world. The prospects for increasing contact and cooperation are vast.