Last August, I joined my Muslim friends in Memphis as they broke their fast at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. I have been attending this event for a number of years. I am not Muslim, and neither were half of the 500 Memphians gathered at the Banquet Hall for the Eid al-Fitr dinner.
Tibetan Buddhist monks in saffron robes, Catholic priests in black shirts with white collars, Baptist ministers, and Jewish rabbis were in attendance, as well as secular community leaders, political dignitaries, Congressmen, and mayors. This was the 7th Annual Memphis Interfaith Dinner, hosted by the Muslim Society of Memphis.
One of the keynote speakers described herself as a “WASP” from rural Nebraska. She recalled a recent family gathering where she noticed that over half of her family members were now non-WASPs. She supported this with a statistic: “Nearly half of Americans will marry outside their faith.”
If you carry this statistic out over several generations, it becomes apparent that, like it or not, we are becoming an interfaith society. So what does interfaith mean?
Over the years, I have learned that interfaith is not about converting others or being converted. It is not about asserting that my religion is better than yours — which is akin to saying, “My father is better than your father.” It does not mean wavering in one’s own faith.
Rather, interfaith is about having a deep awareness that faith or religion is an essential part of our lives, and that we must learn, respect, and understand other people’s faiths.
Sitting in the packed hall at the interfaith dinner, we listened to the rhythmic verses of the Qur’an sung by voices of believers who truly follow their faith, and not those who use it for political gain. I recalled with sadness how three years ago a pastor in Florida oversaw the burning of this holy book.
This pastor’s extreme intolerance made me realize the lack of familiarity we have about each other’s religions. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey on religious knowledge in the US found that only half of Americans know that the Qur’an is the holy book of Muslims or that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Ironically, the survey found that atheists and agnostics were the most knowledgeable about religions.
Jainism, my belief, handles the issue of interfaith in a unique way. It espouses the principle of anekantavada, the multiplicity of views, even when it comes to religious belief. Jain scriptures say that Jains do not have the monopoly on salvation, and that truth and reality are perceived differently from different points of view. They believe that no single viewpoint sees the full picture.
This principle of anekantavada states that objects are infinite in their qualities and modes of existence, so they cannot be completely grasped in all aspects and manifestations by one person’s finite perception. Accordingly, no single, specific human view can claim to represent absolute truth.
Anekantavada encourages its adherents to consider even the views and beliefs of rivals and opposing parties. The principle of anekantavada influenced Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose mother was Jain and father Hindu, to adopt principles of religious tolerance in his leadership.
Undoubtedly, living with an interfaith mindset is hard work. It challenges us to leave our comfort zones and accept people of other faiths beyond the professional setting. Most importantly, it serves a basic purpose for us today: It brings us together as a society to live in peaceful coexistence.