Dialogue between Islam and Buddhism through the Concepts Ummatan Wasatan (the Middle Nation) and Majjhima-Patipada (the Middle Way)

By Yusuf, Imtiyaz | Islamic Studies, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview
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Dialogue between Islam and Buddhism through the Concepts Ummatan Wasatan (the Middle Nation) and Majjhima-Patipada (the Middle Way)

Yusuf, Imtiyaz, Islamic Studies


Monotheistic religions . Judaism, Christianity and Islam . have coexisted with Buddhism in many parts of Asia for centuries. This led in the past to dialogue as well as misunderstanding between the two at the doctrinal and social levels. This paper seeks to initiate dialogue between Islam and Buddhism through the Islamic concept of ummatan wasa.an (Middle Nation) and the Buddhist concept of majjhima-patipada (Middle Way) as a means to build understanding and harmony in Asian societies.

The Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) as religious teachers explained to humanity as to what is the true state of being and how the illusions which drag humanity through darkness and injustice can be overcome. In this age of globalization when physical barriers between various societies in terms of material culture are virtually being eliminated there is an urgent need for dialogue between monotheistic religious traditions and Buddhism. This could take place between Islam and Buddhism or Judaism and Buddhism or Christianity and Buddhism, but it is imperative that this dialogue takes place for it is likely to generate mutual understanding and respect between the followers of these two categories of religion.

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

On truth's path, wise is mad, insane is wise.

In love's way, self and other are the same.

Having drunk the wine, my love, of being one with you,

I find the way to Mecca and Bodhgaya are the same.

Rumi, Kulliyat-e Shams-e Tabrizi # 302


The spread of religions from one part of the world to the other has led, from times immemorial, to coexistence and dialogue between the followers of a large number of different religions. Perhaps the main difference between the past and the present is that while in the past this phenomenon was not called 'dialogue,' it is called so in our time and is consciously pursued. In the past this phenomenon consisted of interaction between religions that gave rise to parallel ideas and institutions in different religious traditions. This at times resulted in various forms of religious syncretism. No doubt the purists objected to this in the past as do their namesakes today.

Since Buddha and Buddhism do not seem to be much concerned with the concept of theos (God), some people tend to believe that Buddhism is merely a philosophy rather than a religion. However, the worldwide practice of Buddhism shows that it certainly is a religion, albeit a religion with a philosophical bent. In fact any judgment on this issue depends on how we define religion. As for us, we adopt the following definition of religion and consistently adhere to it throughout this paper: "Religion is the varied, symbolic expression of, and appropriate response to that which people deliberately affirm as being of unrestricted value for them."1 According to this definition, Islam, Buddhism and all major world religions legitimately fall into the category of religion.

Islam and Buddhism have engaged in a religious interchange in the course of their encounters in Central, South and Southeast Asia. Their early encounters were followed, in some instances, by conversion of Buddhists to Islam as happened in Central and maritime Southeast Asia. Yet there were also other regions where Buddhism and Islam continued to exist side by side for long as happened in India and also mainland Southeast Asia.

The point being made here is that there is a long record of Muslim- Buddhist dialogue, though this is at the present either non-existent or rare. This, in our view, is largely due to the strong trend of reified interpretations of religion in the contemporary world. This in turn is the outcome of ignoring or overlooking the interchanges that took place between these religions in the past, be they between region-based religions such as between Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism in South Asia or between Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the Middle East, or between Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam in the Age of the Silk Road (4 BCE-1400 CE) and the Age of Commerce (1450-1680 CE) in different regions of the world.

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