Buddhist-Muslim Doctrinal Relations


Buddhists and Muslims have interacted with one another culturally, politically, economically, and sometimes militarily for the last thirteen and a half centuries. Depending on the place, the time, and the individual persons and governments involved, the interaction in all these spheres has spanned the spectrum from friendly to hostile. Much attention has been paid to the history of these areas of interaction, but less has been directed toward an analysis of doctrinal relations. In this paper, after a survey of this facet of past and present relations, I should like to examine the prospects and grounds for future dialogue. The discussion will focus primarily on the Buddhist viewpoint toward doctrinal engagement, particularly within the Indo-Tibetan-Mongolian cultural spheres.

Historical Survey of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates

The earliest contact between Buddhist and Muslim populations was in present-day Afghanistan, eastern Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan when the region came under the rule of the Arab Umayyad Caliphate in the mid-7th century CE. The Umayyad Iranian author, ‘Umar ibn al-Azraq al-Kermani, took interest in explaining Buddhism to his Islamic audience. Consequently, at the beginning of the 8th century CE, he wrote a detailed account of the Nava Vihara Monastery in Balkh, Afghanistan, and the basic Buddhist customs there, explaining them in terms of analogous features in Islam. Thus, 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.

Al-Kermani’s writings were preserved in the 10th-century CE work, Book of Lands (Ar. Kitab al-Buldan) by Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadhani. Buddhist scholars, however, do not seem to have shown reciprocal interest in explaining the Muslim customs and beliefs to the Buddhist audience. There is no recorded evidence of any such description at this time.

From 715 until approximately 727 CE, Tibet had a military alliance with the Umayyads. During that period, Caliph ‘Umar II decreed that all Umayyad allies should follow Islam. As an expedient means not to jeopardize the alliance, the Tibetan Empress Jincheng requested an Islamic cleric be delegated to Tibet. The Caliph sent al-Salit bin-Abdullah al-Hanafi. The Tibetan Buddhists, however, do not seem to have taken any sincere interest in Islam. There are no records of any interfaith dialogue or Tibetan Buddhist conversions to Islam having taken place as a result of this visit. The cool reception was most likely due to the influence of the xenophobic opposition faction at the Tibetan imperial court.

The next Buddhist-Muslim doctrinal interaction took place during the last half of the 8th century CE, during the ‘Abbasid Caliphate. Caliph al-Mahdi, followed by Caliph al-Rashid, invited Buddhist scholars from India and the Nava Vihara monastery in Balkh to the House of Knowledge (Ar. Bayt al-Hikmat) in Baghdad. There, he commissioned them to help translate primarily medical and astronomical texts from Sanskrit into Arabic. Ibn al-Nadim’s late 10th-century CE Book of Catalogues (Ar. Kitab al-Fihrist), however, also listed several Buddhist works that were rendered into Arabic at that time, such as an account of Buddha’s previous lives, The Book of the Buddha (Ar. Kitab al-Budd). The text was based on two Sanskrit works: A Rosary of Previous Life Accounts (Skt. Jatakamala) and Ashvaghosha’s Deeds of the Buddha (Skt. Buddhacarita).

Despite this interest in Buddhism demonstrated by Muslim scholars, there is no corresponding account of Islamic beliefs or translation of Islamic texts by any Buddhist scholars of that time. Nor is there any evidence of philosophical debate with Muslim scholars in any of the Buddhist monastic universities, even when Buddhist and Muslim communities lived in the same areas. Debates occurred only with proponents of the various non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems and they occurred primarily in central North India before the advent of Islam to that region. No mention of Islamic beliefs appears in any of the Sanskrit Buddhist philosophical treatises, either then or afterwards.

The Kalachakra Literature

The singular Buddhist textual tradition that mentions any Islamic customs or beliefs is the Kalachakra Tantra literature, which emerged in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries CE. The historical reference, however, is not to all Muslims in general, but specifically to the adherents of late 10th-century CE eastern Isma’ili Shi’a, as followed in the Fatimid vassal state of Multan in present-day north central Pakistan.

At that time, the Isma’ili Fatimids in Egypt and their Multanese allies were vying with the Sunni ‘Abbasids for control over the Muslim world. Thus, they posed a threat of a two-pronged invasion of the ‘Abbasid Empire sandwiched between them. Buddhists and Hindus living together in the ‘Abbasid vassal state of the Ghaznavids, in present-day eastern Afghanistan, were caught in these frightening times. The portions of the Kalachakra Tantra that dealt with the external world most likely arose in response to this situation. They advised the Hindus to reaffirm their own spiritual values and join together in one caste with the Buddhists and the rest of the population, so as not to be absorbed by the invaders’ religion because of naivety and disunity.

The Kalachakra description of the invader’s religion indicates only a partial understanding of the Islamic sects of the time. It included the pan-Islamic customs of praying five times a day after washing and prostrating in the direction of the holy land, taking singular refuge in one God in heaven, pursuing the spiritual goal of enjoying heavenly happiness, destroying any statues of gods whatsoever, following the halal method of slaughter of animals, eating only after sunset during the Ramadan fast, keeping general cleanliness, honoring the equality of all men in “one caste” without asserting the brahmans as a purer caste, circumcision, women wearing veils, keeping strict ethics in general, and, specifically, not stealing, not lying, and keeping marital fidelity. The pan-Islamic beliefs described include the assertions of a Creator God called “Rahman,” the atomic nature of matter, individual eternal souls that bear responsibility for their actions, and a Day of Judgment when, because of pleasing him, Rahman sends souls for rebirth to a heavenly realm and, because of displeasing him, to rebirth in a hell realm.

Certain specific details, such as the list of Islamic prophets and the assertion of a soul that only an aspect of which takes temporary birth in worldly existence, base themselves primarily on eastern Isma’ili Shi’a, as formulated by Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani. Some details, such as rebirth in heaven or hell with a human body, base themselves on other Islamic theologians of that period. Other details are merely attempts to explain Islamic beliefs in terms understandable to Buddhists and Hindus, such as describing Muhammad as an incarnation of Rahman, much like Krishna being an incarnation (Skt. avatara) of Vishnu.

The Kalachakra literature also highlights points shared in common between Buddhism and Islam – namely, the atomic nature of matter and souls that bear responsibility for their actions. Without specifically refuting the Muslim interpretations of these points, it indicates how to lead Muslims to an understanding of the Buddhist assertions. The main issue that the Buddhist texts dispute is that heavenly rebirth is the ultimate spiritual goal and the final attainment that any person can reach, since this contradicts the central Buddhist assertion of final liberation from karma and rebirth. The Buddhist texts also find fault with the halal method of slaughter, which it describes as slitting the throats of animals while reciting God’s mantra, Bismillah. The grounds for the critique, however, are a misunderstanding of the Islamic custom, which they mistake for a blood sacrifice to a god.

Continued Muslim Interest in Buddhism

There is no evidence that, during the next centuries, Muslim scholars became aware of or addressed the problematic areas mentioned in the Kalachakra literature. Interest in Buddhism, however, persisted among them, as seen in several historical works; while, aside from Kalachakra exegetical commentaries, further Buddhist interest in Islam was nil.

For example, during the Ghaznavid Dynasty, the Persian historian, al-Biruni, accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni on his early 11th 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 mean, of course, that he was suggesting that Muslims accept Buddha as a prophet of Allah, but it does indicate that he understood that Buddhists do not assert Shakyamuni as their God. Serving under the Seljuk Dynasty, al-Shahrastani repeated al-Biruni’s account of Buddhism in his 12th-century CE work, The Book of Religions and Creeds (Ar. Kitab al-Milal wa al-Nihal).

The Mongols

In the late 13th century CE, Khubilai Khan, grandson of Chinggis Khan and Emperor of Yuan China, adopted the Sakya form of Tibetan Buddhism. He employed Central Asian Muslims as tax collectors in order to form a buffer between his Chinese subjects and their Mongol rulers. At the start of his rule, Khubilai Khan permitted the Muslims to retain all their customs. However, in response to his cousin and enemy, Khaidu’s support of Muslims, Khubilai instituted anti-Muslim regulations. In 1280 CE, he forbade circumcision and the halal method of slaughter. The latter injunction was in accord with the jasagh code of laws of Chinggis Khan, which forbade desecrating the earth with the blood of slaughtered animals. It had nothing to do with Buddhist beliefs, only with pre-Buddhist Mongol customs. Thus, although Khubilai Khan embraced Buddhism, his interaction with his Muslim subjects had nothing to do with a Buddhist-Muslim doctrinal dialogue.

Buddhism was even spread by the Mongols to what had already become traditional Muslim regions; but still the Buddhists showed no interest in the beliefs of the native population. Specifically, during much of the Ilkhanate period, when the Mongols ruled Iran in the last half of the 13th century CE, the Mongol Khans practiced and spread the Tibetan form of Buddhism there. Sa’d al-Daula, the minister of Arghun Khan, suggested that certain aspects of Islam be incorporated into the Khan’s imperial policies. He advised that Chinggis Khan and his hereditary line be declared prophets, much like the Shi’a line of imams, and that Arghun Khan follow Muhammad’s example and found a universal Buddhist religious nation and convert the Kaaba into a Buddhist temple. Although the Khan declared Buddhism the state religion and invited many monks from Kashmir and Tibet to his realm, he did not adopt his minister’s other recommendations.

The next Ilkhanate ruler, Ghazan Khan, soon converted to Islam after ascending the throne. When he commissioned his minister, Rashid al-Din, to write Universal History (Ar. Jami’ al-Tawarikh), he instructed him to include descriptions of the belief systems of the various peoples whom the Mongols had encountered, including Buddhism. Thus, he invited to his court Bakshi Kamalashri, a Buddhist monk from Kashmir, to assist Rashid al-Din with his work. The result of their collaboration was The Life and Teachings of Buddha, which appeared, in both Arabic and Persian versions, as section three of A History of India, the second volume of Universal History.

Like the previous works by al-Kermani and al-Biruni, Rashid al-Din explained Buddhism in Muslim terms. Thus, he listed Buddha as one of the six religious founders accepted as prophets by the Indians: three theistic – Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma – and three non-theistic – Arhanta for Jainism, Nastika for the Charvaka system, and Shakyamuni for Buddhism. He also referred to the deva gods as angels, and Mara as ‘Iblis, the Devil. The text also mentions the six rebirth realms, the laws of karmic cause and effect, and that the words of the Buddha were preserved in the Kangyur, the collection of their Tibetan translations.

Rashid al-Din also reported that in his day, eleven Buddhist texts in Arabic translation were circulating in Iran. These included Mahayana texts such as The Sutra on the Array of the Pure Land of Bliss (Skt. Sukhavativyuha Sutra) concerning Amitabha’s Pure Land, The Sutra on the Array Like a Woven Basket (Skt. Karandavyuha Sutra) concerning Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion, and An Exposition on Maitreya (Skt. Maitreyavyakarana) concerning Maitreya, the future Buddha and embodiment of love. Some aspects of Rashid al-Din’s description, however, were quite fanciful. For instance, he claimed that before Islam, the people of Mecca and Medina were Buddhists and worshipped idols resembling Buddha in the Kaaba.

A little over a century later, in the early 15th century CE, Hafiz-i Abru, serving in the court of Shahrukh of the Timurid Dynasty in Samarkand, compiled A Collection of Histories (Ar.Majma at-Tawarikh). The section in it concerning Buddha and Buddhism based itself on Rashid al-Din’s work.

Although histories of India written by Muslim scholars include descriptions of the Buddhist beliefs, we do not find comparable accounts of the Islamic beliefs in histories of India written by Tibetan or Mongolian Buddhist authors after the spread of Islam in India. For example, in A History of Buddhism in India (Tib. rGya-gar chos-‘byung) by the early 17th-century CE Tibetan scholar Taranatha, the author described the early 13th-century CE destruction of the Buddhist monasteries of central North India by the Muslim armies of the Guzz Turks during the Ghurid Dynasty. Nevertheless, he remained completely silent about Islam itself. Further, when, due to a famine in their homeland, Kashmiri Muslims settled in Tibet in the middle of the 17th century CE and were peacefully integrated, with special privileges, into Tibetan Buddhist society by the Fifth Dalai Lama, there was still no doctrinal dialogue between the two religions.

Moreover, when discussing non-Buddhist beliefs, Indian, Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist texts of the tenet system genre (Skt. siddhanta, Tib. grub-mtha’) have focused primarily, if not exclusively, on native Indian systems. Even when these texts go beyond the Indian cultural area and present non-Buddhist Chinese and indigenous Tibetan beliefs, such as Crystal Mirror of Excellent Explanation Showing the Sources and Assertions of All Tenet Systems (Tib. Grub-mtha’ thams-cad-kyi khungs-dang ‘dod-tshul ston-pa legs-bshad shel-gyi me-long) by the late 18th-century CE scholar Tuken Lozang-chokyi-nyima (Tib. Tu’u-bkvan blo-bzang chos-kyi nyi-ma), they do not discuss Islam.

Only one exception to this trend of Buddhist non-interest in Islam stands out: the mid 19th-century CE Mongolian novelist Injannashi. In his anti-Chinese and anti-Manchu fictional work on Mongolian history, The Blue Chronicle (Mong.Köke sudar), he points out that Islam and Buddhism share a common intent: “goodness.” As an example, he cites the fact that both Muslim and Buddhist butchers slaughter animals with a prayer for them to be reborn in heaven.

Suggested Explanation for the Traditional Buddhist Lack of Interest in Islamic Doctrines

In general, then, both Buddhist and Muslim scholars took interest in other religious systems when their own religion was spreading into areas with already established native religions. The converse, however, was not the case. They showed little interest in other religions that were spreading or trying to spread into regions in which their own religion was the principal belief system.

Sometimes, Buddhism borrowed certain ideas from the native religions in the areas to which it was spreading, or emphasized points in Indian Buddhism that resonated with facets of those religions. For example, the bodhisattva ideal, pure lands, and Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, have parallels in Zoroastrianism, as found in the Iranian cultural areas. The Buddhist texts, however, did not hesitate to point out ethically objectionable customs of these areas as well. The Great Commentary (Skt. Mahavibhasa), for instance, compiled in Kashmir in the 2nd century CE, described incest and the killing of ants as being sanctioned by the Yonaka teachings. The Yonakas refer, literally, to the Greek settlers of the Bactrian region of the Kushan Empire, but more particularly to the Indo-Scythians living there, who were followers of Zoroastrianism and Mithraism. The 6th-century CE Indian Buddhist master, Bhavaviveka, repeated the description of these objectionable Yonaka teachings in his Blaze of Reasoning (Skt. Tarkajvala), the earliest example of the tenet system literature.

In the case of Buddhism spreading to China, the first method used for textual translation was called “reaching the meaning” (Chin. geyi, Wade-Giles: ko-i). This entailed using Daoist and Neo-Daoist technical terms as analogous concepts for translating Buddhist terminology. Some early Chinese Buddhist masters, such as Zhidun in the early 4th century CE and Sengzhao in the early 5th century CE, even explained voidness (emptiness) in terms of “being” and “non-being.” Confucian values and ways of thinking also influenced the choice of translation terms, such as substituting “humans” for “sentient beings” and explaining filial piety as a Buddhist virtue. All of this implies, if not a dialogue, at least Buddhist knowledge of these native Chinese systems.

In many other cases, Buddhist interest in non-Buddhist systems was prompted by competition to gain royal patronage. Sometimes, both sides of the debates were already established in the land. This was the case when the Buddhist scholars in the monasteries of central North India debated with scholars from the various non-Buddhist Indian religions and philosophical systems between the early fourth and late twelfth centuries CE.

At other times, both sides were vying for royal favor so as to be adopted as the state religion to unify an empire. Although the debate at Samyay (Tib. bSam-yas) Monastery, Tibet, between Indian Madhyamaka and Chinese Chan masters, held in the last years of the 8th century CE, was between two forms of Buddhism, it falls in this general category. More pertinent cases, however, were the debates between the Buddhists and Chinese Daoists held by Chinggis Khan’s grandsons to decide the state religion for the new Mongol Khanates. The first debate was held at Mongke Khan’s court in 1255 CE and the second at his brother, Khubilai (Kublai) Khan’s court three years later. The point of contention, however, was the Daoist claim that Buddha had been a disciple of Laozi. The debates had little to do with philosophical doctrinal beliefs.

William of Rubruck, a 13th century CE Flemish Franciscan missionary, visited the court of Mongke Khan. In his travel account, he described a debate about the existence of only one God that took place at court in 1254 CE, primarily between himself and a representative of the “Tuin” or “idolater” religion. Also present at the debate were representatives of Nestorian Christianity and the “Saracen” religion, namely Islam.

Although some scholars have characterized the debate as one that pitted Christianity and Islam against Buddhism, this conclusion is questionable, based on William of Rubruck’s own account. First of all, the name Tuin derives from the Chinese dao-ren, meaning people of the Dao. Apparently, the Franciscan monk relied on Chinese translators at the Mongol court. Further, he described the Tuin as accepting the Manichaean assertion of the universe being divided into good and evil. They believe in a supreme god in the sky, he went on, but one that is not omnipotent, is purely spirit, and has never taken human form. Ten other gods live beneath him, another one under these ten, and then an infinite number of gods on earth. Although the Tuins accept rebirth, he explained that they assert the existence of a soul. They have celibate monks in their places of worship, who recite mantras, but the idols in these temples are statues of the deceased and not of their supreme god.

Thus, it is highly unlikely that the Tuins were strictly Buddhists. It would appear that William of Rubruck, in trying to explain their beliefs in Christian terms, conflated the Buddhists, Daoists, and Manichaeans at Mongke Khan’s court – all the so-called “idolaters.” Further, according to the Franciscan monk’s account, the Muslims and Nestorians did not actually contribute anything to the debate, but merely agreed with his own assertions. Thus, we can hardly consider this debate as a Buddhist-Muslim dialogue.

In summary, then, Buddhism took interest in the doctrines of other religions (1) when it was spreading into non-Buddhist regions in which another religion was dominant; (2) when, together with other foreign belief systems, it was being considered for adoption as a state religion, or (3) it was vying with other religions for royal patronage. Except for during a very brief period in Iran under the Ilkhans, Islam did not fit into any of these situations as the “other religion.” But even then, when the Mongols brought Buddhism to Islamic Iran, the Buddhists showed no interest in the Muslim doctrines. The only time that Buddhism addressed the Islamic beliefs, then, was when there was a threat of invasion by Islamic militant forces.

The Present Situation between Buddhist and Muslim Populations in Asia

These historical precedents seem to characterize Buddhism’s current situation in the world vis-a-vis other belief systems. Starting in the second half of the 20th century CE, Buddhism has been spreading in many areas of the world in which other religions have been the traditional faith. This has led to a growing trend toward interfaith dialogue between Buddhists leaders and leaders of the Christian and Jewish faiths. Buddhism has not, however, been spreading to traditional Muslim areas. Buddhist interest in dialogue with Muslims has been prompted, instead, primarily by threats of upheaval, especially since the beginning of the 21st century CE. Part of the threat stems from the violent circumstances of terrorist attacks by militant Islamic extremists and the strong military responses to them. Part of it stems from traditional economic rivalries between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Asia, exacerbated by the perceived threat of economic globalization. In some cases, the situation has been complicated by the policies of past and present colonial powers. Frequently, several of these factors are compounding each other.

In such dangerous situations, education and dialogue are indispensable, since many people mistakenly confuse extremists with the Muslim population as a whole, and their policies and tactics with the teachings of Islam. Moreover, some tend to blame the violence solely on religious doctrine, and deny or ignore the political, cultural, social, historical, and economic factors involved. Such shortsightedness worsens the conflict.

For example, in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan in 2001 CE was directed, perhaps, more as a protest against international sanctions and withholding of humanitarian aid, rather than as an attack against Buddhism and Buddhists per se. No Buddhists, after all, lived in Afghanistan, worshipping the statues.

Bangladesh, on the other hand, has a one percent Buddhist minority, living primarily in Chittagong Division and the Chittagong Hill Tracts. As an outcome of growing Bangladeshi Islamic fundamentalism since the events of September 11, 2001 CE, a certain amount of Muslim violence has broken out in these areas, directed against the Buddhist population. Such violence, however, has not been limited to the Buddhist community or to this area, but has included Christians throughout the country as well. This is a clear example of an increase of violence since the “War on Terror” and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Although a constitutional amendment had been passed in 1988 proclaiming “an Islamic way of life” for Bangladesh, tension between the Muslim and Buddhist communities there had been much less prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Malaysia and Indonesia are examples of countries in which economic factors have compounded the communal tensions. Both countries have large native Muslim populations, with relatively wealthier overseas Chinese Buddhist minorities. Only in Indonesia, however, have the relations between the two ethnic communities become tense. This has followed the economic crisis of 1997-1998 CE and the collapse of the Suharto regime.

In Kashmir and Ladakh and in the Tibetan cultural regions of the Peoples’ Republic of China, on the other hand, the Buddhist-Muslim conflicts have not reached the stage of overt violence. Nevertheless, tension is present, primarily because of economic rivalry between the two groups and not because of doctrinal differences. In the case of the Tibetan cultural regions, the situation is exacerbated by the Chinese policy of encouraging, supporting, and facilitating population transfer of non-Tibetans into these areas.

Government policies have also been influencing the situation in Burma/Myanmar. There, the ethnic clashes have been primarily by the Buddhists against the Rohingya Muslims in Northern Rakhine State, Arakan. The violence reflects the general Buddhist resentment of non-Buddhists settled among them, especially ethnic Bengali Muslims. This resentment has developed in response to the British colonial government’s preferential treatment of non-Buddhists during their rule of the country. The present military junta government has been taking advantage of this prejudice by imposing severe restrictions on the Muslims through denying them citizenship and is often accused by the Muslim population of fomenting the Buddhists riots against them.

In southern Thailand, Muslim-Buddhist communal violence has stemmed from the annexation of the Malay Muslim state of Pattani into Thailand as part of the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 CE, and the lack of the subsequent integration of this region into the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Modern Buddhist-Muslim Dialogue

In response to the critical situation in southern Thailand and the challenges in other parts of Southeast Asia, the International Movement for a Just World and the Santi Pracha Dhamma Institute convened a conference, in Penang, Malaysia, in 1996 CE, for Buddhist-Muslim dialogue, called “Alternative Politics for Asia.” It emphasized using the traditional wisdom and spiritual values of both religions to solve the regional problems.

In 2004 CE, the Thai government established a National Reconciliation Committee to try to find solutions to end the communal violence. Consequently, in November 2005 CE, this Committee, in conjunction with the Mahidol University Research Center for Peace Building, sponsored a conference called “Buddhism-Islam Dialogue: Violence and Reconciliation” in Salaya, Thailand.

Together with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, the International Movement for a Just World and the Santi Pracha Dhamma Institute sponsored a follow-up conference, “Buddhists and Muslims in Southeast Asia: Working towards Justice and Peace” in Bangkok, Thailand, in June 2006 CE. This conference resulted in the Dusit Declaration. To foster mutual understanding and intercommunal harmony between the two religious groups and eradicate stereotypy and prejudice, the Declaration recommended increasing efforts in education, publication, dissemination of electronic media information, and efforts by religious and political leaders to nurture harmonious relations.

The Declaration concludes:

The hegemonic power of global capitalism is the new ‘religion’ which threatens to undermine the universal, spiritual and moral values and world views embodied in Buddhism, Islam and other religions. This is why Buddhists, Muslims and others should forge a more profound unity and solidarity which will be able to offer another vision of a just, compassionate and humane universal civilization. It is with this mission in mind that we hereby announce the launch of a permanent Buddhist-Muslim Citizens’ Commission for Southeast Asia.

A call for an alternative ethic to that of global capitalism, however, runs the danger of fueling what Samuel Huntington has termed a “clash of civilizations.” The risk of such a view is that it can actually increase the difficulty of dialogue with other groups. Thus, other interfaith groups interested in a Buddhist-Muslim dialogue have focused on a more universalistic approach.

In response to the destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan, for example, The Global Family for Love and Peace, together with the Museum of World Religion in Taipei, Taiwan, has cosponsored a Muslim-Buddhist Dialogue Series with a more all-encompassing approach. The first three conferences were held in close succession in New York, USA in March 2002 CE, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in May 2002 CE, and Jakarta, Indonesia in July 2002 CE. This was followed by “A Buddhist-Muslim Dialogue Conference on Global Ethics and Good Governance” held at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France, May 2003 CE. A symposium on “Dharma, Allah and Governance: A Buddhist-Muslim Dialogue” then took place in July 2004 CE in Barcelona, Spain, as part of the Parliament of the World Religions. In November 2005 CE, “A Buddhist and Muslim Dialogue Symposium” was then held in Marrakesh, Morocco, followed by a Muslim-Buddhist conference called “Religions on Life and Death” in Beijing, China, in October 2006 CE.

The call for peaceful cooperation among Buddhists, Muslims, and other religions to forge a global pan-religious ethic has resounded elsewhere as well. For example, in 1996 CE, Daisaku Ikeda, the president of Soka Gakkai International, founded the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy in Tokyo, Japan and Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. Focusing on the development of a “global civilization” dedicated to the protection of all human life, safeguarding the environment, and the harmonious development of all human communities, the Institute has sponsored numerous conferences and publications. The latter include Global Civilization: A Buddhist-Islamic Dialogue.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has likewise repeatedly called for all people, both followers of religions and “nonbelievers,” to take “universal responsibility” to create and maintain a peaceful world, based on a “secular ethic” common to all religions and humanitarian systems. This “secular ethic” bases itself on a reaffirmation of basic human values, such as the equal wish of everyone to be happy and not to be unhappy, and the equal right of everyone to enjoy happiness and not to suffer.

In light of this call, His Holiness has participated in numerous interfaith dialogues. Among these, the ones focusing on Buddhist-Muslim relations began with a meeting in Dharamsala, India, in March 1995 CE between himself and Dr. Tirmiziou Diallo, hereditary head of the Sufi order in Guinea, West Africa, concerning compassion in Buddhism and Sufism. More recent meetings include “A Gathering of Hearts Illuminating Compassion,” convened in San Francisco, California, USA, in April 2006 CE and “The Risks of Globalization: Do Religions Offer a Solution or Are they Part of the Problem?” held in Prague, Czech Republic, in October 2006 CE.

Conferences concerning Buddhist-Muslim issues have also been held by academics aimed at fostering better understanding through historical research. My own participation in such cooperative efforts began in May 1994 CE with meetings with Islamic scholars at universities in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and Alamty, Kazakhstan, followed by discussions in Istanbul, Turkey in February 1995 CE. The aim was to gain a more objective analysis of the interaction between Buddhism and Islam in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, devoid of the one-sided presentations that emphasize only the violence and destruction of monasteries. These talks expanded in November 1995 CE with further meetings in Cairo, Egypt, Mafraq, Jordan, and once more in Istanbul. A more extensive round of talks then followed in October 1996 CE with visits to universities in Bishkek, Almaty, Cairo, Mafraq, and Istanbul, Konya, Kayseri and Ankara, Turkey. The insights gained from this sharing of knowledge appear in my eBook The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire.

More recently, the Gerald Weisfeld Lectures on Islam and Interfaith Relations, held in Glasgow, Scotland, in October-November 2006 CE, included presentations of papers on “A Muslim View of Buddhism” and “A Buddhist View of Islam.” Also in this vein, the Warburg Institute convened an academic conference in London, England in November 2006 CE on “Islam and Tibet: Cultural Interactions.” Thus, it is clear that many institutions around the world have recognized the importance of fostering interfaith understanding among the worlds’ religions and humanitarian systems, including Buddhism and Islam.

Prospects for Future Dialogue

Finding or reaffirming a common ethic that can help to stem the surge of intercommunal violence in the world has been one of the main emphases in the current spate of Buddhist-Muslim dialogues. In light of this, in a public lecture entitled “Compassion: The Source of Happiness,” delivered in Madison, Wisconsin, USA in May 2007 CE, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama spoke of an extreme view toward ethics that needs to be avoided. One side of this view is to consider ethics as the exclusive domain of a particular religious faith; the other is to consider that if people lack a specific religious faith or religious faith in general, they lack all ethics. His Holiness pointed out that some Muslims, in particular, seem to hold this view. He then clarified his call for a “secular ethic based on fundamental human values,” by explaining that such an ethic neither excludes nor threatens a faith-based ethic. Rather, it encompasses the shared values of all religious and humanitarian systems. This is because the wish for happiness and for freedom from suffering derives from inborn biological factors, irrespective of the issue of whether or not God created biology.

His Holiness’ clarification was perhaps prompted by the response that many Muslim leaders had to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated by the United Nations in 1948 CE. Later, Sudan, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia criticized it as not taking into account the values of non-Western religions and cultures. Their objections led to the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, adopted by the ministers of forty-eight Islamic countries in 1990 CE at the Organization of the Islamic Conference. This document recognizes only those human rights that accord with Islamic law, Shari’ah.

Thus, if Buddhists and Muslims are to join together in fostering peace, harmony, and social justice in not only their own bilateral interactions, but in the world at large, they need to explore further and build on the common ground of their ethical teachings. The Kalachakra Tantra has already indicated this common ground: both systems accept that individuals bear responsibility for their actions and that followers of both systems keep strict ethics.

It is noteworthy that although earlier Indian Buddhist philosophical texts debate at length the existence of a Creator God as asserted by various Hindu systems of tenets, the Kalachakra literature merely records the Muslim belief in the Creator Rahman, with no further comment. In not addressing the question of the existence of an omnipotent creator, the Buddhist text recognized that there was no point in debating whether the natural ethical order of the universe derives from God or is uncreated. Although in Indonesia, in order to satisfy the requirements of being an officially recognized religion, the Buddhists have explained that Adibuddha in Kalachakra is the creator; in-depth analysis of the issue seems to be as irrelevant today for promoting interfaith cooperation in the face of violence as it was in the times when the Kalachakra literature emerged. The issue is charged with too much emotional energy on both sides and, for most ordinary followers of both religions, the discussion would be too philosophical to have any meaningful relevance to their daily lives and experience.

More relevant for Buddhist-Muslim doctrinal dialogue, perhaps, is the issue of holy wars. In Islam, the Arabic word jihad means a struggle in which one needs to endure hardship for the sake of Allah. Although there are several classification schemes for types of jihad, most Muslims agree that there are two major divisions: the greater jihad and the lesser jihad. The “greater jihad” is an internal struggle in one’s soul against thoughts and impulses counter to the Islamic teachings. The “lesser jihad” is armed struggle against external threats to Islam and in defense against oppression directed at oneself, one’s family, or one’s community.

Islamic scholars and clerics hold many opinions as to which of the two types of jihad is more fundamental, although no one can deny that permission is found in the Qur’an for armed struggle to defend Islam. Nevertheless, a potentially fruitful doctrinal topic for Buddhist-Muslim dialogue and cooperation for furthering regional and global peace could be the greater jihad. In defense of the superiority of the greater jihad, some Muslim scholars quote the hadith:

Some troops came back from an expedition and went to see the Messenger of Allah, blessings and peace upon him, his family and companions. He said: ‘You have come for the best, from the smaller jihad to the greater jihad.’ Someone said, ‘What is the greater jihad?’ He said: ‘The servant’s struggle against his lust.’

The 8th-century CE Indian master, Shantideva, in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior V.12 (Skt. Bodhicharyavatara V) expressed a similar sentiment regarding the superiority of waging an internal war against one’s own disturbing emotions, such as anger:

Cruel beings are (everywhere) just as is space:
It can’t possibly come that I’ll have destroyed them (all).
But if I’ve destroyed this mind of anger alone,
It’s the same as my having destroyed all those foes.

Doctrinally, Buddhism is in a good position to dialogue with Islam regarding the two types of jihad. This is because the Buddhist teachings also include something similar to a lesser jihad. Thus, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has indicated that, if all nonviolent, peaceful methods fail, sometimes it may be necessary to use forceful means to stop violence directed at others. However, in such drastic situations, the motivation needs to be compassion for both the victims and perpetrators of violence, not anger and hatred. Since, in general, violence only breeds more violence, nonviolent methods are always preferable.

It could also be productive to expand the scope of the Buddhist-Muslim dialogue concerning jihad to encompass strategies for dealing with environmental issues as well. For example, although external methods are needed to combat and reverse global warming and environmental degradation, an internal struggle is even more essential to overcome the shortsighted selfishness and greed that fuels the problem.

Islamic Practices and Methods That Could Be Helpful for Buddhists

As interfaith dialogue increases, followers of the world’s various religions are learning of each other’s teachings and practices. Some have even found that certain methods from other religions harmonize with their own tradition and suggest practices that might enhance the implementation of its principles in daily life. In light of this trend, several Muslim practices may perhaps be helpful for Buddhists to examine further.

One of the five pillars of Islam is for every able-bodied Muslim, who can afford to do so, to make a pilgrimage – a hajj – to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. During this pilgrimage, all men are required to dress alike, draping themselves in two sheets of white cloth and wearing sandals. Women have no set dress code, other than the traditional modest garb for women followed in their countries. The men’s apparel represents the equality of all Muslims, both rich and poor, regardless of sect or country of origin, and reminds the pilgrims of simplicity, humility and the purification of their sins by means of the hajj. The pilgrims follow a set schedule of religious practices during the hajj and are required, during this period, to refrain from negative acts, such as intentionally harming others, engaging in sexual activity, arguing, or swearing.

Many followers of the various Buddhist traditions also aspire to make a pilgrimage once in their lives to Bodh Gaya, the holy site in India where Buddha attained enlightenment. There are no set customs, however, for their dress or conduct while there. It might be an interesting idea, then, especially for fostering unity among Buddhists from all traditions and lands, for the Buddhist pilgrims to adopt some of the customs of the hajj and adapt them to the Buddhist beliefs. Although there is no need to establish an annual pilgrimage on a specific date; nevertheless, all lay pilgrims could dress alike, in simple garb, while in Bodh Gaya and follow a suggested round of ritual practices acceptable to all forms of Buddhism.

Another of the five pillars of Islam is almsgiving to the poor from an annual 2.5 % tithe on all income above a certain minimal level. All forms of Buddhism, on the other hand, teach generosity as one of the far-reaching attitudes or perfections. In keeping with that practice, Buddhist laypeople have traditionally offered food and other forms of support to monks, nuns, and their monasteries. However, generosity directed toward the poor and needy within the lay community has been rare. Several recent Buddhist movements have started to address this deficiency, such as the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation founded in Taiwan in 1966 CE by Master Cheng Yan and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists founded in Thailand in 1987 CE by Sulak Sivaraksa. The Muslim custom of an organized tithe suggests that more could be done in this direction.

Buddhism, however, encourages practitioners to develop generosity and the other far-reaching attitudes through their own motivation and initiative. An obligatory tithe for the poor would contravene that training. Nevertheless, specific suggestions of a certain percentage of one’s income being dedicated annually to the poor in general and the establishment of further volunteer institutions for distributing this aid would be very helpful.

Lastly, another area in which Buddhists might learn useful methods from Muslims is in the rehabilitation of drug addicts. In Zanzibar, for example, rehabilitation programs include filling the time of recovering addicts with organized religious practice, such as prayer five times a day. This helps them to deal with the physical and emotional difficulties of withdrawal and helps them to establish a new, more positive direction in their lives.

Drug addiction and alcohol abuse is growing in many Asian Buddhist societies. Heroin use is prevalent not only in the Golden Triangle of Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos, but has found its way elsewhere. The Tibetan refugee community in India and Nepal, for example, has witnessed ever-increasing substance abuse among its disenchanted youth. In Mongolia, alcoholism has been a major problem for decades and drug addiction is rising. A program similar to the one in Zanzibar might be helpful for recovering addicts. In the context of Indo-Tibetan-Mongolian Buddhism, such a program might include prostration and other preliminary practices repeated a hundred thousand times for purification.


Traditionally, then, Buddhist scholars and practitioners have shown little or no interest in the teachings of Islam. This was not due to cultural smugness, but rather due to the fact that the Buddhists saw no need for doctrinal dialogue. This was because, unlike Buddhist contact with some other religions, Buddhism was neither moving into traditional Islamic regions nor competing with Islam for royal support. The Buddhists did not even see the need for dialogue in response to the destruction of their monasteries on the Indian subcontinent at the hands of Muslim armies or in response to the peaceful spread of Islam to traditional Buddhist lands, such as Central Asia and Indonesia. Buddhists were always free to change religions and, once the monasteries were destroyed, doctrinal debate with the perpetrators of the destruction was deemed pointless. A similar Buddhist response can be seen in the face of more recent persecution and destruction at the hands of communist regimes in Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

The singular historical occasion when Buddhists addressed doctrinal issues with Islam was when faced with the threat of invasion and violence at the hands of an armed extremist Muslim minority group at the end of the 10th century CE. Even in that dire situation, however, the Buddhist texts did not try to refute any of the Islamic beliefs, but sought, instead, to find a common ground between the two religions so as to lead the invading Islamic group to a better understanding of the Buddhist view. Similarly, today, the most productive approach to Buddhist-Muslim dialogue may be to try to identify a common doctrinal ground for tackling the threats of escalating intergroup violence, armed conflict, global warming, environmental degradation, and drug abuse. Through peaceful cooperation and mutual understanding, solutions to these pressing problems may perhaps be found.


In a lecture entitled “Compassion in the Globalized World” delivered in Hamburg, Germany, in July 2007, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama addressed another issue that is extremely important for the success of future Buddhist-Muslim dialogue: how to resolve the doctrinal difference in some religions asserting only one truth and others accepting several truths. His Holiness explained that religion is an individual matter and so, for any individual, what he or she believes is, in fact, the only truth for him or her. But, the reality is that there are several religions in the world and several truths believed in by their individual followers. He then elaborated this point:

My Christian and Muslim friends, the reality is that there are several religions and several truths taught by them. This is reality and reality is stronger than what we might wish. Therefore, in terms of several people and several communities, several religions are appropriate. For those who feel there is only one truth, one religion, then keep that for yourselves. But please respect others’ religions, since they give deep help to our brothers and sisters.
I admire, appreciate, and respect all other religions – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish. Some Christians describe me as a good Christian and I consider some Christians as good Buddhists. I accept all major practices of Christianity: forgiveness, compassion, charity, and so on. But I consider cause and effect as the basis of religion; while they consider God as the basis. I tell them that dependent arising and voidness are our business, not yours; but all the other aspects are held by all of us in common. This is the basis for all harmony.

These final points of emphasizing shared ethical values pertain to harmony between Buddhists and Muslims as well.