When I read news about Gaza and Burma, among other places, I sometimes feel I might lose hope in humanity. Is there any space for peace and trust? Is there any place where tolerance can be a fact of life, a guiding light for people of diverse backgrounds to love and respect each other’s dignity?
I am a Muslim. My religion teaches me that tolerance is something we should make an active effort to achieve. That other religions teach the same thing is something I learned during a trip organized by the Anatolia Culture and Dialogue Center (ACDC) for the alumni of The University of Hong Kong’s Center of Buddhist Studies in the summer of 2012. This was not the first time I had volunteered for an intercultural exchange trip, but my special guests and the timing of Ramadan made this one more significant for me. The highlight of this journey was the presence of people with deep connections to the moral teachings of Buddhism in a country profoundly influenced by Islam.
Islam and Buddhism are two of Asia’s great religions; yet, there seem to be more differences than commonalities between them, less communication rather than more. From the first day of the trip my guests, more used to meditation than prayer, heard the voices of azan calling from the minarets of the mosques five times a day. Some forms of Buddhism prescribe vegetarianism as a means to practice compassion, and yet my guests were surrounded by the pungent smell of the national dish of Turkey–lamb kebab. Buddhist temples contain statues of the Buddha, yet I took my guests to image-less Islamic mosques.
To some, these disparities may seem irreconcilable. However, by exchanging perspectives about the different ways in which Muslims and Buddhists live, I was able to let go of my preconceived notions about Buddhism and about what being a Buddhist actually means.
One day, we were walking along the crowded street that stretches from Galata Bridge to the historical Hagia Sophia mosque square. Slowly, we climbed the hill towards the square, under the hot sun. Trams honking their horns at groups of tourists, music blaring from the souvenir shops, the loud cry of seagulls—we wanted to escape the exhausting hustle and bustle. I hadn’t noticed, but my guests were discreetly on the lookout for water. However, they were too shy to tell me because I was fasting for Ramadan, and they thought that asking to stop to take a sip of water would be impolite. They also thought it would be awkward to take a drink in front of me.
It was not the first day of my fast, and I felt completely fine. I needed to feel thirst in order to overcome it with the blessings of Allah. However, I was very concerned about Istanbul’s scorching sun: my guests must surely be thirsty, and even if I was fasting myself, I didn’t expect them to do so as well. I was more than happy to offer them water, but felt very shy because I was afraid that they would refuse out of respect for my religious constraints.
I finally went ahead, and the moment I passed the bottles around, their faces brightened like those of children whose unspoken wish had just come true. One of the guests, Dr. Lee*, approached me and said, “Your kindness reminds me of my son. Thank you so much for such a thoughtful gesture. You and he are so much alike.”
I have never met Dr. Lee’s son. But with or without water, we all enjoyed that moment because we realized how concerned we were about each other. More importantly, we knew that our concern was motivated by our religious beliefs. In the midst of all the crowds and downtown bustle, our different concerns had led us to a common ground of mutual understanding.
In fact, I hadn’t expected to spend Ramadan with my Buddhist guests. To my surprise one of them, Peter, decided to fast with us from the very first day. At first I thought he was joking. Fasting on Ramadan is not only about diet; one should be a Muslim in order to truly experience its meaning, as it is done for the sake of Allah—or so I thought, until Peter showed me that this is not necessarily the case.
On the first day, I saw that he was suffering: although he had fasted before, it was difficult for him to go without water for such a long period of time. I suggested that he reconsider his decision, but the determination in his voice was very convincing. His body quickly grew accustomed to less food and water, and he actually felt much better and more active as his body was not burdened with the need to burn calories in order to digest food. “I am as light as a bird,” he told me, and the only thing he regretted during the daytime was seeing his friends enjoying Turkish delight, candy, and ice cream!
I wondered how a non-Muslim could be so rigorous in performing an Islamic practice. Perhaps he saw himself as a Buddhist guest under the star and crescent, and that he was just representing his religion. In any case, the boundaries of religious identity no longer mattered. Peter was sure that Islam was vast enough for a Buddhist to learn from.
As Peter continued to fast, he fascinated our host families. They were very interested to know what a Buddhist fasting during Ramadan would be like. I had thought that it was us at ACDC who were initiating a friendship by organizing a trip for Buddhists to an Islamic country, but as it turned out, Peter embodied this friendship by immersing himself in the task of understanding us.
In Anatolia, I saw everybody—mosques, religious centers, schools, and families—opening their doors to my guests. Peter entrusted himself to their care, and they responded with understanding and appreciation. The feelings between us—trust, appreciation, and compassion—were natural and real. Amid linguistic, political, ethnic, and religious differences, there was a sense that we were all in it together. Peaceful coexistence was a true possibility.
I feel that during the trip, we attempted to overcome the negative stereotypes, clichés, and preconceived notions about the supposedly inherent antagonism between religions. Rather than assuming that the religious Other should be either converted or rejected, we constructed a middle way of tolerance for each other’s beliefs. We tried to make sense of other people’s backgrounds through their own eyes, on their terms.
Tolerance does not necessarily mean sameness or agreement. We were not out to change our beliefs or convert each other. We only wanted to humbly present our beliefs to the other’s eyes, and be mutually enriched. Our trip was about the way in which religion can be lived and expressed. Without very much effort, we built a solid ground upon which we could create something constructive from our differences—together.
* For the sake of preserving the anonymity of my guests, all names in this article have been changed.