Muslims don’t study Buddhism enough: An interview with Prof. Imtiyaz Yusuf (Part 1)

The two largest followers of religion in Southeast Asia are Muslims and Buddhists. From around 618 million of its total population, 42 per cent are Muslim and 40 per cent are Buddhist. Twenty-five percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims and 38 per cent of the world’s 350 million Buddhists live in Southeast Asia. Yet Muslim-Buddhist interreligious dialogue between the two is rare today. Discussing this issue, CRCS staff member Azis Anwar interviewed Professor Imtiyaz Yusuf, director of the Center for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding at Mahidol University in Thailand. Earning his PhD at Temple University where he studied with Ismail Raji al-Faruqi, Professor Yusuf has written numerous encyclopedia entries and journal articles and been a regular columnist for Thai newspapers. Some of his works can be accessed on his account. During intersession at CRCS  from May 15 until July 31, Prof. Yusuf is teaching the course Muslim-Buddhist Relations.

This is PART 1. Click here to read PART 2 of the interview.

When and how was the first encounter between Muslims and Buddhists?

Before I answer that question I would say, Indonesia is the land of the Buddha. Yogyakarta and the Borobudur, which was built in the 9th century during the reign of the Sailendra Dynasty, represent the Mahayana tradition. The two Buddhist traditions that came to Java are Mahayana and Vajrayana. Theravada didn’t come to Indonesia. Theravada went from India to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia. The Mahayana tradition came to Indonesia directly from Nalanda in India. The Sailendra kings always paid tribute to the famous Buddhist university of Nalanda in India. And, just look at the language you use everyday. Now you’re doing puasa (fasting), right? Puasa is from upavasa, which is a Sanskrit word. You use many words which are from Sanskrit. Indonesia has a strong Hindu-Buddhist culture. But unfortunately, people forget or neglect it.

Now, you asked me the question when the first encounter took place. It took place in the seventh century when Muslims came to the area called Sindh, which is now Pakistan. They came across the Buddhist temples and monks. Muhammad ibn Qasim (a general from the Umayyad dinasty) was the first to come there. He wrote to al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf (an Umayyad governor): What should I do to the people who are non-Muslim? The first thing Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf said was: Treat them as Ahl al-Kitab (the People of the Book, a category commonly applied to Jews and Christians—ed). Second instruction was: don’t attack their monks. Third, don’t destroy their temples. Fourth, take jizyah from them (jizyah is a per capita tax on free adult non-Muslim males under Muslim rule in compensation for protection and exemption from military service—ed). This is how Muslims treated Buddhists, long before the West came to know the Buddha.

Three important Muslim scholars of history and comparative religion spoke very highly about the Buddha. Al-Tabari (838-923 C.E.) reported that Buddhist statues were sold at a Buddhist temple next to the Makh mosque in the market of the city of Bukhara in now modern Uzbekistan. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Karim Al-Shahrastani (1086-1153 C.E.) in a section called Ara’ al-Hind (The Views of the Indians) in his classic Kitab al-Milal wa al-Nihal (Book of Religious and Philosophical Sects), identifies the Buddha with the Qur’anic figure al-Khidr as a seeker of enlightenment. Rashid al-Din Hamadani (1247-1318 C.E.) of the Persian Ilkhanid court, wrote an introduction to Buddhism in his monumental Jami’ al-Tawarikh (Compendium of Chronicles) aiming to make Buddhism accessible to Muslims.

The 12th-15th centuries’ encounters between Islam and Hindu-Buddhist civilization in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand were of a mystic orientation. The pondoks or pesantrens (Muslim religious schools of Southeast Asia), seem also to have been influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist temple schools of the region.

Some mufassirs (Quranic exegetes) say the Buddha is mentioned in the Quran.


(Dhul-Kifli is mentioned in the Quran and commonly interpreted as referring to the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel. But some say it may refer to the Buddha, as it could mean “of Kafil”, which may mean ‘of Kapilavastu’, the ancient city where Siddartha Gautama was born and raised.—ed)

Dhul-Kifli and Wat-tini (the 95th surah/chapter of the Quran)! Wat-tini waz-zaytun; wa turi sinin; wa hadhal-baladi ‘l-amin (By the fig and the olive; and by Mount Sinai; and by this secure city [Mecca]). This surah is more important than Dhul-Kifli. There are four symbols in this surah. Az-zaytun is ‘Isa (Jesus). Sinin is Musa (Moses). Al-balad al-amin is the Prophet Muhammad. What about the “tin”? There is no tin in Arabia. The Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree, which is a tin, a type of fig, the botanical name of which is ficus religiosa.

If you go to some scholars, like Muhammad Hamidullah (1908-2002, an Indian-born scholar of Islamic law and author of more than 250 books); they said the Buddha was mentioned symbolically in the Quran. Allah says in the Quran, “Laqad arsalna rusulan min qablika”. “We have sent messengers before you, some I mention, some I don’t mention” (lam naqsus ‘alayk, referring to QS 40:78). And Allah says they (messengers) came in the lisan of their qawm; they came to their people speaking their language.

Lay Muslims today, seeing Buddhists do rituals in front of a statue, perceive Buddhists as worshipping the statue, which can be seen as a shirk or idolatrous practice. Your comment on this perception?

The whole idea of tawhid and shirk is an Islamic concept. In Buddhism, there is no shirk. You go and ask Buddhists, and I’ve asked them million times: What do you do when you’re paying respect to the statue? They say: we pay respect to the teachings of the Buddha; we don’t pay respect to the statue. The Buddha himself said, “I’m not god,” just like Nabi Muhammad. They don’t worship the statue or the stone. The idea of shirk is from the monotheistic concept of religion. So, they are not idol worshippers. The Buddha rejects the Hindu gods.

Buddhists have no god, right?

Buddhists are not atheistic. The Buddha only said God is not important; the human being is important. He was in India where there is a caste system. He had no problem with the concept of God. The most important issue is help human beings who are suffering under the exploitation of the Brahmin system. The issue is how you are going to save humanity. The Buddha himself, again, said he is not god. He was a teacher, a guru.

In one of your papers on Islam and Buddhism, you talked about the concept of the Ultimate Reality in Buddhism, and you treat it as something like parallel to the concept of God in monotheistic religions.

The Buddha says there is the Eternal, the Unborn. Without the Unborn, nothing can exist. That is called the Dharma, which means the Eternal Law, the Ultimate Reality. The Dharma and God are the same. Allah is also eternal. Dharma is not a person. Allah is not a person. The problem with the Muslims is that they think Allah as a person, because they are reacting to the Christians who have personified God.

Allah has sifat (attributes) that are part of His dhat (essence). And His sifat are bila kayfa: they have no identical quality of that of human beings. Now if you come to Buddhism, it also says there is the Dharma, the Eternal Teaching that is learned by the resis, the teachers. The Dharma is God for them, just Allah is for Muslims.

Our problem is that we have abandoned studying Buddhism. In the past, in Java, Muslims and Buddhist could talk together because of tawhid and sunyata (nothingness). In tawhid, Allah has no form. Sunyata also has no form. This is why Javanese could become Muslim, not because of jihad or anything; it is because of the compatibility between tawhid and sunyata. The Quran also talks about ummatan wasatan (the middle nation); our sharia is wasatiyya (being moderate). Buddhism also has majjhima-pattipada (the middle way).

Come down further, the Buddhism that came to Indonesia was that of the Mahayana tradition. In Mahayana, the concept of bodhisattva is very important. Bodhisattva is the one who is going to be enlightened, but he holds his enlightenment to help the people. In Islam we have the same concept: al-insan al-kamil. Another similarity is the concept of Nur Muhammad and the concept of Tathagata, the enlightened Buddha.

So there are many similarities. The problem is that Muslims don’t study Buddhism. Muslims have a long history of relationship with Christianity and there is not much peace among them, while here in Southeast Asia, in ASEAN countries, Muslims and Buddhists make the majority population, around 40-40 percent, but we don’t know each other. In 900 years of Islam and Buddhism coexistence, from the 12th century to the 21st century, there is, I’m sorry to say, not one Muslim scholar of Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

Continuing your explanation, why have Southeast Asian Muslims abandoned studying Buddhism?

Since colonial times, Muslims have gotten into the problem of power struggle. Muslims who ruled, including here in Southeast Asia, suddenly lost power to the Dutch, to the British, to the French, etc. That tradition of learning the other could not develop because the space was lost, occupied by outsiders who disrupted Muslims’ culture and educational institutions. Muslims then abandon studying Asian religion of Buddhism, of Shivaism, of Confucianism, of Taoism, because we don’t have time; we have lost power. The Buddhists also lost their power. The last dhammaraja in Myanmar, which was an important Buddhist kingdom, was exiled by the British to India. Other dhammarajas of Buddhist kingdoms were also either removed or exiled. The only dhammaraja who remained was in Thailand; it was not colonized and still has a tradition of a Buddhist king. Thailand is the largest Buddhist country in Southeast Asia.

On the other hand, those colonizers made religion into ethnic identities. Religion gets ethnicized. If you’re a Malay, you’re a Muslim. If you’re a Siamese, you’re a Buddhist. If you’re a Burman, you’re a Buddhist.

So, our problem is that on one hand there is abandonment of interreligious studies, and on the other there is an ethnification of religion.

Click to continue reading PART 2 of the interview

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