Jainism and Islam: More Similar Than You Might Think

Perhaps no two faith traditions are viewed as more divergent than Islam and Jainism. Indeed, the former is often associated with violence and extremism, while the latter is usually known for its inspiration for peaceful civil rights movements through its concept of ahimsa (nonviolence). As a Muslim of Indian background, I have wondered how to counter misinformation about my religion while striving to build greater interfaith connections among traditions common in South Asia. Fortunately, attending the Young Jains of America Convention (YJA) from July 3-6, 2014 has shown me that Islam and Jainism share some surprising similarities, and that the shared experiences of both groups in the United States can be translated into common action for the common good.

One commonality stems from the concept of nonviolence. The Jain saint Mahavira taught that all life is sacred, and that beings should always avoid harming one another. This idea is known as ahimsa. However, I learned at YJA that nonviolence does not equate to passivity or a LACK of action; rather, much like the movements of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, ahimsa involves an active pursuit for justice for all beings. In this way, ahimsa shares some similarities with Islam.

In Islam, the word jihad (meaning "struggle" in Arabic) is frequently misunderstood, and often refers to an inner moral struggle within a person, much like a decision of conscience. Even when the term is applied in the military context, violence in Islam is intended as a last resort, and must only be used in self-defense or in the pursuit of justice. Islam wholly respects the sanctity of life: the Quran (in referencing the Talmud) states that, "[Allah] decreed...that whosoever killeth a human being...it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind." (Quran 5:32, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a). The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) discouraged violence as much as possible, and often suffered physical harm rather than retaliating against his oppressors. These messages seem to be conveniently forgotten by terrorists who pervert the message of Islam to achieve their own agendas.

However, the example of Ghaffar "Badshah" Khan, a Pashtun Muslim and close friend of Gandhi, illustrates similarities between Jainism and Islam. Khan was inspired by Gandhi's ahimsa principles to found a nonviolent resistance organization for Muslims that attracted over 100,000 members. In a famous speech, he told his followers, "I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet [Muhammad], but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness." This group, called the "Servants of God," was integral to Gandhi's early efforts to present a united, interfaith, nonviolent front against British rule of the Indian subcontinent.

At YJA, I also learned that ahimsa extends to non-humans, and that by avoiding the consumption of animal products, Jains seek to limit their harm to nature. Upon reflection, I realized that although nearly all Muslims eat some meat, we respect animals as Allah's creations that must be treated with dignity. In fact, one purpose of slaughtering meat in the dhabiha manner is to minimize the animal's suffering as much as possible. Some stories from the Islamic tradition also highlight our religion's respect for nature. The Quran narrates that when the prophet Solomon (PBUH) was marching his army through a valley he thanked God for the ability to appreciate nature and ordered his soldiers to avoid harming any of the ants (Quran 27:18-19). Also, Muslims are told that a spider once saved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)'s life. When the Prophet once hid in a cave to escape his persecutors, a spider spun a web over the cave's entrance. Upon reaching the cave, the oppressors decided not to search it because they concluded that there was no way that the Prophet could have gotten inside without breaking the web.

My final major observation from YJA was that both Jain and Muslim youth consider ourselves to be proud Americans. An anecdote from a game of "Taboo" illustrates this idea: one player was trying to describe the word "cow" and said, "This animal is sacred in our country." Without hesitation, everyone guessed, "The bald eagle?" After laughing for several minutes, we all realized that we considered the United States as "our country." We might all have Indian heritage, but all of us love fireworks on the Fourth of July, supporting the U.S. soccer team, and belting out "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Experiences like YJA remind me again and again of the potential for interfaith cooperation to bring diverse groups of people together. For instance, I was deeply moved when one YJA staff member asked whether I would need special accommodations during the conference, since he knew I was observing Ramadan. To me, interfaith understanding is a central part of American history and a key reflection of the common saying E Pluribus Unum. As I have previously written, South Asians are a relatively small community in the U.S., and we can accomplish much more by working together across lines of religious difference. Our shared immigrant experiences, our religions' emphases on social justice, and our cultural heritage can provide the common ground needed to act jointly on common issues such as combating racial stereotypes and eliminating poverty. I am grateful to YJA for the opportunity to attend this past convention, and I resolve to continue advocating for greater Jain-Muslim interfaith work. After all, dialogue is just the beginning; we need interfaith action to truly make a positive difference.