Dr Sabrina Lei is into the business of building bridges, that is bridges between faiths and cultures and across races and ethnicities. As a Catholic convert to Islam, she is fighting a crusade to remove misconceptions and prejudices about Islam, though she believes that Muslims themselves should be more open in their engagement with modernity. As director of Tawasul Europe Centre for Dialogue and Research in Rome, she thinks that Islam is more than adequately equipped for this task, given that ijtihad (the power of reason) is at the core of this religion. Married to Dr Abdel Latif Chalikandi, a Malayali and accomplished scholar of classical Islam, and deeply interested in India, she thinks that there should be a genuine cultural and religious dialogue between Muslims and Hindus, and that the best way of challenging the growth of militant right-wing ideology is to revive the refined Hinduism of Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Sree Narayana Guru.
Q: You have translated a few books from Malayalam into Italian language and you have a few more in the offing. What draws you to Malayalam literature?
A: During the past decade or so I have been spending a great amount of my time reading, studying and working on Malayalam literature, especially its expression in the form of novels. It was my husband, a highly cultured and learned man -he is originally from Kerala-, who first introduced me to Indian literature in general and Malayalam literature in particular.
I have read and reflected on of some of the important the works of Kamala Surayya, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, O.V.Vijayan, M.T.Vasudevan Nair and some other writers that are available in English translations. I think the works of Bashir, O.V.Vijayan and Thakazhi are some of the finest artistic expression of human imagination and drama.
O.V.Vijayan, in his The Legends of Khasak, pushes human imagination to its farthest horizon and waves through it a beautiful story of the unsettling odyssey of the protagonist Ravi, internalising the myths and various forms of human encounter. Bashir teaches us how to write profound human stories with realistic themes in relatively small volumes in a direct and simple language, however, offering us the direct contact with the depth of human experiences and pain.
Bashir is a story teller par excellence like Anton Chekhov. And of course, Thakazhi’s Chemmeen is one of the finest modern romantic tragedies. In my opinion, all these three writers, if they had written their works originally in English or any other major world languages, they would have been universally known and considered as modern literary giants. From the first Malayalam novel Indulekha of Chandu Menon ( I have translated it into Italian, using its first English translation of Francis Dumergue) Malayalam literature has evolved into its fullness during the past century and half. For Chandu Menon being civilised and imaginative meant the ability to speak English, think like the colonial masters and having their manners, as he tries to create partially through the lives of Madhavan and Indulekhaa, two main characters of the story.
However, imagination, artistic expression and the saga of the lives of Ravi, Majid, Suhra, Parikutty and Karuthamma, the protagonists in this works of Vijayan, Bashir and Thakazhi respectively, manifest through indigenous and local experiences. And yet, they are fully universal, appealing to any serious reader of the world literature.
One of the interesting experiences in my encounter with Malayalam literature, social, cultural and political life of Kerala occurred as I had long discussions and meetings with Mr Sunil Kumar, the minister of agriculture state of Kerala, the noted Malayalam actor Mr Innocent MP, and their team during their visit to Rome over two years ago. I found both Sunil Kumar and Innocent highly cultured individuals, well-informed of the political, literary, social and cultural lives of Kerala. And later when Innocent sent me the book Laughing Cancer Away, his autobiographical story of how he fought off a mortal form of cancer and survived, I found it very interesting, as it captures perfectly the stark human mortality in a language that is exceptionally self-mocking and homours at the same time.
So, when Innocent asked if I was willing to translate the book into Italian, I readily accepted the proposal and completed the translation in few months time after embarking on the work. Mr Innocent’s book has been highly inspiring to many of its Italian readers, especially to some of those who themselves fought and survived the cancer. I have also translated the Kerala reformer Sri Narayana Guru’s short poetic prayer tribute to one God into Italian, as it was suggested by a journalist from Kerala through the reference of Mr Sunil Kumar. And I am deeply interested in translating some of Narayana Guru’s religious and spiritual reflections into Italian. I am also thinking of translating more books from Kerala and some selected Indian and South Asian classics into Italian, should opportunity and time to devote to the translations are available in the future.
Q: One of your major upcoming translation projects is an Italian translation of Bhagvad Gita. What prompts you to study a classical Hindu text?
A: My understanding of the matter is that my Gita translation project is very much rooted in the classical Muslim tradition of learning and enquiry. Those classical Muslim scholars who lived over a thousand years ago also studied the ancient Indian wisdom and religious life. Al-Biruni (973-1050) wrote extensively on India and its culture. And, in his work on India, he even quotes passages from the Gita to stress that Hindus believed in one God. Over a century before Al-Biruni, Al-Masudi (895-957) another Arab-Muslim scholar visited Gujarat and the Malabar coast of India and wrote about the people and culture he encountered there. Ali ibn Hazm (994-1064), the Muslim polymath and a contemporary of Al-Biruni, living in the far off Muslim Andalusia, also wrote about the Brahmanical religious practices of India, though he never traveled out of Andalusia. And there was even a much earlier era Muslim scholar Hisham ibn Al-Kalbi (737 -819) who wrote a treatise on the idols that pre-Islamic Arabs worshipped. And it is actually called The Book of Idols (Kitab Al-Asnam).
My point here is that my ongoing work on the Gita and other Hindu classical texts (I plan to work on translating the Upanishads and other classical Hindu texts after the completion of the Gita translation) are very much rooted in the enlightened and refined classical Muslim tradition of scholarship and devotion to the quest for knowledge. I am a practising Muslim, and moreover a convert who accepted Islam after so many years of study of Islam; however, I consider the Gita as one of finest forms of human reflections on God and various questions related to the spiritual life of human beings.
In the Gita, we can see the stress on the knowledge (Ilm in Arabic), the devotion (Taqwa in Arabic) the good action (Amal Al-Salih in Arabic) as the path to knowing the God. Of course, Islam approaches the path to God through the principle of Tawhid or an uncompromising belief in the oneness of God; however, as a Muslim, I can see the spark of Tawhid in the Gita, as Al-Biruni pointed out it over a thousand years ago.
I have read both Iliad and Odyssey, the two western epics, in the original Greek. And I have also studied the works of Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers and Latin writers in their original versions; however, Mahabharata, in my opinion, is as profound as its Greek and Latin counter parts. And it teaches us how to uphold the principle of justice and truth in a world of unbridled quest for power and prestige. It is also my fascination with Mahabharata that influenced me to work on the translation of the Gita, which, as well-known, subsumes into it all the finer ethical and moral principles of Mahabharata.
My plan is bring out a readable and beautiful translation of the Gita in the contemporary Italian, with an inclusive language. One of the challenges that I am facing here is my lack of knowledge of Sanskrit; however, I hope to overcome it to a certain extent based on my years of training in classical languages such as Greek, Latin, Hebrew and the experience I gained through translating classical western works, the Quran (I have produced two translations of the Quran into Italian, including Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s 1934 English Quran commentary) and other religious, spiritual and philosophical texts into Italian. And my translation will be based on some of the best English translations of the Gita in English done during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I have so far collected almost a dozen such English translations of Gita. And I am also planning to consult a known Latin translation of the Gita for my work. And my plan is to release the translation at some point early next year. The translation will also contain an introductory study on both the Gita and on the Hindu philosophy.
Q: You are working on Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin (A gift to monotheists). He was one of the pioneers in Hindu reformation. Do you think Islam too needs a reformation today?
A: Raja Ram Mohan Roy lived ahead of his time. I think in the current unfortunate communally polarization in India rediscovering the true spirit of the refined Hindu philosophy, as taught by Ram Mohan Roy, is very crucial. His life, teachings and works can unite Hindus, Muslims and Christians in their belief in the common human heritage rooted in the faith in one God, I think.
What is very fascinating about Ram Mohan is that he knew a number of languages like Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Latin and Greek, apart from, of course, his mother tongue and that he wrote extensively about three of the three of the greatest religions, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam; and yet he was a Hindu who deeply believed in the Vedic Hinduism.
Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin is one of his earliest works in Persian, with a brief introduction in Arabic. And the book, though it is a thin monograph, shows his deep knowledge of Islam, the Quran, the Hadith and the classical Muslim methodology of the Muslim scholarship. I am currently working on its translation into Italian, with an introductory study on his life, to stress the importance of the reason and rationality in the religion over the blind faith which often leads to superstitions and intolerance, as it is sadly happening in many parts of the world now.
He was also familiar with works of both the Sufis and the rationalist thinkers of Islam. There can be no doubt that Ram Mohan Roy was deeply influenced by the monotheism of Islam; however, his life and message tells us more about the tolerant and fruitful interaction between Muslims and Hindus that was beneficial to both communities in many ways.
He was, of course, regarded by many as Hindus as a reformer who sought to revive the true knowledge of Hinduism based on the ancient Vedas, challenging the centuries of accretions that he found to have grown over the Hindu way of life. However, as he clearly alluded in some of his works, he was not a reformer of the Vedas or the Hindu philosophy to reform them to make them better. He was actually a reviver of the true spirit of Hinduism. And he did it by reaffirming the monotheistic and the universal values of the Vedas by discarding superstitions and mere formalism that stained their true message. And Ram Mohan Roy also tried his best to situate Hinduism in the modern era.
And indeed, the Muslim Ulema (scholars) now face the difficult challenge of situating Islam in the twenty first complex globalised world. We now need a fresh rethinking of Islam and the reconstruction of many of the Muslim approaches to Islam in the light of the intellectual, spiritual and social crises that the Muslims are facing today. Though we often here these days the term reforming Islam, we must bear in mind that the reformation of religion is a very Euro-centric idea born out of the Catholic Church’s historic struggle with the European mind, and such experience cannot be applied elsewhere in the world, especially in the case of a religion like Islam that doesn’t have any hierarchical clergy as it is in Catholicism.
In other words, what we need in the Muslim world today the reconstruction of a new Muslim epistemology, considering the stagnation and lack of dynamism seen in the current Muslim intellectual space. There is something that we may describe it as the crisis of knowledge that Muslims are facing today, manifesting it in Muslim Ulema’s intellectual inability to face, with confidence and dynamism, the multifaceted challenges unleashed by the different forces of modernity.
In other words, status quo is no longer an option for Muslims, if they want to adhere to actualise the principles of their religion, as a vibrant community that is fully alive to so many contemporary issues like the religious pluralism, gender justice, democracy, secularism. As Muhammad Iqbal urged during the early decades of the last century Muslim should revive the spirit of the Ijtihad or the critical thinking in many of the relevant religious fields.
Q: Historically, crusades, colonialism and global terror have influenced the Western perception about Islam and it’s largely negative. Is there any way out from this antagonism and prejudices of the past?
A: Unfortunately, the medieval prejudices against Islam and the East in general still persist in the West, though they have taken different forms. Edward Said, the late Arab-American postcolonial thinker, has studied the western conceptions of the East in three of his insightful books Orientalism (1978), Covering Islam (1981) and Culture and Imperialism (1994). Though Said’s critique of the powerful western discourse on the other seems to have debunked its philosophy, due to many reasons its practical impact on the lives of people of eastern origin, especially Muslims who are living in the West, seems to have not yet unabated.
And as we can see, it has reached its peak, as Trump mounted an increasingly adverse campaign targeting the perceived Muslim and immigrants’ threat to America and got elected mainly through such campaign in the last US election. Of course, once any phenomenon reaches its peak, it generally starts the journey downwards, as it cannot go further up. Thus, as an optimist who believes in the basic purity of human nature, I think the philosophy of the hatred cannot sustain itself for a very long time. In other words, Trump’s era is also the era in which so many people are rediscovering their humanity and reaching out to Muslims and others who face discrimination in the West. We must acknowledge that some of vocal critics of Islamophobia are both religious and secular non-Muslim public intellectuals in the West. And Trump’s anti-Muslim executive orders were repeatedly declared discriminatory, and thus null and void, by various courts in the United Sates. Mr Trump himself seems to have tone down his xenophobic discourse a bit. And in a symbolic gesture, he hosted the Ramadan Iftar gathering this year, a White House tradition that he discarded last year. I might sound bit over optimistic here; but as a Muslim public intellectual who works with so many people of all backgrounds and observes the West very closely, I can see that there is still a way out and such way is already visible in the form of people to people interactions across religions that are currently taking place in various parts of Europe, America and elsewhere in the world.
Q: Going by history, one of the major contributions of Islamic civilization to the west was the science and technology and it has been completely forgotten now. Do you think a productive dialogue possible with the west focusing on positive aspects of two civilizations?
A: Yes, indeed, not only such dialogue between the West and Islam, focusing on the positive and constructive interaction between the both, as it happened, especially in the case of western thinkers and philosophers rediscovering the lost classical Greek heritage of the West through the Arabic translations of important works such heritage, is possible but also happening in many parts of the West and Arab-Muslim world in the form of dialogue of civilizations.
The idea of the dialogue civilizations gained momentum as a counter and more positive approach to the question of the relation between the world of Islam and the West as an opposition to clash of civilisation theory put forward by the late Prof. Samuel Huntington in the late 1990s, and as it became widely accepted in the certain power centres in the West, following the September 11 tragedy. Instead of seeing civilizations and cultures as exclusive and hostile human projects that are set to clash with each other, the idea of the dialogue of civilisation teaches that the different human civilisations are hybrid and mutually indebted to each other for their survival and growth, as they all ultimately belong to the collective human heritage.
In many parts of the Muslim world, especially in the Gulf, many other Arab countries and Turkey conferences highlighting the dialogue between the world of Islam and the West are happening quite often, both at government and non-governmental levels. And in the West too, there are so many important universities, think tanks, governmental and non-governmental agencies that hold conferences exploring the theme of cooperation between the world of Islam and the West. And Tawasul Europe Centre for Dialogue and Research which I head is also formed as part of the dialogue of civilisations process.
Q: For many of the western thinkers, Quran and Islam are inherently violent and global terror is just a reflection of this violent ideology. As an expert in classical religious texts, how do you react to this argument?
A: Yes, indeed, this is sadly true. However, when we go deep into the history of Islam and study the teachings of the Quran properly, we will be able to see that the story is quite different from as it is told by the Islamophobic pundits, both the current and the past. First, the vast majority of the Muslims have nothing to do with violence perpetrated by an extremely minuscule fringe of extremists who misuse and misinterpret the teaching of Islam and the Quran to support their violent ideology. Actually, as we learn from the recent extremely dark history of both Al-Qaida and the ISIS, Muslims were their main victims, though they have attacked the West and caused the destruction here in the West too. And interestingly, apart from a very few exceptions, almost all leaders of the violent Muslim extremists have not properly or traditionally educated in the proper Islamic science of the Quranic and the Sharia to make them qualified scholars to talk authentically about Islam.
Second, the comparative religious tolerance and harmony that existed during the heydays of Islam, from Muslim Andalusia to the eastern Muslim lands under the rule of both Arabs and Turks, disproves the accusation of Islam being violent. And even today some of the rare historic Christian denominations can be seen only in the Muslim lands in like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, etc., with some of such churches having their headquarters in such countries for centuries. It was such Christian and other minorities, along with majority of the Muslims that have been targeted by the violent Muslim extremists during the recent years. In other words, terrorism and extremism in the Muslim world to a greater extent grew out of the recent sheer powerlessness that Muslim masses in many Muslim countries have been facing due to lack of civil rights, poverty, ignorance and the dehumanising oppression perpetrated by the ruling classes who are the clients of certain western powers. The solution to defeat extremism in the Muslim world lies in the proper education of Islamic values and creating just societies where freedom, civil rights and economic opportunities prevail, I think.
Q: There is a growing intolerance towards Islam across Europe. How do you manage to engage in dialogue in this hostile situation? What is your strategy for productive dialogue between religions?
A: In Tawasul Europe (the Arabic word Tawasul roughly means building connections or bridges of understanding), we believe that Islam, like any other divinely revealed religions, is rooted in the universal principles of love and justice based on the faith in one God who is the Lord of all people. And in the light of our firm faith in these universal principles, in order to challenge Islamophobia and all other forms of cultural and religious bigotry, we work with all people, without any gender, religious and racial discriminations. A good number of Italian and other western intellectuals, both secular and religious, cooperate with Tawasul in the field of interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue. Also many professors affiliated with over a dozen universities in Rome work with Tawasul Europe to produce objective and non-partisan academic and research materials on Islam and Islam’s relations with the West and religions like Christianity and Judaism to challenge the negative and reductionist Orientalism discourse on Islam and the East. We also work closely with various interfaith initiatives of Vatican to stress the closeness and similarities of both Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions. Tawasul Europe has also produced a rich literature on Islam in Italian, with an inclusive language, rooted in objectivity and academic soundness, as part of its efforts to challenge the intolerant and aggressively proselytizing type of Muslim literature that is widely spread in many western countries, often sponsored by people without any understanding of the pluralistic and democratic nature of western societies.
Q: You have argued for Western Muslim identity, similar to Indian Muslim identity and African Muslim identity and so on. Could you please elaborate?
A: Islam’s self-understanding, as the Quran teaches, is that it is a universal religion, not an Arab tribal ideology or it is not identical with Arab nationalism, as some Muslims seem to approach it. However, Islam, like any other religions, is actualized through the lives of people who belong to different national, cultural and social milieus. And such settings must be taken into account and absorbed into the religious practices when one is practising a universal religion like Islam, with rich and diverse historical experiences, thought not at the expense of the fundamental questions related to the faith and the basic principles of worship and ethics. In other words, Muslims living in multireligious and multicultural societies in Europe, India and Africa face different challenges than their counterparts in majority Arab-Muslim countries. And in order to address such diverse and particular local and national challenges, the Muslim scholars (the Ulema) should be innovative to situate Islam constructively in the respective societies in which Muslims live to make them aware of and sensitive to the particular cultural, religious and social milieu of the region. And this is what I mean by reconstructing the Western Muslim and other Muslim identities.
Q: A major hallmark of western modernity is liberation of women. But the West sees Islam as a discriminating ideology against women. As a young woman experienced the both, what is your take on it? Does your faith constrain you compared to your pre-conversion life?
A: Of course, misogyny and regressive patriarchal cultural norms seriously threaten the civil and religious rights of Muslim women in many Muslim countries and Islam is often blamed for it. I think it is the patriarchal and misogynistic tribal approach and interpretation of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet (peace be upon him) that played and continues to play a very negative role in this regard. There are places in the Muslim world where women are not allowed to drive, women deprived of their voting rights, as tribal notions don’t allow to them to register as voters, women are not allowed to join the prayers in the mosque. And we can see many ill-informed Muslim scholars issuing Fatwas curtailing the freedom of Muslim women. However, the situation was quite different during early centuries of Islam. Muslim women rode camels and horses (the two main modes of the transportation of the time), took care of the wounded soldiers during the times of war, attended the mosques for prayers and they were often consulted by the Prophet and his disciples on social, cultural, legal and political matters. Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, was one of the main jurists of Islam who issued Fatwas even when the Prophet was alive. My point here is that contemporary Muslim Ulema must learn to differentiate between the tribal misogynistic traditions from the universal teachings of Islam and discard the former while adhering to the universal principles of Islam and at the same be fully alive to the question of gender justice and they should be innovative and timely in their interpretation of the certain principles of the Sharia, keeping in mind their spirit than the literal interpretation that might fail the universal values of Islam.
Q: Faith has become a huge polarizing factor today. How do you see the increasing threat of right wing groups in India against religious minorities? Is there any comparison possible between right wing groups in India and Islamophobic groups in the west?
A: In my opinion religious faith, as it is, in its pristine form, if practised doesn’t cause any hateful polarisation, as we can see it today sadly happening in many parts of the world, including India and some western countries. Almost everywhere in the world it is the misuse of the religious faith by certain groups of politicians and religious leaders for gaining the political and other forms of powers that causes problems.
Islamophobic groups in the West have got a deep medieval form of religious hatred for Islam within their discourse. However, their presence also tells more about the deep economic, cultural and political insecurity and western politicians’ inability to address so many pressing issues that are faced by the West today. And here, the perceived threat of the Muslim presence in the West is used to consolidate a western identity (mainly a white Christian West) to cover up the serious moral and political failures of certain western elite.
I think the current growth of the right wing groups in India is a different phenomenon, though one can see the Fascist and even Nazi influence in their methodologies. I think the writing and rewriting of Indian history during the British Raj rooted in the dived and policy has separated Muslims and Hindus in India which resulted in the Partition of the country and the continued communal hostility in India. One of ways to overcome this is to start the process of a genuine cultural and religious dialogue between Muslims and Hindus in India to enable them to get to know each other’s culture and religion in a better way to create an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and appreciation.
Another way of challenging the growth of the militant right-wing ideology in India is to revive the spirit the refined, enlightened and tolerant Hinduism, as taught by Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and other Hindu reformers through their original books and discourses on Hinduism. In other, we need to have true renaissance of Hinduism in India rooted in the universal principles of Upanishads and other Hindu classical, modern texts and religious experience that are universal and tolerant, just and caring.
Q: Do you think, the threat to dissent and shrinking democratic space will be major challenge for productive dialogue between ideologies? How the faith communities can challenge these forces?
A: Yes, sadly, the threat to dissent and shrinking democratic dissent can be a real threat to the dialogue and peaceful coexistence of different religions. The only way here is to have more dialogue across religions and cultures. And I think Pope France’s admirable efforts in the field of building interfaith ties are good models for other religious communities and religious leaders to follow. Vatican has a special department called Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue that is actively involved in building ties and dialogue with almost all religions of the world. And the interfaith conferences, cross-cultural and interfaith interaction, Vatican sponsor across religions have greatly helped to foster ties cross religions, especially in the West. I think different religious leaders, especially the Muslim Ulema, should come up with an innovative way of religious interaction and language that can respond constructively to the religious diversity that we encounter in our globalised world today. One’s religious faith is one’s choice. And one’s religious practise is also one’s choice. However, both of these choices, I think, will be meaningful only when they are understood and practised in the light of the similar religious choices other people make, as they grapple with their own quite different and specific religious experiences.
Q: Conversion has become a life-threatening act today. How should a civilized society treat the issue? What was your personal experience?
A: Conversion from one religion to the other is a very personal matter between one and one’s God, as one goes through it as part of one’s spiritual or religious development and choice. And as long as no force or threat is involved in such process no third party, whether it’s the state or religious authorities or other people, should have no role in challenging or putting adverse situation to prevent one from taking one’s decision in relation to one’s personal choice of religion, as religious freedom is an integral part of the universally recognized human rights. And when it comes to Islam, the Quran unequivocally teaches that there should not be any compulsion in the matters religion at all. And that is why all classical Muslim jurists teach that forced conversion to Islam is null and void.
Yes, I have heard about the sad episode involving the Muslim convert Hadiya in Kerala; however, in relation to my personal experience, as an Italian Christian convert to Islam, fortunately, I have faced any such difficulties neither from my parents nor from my friends. Actually, during the past some years, I have been often invited by Christian groups and universities run by Christians to talk about my experience as a covert and my life as a Muslim public intellectual in Europe at a critical time like this when Islamophobia is growing. I also firmly believe that the conversion only changes one’s religion, and converts should not cut off themselves from their parents, friends and society simply because of the change of the religion.
Tags: Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Gita, Islam, Islamophobia, Narayana Guru, Quran, Rajaram Mohan Roy, Sabrina Lei, Tawasul, Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin, West, Woman