NS: Thirteen years – on and off. The last two years were intense.
RS: Why did you, a PhD in Engineering, embark on such a detailed project on religions?
NS: Religion is everybody’s business – isn’t it? Actually, the topic of religion has always fascinated me because of its significance in our personal, social, and political lives. Also, religion has recently taken the center stage in global politics and a large part of our foreign policy is targeted to fight religious extremism across the globe. World peace seems to be more and more dependent on religion these days. I feel that unfamiliarity with other religions is a barrier to progress towards peace. I embarked on this project with the hope that my book would help remove that unfamiliarity and open our minds to the central message of compassion dominant in all religious scriptures.
RS: Some major scholarly interfaith work has been done recently on the Abrahamic Faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), but your work has expanded it to encompass Buddhist, Hindu, Bahai and Sikh beliefs amongst others and even incorporates Atheists. Why did you choose such a large and ambitious canvas?
NS: As an engineer, I received training to be comprehensive when solving a problem. The problem of world peace doesn’t only involve Abrahamic faiths, but all other faiths. Hindus constitute the third largest religious group in the world, yet they are ignored in western interfaith literature because the West is only involved with a fight amongst adherents of Abrahamic faiths. There are many conflicts, of different scales, around the globe, some involving Hindus and Buddhists. If we are serious about world peace, we have to address all faiths, not only those that are of immediate concern to us. However, I must say that the inclusion of atheism is probably unique in my book. Atheism is a growing belief and we need to include atheists in the interfaith dialogue so that they form a tolerant view of other religions and vice versa. Interfaith dialogues will fail if we remain oblivious to a certain faith group.
RS: I enjoyed the way the book is structured. What made you decide to use Facebook formats like status updates as part of the layout for this book?
NS: I wanted to make the book entertaining and approachable. Since I decided to arrange the book chronologically, like in a timeline, I felt that Facebook format would make sense. I thought “Status Update” would give a quick review of what happened in a corresponding historical period and “Like” features would allow me to draw attention to some important quotes. So, I chose the Facebook formats and added few new things, such as “Coffee Breaks” to break the monotony of a series of quotes.
RS: You have pursued the development of religious thought in human history. Why do you think that religious differences have caused so much suffering while the ultimate aim of all religions is to find inner peace?
NS: We have seen so much suffering because we took pride in our religion (although pride is considered a negative trait in all religious scriptures) and have judged other religions, primarily due to our unfamiliarity, as savage religions. Politics, imperialism, and competition for land and resources complicated matters further and the power-hungry people among us quickly discovered that religious fervor is the strongest emotion that we can use to gain more power. It is ironic that the common masses who were either perpetrators or victims of religious violence are often ignorant about the differences over which they were fighting each other. I have tried to show those differences and similarities in my book and hope that it will be difficult for us to continue this fight if we are fully aware of the differences and similarities among our religions.
RS: Would we be wrong to assume that you appear to be greatly inspired by the Sufism?
NS: No. Frankly, I owe a lot to Sufism, which has forever shaped my thinking. I was introduced to Sufism at a very early age. I read Rumi, Hafiz, Iqbal, Attar and Sanai during my teenage years and had even translated some of their poems into my native Bengali language. I am also greatly inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet, who is perhaps the one of the greatest Sufi poets of the Indian subcontinent.
RS: What can you briefly tell us about your own religious upbringing and your early life in Bangladesh?
NS: I grew up in a very liberal Muslim family. My grandfather was a reputed Islamic scholar who was very liberal in his outlook. He would accept invitations from Hindus to attend Gita (Hindu scripture) recitation events. My father was very knowledgeable about western philosophy and he introduced me to the works of Plato, Aristotle, Bertrand Russell, Bernard Shaw, Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, Hegel, and Kant at a very early age. I was allowed to read anything and everything, including religious scriptures of other religions. At the same time, I was following the daily duties of a practicing Muslim. In our household, we used to have after-dinner conversations with our father about philosophy, religion, and politics almost on a regular basis; those were no bars hold discussions – anyone can ask any questions and say anything or challenge anyone. From time to time, we would have our uncles and grandparents as houseguests and they too would join those family discussions led by my father. Those discussions left an indelible mark in my mind and I grew up to be an open-minded person in my religious, philosophical, and political outlook. My parents never imposed any religious rules on us; they left it to us to choose the limits of our religious practices.
RS: You are going against the grain of Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” work in your book. Did you find his thought process a challenge to overcome in “God’s Facebook”?
NS: Not really. I am an optimist and was never persuaded by the prediction of an imminent and inevitable clash of civilizations. I felt that we have to create an alternative that would avoid the clash, which is based on the hypothesis that that we will always remain unfamiliar about each other’s religion. However, in a globalized world, ruled by Facebook and other social networking tools, I saw that a breakthrough is possible due to the cheap cost of communication and interconnection. That’s how I came up with the new paradigm of “Friendship of Civilizations.”
RS: About life here in the United States, we know that the separation of church and state has been a successful model. But people in this country also spend an enormous amount of time staying connected to some kind of spirituality. Do you think that religion should remain a personal rather than a collective journey?
NS: I am a fervent supporter of separation of church and state because history teaches us that the two are a dangerous mix. The human need for spirituality is eternal and the separation of church and state hasn’t hindered anyone from fulfilling that need. However, the question whether religion should be a personal or collective journey is a difficult one. Because, religion, or for that matter, any other ideology, is by its very nature both a personal and a collective journey. When we internalize an ideology to call it our own – it is often a personal journey of soul searching. Since humans are social animals, we typically like to share our discovery or ideology with others; that’s when our collective journey begins.
We must also find creative solutions to the problem of public religiosity becoming a dangerous weapon against human rational quest; removing religion from public life is not the solution. Rather, we should create a friendship of religions as we have created a friendship of people of different countries, colors, and races in USA.
“GOD’s Facebook” is available at Amazon.com.
Publisher: Innovation & Integration, Inc. (December 3, 2012) | ISBN: 978-0985823207