Dialogue Between Islam and Buddhism  through the Concepts Ummatan Wasatan and Majjhima-Patipada

Posted on 18/5/2016

Dialogue Between Islam and Buddhism through the Concepts Ummatan Wasatan and Majjhima-Patipada


Monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — have coexisted with Buddhism in many parts of Asia for centuries. This led in the past to dialogue as well as misunderstanding between the two at the doctrinal and social levels. This paper seeks to initiate dialogue between Islam and Buddhism through the Islamic concept of ummatan wasatan (Middle Nation) and the Buddhist concept of majjhima-patipada (Middle Way) as a means to build understanding and harmony in Asian societies.

The Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) as religious teachers explained to humanity as to what is the true state of being and how the illusions which drag humanity through darkness and injustice can be overcome. In this age of globalization when physical barriers between various societies in terms of material culture are virtually being eliminated there is an urgent need for dialogue between monotheistic religious traditions and Buddhism. This could take place between Islam and Buddhism or Judaism and Buddhism or Christianity and Buddhism, but it is imperative that this dialogue takes place for it is likely to generate mutual understanding and respect between the followers of these two categories of religion.

Introduction The spread of religions from one part of the world to the other has led, from times immemorial, to coexistence and dialogue between the followers of a 368 IMTIYAZ YUSUF large number of different religions. Perhaps the main difference between the past and the present is that while in the past this phenomenon was not called ‘dialogue,’ it is called so in our time and is consciously pursued. In the past this phenomenon consisted of interaction between religions that gave rise to parallel ideas and institutions in different religious traditions. This at times resulted in various forms of religious syncretism. No doubt the purists objected to this in the past as do their namesakes today.

Since Buddha and Buddhism do not seem to be much concerned with the concept of theos (God), some people tend to believe that Buddhism is merely a philosophy rather than a religion. However, the worldwide practice of Buddhism shows that it certainly is a religion, albeit a religion with a philosophical bent. In fact any judgment on this issue depends on how we define religion. As for us, we adopt the following definition of religion and consistently adhere to it throughout this paper: “Religion is the varied, symbolic expression of, and appropriate response to that which people deliberately affirm as being of unrestricted value for them.”1 According to this definition, Islam, Buddhism and all major world religions legitimately fall into the category of religion.

Islam and Buddhism have engaged in a religious interchange in the course of their encounters in Central, South and Southeast Asia. Their early encounters were followed, in some instances, by conversion of Buddhists to Islam as happened in Central and maritime Southeast Asia. Yet there were also other regions where Buddhism and Islam continued to exist side by side for long as happened in India and also mainland Southeast Asia.

The point being made here is that there is a long record of Muslim- Buddhist dialogue, though this is at the present either non-existent or rare. This, in our view, is largely due to the strong trend of reified interpretations of religion in the contemporary world. This in turn is the outcome of ignoring or overlooking the interchanges that took place between these religions in the past, be they between region-based religions such as between Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism in South Asia or between Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the Middle East, or between Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam in the Age of the Silk Road (4 BCE–1400 CE) and the Age of Commerce (1450–1680 CE) in different regions of the world.

Muslims often employ the Qur’┐nic expression ummatan wasa═an (the Middle Nation) to characterize their religion and community. The expression suggests that Islam is a moderate religion and that Muslims are required to be a middle or moderate nation. In practice, Muslims conduct their daily life taking the Prophet Mu╒ammad (peace be on him) as a paragon of moderation.

Similarly, the Buddhist expression majjhima-patipada refers to the notion that Buddhism represents the Middle Way.

This paper attempts to study the concepts of ummatan wasa═an (the Middle Nation) in Islam and majjhima-patipada (the Middle Way) in Buddhism, arguing that these concepts can serve as a model worthy of emulation by Muslims (or other monotheists) and Buddhists in their respective majority or mixed societies. It also seeks to make this study the starting-point of a socio-religious interchange and dialogue between Islam and Buddhism.

The paper thus aims to contribute to reviving the Muslim-Buddhist dialogue in contemporary times in the aftermath of Western colonialization and the subsequent surge of Asian and African nationalistic sentiments.

Buddhism and Islam in History

Though Islam and Buddhism differ doctrinally, they came into contact first in Central Asia,2 and later in South Asia and Southeast Asia.3 There is indeed a long history of relations between Islam and Buddhism.4 The religious encounter between Islam and Buddhism is as old as Islam itself.5 The first encounter between Islam and the Buddhist community, took place in the middle of the 7th century in East Persia, Transoxiana, Afghanistan and Sindh.6 Historical evidences indicate that the early Muslims extended the Qur’┐nic category of Ahl al-Kit┐b (People of the Book or revealed religion) to Hindus and Buddhists.7


Dr. Imtiyaz Yusuf is Assistant Professor, Lecturer and Director of the Center for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding in the College of Religious Studies at Mahidol University in Thailand and Senior Fellow at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, (ACMCU) Georgetown University, Washington D.C., USA.

He specializes in Religion with a focus on Islam in Thailand and Southeast Asia and also Muslim-Buddhist dialogue. In 2009-2010, he was visiting Associate Professor and Malaysia Chair of Islam in Southeast Asia at ACMCU, Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA.

Dr. Yusuf has contributed to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Islamic World (2009); Oxford Dictionary of Islam (2003); Encyclopedia of Qur’an (2002); and Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern Islamic World (1995). He was also the special Editor, The Muslim World – A Special Issue on Islam and Buddhism Vol. 100, Nos 2-3 April/July 2010.

Dr. Yusuf‘s most recent publication are: Imtiyaz Yusuf (ed.), A Planetary And Global Ethics For Climate Change And Sustainable Energy, (Bangkok: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Bangkok and College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University, 2016); “Muslim-Buddhist Relations Caught between Nalanda and Pattani” in Ethnicity and Conflict in Buddhist Societies in South and Southeast Asia, K.M. de Silva (ed.) (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa, 2015);   “Islam and Buddhism” in Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Interreligious Dialogue, Catherine Cornille (ed.) (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, Inc, 2013), Chapter 22. He also published following articles, “Islamic Theology of Religious Pluralism: Quran’s Attitude Towards Other Religions” Prajna Vihara, Vol. 11, No. 1 January-June 2010 : 123-140; “The Role of the Chularajmontri (Shaykh al-Islam) in Resolving Ethno-religious Conflict in Southern Thailand” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Vol. 27 No. 1 (2010) 31-53; “Dialogue Between Islam and Buddhism through the Concepts Ummatan Wasatan (The Middle Nation) and Majjhima-Patipada (The Middle Way)” Islamic Studies, 48:3 (2009) pp. 367–394; “The Thai Muslims and the Participation in the Democratic Process: The Case of 2007 Elections” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 29, No. 3, (2009) : 325-336; “The Southern Thailand Conflict and the Muslim World” in Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 27, No. 2 (2007) 319-339 and “Dialogue between Islam and Buddhism Through The Concepts of Tathagata and Nur MuhammadiInternational Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture, Vol. 5 (2005) : 103-114. Dr. Yusuf often writes on Islam, religion and Middle East for the Bangkok Post and The Nation (Bangkok).

Dr. Yusuf is, member, Oxford Bibliographies – Islamic Studies Standing Editorial Board, September 2012 –  https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/obo/page/islamic-studies#3; Editor, Oxford Islamic Studies Online, “Regional Update on Islam in Sou

Date: 24 May 2016 / Tuesday
Time: 7-9 pm
Venue: 909 CCWU Building, 302-308 Hennessy Rd, Wan Chai, HK
Admission: Free
Language: English

Program Details:
– 7.00 Welcoming
– 7.10 Remarks by PI Exc. Dir.
– 7.15 Talk by Speaker
– 7.45 Q & A
– 8.00 Refreshment Service
– 8.45 Gift Ceramony and Closing Remarks

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