Frank Buchman and the Muslim World
by Imam Abduljalil Sajid
Imam Sajid is a leading British Muslim of Pakistani origin and presently chairman of the Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony, UK. He is chairman of the UK Chapter of the World Conference of Religion and Peace and of the task force for the European 2008 Year of Inter-Cultural Dialogue.
IN 1964, when studying at Punjab University in Lahore, I was set a project on the subject of Honesty in World Religions. I found material on every faith but I had difficulty in finding the answer to the question, 'Do Christians have any moral standards?’
In the British Council Library I was shown a book called Remaking the World, the collected speeches of Dr Frank N.D. Buchman, an American Lutheran Church minister. Buchman was descended from Swiss immigrants who settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania (and in fact, one of his ancestors, Theodore Bibliander, was the first translator of the Holy Qur'an into a European language).
I was surprised to discover that Buchman not only believed in morals, but felt that a true Christian should aim to live by absolute moral standards. He summarized these as honesty, purity, unselfishness and love - a formulation he learned from the scholar Henry Wright. Was not this, I thought, exactly what the Prophet of Islam, peace be upon him, described in the teaching of the Holy Qur'an and Ahadith (sayings of the Holy Prophet of Islam)? Buchman’s speeches revealed a picture of a man who was fearless, frank and yet humble. It left a big impression on me, though I did not take it any further at the time.
My family comes from Rajanpur in the Punjab, near to the borders of all four provinces of Pakistan. I was born on 1st November 1947, the year Pakistan was partitioned from India at the time of Independence. We were a simple family and I was one of 14 siblings. I was fortunate in getting schooling and was the first of my family to go to university and get a degree.
My first teaching post was at the University of Dhaka, then the capital of East Pakistan. When it became Bangladesh in 1971, people like myself from West Pakistan were in danger of a backlash from those forming the new administration of the country. However colleagues in Dhaka University helped me to leave and return to Lahore where I was able to find employment in the university.
There, one of my tasks was to invigilate for the university examinations. At the time cheating was rife among the students, and I decided to take a stand, in the face of violence and threats. As a result the students mounted a demonstration against me outside the Vice-Chancellor’s office. Fearing riots and loss of life, the Vice-Chancellor asked me to lie low and later arranged for me to take a further course of study in the UK at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
After completing my studies I was offered a job, so my wife and children joined me. We started in East London and five years later we moved to Brighton where I started the first mosque in the town, and later an interfaith group as well as a Council for Ethnic Minority Groups. I was appointed a local magistrate and got to know people at all levels of society.
Encounter with Initiatives of Change
In 1985 as a result of an interview I gave on local radio I received a letter from a Richard Pearce, who was working not far from my mosque. He had been impressed by the interview and wanted to meet me. Sometimes we would pass in the street at the end of the day as we were both returning home. However, I was so busy I did not feel I could spare the time to talk to him. He was a New Zealander working temporarily in Britain, so he got a local friend, David Young, to phone me to fix an appointment. Not wanting to offend, I asked to be excused on account of the pressure of work. However when he persisted, I said, “Look, if you can come at 6 am, I could spare half an hour.” I was confident that no Englishman would agree to an appointment at that hour. But they called my bluff!
The great surprise for me was that both these men were familiar with Frank Buchman’s work of Moral Re-Armament. They invited me to meet other friends and attend some meetings of the local MRA group. Later I participated in a conference at MRA’s international conference centre at Caux in Switzerland.
I warmed immediately to what I found in Caux. It had echoes of the world community of common humanity - the ‘Ummah’ - which every Muslim believes in and aspires to create. I found people living together, caring for and thinking for each other. All wanted to serve and achieve a common aim, to repair what was wrong in the world. Everyone took part in the running of the centre and the practical arrangements. People listened to what others expressed rather than only trying to get across their own view. Above all there was a determination to tackle the difficult problems in the world and the evil lying behind them. They worked by identifying the needs in the world and then to create contexts in which people involved in them might change their attitudes.
Who was Frank Buchman?
All this prompted me to find out more about Frank Buchman. What could I, as a Muslim, learn from him and the way he worked? Was it relevant to my own commitment and convictions? I began to get a fuller picture of what Dr Buchman had created through this international team of people. In 1938, as the European nations were rearming militarily, he launched a campaign to deal with the causes of war in the human heart, under the heading of Moral Re-Armament. I learned the way in which they worked, namely through identifying the needs in the world and then creating contexts in which key personalities in different situation might find a new perspective.
I discovered Buchman was a man of faith, who deeply believed that God would guide those who listened and were ready to obey. But his faith was not exclusive. He would have endorsed what Mother Teresa said: 'What we are all trying to do by our work is to come closer to God. We become a better Hindu, a better Muslim, a better Catholic, a better whatever we are, and by being better we become closer and closer to Him.'
I left Caux after that first visit feeling that here was an action I was called to participate in, something which encapsulated the dream every Muslim would want to be part of.
In 1992 I accompanied Gerald Henderson, an MRA full-time worker from Liverpool, on the first of two visits to Germany. Though I had previously been to Germany a few times on interfaith projects, I had a special interest in doing this because I had heard that before the Second World War Buchman had visited Germany many times. He had tried very hard to reach some of those who had set their sights on creating a powerful but godless country, which eventually took the world into war. After the war, he took important steps to help rebuild the country and its links with the rest of the world. In 1948 he took a musical revue with an international cast with the title, Es muss alles anders werden (Everything must be different). To a defeated and downcast nation it brought hope and a new aim, particularly in the industrial areas where the communists were trying to exploit the sense of hopelessness by offering a Marxist solution. Some of the hardened, committed communists began to see in Moral Re-Armament a new way forward.
Buchman's Vision for Muslim World
During these many encounters with people and meetings, whether in Britain or in other countries I learned something of the friendships Buchman made with Muslims from many countries. One such person was the late Mohammed Fadhel Jamali of Iraq. Jamali had a distinguished career in educational and political fields and he paid heavily for his readiness to stand up for his convictions in the face of political pressure. In 1945, as Iraqi Foreign Minister, he was present in San Francisco at the founding conference for the United Nations. He played an important role in the drafting of the Charter of the UN, standing for the rights of those nations (like his own) who were under some form of mandate. However, he remarked that his meeting with Frank Buchman was as important to him as his part in the drafting of the Charter. Buchman had invited him to see a play, The Forgotten Factor, which portrayed the solution to an industrial dispute. Jamali was captivated by the theme of the play, “It's not who is right, but what is right”. He wrote afterwards, “I'll never forget it! It made a lasting impression on my mind and spirit. It showed how violence is not the way, but that the road to just and lasting peace lies in forgiveness and in the admission of mistakes, both in families and in politics”. He kept touch with Dr Buchman and was inspired by his vision for the Muslim world to be a 'girder of unity for all civilization'.
Never afraid of controversy, Jamali spoke out in April 1955 at the International Conference of Asian nations at Bandung, Indonesia. It was at the height of communism's bid for world power and the discussion was on the question of disarmament. He made this statement: “Physical disarmament is not enough: the truth is that what the world needs is ideological disarmament. Achieving that, we must work on the basis of moral rearmament and physical disarmament whereby men of all races and nations with clean hearts, with no rancour or hatred, approach each other with humility, admit our own mistakes and work for mutual harmony and peace. It is then, and only then, that the world will turn into one integral camp with no Eastern or Western camps.”
Healing the Colonial Past
Others who counted Dr Buchman as their friend included Abdul Khalek Hassouna, Secretary General of the Arab League, as well as his predecessor Abdul Rahman Aziz. Si Bekkai, a Prime Minister of Morocco at the time when the Pasha of Marrakech triggered a miraculous change in relations with France which led to Independence for Morocco, was another. Mohammed Masmoodi, a cabinet minister in newly-independent Tunisia, said that his meeting and friendship with Buchman and the resulting link he was given with France had been instrumental in the bloodless achievement of independence by his country.
The founder of Pakistan, Quaidiazzam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, responded to Buchman's aims. In London in 1946, Jinnah saw The Forgotten Factor, the play which had moved Jamali so much. The portrayal in the play of the tough employer as a man who 'would not budge' amused him and he laughed out loud - the first time his companions had even seen him smile since arriving in London. Over dinner with Buchman afterwards, Jinnah, referring to the play, told Buchman, “Apology - that is the golden key”. Later after Independence had been achieved, though with a great loss of life and property, Jinnah admitted that he had not expected the violence which erupted, and he apologised to those who had suffered so much.
Senior Sudanese have become involved including the late Mohammad Salih Shangitti, former Speaker of the Sudan Parliament and a very influential person in newly-independent Sudan. Another, who was first introduced to Moral Re-Armament in his student days in Oxford, is Sayyid Ahmed El-Mahdi, the senior surviving grandson of Mohammad Ahmed El- Mahdi.
The present Chairman of IofC in Malaysia is Tan Sri Hajjah Saleha Mahammad Ali, who met Buchman when she was a student at London University soon after the end of the Second World War. Since her return to her own country she has prominently advocated close teamwork between Muslims and others in IofC. Another more recent visitor to Caux was Sabri Koci, then Mufti of Albania. He was accompanied by the Minister for Religion and spoke there of his experiences of God taking care of him during the 22 years he had spent in prison when the Communists were ruling his country. He said that he sensed the spirit of Islam pervading Caux. Buchman's hope had always been that Muslim countries should become “a belt of sanity to bind East and West and bring moral rebirth”. That, I thought, is a very big challenge, not only to me as a Muslim, but to us all.
Personal experiences of forgiveness
In Caux I learned the importance that Buchman and his fellow workers attached to the principle and practice of forgiveness, which Muslims also consider vital. The Holy Qur'an enjoins Muslims to 'pardon and forbear' in all our doings. In recent years, I have some experience of facing criticism and setbacks. In 1996, events at the Dyke Road Mosque and Islamic Centre in Brighton tested my own practice of forgiveness to the limit. I was Director and Imam of the mosque at the time. I had tried to help some people to gain British citizenship and given them training in Islam. However, they came under the spell of a radical preacher and began veering towards violence. They disapproved of my policy of trying to work with people of all backgrounds. Finally they challenged my leadership and took over the mosque by force in 1998. What, I wondered, should I do? I discussed the options with the Trustees of the mosque and, having made all possible legal moves, the only way forward seemed forgiveness. It was not easy, as the temptation to try and hit out was strong. However I have managed to resist that temptation.
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Muslim/Christian Teamwork in Middle East
At an IofC conference in 1997, I forged a deep friendship with an American, Bryan Hamlin, a veteran IofC full-time worker who had developed remarkable touches with people in both Palestine and Israel. Subsequently I made two visits there with him for the purpose of inviting Muslims and Jews to conferences in Caux. I learnt from Bryan the secret of living with an open heart and using our honesty to change people. It enabled us to reach people whom few foreigners could meet and to bring to bear the factor of openness and reconciliation in an otherwise often closed society. As I did this I thought of many instances from the life of the Prophet which we can all benefit from. One example of this was the value of a time of silent reflection, of prayer and of seeking God’s guidance, which is underlined in the Holy Qur'an. What an important element Bryan and I found this to be in our travels together! Often when we were uncertain of our next move, we would feel the ‘nudge’ of the Almighty showing us the next step.
Recently in Brighton we have made use of a remarkable film, which portrays a fine example of peacemaking in Nigeria. The Imam and the Pastor is the true story of Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye whom I first met in 2005 in Caux. It was when they were leaders respectively of Muslim and Christian militias in Northern Nigeria in the early ‘90s that the Imam felt he was not following the principles the Holy Qur'an preached. He struggled within himself but eventually approached the Pastor, who rebuffed him. However he did not give up, but tried a second time, and gradually they began to establish a relationship. Since then they have co-founded an Interfaith Mediation Centre, leading task-forces for reconciliation to places of religious and ethnic conflict in Nigeria and beyond. In working for peace and reconciliation together they have become closer than brothers and have impacted thousands of people in their country with the prospect of change.
Visit to Australasia
In 2006, my wife and I spent three months visiting Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji at the invitation of IofC teams in these countries. We addressed public meetings, gave interviews and met religious and political leaders, university teachers and interfaith activists. We also went to Pakistan as part of a British Council project of visits to Muslim countries with particular reference to the role of women in Islam. Talking to, and being interviewed by a wide variety of people, was a new role for my wife, Jamila. What came out was her deep belief in home-making and family-building. It is a role that she loves and gives her whole heart to. As she often said, “The world is full of greed and hate. We must give our time and energy in guidance from God to serve humanity above ourselves. As the Holy Prophet of Islam said, the best among you are those who serve others selflessly so that we can create a world around ourselves which is greed-free and hate-free”.
What struck me from our visit to Australasia was the value of teamwork through bringing together people of different backgrounds and experiences and giving a chance for them to share their examples of change in order to help others find similar changes in their own life. The accumulated effect of this is to start change reactions which can lead to the change in nations, as we found in the case of retired politician Kim Beazley, whom we met in his home town of Perth. I decided to try to follow this example by setting ten others to work, rather than trying to do the work of ten people myself.
Dr Charis Waddy was another person whose example made a deep impact on me. I met her late in her life after she had spent a lifetime working with Moral Re-Armament - something she continued to do until her death. Brought up in Jerusalem, where her father was head of the Anglican school, she was the first woman to study Arabic and Hebrew in Oxford University. It led to her making friends with many people from the Middle East. She told Frank Buchman, “The West has much to learn from Islam and many will find enrichment in the effort to understand it.” She wrote many books, using her pen to reach people through her writing. I liked her booklet, The Skills of Discernment, which showed her profound understanding of human nature and the ways in which people can be changed, much of which she had learned from working with Frank Buchman.
Task for the future
For so many Muslims, the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11th September 2001 were deeply shameful. The killing of so many innocent people was itself a terrible shock. But the fact that it was described as being done in the name of Islam was even more shocking. With many others I tried to make amends for this act. But above all I gave much thought to the reason lying behind such an outrage.
We are encouraged in the Holy Qur'an to carry out self-criticism, to reflect and search for fresh and creative ideas. I thought back to Frank Buchman's actions after the Second World War and the ways in which he reached out to the German people, particularly offering alternatives to those, like the communists, who sought to exploit anger and defeatism. Was not the next task for people like myself, to find ways of providing hope and a positive way forward to young Muslims who were driven by hatred and bitterness to carry out acts of violence and even suicide to draw attention to their passionately-held views? And to help those who have the power to affect world events take decisions that are beneficial in the long-term for all parties? These are tasks that need the best minds and actions of us all, and that Muslim and non-Muslim can to take on together.
When I read Frank Buchman’s emphasis on the four absolute standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love, and listening in prayer to seek God’s direction, I thought that these might have come from the following principles every Muslim learns from the Qur’an:
Be honest: Engage yourself in efforts for the way of God courageously and honestly. (Qur’an 22:78, 16:92)
Be pure: And those who guard their chastity except with their spouses….they shall inherit paradise to live there forever. (23:1-11)
Be unselfish: Do not follow your selfish desire and do not come near to fornication as it is a serious, sinful and shameful act. (17:32)
Be loving: Learn in the name of God… God loves those who love others. (2:195, 9:108, 96:1)
Change: God will not change the condition of a people until they change themselves. (13:11)
Obedience: Listen and obey. (64:16)