By Hussain Kodinhi
Jun 30, 2018
Dr Sabrina Lei
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 Tawassut 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
Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Sree Narayana
Excerpts from An Exhaustive Email
You have translated a few books from
Malayalam into Italian and have a few more in the offing. What draws you to
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
– originally from Kerala – who introduced me to Indian literature in general
and Malayalam literature in particular.
I have read and reflected on some of the
important 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 Basheer,
Vijayan and Thakazhi are some of the finest artistic expressions of human
imagination and drama.
Basheer is a storyteller par excellence
like Anton Chekhov. And of course, Thakazhi’s Chemmeen is one of the finest
modern romantic tragedies. (Incidentally, I have translated Chemmeen and O
Chandu Menon’s Indulekha into Italian).
If these three writers had written in
English or any other major world language, they would have been universally
known and considered as modern literary giants. I have also translated Sree
Narayana Guru’s short poetic tribute to one God into Italian and I am deeply
interested in translating some of his religious and spiritual reflections too.
One of your major upcoming projects is
an Italian translation of the Bhagavad Gita. What prompts you to study a
classical Hindu text?
My Gita translation project is very much
rooted in the classical Muslim tradition of learning and inquiry. I am a practising
Muslim, and moreover a convert who accepted Islam after so many years of study;
I consider the Gita as one of the 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 knowledge (Ilm in Arabic), devotion (Taqwa) the good
action (Amal Al-Salih) as the path to knowing 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 over a thousand years ago.
I have read both Iliad and Odyssey, the two
Western epics, in the original Greek. Mahabharata, in my opinion, is as
profound as its Greek and Latin counterparts. And it teaches us how to uphold
the principle of justice and truth in a world of unbridled quest for power and
prestige. My plan is to bring out a readable and beautiful translation of the
Gita in contemporary Italian. One of the challenges that I am facing 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.
You are working on Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin
(A gift to monotheists). He was one of the pioneers of the Hindu reformation.
Do you think Islam too needs a reformation today?
Ram Mohan Roy was ahead of his time. I
think in the current communal polarization in India, rediscovering the true
spirit of 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 fascinating about Roy is that he knew a number of languages like
Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Latin and Greek, apart from, of course, his mother
tongue and he wrote extensively about three of the greatest religions,
Hinduism, Christianity and Islam; yet he was a Hindu who deeply believed in
Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin is one of his earliest
works in Persian, with a brief introduction in Arabic. And the book, though it
is a monograph, shows his deep knowledge of Islam, the Quran, the Hadith and
classical methodology of Muslim scholarship. There can be no doubt that Roy was
deeply influenced by the monotheism of Islam. He was, of course, a Hindu and he
did it by reaffirming the monotheistic and the universal values of the Vedas by
discarding superstitions and mere formalism. And he also tried his best to
situate Hinduism in the modern era.
Indeed, Muslim Ulema (scholars) now face
the difficult challenge of situating Islam in the 21st century’s complex
globalised world. We now need a fresh rethinking on Islam and the reconstruction
of many of the Muslim approaches to Islam in the light of the intellectual,
spiritual and social crises that Muslims are facing today. Though we often hear
the term ‘reforming Islam’, we must bear in mind that the reformation of
religion is a very Eurocentric 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 in Catholicism.
In other words, what we need in the Muslim
world today is a new Muslim epistemology, considering the stagnation and lack
of dynamism 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 in Muslim Ulema’s intellectual inability to face 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 actualise the principles
of their religion, as a vibrant community fully alive to religious pluralism,
gender justice, democracy, secularism. As Muhammad Iqbal urged during the early
decades of the last century, Muslims should revive the spirit of the Ijtihad or
critical thinking in many of the relevant religious fields.
For many Western thinkers, Quran and
Islam are inherently violent and global terror is just a reflection of this
violent ideology. Your view?
Yes, 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. First, the
vast majority of 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-Qaeda and ISIS,
Muslims were their main victims.
You have argued for Western Muslim
identity, similar to Indian Muslim identity and African Muslim identity. Could
Islam’s self-understanding 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 religion, 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 religious practices when one is practising
a universal religion like Islam, with rich and diverse historical experiences,
though not at the expense of the fundamental questions related to the faith and
the basic principles of worship and ethics.
A hallmark of modernity is liberation of
women. But the West sees Islam as discriminating against women. As a young
woman, what is your take on it?
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… The 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.
How do you see the increasing threat of
right-wing groups in India against religious minorities? Is there any
comparison between right-wing groups in India and Islamophobic groups in the
Islamophobic groups in the West have a deep
medieval form of religious hatred for Islam within their discourse. However,
their presence also tells us about the deep economic, cultural and political
insecurity and Western politicians’ inability to address so many pressing
issues faced by the West today. I think the current growth of right-wing groups
in India is a different phenomenon, though one can see fascist and even Nazi
influence in their methodologies. One way to overcome this is to start a
genuine cultural and religious dialogue between Muslims and Hindus in India.
Another way of challenging the growth of militant right-wing ideology in India
is to revive the spirit of the refined, enlightened and tolerant Hinduism, as
taught by Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and other Hindu
reformers through their original books and discourses on Hinduism.
Conversion has become a life-threatening
act today. How should a civilized society treat the issue?
Conversion from one religion to another is
a personal matter between an individual and her God. And when it comes to
Islam, the Quran unequivocally teaches that there should not be any compulsion
in this matter. 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 Muslim convert Hadiya in Kerala; however, I also firmly believe that
conversion only changes one’s religion, and converts should not cut themselves
off from their parents, friends and society simply because of it.