America, from its birth, has been a nation that embodies the epitome of western culture and ideals. From the early days of imperialism and the American Dream, the United States has thoroughly sustained its status as the main face of Western society. The same nation that has pushed to spread its democratic agenda globally has done so by demonizing alternative forms of government. And although the majority of countries in the world do not follow a democratic model, including other Western powers, it seems only countries from the Eastern world are so openly criticized and painted as backwards or illegitimate. It is because of the great biases cultivated by years of western propaganda, and then circulated through the media, that we hold such great misconceptions of unfamiliar groups and diverse cultures. The fact that the West is synonymous with modernity and development speaks volumes about its sphere of influence. However, this power was exploited to create the faux sense of post 9/11 “patriotism”. This unfortunately came at a large cost to the nation’s Muslim community. Islam and Buddhism share many spiritual practices and values that are now part of the mass culture; yet, while Buddhism is celebrated for promoting peace and good values, Islam is depicted as a hateful religion that promotes violence.
In reality, the formation of Islam has no roots in hatred and violence. Islam at its core instructs Muslims to strive for peace and tranquility, much like Buddhism. Now, theologically the two religions do differ in many ways. American media’s way of framing entire demographics in a manner that, dependent upon our political relationship, to said group, can skew our perception of them, in one way or another. This has become increasingly apparent in discussions of religion in America. Of course, officially, the US is not legally affiliated with one religion. And for a nation that prides itself on separation of church and state, as well as a safe place for religious freedom, the continual rise in Islamophobia and hate crimes send a different message. There is still an obvious and significant bias toward Evangelical Christianity, and a great deal of ignorance surrounding Islam in America. Ultimately, it is the wildly unfair difference between the U.S.’ discriminatory attitude toward Islam and its positive embrace of Buddhism that clearly illustrates a double standard.
When we further examine the two groups, we can comprise a clearer picture of the shared values between Islam and Buddhism. The first great examples come from the Qur’anic ethos, a set of ethical norms and moral values in Islamic society. This consists of values like ummah, or the bond of brotherhood shared by all Muslims, across the globe. The ethos also emphasizes the importance of honesty, generosity, charity and caring for those in need. All of which come back to the value of compassion among humans as a core teaching. In Imam al-Nawawi’s, Forty Hadith, the prophet reveals Allah’s message, that “none of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (Imam al-Nawawi, 56). Buddhism also values compassion and its impact on humanity, and they too believe as humans we should always show each other compassion. Compassion often times comes with acts of charity, another shared motif of both groups. It’s important to clarify that while Buddhists and Muslims may place importance on the same concept, their motivations can still differ.
For example, a Muslim may act charitably, strive to be a good person, and follow other such practices of islam with the long-term goal of gaining acceptance to Paradise. As discussed, Allah says that life on Earth should be used to prepare for the after-life beyond the physical world. Similarly, Buddhism teaches karma, which is the idea that the sum of a person’s actions in this, or a past, life will determine their fate in the next. Even though karma itself does not exist in Islam, Muslims still use the same means of compassion and charity to accomplish different goals.
Another main commonality between Islam and Buddhism is meditation. In Buddhist culture, meditation is used to train and transform the mind. It is central to Buddhism the way that the ritual of recitation is central to Islamic life. There are many different kinds of meditation and the right method varies, depending on what one hopes to gain from the experience. Buddhist meditation practices are techniques that encourage and develop concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and a calm view of the true nature of things. By engaging with a certain meditation method, you learn the patterns and habits of your mind, and the practice offers a means to cultivate new and more positive ways of being. With regular meditative work and patience these focused states of mind can deepen into profoundly peaceful and energized states. Such experiences can have a transformative effect and can lead to a new understanding of life. It is through this process that Buddhists can move through higher state of consciousness and achieve the ultimate goal of Enlightenment.
Meditation itself is an ancient Buddhist practice that, in the recent years, has gained a massive surge in popularity since its appropriation by western mass culture and has even been integrated int western medicine. Today, meditation in America has become so far removed from religion, and Bhuddist culture, that it is rarely acknowledged as such a practice. Surprisingly, meditation is nothing new to Islam, although it is often talked about as a step toward modernization. However, Islamic meditation dates back to the Prophet himself. According to Islamic Meditation, written by Emil Torabi, the Prophet Muhammad meditated regularly. The author goes on to explain that it was in fact “…during an extended period of spiritual presence and meditation that he received revelation in the Cave of Hira on Jabal-Nur, the Mountain of Light, just outside the city of Mecca” (Torabi, 21). The reason meditation may not automatically be associated with Islam because it is called Zikr, meaning “to remember”, and there are four different methods. A common form is called taffakur and has to do with Islamic contemplation, the name itself means “to contemplate”.
Another type of meditative practice could be the incredible, trance-like state that Muslims may enter while reciting the word of God, while remaining deeply focused on imitating Gabriel’s exact voice when he came to the Prophet. This is another example of using one practice to reach different objectives. Although Muslims do not believe in the same end result of reincarnation, this does not mean they do not seek enlightenment of their own. In Buddhism, the mind moves through states of consciousness hoping to eventually reach self-actualization and the wisdom of Enlightenment. For Muslims, there is a parallel search for closeness to Allah through the isnad, the spiritual chain of the transmitters leading back to the Prophet and Gabriel himself. Through the act of recitation, Muslims attempt to move as close to the creator as possible by memorizing, practicing and repeating the words of Allah.
Despite the many connections between Islam and Buddhism that convey the true peaceful, compassionate and merciful teachings of Allah, western media refuses to acknowledge the softer side of real Islam. We as a nation are still misrepresenting Muslims, not only in America, but on a global scale. I believe much of this is because it does not fit into the post 9/11 narratives of Muslims as dangerous extremists. It is worth noting that the first major political decision in response to 9/11 gave way to the War on Terror. Western media has continuously perpetrated lies to sell about Islam. For years to follow, and even still today, in 2017 there are movies being made that so clearly exploit Muslims as terrorists. But the more alarming piece of it is that from multiple news networks, all the way to Hollywood and the box office, the west has been profiting from the impact of fear-mongering. Wide scale marketing of Islamophobia was used to manipulate the public by temporarily unifying the nation long enough to support the government’s decision to go to war.
Regardless of the massive Muslim led anti-Isis efforts and demonstrations in London, Washington D.C., and many other western nations in recent years, these events never capture the attention of mainstream media. A majority of Muslims continue being ordered to answer for the crimes of a minority of extremists. Despite the overwhelming evidence dispelling the gruesome myths and stereotyping, there remains this inaccurate connotation of violence and unfair double standards that the west is responsible for assigning to Islam.
Despite Buddhism sharing many of the same practices and even some lines of thought with Islam, it has escaped the intense scrutiny, skepticism, and discrimination that Muslims as a community have had to, and still do, face. Buddhism is beyond well assimilated with the American mass culture, evident by the amount of Buddha themed toys, figurines, trinkets and décor that can be found in malls and shops. Yet, while western society continues to praise Buddhism and its select practices also found in Islam, it is paramount to ask the hard questions and begin intellectually unpacking both explicit and implicit biases that year’s worth of propaganda has created.