The Catholic Sufi and His Student

“You need to meet this man.” When my friend heard that I was interested in Sufi culture in South Asia, she handed me a piece of paper with a name written on it. The name didn’t sound Muslim, it didn’t even sound particularly Indian to me: “Victor Edwin.”

A few days later I found myself somewhere in the north of Delhi, standing at the door of a seminary for Jesuit priests. The “Vidyajyoti College of Theology” was located in a rather functional building. It had the austerity one would expect from a Catholic learning institution. But the welcome I was given was warm. Father Victor Edwin, a middle-aged Jesuit priest, had a shiny face and greeted me a with a wide smile.

We sat down for tea in his office where he told me everything about his passion for studying Islam and spending time among Muslims. Edwin even maintained that getting to know Islam had made him a better Christian. All this seemed quite unusual for a Christian theologian, and when Edwin told me he knew how to read and write Urdu, I was even more surprised.

Edwin grew up in a little village in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Having attended a Jesuit-run college in his youth, he was inspired by the Jesuits’ commitment to serve God and fellow human beings through education. At 22, Edwin heard the calling to become a Jesuit priest. He went to study English and Hindi in Patna, the capital of Bihar, a state in North-East India. In Patna he met an elderly Jesuit man who would change the course of his life.

Victor with Paul Jackson at the Convention of the Islamic Studies Association in Bombay, 1994. (Credit: Victor Edwin)

The name of the man who was to become his mentor was Paul Jackson, an Australian priest who had studied philosophy in Melbourne and then came to India as a missionary in 1961. During the 1960s, the second Vatican Council issued a call for Catholics to “open the doors and windows” of their tradition and reach out to other faith groups. Inspired by the Vatican’s appeal, Jackson felt he wanted to reach out to Muslims and learn more about Islam. Muslims make up about 17 per cent of the population in the state of Bihar which is generally considered to be India’s poorest state.

Ordained as a priest in 1968, Jackson went on to study history at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, one of India’s most prestigious Muslim universities. During his student years there, Jackson attended a conference on the Sufi saint Baba Farid. He was instantly touched by the teachings of Sufism and concluded that studying Islamic mysticism would enable him to enter into the lives of Bihari Muslims.

To deepen his studies of Sufism, Jackson moved to Shiraz, Iran to study the Persian language – a pre-requisite for the PhD project which he was going to take on. For his doctoral thesis, Jackson spent years translating and commenting on The Hundred Letters, one of India’s greatest “manuals” of Sufism by Sharafuddin Maneri, a famous Bihari mystic of the 13th/14th century. Jackson recalls in his book “A Jesuit Among Sufis”:

For 33 years, five days a week, initially for about eight hours a day, and subsequently for about two hours a day, any of the mainly Muslim readers in the reading room of the [Khuda Baksh] library would see me seated with a Persian manuscript on a stand, with a copy of Steingass’s Persian-English dictionary propped up beside it, and a notebook on the table in front of me in which to write my translation. They could not miss me, as I was normally the only foreigner sitting in the reading room.

Shrine of Sharifuddin Maneri in Bihar Sharif, Northeast India. (Credit: Abishek.chandan/Wikipedia)

People who knew Jackson say that his eyes would glow whenever he was asked to speak about Sufism. He was a man rooted in deep faith and meditation, as one of his close companions, the German theologian Dr. Christian Troll, remembers in an obituary: “No-one meeting you could remain unimpressed by the depth of your prayer life. No surprise that in your writings about Sharafuddin Maneri and the Sufis in general, the depth of the prayer life of so many Muslims finds regular mention.”

The letters of Maneri, a work of outstanding depth and insight, became Jackson’s key for opening the doors of Islamic mysticism. Working with this 800-year-old text helped him understand the sensibilities of a Muslim’s spiritual life. Here’s a short quote from Maneri’s first letter entitled “Belief in the Unity of God,” as translated by Jackson:

When ‘I’ and the ‘You’ have passed away, God alone will remain! When you look into a mirror you do not see the mirror for the simple reason that your attention has become riveted on your own handsome reflection. You would not, however, go on to say that the mirror has ceased to exist, or that it has become beautiful, or that beauty has become a mirror. In a similar fashion, one can contemplate at God’s almighty power in the whole gamut of creation, without any distinction. Sufis describe this state that of being entirely lost to oneself in contemplating of the Unique Being!

Chapel and prayer room at the Jesuit-run “Vidyajyothi College of Theology” in Delhi.

But maybe the most enduring legacy Paul Jackson left behind was the impact he made on young Jesuit seminaries through his unique way of teaching. He devised a special educational program called “Exposure to Islam,” in the frame of which, once a year for 25 years, he would send eight to ten Jesuit students to live in a Muslim community for ten days, giving them an opportunity to experience Muslim daily life first-hand:

I would go to various towns where there was a good number of Muslims and meet the principals of madrasas, Muslim seminaries, Sufi devotees at shrines, middle-class Muslims, usually through teachers and students of Christian English-medium schools, and poor Muslims, mainly with the help of sisters engaged in social work. I arranged for two students to go to each town. Back in Patna, the pairs were chosen and their destinations assigned. I gave them all a thorough preparation, in writing, and a list of possible questions to ask. They usually stayed in the parish but a few stayed in a madrasa or with a Muslim family. They would leave on a Monday and return on the Wednesday of the following week. On the following Thursday, Friday and Saturday they would recount their experiences together with their reflections and, in the time left over, we would examine some of the salient issues that had been raised.

“Father Paul Jackson taught me that relationship is at the heart of dialogue. I learnt that the process of initiating dialogue with Muslims requires deep Christian faith, for it is more directly focused on receiving than on giving,” Edwin says. “Moreover, I learnt that in dialogue we must strive to be open and present to the person we are engaging with.”

Jackson was also co-founder of the Islamic Studies Association (ISA), a unique institution which has spearheaded Christian-Muslim dialogue on the Indian subcontinent for more than four decades. Today, ISA members teach Islam and interreligious dialogue in various universities and colleges across India. Father Victor Edwin now continues the association’s quarterly journal Salaam.

“Paul inspired me to dedicate my life for Christian-Muslim relations,” Edwin says. “He told me that working for the mission of dialogue with Muslims, in the present context, was like sailing against the wind. But he encouraged me to follow this call from above.”

To broaden his understanding of Islamic culture on the Indian subcontinent,  Edwin spent years studying Urdu, the language Muslims in India and Pakistan most widely use. Urdu is a sister language to Hindi, although written in letters of the Arabic alphabet.

Father Victor Edwin speaking about Paul Jackson and his mission. Behind him on the office’s wall is a calligraphy of the Islamic phrase ‘Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim.

“Throughout my years of teaching, something in the Christian students has begun  to shift from an abstract image of ‘the Muslim’ to knowing the faces of Ahmad or Abdullah,” Edwin says. “This work is the work God has given me. It is what makes my heart content. Before his passing away, in one of the mails, Father Paul Jackson mentioned that my work is a consolation for him. I felt moved to tears.”

With Indian politics following a Hindu nationalist agenda that has led to the marginalization and discrimnation of Muslims in recent years, Edwin is aware that his work is now needed more than ever.

“The Constitution of India recognises, respects and affirms the diversity of religions, cultures and ways of lives,” he says. “But at the moment an inclusive vision of India is replaced with an exclusive vision that favors only certain sections of people. The prevaling situation fuels hatred against Muslims and triggers violence against them. As a Jesuit working for Christian-Muslim relations I strive to create understanding and make each side recognize the other as a brother or sister. After all, Christians also suffer from the current political climate in India.”

No doubt, the example of Father Jackson will serve as a guiding star for Edwin’s mission in today’s India. By going to the depth of his own faith – as so many Sufis had done throughout the ages – Jackson expanded so widely that he could take in different expressions of experience with the divine and, through his way of being, spread the message of unity in diversity. It’s thus not surprising that one of the important Urdu-language newspapers read by many Muslims in India, remembered Jackson as a “Catholic Sufi.”

Father Victor Edwin in Muslim attire with his Urdu teacher, the imam of Civil Lines Mosque in Delhi. (Credit: Victor Edwin)

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