Buddhism and Islam Conference

Event will explore encounters between two of the world’s great religions

By Pascal Zamprelli

“The fact of the matter is, Buddhists and Muslims have lived together both peacefully and not-so-peacefully,” said Religious Studies Professor Lara Braitstein. “They have contributed to each other’s lives and civilizations in all kinds of ways.” Yet, she said, this important historical interaction has received little scholarly attention.

On May 29 and 30, McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies, Institute of Islamic Studies, and Centre for Research on Religion hope to reverse that trend by hosting Buddhism and Islam: Encounters, Histories, Dialogue and Representation, a conference, made possible by the generous support of the philanthropic Numata Foundation, that will bring together academics and students in an attempt to shed new light on the shared history of these two important religious traditions.

“We have anthropologists, historians, textualists, experts in material culture, all coming together to share their work,” Braitstein said.

Buddhism and Islam have a long history of interaction, and developed together in many ways. And while neither of these two traditions is particularly well understood in the West, they are nonetheless perceived in very different lights.

“These days, Islam is almost always demonized in popular discourse, and Buddhism is almost always idealized,” said Braitstein.  “It is extremely upsetting to me to see two-dimensional portrayals of such rich, diverse traditions.”

The conference will explore how Buddhists and Muslims have lived together, the results of their encounters, and what might explain the way they are perceived by each other, and by others.

Conference organizers, who hope to produce a volume based on the discussions, have ambitions that go beyond the conference, itself. “We hope to treat the conference as a starting point for opening a whole field of investigation,” said Melissa Anne-Marie Curley, a doctoral student in Religious Studies who has helped organize the event. “Our fondest wish is that this is going to be the start of some real future scholarly work in this area, and that we’ll move toward thinking of Buddhism and Islam as a natural pair to study comparatively.

“Clearly this is an area of research just waiting to be explored and expanded,” added Prof. Braitstein. “Think about it: in Western, Central, East, South and Southeast Asia, Buddhism and Islam have co-existed for well over 1,000 years. There is so much to learn.”