During a recent meeting of the Interfaith Leaders Network in Nepal, I was in awe as I heard the stories of Pakistani Muslim peacemakers and learned about their work.
I have faced many sorts of conflict and been in countless dialogues with Muslims, but this was different. Pakistan was different.
My jaw dropped and my heart beat faster as I sat across from two men who had formerly been terrorists. This part of their background wasn’t in their bios.
Of course, I tried to play it cool as I listened to them, and I was doing some serious silent praying, “Lord what are you doing here? What do you want me to do?”
But as I listened to their stories, I took special note of their courage. These men continually risk their lives to reject violent extremism.
If that isn’t risky enough, they also speak out boldly against all forms of violent extremism, including protecting Christians who are often persecuted by Muslims in their country.
One of the many amazing leaders I met was Azi (pictured above), who is not a former terrorist. He works with madrassas in Pakistan to change the way young Muslim clerics are trained.
The madrassas are where many future terrorists are trained in Pakistan, their education usually consisting solely of an extremist interpretation of the Quran and nothing else.
I asked Azi two questions: “How do you get access to these madrassas?” and “How do you help them change their curriculum so it’s less extreme and more tolerant?”
I was enthralled by his answer: He invites leaders of the madrassas to a seminar.
On the first day of the seminar, he puts up a PowerPoint slide of an Islamic educational curriculum, which includes the usual study of the Quran and other Islamic topics. Yet it also includes science and other topics that seem typical of a modern university.
He then asks, “What do you think about this curriculum?”
Everyone answers, “This is a curriculum for a modern university.”
He then puts up another PowerPoint slide that shows that this was the curriculum of Al Azhar University in the 10th century.
Al Azhar, located in Cairo, Egypt, is the most prestigious center of Islamic training in the world for Sunni Islam. By now a slow buzz of astonished conversation starts filling the room. Azi has their attention.
Azi goes further still. He puts up a second curriculum that came from Islamic schools in Cordoba, Spain, also in the 10th century. The curriculum included courses on medicine, mathematics and astronomy.
Cordoba at that time was the most populous city in the world. Under the rule of Islamic caliphs, it became the intellectual center of Europe and was noted for its tolerance toward its Christian and Jewish minorities.
The result of Azi’s work is that when madrassa leaders see this, they respond by asking for help to expand their curriculum. This is a long-term, practical strategy to stop terrorism and promote peace.
So far, under Azi’s leadership, more than 2,700 madrassa leaders have been trained. Blessed are the Pakistani peacemakers like Azi.
Rick Love is the president of Peace Catalyst International and serves as associate director of the World Evangelical Alliance peace and reconciliation initiative. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @drricklove.
Editor’s note: This is the second article of a two-part series. Part one can be found here. EthicsDaily.com’s documentary, “Different Books, Common Word,” shares positive stories about Baptists and Muslims in the United States who have sought and found common ground: the common word in both traditions to love God and love neighbor.
Rick Love serves as president of Peace Catalyst International. He has lectured or consulted in more than 40 countries in the last 35 years and has published five books, including “Peace Catalysts: Resolving Conflict in Our Families, Organizations and Communities.”