My father, Dr. Bahman Abadian, was a remarkable figure whose life journey shaped my
understanding of humility and compassion. In the era of Martin Luther King and John F.
Kennedy, he fell in love with the values that this country represented and brought us to the U.S.
from Iran when I was a young child. He was, for many years, a World Bank economist dedicated
to combatting poverty. As an adolescent during WWII, his widowed mother sent him from Iran to
India for educational opportunities, and he was there during the era of India’s independence
movement when Mahatma Gandhi helped liberate India from British colonial rule.

My father himself was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and toward the end of his life, if
ever anyone asked him what his religion was, he would call himself a Gandhian, which I believe
meant to him that he honored the peaceful intent of all faith traditions and recognized our
common humanity. While my father respected different faiths, probably as a result of witnessing
the carnage of the India-Pakistan partition, he abhorred zealotry and embraced Gandhian ideals
of peaceful coexistence.

                                               

One scene from the 1982 movie Gandhi particularly resonates with me, and is one which my
father lived through when he was 18 years old. It was August of 1947 and Britain had just
partitioned India and Pakistan, a rupturing that resulted in Hindus and Muslims committing
atrocities on both sides. According to some estimates, between 1-2 million people were killed,
75,000 women raped, and over 15 million people were displaced. My son-in-law’s family was
one of the families that lost nearly everything as they escaped to safety across the border from
newly formed Pakistan and into India’s Punjab region.

Intent on stopping the savagery unleashed in August of 1947, Mahatma Gandhi, already a much
loved and influential public figure, walked into Kolkata (then Calcutta), one of the hardest hit
cities at the center of the violence and began a hunger strike. Fasting was his way of making an
appeal to conscience, and in effect, he was saying to everyone, “I am willing to starve myself, to
die, unless you stop your violence.”

In the movie scene, Gandhi is lying there, weak from fasting, when a distraught Hindu man
comes to him weeping. He confesses to Gandhi, “I am going to go to hell! I killed a Muslim
child!” Gandhi looks at him and replies calmly, “I can tell you how to find your way out of hell. Go
out and find a homeless Muslim boy, take him into your home and raise him as a Muslim.”
In a world plagued by religious strife, Gandhi’s message remains relevant—a call to transcend
sectarian divides and embrace our shared humanity as a way out of the hell some are co-
creating on Earth today. How can each of us, in our own context, and perhaps in less
dramatic but still extraordinary ways, live as Gandhi asked that man to?

For me, it has required developing a kind of religious humility which celebrates the inherent
dignity of every individual, regardless of their religious affiliation—at the heart of the interfaith
movement. Religious humility, as I see it, requires us to abandon the urge to be in some kind of
competition with other religions to propagate our own. Some seem to view religions like
corporations, prioritizing religious market share rather than prioritizing a love for all of God’s
creations, care of the soul, and aligning with Divine inspiration. Just because a religion “corners
the market” doesn’t make it a “great religion” any more than Pepsi and Coke cornering the cola
market necessarily makes them great beverages.

Religious humility recognizes that our own religious group does not have a monopoly on Truth
or an exclusive, or superior, or more intimate relationship with God, the Divine, Source Energy,
All that Is—whatever terminology we wish to employ. Some use the belief that their truth is truer
as a way to justify forcing their religious views on others. Could it be that we have something to
learn from others?

Religious humility confronts the fallacy of spiritual elitism, understands that all of humanity is
beloved. We may each have our favorite religion, but no one religious group is more special
than another, more spiritually privileged. Do we truly believe in a God who plays favorites, like a
dysfunctional parent, or do we acknowledge the universal love that transcends religious
boundaries?

For nearly half a century, the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington has been a beacon
of religious humility, fostering dialogue and understanding among diverse communities. By
promoting mutual respect and curiosity about religious differences, it exemplifies the spirit of
pluralism, essential for elevating humanity and for fostering a thriving democracy.

May the work of the IFC and all interfaith initiatives flourish and be blessed.