Monday, July 4, 2016

Moving towards Muslim intra-faith tolerance

There has been much discussion and many conscious efforts to bring about inter-faith understanding and tolerance so that people from different religious backgrounds may learn to live together in peace and harmony in this country. 
The Federal Constitution itself was so drafted to enshrine this principle of religious tolerance while acknowledging Islam as the religion of the Federation.
Since Merdeka, we see there are mosques, gurdwaras, temples, churches and many other holy places belonging to diverse religions co-existing peacefully.
Malaysians celebrate each other’s religious festivities as an occasion to foster togetherness without the respective religious beliefs being threatened.
There is not only tolerance but acceptance of the fact that being from different religious backgrounds is not a deterrent to working and living together.
By and large, most Malaysians accept this diversity of religious beliefs as a rich feature of Malaysia.
Malaysian Muslims, too, accept this reality as a sign from Allah of His creativity, mercy and wisdom.
Hence, God willing, religious differences do not cause disunity or strife among Malaysians.
The situation, however, I am afraid is different when it comes to tolerance within the Muslim community itself. 
In the Middle East, Pakistan and many other countries, sectarian differences in the Muslim community is characterised by enmity, disunity and sometimes violent conflicts among themselves.
The Shia-Sunni conflict is historical and continues to undermine global Muslim unity.
Even within the Sunni community itself, various sub-sects and extremist groups seem to have sprouted creating conflict within its community. The Islamic State  is positioned as an offshoot of the Sunni community.
In Malaysia, I sadly note sectarian differences seem to be taking a stronger negative presence in our society, threatening to undermine Malaysian Muslim unity. I may be wrong and I hope to be wrong but I observe that intra faith conflicts in the Muslim community seem to be increasing as the number of graduates from religious studies increase. 
Compared to say, about 40 years ago,  there seems to be less tolerance in our society pertaining to differences in opinions, views and interpretation of aspects of Islam among Muslims themselves.
A clear disunity among the Malay Muslims occurred when the political contest between Umno and PAS escalated in the 80s right through the 90s.
PAS was projected as representing Allah’s will in the political arena while Umno was seen as a nationalistic party despite the fact Umno’s constitution also placed the protection of the Islamic faith as one of its main objectives. 
“Islamic politics” became a significant political behaviour in the quest to woo the Malay Muslim’s votes.
The political contest between Umno and PAS led to the unfortunate disunity among the Malay Muslims as a result of the kafir mengkafir phenomenon where PAS politicians labelled Umno as infidels.
Hence, from politics, it mutated to a choice between belief and disbelief. Thereafter, each party tried to be more Islamic than the other but perception-wise, Umno was lagging behind in the “Islamic” image department.
I recall even many Umno members secretly believed PAS was indeed more “correct” on the Islamic path. The upshot of it is that the use of “Islam” for political purposes had the unfortunate result of breaking up Malay Muslim unity. 
In this regard, Najib and Hadi’s efforts to bring together Umno and PAS is seen as a move to lessen this political disunity among the Malay Muslims.
Over the years, there is greater emphasis on matters Islamic or perceived to be Islamic due to the political realities of the country. Concurrent with this, there is also increasing conflict between the Muslim thinkers not formally trained in religious studies and the Muslim scholars formally trained in religious studies. I note there is also increasing conflict among the Muslim scholars themselves. 
If the “conflict” is merely a civilised academic contest of ideas and interpretations with the view to espouse and put forth the best interpretations for consideration and humble debate, it is laudable. Civilisations are built upon citizens who are willing to think and behave compassionately.
However, it appears the contest increasingly dominant in the public sphere is not one with a view to share ideas but seems to be a contest to monopolise religious discourses and interpretation of what “Islam” is.
I believe this trend is increasing in our country and is actuated by the quest for power, control, wealth and also religious arrogance. 
Such a contest for monopoly of religion, if not curtailed, may lead to serious fractures in the Muslim community.  It is therefore extremely important for Muslims who wish to stand united by the “rope of Allah’ to be wary of such mischief makers clothed in the robe of religion.
Furthermore, I believe also some (not all) religious “experts” have developed a sense of religious egoism where, unwittingly or otherwise, they have equated their understanding and their interpretation to that of Allah’s.
In other words, the interpreter of scripture has elevated himself to the status of the Giver of scripture. Such a mindset is almost narcissist in nature and is dangerous to society. Such religious leaders may also become the leaders of disunity among the Muslim community.
To foster unity among the Muslims, no amount of outward and superficial show of “Islamness” will help if the spirit of Islam is dead within them. The Quran is replete with advice, exhortations and guidance on how to deal with differences of views even among the Muslims. They have to learn to be more tolerant of each other’s differing views on Islam.
Allah has many times in the Quran said He will settle all differences in the hereafter and that our duty includes doing righteous deeds, be humble, be useful to mankind and His creations, be compassionate and be mindful of our own duties and responsibilities.
So long as we have a few but “powerful” men who want to behave like god on earth, our efforts towards a united Muslim community will still remain a challenge. It is this challenge that the majority spiritual Muslims and the many guided and learned scholars have to bravely and consistently address before matters get worse. Let us never turn Malaysia into another Middle East.
* Jahaberdeen Mohamed Yunoos is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement which encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.
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