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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Diversifying Perspectives in Understanding Religion

It teaches us to be less dogmatic of what we hold and more tolerant towards views that are different from ours.

For most people, religion is the fundamental element in human life. It is perceived in many ways by the believers, either as an identity marker or something that is sacred and embraced as the pillars that they hold onto in their lives. Unsurprisingly, religion particularly Islam has increasingly become a hot topic in Malaysia. It is especially so when Islamisation creeps into every stratum of society.

Religion that is perceived as something personal is gradually becoming social and, worse, a state matter. But what is also worrying is that Islam as is practised in Malaysia is governed by religious institutions that have a monopoly over the interpretation of the religion. In other words, aspects of Islam receive singular, as opposed to diverse, interpretations prescribed by the state institutions. The inclination to be exclusive and monolithic is ostensible not only in intra-religious relations but also in inter-religious relations.

Sunni and Shia conflict that has been going on for decades in countries like Syria, Pakistan and Bahrain, has also reached the shores of Malaysia albeit the intensity of the split is not as high as we can visually perceive in those countries. Yet, we can still see the clash between the conservative and the progressive with all the erroneous labels such as Jews, liberal, Illuminati, traditional and so on that are thrown at each other.

There are such cases that can be seen at the inter-religious level. The relations between Muslims and Christians experiences a setback by cases such as the removal of the cross from a church that happened in Taman Medan, Selangor in 2015 as well as the use of loudspeakers for azan by Muslim. Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (ISMA) has once again stirred up controversy by asserting that Malays should not wish Christians “Merry Christmas” and celebrate together with them.

On top of that, there are also issues that affect intellectual development in the country such as the banning of Irshad Manji’s book, Allah, Liberty and Love and the prohibition of the use of the word Allah in the Malay translation of the Bible. Muslim-Christian relations has been adversely affected to the extent that some believers of both religions have the impression that there are far too many dissimilarities to form a basis for interfaith solidarity.

False accusations have also become a tool to discredit one another. Early this year, activist groups such as Sister in Islam (SIS), Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), Institute for Policy Research (IKD) and Penang Institute were claimed as the agents of liberal and Illuminati by a Muslim group for allegedly receiving funding from international organisations, foundations, and agencies.

The angst that emerges and translates into false allegations and threats has somehow disrupted religious life in this country, and this can be traced to the failure of many followers of religions to undertake various approaches towards understanding and perceiving religion.

The uneasiness of certain Islamic groups regarding the diverse Islamic discourses promoted by many parties and individuals are the result of their inability to offer counter arguments as well as to have harmonious religious dialogue. Additionally, it is also their failure to see religion especially Islam outside of the theological realm. We shall not discuss about their fascination with conspiracy theories here.

Theological framework tends to look at religion as something normative and subjective. It is in fact the popular framework and widely used by Muslims when looking at different religions or interpretations.

Theological perspective tends to claim the absolute truth and there are no other truths apart from it. Any other religions are considered erroneous, their followers infidel and those who abandon their own faith are deemed apostate. Different and more liberal religious interpretations are considered interpretations led by those who have gone astray.

Undoubtedly, religious dialogues are hardly ever celebrated by the narrow-minded. Dogmatism and religious fanaticism have shut any possibilities to comprehend different ideas and to spread toleration towards different faiths. If this is not well-managed, it would then engender a more divided society that we living in a multi-religious and multi-cultural society do not wish for.

Accusing others of blasphemy is one of the examples of overemphasizing theological point of view in dealing with religious differences. Historically, religious violence that occurred in most Muslim-majority countries is derived from matters related to Muslim religious values and beliefs. Pakistan and Afghanistan for instance are not only geographically neighbours, but they are also the epicentres of blasphemy-related violence ranging from prosecutions, political mayhem and assassinations.

There has been a consistent trend of using blasphemy as a means to silence critics. Mahmud Muhammad Taha, a Sudanese religious thinker, for instance, was sentenced to death after he was found guilty of apostasy. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, an Egyptian academic was also famously prosecuted for publishing views that were deemed to be contrary to Islamic doctrines. The case of the well-known author, Salman Rushdie who was prosecuted by Ayatollah Khomeini because of the publication of the novel The Satanic Verses was also one of the most celebrated cases of blasphemy.

Recently in Indonesia, the anti-Ahok rally held by certain radical and conservative groups in downtown Jakarta claiming to represent Islam is another case in point. In his speech during his visit in Kepulauan Seribu, Indonesia, Ahok, a Christian of Chinese descent and serving as the 17th Governor of Jakarta is accused of having insulted Islam and is now facing blasphemy trial in Indonesian court.

Ahok angered religious conservatives after he referenced a verse from the Islamic holy book, Al-Maidah 51 of the Qur’an, on the campaign trail in September. Ahok rather boldly told voters they should not be duped by religious leaders using the verse to justify the claim that Muslims should not be led by non-Muslims.

Apart from putting much emphasis on the theological, certain Islamic groups in Malaysia tend to promote the Islamic discourse that prioritises what may be considered as trivial, such as how long can one grow a beard or can one pray without a praying mat, over larger and important issues.

Even though one would argue that there are no trivial issues in Islam, there are however a hierarchy of importance so that one could prioritise what is more vital and needed to be discussed and acted upon in our society. For example, rituals are an important element in the life of Muslims. However, it should not be overemphasised to the point of side-lining other larger issues in society that demand our immediate attention, such as corruption and abuse of power amongst the political leaders. What about poverty and economic disparities, abuse of power, deforestation, environmental pollution, climate change, etc.?

Therefore, it is important that religion should also be perceived from a sociological perspective. If theology is the science of man’s relation to God, religion from sociological point of view is the science of man’s relation with his fellow men. Our society clearly lacks the emphasis of horizontal relation of man and his fellow men. It is rarely taught and nurtured in our society, not even in school, mosque or university.

Sociology provides an alternative in understanding religion where religion is seen as a universal characteristic of human social life. Every human has his or her own belief and worldview and it needs to be respected by everyone. Religion from sociological framework is not seen from moral, doctrine or revelation but a social phenomenon that is to be understood and fairly judged without being dictated by one’s subjectivity.

Admittedly, understanding and perceiving religion from a sociological perspective is not as easy as one could think. But at the lowest level, it could be learned, nurtured and practised by every one of us. We could have the awareness for the enormous diversity of religious traditions. It is not only Islam that we can find in this tiny little world, but Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Shinto, Confucianism, Taoism and thousand more! Moreover, there are also ranges of religious interpretations that need to be celebrated.

What we need to have in our hearts is the desire to understand more instead of judging and condemning others. Diversifying perspectives in understanding religions teaches us to be less dogmatic of what we hold and more tolerant towards views that are different from ours.

This may be a good starting point to create a more tolerant and harmonious Malaysia.

*This essay was first published in The Malay Mail Online, 10 February 2017.


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