Farhan's call to live out the true essence of Islam

NST, June 3, 2014

'FORCE FOR GOOD': Dr Denison Jayasooria highlights five pointers from the talk by academic Dr Farhan Ahmad Nizami

EARLY this year, I attended a dinner hosted by Dr Farhan Ahmad Nizami at the Oxford Centre when I participated at an academic conference on inter-religious dialogue at St Anthony's College, Oxford, organised by Prof Tariq Ramadan and Prof Osman Bakar. I had the opportunity to interact with the people at the Oxford Centre and found them to be academic, knowledgeable and very open for interaction and exchange of ideas. Moderating the Putrajaya Premier Lecture 2014 by Farhan was a unique opportunity, and as I drove away from the Putrajaya International Convention Centre, I asked myself what really impressed me from the lecture and interaction, and what pointers I could take away from this experience.

FIRST, the most impressive phrase I heard from the lecture was "Islam... a force for good". This was simple yet profound, especially in the current context where Islam and Muslims are feared because of the association of religion and terrorists attacks, including suicide bombers. Farhan himself noted the link or association of terrorism and Islam was wrong, but public perception and media projections are realities today. Even in Malaysian society, there are certain individuals and groups who, in the name of religion, utter hate speeches or act in a way that does not portray the goodness of God and religious heritage. SECOND was Farhan's description of Malaysian society, that "the success of pluralism in Malaysia is inspired by religious convictions and sustained by it".

The term "pluralism" is viewed by certain quarters as bad and an anti-thesis to Islam and Muslim society. They interpret pluralism to mean syncretism, which is not very accurate. In Farhan's lecture, pluralism was viewed as a positive Islamic virtue of recognising and appreciating diversity and being able to manage it with mutual respect and tolerance in the moderate tradition. This makes sense, as in Malaysian society, there is this spirit of give and take, mutual respect and understanding. However, certain individuals and groups have been in the public space distorting the teachings of true religion. Here, Farhan expounds the "Islamic tradition of tolerance and neighbourliness with peoples of different religions and ethnicity".

This is the reality on the ground. While the political discourse and media had witnessed many divisive statements and arguments, the everyday experiences in the local neighbourhoods, markets and pasar malam is one of cordial relations among the various ethnic and religious communities. THIRD is that Islam is a way of life, not just a set of rituals or laws to abide by. Islam stands for the wider and broader meaning of religion namely justice, fairness, human rights, ethical behaviour, good governance, and equitable distribution of wealth. There, according to Farhan, was the true essence of Islam and followers must embody and display these in daily living.

In a similar way, all the major religious traditions are spiritual forces for common good that seek to build peace and harmony. True religion includes personal piety but the outworking in daily relationship is being a good family member, a good neighbour, a responsible and contributing citizen to the nation. We, are, therefore motivated and mobilised by the true essence of our religious traditions. In the Christian tradition, we often say one could take "the form of religion but not the spirit" and meaning of it. Therefore, living out religious values and beliefs in peace and harmony is one major indicator of spirituality. It is humility, sense of fairness for all and truly living in every day relationships. Ultimately, we will all face the creator on the final day to give account of what we did and did not do on earth.

FOURTH, one of the themes that emerged during discussion was "religion in or out of governance". Farhan's position was that you cannot keep religion or its values out, but good governance would encompass it, especially from a civilisational dimension. One notes the dangers of majority verses minority issues. It is necessary for all majority and dominant societies, where they are Buddhists -- as in the case of countries like Myanmar, Thailand or even Sri Lanka -- that they treat minority communities in fairness. Likewise, in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, Muslim communities must protect the interest of non-Muslims in their societies. In a similar way, in the Philippines, the Christian majority must be fair and just to the other religious and ethnic minorities.

Therefore, justice and fairness -- and in addition, the Malaysian Federal Constitution has the phrase "reasonable" -- is significant and a theme that needs to be mediated and moderated in every context in peace and harmony FIFTH, Farhan called for the establishment of a "National Endowment for the Humanities in Malaysia". While his proposal is more towards Muslim communities, this is one area which can foster greater understanding though the humanities for the enrichment of Malaysian society. This is relevant, especially in a period and age where the interest in humanities and social science from an inter-disciplinary context is lacking. This is also so in the academic study of the sociology of religion in Malaysian society.

Space must be created for dialogue across religions, ethnic groups, generational and gender to find new synergies in building a better Malaysia for all Malaysians. In this process, we might become a better role model in Asean, as well as to the wider world, of multi-cultural and multi-religious communities living side by side with mutual respect for one another. We have a major role to play as Malaysian citizens, and to not allow certain individuals and groups to hijack Malaysian society into waters that breed hatred, enmity and envy. Being true disciples and followers of our religious heritage, we must live out our faith in daily relationships in truth, honesty, humility, justice and fairness.

Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria is the principal research fellow, Institute of Ethnic Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia