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The debate on pluralism

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Over the last few days, a controversy has been brewing over a statement by the Institute of Islamic Understanding (Ikim) that Islam considers that not all religions are equal, and that the concept of pluralism is antithetical to Islam.

The Umno-owned and controlled Utusan Malaysia daily has gone to town with stories suggesting that religious pluralism is a threat to Islam, and that Pakatan Rakyat supremo and opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is pushing for other religions to be put on an equal footing with Islam.

According to the newspaper, those who question the position of Islam and the Malays are practitioners of religious pluralism, in what appears to be a claim that Anwar’s rejection of Umno’s “ketuanan Melayu” concept is unIslamic, or even anti-Islam.

I think we should not just jump at Ikim and unilaterally condemn its view about the exclusivity of Islam without some serious objective evaluation and understanding of the teaching of the religion.

From the strictly theological perspective, Ikim is right. Islam, like Christianity, is certainly an exclusive religious faith, claiming in the Shahada (Declaration of Faith) that “There is no god, but Allah” (La ilah illa Ilah) and Muhammad is Allah’s messenger (Wa Muhammad rasul u’llah). The Ikim position is consistently with the fundamental theology of Islam.

Like Christianity, Islam also claims exclusivity to its beliefs and teachings. A Muslim’s faith is firmly based on the belief that the source of his religion Islam is God and Muhammad is the only and last and final prophet and spokesman for God on the Earth. A true Muslim holds that Islam is not just one of the many religions, but THE religion per se, the only true religion of God, the religion of the created natural order (din-al-fitrah).

The religion is called Islam because Allah had decreed it in the Quran: “Lo the religion with God is Al Islam to His will and guidance” (3:19) and “I have chosen for you as religion Al Islam” (5:3). Islam, an Arab word, means submission, total surrender and obedience, and that is the practical implications for Muslims. There are several greetings based on the word Islam, such as “Peace be upon you” (salamalek) and “Go in peace” (bissalma, masalma). Thus, the teaching of Islam is about a life of faith and peace through submission to the one and only true God Allah. The word “Muslim” means a person who has totally surrendered his whole life to Allah. The Islamic faith is not just purely an organized ritualistic religion, but a complete way of life, covering every area of life and thoughts, including politics.

Hence, the Ikim claim to exclusivity for Islam is not without theological merit.

As a Christian, I can understand the Ikim position, since my faith is also an exclusive one. No Christian will dispute or challenge my contention that Christianity also claims exclusivity to be the only way of salvation for mankind, and that the Lord Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” and “No one comes to the Father (God) except through me (Jesus)”. (John 14:6), and that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

The issue before us, therefore, is not the question of theological belief per se, but how to relate an exclusive faith to other religions in a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual society like Malaysia.

The word “pluralism” has been used unilaterally by almost everyone – religious leaders, politicians, journalists – without fully understanding what the concept actually means and implies.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “pluralism” as “a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, etc co-exist”.

The keyword, I believe, is “co-exist”. The context in which pluralism exists and practiced is the widely diverse and varied range of religious faiths in a given society, such as Malaysia which has Islam as its official religion and other faiths being part of the scenario.

The fundamental issue we face in a plural society like Malaysia is the matter of peaceful and harmonious co-existence among the people of various races and religious beliefs.

Although I believe that Ikim is theologically consistent with the teaching of Islam, its statement that “Islam rejects religious pluralism that claims all religions to be equally good and truthful” is certainly not politically correct in the context of the Malaysian plural society.

I believe Ikim should look at the issue of pluralism from two broad perspectives, before making a sweeping dismissal of pluralism per se.

First, there is the pluralistic perspective that all religions are equal and “all roads lead to God”. Obviously, Islam, and, for that matter Christianity, will never endorse such a view.

Islam and Christianity both teach and propagate that their respective faith is the only true religion, with all other religious systems and faiths being considered “pagan”. Hence, it is simply impossible for a true Muslim or an honest Christian to agree to inter-faith “spiritual activities”. For a Muslim or Christian to participate, for example, in an inter-faith “worship” is to acknowledge that his faith is just one among many others, to place his God on equal standing with the deities of other religious faiths.

This is what justifies the Ikim position in relationship to other faiths. And I will say that the Ikim concern is valid and theologically consistent with the Islamic teaching. As a Christian, I take a similar stand that I cannot participate in an inter-religious worship service or other inter-faith spirituality activities, without dishonouring and betraying my Lord Jesus.

But, there is another perspective of pluralism which does not involve the matter of spiritual compromise, and that is the common universal moral values among all peoples of the world. And it is this common earthly destiny of all peoples that Ikim should consider the vital role of Muslims to help promote peace and harmony among the people, who are the vice-regents of Allah (khalifa Allah) on Earth.

As I said before, as a Christian, I will not participate in an inter-faith worship service which will place my Lord Jesus as being among one of the gods, on equal standing with them. If I do, it will mean I am not consistent with my faith in the Lord Jesus as the only way, the truth, and the life. Such a compromise in matters of spirituality is surely not correct and honest.

My Muslim friends, too, are correct in taking a similar stand, or else their Shahada becomes a vain recitation, rendering their faith to be meaningless. Hence, Ikim is theologically correct in its stand.

However, in the matters of morality, justice, righteousness, equality, freedom, human, civil and constitutional rights, I will endorse and support any inter-faith “dialogue” and joint stand and actions. This is the other perspective of pluralism that I believe Ikim should seriously study and evaluate, before dismissing the whole concept of pluralism per se.

Although the people of Malaysia are adherents of various faiths and religious systems, they are united for the common purpose of nation-building, and are jointly dealing with many fundamental issues relating to their role as citizens. Hence, the need to come together to talk and compromise.

There is an urgent need for inter-faith dialogues on matters such as the freedom to worship, teach and propagate each other’s religion, the matter of land for places of worship and burial, the right to use the national language Bahasa Malaysia without restriction in worship and religious education, the legal disputes over the conversion of individuals, particularly children, and the vital matter of co-existence.

Ikim, and all responsible Muslim leaders should be willing to participate in such inter-faith dialogues as the common-interest issues need not involve doctrinal compromise or theological dispute.

I hope all parties concerned with the dispute over pluralism will understand and accept that the fundamental matter is the peaceful and harmonious co-existence of all persons or all faiths, with each practicing his faith with full sensitivity and due respect to people of other faiths. What we want is not a theological war, but a channel for inter-faith dialogues and a medium for communication on issues of universal common interests.

May God bless our beloved nation real good!

MySinchew 2010-12-17

 

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