Embracing many faiths in Malaysia

The practice of muhibbah – with its abundance of respect, care and love – is a better concept to foster national unity than mere tolerance for one another.

MALAYSIA is a unique federation blessed with a variety of religions, races, ethnic groups, languages, customs and culture. All world major religions are practiced here: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. Other religious beliefs include Sikhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Bahaism and even Animism.

The country’s 27 million population consists of three main racial groups – Malays, Chinese, and Indians – and numerous orang asli tribes in the Peninsular as well as indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak.

The Malays are largely Muslims, the Chinese are mostly Buddhists, the Indians are generally Hindus. Christians are basically Chinese or Indians. The orang asli communities and dozens of other Borneo ethnic groups mostly practice traditional beliefs but many have converted to either Christianity or Islam.

Therefore, all the groups are of different religions, races, ethnicities and, understandably, a myriad of languages, dialects, customs and cultures. Obviously Malaysia is a multi-religious, multi-racial and multi-cultural nation.

Despite the diversity, all Malay­sians have been harmoniously living together for decades.

Islam is the religion of the Fede­ration, and the Constitution grants freedom of worship to other religions. So, it is common to see places of worship like mosques, churches and temples within the same area.

By extension, this liberty goes to other social and cultural aspects of the various people as long as their practices do not pose any threat to the public order, public health or the principles of ethics and morality.

This explains why religious or cultural festivals have been amazingly celebrated by Malaysians regardless of their divergent racial or religious backgrounds.

Such an excellent understanding and relationship suggests that these races have adopted a strong sense of respect, and tolerate each other well. This has been the main factor behind the country’s economic prosperity, growth and political stability.

However, one of the greatest challenges of the nation is to maintain its peaceful social ambience and political stability resulting from the multi-racial nature of its society.

The recent unfolding of events indicates that all these noble qualities are now increasingly under threat. Since then, there have been repeated calls asking members of our pluralistic citizenry to preserve the unity spearheaded by our forefathers and nurtured by generations of subsequent political leaders.

It seems that religious issues have the potential to be exploited to cause prejudice, suspicion and disunity among the masses. In fact, many have been manipulated by irresponsible and unscrupulous quarters to fan hatred.

Thus, one such call has been to abstain from discussing issues that may spark misunderstanding and ignite religious or racial tensions.

The rationale is straightforward: without unity, there will be no peace and stability. Without peace, there will be no prosperity, growth and development. And none will benefit from any resulting outbreak of social anarchy.

The latest series of events may lead one to conclude that our unity is fragile and our religious tolerance is false and our stability fictitious.

I strongly advocate that we take the above as true. Then what are we to do to rectify the problem?

Perhaps “tolerance” is not the right concept to foster unity. According to the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, “to tolerate” is to endure or permit (something) especially with forbearance, i.e. the patience to sustain or endure suffering, pain, hardship or unfavourable conditions.

Equally highly authoritative Crabb’s English Synonyms puts it thus: “Tolerate suggests something annoying borne with some patience; endure, something in the nature of positive suffering borne with courage and fortitude.”

Prof Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud, a Malaysian scholar, comments that all the above indicate human submission to different kinds and degrees of unpleasantness. It refers to something disagreeable without the element of kindness and love.

Bearing that in mind, it is our clamourous mistake to perceive our tolerance as something genuine and sincerely carried out.

Thus it is not surprising to see that when something happens to the perceived disadvantages of certain people, some will cunningly use the opportunity to shout injustice and blame others for their false predicament. Worse still, they scream that it is their right to annoy others for their own selfish ends.

If we were to “embrace” our unity in diversity as a boon, something exceptionally terrific for the nation, we must genuinely accept our commonalities and agree to disagree on certain fundamental differences as they are, be they religious or cultural.

Echoing Prof SMN al-Attas, I suggest that the conception and practice of freedom and tolerance must be based on samahah, or muhibbah. The former means liberality, munificence, generosity and gentleness, while the latter refers to something that is dear to oneself, loved.

Respect, care and love is abundant in muhibbah. Therefore, instead of propagating “tolerance” as a vehicle for unity, we must rather promote muhibbah in its place.

A muhibbah society means a true, loving society while a “tolerant” one is pretentious, as the majority of its members are exercising self control amid all forms of hatred and suspicions towards others.

by Dr. Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad,

Senior Fellow/Director, Centre for Syariah, Law and Political Science.

Read more @ http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2010/10/26/focus/7276457&sec=focus

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