Religious, yet rational society

Serious and continuous efforts have to be made to promote mutual respect through discussions on religion that are interesting, enjoyable, enriching and beneficial to all.

RELIGION, it is generally believed, is inherently “irrational” because it is based upon faith, and to hold to something on the basis of faith means to be firm in one’s conviction regardless of any apparent “evidence” to the contrary.

If we accept these premises we must also accept the conclusion that the faithful are irrational, and the stronger one’s faith is the more irrational one becomes. If rationality is a virtue, faith must be a vice and antithetical to peace and socio-political stability.

What may be the consequences for a minority if the majority hold a particular faith and are unwilling to be proven wrong? Will the minority be allowed to hold a different belief even if it is certain that, as far as the majority is concerned, the belief is wrong?

If we accept the first principle of Rukunegara we cannot be thinking along that line – unless we believe that our country is actually founded upon an irrational principle.

In our country, Islam is the official religion, and we can find among its citizens a significant number of followers of various faiths living side by side peacefully.

After more than 50 years of independence the people have achieved a lot of wonderful things together.

No right-thinking citizen of this country will want to see what we have painfully built destroyed by our own hands due to intolerance and bigotry in the name of religion.

But religion is also too important to the majority of us for it to be undermined in the name of peace and unity. It is the obligation of the Government to safeguard the special place of Islam and protect the rights of non-Muslims to practice their religions peacefully.

Nevertheless, religion is still generally regarded as a sensitive subject, which means it needs to be dealt with carefully because it is likely to cause disagreement or make certain people angry or upset, leading to communal violence and bloodshed.

If we want to have peaceful co-existence, logically we must not say or do certain things out of fear that the faithful might get offended or become upset. It means that a certain amount of fear must be maintained in order to maintain peace.

Fear is not altogether bad, but irrational fear is. Irrational fear is, to my mind, our real enemy and the greatest obstacle to progress and unity. This fear must be conquered before it goes out of control.

It is counter-productive as well as dangerous to restrain discussion on religion out of fear.

Today, people may publish on the Internet if they are not able to do so in the mainstream media. It is actually futile trying to restrict, let alone stop, people from doing that. It is like attempting to enforce ignorance, which we all know is the root cause of fanaticism and bigotry.

The real challenge now is how to make discussions on religion more interesting, enjoyable, enriching and beneficial to all. Serious and continuous efforts have to be made to promote mutual respect instead of fear (mixed with hatred) for our continued peaceful co-existence.

In order to understand and to be understood we need to talk to one another.

If we do not talk about religion how are we going to understand it, and make others understand and appreciate its importance in our personal and social life?

The need for dialogue is even greater today in a globalised world where access to information and misinformation is almost unlimited.

But how can we discuss if we believe that being faithful means being irrational? Who will dialogue with the irrational people?

This brings us back to the first question: is faith inherently irrational? Based on our experience so far we can confidently answer in the negative. We should work harder and smarter to ensure that faith and rationality prevails harmoniously.

In tandem with the first principle of Rukunegara, the Government should play an important role in encouraging and supporting both intra- and inter-faith dialogue. Religion should be seen as something good for society, and as such it has to be shared, promoted and defended.

If this effort is carried out properly and sincerely we may be able to foster better knowledge and understanding, and, based on that, a framework of cooperation may be worked out. It is within this framework that all outstanding religious issues may be properly adressed and resolved.

In this regard Muslims have an important role to play, and a huge responsibility to shoulder. They must show good example to other communities because it is through their action and behaviour that the non-Muslims get their perception of Islam.

Since they are the majority and are in charge of the affairs of the country they should be mature enough, particularly, in dealing with criticism. Criticism against certain conduct of Muslims must not be misconstrued as criticism against Islam.

It is possible that the criticism is due to ignorance of the true teaching of Islam. This point is reflected in the recent controversy over azan (call to prayer).

Everybody wants to live in peace, but peace of mind is more fundamental because it is personal. It has to do with one’s certainty about the nature of the ultimate reality, namely, about the nature and purpose of existence, about God, about the external world, and about what constitutes virtues and values.

These are the foundations of all religions. They explain why we live the way we do. They explain why we are different. They explain why religion matters to all of us.

These problems are only not to be solved but they have also to be adequately understood if we want to promote mutual respect among believers. Only then can issues related to rituals, practices and policies be properly addressed.

Plurality is not alien to Islam, and it does not and will never seek to eliminate it. Islam promotes peaceful co-existence based upon mutual-understanding. Hence Islamic religious and intellectual tradition strongly encourages rational discourse and condemns blind imitation and fanaticism.

From the very beginning Muslims have been aware of the need to articulate and defend their faith through a systematic application of rational principles.

Islamic culture is a culture of discourse and dialogue, and Malaysia has all the reasons to revive and promote this culture.

by Mohd Asham Ahmad.

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