I found an interesting talk by Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin on Youtube. The title of the talk is “Islam and Inter-Religious Relationship” and supposedly it was held at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia on 21 Dec 2020. It’s in Malay and this is my attempt to translate it into English. The following will be the excerpts from the talk, an absolute straight forward translation without any of my own thoughts or opinions. I hope I’ve kept it as close to the talk as possible.
First of all I would like to touch on a number of important aspects for us to understand the environment of Muslims of today which is not the same as the environment of Muslims when they had their empire. During the time when they were in the lead, probably whatever they did was considered a standard or respectable. This is due to Islam which was regarded as a “brand” of high value. And then when we face an environment like today, where Islam is condemned as a religion of violence, intolerance and the cause of so much problems in the world. So, sometimes when we’re talking about topics like this, we’re driven without a choice to not to speak in the tone of someone who is promoting his religion. But, to speak in the tone of an accused in the court room who has been forced to defend his religion. This is what sometimes becomes the reality, where topics such as this one are created as tough we’re forced to defend Islam from accusations that it disrespects and do not tolerate other religions.
Before I talk about Islam I would like to note something I frequently mention, that is the clash between the East and West, or the West and the Middle East, did not begin with the coming of Islam. If you read writings like “The World Without Islam” you’ll find that before Islam came, Eastern Orthodox Christianity was frequently in conflict with Western Catholic Christianity. The war between these two religious groups was much bigger than the war between Muslims and Christians or the West.
When Martin Luther, the founder of Protestant, began his reform movement of Christianity we could see a huge intolerant reaction carried out by the Catholic Church. We have to understand the great pressure and cruelty shown to these reformists which lead German into a civil war. The Catholics were so cruel in resisting the reform movement that they burned scholars of Christianity who put forward ideas that they disagreed.
And we know from history that among the causes of the French revolution is the Church which showed so much cruelty against the people who differed in opinion. In the city of Oxford in UK, there are Protestants who are considered to have died as martyrs as they were burned alive in the name of religion. They were accused to have committed heresy because they carried views that differed from the views of the Catholic scholars.
So, intolerance is not something that is known in Islam, but it has occurred in other religions. When Islam took over power in the Middle East, the conflicts and war between religions decreased. Before Islam came there were lots of conflicts between religions, so much so that, some people speculate that if Islam does not exist in the Middle East today, the war between various Christian sects could be greater than the clash between Islam and Christianity.
So, I want to provide you with this view in the first place before we make any assumptions that the problem of tolerance or intolerance is a problem that has to do with the Muslims. Islam is a tolerant religion. I’ll mention the principles of Islam in terms of dealing with the non-Muslims, but I’d like to say that Muslims themselves must understand Islam before they speak representing Islam.
Lately in this country, a lot of conflicts have been taking place. And the government must be careful. It’s not the work of the government to create conflicts, but to manage the differences among the people. The conflicts due to differences in religious beliefs and race would lead to disharmony.
I would say that secularism that separates religion from the state or government is a blessing for the Muslims and also the Christians in Europe. If the French revolution did not take place and secularism is not practiced in the West, there wouldn’t be mosques and Muslims who preach Islam in the Western countries. Islam is the second largest religion in UK today and may grow larger than Christianity. It’s also the second largest religion in France. All these are possible because they have ended religious power over the country.
When the country is not a religious one, everyone could practice his or her religion and freely express themselves within the rule of law. This has resulted in many mosques, Islamic centers and Muslim scholars who preach in Europe. If the West and Europe were hardline religious nations that prohibit all religions except Christianity, they wouldn’t have had the chance to get to know Islam.
Having understood this, I would like to say why Islam is the fastest growing religion. There are a number of reasons. The fundamental principles that Islam practices makes it a blessing for the whole world. I always say that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), although he was involved in politics, economy, war and so on, the “slogan” that He carried and upheld by the Quran is not Prophet of politics or Prophet of economy, but Blessings for the whole world. The Prophet who brings blessings. Any religious discussions must lead to the blessings. If the economy does not bring the blessings, it’s not the economy of the Prophet. If the politics does not bring the blessings, it’s not the politics of the Prophet.
When we try to Islamize politics, what are the objectives of that? Why we want to Islamize politics? Some may say that it’s God’s order. Why God told us to Islamize politics is that to have politics that is based on the principles of Islam. God doesn’t need us. Islam is for the well being of people so that people would live in harmony and happiness. If there is any effort to put religion together with politics or Islamize politics that leads to riots, tension and injustice in a country, then that is not the objective of politics that God wants for us. No matter what we call it, or how we picture it. No matter if we gave a big turban and beautiful robe for the one who holds the political power. If it did not bring peace, happiness and justice among the people, then it is not the politics that God and the Prophet would want for us.
What is the original form of relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims? Is it war or peace? There are two schools of thought in this matter. First, which is the stance of the minority is that the status of relationship with the non-Muslims is always war. The non-Muslims are considered enemies unless there is a peace agreement with them. But, the stance of the majority of Muslims and Muslim scholars is that it’s always peace until there is a good reason for war. Verses of Quran related to war cannot be used to justify war against the non-Muslims because those verses were presented in the context of war.
The Prophet said to the Muslim soldiers who were entering a war to fight in the path of God, do not violate any treaties, do not abuse the spoils of war, do not hack a dead body, do not hurt children and do not kill the people in their house of worship. Before Geneva Islam has mentioned this rule. The Prophet further added that do not kill women and the service men who do not fight in the war but help the soldiers with food supplies and other amenities. Many such elements of Islam point that Islam’s objective is not to kill the non-Muslims. The Quran also says if a non-Muslim is seeking your protection, provide him the shelter he needs and then take him to a save place.
There was a time Muslim scholars grouped countries into a number of categories. “Darul Islam”, “Darul Harb” and so on. What was meant by “Darul Islam” was an Islamic territory where Muslims live in peace and practice their religion. If this is what it means, in this context, then some of the European countries are like “Darul Islam”, says a Muslim scholar Prof. Dr. Tariq Ramadan. This is because Muslims could live and practice their religion safely in these countries. Note that this is not due to the greatness of Christianity, but because of secularism. There are many Muslims who are not safe in their own Muslim nation. They then seek asylum in some of the European countries which provide them shelter.
Well, when we have understood this framework of thought, I wish to discuss the actual attitude of Islam towards the non-Muslims and their religions. What is the basis of relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims? Although we say it’s between religions but it’s actually between human beings. I’m used to mention that we have to recognize the difference between a number of matters. The difference between recognizing the truth and recognizing the existence of it. Recognizing the truth doesn’t equal recognizing it’s existence and recognizing the existence doesn’t equal recognizing the truth. I acknowledge the existence of Hinduism in this country, but I do not acknowledge the truth in it. But, I can’t deny that it exists. And when it exists, it has the rights like a person who exists. Sometimes our people are unable to recognize the difference between existence and the truth.
A prime minister of this country, regardless of his background, will have to permit non-Muslims to setup their places of worship that meet regulations. Would this mean that their beliefs are acknowledged and accepted? No, but the existence of their beliefs is acknowledged. Nothing in this world could take place without God’s will. A person could not sin without God’s will. But, whatever that God allows may not receive His Blessings. There are extremist groups that do not understand the difference in this, and misunderstand that we acknowledge the truth in the non-Muslim beliefs when we acknowledge their existence and form relationships.
So, what shall we do? First, in our relationship with non-Muslims we have to be fair and compassionate. It is said that fairness and compassion is the key to all of the teachings of Islam (sharia). Fair means we provide everyone his rights. Compassion means we fulfill a persons needs a little more than he deserves. Compassion is what was displayed by the Prophet when there was a Jewish funeral procession passed by and He stood up to show respect. When questioned, He answered that the Jewish body was a living being and deserves some respect. It is not to acknowledge the Jew’s religion but to acknowledge the human that he was. It wouldn’t have mattered at all if the Prophet did not stand up, but He did it for the sake of compassion. This is the value that gave a significant meaning to the state of relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Having over fifty years of independence and countless number of Islamic departments and institutions, we’ve failed to provide the non-Muslims with proper understanding of Islam that it is a good religion. There was a news from UK recently about the possibility of Islam becoming the largest religion in the country. They do not have as many religious departments and institutions as we have here. They too do not have the political power, but they have compassion. That is why Islam is growing over there.
Right here we cry foul that “Malays are going apostate, they unintentionally took the Holy water and they listened to the Bible reading and converted”. This is silly. We’re stepping on others due to our weaknesses. I understand that the non-Muslims would want to preach their religion too. But, the problem is that our weakness in preaching our religion. I recently heard from a Muslim scholar on the difficulties he faced to take a number of religious teachers to one of the East Malaysian states for teaching Quran reading. It seems the amount of procedures and red-tape of the religious bodies that he had to go through made it impossible to proceed with his plan. Mean while, it is easy for the other religions to hold their religious courses without fuss.
So, our relationship with the non-Muslims must happen in the tone of fairness and compassion. We must not be unfair towards non-Muslims. Let say a Muslim drove his car into a non-Muslim’s car causing damages. He then irresponsibly says that it was just a non-Muslim’s car who is going to hell anyway. Remember that the Muslims could go to hell too. God orders us to be fair. The Prophet has mentioned about the prayers of someone who has been hurt by unjust treatment. Regardless of his religion, if he prays to God with all his heart He would listen.
The religion tells us to be good with the non-Muslims who do not pose any hostility. In the early days of Islam, there were Muslims who were reluctant to offer something to a non-Muslim beggar as it would not return any holy rewards. But, in Quran there are verses that explain that a Muslim would receive his holy rewards when he donates to a non-Muslim too. Just now I received an SMS with a question, “As a victim of the floods I’ve taken aids from non-Muslims. So, have I turned an apostate?” This is being extremely sensitive. There is no problem with receiving aids from non-Muslims as they do not require us to convert. The strange thing is that we are the ones who suppose to be providing those aids.
Zakat in Islam is a broad subject of welfare that also provides for the people who’ve converted into Islam, those who may convert if given zakat, those who may not become hostile towards Islam if given zakat, those who’re hostile towards Islam and may get to like Islam if given zakat and the list is long. But, we narrow it down to just Muslims. And then we cry foul that the other religious movements are providing aids to hospital patients, flood victims, tsunami victims and the poor. Then we complaint that the other religions are dangerous and what do we do about that is demonstrations.
In fact such social welfare projects must be carried out by the Muslims by offering aids to the non-Muslims. Our zakat accumulation is around 1.8 billion per year. Out of this we could help, say patients in the hospitals, regardless of religion. They would appreciate us, but then we’re always instigating enmity and hatred which has absolutely nothing to do with the religion. We do not agree of a secular state. But even more so, we do not agree of any parties or political power making use of religion to satisfy political needs. Secularism is not good enough and a true religion must govern the nation. If the religion is not in governance and instead it is used as a tool for political survival, then in this situation, secularism is better. At least the good name of the religion won’t be tainted.
Islam is peace. When we always carry a wrong perception of Islam, it confuses the non-Muslims. I would give you an example here that I’m used to mention. Sometimes, the non-Muslims are hired to construct mosques. Once the construction is over, we say it’s haram for them to enter the mosque. We’ve made an odd interpretation. Those who’ve stayed in European countries would know that mosque is a place the non-Muslims visit to hear briefings on Islam. The non-Muslims are unable to recognize the true Islam when various groups among us interpret the religion differently. They are also feeling discriminated by the manner we treat them.
After we’ve given a great picture of Islam, that it is harmonious and friendly, we have to do one more thing, that is propagation of the religion. I’m someone who supports inter-faith dialog. It is not to push others to accept Islam or on the contrary to step away from the religion. But, at least the others would understand our religion and we would understand what the others feel about us. It is not to accept the other religions but to understand the diversity and makeup of the world.
The people who have never been introduced to Islam as there were no one to propagate and make them truly understand the religion will not be condemned by God. On the other hand, all of us who do not propagate Islam to non-Muslims in the country and also those who release statements regarding Islam in the media that have caused the non-Muslims to misunderstand Islam are in trouble. We’ve to propagate Islam sensibly and without force. This is a religion that brings the message of truth in a gentle manner until people accept it. I wish to point out that this is the basis of relationship between us and the other religions. This strength of relationship is what has made Islam the fastest growing religion in the world bringing the message of justice and people have accepted.
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Quran is the greatest miracle. This is due to the beauty of the language of Quran. Those who’ve learned and understand Arabic like the Arabs would recognize the beauty in the language of Quran and would be amazed by it. What is there for those who do not understand Arabic to be fascinated about Quran and Islam. They don’t understand it or feel the beauty in it. So how did those people accept Islam? It’s the brilliance of the minds that propagated the religion among them. The spread of Islam in the early days when the Muslims entered non-Arabic regions was due to the gentle character of the Muslims and not the sword. Those who did not understand the language of Quran saw the meaning of Quran through the character of the Muslims and accepted Islam. This is the miracle of morals.
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We have an environment where there could be little inter-religious and inter-cultural understanding among the Muslims and non-Muslims. Our community has been spooked by superstitious like attitude such as alleging a Muslim that his faith has eroded because he mingles with non-Muslims or looked through a Bible. So, we seem to have people who are always in the defensive attitude and afraid of their surroundings. Afraid that they would be seen as unfaithful. If we’re educated in such environment, we can’t rise up to carry out the mission of Islam that is to free humans from enslaving themselves to another human to submitting themselves to God, from the cruelty of religions to justice of Islam and from the limitedness of the physical world to the greatness of the world and afterlife.
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At the time of writing Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin is a professor of Islamic studies in Universiti Sains Malaysia. The Youtube video could be viewed here. An archived version of the video could be downloaded here.