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ZAINAH ANWAR: It’s deeds that will test religion
LIKE so many others, I had thought that Karen Armstrong’s public lecture in mid-June would focus on the unsettling relationship between religion and politics in the 21st century.
The religious historian and former nun did give an account on how religion has been implicated in the catastrophes of the 20th and 21st centuries and how the growth of militant piety in all the major religions as a response to the challenge of modernity has led to a distortion of faith. But for me, it was her focus on how to find common ground among all religions and what constitutes good and bad religion that made the biggest impact. As someone constantly battling suffocating patriarchy justified in the name of religion, I was moved by the strength and utter simplicity of her spiritual message.She feels many people have turned away from religion because it is made so complicated in its emphasis on doctrine rather than practice. We are so obsessed with being right in our doctrine instead of being just in our practice, she says. Thus, her emphasis is on practical compassion as a way to be religious, to attain enlightenment.
She believes the most important virtue in religion is compassion — this does not mean feeling sorry for the others; it means feeling with them, displacing our own ego at the centre of our lives and putting others there. It means to look into our inner self, find out what distresses us and refuse to inflict this upon others.And it’s not good enough if we confine our compassion only to our own group. We must extend it to others as well. She strongly believes in the golden rule of not doing unto others what you don’t want done to yourself. Since preoccupation with compassion is common to all religions, she believes this can establish one common ground that enables us to live together and respect each other.We didn’t need Armstrong to come to Malaysia to tell us this, of course. But the standing room-only audience of all religions and races was a telling sign that we wanted to hear a voice of reason, wisdom and compassion that could help us make sense of a world that has become so polarised and unjust, and how we can make religion a source of solutions, rather than a source of problems. As I listened to her, I wondered how many of us in the audience would really be thinking through what she was saying and applying it in our lives. It did not take long for reality to hit home. The second person to ask a question began by giving his salam only to the Muslim brothers in the room and a good morning to others.
I cringed as I felt the murmur in the hall. A Christian friend behind me muttered that she was being excluded in this man’s greeting of peace, and a Muslim woman next to her remarked that even Muslim sisters were excluded. I felt compelled at the end of the talk to approach the older man to try to understand why he started his comment about the need to be considerate of others by excluding and "othering" so many in the hall.
I have been thinking about all that has gone wrong with the practice of my religion where too many of us are obsessed with what we believe is doctrine, rather than practise what reflects the justice of God. On Wednesday, a Chinese Muslim friend came for advice on how she could make sure that her property, her Employees’ Provident Fund and insurance benefits would go to her Buddhist parents and siblings should she die. She is a convert and is divorced. She has no children, and under Muslim inheritance laws, non-Muslims cannot inherit from a Muslim. But she wants all her hard-earned assets to go to her parents and siblings, and not to Baitulmal. Just the other night, a friend emailed from California, saying her grandmother had died, leaving a house to her mother and her two aunts. They are in the midst of selling the house, but Baitulmal is demanding its share because the three daughters are entitled to only two-thirds of the property. In the absence of residual male heirs, one-third should go to Baitulmal under our Shafie school of law. But under the Hanafi and Hanbali schools, daughters can inherit all. Needless to say, the three sisters, all in their sixties and seventies, are very upset about this. For me, it is public deeds that will test the place of Islam in the 21st century. We all know what theory says — that Islam is a just and peaceful religion. That more than any other religion, it recognises pluralism, differences and disputation. It was revolutionary in granting women rights unheard of in the 7th century, the right to inherit, own and dispose of property, the right to enter a contract and the right to be treated as an equal. In fact, according to Armstrong, the Crusaders were shocked at how well women were treated in Muslim land, and the scholar monks in Europe criticised Islam for being too egalitarian and giving too much respect to ordinary people, especially women. Where and how it went wrong remain the subject of books and articles, even as I write this. But as I told a group of young women at the Feminista Fiesta two weekends ago, we can begin to make it right by doing little things to make a difference, to make someone’s life better, to show compassion not just to those who share our faith but to others as well. Yesterday, even though it was my day off, I visited two Indian restaurants in Bangsar which were raided by a team of enforcement officers from the Department of Islamic Development (Jakim), Federal Territory Islamic Department (Jawi) and Kuala Lumpur City Hall over their halal certification. I went because my niece’s young Chinese friend who was eating in one of the restaurants was so distressed by the show of power and intimidation by the religious officials (10 inside the restaurant and more milling outside) that she says she cannot bring herself to speak up for this country any more when it is unfavourably compared to others. I wanted to join my niece in assuring her that the action of those little Napoleons does not represent the belief or have the support of most other Muslims. Armstrong says any belief that makes you compassionate, kind and respectful of others is a good religion.
If your beliefs make you intolerant, unkind and belligerent, this is bad religion, no matter how orthodox it is.
Aha … could this be why her celebrated books on Prophet Muhammad, the Battle for God and the History of God are banned in Malaysia?
Thank God that although one arm of the government, the Internal Security Ministry on the recommendation of Jakim, banned the books, another arm of the government, the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Institute for Diplomatic and Foreign Relations saw the wisdom in inviting the author to give a keynote address on "Bridging the gap between Islam and the West" and a public lecture on religion in the 21st century. These days, we should be grateful for little mercies that confusion brings.
Wrong to display religious pictures?
KUALA LUMPUR: Is it an offence to place pictures of verses from the Quran and Hindu deities in restaurants? This is the poser following the confiscation of such pictures from two restaurants in Lorong Maarof, Bangsar, here. A spokesman for Restaurant Aiswaria, A. Mohd Dhasthagi, said officers from the Department of Islamic Development (Jakim), Kuala Lumpur City Hall and the Domestic Trade and Industry Ministry inspected the premises on Tuesday.A notice was issued, saying that the restaurant did not have halal certification from Jakim and also did not have Muslim workers. The owner was asked to rectify the situation. The team took away a picture of Mecca and another with verses from the Quran.Aiswaria owner Jehabar Ali Hussain Kader said yesterday: "I have not broken any laws. It’s ridiculous that I was cited for these offences. I never knew that it is an offence to display religious pictures in my premises. Being a Muslim, I purchase food items from a halal vendor." He said he had Muslim workers.Restaurant Seetharam, a few doors away, was also cited for similar offences. The raiding team confiscated three pictures of Hindu deities placed behind the cashier’s counter.The employees said they were baffled by the removal of the pictures.
The issue was highlighted yesterday by opposition leader Lim Kit Siang. He had earlier visited the outlets with two other MPs, Chong Eng and Fong Po Kuan.Lim said this was not the first time such raids were conducted and he feared it could set back inter-racial harmony.
Jakim director-general Datuk Mustafa Abdul Rahman said he was not aware of the incident. "If it is true, I will ask for a report from the officers involved. This is a sensitive issue and I can’t comment until I know the whole story." Perlis Mufti Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin said the display of religious pictures had nothing to do with the food served.
He said Muslims could consume food in restaurants as long as the ingredients were halal and the preparation followed Islamic principles."Islam allows the display of religious pictures and paraphernalia in a private area as long as it doesn’t disturb the peace. This incident must be investigated carefully as we don’t know what the real issue is."