Despite what our founding fathers had intended it to be and what the Federal Constitution has expressly stated, Mahathir Mohammad unequivocally pronounced that Malaysia is an “Islamic country”. It did not stop there. The current government fully endorsed that. Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of course agreed with what Mahathir had said. Najib, I suppose, would also say the same thing if he becomes the Prime Minister come March this year. Down the line, Zahid Hamidi insisted as such. Syed Hamid Albar, our Home Minister would even go and detain people without trial for “insulting” Islam. Khir Toyo, now ensconced in Oppositionsville, would kick up a ruckus if anything is said about “azan” in loudspeakers, even when the mosques officials deny that anybody had raised the issue. Well, in fact everybody in UMNO, either by acquiescence or active agreement, say that Malaysia is an Islamic country. On the other side of the fence, we of course have people like Zulkifli Nordin, who insists that it is his “fate” to defend Islam and consequently to impose his brand of Islam on everybody. As for PAS, well, let’s not even start talking about them.
The question then is, if Malaysia is an Islamic country, why in heaven don’t we practice true Islamic traditions? Put it another way, which part of Malaysia, as a country, is Islamic and which part is not? Or is it a fact that these politicians would offer such pronouncement if, and only if, they find that it is kosher for them to do so? And in the event kosherness dictates that it be pronounced that Malaysia is not an Islamic country, they would of course turn around and say Malaysia is not an Islamic country. Is that the case?
In Islamic history, the reign of the Abbasid Caliphate is generally and widely romanticised as the golden age of Islam. It was during the reign of the Abbasid that the Greek philosophical works were translated into Arabic, commissioned by none other than the Caliph himself. Cities were built with elegant and graceful architecture. Histories were revisited and written. Poems were composed and songs were sung at the Court before everyone would wine and dine into the night. Muslims, Christinans, Jews and even Zoroastrians would be invited to the Court where they would sit beside each other and partake in intellectual discourses and debates with none other than the Caliph himself.
It was during this time that Islam flourished. Islamic jurisprudence grew in stature and had in fact caught up with older and more widely accepted jurisprudence and schools of thoughts such as the Greek, Jewish and Christianity. The four major Islamic schools of thoughts had in fact been founded during the Abbasid reign. The four major people of the time, the Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians in fact studied each other and drew from each other’s experiences and beliefs in formulating their philosophical thoughts of and approach to their own religion. The Sufis, for example, had fashioned their religious approach towards unity with God from the ways of the Jewish and Christian ascetics and monks.
In an atmosphere as culturally and intellectually vibrant as Baghdad was during the Abbasid’s rule, inter-faiths and inter-religions relations were at their best. In Baghdad, Christians lived near a Jacobite monastery on the bank of the Tigris. Muslims would take part in Christian celebrations such as the Palm Sunday and likewise the Christians would honour the Eid-ul-Fitr together with the Muslims. The people were free to practise their respective religion, without fear and without any kind of compulsion. A medieval Egyptian historian noted that the mixing and matching of festivals “was a sign of mutual respect and brotherhood between the religions...moreover, some of the converts to Islam, as Muslims, continued their old practices even after accepting Islam.”[i]
In fact, it is well established that it was the inter-faiths tolerance which the Muslims in general had displayed which had made the Islamic expansionism agenda all the much easier to achieve in some parts of Asia and North Africa. Years before the Islamic expansionism had spread its wing into Egypt for example, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt was locked in bitter disputes with Constantinople over the true nature of Jesus Christ. The Coptic adhered to “monophysitism” which states that Jesus had one nature and that nature was divine. That ran counter to the Council of Chalcedon’s position on the matter, which held the position that Christ had both human and divine nature. The result of that disagreement was the persecution and inquisition of the Coptic followers in Egypt by the Byzantine ruler although both people belonged to the same religion and God. The Nestorian Christians of Iraq had also grown resentful of Constantinople over the true nature of Christ and whether Mary shouldbe thought as the mother of God rather than of Christ as a person.
The tolerance displayed by the Muslims towards the Jews and Christians mean that Egypt would surrender to the Muslim army of not more than 5000 led by Amir ibn al-As. The Egyptian Christians would later fight alongside the Muslims and helped them defeat the Byzantine garrisons. The Nestorians, needless to say, almost welcomed the Muslim’s conquest. Despite the might of its army, conversion to Islam was never forced, true to the teaching of the Quran where it is expressly stated that “there shall be no compulsion in Islam”. The Quran also states that the “people of the book” should be respected and their teachings should be accepted as the words of God. During the Abbasid, the majority of the people were the Jews, Christians and the Zoroastrians.
Perhaps the Abbasid’s willingness to learn and to engage the people at an intellectual level, regardless of how stark the contrast of thoughts on any given subject matter would be, was what which marked its rule as the golden age of Islam. The Abbasid rule was known for its tolerance for freedom of expressions and thoughts, even when such expressions ran completely contrary to the Caliph’s belief and thoughts. Such was the tolerance that the Coptic and Nestorians were more willing to live under Muslim rules rather than under Byzantine rule, notwithstanding the fact that the Byzantine was itself a Christian empire.
The 2nd Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mahdi, for example, would invite Nestorian patriarch, such as Timothy 1 to the palace for a theology debate. The Caliph would confront Timothy with questions on the nature of Christ and the fact that God, under Christianity, would have a woman bore His own son. Timothy on the other hand would question the validity of the Quran being God’s words as they, according to him, have not been corroborated by signs and miracles.
Another Abbasid Caliph, Al-Ma’mun would engage a Greek Orthodox priest named Abu Qurra to a similar debate. In the Court, Abu Qurra would stand and defend Christian theology even when that means going against the Caliph and his faith. Such was the openness and readiness to embrace knowledge and seeking the truth that the Caliph himself would indulge in intellectual discourses with head of other religions in his Court.
Now, if we could all come back to present day Malaysia. Discourses are of course not solicited nor invited. Opposite views are not welcome and are in fact prohibited. Discussions are also not welcome under the guise of protecting national security.
To Zulkifli Nordin and Zahid Hamidi I would like to ask, which part of Islamic traditions are both of you practising when both of you made so much hoo haa over the Bar Council’s seminar on the problems which some people face resulting from conversion to Islam last year? Why are there so much fear of intellectual discourse and the likes? When is it that Islam demands the imposition of one’s personal belief on another?
To PAS I would like to ask, on what ground do you stand in imposing your own personal belief, over matters such as the Rihanna and Avril Lavigne concerts, on others? Which part of Islam are you talking about?
To Syed Hamid Albar, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and also Najib Razak I would like to ask, if Malaysia is indeed an Islamic country, where is the inter-faith and inter-religion tolerance and acceptance displayed by your administration? If the Caliphs could be debated face to face and be told that his belief was wrong by the head of another religion, why is it that this government even refuse to lend a listening ear to any opposite views at all? Since when has suppression of opinions and intellectual discussions become part of Islam? And which part of Islamic traditions allow you to detain a person with an opposite view?
To the National Fatwa Council I would like to ask, don’t you all think that mutual respect and understanding would be better for a multi-cultural and multi-faith Malaysia?
To the Institute of Islamic Understanding I would like to ask, where is the efforts to make us all, the Muslims, better in all aspects? What books and thesis have you all read? What foreign language intellectual works have you all helped to or commissioned to be translated in Bahasa Malaysia for the benefit of all Malaysians in general and Malaysian Muslims in particular?
To Mahathir Mohammad I would like to ask, which part of the Abbasid reign is similar to your reign?
[i] Qasha 110;G Stange, “Baghdad During the Abbasid Caliphate” (London;Oxford University Press, 1924)