Restrainingpeople from knowing and understanding the environment in which they live is akin to reinforcing ignorance, which is the root of fanaticism and racism.
WE OFTEN hear, from time to time, political leaders reminding the public not to discuss certain issues because these are ‘sensitive issues’. This reminder usually comes with a warning that, in order to maintain peace and security, stern action would be taken against those who disregard that caution. Still, it has not stopped people from talking and discussing.
To be sensitive about something implies that one easily becomes offended or emotionally upset. So, to classify a subject or an issue as ‘sensitive’ means to acknowledge that it needs to be dealt with ‘carefully’ because it is likely to cause disagreement or make one angry or upset. Considering the history and demographic background of the country, it is a matter of prudence to classify religion as a sensitive issue and to proceed with great care.
It is, however, not prudent to let society remain in that state forever. We cannot actually let the people of this country continue to remain sensitive forever when it comes to religion because religion is part and parcel of human life, and our country is host to almost all major world religions.
It is senseless to restrain people from the urge to know and understand the environment in which they live. It is akin to reinforcing ignorance, which is actually at the root of fanaticism and racism. Instead, why don’t we make discussion concerning religion something interesting, enjoyable, and beneficial to all?
Of course this is not easy to do, but we have no other option. We must somehow take the effort to overcome religious sensitivity because in the long run it is counter productive, as well as dangerous, to restrain discussion on religion.
We have been independent for more than 50 years, and despite all the odds we have achieved so many things together. No right-thinking citizen of this country would wish to see what we have painfully built destroyed by our own hands due to misunderstanding.
To understand and to be understood we need to talk. If we do not talk about religion how are we going to understand it, and make others understand it? How are we going to eliminate misunderstandings about it, and differentiate truth from falsehood?
The need to talk is even greater today in a world where access to information is almost unlimited. Like it or not, there are ongoing discussions concerning so many pertinent issues.
However, we are constantly reminded by our leaders that what matters most in this country is peace, and there is fear that open discussion about religion represents a threat to this peace because the fear is that it would bring about discord and hatred.
Is this fear genuine? Or is it only what some people would like us to believe? Maybe we should re-examine our notion of peace, and clarify what we actually mean when we say we want peace.
It is true that everybody wants to live in peace; in fact, even animals desire peace. But our understanding of what peace is all about must not be limited only to what is external to our existence.
There is also what is more fundamental and personal, namely, peace of mind. There cannot be true peace without the peace of mind and tranquillity of the soul. Nobody can experience peace of mind as long as there is agitation in the soul as the result of doubt concerning the most basic questions surrounding life.
Peace of mind has to do with certainty concerning the nature of ultimate reality, namely, about the nature and purpose of our existence, about God, about the world, and about what constitutes virtues and values.
Why don’t we talk about these questions openly and freely so that people will benefit from it? These are actually questions that could be discussed without offending anybody. People would like to know about the truth advocated by every religion so that they understand the fundamental differences between religions and why there are differences, so that comparisons can be made.
This, if done properly and sincerely, will encourage research and the exchange of ideas, and the final result would be knowledge and understanding.
What we may term as ‘senseless sensitivity’ owes its root to ignorance, and the worst ignorance is ignorance concerning the truth about life, which is the cause of fear; and fear is antithetical to peace. It is indeed senseless to remain ignorant about the true answers to the basic questions of life, and to simply follow what one happens to inherit from one’s forefathers.
Ignorance is the first enemy of Islam. For all Muslims, to seek knowledge is not only the first and foremost obligation, it is a life-time endeavour. Since every Muslim is responsible for his own deeds and will be held accountable to God, he should know what his responsibilities are and to whom he will be held accountable.
Muslims are used to talking about their religion and holding discourse with others about the fundamental problems of life. They have developed the tradition of ‘kalam’, which literally means ‘speech’ or ‘discourse’. It is interesting for us to ponder the reason for referring to this science as kalam.
One of the indications that one truly knows about something is one’s ability to talk about it in a meaningful or logical manner. Kalam is based on the principle that knowledge concerning the fundamentals of religion is attainable through the systematic application of rational principles.
One of the basic questions discussed by Muslim theologians of the past is the status of faith (iman) of one who follows or accepts religious dogmas without proof. They questioned the validity of faith without knowledge. The strictest opinion holds that blind following on matters of faith is unacceptable; the person who does so is in reality an unbeliever.
The assumption is that one cannot possibly have faith with regard to what one is ignorant of. Hence, to seek evidence or proof and the condition of its validity is prior to iman. ‘Taqlid’, which means blindly following or accepting a doctrine without any proof or evidence of its validity is categorically rejected.
At least one must have proof adequate enough to remove any doubt, proof that is referred to as general proof. The amount of proof needed is however subject to the individual’s ability and the problem he faces.
The point is, from the very beginning Muslims were aware of the need to articulate their faith in a precise and logical manner, and in the same way rebut opinions and doctrines which were contradictory.
They were not afraid of challenges to their faith. On the contrary they sat down and listened to arguments, agreed on certain points and disagreed on others. This was what they used to practice, as part of their religious and intellectual tradition.
As such, Muslims have an important role to play, and a huge responsibility to shoulder. They must show a good example to other communities because it is through their actions and behaviour that the non-Muslims owe their perception of Islam. Since they are the majority and are in charge of the affairs of the country they should behave in a mature manner particularly in dealing with criticism.
Criticism against certain conduct of the Muslims must not be construed as criticism against Islam. It is possible that the criticism is due to their own disregard and ignorance of the true teachings of Islam. This point is reflected in the recent controversy surrounding the Muslim call to prayer.
What is lacking is knowledge, and if this is sincerely admitted as our shortcoming, we have to do something about it.