Opinion

Learning about another’s faith

Farah Fahmy

Farah Fahmy is based in London, and has written for the media. She is intrigued by trans- and international relations between Malaysia (ns) and the Rest of the World.

FEB 29 — You can’t make this kind of thing up: The leader of a multi-religious and multi-racial country is vilified for showing up at a major religious festival. Why? Because he is not of the same faith as those celebrating the festival.

Honestly. What is our country coming to?

Now it appears that we will have official guidelines to govern the conduct between Muslims and non-Muslims. How astonishing. Are we really about to publish Malaysia’s Guide to Interactions Between Muslims and Non-Muslims? (Perhaps, whilst we are at it, we should also publish Malaysia’s Guide to Interactions Between Muslims and Muslims? I mean, it would be very useful to work out how exactly we should treat those pesky Shi’ite Muslims in Gombak, wouldn’t it?)

Muslims have been urged to “stay away” from non-Muslim religious festivals. Apparently going to people’s homes to celebrate festivals is OK, but going to houses of worship is out. Hmm. Does that mean we Muslims can no longer attend non-Muslim weddings? If that is so, is someone going to advise our King that he went against his own ulama’s fatwas by attending Prince William’s wedding in Westminster Abbey last year? By the way, that wedding was also attended by the Sultan of Brunei, the King of Morocco’s wife, the Bahraini ambassador, a member of the Al-Sabah family of Kuwait, an Omani prince, a Saudi prince, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Pakistani High Commissioner — will someone also tell all these people that they, too, have erred against Islam by attending the wedding?

 If, however, weddings are not forbidden, then why should we be barred from attending other festivals? After all, a wedding taking place in a house of worship is full of religious rituals. What, then, is the difference between wedding rituals and other types of rituals?

You could say that there is nothing wrong in observation, but Muslims must not take part in such rituals. I think that is a fair point, but the problem then lies in mandating just what is meant by taking part. In various Christian weddings that I’ve been to, it is quite normal to stand up during hymns and then sit down again when they’re over. If I also stand up, does that mean I’m compromising my faith? If so, then why? We expect people who visit our mosques to come suitably attired out of respect, so shouldn’t we be bound by the same rules of respect and politeness when we are at someone else’s place of worship?

I have no problems with ulamas providing us with guidance on how to be better Muslims, and what is right and wrong in Islam. That is, after all, what they’re there for.

However, we also cannot escape from the fact that we are a multi-religious country, and that as the majority faith, we Muslims have a duty and responsibility not just towards ourselves, but also towards others. How can we discharge this duty and responsibility properly if we do not understand the faiths of others?

I believe that we would not be compromising our faith by learning about other religions, and part of that learning must also be to understand the importance of festivals like Thaipusam. How better to understand them then by actually witnessing what goes on during such events?

I am in no way advocating that Muslims should carry a kavadi or sing hymns or anything of the sort when observing the religious rituals of others. I concur with the ulamas that Muslims should not take part in anything that could compromise their faith. However, faith is something that is deeply personal. One Muslim may have no problems with going inside a church and observing how Mass is conducted; another may feel that it is not appropriate for him/her to do so. Both views, in my opinion, are valid.

I also firmly believe that it is not healthy for us to live side by side without learning about the culture and beliefs of those around us. Otherwise, witness the confusion that arose on our prime minister’s choice of clothes to Batu Caves. How can anyone think that a kurta is religious attire? That just smacks of ignorance.

Similarly, places of worship should not be forbidden ground to anyone. If we have never been inside a mosque, temple or church, if we do not know how prayers are performed; then think about how easy it would be for unscrupulous people to manipulate us into thinking that unsavoury practices go on in such places.

So don’t castigate Datuk Seri Najib Razak for attending the Thaipusam festivals. Cast as many aspersions as you wish on his motives for going to Batu Caves — his announcement of a RM2 million cultural centre there sounds rather like the RM20 million upgrade for the Kampung Baru mosque last year — but don’t fault him for wearing a kurta, or a garland, or attending a Hindu festival. He is after all the prime minister of our whole country, not just Muslims.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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