The debate on pluralism

By Thomas Lee

Over the last few days, a controversy has been brewing over a statement by the Institute of Islamic Understanding (Ikim) that Islam considers that not all religions are equal, and that the concept of pluralism is antithetical to Islam.

The Umno-owned and controlled Utusan Malaysia daily has gone to town with stories suggesting that religious pluralism is a threat to Islam, and that Pakatan Rakyat supremo and opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is pushing for other religions to be put on an equal footing with Islam.

According to the newspaper, those who question the position of Islam and the Malays are practitioners of religious pluralism, in what appears to be a claim that Anwar’s rejection of Umno’s “ketuanan Melayu” concept is unIslamic, or even anti-Islam.

I think we should not just jump at Ikim and unilaterally condemn its view about the exclusivity of Islam without some serious objective evaluation and understanding of the teaching of the religion.

From the strictly theological perspective, Ikim is right. Islam, like Christianity, is certainly an exclusive religious faith, claiming in the Shahada (Declaration of Faith) that “There is no god, but Allah” (La ilah illa Ilah) and Muhammad is Allah’s messenger (Wa Muhammad rasul u’llah). The Ikim position is consistently with the fundamental theology of Islam.

Like Christianity, Islam also claims exclusivity to its beliefs and teachings. A Muslim’s faith is firmly based on the belief that the source of his religion Islam is God and Muhammad is the only and last and final prophet and spokesman for God on the Earth. A true Muslim holds that Islam is not just one of the many religions, but THE religion per se, the only true religion of God, the religion of the created natural order (din-al-fitrah).

The religion is called Islam because Allah had decreed it in the Quran: “Lo the religion with God is Al Islam to His will and guidance” (3:19) and “I have chosen for you as religion Al Islam” (5:3). Islam, an Arab word, means submission, total surrender and obedience, and that is the practical implications for Muslims. There are several greetings based on the word Islam, such as “Peace be upon you” (salamalek) and “Go in peace” (bissalma, masalma). Thus, the teaching of Islam is about a life of faith and peace through submission to the one and only true God Allah. The word “Muslim” means a person who has totally surrendered his whole life to Allah. The Islamic faith is not just purely an organized ritualistic religion, but a complete way of life, covering every area of life and thoughts, including politics.

Hence, the Ikim claim to exclusivity for Islam is not without theological merit.

As a Christian, I can understand the Ikim position, since my faith is also an exclusive one. No Christian will dispute or challenge my contention that Christianity also claims exclusivity to be the only way of salvation for mankind, and that the Lord Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” and “No one comes to the Father (God) except through me (Jesus)”. (John 14:6), and that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

The issue before us, therefore, is not the question of theological belief per se, but how to relate an exclusive faith to other religions in a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual society like Malaysia.

The word “pluralism” has been used unilaterally by almost everyone – religious leaders, politicians, journalists – without fully understanding what the concept actually means and implies.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “pluralism” as “a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, etc co-exist”.

The keyword, I believe, is “co-exist”. The context in which pluralism exists and practiced is the widely diverse and varied range of religious faiths in a given society, such as Malaysia which has Islam as its official religion and other faiths being part of the scenario.

The fundamental issue we face in a plural society like Malaysia is the matter of peaceful and harmonious co-existence among the people of various races and religious beliefs.

Although I believe that Ikim is theologically consistent with the teaching of Islam, its statement that “Islam rejects religious pluralism that claims all religions to be equally good and truthful” is certainly not politically correct in the context of the Malaysian plural society.

I believe Ikim should look at the issue of pluralism from two broad perspectives, before making a sweeping dismissal of pluralism per se.

First, there is the pluralistic perspective that all religions are equal and “all roads lead to God”. Obviously, Islam, and, for that matter Christianity, will never endorse such a view.
Islam and Christianity both teach and propagate that their respective faith is the only true religion, with all other religious systems and faiths being considered “pagan”. Hence, it is simply impossible for a true Muslim or an honest Christian to agree to inter-faith “spiritual activities”. For a Muslim or Christian to participate, for example, in an inter-faith “worship” is to acknowledge that his faith is just one among many others, to place his God on equal standing with the deities of other religious faiths.

This is what justifies the Ikim position in relationship to other faiths. And I will say that the Ikim concern is valid and theologically consistent with the Islamic teaching. As a Christian, I take a similar stand that I cannot participate in an inter-religious worship service or other inter-faith spirituality activities, without dishonouring and betraying my Lord Jesus.
But, there is another perspective of pluralism which does not involve the matter of spiritual compromise, and that is the common universal moral values among all peoples of the world. And it is this common earthly destiny of all peoples that Ikim should consider the vital role of Muslims to help promote peace and harmony among the people, who are the vice-regents of Allah (khalifa Allah) on Earth.

As I said before, as a Christian, I will not participate in an inter-faith worship service which will place my Lord Jesus as being among one of the gods, on equal standing with them. If I do, it will mean I am not consistent with my faith in the Lord Jesus as the only way, the truth, and the life. Such a compromise in matters of spirituality is surely not correct and honest.

My Muslim friends, too, are correct in taking a similar stand, or else their Shahada becomes a vain recitation, rendering their faith to be meaningless. Hence, Ikim is theologically correct in its stand.

However, in the matters of morality, justice, righteousness, equality, freedom, human, civil and constitutional rights, I will endorse and support any inter-faith “dialogue” and joint stand and actions. This is the other perspective of pluralism that I believe Ikim should seriously study and evaluate, before dismissing the whole concept of pluralism per se.
Although the people of Malaysia are adherents of various faiths and religious systems, they are united for the common purpose of nation-building, and are jointly dealing with many fundamental issues relating to their role as citizens. Hence, the need to come together to talk and compromise.

There is an urgent need for inter-faith dialogues on matters such as the freedom to worship, teach and propagate each other’s religion, the matter of land for places of worship and burial, the right to use the national language Bahasa Malaysia without restriction in worship and religious education, the legal disputes over the conversion of individuals, particularly children, and the vital matter of co-existence.

Ikim, and all responsible Muslim leaders should be willing to participate in such inter-faith dialogues as the common-interest issues need not involve doctrinal compromise or theological dispute.

I hope all parties concerned with the dispute over pluralism will understand and accept that the fundamental matter is the peaceful and harmonious co-existence of all persons or all faiths, with each practicing his faith with full sensitivity and due respect to people of other faiths. What we want is not a theological war, but a channel for inter-faith dialogues and a medium for communication on issues of universal common interests.

May God bless our beloved nation real good!

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Saturday, 18 December 2010 - 5:59 pm

    Thanks to Wikileaks. At last it exposed Singapore’s true colors in the latter’s dealing with its neighbors.

    With such a friend as Singapore, Malaysia does not need an enemy!

  2. #2 by yhsiew on Saturday, 18 December 2010 - 6:29 pm

    ///Utusan Malaysia daily has gone to town with stories suggesting that religious pluralism is a threat to Islam….///

    Racist Utusan Malaysia is playing the religion card again. If PAS and other Islamic countries could tolerate the existence of other religions, why must Utusan Malaysia make such a big fuss? Utusan Malaysia’s claim will backfire and will lead to reduced BN votes (especially in East Malaysia and among non-Muslims).

  3. #3 by tak tahan on Saturday, 18 December 2010 - 7:45 pm

    Utusan Malaysia should also claim that religion issue to wikileaks and let the whole world know of their almighty faith.What a shallow minded dickhead.Katak di bawah tempurung;kangaroo inside the court;devil roaming the street and endless lists beyond salvation.My anti corruption faith is the highest in order!

  4. #4 by waterfrontcoolie on Saturday, 18 December 2010 - 8:16 pm

    Thomas, we read you loud and clear; but do you accept the fact that HE CREATED EVERYTHING? Even those who were born BEFORE what you all claimed to be the only ONE? If you accept that surely they must be a reason why that was so. the saddest thing is some just like to claim that others who are also endowed by the ALMIGHTY are just foresaken just because we differ!!! This is EGO of the low type!1

  5. #5 by lee wee tak_ on Saturday, 18 December 2010 - 8:20 pm

    sometimes i feel we waste too much time debating over a non-issue. all religion teaches its followers to be good

    commonsense tell u tat u treat people right and propoer, u normally get back the same thing

    some IKIM is nuts expecting non-muslims to respect islam when they themselves disrespect other religion

    even a kindergarten nipper can reason better than these waste of oxygen

  6. #6 by yhsiew on Saturday, 18 December 2010 - 8:40 pm

    ///No Christian will dispute or challenge my contention that Christianity also claims exclusivity to be the only way of salvation for mankind, and that the Lord Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” and “No one comes to the Father (God) except through me (Jesus)”. (John 14:6)……/// – Thomas Lee

    I agree that no Christian will dispute or challenge that Christianity claims exclusivity to be the only way of salvation for mankind. However, Thomas Lee missed one thing here. Throughout the New Testament, no Christian believers or Apostles claimed that any religion other than Christianity was a threat to what they believed or practiced. In fact, in Acts:17:23 Apostle Paul did not turn away or reject the people of Athens who worshiped other gods but explained to them who the true God was. Utusan Malaysia’s claim that religious pluralism is a THREAT to Islam was done with an evil intention – to segregate the non-Malays from the Malays.

    For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
    Ac:17:24: God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
    Ac:17:25: Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
    Ac:17:26: And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
    Ac:17:27: That they should seek the Lord

  7. #7 by ChinNA on Saturday, 18 December 2010 - 9:31 pm

    yhsiew :
    However, Thomas Lee missed one thing here. Throughout the New Testament, no Christian believers or Apostles claimed that any religion other than Christianity was a threat to what they believed or practiced.

    I would say the Christians whose faith is not affected by other teachings stems from their confidence that the elements of their faith will be able to stand on itself.

    Whether this belief is justified or not, I will not comment but all should know, Christians have been called fools by some, even till today.

  8. #8 by ChinNA on Saturday, 18 December 2010 - 10:02 pm

    Lee Wee Tak said: sometimes i feel we waste too much time debating over a non-issue. all religion teaches its followers to be good.

    While most people will subscribe the notion that all religion teaches its followers to be good, most will not subscribe to the notion that the religion of their choice is no different from another.

    The most important is not the discourse of which religion is best or better or worse or worst but the placid acceptance that we must allow each to practice his own choices. This assumes that the practice of the chosen religion does not intrude on the rights and liberties of others. This is practical manifestation religious tenets accepting pluralism.

    For example, when a person is forced into professing to believe in a faith that he does not want to.

    I am sure there is no religion today that does this. If this is ever done, then we have reason to doubt if the professed belief is true. I will also question the strength of the tenets of faith for that religion if it truly asked its followers to do so.

  9. #9 by Jeffrey on Sunday, 19 December 2010 - 5:14 am

    ///Institute of Islamic Understanding (Ikim) that (1) Islam considers that not all religions are equal, and that (2) the concept of pluralism is antithetical to Islam.///

    Position (1) above is expected. Islam like the other two Abrahamic faiths -Judaism and Christianity- is based on belief in the existence of one God as distinguished from polytheism, the belief in more than one God.

    So the logic goes that if the God of one’s faith were true, then the Gods of the others could not be equally true at the same time. This being the case one’s faith is superior in terms of Truth, and the others could not be equal in stature in the same way as falsehood could not be sane stature as the Truth! This is likely Ikim’s theological view. From the constitutional standpoint, Ikim’s position is that Islam is superior in being constitutionally sanctioned ‘official’ religion whilst other religions are not. They are private & “unofficial”. Also in terms of politics, the government gives priority to Islam. It allocates and spends more on mosques than say other places of other worships; it depicts Malaysia as an “islamic” state – not Christian, Buddhist or Hindu one. If one compares two countries that claim themselves modern Islamic nations – Turkey & Malaysia – it is obvious that Turkey is secular in terms of not giving any special privileges to promoting Islam through the education system and public service delivery system unlike here in Malaysia in which Islam is given priority over other religions in these respects. In that sense Ikim could say “Islam considers that not all religions are equal” in the sense that Islam gets comparatively more preferential treatment from the government that other faiths don’t get.

    (2) Even taking the view that other religions are not equal to one’s religion in the senses per 1. above, does this necessarily mean “concept of Pluralism is antithetical to Islam” as in 2. above?

    I would consider Pluralism as implying one’s acceptance and tolerance of others choosing and practicing their other own beliefs even if one believes one’s own faith is truer and more superior than theirs; that pluralism, as ChinNA said, means one should not intrude upon the equal rights and liberties of others to believe and practice their other religions even if one does not believe it equal in terms of truth and enjoyment of privileges from the authorities as compared to one’s own favoured official religion. This is the meaning of pluralism in 1 Malaysia.

    If Ikim’s argument were correct – that Islam rejects Pluralism – then it will necessarily reject not just the pluralism in Ketuanan Rakyat but also the pluralism in the PM’s platform of 1 Malaysia.

  10. #10 by tak tahan on Sunday, 19 December 2010 - 5:51 am

    Umno must also reject other component parties(mca,mic,ect) because pluralism is antithetical to Islam.And change 1Malaysia to whatever suit these kangaroos’s law or slogan.Just be good;don’t steal,harm,kill,discriminate,suppress or oppress people and you are above everything godly you can claim.The rest are just bloody wasting time on nothing fruitful.Typical umnob!!

  11. #11 by limkamput on Sunday, 19 December 2010 - 7:42 am

    It was never about religion and one’s belief. Race was no longer sufficient to dissect the people of this country. They have found another platform and that is religion which have been used and abused for thousand years to create hatred and dissention among people. Which religion is higher and truer? No one has gone there and come back to confirm that. Sometimes I wonder why we tend to believe mystics that were thousand years old but ignore the realities staring right at our face.

  12. #12 by limkamput on Sunday, 19 December 2010 - 7:52 am

    One more thing; if ever you want to believe in anything, that one thing you believe must also follow market principle – compete and win. If what you believe in is not subjected to challenge and competition from other beliefs, I surely can conclude you do not have much faith in your belief.

  13. #13 by k1980 on Sunday, 19 December 2010 - 10:50 am

    I don’t think this middle-easterner will have to wait 30 years or more to get her citizenship like the unfortunate mata sepats and the kaki botols. In fact I am willing to bet that she has obtained hers already!

  14. #14 by tak tahan on Sunday, 19 December 2010 - 12:13 pm

    74 year old Taib married 30s middle-eastener ah?Wah so lau and still can gatal mae.Hallo!Sorry don’t know ur name or middle-eastener,”stroke,squeeze and undo him dry dry from head to bottom like what he did to sarawak’s coffer.Then just leave and u shall
    have our mercy!”

  15. #15 by sotong on Sunday, 19 December 2010 - 12:35 pm

    As long as religion is mixed with narrow and damaging politics, there will be problems.

  16. #16 by negarawan on Sunday, 19 December 2010 - 1:00 pm

    This is one horny old man who has ill-gotten wealth to last several generations!

    M’sian minister, 74, marries woman in her early 30s

    KUCHING – Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, 74, has found a new love.

    He married a woman in her early 30s from the Middle East, reported the Star. However, according to the New Straits Times, the woman is a 28-year-old Lebanese.

    Not much is known about the bride but sources from NST said she was a former flight attendant.

    The wedding ceremony took place last night.

    The akad nikah was a private affair that started at about 8pm at the chief minister’s residence, Demak Jaya, in Petra Jaya here.

    It was solemnised by Sarawak Mufti Kipli Yassin and attended by family members, relatives and close friends of the couple. Several members of the state Cabinet were also present.

    The town has been abuzz over the wedding of Malaysia’s longest-serving chief minister.

    However, Taib and his state Cabinet colleagues remained tight-lipped about the union.

    The public is awaiting an official announcement from family members although the media had gone to town with the story of his marriage.

    “No one knew what was happening. Even the most senior officials in Taib’s department were not aware that he was planning to tie the knot.

    “Obviously, this is a private matter for the Chief Minister and he wants to keep it that way,” said a source.

    There are claims that the newlyweds are planning a grand wedding reception next month.

    Apparently, on Friday, Taib visited the grave of his late Polish-born Australian wife Puan Sri Laila, who died of cancer in April last year. The couple were married for 50 years after they met while studying in Australia. They have four children and 15 grandchildren.

    Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr George Chan gave credence to the marriage talk earlier yesterday when he told reporters in Miri: “There is a great possibility that the rumour is true.”

    Dr Chan is also an in-law to Taib. Tan Sri Sulaiman, Taib’s son, is married to Dr Chan’s daughter Anisa.

    Green, Technology and Water Minister Datuk Peter Chin Fah Kui said: “It is time for him to remarry. It is not good to be alone, especially a busy person like him. If this rumour is true I am very happy for him.

    “It is good to have a woman’s support,” he added.

    When contacted, the Chief Minister’s media department spokesman said: “Let the Chief Minister make an official announcement.”

    Taib has been the Chief Minister of Sarawak since 1981. He assumed the post at the age of 45.

    According to the New Straits Times, the Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud’s marriage to a 28-year-old Lebanese last night was a closely guarded affair.

    The akad nikah, held at his official residence in Jalan Demak here, was attended by family members, close relatives and friends.

    Their union was solemnised by state mufti Kipli Yassin at 9.30pm, followed by a short bersanding session.

    Some 200 guests attended the ceremony, including Adviser to the Chief Minister’s Office Tan Sri Adenan Satem, Second Planning and Resource Management State Minister Datuk Awang Tengah Ali Hassan, Assistant Minister in the Chief Minister’s Department Naroden Majais, Housing and Urban Development Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg and Pantai Damai state assemblyman Dr Abdul Rahman Junaidi.

    The chief minister’s press secretary, Amin Sahmat, said last night that the wedding was a private affair, adding that an announcement would be made later. He also said a wedding reception would be held next month.

  17. #17 by BoycottLocalPapers on Sunday, 19 December 2010 - 1:33 pm

    Under Najib’s 1Malaysia, there is no place for pluralism as IKIM believes 1 Malaysia to mean that only:

    (1) 1 race is supreme above all other races. All other races must submit to Ketuanan Arab (actually Ketuanan Melayu is modeled after Ketuanan Arab as all adherents to Ketuanan Melayu are actually Arab-wannabes.

    (2) 1 religion is supreme above all other religions.

    While we are working hard to turn Malaysia into a developed country, IKIM is working hard to turn Malaysia into another Saudi Arabia.

    Other religions are not allowed to be practised in Saudi Arabia as Saudi Arabia believe in Ketuanan Arab. I suggest IKIM members to move to Saudi Arabia as they contributed absolutely nothing to the development of Malaysia.

  18. #18 by DAP man on Sunday, 19 December 2010 - 2:22 pm

    Thomas should not be the spokesman for all Christians. Don’t speak for Catholics please.

    Some of you Christians are fanatical like the Talibans thinking that people of all other faiths are condemned and only Christians can be saved.

    The Catholic Faith believes that people of all FAITHS CAN BE SAVED!!!!!!

    This is not the place for a theological debate but I hope Thomas will read up Catholic literature before being a self-appointed spokesman for Christians.

    A Catholic can attend a non-Catholic/Christian funeral , light a joss-stick and pay respects to the dead.

    Let me remind Thomas that there are many Buddhist and Hindus who lead much holier and righteous lives than Christians do.

    And you dare say they go to hell?

  19. #19 by monsterball on Sunday, 19 December 2010 - 4:19 pm

    Those who declare they are champions for their race and religion by always…quoting half of the Constitution …and now….using the Koran quotation that here is only one God to label Anwar as godless who are fighting for a “Malaysian Supremacy” to unite all Malaysians as sinful.
    I have seen these kind of dirty politics applied by UMNO B over and over again and will never change….inspite of being told to change with the 12th GE results.
    Using voters are being conned by PR…here they come again…with the usual race and religion out-dated politics..for any developed country.
    And so out comes…..’I Malaysia”..’People First. Performance Now”..’People’s PM” slogans and promise by Najib.
    Being exposed he is a liar…a flip flopper..a wheeler dealer…and contradicting many of speeches the next moment…plus his famous ‘FRIVOLOUS” word…to a reply..
    Knowing all Malaysians are saying back to him….
    ‘BALDERDASH”..pricking his conscience hard …and now declaring Malaysians opposing him.. are traitors..the how he is going to traitors ….start with the suspension of 4 of the few most powerful Parliamentarians.
    You never hear such champions of their religion go and fight the evils of Isreal killing millions of those in Palestine declaring there is one God too.
    Worst of all….these so call great Muslims have paid RM71 million to ask the Jews to help them fight Freedom Fighters in Malaysia.
    At least we now know…a Devilish Govt. will know other Devils and seek out for their help.
    UMNO B can keep on twisting…working hard to keep Malaysians to be racists..with their brand of stagnant non progressive dirty politics…and producers more and more fanatics ..that can not coup with the advancements of our country…..suffering and told to believe it’s god’s will…they are chosen to do god’s work for UMNO B.
    In the end…it is Najib’s plan to fight to his death to protest others taking over the Govt.
    Do you believe God gave Malaysia to Najib?
    Forget all the powerful countries like USA.. China..Japan…Germany …France….just t name a few…agreeing all Faiths be respected.
    UMNO B is going to show to the developed world how wrong they are…or is it..that he wants Malaysia to be like Saudi Arabia?

  20. #20 by monsterball on Sunday, 19 December 2010 - 4:26 pm

    And right now…Lim Guan Eng have made one of his most powerful speech you can hear at the DAP Convention held in Penang yesterday…..firing all cylinders at UMNO B..for making a Kangaroo Parliament…to kill democracy totally.
    So dear Malaysians…..when 13t GE comes..go to vote to be a slave to Najib and UMNO B…or be a free Malaysians…your choice.

  21. #21 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Monday, 20 December 2010 - 9:19 am

    IKIM is warped in their slant as we can see from their announcement. I don’t even know why IKIM is so political here. maybe IKIM should register as an NGO or better still, a political party. Does IKIM even know that they exist on taxpayers’ money, including the receipts from GENTING, MAGNUM, TOTO, DA MA CAI. Or am I wrong? Maybe, IKIM is run on Zakat contributions or should do so?

    Everybody (7 billion people in this world) believes their religion is the ‘ketuanan’ faith. So does IKIM want to pick a fight with the 7 billion people or just want to play jaguh kampung!

    The true belief should be : faith in your GOD, whoever you conceive him to be. And this faith does change with time, with enlightenment and knowledge and experience. IKIM doesn’t obviously believe this!

    Whilst we have our private beliefs, we cannot cram our beliefs into somebody else’s throat! So there is this thing called religious freedom. I don’t even know if IKIM either understands this or is aware that this is in the Constitution! Aiyah!

    In a pluralistic society, the stance should be “With charity towards all, with malice towards none.” Of course, IKIM wouldn’t understand this saying and worse still, doesn’t even know who said this, when and in what context? That is probably because IKIM has been fed on a diet of Malaysian history a’la Muhyiddin! Shame on u Muhyiddin. Shame, shame, shame.

  22. #22 by boh-liao on Monday, 20 December 2010 - 11:09 am

    A Muslim man confessed on YouTube dat he is gay
    Perak Mufti was unhappy with d admission n said: “Since he acknowledged himself to be a Muslim n a Malay, he should not have made such a confession. In truth, he has derided his own dignity n Islam in general.”
    What sort of logic is dis?

You must be logged in to post a comment.