Sunday, December 21, 2008

When thoughts collide

In an age when headlines and sensationalism attract our attention, there is a need for us to understand some, if not all, of the different religions that exist.
I ONCE bought an English-Hindi/Hindi-English dictionary to give to a friend. However, I changed my mind and gave her a different gift and that dictionary remained on my bookshelf.
Flipping through it, I found that some words looked strangely similar, if not the same, as those used in my mother tongue:
angur (grapes); akal (wisdom or intellect); akhbar (newspaper); agar (if, so as to); adab (etiquette); anu-grah (favour/grace); asli (true/pure); adat (habit/ custom); ibadat (worship/ adoration); ilm (knowledge/learning); iman (faith/belief); usul (principle); qayamat (day of resurrection/ last day of judgment); karya (work/vocation); kismis (raisins); kursi (chair); khazana (treasury/trea­sure); khas (peculiar/special); and zahir (obvious/clear), among others.
On the same bookshelf is a copy of Don’t Be Sad, a book written by Saudi writer Aaidh ibn Abdullah al-Qarni. In it, he refers to a much earlier writer, Al Jahiz (776-868), who wrote: “The book is a companion that does not praise you and does not entice you to evil ... As long as you are remotely attached to a book, it suffices you from having to keep company with those who are idle.”
According to, Al Jahiz was a well-known Muslim scholar. He grew up in Basra, Iraq, and “attended its schools, studying under some of the most eminent scholars of Islam. One of the most important aspects about the period of Al Jahiz’s intellectual development and his life was that books were readily accessible. Though paper had been introduced into the Islamic world only shortly before Al Jahiz’s birth, it had, by the time he was in his 30s, virtually replaced parchment, and launched an intellectual revolution.”
Making comparisons of words and thoughts in different languages and religions also led me to read a little about Buddhist teachings. Buddhists believe in the eight worldly “dharmas”, which are made up of four ideas of opposites:
“... First, we like pleasure; we are attached to it. Conversely, we don’t like pain. Second, we like and are attached to praise. We try and avoid criticism and blame. Third, we like and are attached to fame. We dislike and try to avoid disgrace. Finally, we are attached to gain, to getting what we want. We don’t like losing what we have” (in When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, 1997).
The three books mentioned above are obviously disparate from each other. Or are they? How is it that a Hindi dictionary contains words similar, if not the same, as those in the Arabic language? Why do the concepts of pleasure and pain, praise and criticism which are written by a Buddhist nun not sound alien to those of us who are not Buddhists?
Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of languages where words are absorbed from an older language into a newer one, or that the ones used in one religion can be understood by those of other religions.
In an age when headlines and sensationalism attract our attention, there is a need for us to understand some, if not all, of the different religions that exist. We should note the nuances and subtleties behind state­ments made by any one group of people.
We are living at a time when television can give us “live” news coverage via satellite. There is also the wide, unfettered realm of the Inter­net where we can remain anony­mous and write whatever we wish. ­
With such powerful media tools at our fingertips, we need to interact with each other with even more sensitivity than ever before. We must be more cautious in what we say, despite the temptation to say whatever we wish to and be considered daring or brave.
When the film The Da Vinci Code was shown in cinemas in 2006, Christian churches became the focus of international attention. The book on which the film was based questioned Jesus Christ’s life.
Both the book and the film caused much controversy. Anyone and everyone with keyboards and access to the Internet gave their opi­nions. Secular and religious figures as well as religious groups from all around the world had some­thing to say. Among the thousands of comments made, a statement by Mark Turn­bull, a BBC radio presenter, caught my eye: “I would like to suggest that our faith is far stronger than any blasphemy or work of fiction. The church has had more severe accusations leveled against her before and come through them.”
Thousands of miles away in India, Roman Catholics in Mumbai received Muslim support to protest the release of the film.
More recently here in Malaysia, a Muslim fatwa about yoga has received a lot of attention in the media. It should be noted that fatwa, or edicts, are made as a guide for Muslims only. Those practising other religions do not have to abide by or agree with them.
Indeed, those of us who are Muslims but are not scholars of Islamic religious laws have always had to depend upon the advice of our uztaz, uztazah and imam who serve our communities. We ask them for guidance when we are unsure about any facets of our daily lives. We accept the fact that religious scholars know more than us and are therefore in a position to guide us.
In addition, we always refer to the Holy Koran for guidance.
There is a Christian hymn which also speaks of guidance:
“Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us
O’er the world’s tempestuous sea;
Guard us, guide us, keep us, feed us,
For we have no help but Thee.”
— James Edmeston (1791-1867), England.
I remember this hymn because I attended a Church of England boarding school where we were required to go to church every Sunday. It was, for me, just a part of my weekly routine.
Recently, my family celebrated a birthday by sharing it with fellow Muslims at a nearby mosque. At home, a few friends came to celebrate with us. If there was a need to prove that race or religion did not matter, it was at that moment. We are Malays but our Chinese and Indian friends were there with us. It didn’t seem strange; after all, we live in the same city, go to the same restaurants and shop at the same supermarkets.
At a time when we are looking for answers, we really have to devote more time in seeking knowledge and to understand our fellow citizens better.

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