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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Putting the Conservative Muslims' fear into perspective

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I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.

Sci-fi & Fantasy buffs may recognize the above instantly. For those who aren't, it is an excerpt from the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert's novel Dune. Keep it in mind as you read this post.

It is obvious from recent news reports, commentaries and what not, that conservative Muslims see Kongsi-Raya as a real threat to Islam. And the root question that has remained somewhat unanswered is why?

Yes, the Islamic establishment has issued numerous statements, and an interview on a related matter - Liberalism & Pluralism (read the interview, and Walski's commentary on it, if you haven't already done so) - but really failed to answer the real question. Why?

Obviously, if a Muslim were to knowingly participate in another religion's rituals and/or services, then that would be a clear-cut no-no.

Writer Fathi Aris Omar wrote a nice editorial piece in the Malay-language Star Online site, MStar, where he asks the pertinent question - is culture being mistaken as relgious symbolism?

Muslim Intellectual Dr. Chandra Muzaffar also wrote an article questioning the wisdom and highlighting the dangers of simple-minded labelling, as FatwaMan has done with regards to pluralism.

So, really - what does the conservative Muslim mind fear about kongsi-anything?

A clue, as Walski found out, lies in Mahaguru58's two recent posts: "Kongsiraya-Why the Ulamaks don't approve it" and "Kuttuvilakku - A picture speaks a thousands words".
(Now, Mahaguru58, by no stretch of the imagination, is a conservative Muslim. However, in contrast with certain other conservatives, Walski holds a fair amount of respect for him, as he presents his views in a very sober, adult and rational way)

We won't duplicate what he has to say here, but the root cause of this is the fear of syirik - the act of associating someone or something as equal to God - a definite no-no in any Muslim's book. The reasoning given by Mahaguru58 is thus:

"When a Muslim attends a function where there exists an atmosphere of adherence to another 'deity' or 'figure of reverence' such as a religious icon, symbol of worship, etcetera, then that Muslim must not follow in the activities of paying homage to that figure of worship or remain there as a sign of respect to that 'deity' or object that is being worshipped apart from Allah, True God Almighty!"

As the reasoning goes, any object that is used in conjunction with other religions' worship or rituals may fall into this category. The example given was the Kuttuvilakku (sometimes also called urvalikk or kuthvilakk) - the standing oil lamp. The image below is an example.

Oil Lamp Image from GangesIndia.comOil lamp to some, threatening symbol to others

So, to carry the reasoning further, a Muslim going to a Hindu friend's house on Divali (or Deepavali, as it's more commonly known in Malaysia) with a Kuttuvilakku in it, is at risk of syirik, because the Kuttuvilakku is an object used in Hindu prayer. If you actually light one up, you're definitely in a state of syirik. (There is a specific occassion mentioned in the second post about Rais Yatim lighting one of these up, symbolizing the start of some event or other.)

Now, physically, the Kuttuvilakku is basically an ornate oil lamp, and culturally, lighting it up is a symbol of starting/officiating something (be it prayer, a meeting, conference, or what have you). And yes, you will find it in Hindu temples. And yes, it is used in Hindu rituals.

Walski's Opinion Starts Here: (in the full post)

As a Muslim, one cannot associate, or declare-as-equal, anything or anyone, with God. However, there is also the more crucial question of niat (intention). To Walski, the Kuttuvilakku is nothing more than an oil lamp. Yes, it is used in Hindu religious rituals, but from a cultural standpoint, lighting it up is a symbolic starting point - of anything. It is no different from sounding the Malay Gong to officially start a function.

So, if one were to focus on only one of an object's many uses, which happens to be religious in nature, and regard that object as being a religious icon because of that one use, then life for a Muslim on this Earth would be one of total misery.

A Muslim, therefore, cannot use candles. Why? Because candles are used in Churches.

A Muslim, thereore, cannot watch Babe (the film about the cute talking pig). Why? Because pigs are unclean/forbidden to Muslims, and even looking at it may contaminate your soul, through the eyes (even though what the Quran specifically prohibits is the consumption of pig meat, and consumption of pig meat alone).

A Muslim, therefore, cannot burn fragrant incense sticks. Why? Because incense sticks resemble joss sticks, which are used by Buddhists/Taoist for their rituals.

A Muslim, therefore, cannot visit a Hindu's home on Divali, or a Taoist's home on Chinese New Year. Why? Because there exist many objects used for prayer/rituals in those homes (nevermind that for some, the only motivation may be the chance to taste some decent Ladoo or mutton curry).

And the list could go on, and on, and on... outlasting even the Energizer bunny.

And the root of all this? Fear, caused by ignorance, which leads to more fear. Not the real fear of displeasing God, but the fear of fear compounded onto itself.

Fear that the mere symbology brings one to displeasing God. Nevermind the niat. Oh no, even though in your heart you revere only God, lighting up the Kuttuvilakku is syirik because the Hindus use it in their rituals; nevermind that to a Muslim it should be nothing more than an ornate oil lamp. Out of fear, we have associated it with something more than what it physically is - an oil lamp. And we end up feeling threatened. By oil lamps.

There was a time, not so long ago, when watching television was considered a grave wrong-doing by some Muslims. Because of the moving pictures. And creating a likeness (especially of humans) is considered haram (forbidden), because of the fear that the likeness would be worshipped instead of God. And so there were those that threw their TV sets away into the river.

The fear of displeasing God is a very valid one, for any faith. Walski has no problem with that. And this is where the basis of displeasing God has to be given due consideration. Which is why the concept of niat (intent) is a very important one in Islam. But due consideration is only possible if you use your God-given intellect.

Imagine the ridicule if the Christian clergy were to one day issue a proclamation disallowing Christians to eat ketupat, because its association with the Muslim's Eid celebrations may erode the Christians faith.

When we allow fear to extrapolate itself, and give objects more implicit meanings and symbolic importance than they actually deserve, then irrational fear manifests itself. We feel threatened by oil lamps, candles, incense sticks, T-junctions (because they resemble crucifixes), etc. You name it, there may just be a reason to fear it.

We end up tip-toeing through life fearing that every little thing in our path may have implicit dangers of syirik. Not because we've figured it out with our own minds, but because we've been conditioned to think in that manner.

In fact, what is really happening to many Malay-Muslims is that they have allowed their minds to come under siege. They have allowed fear to overcome common sense and intellect. And for this, the ultra-conservative ulama, over the generations, bear much of the blame, as Chandra Muzaffar has correctly pointed out.

And fear, as the Bene Gesserit in Dune have proclaimed, really is the mind-killer.