Malaysia: Tolerance is just not the right word

THE International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) recently held a national conference on “Human Rights in Islam: Issues and Challenges”. Parallel sessions of papers presented covered a variety of issues pertaining to human rights that are compatible with as well as antithetical to Islam.

This shows that human rights doctrines are not outright against Islam — or any other religion for that matter. Rights to life, liberty, security, shelter, education, nationality, marriage, etc., are all sanctioned and protected by all true religions with certain parameters.

Using human rights principles as a platform to unite mankind is noble as religion, due to its sensitivities in certain fundamental areas, may not be deemed as the best mechanism.

But problems begin when hardcore proponents of human rights glorify human rights ideals, turning them into an ideology, a philosophical system and almost enjoying a religious status though they are actually secular. They form missionary movements, imposing upon others to embrace these secular ideas at the expense of their actual beliefs.

Interestingly, certain religious groups employ arguments from a human rights perspective to claim something which is non-existent or at least ambivalent in their own religious teachings. It is like someone entering his neighbour’s residence, and after taking something precious from the latter, claiming it as his belonging from time immemorial.

When the real owner demands his property back, the taker, as if not realising his mistake and to unjustifiably solidify his claim, obstinately insists before the court that the thing is indeed his, and it is right to steal from others.

When the court finally decides against him, he and his community appeal the case to a higher court and bring it further to certain international bodies, shouting that they have been deprived of justice.

Within our Malaysian context, such a provocative attitude has put our national solidarity in jeopardy. In the process, the perpetrators actually incite suspicion, hatred and animosity that may lead to social anarchy.

One has no right to claim religious freedom or freedom of expression if it adversely affects social order, public interests, public health or morality. There are limits and parameters to be observed for every single right that exists under the sun. Otherwise, our lives are no different from that of animals.

The authorities must not allow any body or party to threat the harmonious peaceful living of our multi-racial and multi-religious society. Therefore, the government of the day is perfectly justified — in fact, it is obligated — to take preventive measures provided for by the national constitution to thwart such attempts.

If we claim our society to be a civilised one, we must admit that different cultures have different belief systems, doctrines, principles, dogmas, rites and rituals.

Religious leaders in our so-called civil society are at the frontlines to remain loyal to the truth of their religious teachings by not claiming, for instance, something that has no basis in a certain religion. If not, then its credibility will be questioned.

Being civil means to realise that the purpose of knowledge, especially religious knowledge, is to create a good man and not just a civil man, i.e. a man of manners who smiles or gives salam upon greeting another person.

Being civil is not just about being nice on the outside if inwardly, you are hypocritical and diplomatic. This way, you are actually tolerating others by keeping grudges inside.

This explains why a growing number of academics and community leaders consider the word tolerate and its derivatives as vulgar. This stand must be emulated by religious leaders and citizens, young and old.

In our pluralistic civil society, these words must not be used anymore as our mutual respect and understanding are already far above the excellent level. Sporadic events must not be allowed to crumble this praiseworthy state.

Prof Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas has suggested applying the words muhibbah and samahah instead of tolerance in his proposal for interreligious cooperation on common ethical teachings since the 1970s.

As the Founder-Director of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (Istac), he emphasised the same matter in numerous Saturday Night Lectures Series in the early 1990s.

Our first Premier Tunku Abdul Rahman was the first local politician to introduce and popularise the word to the masses in the 1970s.

Prof Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud in his The Educational Philosphy (1998) says muhibbah and samahah “are very different from the English term tolerance because tolerance connotes the mere forberance, the patience of enduring something disagreeable without the elements of kindness and love, which are ingrained in the Islamic concepts of samahah and muhibbah. Samahah means liberality, munificence, generosity, gentleness, while muhibbah is something that is dear to oneself, loved.”

The muhibbah notion has also been beautifully elaborated upon by Prof. Kamar Oniah Kamaruzzaman in her works such as Religion and Pluralistic Co-Existence: The Muhibah Perspective (2010) and various lectures in and outside of Malaysia. She says that “muhibbah is the soul of this nation.”

I humbly suggest that the word tolerance be virtually wiped out from our vocabulary. We must work really hard to make the understanding and practice of muhibbah dominant and unique in our civil life to allow its inclusion in English dictionaries, like other Malay words such as amok and sarong.

Ikim will be holding another seminar (in Malay) on “Human Rights and Islam in Malaysia: Theory, Current Realities and the Way Forward” from Nov 27 to Nov 28. All Malaysians are cordially invited to take part by visiting