The Muslim Community Experience Towards a Community of Success
Good evening and welcome to all delegates of this conference. We are gathered here for very important conversations on the theme of developing successful Muslim communities. We had planned for this conference to take place before Covid-19 struck. If we had done so, our conversations would have been somewhat different. The pandemic has given it fresh impetus and greater urgency, and offers new and critical perspectives in developing resilience and the meaning of success; that life is not just about self but community, not all about getting what we want, but what we need, and the value of pause, of reflection, of silence. One of the things we learnt was that by being resourceful and creative, we could carry on with the important things in life. We survived the darkest moments of the pandemic by offering ourselves hope – if one door to goodness is closed, there are new ones that can be opened. We just need to know where to look.
When we could not organise a conference of this scale, we conducted two online seminars to discuss lessons from the pandemic as well as the role of Muslim societies in secular states. Some distinguished speakers who are present here with us spoke in the seminars and shared their reflections. An important point that stood out was that religion is an important resource for resilience and social responsibility to protect society. We are eternally grateful for your participation, but more importantly, for your friendship and support all these years for the work that the Islamic Religious Council and the Muslim community do. Singapore is indeed a small and young nation (a tiny red dot), and the colour red is as much about passion and commitment as it is about togetherness, so we do not walk this journey alone, but with friends, and hopefully fans too, from all over the world. And we are very pleased to be able to host and meet you in person today.
Allow me to say some welcoming remarks in Arabic for our guests from the Middle East and North Africa.
The pandemic has given us a crash course on the most important ingredients of success in a fast changing world. Undoubtedly, there has been much pain, suffering and disruption, but the pandemic has taught us one of the most, if not the most important thing, the worth of human life, that one life lost is one too many. I recall the Eid (Hari Raya of 2020). Mosques were shut. I stood in an empty mosque that morning to deliver the customary sermon broadcast to the homes of Muslim families in Singapore. The air in the mosque was filled with sadness and longing for the community. I could feel immense emptiness. Then a I recalled a story more than 10 centuries ago in Damascus, where the Imam stood on the pulpit to an empty mosque safe for a handful of people when a plague had struck the city. He asked, where are the people who were just here the other day? Someone responded, they had all perished because of the plague. We missed the community dearly, but we took comfort in the fact that they were safe at home with their families.
More than just a crisis or a passing storm, it tells a compelling story of resilience, adaptability and solidarity. It offered us opportunities to relearn and reset. Indeed, for a small but very diverse nation like Singapore, our success hinges on our collective ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances and conditions, to stay resilient guided by our principles and values as we navigate the changes, and to remain connected with each other, and care for one another with charity, compassion and hospitality.
Faith communities which are an important aspect of our social fabric in Singapore, embody and reinforce these values. During the lockdowns and circuit breakers, there was doubt if religions could survive the pandemic when places of worship had to be closed. There was no divine revelation that says “Thou shalt social distance,” so faith communities would quickly lose relevance. I disagree. In our scripture, there is an even more important revelation if we only looked at the right place. A revelation that asks of us not only to social distance, but to wear masks, vaccinate and take all the necessary safety measures to save lives. The Quran says “and whoever saved a life, it is as if he had saved all humanity.” Faith groups remained resilient, adapted and implemented safe measures for the greater good of society and to protect lives. Beyond that, religious leaders expressed solidarity and support for each other. Faith communities could draw strength from this togetherness at a time when anxieties were high. I am deeply thankful for religious leaders for your constant support and encouragement for our community too. Through the crisis, we have engendered greater trust and confidence in each other, and grown stronger together.
These experiences during the pandemic are not an exception to the rule, but a culmination of and testimony to our social norms especially when severely tested; to be able to live together peacefully as a multireligious and multicultural society, to work together to build a safe and prosperous home for all, to respect each other and care for one another, and to be able to come together and express solidarity in times of crisis. For the Muslim community, this is the social context we live in. No doubt it is unique, and gives rise to particular, and sometimes, unprecedented theological, jurisprudential and existential questions. We acknowledge that there are religious doctrines, traditions and ideologies that may not sit well with aspects of our contemporary condition. There are episodes in Muslim history that raise questions on the role of faith in these environments – because faith has been used to seek dominance, control and power; or to fight for rights so that only our norms and values prevail. But could faith be the catalyst and impetus to create a harmonious society that benefits as many people as possible with justice, fairness, equality and progress?
To answer these questions, Muslims look to the Shari'a as a comprehensive system of religious values, principles and laws. So how would the Shari'a respond? What is the theology that instructs our behaviours and shapes our attitudes in living in modern and diverse societies? How do we interpret religious laws to respond to our unique context? What does our religious identity look like as citizens of a modern secular state? How the Shari'a responds to these questions depends on our social compact. What the Shari'a does clearly is to provide the necessary foundations. The sum total of the Sharia is its attention and sensitivity to the human condition. It exhorts humankind to protect and enhance welfare and well-being. Everything that it sets out for its followers to do is never outside the realm of human life and society, but within it and for its benefit. This is, to use the term of the influential medieval theologian Imam Al-Ghazali, maqsud al-shar', i.e. the intent of the Sharia, which is to protect the five fundamentals of religion, life, intellect, progeny and property. In one of the most extensive commentaries of a prophetic hadith, “Do not inflict injury or repay one injury with another”, the fourteenth century jurist Najmuddin al-Tufi argued that the Sharia is all about the avoidance of harm. We can add to this many other beautiful articulations of the protection of the fundamentals by Shatibi, Ibn Qayyim, any many others.
But where and how do we place the human condition and interest in relation to the divine? Is it at the centre of the religious worldview, or at its margins and periphery? Can we read the maqasid of Al-Ghazali and Shatibi, and the idea of the common good or maslaha, humanistically, as Tufi argues, as opposed to theologically? If we see the world in a binary sense with two distinct and irreconciliable realms or entities, then only one or the other would prevail. If a worldly life that functions on reason and rationality clashes with a worldview and laws from a sacred source, then we will always remain in conflict, both in our minds and with others out there. A bifurcated world, where God's law cannot be reconciled with the modern world and secular institutions, is a distorted imagery that harks back to a triumphalist worldview. Many medieval thinkers had tussled with this, such as Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Maimonides (Musa bin Maimun) and Thomas Aquinas, in the Islamic, Jewish and Christian traditions. For them, the human intellect or reason has an important place in their faith, and to varying extents, there are ways in which both can be harmonized.
This challenge is even more acute today, as the gulf between religious norms and values and the liberal secular state seem to widen. If one makes no attempt to bridge the divide, we will end up with communities withdrawing and not participating fully, because you have, on the one hand, an ‘Islamic identity’, and on the other hand, a “non-Islamic” realm, which is, to use Durkheim's term, profane, where believers do not belong, at least not fully. Withdrawal means we become only concerned with protecting our own faith, and demanding that our religious rights must be met at all times as citizens. However, if we exercise a thoughtful reading of our religious traditions and teachings, we find that these aspects of modern life are not anathema to our faith. Our identities and allegiances to faith and nation do not need to conflict. For us in Singapore, we can be good Muslims, good neighbours, and good Singaporeans. This is our unique Singapore Muslim Identity (SMI). But as Prime Minister said earlier, we need to adjust and adapt in a diverse society.
In fact, the expectation that there should be no need to adjust or compromise is both unreasonable and unrealistic. It is very clear from Islamic history that this was even never the case during the Prophet's time. The Prophet asked the companions to migrate to Abyssinia in early Islam to seek a peaceful and safe life under the protection of a Christian king Negus. Some of them called Abyssinia home and did not leave, even after Muslims had settled in Medina under the leadership of the Prophet there. In a similar way he negotiated for a safe passage of Muslims to Mecca at Hudaibiyah by making some compromises as he carefully considered the perspectives of non-Muslims on the terms of negotiation. As odd as it sounds, faith truly becomes meaningful and purposeful when we have to make difficult choices, to adjust, adapt and negotiate in difficult situations. Remember, the more uncomfortable and challenging, the greater the reward. It is how we resolve these tensions, how reconcile these differences and forge a common path, that would determine if we could ultimately work towards building successful communities.
These prophetic examples are consistent with how the Quran sets out the mutual and symbiotic relationship between community and state. Success depends on the level of trust, confidence and support between the two. When the state offers its citizens a safe space to live and practice what they believe, then we must do good and act honourably and with fairness (al-birr) and (al-qist). This, to me, is the clearest indication of the Qur'an's exhortation to work towards the common good, founded on the values of doing good and fairness.
Based on your experiences in your respective communities, you may have different experiences, formula, and proposals on how to achieve this. For us in Singapore, faith communities are a significant part of our society, even as state governance and public institutions are secular. At the same time, faith communities are free to practice their religion, including in the public realm, so long as the common good is not compromised and religion is not politicised. Every community, even as it seeks to advance its own interests, places the collective good of society above all else. This is a middle path (al-wasati), a delicate state of affairs, and it requires that everyone plays their role judiciously.
This approach has given us confidence that we can thrive in Singapore and contribute to our nation's prosperity and progress. But we can only get to this point with confidence and competence in engaging with our unique context. And this is not just for the leaders or the Asatizah, but especially for the community.
In this regard, religious education and guidance must be empowering, and the responsibility of leaders and scholars is to work out the principles and values that can help the community make their own decisions when faced with their own problems. This is how our fatwa institution works today, where we refrain from the tradition of simply saying, this is halal/ok, this is haram/not ok, but we say, consider these principles and apply it to your situation. Think for yourself too. Trust me this is a lot more difficult than giving straight answers, but with increasingly more circumstantial and complex issues, this is the way forward. Our international guests would notice that we have a lot of halal-certified food establishments here, especially fast food chains, like Mcdonalds, Burger King and many others. Some are very excited about this, we can ensure it is halal, but we can't say it is healthy (tayyib). But we have also launched campaigns to educate the Muslim public what halal actually means, not what halal certificates are, because there is some confusion out there. This empowering approach is one of the many competencies we train our Asatizah and future religious leaders, after they graduate and take up life-long learning courses to acquaint themselves with our context today.
With empowerment comes the need for inclusivity. No one should be left behind in our pursuit for success. Inclusivity is obviously a huge topic and has many dimensions, some of which are contentious and needs to be carefully discussed in the realm of religious thought. For example, how do we address intra-faith diversities and dynamics, and different lifestyle preferences, as well as I what refer to as controversial and confrontational hermeneutics, i.e. the reinterpretation of religion and its laws that challenge mainstream and traditional viewpoints? We are increasingly dealing with exceptionally complex issues, made more challenging by a social media that democratises religious and social discourse. But these are not insurmountable, if we learn to come together to discuss rationally and sensibly, to work out solutions for our community and society.
The religious positions we took during the pandemic were unprecedented, even controversial initially. But we worked closely with medical experts and listened carefully to scientific insights before issuing the positions (fatwa). Around the world, if you recall at the time, there were communities which rejected science and medical guidance, because ‘God is greater than the virus’, some declared. Like Averroes, Aquinas and Maimonides, we needed to find ways to reconcile between science and faith, that they complement, not conflict with one another.
As we look back, perhaps what is emerging is a new model for success in a more open, complex and nuanced world we live. The long-held notion of a dichotomous but conflicting and sometimes acrimonious relationships between the religious and the secular, between faith and science, between Islam and the secular state, no longer reflect our social realities today. For example, within spaces which are largely defined as ‘religious’ in the traditional sense, the ‘secular’ is present. On the other hand, faith communities take ‘secular’ needs and interests serious too even as they practice their religion. This conference is another clear evidence of how this nuance is at work, a nuance that is very much needed if faith communities and the state were to have greater trust and willingness to work with each other. How we live today could very well have been a page from a book that Ibn Rushd or Maimonides would have written.
There are many more complex challenges ahead. Our work to forge success cannot wait much longer. The world has now entered into a new phase of grave geopolitical and economic uncertainties which can deepen fault lines and chip away at social cohesion. Like other faith communities, I am convinced Islam too has a very important role to play in this historical moment. But this requires of us, Muslims, the courage and honesty to speak about our strengths and weaknesses, our gaps and blindspots. Success will only flow from confidence in our own identity, by being authentic, comfortable in our own skin, and ready to engage with our socio-political context and realities on its own terms. Our generation has to chart its own path towards success, empowered by tradition, not incapacitated by it. This requires confidence and courage to read our traditions afresh, think critically, and co-create solutions creatively with others. This is broadly what we refer to here in Singapore as the 3 c's of success: character, competency and citizenry. Tomorrow's panels have been arranged according to these characteristics where they will be further discussed.
I must however admit that it is tough to be both a realist yet remain staunchly hopeful these days. The pandemic, climate, economy, and conflicts, all make it feel like it is much easier to fail than to succeed, like the odds are against us – so much so that signs of giving up with Earth as our home are beginning to appear. It is not only deglobalisation that we should fear, but de-earthisation. Whilst we cheer scientific progress, the sense of desperation is becoming more obvious, when scientists are searching for a new home in the lava tubes of our planetary neighbour, a red, dusty, dry planet and planning to leave this blue magnificent world God has entrusted upon us. Whatever your views are on life on Mars, Earth is still our first and only home now, and most probably in our generation. Our communities live here on earth. Even if there are Martians, we do not know if they will welcome our presence. So we must fight tooth and nail to keep our communities and societies successful. We must believe that we can succeed, with God's grace and with our hard work and determination. The crisis we have been through should bring us, as Ibn Khaldun suggests in the aftermath of the epidemics of his time, “a world brought into existence anew”, not a new world elsewhere in the galaxy, at least not yet. We must fix the problems we have created here, not move these problems elsewhere.
So back to earth and back to Singapore, let us take the first step towards that direction with this conference. The accompanying Research Programme aims to develop new epistemologies, frameworks and knowledge for us to explore new frontiers here. I call upon you to support and join us in this endeavour, and we start tomorrow in our three panels on character, competency and citizenry. Before I end, please join in me in once again expressing our appreciation to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for gracing this opening, and for all our esteemed guests. We hope you have a good rest this evening, and we look forward to seeing you tomorrow, thank you.