Finding common ground to build better understanding

opinion July 26, 2014 00:00

By Imtiyaz Yusuf
Special to the

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With Khao Phansa and Ramadan arriving at the same time this year, it may be the perfect time to learn about shared histories and spiritual ties

This year, like every year, Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand are observing Khao Phansa – the “Buddhist Lent” – and the holy month of Ramadan. Both these occasions give people a chance to renew themselves spiritually. Yet the two communities – who live side by side – share little information about these traditions with each other. 
The projected formation of the Asean Socio-cultural Community – requiring “different cultures, languages and religions of the peoples of Asean to emphasise common values and adapt them to present realities, opportunities and challenges” – needs shared socio-cultural projects to make it a reality. This project of building an “Asean identity based on friendship and cooperation” needs to be undertaken by different public and private agencies, such as the Southeast Asia Ministers of Education Organisation and the Asean University Network. 
Southeast Asian communities share unique socio-cultural values and practices that prefer negotiation and compromise over confrontation, which makes them different from other world cultures. But such values and practices are being challenged and will be eroded by the rising religious nationalism and fundamentalism in the region, which is giving birth to inter-religious conflicts over ethnic and political-economic matters. Seeing these conflicts as essentially religious reveals an ignorance or unfamiliarity with political discourses rooted across the region and shaped by socio-cultural practices and ethnic narratives. 
Rituals are the grounds for building compassion, based upon examples set by the founders of religion, and represent socio-psychological as well as the cultural face of religions. Rituals are meant to connect the individual with the sacred – renewing life and helping us be true humans. 
After attaining nirvana, enlightenment, the Buddha walked across the north of India teaching dharma – the truth about the causes of suffering and the path out of it – thereby revealing the secret of existence. Each year during the three-month monsoon period, the Buddha settled down in one place to teach and practice the essentials of his philosophy. The purposes of the Buddha’s retreat were to avoid travelling difficulties during the rains, avoid damaging newly planted crops, and to engage in activities such as reconciling disputes and teaching his pupils about overcoming negative emotions, about impermanence and about mindfulness. 
During the three months of Khao Phansa, Buddhist monks and the laity give and receive alms, meditate, chant sutras, listen to dharma talks and observe the Eight Precepts. For every Buddhist, Khao Phansa is a time for self-development, building social cooperation and moving forward on the path to enlighenment. It is also an occasion for forging close ties between monks and the laity. 
In Islam the Prophet Muhammad is said to have received the revelation of the first verses of the Koran on the 27th night of Ramadan in 610 CE, during one of his meditation retreats in the cave at Hira, near Mecca. The Koran calls it Laylat al-Qadar – the night of power. Islam is not a “new” religion but more a reaffirmation of the message of moralistic monotheism of the former prophets from Arabia, which had faded from human consciousness, giving rise to arrogance as well as socio-economic and political strife, corruption and injustice. 
The Prophet then instituted Ramadan as the month of fasting. This is when Muslims across the world recite the Koran in its entirety, thus contributing to its preservation. Ramadan is also the month for building spirituality and goodwill. Every healthy Muslim who has attained puberty is obliged to fast. Those who are sick, pregnant or travelling, as well as children and the very elderly, are exempted. 
This is the month when well-to-do Muslims pay their zakat – the poor tax – which requires them to contribute 2.5 per cent of their annual savings to the poor. Zakat, which aims to make the income gap small, is meant to be distributed without discrimination, for the Koran says there is no religious difference in the pangs of hunger. 
According to the Koran, the Ramadan is intended to develop self-restraint and God-consciousness. Going hungry and thirsty all day and engaging in extra spiritual rites makes this a month of training in self-rectitude. The Prophet Muhammad remarked, “Many people who fast get nothing from their fast except hunger and thirst, and many people who pray at night get nothing from it except wakefulness.”  
Fasting is meant to teach humility, modesty and selflessness. The reduced intake of food calms passions and emotions, resulting in patience, forbearance, steadfastness and discipline. The Muslim fast builds social and spiritual solidarity between Muslims and their non-Muslim friends, who appreciate their endurance. 
The annual observance of Khao Phansa and Ramadan by Buddhists and Muslims is a rite of passage and a means to preserve teachings and practices. 
The end of Ramadan and Khao Phansa is celebrated respectively with Eid-ul-Fitr, marking the end of fasting, and kathin, the offering of robes to monks, marking the end of religious retreat and return to normal life. The devout come out of these months equipped with deepened spirituality, and a mindset that is caring, merciful and kind toward all beings. This year’s Ramadan ends on Monday. 
One of the biggest challenges to building religious understanding is ignorance about shared history, shared cross-cultural influences and inter-religious exchanges between the followers of Islam and Buddhism. These exchanges are largely unknown, obliterated, ignored or simply not discussed and taught. The contemporary philosophical, socio-economic and political challenges that have come with modernity and globalisation – such as life in the fast lane, the fight for economic survival, the materialist outlook toward life, xenophobia and the preference to “simplify” the understanding of religion – are eroding compassion, mercy and love. 
In such a situation, religio-cultural communities prefer to retreat into their parochial identities and insulate themselves through religious exclusivity. In the eyes of the common Thai Buddhist, a Muslim is identified as one who eats no pork and has four wives, while, to a Thai Muslim, a Buddhist is someone who eats pork and has many minor wives. 
It is as if there was never any wisdom or anything at all profound in these religions, only the matter of pigs and women. In light of growing mutual ignorance about Islam and Buddhism, there is a need to develop awareness of the shared history, wisdom and culture in Thailand. Otherwise Thailand will see religious traditions limited to symbols and holidays, creating a lack in understanding and empathy. Mere economic development without progress in the philosophy of religion and reformist thought is perfect ground for breeding religious extremism. 
With Khao Phansa and Ramadan – two major events in the lives of Buddhists and Muslims – arriving at the same time, this year offers a perfect chance to build such awareness. I am not aware how many people engaging in the religious, educational, cultural and social activities have noticed it, but building an understanding of shared religio-cultural resources will help find grounds for building peaceful relations and cooperation in a natural manner.
Assistant Professor Imtiyaz Yusuf is a lecturer and director of the Centre for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding, College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University.