By Imtiyaz Yusuf
Special to The
This is the fourth year in a row that Thai Muslims and their Buddhist counterparts are marking key religious events – month-long fasting for Ramadan and three months of Khao Phansa or Buddhist lent. The lenten period begins on July 20, after Ramadan ends on July 7.
The multi-ethnic Thai-Muslims reside in all parts of Thailand, not just the South – and the story of Islam in Thailand is not just of unrest as is commonly imagined.
The 30 days of dawn-to-dusk fasting is based on the third pillar of Islam. The devotees do not eat or drink and have to remain celibate during the daytime. Even a sip of water is prohibited. The goal of this tough ritual aims to draw out the human nature of compassion, mercy and patience – values that are largely absent in this day and age. It also aims to build self-discipline and empathy towards mankind as well as caring for the poor, the needy and the neglected (Koran 2:183-184).
The goal of fasting is to encourage piety and gratitude for all one possesses, including the gifts of nature. Prophet Muhammad said that fasting was an act of sacrifice that leads to the forgiveness of sins and forms deep spirituality. Every Muslim who is healthy and passed puberty is obliged to fast. “Persons who are sick or traveling; pregnant, nursing and menstruating women; small children and the elderly are exempted from fasting, because it hard is for them. Islam gives priority to healthiness.”
The Lord Buddha, meanwhile, began travelling across the north of India to share his teachings after he attained enlightenment. Every year, during the three months of monsoon rain, he retired to one place to teach and practise the basic principles of dharma.
Similarly, during the three months of Khao Phansa every year, Buddhist monks and laity engage in alms giving, meditating, chanting sutras, listening to dharma talks and observing the three precepts of Buddhism in the path to enlightenment. Khao Phansa aims to cultivate natural compassion.
The end goal of both Ramadan and Khao Phansa is to instil a spirit of mercy and empathy in all beings.
Unfortunately, our interpretation of different religions obscures this intent, seeing all faiths along specific ethno-religious lines resulting in socio-religious exclusivism.
Muslim sage al-Ghazali held that the objective of fasting is for humans to produce within themselves a semblance of the divine attributes of freedom from want and release themselves from the clutches of desire, making way for moderation to prevail in the carnal self.
Every Ramadan evening at the time of breaking fast, Muslims learn about how unimportant food is in our daily needs and how important it is to focus on the passing of time, patience, caring and sharing with other living beings.
“Yet man asks for evil as eagerly as [while] he should ask for good. Truly, man is indeed hasty. (Koran 17:11)
During Ramadan, Muslims pay the zakat – tax for the poor and the needy. Zakat, prescribed at 2.5 per cent of one’s annual savings, literally means “purification”, “sweetening” and “growth”. The Koran prescribes for it to be distributed to all without discrimination for “there is no religious difference between human pangs of hunger and needs”. (Koran 9:60)
The end of Ramadan is marked with Eid ul-Fitr and the two days of celebration in Asean countries is similar to the Songkran holidays in Thailand – a time when everybody goes home.
Islam as a religion of moralistic monotheism aims to unify mankind with God, following the principles of equality and justice. Similarly, Buddhism focuses on selfless development and the building of tolerance as well as social cooperation on the path to enlightenment.
Unfortunately Buddha’s teaching of religious tolerance is getting silenced or obscured on the world stage as people get embroiled in ethno-religious and racist conflicts.
The popular belief that religion is the source of all conflict is a conceptual mistake. If it were true, then all religious founders should have been engaging in war and violence during their lifetime. However, there is no such historical evidence.
During the modern age, religion was employed as a motivation for conflict, first by the fundamentalists and now by the new religious nationalists – both stressing on the literal interpretation of religion. Then there are the aggressive secular fundamentalists who wish to remove religion from the public sphere.
Since 1990, when the first Iraq war broke out, there has not been a single peaceful Ramadan. This year, the Muslims are fighting each other in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Somalia. This is the first time in Islamic history that the Shi’ites and the Sunnis have declared war against each other at state level. Yet Islam has never had religious wars like the Christian crusades.
The history of Islamic and Buddhist ties began in the 7th century. Buddhism had a great impact on Sufism – Islamic mysticism. This rich encounter continued as Islam arrived in Southeast Asia in the 12th century, with Sufism serving as a bridge between the two faiths.
This fact is largely forgotten or whitewashed today as both religious groups assume ethnic political identities. The sad fact is that over the 900 years of coexistence in Southeast Asia, neither religion has produced any scholars who are well versed in each other’s religion. The ethno-religous conflicts in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the South have come to define current Islam-Buddhism ties. They need immediate solution or they will have a negative effect on inter-religious ties in the region – the only part of the world where people of both faiths live in direct daily contact.
His Majesty the King’s 70 years of reign is based on the Buddhist philosophy of dasarajadhamma – the 10 principles of Buddhist governance and his advice has always been that administration policies be guided by the “understand and develop” codes. These have been the guiding principles for practice and for building and sustaining peaceful coexistence in Thailand.
Thailand can ill afford to jeopardise this achievement now. There is a need to check the spread of religious nationalism, be it from Buddhist or Muslim countries, as their religious conflicts are irrelevant to Thailand. Buddhism is the country’s key religion, but it should not be used as a licence to violate the freedom of citizens following another faith as is seen in other neighbouring countries. Moves should be made to redress problems and conflicts through understanding, dialogue and fairness.
This is fourth year in a row that Ramadan and Khao Phansa are occurring so close to one another and it should be used as an opportunity to transcend the growing dangerous ethno-religious and nationalist mindsets that have no basis in either Islam or Buddhism. If Asean is to become an integrated community of 600 million people of diverse backgrounds and minorities, the political and religious leaders, as well as practitioners and educators should introduce a broader religious humanist understanding.
Religion will never leave Asia and the future can be nothing else but religiously pluralistic. Understanding and appreciating the dialogical religious interface of Ramadan and Khao Phansa in Asean will help build tolerance, peace and development – a common human need for happiness.
Imtiyaz Yusuf is director of the Centre for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding at the College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University.