One people, one destiny
I was reading the Proclamation of Independence again recently. It struck me how the proclamation starts with not only with the utterance “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful” but also, in the next sentence, “Praise be to God, the Lord of the Universe (Rabb Al-‘alamin) and may the blessings and peace of God be upon His Messengers.”
The expression Rabb Al-‘alamin resonates. It is my favourite description of the Creator, saying to me that Allah’s embrace is so all encompassing, like a mother’s, that no one, not a single one of us, will ever be allowed to fall from His cradle. ‘Abdullah Yusuf Ali conveys the nuances of this phrase richly in translating it as the “Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds”. “Worlds”, not “world”. Worlds. ‘Abdullah Yusuf Ali says, “There are many worlds, astronomical and physical worlds, worlds of thought, spiritual world and so on. In every one of them, God is all-in-all.” I agree. The world I live in is in many ways different from the world in which my neighbour lives. My family, friends, experiences, history and spirituality are so different from his, as are his from mine.
As I read the opening words to the Proclamation again, I was reminded of how in invoking Rabb Al-‘alamin and His Messengers, our founders had not only proclaimed this nation as one in which Islam was the religion of the Federation, they had also recognized that the Malaysian universe was one made of up of so many different worlds. The Proclamation goes on to declare: “AND WHEREAS by the Federal Constitution aforesaid provision is made to safeguard the rights and prerogatives of Their Highnesses the Rulers and the fundamental rights and liberties of the people and to provide for the peaceful and orderly advancement of the Persekutuan Tanah Melayu as a constitutional monarchy based on Parliamentary democracy.”
We are one people, all of whom have a common destiny. We come from different worlds and we will continue to have our own peculiarities even as we forge a common identity. Islam is embedded in the Constitution and that will not change. Leave aside the practical impossibility of ever denuding the Constitution of Islam, our shared history and our present are so interleaved with the faith that its absence would leave a void for many of us, even non-Muslims. A friend of mine of another faith used to complain about the azan until she spent a long time away and realized how it had given her comfort, signaling the end of night and the start of another day. In the same way, the funds that are used for the advancement of Islam in this country come, in part, from taxes collected from all of us and we do not hear complaint about it.
An appreciation of this, and the equally protected status of the Malays, must necessarily bring with it an equal understanding of our need for mutual respect. This is not just about the guarantee of equality in the Constitution, this is about what common good requires of all of us. I do not profess to be an expert but I recognize at my core that God made us equals even as He made us different so that we could understand acceptance within His full embrace. I understand that our diversity mirrors the worlds that are His domain, as much as I understand that our diversity is a reflection of His Oneness. For this reason, when we cleave any one of us away from the rest of this society, it is a cause of great pain and anguish. There are sensitivities that have to be handled very delicately even where we feel that there are issues that need to be confronted. Perhaps too belatedly, I understand now that so focused on law and constitutional rights have I been that I have at times overlooked the need to be less robust in the way I explained myself; though things needed to be said, and still do, they could have at time been said that much better.
When Dr Rais Yatim opened the conference at which the proposed Interfaith Commission Bill was to be discussed, he said something that has remained with me since, “We must know the sharp edges protruding in a multi-religious and multi-racial society.” Rightly so, for how else are we to understand how to live with each other more harmoniously unless we know the sharp edges. We must confront, understand and resolve. And while sensitivity is necessary, it must not be permitted to keep us away from what we have to do as a community of worlds or to shut us out.
We must also not blind ourselves to the fact that sensitivity is a two-way street. No one person or community has a monopoly over the right to feel pain. We all bleed the deep, red blood of Malaysia. Tanah tumpahnya darahku.
(Malay Mail; 9th Sept 2008)