JAKARTA: It has become customary in Indonesia for different religious communities and state officials to attend the celebrations of another faith s holy days. Such acts are commonly put forward as examples of religious tolerance. However, it is a fact that attending another faith s religious celebrations is considered a sin by some, so that their participation can at best be described as an act of courtesy rather than one of genuine tolerance.
For many Muslims, taking part in the substance and religious rituals of another faith is considered forbidden, unlike interactions outside the religious realm i.e. in worldly matters. They see the principle of religious tolerance as consisting, in practice, of letting others practice their own religion, without any coercion, persuasion or debate over religious issues. But participation in others religious celebrations is considered heresy.
According to a comparative religion expert from Canada, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, all religious traditions are considered human legacies. By exploring the experience of other religious traditions, we are actually exploring our own and therefore improving our comprehension of it. In addition, by participating in other religious traditions, each of us is participating in the manifestation of God.
For Frithjof Schuon, a spiritualist from Switzerland, the heart or essence of all religions is one and the same. The difference lies in the form and style in which this essence manifests itself as a result of differences in the nature of thinking, and in local customs and culture. But such differences can be transcended and can ultimately result in unity among religions.
By experiencing one another s religions, we avoid being trapped in the realm of religious forms so that an act is no longer judged per se but rather by its motives or consequences, enabling us to better delve into the fundamental nature of religion. John Hick, a British Christian theologian, believes this outcome is attainable, [as] different religious traditions basically come from the contact with a similar ultimate reality.
According to this perspective, during the celebration of the Hinduism Day of Seclusion (Nyepi), for instance, Muslims can learn introspection by avoiding the hustle and bustle of daily life in order to obtain a higher consciousness. The result of this action is a more balanced inner-self, wisdom and enlightenment.
When Muslims attend Easter celebrations, they can similarly be inspired by the existence of Jesus as a symbol of suffering and optimism despite the harshness of day-to-day trials, or of opposition to merciless tyrants and the liberation of the less fortunate.
In a decision made by the Fatwa Commission of the Indonesian Ulama Council in 1981, it was decided that attending the celebration of Christmas is a legally undefined action from an Islamic perspective that was later considered haram or forbidden as a cautious measure to prevent Islam from becoming muddled with other faiths. The clerics Fatwa is more or less a representation of the perspective of many in the Muslim community who are against mixed religious day celebrations.
When we consider the logic of the fatwa, we find that there is no clear teaching forbidding Muslims to attend other religious celebrations. There is therefore no reason why this activity, or entering another religion s spiritual house, cannot then be seen as an initial step that can help Muslims grow in their own spiritual lives through the religious experience of other faiths. Through such occasions, they may find surprises in other religious traditions to enrich theirs. Religious experiences in fact may cross boundaries.
Muslim participation in the religious celebrations of other faiths has to be understood at the spiritual level as a mutually beneficent act, not in the framework of mixing faiths and rituals. Only with such mutual strengthening, caring and nurturing of inter-religious relations can true tolerance be realized, displacing the distant tolerance that believes in the sufficiency of individual religious experience while at the same time deeming others inferior.
Ali Noer Zamanis an observer of social-religious issues and lives in Jakarta. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.