What was so insulting about the content of the module was that the lecturer claimed that Islam had introduced civility to the lives of Hindus in India. It was also said that Hindus preferred to be “dirty”, and that it was only Islam that had taught Hindu converts to Islam the importance of cleanliness. Although UTM conducted a probe and subsequently terminated the service of the offending lecturer, it was astonishing to many that such content could be taught at a university. The UTM fiasco was not the only example of bigotry against Hindus. There were five cases of Hindu temples being vandalised in recent months in Perak and Penang. While these are all isolated incidents, they have led many to wonder if this is the beginning of the onset of mistrust and intolerance between Malaysia’s different racial and religious communities.
Muslims in Malaysia should think more about who their Hindu countrymen are. One way to do so is to acquaint themselves with the writings of Abu al-Rayhan Al-Biruni, a Muslim scholar who was an authority on the religions of India. Born in 973 in Khwarazm in what is present-day Uzbekistan, Al-Biruni was in the court of Mahmud Ghaznavi (979-1030), the ruler of an empire that included parts of what is now known as Afghanistan, Iran and northern India. Al-Biruni travelled to India with the troops of Mahmud and lived there for years, during which time he mastered Sanskrit, translated a number of Indian religious texts to Arabic, studied Indian religious doctrines and wrote several books and treatises, including the Kitab Fi Tahqiq Ma li-l-Hind (The Book of What Constitutes India).
He refrained from making value judgments about other religions from an Islamic perspective. He was very conscious of the need to present India as understood by Indians themselves. In order to do so, he quoted extensively from Sanskrit texts. His objective was to study the religions of India in order to bring the two communities closer together. He states that the reason for embarking on his research on India was to provide Muslims the essential facts they would need when they encountered Indians and wished to discuss with them aspects of Indian religion and culture.
Al-Biruni considered such dialogue with Indians as crucial as it would create more understanding on issues about which Muslims remained very vague, as far as their understanding of Indian religions was concerned.
It was also his view that the Indians believed in a single god, by which he meant the same god that is worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims.He was the first scholar, in the Muslim world as well as the West, who approached the study of Indian religions objectively and avoided treating the Indians as mere heretics.
Malaysia is generally speaking a harmonious society. But, the political developments of recent years, which have seen an unhealthy development of identity politics in the form of, among other things, reckless statements made by politicians, religious leaders and educators, threaten to upset the current harmony that informs our society. This will potentially affect Hindu-Muslim relations.
The worrying trend in Hindu-Muslim relations suggests that there is clearly a need for dialogue between the Hindu and Muslim communities of Malaysia. The purpose of this dialogue would be to examine the commonalities in values, beliefs and culture that exist between Hinduism and Islam and to reaffirm the commitment that the two communities have to peaceful co-existence.
It is vital, for the sake of maintaining mutual respect and tranquillity in this country, that the political and religious leaders continuously speak out against bigotry and violence in the name of religion. Muslim leaders have a particularly greater responsibility in view of the fact that Islam is the religion of state in Malaysia. This means that the Muslim political and religious elite should not merely tolerate the presence of non-Muslim minorities but actively protect their rights and property.
The writer is an associate professor in the departments of sociology and Malay studies at the National University of Singapore.
S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.