CLOSING REMARK BY MUFTI DR MOHAMED FATRIS BAKARAM AT THE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE SINGAPORE 2018 ON THURSDAY, 8th NOVEMBER AT GRAND HYATT SINGAPORE
1 A very good afternoon. As I understand, my speech will close the proceedings of the conference. On behalf of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, I would thus like to thank everyone for supporting this inaugural international conference. I am certain that it has been a very enriching experience for all of us. Over the last one and a half days, we have come together to exchange views and experiences. We have learnt to learn in a more inclusive environment. Personally, I am heartened that we have also been able to reinforce our optimism, especially as faith communities, that we can get the future right if we work together across communities and achieve common objectives and aspirations.
2 We have discussed some of the ways to achieve this and to ensure that our optimism is not misplaced. We have also heard of why, so often in our history, that despite the powerful values and teachings of our traditions, the social reality doesn’t quite work out the way it should. For example, we often hear of the ethics of diligence and industry, the teachings on cleanliness and purity, the values of moderation and compassion. These ethics, teachings and values lie at the core of many religious traditions. Yet, too often, we lament about their absence in our communities – we don’t see enough progress and discipline.
3 Our conference, through its themes, sought to offer a framework that we hope could realise these ideals in our communities and societies. This framework, as you may infer from the panel discussions yesterday, is built on questions concerning values, traditions, and institutions. In other words, our optimism can only materialise if religions are willing to continue to renew ourselves by engaging critically with our own traditions, as opposed to being passive recipients of tradition, and by reconnecting ourselves with the core values of our religion in contextualised ways. For example, what does it mean to be compassionate in this world that we live in? How does our manifestation of compassion translate into our worldviews of this multi-religious world, attitudes, behaviours and even laws?
4 Another important challenge for religions is how to invest in building institutions of the future, not rebuilding those of the past. For example, in Singapore, we are currently thinking of how to produce future generations of religious scholars. Our scholars have been trained in the best Muslim institutions worldwide. As we think ahead, we also need to reflect on whether more needs to be done. This question though must be considered together with a good and deep understanding of what the future may look like – religiously, socio-politically as well as economically and technologically. The roles of religious scholars too may evolve. And so too is the environment they will work in. How then could we prepare them? What kind of learning institution is needed to shape the future generation of scholars?
5 These are some of the more concrete ways that we could advance the discussions we have thus far had in the conference. To think of renewing and redeveloping our institutions as we seek to not only respond to changes, but to shape them in the ways that will create cohesive communities of the future. Of course, this is a long term plan – Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the saying goes. But obviously, some things can be done now. Allow me to share my thoughts as we conclude this conference.
6 Religions have the potential to be an effective resource in enriching further the common space and common good in any pluralistic society. No doubt, due to developments in recent times, where religious communities have shown discomfort or struggled to reconcile living in multi-religious and plural societies, or reject living in a secular state, some segments are sceptical if religions can indeed contribute to enriching the common space. Too often, we find individuals from different religious persuasions preaching exclusivist and isolationist ideas and practices.
7 This is a serious cause for worry. In some extreme cases, certain thought, cultural practices or beliefs are not only rejected, but the right to exist is also denied. A case in point within the Muslim world is the phenomenon of ‘takfiri’ – to apostasise others or declare someone with whom you disagree as an apostate or unbeliever. This is extremely dangerous, and totally unacceptable. There are groups and individuals who reject the idea of the common space – what is common is only what belongs within one’s own group. We can find this both in the East and West, and in different religious traditions.
8 Our role, if we are truly committed to shaping a more harmonious future where religions co-exist peacefully and equally contribute to our common development, is to counter such worldviews. Here is where, I think, we ought to find the roots of such behaviours and attitudes and to tackle these upstream. In view of this, an important task for us is to be able to engage with our respective traditions critically. We ought to ask, for example, of the importance of context in interpreting texts and traditions. The challenge for faith communities is to identify the type and nature of scriptural references and religious texts; which are immutable as they form the core principles and beliefs of the religion, and which are context-specific and serve as exceptions to the norm. Confusion often sets in when texts which only apply in exceptional circumstances, or contingent upon specific and unique contexts, become normative for all times and places. On the other hand, those which form the principles of religion are dispensed with, because they are considered as no longer relevant. This is something that religious scholars need to reflect upon.
9 Allow me to give an example from our experience in Singapore. The Singapore Fatwa Committee has dealt with a range of issues from medical therapies and bio-ethical research to family law and gender rights and creation of novel contemporary instruments for planned giving. The decisions we make are inseparable from the consultation of religious texts and the considerations of examples and cases found in our religious traditions. This relationship, of referencing and understanding the texts, is extremely crucial for all religions. However, what is equally important is the need to exercise creativity and criticality in engaging these texts for us to remain relevant, and actively engaged in the modern world. For example, in 2010 and again in 2012, the Fatwa Committee, guided the broad objectives of the Shariah, has taken a bold step in recognising the nomination instrument which is part and parcel of wealth transfers in modern societies as being a novel form of hibah. The Fatwa Committee acknowledged that we could not force the modern forms of transactions onto traditional or historical ones which existed in a certain historical economic context. This is in no way abandoning our traditions, in fact, we drew from our traditions the fundamentals upon which our scholars have reviewed, adapted and even acknowledged instruments of their time to be one which is Shariah compliant. By exercising our creativity and criticality, we are in fact upholding the very scholarly tradition by ensuring it thrives in solving real issues of the time.
10 What we have also learnt is the importance of putting the needs and interests of the community which we serve at the heart of what we do. It is part of our religious tradition and values to facilitate and bring glad tidings – to simplify and not complicate. What have truly driven the innovation and scientific accomplishments of the past is, in my view, the desire to find solutions for the problems that societies face, whether medical, or technological, or moral. In search of solutions, scholars of all backgrounds interacted with each other, compared notes, developed theories and progressed together.
11 Thus, whilst each religion has a unique belief system, and distinctive set of practices and rituals, there is a significant convergence in terms of the values that they seek to impart – often grounded in the desire to create a better human being – one who is at peace with him or herself, and at peace with everyone else. This shared aim can, and should define and shape the norms in a plural society. In this instance, the idea of the “common good” is not only supported by religious communities because it is a core part of their religious teachings, but it bridges the gap with the non-religious that religion is a positive factor – that it will not come in the way of expanding the "common space" and advancing common good for all.
12 Here, again, I wish to contribute my understanding of how we could achieve this, from the perspective of the Muslim tradition. Our tradition, like many others too, has evolved. When we are actively involved in its evolution, we can shape it positively. For example, we believe it is important to go beyond the written law and look at the higher objectives and intent of the law (or what is usually referred to as the maqasid approach) and the spirit of the law (ruh al-sharia). This approach, in fact, is not new, but has its antecedents in the works of early Muslim scholars, such as the 14th century jurist Ibn al-Qayyim who writes in his famous book I’lam al-Muwaqqi’in:
‘Islamic law is based on wisdom and achieving people’s welfare in this life and the afterlife. Islamic law is all about justice, mercy, wisdom, and good. Thus, any ruling that replaces justice with injustice, mercy with its opposite, common good with mischief, or wisdom with nonsense, is a ruling that does not belong to Islamic Law, even if it is claimed to be so according to some interpretation’.
13 The concept of maqasid is not alien to the idea of the “common good” – it can enrich the discourse of the “common good” by forging a common space powered by knowledge, critical inquiry, openness and public welfare and interests. In Singapore, we have tried to institutionalise this. The Muslim community came up with the Singapore Muslim Identity or SMI initiative in 2004. Community and religious leaders came together and discussed a list of desirable qualities for Muslims in Singapore. Over time, we reduced these to five key qualities: religious resilience, inclusivity, contributiveness, adaptiveness and progressiveness. And in the typical Singapore fashion, we refer to its acronym “RICAP”. These qualities guide our local socio-religious life. An example of this is how the Fatwa Committee has decided that Muslims should be included under the Human Organ and Transplantation Act (HOTA). Through Muslims’ inclusion under the scheme, not only will Singaporean Muslims benefit from it individually but in fact as potential donors, they will be benefiting Singaporeans of all religious and racial backgrounds. This is precisely the spirit of the SMI. The SMI project is a recognition that Muslims can co-exist with others in a common space without imposing our religious values, but using our religious heritage and values to contribute to the good of all.
14 Singapore’s experience is only one model and one example. There are many others which we can learn from both regionally and internationally. I am deeply thankful to be in constant discussion and engagement with international partners, including our co-organiser, the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. His Eminence Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah’s visionary ideas such as the Marrakesh Declaration and Alliance of Virtues are brilliant examples of how traditions and religious values have and will remain important in fostering peace, nurturing harmony and understanding in a world where global citizenry is a reality lived everyday be it in our social, financial, intellectual and even spiritual activities.
15 Allow me to end by stating that in order for us to achieve sustainable peace and stability, we need to actively promote a heightened awareness of religion’s peace-building and reconciliatory role, and build the capacity of our institutions, faith communities and social and community organisations in preparing for a more complex world. If we witness more divisive examples of societies and more isolationist tendencies, it serves as a reminder that our task to develop and expand the “common space” is a very critical and urgent one. We need to leverage on the resources embedded deep within our traditions and harness these to protect the “common space”. In so doing, we may encounter notions, concepts, doctrines, and historical records that may pose a challenge and cast doubts. Our task will be to explain all these very clearly so that our communities remain guided in their religious life with a constructive ethos and common vision to live harmoniously and successfully.
16 I must, once again, express my gratitude to everyone for participating in this conference. I wish to especially thank the Forum for Promoting Peace and Syeikh Abdallah bin Bayyah for kindly agreeing to be our partners. I would also like to thank colleagues from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, and volunteers to make this conference a huge success. I pray that God bless all our efforts and may this conference be a first of many more engagements for communities to come together and forge a better future for all of humanity.