In October 2019, Singapore was graced by the presence of a prominent Islamic scholar and former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Prof. Dr. Ali Gomaa. During his visit here, Sheikh delivered a Friday sermon on the importance of peaceful coexistence, reminding us on the blessed values of peace and harmony that our country enjoys despite differences in faith and ethnicity, far from any conflict, aggression and hostility. Sheikh highlighted four paradigms of peaceful coexistence that Muslims can draw from the rich legacy of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In this article, we attempt to explain and contextualise the understanding of the four paradigms as experienced and demonstrated by Muslims in Southeast Asia.
Paradigms for Coexistence
Islam encourages peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims as it leads to fostering good relations, mutual tolerance and respect. Based on the verse from Surah Al-Mumtahanah verse 8, Allah says: “Allah does not forbid you respecting those who have not made war against you on account of (your) religion, and have not driven you forth from your homes, that you show them kindness and deal with them justly; surely Allah loves the doers of justice.” Through this verse and the legacy that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had left behind, we can draw upon four paradigms that cover all aspects of Muslim lives to coexist in and integrate into any community. The four paradigms are as follows:
1. Paradigm of Mecca represented the principles of perseverance and coexistence. This was the time when Prophet Muhammad instructed his companions to persevere in overcoming the persecution from the Qurasy. In addition, Prophet urged his companions to be hopeful for a better future and learn to co-exist. 2. Paradigm of Abyssinia represented the principles of loyalty, sharing and support. After exhausting all the means to invite the people of Quraysh to Islam and to prevent them from further persecutions of Muslims, Prophet ordered his companions to seek refuge in Abbysinia ruled by a Christian king, Negus. Therein Muslims were protected and upheld their loyalty and support to the king’s authority. 3. Paradigm of Medina, in its first stage, represented the principles of exposure and cooperation. This involved Muslims, Jews, Christians and Polytheists working together by drafting the Medina Charter, the first of its kind in the world, in ensuring all rights are being preserved. The Charter covered their rights to freely practice their religion and fulfill their obligations. 4. Paradigm of Medina, in its second stage, represented the principles of justice, awareness and understanding. This is the historic phase where many had accepted Islam and Medina became a majority Muslim state. In balancing the advantages of Muslims in Medina, Prophet ensured that the rights of the minorities were being protected.
Personifying The Four Paradigms of Peaceful Coexistence in Southeast Asia
A diachronic understanding on the spread of Islam in the region can be sieved through Hikayat Aceh which mentions an Arab scholar named Sheikh Abdullah Arif who was active in his act of dakwah in 1112 AD. His influence was clearly felt even during Marco Polo’s visit to the kingdom of Perlak (part of modern day Aceh) in 1292 AD. Islam, however, had flourished even before Marco Polo’s arrival in China’s Yuan Dynasty. Among others, it 10 was reported that a small group of ambassadors from Aceh have met Emperor Lizong of the earlier Song Dynasty in China.
From North Sumatra, Islam sprouted along the trade route to Malacca, climaxing during the golden age of Malaccan sultanate and reaching the areas of Mindanao (southern isle of the Philippines). The driving force behind the spread of Islam was the concept of brotherhood (ikhwan) amongst Muslims. For many then, conversion to Islam was a logical solution towards providing a common ground between themselves and South Asian and Middle Eastern traders. Islam was never spread by the sword. The early Malay converts were attracted by the noble traits of the Muslim traders, and later learning and embracing their religion. From then on, Islam continued to be practised as a religion of peace, persevering through the challenging times and co-existing with various other religions in the region.
The Malaccan Age personified the value of loyalty and support, and diplomacy against hostility. Vietnam attacked Malacca in 1469. Preferring diplomacy over war, Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah instead sent an envoy to China, an ally of both Malacca and Vietnam. Since then, there were no attacks by Vietnam.
Beyond the above, interaction between the Southeast Asian community and the outside world increased its exposure and widened the community’s weltanschauung, raising awareness of Islam for its spiritual values. Islam provided for a deeper understanding of the world around them and provided coherent and convincing answers to the complexities of life. Today, Islam continues to play a big part in the development of Southeast Asia’s socio-cultural identity given that 42% of the region’s population are Muslims. With the rising tide of terrorism in the name of Islam, many moderate Muslim organisations have come forward in condeming the adverse acts that threaten to destroy the multi-religious fabric of the society. Organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Muhammadiyah, Wasatiyyah, Singapore Islamic Scholars & Religious Teachers (Pergas), Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) have spoken out against the injustice by irresponsible parties. By reaching out to government, religious as well as grass root bodies, these Muslim organisations have increased the public awareness of the true values of Islam as a peaceful religion and promote religious harmony.
The personification of the four paradigms of peaceful coexistence, as experienced and demonstrated by Muslims in Southeast Asia highlights the significance message of Islam as a religion of peace. Historically, its development in the region is a continuity of the experience of early Muslims during the prophet’s time. As Islam continues to take root in the region, there is a pertinent need for Muslims to manifest the four paradigms of peaceful co-existence with people of various backgrounds.