Literalism and temple demolitions in Malaysia

Literalism and temple demolitions in Malaysia June 12, 2006

Worrying developments in Malaysia, which long seemed such a promising laboratory for new models of tolerance and peaceful coexistence for Muslims and non-Muslims.

IPS on Temple Demolitions in Malaysia:

Hundreds of worshippers watched in horror as the workers, mostly Muslims, brought down the roof, pushed down the walls and smashed the deities that immigrant Indian workers had brought with them from South India to provide solace in a strange new land.
"We are poor and our only comfort is our temples and now we are losing that also," Kanagamah said in Tamil, the language spoken by ethnic Indians who form eight percent of Malaysia’s 26 million people and mostly follow Hinduism.
Indians are economically backward and politically weak compared to Malays who comprise 50 percent of the population and dominate decision making at every level. Ethnic Chinese, who make up another 24 percent, enjoy economic clout and dominate business activity.
Over the years, local authorities have been regularly demolishing temples saying the structures were built illegally. Most were small wayside shrines.

I have to note how in some ways this is another example of the robotic literalism of many contemporary Muslim intellectuals in action.  As the Taliban did in Bamiyan, these thugs are taking the most superficial but eminently literal interpretation of the relevant sources in Islamic tradition and applying it to the letter. 

Let’s be fair to the zealots.  Their actions bear a certain surface similarity to the actions of the Prophet (pbuh) when he smashed the idols in the Kaaba upon his victorious return to Mecca.  Of course, the context of the Prophet’s actions were utterly, categorically different.  For one thing, he was the divinely inspired Messenger of Allah.  Then there’s the fact that he was cleaning out the greatest of all shrines to God, a sanctuary built according to Islamic tradition by Abraham himself. 

Mecca did not have a multitude of mosques and temples–the Haram Al-Sharif was the center of Meccan religion–for one to choose from when practicing one’s religion. The idols in the Kaaba that the Prophet smashed did not represent an ancient, respected religious tradition that some scholars have even categorized as Ahl al-Kitab like Hinduism.  The devotees of the Meccan idols weren’t a weak and downtrodden minority that the Muslims as the dominant community had an obligation to protect and treat with honor, either. 

But such petty details don’t matter when literalism is prized above all else and where legitimate differences of opinion concerning complex issues are tarred as kneejerk rationalism or rebellion against God’s message.

If you object as a Muslim to these outrageous actions, remember that the cult of literalism is ultimately what fuels these problems by dumbing us down to the point where it seems intellectually respectable to, in the name of Tawhid , sack the houses of worship of peaceful neighbors and fellow citizens.   Now the Quran makes it clear that violence is permissible only in self-defense and implies unmistakably that all houses of worship are sacred, to the extent that one could argue the Quran enjoins jihad to protect churches and synagogues

Permission [to fight –Svend]is granted to those who are being persecuted,
since injustice has befallen them, and GOD is certainly able to support

They were evicted from their homes unjustly, for no reason other than saying, "Our Lord is GOD." If it were not for GOD’s supporting of some people against others, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and masjids – where the name of GOD is commemorated frequently – would have been destroyed. Absolutely, GOD supports those who support Him. GOD is Powerful, Almighty. (22:39-40)

However, the potent combination of rigid literalism combined with that other malaise of our age, the arrogant certainty that one possesses the absolute truth–i.e., that, unlike everybody else, one is of the proverbial 73rd sect— can give even the most foolish, destructive and counterproductive actions a patina of religious legitimacy.

I direct this observation at nobody in particular–Sadly, this phenomenon isn’t t limited to a particular person or group.  I sometimes wonder if this is simply another a part of the human condition with which we all must struggle, and a vice to which the learned are particularly susceptible.–but I think such examples are worth remembering when one hears a Muslim alim or leader scornfully mocking other Muslims for questioning interpretations that seem unnecessarily literal  and expecting that scholars defend their conclusions with evidence and reasoning rather than simply invoking their office. 

It’s all part of the climate of anti-intellectualism and cold Procrustean spirituality that is choking Muslims around the world, and even while the baleful influence of Wahhabism and other ideologies declines (i.e., as much of an improvement as it would admittedly be, the solution isn’t simply replacing Wahhabi mutawa with Sufi mutawa–the problem’s the underlying mindset behind the mutawa phenomenon, and not just in Saudi).  Knee-jerk literalism and pride take many guises, but they eventually lead to the same place:  fitnah.

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