Saturday, December 3

The limitations of man

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THERE is a well-loved legend about St Augustine (354 to 430 AD), a Christian thinker, philosopher and theologian. It was said that Augustine, ever the thinker, was walking by the sea one day, contemplating and pondering with difficulty the mystery of God. Then he chanced upon a little boy carrying a container and running back and forth between the sea and a hole on the beach. Curious, Augustine asked “Son, what are you doing?”

“Can’t you see?” said the boy. “I’m emptying the sea into this hole!”

“Son, you can’t do that!” Augustine countered. “The sea is so vast and almost infinite, how can you empty the water into this little hole?”

“Well sir, you are trying to understanding God which is infinite and beyond limits with the limited faculty of your human brain. Isn’t that just as ridiculous?”

Upon saying that, the boy, who was an angel according to legend, quickly disappeared, leaving Augustine all the wiser.

This is the reality which man has failed to recognise. The reality is that an omnipotent and omnipresent Supreme Being cannot be adequately described and contained by human language. At best we can only approximate an allusion based on our limited experience.

I am reminded of a children’s story. It tells of a migratory bird which spent the winter months in the warm climes of the tropics and the summer season in the north. One year he injured his wing and was not able to join the flock in the southward journey. So, he was forced to spend the winter months enduring snow and ice.

When he finally made it to his tropical home, his friends were all ears to hear his account of the winter experience.

“In winter the water in the stream turned into stone and the rain was light and white like cotton wool.”

“Wow!” said all the animals.

“How can that be? That the river water is as hard as rock,” retorted the sceptical kingfisher, as he grimaced at the thought of himself smashing his skull against the river of rock in his dive for fish. Given the fact that the tropical creatures had no experience of ice, the best name they could come up with was ‘rock water’, which did not quite do justice to the complex phenomenon called ice.

Thus, it is with bemusement that I view the frenzied response of the frothing-in-the-mouth zealots in West Malaysia over the use of the Arabic word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims, given the fact that the word is just one of man’s feeble attempts to describe and thus limit the limitless that is God. It is all the more bemusing because the word itself predates Islam and has been used for centuries by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Their main objection is that Muslims might be confused and thus be lured into leaving their faith if the word ‘Allah’ is used outside the context of Islam.

It seems that they have such a dim view of their fellow worshippers that they take them to be both fools and knaves.

They would have us believe that if a Muslim were to chance upon a Christian book which used the term ‘Allah’, the poor man might be so confused that he might mistake it for Muslim literature. Secondly, proselytisers might through the use of such literature insidiously erode the faith of believers to the extent that they might abandon Islam altogether.

One Muslim student wrote on the net: “Ye of little faith, do you believe that our religion is resting on something as flimsy as a house of cards that one whiff of challenge and it will come toppling down? As a Muslim I find this attitude so insulting.”

A friend of mine said, “Isn’t it a bit silly to proclaim an exclusive copyright of a word? Anyway I don’t believe any human word can adequately describe the Supreme Being.”

I would be inclined to agree with him that it is not just silly but absolutely hilarious had it not been so tragic. However, given the fact that this could turn into something deadly, I don’t think anyone in Malaysia would dare to laugh this off. Well, my friend was writing from the safe distance of England, so I presume he could afford a snigger or two.

Talking about safe distance, I take comfort in the fact that Sarawak is indeed a safe haven shielded from such bigoted behaviour. People of different religions have been living peacefully together for decades. Here, I don’t think the term ‘religious tolerance’ is even appropriate. ‘Tolerance’ is such a negative word for it implies having to endure something which one finds unpleasant. We never have to tolerate each others’ religions because we never find     them offensive in any way. Instead we have mutual respect for our neighbours’ beliefs.

I recall when I was studying in a Catholic school in Mukah that there was a sizeable number of Muslim students. All of them were totally comfortable studying in a school which had crosses and statues of saints in many places. One endearing memory is that of one Muslim boy who took a liking to ringing the church bell, a task which he performed with gusto every weekday. I met up with him again years in later life. I am pleased to say, nay I am proud to say, that his faith and devotion to Islam have remained undimmed.

The debate in West Malaysia over the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims has somehow acquired a racial overtone. The vociferous few who claim to speak for all Muslims assert that the word is the exclusive domain of one race.

In so doing they have diminished the importance of this great religion. Islam transcends cultural and racial boundaries. It is for all people. In fact the second largest number of Muslims in the world live in China.

In Sarawak, the universality of Islam is portrayed by the Islamic Information Centre in Kuching.

The buildings which form the centre carry the architectural design of the major racial groups in the state. In fact the main building looks like a Chinese temple.

It is our blessing that we are separated from the peninsula by a vast expanse of sea. We should struggle hard to ensure that the pernicious weed of bigotry will never cross the waters.

The writer can be contacted at dunstan.desee@gmail.com.