Islam in Asia
History, culture and identity
The first issue that surfaced in our discussion was: How are we to deal with the Muslim claim that God is the God of all life? This means that no realm of human concern is outside the purview of religion. In spite of this high claim, which has been articulated over and over again by Muslims, we are all well aware that the way this functions is quite different in different places. This caveat, however, does diminish the serious challenge this Muslim claim poses to Christians. In certain Christian circles there has been an attempt to take seriously a similar claim made by some Christians, in the various liberation theologies, for instance, and their attempts to keep religion and politics in a creative tension. But it must be said that we will either have to scrutinize the validity of this Muslim claim in light of our Christian faith or reject it at the cost of bifurcating our mutual claim to faith in God. So this challenge has a certain ambiguity for the Christian community. Thus, we will have to give some serious consideration to the issue of religion and politics on the basis of our Christian faith in the sovereignty of God.
This should further force us to look at the situation of Christians and Muslims in the Asian countries. We must pay special heed to the particular history of each country in question, so that we are able to lay out the genealogy of the problems in each country with accuracy and sympathy. For example in the Philippines, the whole issue of Christian-Muslim relations has a special character. The Philippines is the only country in Asia where the Christian population is in the majority and where the Muslim minority has been struggling for its rights for many years. This history of Christian-Muslim relations in the Philippines has been seriously affected by the Spanish-American colonial history, and there is a deep suspicion on the side of the Muslims against the Christians. In order to overcome this problem, certain members of both groups are reviewing this history. In doing so, there is a growing realization that both groups are victims of some of the same problems. Both groups are searching for the right of self-determination, and this has created a way of coming together on a few common grounds for the struggle for justice and participatory nation-building.
What we constantly encounter in Christian-Muslim relations is the memory of certain past events which may have happened long ago, but are remembered as if they had taken place only recently. With this kind of memory structure, the genealogical approach to undo some of the suspicion, and the problems posed by Christian-Muslim relations become all the more important and urgent. Christians and Muslims alike forget how badly they have treated each other in history and both present the other as the historical culprit. This tendency creates psychological and historical barriers for developing genuine relations. In order to overcome these barriers, an honest historical re-appraisal, preferably together, is essential. This can create the much needed atmosphere for genuine repentance and forgiveness. But the possibility of this kind of working relations is also affected by the majority/minority situation of Christians and Muslims. In those countries where both are minorities such a task might be relatively easy when concerns are jointly perceived, but where one is a majority and the other is a minority the task tends to be more difficult and complex.
The manner in which Muslims perceive the relations of religion and politics differs from country to country. One of the major factors influencing this difference is whether the Muslims are a majority or a minority in a given country. Generally, where the Muslims are a minority, they tend to push for a secular state, as is the case in India. Whereas, where the Muslims are in the majority, they want to see the legislative and judiciary subservient to the shari'ah rule, as is the case in Pakistan. This possibility of interpretive variation and its full appreciation allows the dialogue with Muslims on the issues of religion and politics to be more significant than working with a monolithic assumption.
The recent change that we are witnessing, both in the Christian and the Muslim communities in their attitude towards outside structures, reflects an interesting shift. Earlier, it was the Christians in Asia who had an outside connection with the West (e.g. Europe or North America) and they looked towards this connection with the West as providing the main source for the churches' development in Asia. This attitude has changed considerably, and more and more Christians are fighting for their indigenous identity and right for self-determination. The picture is quite reversed for the Muslims in recent times. After seeing themselves for centuries as being part of the local indigenous reality, Asian Muslims have recently begun to see the main source of their identity located outside, in the "West" (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey) also. For both, Christians and Muslims, the financial aspect has played a major role. In spite of the fact that the Asian churches are still largely dependent on Western sources for their survival, their struggle for independence and self-determination gives them certain insights for the indigenization process which is crucial for their identity today. But the shift taking place among the Muslims makes it harder and harder for Christian-Muslim relations to develop in a proper way; however, it does provide Christians with an opportunity to share some of the indigenization concerns.
This new change in Islam in Asia has a different character than the earlier movements such as Pan-Islamism (and even Pan-Arabism). So while there is a growing development in the Islamic consciousness, it has not acquired the more accessible symbol of Pan-Islamism which may provide some clues to the other aspect of the identity question, perhaps still lying below the surface in the new quest for an overall Islamic identity. One of the central characteristics of this new Islamic consciousness is the contrasting quality it reflects vis-à-vis the West, whereas the ecumenical movement in Christianity, which now has quite a long history, has begun to develop its identity not as being "over against others" but in the context of relations with other members of the bodies and even with other faiths. With the Islamic identity still being posed in the "over and against others" manner, we need to stretch out our hand to Muslims as they struggle to redefine their identity.
In our own earlier ecumenical movement, there was an emphasis on shared unity or communality which was introduced from the West. In due course this emphasis prepared the way for a rediscovery of our plurality with the goal of achieving a shared unity. In the most recent phase of the ecumenical movement the concern is for maintaining a shared identity without negating diversity or pluriformity within ecumenical relations. Thus we have begun to explore seriously the relationship between gospel and culture, and have become more open to diverse cultural perceptions of Christ. This shifting emphasis gives us an insight we should be able to share with Muslims in such a way that they continue to maintain creative relations with us while maintaining their religio-cultural identity and difference.
On the surface, it seems that we are in principle committed to the development of indigenous theology, but in practice this has not always been the case, and we have been thoroughly depending on outside sources. On the other hand, it seems that the Muslims in principle have no such commitment to an indigenous theology, given the centrality of ummah in their theology, but in practice they have been able to achieve more substantial cultural adaptation or assimilation. This is how the situation has been explained generally on the basis of appearance, but when one digs a little deeper, on the bases of the attitude towards revelation and sacred text, one gets a different picture. The Islamic notion of revelation and sacred text has an acceptance of plurality built into it as a central doctrine with the notion of Ahl-al-Kitab. This concept of Ahl-al-Kitab was expanded beyond the Torah, zabur and ingil to include the sacred texts of the Zoroastrians in Iran, and later was even used by some scholars for Hindu texts in India. This plurality, however, does not mean that the Muslims accept these sacred texts and the revelation of the non-Muslims as maintained and professed by the latter; these texts must always go through the filter of the Qur'an and Islamic understanding. In spite of this caution, the simple fact that the plurality of sacred texts is accepted gives Islam a theoretical as well as a practical possibility of cultural and social assimilation; this has been variously expressed by such terms as urf and adaat which allow the acceptance of another source of law in many areas of life. In Christianity, the exclusive claim to sacred text does not always give the best possibility of indigenization, but by not having a fixed code or legal system, like the Islamic shari'ah, the Christians have a possibility of adaptation which is quite fertile.
On all the above grounds there is a unique quality about Islam and Christian-Muslim relations in Asia. Unlike its manifestation in the Arab context, and in Africa and Europe, the matrix here has a multi-religious context which demands that any consideration on both these aspects must heed the other religious communities present who also act as partners in this dialogue.
In our discussions on contemporary perceptions in Christian-Muslim relations, we were conscious of the problem that the use of labels such as "fundamentalism" or "liberalism" is hardly conducive to dialogue and understanding. Even if such terms are intended to be descriptive, they are often loaded with evaluative sentiment and thus seldom accepted by those labelled.
Within the Christian family, we use terms like "liberal" or fundamentalist" in order to denounce theologies that we do not understand or with which we disagree. Even worse, we do not stop at criticizing ideas, but all too often extend our condemnation to the persons who embrace them. True communication is impeded by such over-simplified labelling with which we define other people without allowing them to define themselves.
The problem becomes even more complex when we meet people of other faiths, e.g. Muslims. True, within the Muslim world there exist labels such as salafiyya, mu'tazila and usuliyya to denote different - even conflicting - lines of theological thinking. But for a non-Muslim to adopt these labels, or to introduce new labels from the outside, is not fruitful, especially not in situations of human encounter.
The term "fundamentalist" (Arabic usuliyya), for instance, has as many connotations and interpretations in Islam as in Christianity. It can be used with self-assurance: "We believe in the Qur'an and the sunnah of the Prophet as the sole sources of theology"; it can be used by others in a derogatory way: "Those fundamentalists claim they alone possess the whole truth; they seem to say: we have it all - take it or leave it."
Historically speaking, we may say that among Muslims in Asia, there have been "fundamentalist" movements (in the former sense of strict adherence to the Qur'an and sunnah) ever since the Nqshibandi reaction to Adbar's Din-I-Ilahi.
Non-Muslim observers have used terms such as "resurgent Islam" or "militant Islam" to describe political upheavals in the Muslim world. One has to be careful with such usage; if political activism among Muslims is related by analysts to one particular form of Islamic thought, namely "fundamentalism" (or Khomeinism" or "the Muslim Brotherhood"), then misunderstandings are bound to occur. In fact, very few currents of Islamic thought have encouraged believers to stay away from politics; on the contrary, as we noted earlier, political life is generally regarded as an integral part of Islam.
Among Christians in Asia, the story again is different. Some missionaries from Europe brought with them an attitude to Christian life often labelled "pietism". Out of this heritage, we may say, a form of "fundamentalism" emerged in Asia, which tended to encourage a withdrawal from active involvement in politics and promoted an otherwordly spirituality.
The most important lesson to be drawn from the history of mutual labelling (often equivalent to mutual denouncement) is that no dialogue will bear fruit, if we do not allow each other to define ourselves.
Relations in Asia
In exploring Christian relations with Muslim neighbours in the Asian context, we need to be aware of the demographic situation in each country, particularly the majority/minority status of the respective community. The majority/minority status of the respective dichotomies may not be applicable everywhere in Asia. In Indonesia, because of the ideology of Pancasila, reputedly there is no such thing as minority or majority. All are equal in the eyes of the state. In other countries, however, like Malaysia and Pakistan, Christians are made to feel they are in the minority. Examples of the difficulties faced by Christian minorities living in the Philippine city of Marawi and some parts of West Malaysia could be illustrative. In Marawi, Christians are reportedly harassed, kidnapped and even killed by Moro (i.e., Muslim Filipino) terrorists. In some parts of West Malaysia, Chinese and Indian Christians have allegedly been subjected to religious pressures and often been harassed. When discussing Christian-Muslim relations with a view to improving them, the general consensus was that we should place our conversation in its proper perspective and avoid pronouncing quick and easy judgements. For example, we would avoid loosely using the words "good" and "bad" when referring to a person or group of persons, as this could be taken to mean the entire ethnic or religious group. Also, we would need to define issues so that we could have a focus for our dialogues with Muslims or peoples of other faiths.
We have recognized the helpful appeal of the present prime minister of Bangladesh when she recently addressed the citizens of her country: "Let us come to build the country." This appeal has emphasized one important issue common to all Asians, namely, the need for a meaningful community development that will benefit all. Examples from various Asian countries were cited where the coming together of Muslims and Christians for finding solutions to common problems had resulted in cooperation, and in the process, had improved relationships. These experiences underscore the need for Christians and Muslims alike (and for members of other religious groups as well) to show solidarity with each other when facing a common future, and when helping to build their nation. In our discussions, also the historical dimension was emphasized, especially as in many Asian situations the community that has benefited most from the colonial domination in the past is the Christian. In the context of the search for cultural and national identity, what should Christians say to that situation? As citizens of independent Asian countries, Christians should not remain mentally captive to the past, but rather should learn the lessons of history and project a new vision for the future. There is a need, in other words, to minimize the negative elements of the past and to accentuate the positive that may be useful for building the future.
The urgent need today is to become free of our dependence on the past - culturally and psychologically. We must overcome our personal prejudices against Muslims.
Cooperation and dialogue
We strongly recognized the need to cooperate with Muslims in the struggle against colonialism or forms of neocolonialism, economic oppression, and to work for reconciliation and peace. However, we felt that ideological issues, such as capitalism, communism, etc., that have often preoccupied many Christians and Muslims (so that they missed dealing with important issues relating to the betterment of Christian-Muslim relations) should not be ignored, We are, however, aware that religion can be used, and in fact, has been used as an ideology. To a certain degree, religion has often become a political tool. A few political leaders have used religion to support political policies, not necessarily for the good of the nation, but more for narrow, personal or vested interests.
Dialogue should therefore bear on economic problems, social justice, and community building/formation. We, as Christians, should be conscious of our identity in relation to our religious neighbours. To study Islam is advisable and necessary for understanding Muslims; but we must also strengthen our Christian faith and character as we converse with peoples of other faiths. Insecurity about one's own basis of faith often leads to fear, aggressiveness and fanaticism.
We also need to listen to those who do not agree or cooperate with us. A process of education that promotes mutual understanding should be initiated. We must help Muslims to understand us better, let them know our motives, our central affirmations. As Christians we cannot omit our witness, both as persons and as participants in the community, but it is important that we Christians seek to embody the gospel in the midst of Muslim neighbours.
Concerning the suggestion that the use of retribution or retaliation may, at times, be necessary, the participants of this meeting were unanimous in saying "No" to this option. As there is some truth to the claim that present antipathy of Muslims to Christians has its basis in historical and economic factors, it is necessary to accept this historical dimension of economic exploitation. The present problems of many Asian countries are directly related to the colonial past. Christian-Muslim dialogue therefore must concentrate on building mutual trust and commitment to a common future.
Reconciliation and peace
We recognize that reconciliation and peace between Christians and Muslims are already a fact on many personal and local, community levels. The role of Christians in bringing about peace in situations of conflict, even between representatives of religious communities other than the Christian (for instance, during the communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in India) is noteworthy. It is, however, lamentable to point out that it is relatively easy to be in good and close relationship with a Muslim neighbour on the personal level. But when the group identity is concerned, especially when there are larger issues involved, this improved personal relationship is often side-tracked.
It is helpful that Christians made use of every opportunity to develop closer relations between these two religious groups. We recognize, however, that there is a difficulty in Malaysia, for instance, where the Bumiputra issue is a sensitive one and tends to isolate Malays from other ethnic groups.
With regard to religio-ethnic exclusivism, it is necessary to explore new avenues in overcoming negative relations. Christians should contact committed Muslim intellectuals, groups and communities as partners for change, and to foster better relations.
Human rights and obligations
Human rights and obligations have a universal dimension. Christians and Muslims should recognize that and work together for their enforcement. This means that stronger groups should not try to impose their understanding of right and justice on weaker groups. Christians could learn a lesson from the experience of plurality in Indonesia which is a major part of the social consciousness, especially as expressed in the national effort to build the country together. However, Asian Christians should continue to be concerned with the conditions of the poor and with the social, historical and economic factors that make them remain poor and exploited. Thus, Christians should not be content with analyzing poverty from a merely sociological point of view, treating it as a structural problem only, and tending to ignore the real suffering of human beings.
We should stress the following as burning issues on human rights and obligations: First, we recognize the need to emphasize the responsibility of governments to safeguard or guarantee proper living conditions for all citizens of the Asian countries, especially the poor, oppressed and exploited. Secondly, we also see the need to underscore legal equality for all, especially where Muslims are dominant in a given country. Christians and Muslims alike should strive to ensure legal protection for all ethnic and religious minorities. The imposition of shari'ah in Pakistan, for instance, has provoked certain fears among Christians in that country, while the implications of this decision for the future are not at all clear. Christian attitudes toward the State, particularly when it is religiously oriented, need to be carefully reviewed. Christians should see it as a challenge constantly to reassess their roles in society. Thus, among others, programmes of political education should evolve, that could help them develop a more responsible stance towards the State.
Community development and community organizing
Community development, together with community organizing, is an effective project engaged in by Christians in many Asian countries. In Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines, for example, people have worked together for the improvement of Christian-Muslim relations by joining hands to solve common social and economic problems in the communities where they live. In the process, they have realized some successes in the protection of workers' rights and the rights of others.
We believe that the stronger communities should become more sensitive to the aspirations of the weaker communities, and help them to give expression to their aspirations.
Examples from Asian countries are varied: in Bangladesh, there are successful cooperative projects, family planning, self-help development projects and agricultural projects. In Indonesia, people motivate and encourage each other as they demand their own rights. In the process, they have become closer to each other, without any reference to religion being made. Economic and political issues dominate relations in the struggle towards a common future. In the Philippines, community development for all - in urban as well as in rural areas - have given some hope to the poor and exploited.
In East Malaysia, it is possible to do community work among the poor, because there are fewer Muslims than Christians and people of other religious groups. However, in West Malaysia, community development projects are a problem because of the sensitivity of the Bumiputra issue. The Malaysian Government is wary of the motives and effects of community development projects and raises the question whether these are not a means to convert Malays. The issue for the churches in Asia is: What is the Christian role in community development as a legitimate response to human needs in Malaysia and in other countries?
The role of women in Christian-Muslim relations
Women have a vital role to play in Asian societies and a special position in traditional Asia. Socio-cultural changes through the years, however, have made their position and role a matter of concern for Christians. Current Islamic law in effect in some Asian countries and the pressures of the community that are made to bear on Asian women - especially as these laws also affect Christian women who have married Muslims - greatly preoccupies Christians, as this generally restricts the rights of women in Asia. However, the fact that both Christian and Muslim women in Asia are now beginning to assert their rights gives cause of hope. They should be encouraged in this, as all women are facing the same problems. Opportunities for women to work for the betterment of Christian-Muslim relations should be provided.
Both Christians and Muslims are to be urged to reassess the roles they traditionally assign to women in their communities. To some extent this process has already begun and must be vigorously pursued. The fact that both in Pakistan and Bangladesh women have been elected to the office of prime minister is a significant testimony to the transformations already occurring in some predominantly Muslim countries.
In highlighting the issue of women's rights, we recognize that insufficient attention has so far been paid to the role that women may play in strengthening Christian-Muslim relations. This is a theme that requires further attention in the future.
In our discussions, repeatedly reference was made to the relationship between religion and ideology. Contemporary Islam in some parts of Asia is increasingly becoming a State ideology; this has become a major concern for Christians. When religion is made into a political ideology, the community will suffer, whether the ideology be Islamic or Christian. In such cases, religion may either become a cementing or a dividing factor (e.g., Malaysia, southern Thailand, Mindanao). In this regard, the implications for the rest of Asia of the recent imposition of the shari'ah in Pakistan will be worth studying. Where Christians are a demographic minority in a predominantly Muslim country, considerable fears are aroused among Christians, especially as they are often treated as second-class citizens (dhimmi). The same fears are prevalent when State policies promote forced integration of minority religious communities into the main stream. Such attempts at integration have been perceived as a threat to the cultural and religious identity of people (e.g., Muslims in Thailand and in the Philippines).
It is therefore imperative that priority be given to closer interaction between Muslim and Christian communities. In Asia, both communities generally tend to be exclusive or are entirely closed to each other. With a few exceptions, social interaction between the two communities is limited or difficult, even in situations where both are minority communities within a nation. We feel that Christians should take the initiative in breaking down existing barriers between the two communities, for example by joining Muslims in their observance of fast and in celebrating feasts. Christians and churches should seek to cooperate with Muslims in common endeavours to solve local, concrete problems. In situations where there are religious tensions (e.g. between Muslims and Hindus), Christians are to play an active role in bringing about reconciliation and peace.
All this points to the necessity of raising Christian awareness of Muslim concerns. It is important therefore that efforts to initiate dialogue and programmes (religious as well as political) involving both communities, the Christian and the Muslim, should be encouraged.
We urge the Asian churches, the Christian study centres on Islam, and the larger Christian communities to develop an understanding of "pro-existence" (in contrast to a mere co-existence) as a manifestation of their Christian faith to create a situation of mutual trust and welfare.
Recommendations to the study centres
We specially commend the activities of the following institutions in Asia:
Christian Study Centre, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan;
The Henry Martyn Institute of Islamic Studies, in Hyderbad, India;
Immanuel Student Centre, Indonesia;
Peter Gowing Memorial Institute, Philippines.
We recommend that they
prepare literature (handbooks, as far as possible with Muslim cooperation) for the use of the churches and the Muslim community in order to correct mutual misunderstandings;
see it their task to reinterpret the scriptures in the light of our contemporary pluralistic situation and develop contextual theologies;
share their resources and personnel (south-south cooperation) wherever needed.
Recommendations to the churches in Asia
We urge the Asian churches to take full cognizance of the existence of the large number of Muslims in their midst.
Particularly, we urge our church leaders to give priority and importance to establishing good relationships between Muslims and Christians in the interests of both communities.
We recommend that theological schools and institutions adapt their curricula so as to meet the needs of their religiously plural countries. We encourage that courses in Islamic history, theology and culture become an essential requirement for graduation.
We recommend that possibilities of south-south cooperation in the Asian setting - student/faculty exchange in the area of Islamic studies - be sought.
Recommendations to churches at large
To learn from the lessons of the past and to express a clearer solidarity with neighbours of other faiths.
To try to develop a deeper concern for social ethics; to work together with members of other religious communities.
To cultivate a sense of love and concern for Muslim neighbours, to follow the power of love rather than to seek the love of power, when they, as Christians, are facing difficulties.
To encourage a more positive and true knowledge of Islam in order to remove apathy or antipathy and to build a relationship based on friendship; to pay attention to the needs of Muslims and not to ignore their problems, to realize that aggression is often a reaction to neglect and deprivation.
To view human rights and obligations as a universal concern and therefore to work together with adherents of other faiths for their implementation, especially the concern of the world community for the faithful adherence to the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights. Christian churches in the West are urged to extend their hospitality to Muslim migrants and refugees.
To be or to become pioneers in their societies in treating women as equals and granting them the same opportunities and responsibilities in the church as to men.
To recognize the importance of Islamic study centres and to support them financially.
To evaluate their own educational programmes, and to include education that fosters political consciousness and transformation.
To be attentive to the mass media's projection of Islam; to try to challenge and/or correct any prejudiced attitude towards Islam.
To enter into dialogue with conservative Christians and groups who target the Muslim community as a community for proselytism and conversion, and who often bypass the local churches.
In societies where Muslim communities are growing new religious communities, to be sensitive to their religious, social and cultural needs, specially in the Christian institutions.
Dr Andreas D'Souza (India)
Sister M. Eugenia (Bangladesh)
Rev. Dr Hilario Gomez (Philippines)
Rev. Dr J. Haafkens (Kenya)
Mr Dag Hedin (Sweden)
Mr Jan Henningsson (Sweden)
Rev. Chanajit Ismalji (Thailand)
Rev. N. Stanley Jeyaraj (Sri Lanka)
Rev. Dr Sint Kimhachandra (Thailand)
Rev. Ng, N Kiok Nam (West Malaysia)
Ms Ulla Kuisma (Thailand)
Rev. P. Madhussodhanan (India)
Mrs Wilawan Manaboon (Thailand)
Dr Robert McAmis and
Mrs Nonie McAmis (Philippines)
Rev. Dr Roland E. Miller (Canada)
Rev. Kjell Sandvik (Thailand)
Prof. Dr Olaf Schumann (Germany)
Rev. Einar Sitompul (Indonesia)
Rev. Dr Jan Slomp (The Netherlands)
Rev. M.S. Widdissoeli (Indonesia)
Mrs Corinna Ascher
Rev. Dr J Paul Rajashekar
Lutheran World Federation, Geneva
Department for Theology and Studies
Rev. Dr HS Wilson
World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Geneva
Department of Theology