06
Aug
12

HIGH HEAVEN

 

 

The state of

 

high heaven

 

MEDIA talk and internet postings in this month of abstinence inspire me to tread the realm of religion publicly, much against my better judgment and that of those holier than me. But then I thought – why not? I have as much right as anyone else to introspect my faith and beliefs in this holy month and at any other time.

Some of my thoughts are whimsical and heavenly; some pragmatic and practical; a few sceptical and cynical. Reflections upon reflections on faith and religion by a puny mortal.

Like most people, I would like to go to heaven when I die. I often think I will. I try to lead a decent and honest life, to be helpful and charitable, and avoid doing harm to others. I regularly say my prayers too, and seek the Almighty’s grace and mercy.

However, the heaven that I’m aspiring to is not the one described in the holy books as overflowing with milk and honey, and filled with beautiful maidens. The heaven I envisage is a spiritual space of perfect peace and quiet, far from the maddening crowd.

Strangely, in its state of eternal tranquillity, I think my spirit will look at the world and my loved ones and feel so sad. I think of my soul as a thinking and an emotional one, like the mind and body I would have left behind.

Religion is not an easy subject to grasp and no one can claim to know it absolutely. More so, if the holy book is in a foreign language and you struggle to understand its vicissitude of meanings. More so, if its stories are allegorical, its analogies historically contextual and its images contextually socio-cultural.

We can only take from the ancient scripts what we understand within the limits of our own mental, emotional, intellectual and even physical capacities. A lot of things escape us because we were not there to experience the experiences, and we have not reached the state of high heaven in the here and now.

While it has become fashionable to inject our daily language with the holy words of a foreign language, and our daily attire with the religious uniformity of another culture, there must be room for private space where believers are free to experience our own spirituality without being judged by those purportedly holier than us.

There must be room to imbibe the meanings at a level that we understand. There must be accommodation of one another’s levels of understanding without the element of judgment creeping in. The rituals of prayer, for instance, unite the spiritual at a physical level. Young children and the less literate learn to accept its discipline although its language and meanings escape them.

At the verbal level, if we use the words sembahyang (prayers) instead of solat, and buka puasa (break fast) instead of iftar, it should not imply that we are less spiritual in the performance of these activities, or vice versa.

The danger in the linguistic world, as in the spiritual, is that words and concepts become moribund or die out if we don’t use them regularly. The words in Malay will eventually be replaced by the Arabic words which are claimed to be more afdal (better). The same goes in the fashion arena, where Arabic fashion is touted to be holier.

Then I’m reminded of the concept of charity. In the month of fasting, charity becomes heavily associated with food and feeding – all quite logical in the development of religious obligations. Where there are orphans, widows and the poor, feeding them becomes a social obligation and charity becomes easily translatable into the physical gesture of giving food.

Thus, the word charity assumes a literal meaning and manifests itself in the continuous doling out of food to orphans and the poor by private and public sponsors – paradoxically contradicting the very principles of abstinence and frugality. Perhaps we should be urged to give them more of our time and attention.

I’m also intrigued by a TV show where the panel articulately discussed the concept of religion in the Federal Constitution, and eloquently distinguished between “official religion” and “religion of the Federation” in the context of the Malaysian nation state.

It was pointed out that no where is the word “secular state” or “official religion” used in the constitution, and that while democratic principles underscore the Malaysian system of government, no where is the word “democracy” actually used. All intriguing points to be researched for another time.

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