Integration with integrity

A consideration of lessons on racial integration from the Middles Ages and how present day efforts on the same in Malaysia lack integrity.

One of my favourite examples of pure racial and religious integration is the one which existed during the Abbasid rule.

In an atmosphere as culturally and intellectually vibrant as Baghdad was during the Abbasid’s rule, inter-faith and inter-religion relations were at their best. In Baghdad, Christians lived near a Jacobite monastery on the bank of the Tigris. Muslims would take part in Christian celebrations such as the Palm Sunday, and likewise the Christians would honour the Eid-ul-Fitr together with the Muslims.

The people were free to practise their respective religions, without fear and without any kind of compulsion. A medieval Egyptian historian noted that the mixing and matching of festivals “was a sign of mutual respect and brotherhood between the religions … moreover, some of the converts to Islam, as Muslims, continued their old practices even after accepting Islam.”

Now that account shows not only a pure unadulterated integration between various races of different faiths, but also assimilation of them into one single society.

Islamic history has shown that racial and religious integration would take place during a period of security, where the people went about living their daily lives without fear and prejudices.

Integration was and still is however a fragile commodity. Everything, from religious sensitivity to racial bigotry as well as political agenda could spark a backlash in no time at all.

Julius Kockert's painting of

Julius Koeckert, 1864, Harun receiving a delegation of Charlemagne in Baghdad, oil on canvas

Harun al Rasyid’s relationship with the Byzantine Empress Irene in Constantinople meant a peaceful co-existence between the two religious powerhouses. But when Irene’s finance minister, Nicephorus, overthrew her, the situation changed immediately. After a letter from Nicephorus saying that Harun should be giving the Byzantine his wealth and blaming the peaceful co-existence between Harun and Irene on the “weakness of women and their foolishness,” Harun marched into central Anatolia and captured Heraclea.

It was at this time Christians were treated shabbily in Iraq as Abbasid nationalism ruled the day.

At about the same time, the peaceful co-existence also existed in Muslim Andalus, especially in its capital, Cordoba, which was ruled by the remnant of the Umayyad Caliphate who fled from the Abassid after the infamous “dinner of reconciliation” in Damascus.

Muslims, Christians, and the Jews were living in harmony. The Court doctor was a Jew. The trading networking was monopolised by the Jews. Jewish translators were used to translate the works of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Christians were running the Caliphate. In fact, in the last bastion of Muslim Andalus, Granada, Samuel ibn Nagrela, better known as Nagid (a Hebrew term for “Governor”) was the Muslim army Chief, who fought for his country alongside Muslim soldiers whom he commanded. He also oversaw public works, the building of a library, mosque, and gardens. He even wrote extensively on Hebrew dialects.

Samuel was succeeded by Joseph, his son.

Again, just as it was fragile in Baghdad, it was also fragile in Muslim Andalus. It took a Muslim to destroy Samuel’s legacy and Joseph’s.

His biggest enemy was a Muslim, Abu Ishaq. Abu Ishaq was out of favour with the Berber Princes who rules Granada. Driven by envy, Abu Ishaq would berate the Granada prince for having “an infidel as his secretary.” He said,

… through him (Joseph), the Jews have become great and proud and arrogant … and how many a worthy Muslim humbly obeys the vilest ape among these miscreants. And this did not happen through their own efforts but through one of our own people who rose as their accomplice. Oh why did he not deal with them … Put them back where they belong and reduce them to the lowest of the low, roaming among us, with their little bags, with contempt, degradation and scorn as their lot, scrabbling in the dunghills for coloured rags to shroud their dead for burial.

Joseph was dragged by a mob, beaten, and crucified. Hundreds of Jews were subject to terror and death in 1066 Granada.

Bigotry also existed on the Christian side. Before the Granada episode, a Jewish monk, Isaac, had sought to start anti-Islam revolt simply because he was disappointed at the rate of conversion from Christianity to Islam. He started this by appearing before a leading Muslim judge and said that Muhammad wasn’t a true Prophet and that he would go to hell. After refusing to recant, he was sentenced to death, prompting a Christian revolt that lasted 8 years.

About 50 Christians including women, young and old, sought death sentence by denouncing Islam and were promptly sentenced to death by the Muslims. Some of them were canonised by the Church, including one Eulogius. The story of these Christian martyrs was later used to rouse anti-Islam sentiments until the Muslim kingdom fell to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.

We could learn a thing or two about integration from that part of history.

i. Integration comes with a complete understanding and acceptance of different cultural background and faiths;

ii. Integration exists in periods of peace and security when everyone of different races does not have any kind of racial fear or complexes;

iii. Integration is fragile. It has to be constantly and consistently nurtured and practiced. We have to continuously be conscious of our neighbour’s sensitivities, needs and limitations;

iv. It’s fragility may see it destroyed in a few moments. Political or personal agenda (Abu Ishaq’s envy); religious agenda (Isaac’s scheme); unnecessary or unbridled nationalism (Harun al Rasyid’s war against the Byzantine); hatred and bigotry (Abu Ishaq’s declaration).

Notice what Abu Ishaq said. Is it not the same with the “pendatang” and “2nd class” pronouncements here? Notice Abu Ishaq’s rave that the Jews are rich and well off. Is it not the same with statements made by some of our leaders – past and present – and the likes of PERKASA?

I am supposed to touch on “integrity” in my speech.

Integrity - let’s not look at the dictionary for its meaning. It simply means practising what one preaches. It means not only staying to our true self but to what we say we are. 1malaysia-har

1 Malaysia would and could have been a good start. But not when the right hand is doing what the left hand says should not be done. Or when the left hand is not doing what the right hand says should be done. That lacks integrity.

Not when there are people from within the ruling elites – the very promoters of the concept 1 Malaysia – and some other parties with the obvious acquiescence of the promoters of the concept sewing seeds of hatred, counting marbles which ought to belong to one race instead of the other.

Not when some of our leaders hallucinate and begin seeing imaginary monsters – which do not exist as a fact – and begin unsheathing his or her keris, waving it about while shouting nationalistic slogans.

That lacks integrity.

At the end of the day, we cannot rely on others, and that includes the government, when it comes to racial integration. This affects our daily lives.

And so we have to take it upon ourselves – the man in the mirror, so to speak – to take steps – no matter how small they may be – towards integration.

And if we have not done so yet, I would say today would be a good day to start.

* This speech was delivered at the 5th National Congress On Integrity at the Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies on 13th May 2010 (with some variations for publication).

Author’s Note: All historical anecdotes are quoted from “People of the Book”; Zachary Karabell, John Murray (Publishers) 2007.

LB: This post originally appeared in the author’s blog, ARTiculations.


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Posted on 26 May 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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2 Responses to Integration with integrity

  1. Qama Gill

    Art Harun,

    do refer to below outrageous response in post entitled "We, the non-Malays". i found it extremely irritating, the way this man believe. sadly, this is quite common among the present Malays. if this mindset continues, we can kiss unity goodbye. the worst part is, he is using religion as a doctrine to strenghten his ill-minded view. i don't fing any teachings of Islam that promotes violence. as per quoted in the Quran, "for you is your religion, for me is my religion". (Al-Kafiruun)

    this emphasized the neccessity of maintaining a peaceful society despite different racial/religious background. there can't be any attempt that might spark racial prejudice. looking on current situation carefully, all those attempt was made by certain quarter of society for selfish goals e.g. wealth, power etc. abuse of power is abundant. oppression is emminent. it seems like we are in a sinking ship, judging by the figures and statistics. from every corner slogans had been embedded in them, mostly using religion as a point. do they forget the real meaning of Ad-Din-ul-Islam. literally, it easily translates as "peaceful way of living". may God forgives those who carried His name in vain.

    for the record, I'm a Malay Muslim. Still, the way most of the Malay behaves makes me feel ashamed of declaring my background. as I'm preaching my social network on the importence of racial unity, these mentality had tampering my efforts.

    "mana boleh. nanti diorang rampas negara nie."

    "ini tanah datuk nenek kita. kita kena pertahankan maruah bangsa."

    "kau nie nak jual maruah bangsa ke? kau nak jual tanah nenek moyang kita?"

    this is the current lingo for our so-called 1Malaysia. i came to the extent of being disgust of it. i'm not saying that the other races are all free of being chauvinist. i'm a man of facts, i quoted the bitter truth. yet, have anyone ponder why the non-malays are behaving that way? have anyone ever weighing the maltreatment they endure all these years? have anyone ponder the roots of bad perceptions they are having against the Malays and generally on Islam? if anyone did, i believe the environment will be far much better than present days. for every effects, there are causes, it's the Newton's Law of Momentum.

    i leave the audience with a reality check. below is the comment that irked me much. read it with sense and don't let emotion erodes your judgement. is 1Malaysia's concept still valid with such insights like this or it just a plain motto to rally supporters?

    Nazri on 24 May, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    Why do I even bother arguing with you ingrates? I already know where the current scenario is leading to. Blood conflict is imminent and inevitable as prophesied in the prophecies because you ingrates lack in knowledge historically and simply refuse to assimilate to the predominant mould to receive your God-given right nor leave this country peacefully when you know it does not serve your identity nor ideology. You insist on being accepted without shedding your ancestors immigrant mentality which contradicts the very basic rule of life, that you shall not deserve anything until you’ve made the necessary sacrifices in the right direction.

    At the end of the day all I need to know is that when it comes to defending the country with blood, sweat and tears… I know the number of Malays in the service far supercede the number of non-Malays and that’s good enough for me. I just hope and pray to dear Allah that we Malays are able to maintain our sanity when all this shit goes down and all hell breaks loose as not to transgress the bounds of humanity despite being challenged by the immigrant descent non-Malays on our own promised land.

    I’m grateful to Allah that my Arab and Chinese ancestors were wise folks who secured me and their other descendants with a little piece of historical patronage or bondage to the promised land by marrying into the Malays and I shall continue to pray and defend for the rights of those immigrant descent non-Malays who are with a spark of hope just like my ancestral immigrant forefathers once did before them. To the rest of you ingrates… you either shape up or ship out! *chuckles*

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