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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