Friday, 4 September 2009

Merit comes from making right choices

Wednesday September 2, 2009

Musings by Marina Mahathir (The Star Columnist)

Living the faith is not just about avoiding what is prohibited, but more so about doing the right things where morals and ethics are concerned.

IN this month of Ramadan, one naturally focuses on questions of faith. And indeed, with several controversies in the papers, we can’t escape it at all. Every day our lives seem to be increasingly circumscribed until the question of choice in our lives becomes irrelevant.

There are some people in our midst who seem to think that the only way to fulfill our religious obligations is by removing any sort of temptation or challenge in our paths.

Since we are prohibited from drinking, the answer is therefore to remove any form of alcohol from our sight so that we may never have the opportunity to be tempted by it. Or, to disallow young Muslims to attend events sponsored by alcoholic beverage companies. The assumption is that by the mere presence of liquor, we would abandon all inhibitions and imbibe.

This suggests two things. One is that the religious education of the young must be so inadequate that they feel totally uninhibited when faced with what they should know is prohibited.

Secondly, our faith is essentially a weak one since it can never restrain us from breaking rules.

There are other faiths that have food prohibitions as well. Many Hindus and Buddhists don’t eat beef. There are people who take no meat at all. Yet, living in a world of carnivores, where the beef burger is ubiquitous and most people are oblivious of others’ dietary restrictions, they stick to their diets throughout their lives. Do they have stronger faith than Muslims?

I’m trying to imagine a world where our faith is supposedly secured by having absolutely no temptations or challenges at all. We can ban every form of alcohol (including medicinal ones), we can cull every single pig in the land, but does that mean we will be able to float about blissfully certain that we now have a place in heaven?

In countries where alcohol is completely prohibited, an underground system invariably springs up and people drink much more, perhaps because it is illicit.

People who are used to ham made from turkey meat and bacon from beef tend to assume, when they travel to other countries, that all the bacon and ham there are also made from the same meats.

Children who have never seen pigs gush over the cuteness of those little pink animals with the funny snouts.

But faith is about more than just prohibited drinks and foods. It is also about morals and ethics. Every day we are faced with choices that challenge our sense of morality. Do we pay a little extra to the officer in order to expedite our applications? Do we beat the red light, thus endangering other people, just because we are a little late? Do we keep quiet about a mistake we made and let others take the blame?

It is our faith that is going to provide us the answers to these questions. And sometimes these questions can be difficult to answer. Does that mean therefore that we should just get rid of them so that our faith need never be tested?

It would be nice to get rid of corruption completely so that we never have to deal with it. But do we hear of anyone calling for a ban on it? Or mobilising religious officials to catch anyone giving or receiving a bribe?

If our faith directs our way of life, then ethical and moral questions should dog us every day. How is it that those calling for people who drink to be whipped have nothing to say about people who neglect to repay loans? Or who leave their children in destitution? How is it that the voices that bay for rock concerts to be banned are not just as outraged by the existence of the homeless and the hungry?

Faith, as someone said, needs to be exercised regularly. Otherwise it gets flabby. In what way can it be exercised if we think that living in a religious utopia is what we should aim for? Is it better for our faith to be exercised by the trivial rather than the big moral questions of poverty, illiteracy and violence?

God said in the Quran, “if it had been His will, He could indeed have guided you all”. (6:149)

We could all be perfectly good if He had so willed it. But we are given choices because that is how we earn our merits. We have the opportunity to think about what we should do and then decide.

In that way we have the chance to think about what ethics we want to apply in our lives. Take away that choice and we never have to think about morals and ethics. What sort of human beings would we be then?

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