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Contributions of Islam and Confucianism to ethics in 21st century

Sultan Nazrin Shah  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | This is the full text of the speech delivered by the Sultan of Perak, Sultan Nazrin Shah (above) at the 2nd Malaysia-China Youth Civilizational Dialogue on Islam and Confucianism in conjunction with the 45th anniversary of Malaysia-China diplomatic relations:

I am delighted to join all of you at this conference. Although it is organised by the old members of two well-known universities of Malaysia and China – the International Islamic University Malaysia and Peking University – today’s event is in fact directed for the benefit of our next generation, the youths of Malaysia and China.

Furthermore, this civilisational dialogue celebrates the 45th anniversary of the bilateral relations between our two countries. We are here today to reflect on the contributions of two distinct, major spiritual traditions, Islam and Confucianism, to ethics in the 21st century. May I commend the two alumni associations most sincerely on their selection of a conference theme which foregrounds – indeed, celebrates – the potential for dialogue and collaboration between different religions, cultures, and communities.

It seems to me that we are, in many ways, ideally situated for such a conference today. Geographically speaking, I am proud that Malaysia is vibrantly multicultural, a fitting location for a dialogue between different religions and sets of beliefs. Indeed, with its majority Muslim and substantial minority Chinese population – comprising about 61 percent and 25 percent respectively – Malaysia is essentially a living, national example of this cultural exchange in action. In Malaysia, Muslim and Chinese citizens – the latter with a centuries-old heritage of Confucian philosophy – exist side-by-side, living and working together with others from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and creeds. In this sense, today’s conference is taking place in the ideal setting for an intellectual collaboration between Islam and Confucianism. It is my sincere hope that Malaysia will represent the harmonious relationship between these two great traditions for many years, decades, and centuries to come. 

A less peaceful world

Yet today’s conference is ideally situated not only geographically-speaking, but also, I believe, in time. We are living in an increasingly conflicted and divided world. According to the Global Peace Index – a measure of international harmony published by the leading think tank, the Institute for Economics and Peace – our world today is less peaceful than it was ten years ago. 

One need only skim the newspapers or tune in for the news headlines to be convinced of such a claim. Countries across the globe are experiencing violence fuelled by intolerance, and a hatred of racial, cultural, and religious difference. Now more than ever, we need international, intercultural, and civilizational dialogues: we need – to return to a favoured image of mine – to build bridges, both within and between countries throughout the world.

Now, it is fair to say that there is much bridge-building work already being done, not least by international organizations such as the United Nations. A prime example, in our current century, is the UN’s “Alliance of Civilizations” initiative, which began in 2005. This was established largely in defiance of Samuel Huntington’s controversial “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which proposed that the Islamic world, China, and other non-Western powers would join forces in a conflict against the West. 

The “Alliance of Civilizations”, in response, sought to forge international, intercultural, and interreligious cooperation, particularly between the Western and Islamic worlds. The “Alliance” was fully supported by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – an organization which, notably, is patron to the International Islamic University Malaysia – and the OIC’s support, in itself, demonstrates the enormous potential and will of Islam to spread peace and build bridges throughout the globe.

However, the historic cultural and political dominance of the West has meant that, for decades and even centuries, the focus of international bridge-building has been between the West and other countries and cultures, as with the “Alliance of Civilizations” project. 

This, in turn, means that the equally important bridges that should – and indeed do – exist between Eastern civilizations have often been side-lined or overlooked. We are, I believe, on the brink of a major shifting or widening out of focus. 

History less Western-dominated

As exemplified by the work of the Oxford historian, Peter Frankopan, especially in his recent book "The New Silk Roads", the spotlight of world history is presently on the move, becoming less Western-dominated and Eurocentric, and more interested in the countries and cultures of the East.

As such, this conference could hardly be more timely. Today, we have come together to consider Islam, not alongside the cultures and beliefs of the West, but instead alongside one of the oldest spiritual traditions of the East. This is an intercultural dialogue which many – including the renowned Chinese Harvard scholar, Professor Tu Weiming – believe holds great promise for the future wellbeing of humanity as a whole. 

I must say that I, too, feel greatly optimistic about this dialogue, and its potential to make a truly positive contribution to ethics in the 21st century. I have indicated already that we are inhabiting a world in crisis, and thus, today’s conference is brilliantly poised to explore how Islam and Confucianism can help us to overcome these major global challenges.

On the face of it, there is much that seems strikingly different about Islam and Confucianism. Confucianism is one of the world’s oldest spiritual traditions, beginning in China in around 500 BC, with the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. By contrast, Islam is a relatively young world religion, founded more than one thousand years after the death of Confucius, by the Prophet Muhammad sallallahu ‘alayhi wassalam, in the 7th century.

In addition to their founding dates, another major contrast between Islam and Confucianism is the extent to which they can be considered religions. As the distinguished Chinese philosopher, Professor Chung-ying Cheng, rather boldly puts it, whereas Islam is an organised religion, Confucianism may be thought of as an “unorganised non-religion”. 

Now it goes without saying that, for some adherents of Confucianism, this is clearly not the case – and indeed, there has even been a Holy Confucian Church established in China in recent years. But it is certainly true that, whereas Islam is unquestionably a leading monotheistic world religion, Confucianism’s religious identity is less definite.

This brings me to a final, apparent point of difference: that of size. Islam today has around 1.8 billion followers, making up just under a quarter of the world’s population. By contrast, while the numbers are more difficult to estimate, it is thought that less than one percent of people worldwide are followers of Confucianism today.

However, these figures fail to tell the full story. While a relatively small number of people might identify as “Confucian”, Confucianism’s cultural reach is far broader. It is estimated to have some form of influence over the lives of more than 1.6 billion individuals – or 18 percent of the world’s population – living predominantly in China, as well as in the Korean peninsula, Japan, and in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia. Thus, Islam and Confucianism are in fact similar in that they both influence the lives of billions of individuals worldwide.

Both are, moreover, experiencing what we might think of as a period of flourishing at present. Research by the Pew Centre in the USA shows that Islam is by far the world’s fastest-growing religion. Although perhaps on a smaller scale, meanwhile, Confucianism is currently witnessing what many in the scholarly community are calling a “revival”, not least in China. 

Resurgence of religion and spirituality

Indeed, the predictions of many 19th and 20th century philosophers, particularly in the West, of the decline of religion, have been starkly contradicted by the trends in both Confucianism and Islam today. Far from “Gott ist tot” – the “Death of God”, to invoke Nietzsche’s famous phrase – what we are witnessing today is a resurgence of religion and spirituality, and I believe that it is hardly any surprise. In troubled times such as those through which we are living, humanity cries out for faith, for guidance, and for the sense of community that can be found in shared beliefs.

For all their seeming theological differences, a major area of convergence between Islam and Confucianism is that they both see religion as inseparable from politics and ethics. This was a point made numerous times at the first conference of its kind on Islam and Confucianism, hosted by the University of Malaya’s “Centre for Civilizational Dialogue” a little over 20 years ago. 

At this conference, for example, Professor Tu Weiming spoke of how “the inseparability between political leadership and moral authority” is an idea “shared by the two traditions”. He described how both traditions draw a direct line between the “healing and development of one’s own spiritual body” and the “serving” of the “body politic”, and suggested that “a spiritual leader is also a political authority” in Confucianism and Islam, in terms of providing the “standard of inspiration” for the people, and for the nation.

In other words, both Islam and Confucianism would propose a spiritual, not a secular approach to handling even those crises which are often viewed as being beyond the remit of religion, such as economics or climate change. With this in mind, I would like to spend what remains of my speech sharing some preliminary reflections on the ways in which Islam and Confucianism might contribute productively to the global ethical tradition today. Many of the themes and ideas I touch on will no doubt be explored at greater length and in greater depth in other papers throughout the conference’s two days.

Climate emergency

I would first like to suggest some of the ways in which I see Islam and Confucianism interacting with a global issue very close to my heart: that of climate change. We are now in the midst of what many are calling a “climate emergency” – a “climate emergency” has indeed been declared in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom. 

The global temperature is rising at an unprecedented rate due to the emission of greenhouse gases, generated particularly by the burning of fossil fuels. This, in turn, means melting ice caps and rising sea levels; climate scientists, for instance, estimate that most central and eastern Himalayan glaciers will have disappeared entirely by 2035. 

Climate change, along with human activities such as deforestation, is also having a devastating effect on biodiversity, with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimating that the rate of species extinction is at least 1,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate – that is, the rate without human-induced damage to the planet. With last month, July 2019, confirmed as the hottest month on record, and with some leading climate scientists estimating that we have as little as 18 months to take action before the damage becomes irreparable, our world is in now desperate need of a new ethical imperative.

When we turn to the teachings of Islam and Confucianism, we find that both endow their followers with a grave responsibility to take care of the planet and its creatures. According to Islam, mankind is God’s khalifah – His representative or “vicegerent” on Earth – enjoined to protect and oversee His creation. 

A similar notion of humankind’s stewardship of the planet, and of our close relationship with it, was articulated by a leading student of Confucius, who said: “Heaven, the Earth, and humans are the basis of all creatures. Heaven gives them birth, the Earth nourishes them, and humans bring them to completion”.

What I find particularly compelling about this philosophy, beyond the idea of human responsibility for the Earth, is the sense it conveys of all things on the planet being inextricably linked. Indeed, this Confucian teaching is echoed by classical Muslim philosophers such as the great Ibn Khaldun, who taught that: “All created things are subject to a regular and orderly system. Causes are linked to effects where each is connected with the other and any change will affect one another in a pattern that is both remarkable and endless.” 

For too long, humans have thought only about themselves, without realising that if we do not nurture the Earth, the Earth will not nurture us. Only now is the stark and terrible reality of that fact beginning to sink in, with a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change only two weeks ago declaring that climate change is reducing the Earth’s ability to sustain human life. These gems of Confucian and Islamic wisdom I shared a moment ago thus offer an urgently needed reminder: we all exist in a symbiotic relationship with the planet, and we all must take better care of it now, before it stops taking care of us.

Ethics of environmental sustainability

In both Islam and Confucianism, then, we find the basis for an ethics of environmental sustainability. Indeed, I have spoken in the past about the striking overlap between the teachings of Islam and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. For instance, where the Qur’an emphasizes the centrality of water to life, pronouncing that “We made every living thing from water”, SDG numbers 6 and 14 are both concerned with access to clean water, and with protecting the planet’s oceans and seas. 

We need not look hard to find a crossover between the SDGs and Confucianism, either. Take, for example, SDG number 12, which stresses the importance of “Responsible Consumption and Production”. Is this not what is also being emphasized in the phrase, attributed to Confucius, from the "Book of Rites": “To fell a single tree or kill a single animal, not at the proper season, is contrary to filial piety”? 

Our planet is in urgent need of the ethical approach advocated by both Islam and Confucianism, an approach which reminds us of humankind’s responsibility for and dependence on the Earth. I see this as a vital contribution to be made by the two great spiritual traditions to global ethics in the 21st century.

Alleviation of poverty

Another area which I would like to touch upon briefly is the potential of Islam and Confucianism to help alleviate global poverty. While extreme poverty has fallen since the 20th century according to World Bank statistics, around 10 percent of the global population, or some 780 million individuals, still subsist on less than US$1.90 per day. 

The rate of poverty alleviation, moreover, is slowing. In both Islam and Confucianism, we find a spiritual imperative to share wealth, to support those in need, and to value social good above financial gain. A well-known Confucian saying, for instance, declares that “the superior man thinks of virtue”, while “the inferior man thinks of profit”. 

In Islam, meanwhile, zakat or almsgiving is one of the Five Pillars of the faith. Charitable giving is not simply something which Muslims are encouraged to do; it is absolutely integral to an Islamic way of life. In seeking to build a world in which wealth is shared more equitably, in which people value giving more than keeping and acquiring, we may look to these spiritual traditions as a source of ethical guidance.

Ethics of tolerance

Perhaps the single biggest contribution to be made by Islam and Confucianism to ethics in this century, however, lies in their mutual promotion of tolerance, genuine acceptance, and community. In both traditions, there is enshrined an imperative towards understanding and harmony, which can undoubtedly support those productive conversations between nations and peoples that need to take place today. 

It is no coincidence that Islam and Confucianism have a long history of being in respectful, productive dialogue with one another. Just as the two traditions coexist in Malaysia and in many other countries today, so they have lived alongside one another for many centuries, particularly in China. 

As far back as the 13th century, there was a Muslim governor in the Yuan Court of Kublai Khan, alongside many Confucian advisers. In the 17th century, arguably China’s most famous Muslim scholar, Wang Daiyu, produced a number of celebrated Islamic writings in Chinese, using concepts drawn from Confucianism to articulate and explain Islamic theology. 

There is a long and peaceful history of trade between the Muslim Malay Sultanates and the Confucian Ming dynasty; exemplified best with the voyages of Admiral Cheng Ho. The two traditions – Confucianism and Islam – have enjoyed centuries of mutual exchange, collaboration, and harmonious dialogue. This is in part because, as we have seen, despite their many differences, the two traditions also share some major points of convergence and similarity. Their single most important similarity is their shared belief in showing tolerance and genuine acceptance towards others.

In an increasingly divided and conflicted world, both Confucianism and Islam encourage us, as humans, to recognize our likeness to others, and to respect – rather than to mistrust or reject – any differences. An important Qur’anic verse reads, “O mankind! Indeed, we have created you from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognise one another.” 

We are enjoined to reach out to the other, to find points of contact even in our seeming differences. In a phrase which shares much of this sentiment, meanwhile, a famous Confucian saying declares, “By nature men are alike. Through practice, they have become far apart”. Both spiritual traditions offer to the 21st century much-needed ethics of bridge-building, of establishing a truly global community in which we can recognize that we are, after all, more similar than different and that any differences are to be celebrated, not feared. It seems entirely fitting that this bridge-building ethos should be borne out not only by a singular religion, but by two major global belief systems and philosophies placed in dialogue with one another.

Today, China – the birthplace of Confucianism – is home to a sizeable minority of Muslims. As well as bordering Southeast Asia, a region with a significant Islamic population, China has, moreover, political, economic, and cultural relationships with Muslim nations throughout the world. 

At the same time, there are many ethnic Chinese – the majority of whom have been influenced by Confucianism – living as citizens in numerous Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia, most notably Malaysia and Indonesia. How the two cultures and traditions interact will, therefore, have far-reaching consequences, not only for the future of Southeast Asia, but for peace and prosperity on a global scale. For all of these reasons, I believe it is timely that we all reflect on Islam and Confucianism, and the contributions they make to the ethical tradition in this new century.

In concluding, then, I would like to wish you all a productive and enriching time at this two-day conference. It is my firm belief that our planet has much to gain and learn from a collaborative dialogue between Confucianism and Islam, just as the two traditions have much to gain and learn from one another. 

As the 18th century Chinese Muslim scholar, Jin Tianzhu, wrote: “Those who study only Muslim books and neglect Confucian writings cannot possibly comprehend the Truth, and vice versa. One should know both things”. And, in this spirit of seeking out the “Truth” – what Muslims call “haqiqa” – there is the popular saying from the Hadith for our Muslim-Sino dialogue, in which Prophet Muhammad sallallahu ‘alayhi wassalam encourages us to “seek knowledge even unto China!” 

Another famous Hadith, meanwhile, declares, “Wisdom is the lost property of the believer, let him claim it wherever he finds it”. It is my profound hope that, in providing a platform for sharing and seeking out wisdom today, this conference might itself contribute to ethics for the 21st century, in order to steer and guide our world through the many challenges to come.

Thank you. 


The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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