Racism in Other Guises

Racism and sexism are increasingly, and belatedly, being identified as major issues on North American, Western European and Australian universities, and are not merely “developing country” phenomena. See, for instance, the recent report from a British task force.

Racism/Sexism manifest themselves not only in hiring practices, unequal pay, hate speech and acts of overt violence, but in everyday paternalism, willful ignorance of and separation from others, and the language we use in identifying others.

Sadly, these are huge blind-spots in many Christian churches and organizations.

For example, many foreign Christian students are shocked to find Christian groups on American campuses that are divided not only on denominational lines, but on the basis of skin colour. And, feeling little welcome from the dominant host culture, such students often end up forming Christian ghettos themselves. In the wider society, people who may work together during the week migrate to segregated colour-based “churches” on a Sunday.

Moreover, it is from rich, predominantly white churches and organizations that we in the Majority World are bombarded with evangelistic “programs”, training courses and methodologies. They show no interest in learning from us. What they produce is for universal consumption. Whatever we produce is local. Ironically, these churches and organizations have little impact on their own cultures and societies.

Afrikaaner theology in South Africa promoted the idea of “separate development” of races by arguing that cultural diversity was intended by God and that, therefore, each race/culture should develop in separate spaces without contamination from or engagement with others.

The biblical premise was correct, but the conclusion drawn was profoundly anti-Christian.

This kind of theology re-surfaces in the popular “People Group” methodology of mission, developed in the 1980s at the US Centre for World Mission in Pasadena and propagated uncritically around the world. It marries a dubious sociology with a flawed theology: gospel preaching aims to plant a church within a “people group” so that nobody has to cross any awkward, let alone hostile, boundaries in becoming Christians. This makes for numerical growth, as “people-group churches” are homogeneous, like attracting like. Hence the mushrooming of homogeneous groups, all calling themselves “churches”, and not in any kind of communication with each other.

The great South African theologian David Bosch criticised Afrikaaner theology’s idolization of cultural diversity: “Paul could never cease to marvel at this new thing that had caught him unawares, as something totally unexpected: the Church is one, indivisible, and it transcends all differences. The sociologically impossible…is theologically possible… All this most certainly does not mean that culture is not to play any role in the Church and that cultural differences should not be accommodated… However, cultural diversity should in no way militate against the unity of the Church. Such diversity in fact should serve the unity. It thus belongs to the well-being of the Church, whereas the unity is part of its being. To play the one off against the other is to miss the entire point. Unity and socio-cultural diversity belong to different orders. Unity can be confessed. Not so diversity. To elevate cultural diversity to the level of an article of faith is to give culture a positive theological weight which easily makes it into a revelation principle.”

It distresses me, therefore, to find this methodology still pursued and promoted in some “evangelical” circles. We are given metrics about how many “decisions for Christ” were made through such a methodology, while never asking what these “decisions” are or- most importantly- which “Christ” they are talking about. It cannot be the Christ who breaks down dividing walls of hostility between peoples and reconciles them together into one new humanity, of which the Church is called to be a sign and foretaste (e.g. Eph. 2: 14ff).

One way of understanding the dynamic of Christian conversion is in terms of the creative tension between what the church historian Andrew Walls has called the “indigenising principle” and the “pilgrim principle” in history. Both these principles derive from the Gospel. The indigenising principle witnesses to the truth that God accepts sinners like us as we are, on the basis of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection alone. He does not wait for us to correct our ideas or tidy up our behaviour before He welcomes us into His family as adopted sons and daughters. Christ, so to speak, immerses himself in all that we bring to him from our background in our initial conversion; and “indigenises” our discipleship, calling us to live as Christians and as members of our own societies.

But not only does God in Christ take us as we are, but He takes us in order to make us what we ought to be. So, along with the indigenising principle the Christian also inherits a “pilgrim principle” which “whispers to him that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society, for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system. Jesus within Jewish culture, Paul within Hellenistic culture, take it for granted that there will be rubs and frictions-not from the adoption of a new culture, but from the transformation of the mind towards that of Christ.”

The indigenising principle, then, associates Christians with the particulars of their culture and group, testifying to the sanctifying power of Christ within their old relationships. The pilgrim principle, on the other hand, associates Christians with the wider family of faith, bringing them into a new set of relationships with people whom they would have never associated with before and with whom their natural groups have little kinship.

The pilgrim principle testifies to the universal scope of the Gospel. All those in whom Christ dwells through faith, all who have been accepted by God in Christ, are now family members. The Christian thus has a double nationality: his own former loyalty to biological family, tribe, clan or nation is retained, but now set within a wider and more demanding loyalty to the global family of Christ.

(The closing paragraphs are taken from my book Faiths in Conflict? Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World (InterVarsity Press-UK and USA, 1999) Ch.4)

Homosexuality and respect for democratic rights: YES, BUT – The Sociological Minimum


Proposition 1 – Respect is not Conformity or Compliance
YES, the rights of homosexuals to express their views should be respected in a pluralistic democracy,
BUT this respect should not be extended to demand approval of their views and compliance to new social policies that impose homosexual ideology on others.

Proposition 2. Homosexuality should be viewed in Biblical proportion.
YES, homosexuality is one sin amongst many sins listed in Romans 1, 1Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10.
BUT, it is presently THE sin that is most aggressively promoted and exploited as the instrument to expunge Christianity from the public arena.

Proposition 3. Civil law should apply sanctions equally against heterosexual and homosexual relations outside marriage.
YES, homosexual practice should be sanctioned if it is deemed to undermine the social institution of marriage,
BUT, the social sanction should be equally applied to both heterosexual and homosexual relations outside marriage.

Proposition 4. The state has a greater duty to promote and preserve heterosexual marriage relationship.
YES, respect for the democratic right grants some legal recognition of homosexual relations between consenting adults,
BUT, this recognition does not preclude the greater duty of the State to support actively one of its fundamental social institutions, the family based on heterosexual marriage.

Proposition 5. The homosexual controversy should be addressed in Biblical proportion.
YES, homosexual practice is rejected in the Bible as a sin,
BUT, the Bible, including the Apostle Paul (who gives the clearest teaching on the subject) is not obsessed with the sin of homosexuality. A Biblical vision of sexual wholeness emphasizes nurture of Christian virtues and holiness.

Allah: The noun and the name – The root of confusion

Confusion continues to reign over some Malay Muslim scholars, as is evident from their fumbled handling of the semantics of Allah, because there is no definite article in the Malay language. It would be helpful for them to reconsider the significance of definite article in the Arabic and other Semitic languages.

Definition of Proper Noun

Confusion begins when we learned in elementary school the traditional definition of a noun: a noun “refers to a person, place, or thing.” But this definition is inadequate as it excludes words like ‘explosion’, ‘moment’, thunder, etc.

Modern linguists therefore define nouns not in semantic (meaning-based) terms but in distributive terms, that is, how they are used in relation to other syntactic categories in the language. The English language has the convenient usage of the determiner ‘the’. Hence, ‘the explosion’, ‘the moment’ and ‘the thunder’ are recognized as nouns.

A further distinction is traditionally drawn between proper nouns (sometimes known as proper names) and common nouns.**

A proper noun is a noun representing unique entities (such as John, Lassie, Athens), as distinguished from a common noun which describes a class of entities (such man, worker, star, city). Proper nouns refer to particular individual entities.

The relation between proper nouns and individuals is not necessarily one-to-one, however.

In the examples given above, John may refer to many different individuals having that name, e.g., John the Baptist, the Apostle John or the President of USA. Athens can refer to a city either in Greece, Ohio or Georgia. I call my dog Lassie, because I want it to have the qualities of intelligence and loyalty like the famous dog Lassie in TV.

Proper nouns function as pointers. A pointer can be used to direct our attention to different and unrelated items. Likewise, a proper noun can be used to refer to different and unrelated individuals. That is to say, proper nouns are pointers to individuals without themselves defining the semantic content (qualities etc). In fact, proper nouns can refer to objects with different qualities. Newton can refer to an individual who discovered gravity, the writer of the famous hymn Amazing Grace or even to a town west of Boston.

Proper nouns are contrasted with common nouns grouped together by virtue of sharing certain (common) properties. Common nouns have intrinsic semantic contents and cannot be used arbitrary. For example, a dog is a dog and not a cat.

How do these grammatical insights apply to the controversy on Allah?

To begin, we hear the constant refrain from some Malay Muslim scholars who insist that the word Allah may be used only for Islam on grounds that Allah is a proper noun.

Pre-Islamic and Early Arabic Use of the words al-ilah and Allah

First, it should be noted that Allah comes from al-ilah (the god). I refer readers to my earlier discussions and shall only point out that the word ilah (Hebrew: eloah, Aramaic: elah in cognate Semitic dialects, etc is a common noun (god).

A pre-Islamic archaeological inscription (dated ca. 512AD) found in Zabad (60km south-east of Aleppo) shows the word al-ilah was already used by Christians:

[d] (k) r ‘l’-’lh bn’mt Mnfw w-Tlh’ bn Mr’ l-Qys w-Srgw bn S’dw w-Strw w-Syl [.] thw.

The initial clause is translated as “God remembers Serge son of Amat Manaf”…

This inscription shows incontrovertibly that al-ilah was used within a Christian context before the emergence of Islam.

Note here the use of the definite article with the generic term for god (ilah) was seen as suitable to denote the Christian God. The well-known linguistics scholar Toshihiko Izutsu concurs when he cites the poet AI-Nabighah writing a praise to his new patron, King Ghassan in the famous poem Ghassaniyyat. His praise of the Christian Ghassan says, “They have a nature, like of which Allah has never given to any other man, that is, generosity accompanied by sound judgement that never deserts them. Their Scripture’ is that of God (al-Ilah, the original form of Allah), and their faith is steadfast and their hope is set solely on the world to come”. See, God and Man in the Koran: Semantics of the Quranic Weltanschauung (Keio University 1964, reprinted by Islamic Book Trust 2002), p. 116.

It is granted that adding the determiner ‘the’, to the word ilah (al-ilah = Allah) allows it to function as a proper noun. Note here, the simple grammatical rule – the word (ilah) that accepts a determiner is de facto is a common noun. That is to say, ‘god’ (a common noun) becomes ‘the god’ (a proper noun). In English, the noun may conveniently be capitalized as ‘The God’. Sometimes, as allowed in certain contexts, even the determiner may be dropped, as in the case of monadic (only one) nouns. Following the development of history, monotheists like Jews, Christians and Muslims use the generic word, common noun (ilah, eloah) in their confession of belief in one God.

I gave the example how an Englishman may simply say “God save the Queen”. That ‘the Queen’ is a proper noun referring to one individual called Elizabeth, or that the Englishman declares loyalty only to that one Queen does not rule out the fact that the word ‘queen’ is a common noun, and other people have as much right to declare allegiance to their own queens and other people respectively may call their queens as ‘The Queen’.

[ See my earlier discussions:
The Semantics of the Word Allah
Allah is Not a Personal Name ]

The Englishman cannot forbid people of other nationalities from expressing loyalty to his/her ‘Queen’, ‘The Queen’ (e.g., the case of Denmark or Sweden). Likewise, even though Christians in England have been praying to the Christian deity as ‘God’ for 1400 years, there is no law in England to prohibit Muslims from using the word ‘God’ in their prayers or religious discourse; a fortiori, Muslims have no justification to prohibit Malay speaking Christians from using the word Allah, especially when the Christians were already using the word (Allah, al-ilah) before the emergence of Islam.

Confusion between proper noun and personal name

Muslim scholars who appeal to the word Allah as a proper noun to claim exclusive use of Allah are trapped in the old linguistics which views words as isolated, self-defined semantic (meaning-based) units. But modern linguistics has exposed this approach as inadequate and misleading. Instead, for modern linguistics the meaning of a word is concretely derived in relation to other syntactic categories in the language.

As discussed above, the relation between proper nouns (proper names) and individuals is not necessarily one-to-one and proper nouns are pointers to individuals without themselves defining the semantic content (qualities etc). “A proper name [is] a word that answers the purpose of showing what thing it is that we are talking about” writes John Stuart Mill in A System of Logic (1. ii. 5.), “but not of telling anything about it”. Mill’s description of proper name is still accepted, albeit with some qualifications in the context of contemporary debates in linguistic philosophy. In the parlance of contemporary modal logic, Allah is not a rigid designator which designates (picks out, denotes, refers to) the same thing (person) in all possible worlds in which that thing (person) exists (re: Saul Kripke). In common language, Allah is not a personal name.

David Kiltz after carefully analyzing the pre-Islamic archaeological inscriptions and early Arabic writings concludes that Allah is not a personal name.

“So what was understood in Arabia by the use of allah? Firstly, the word seems to be employed to denote a specific god as in the Qaryat al-Faw inscription, invoked next to other gods. Also, it would appear that it can be understood as ‘the specific god in context’, i.e. the one whom I worship or who is related to a certain sanctuary or the like, as perhaps proper names like Nabûllah ‘Nabû is the god’ suggest. Even Wahballah may be interpreted that way. i.e. allah could not only be taken to refer to a god named allah but also as meaning ‘gift of the god’, scil.[to wit], ‘of the god whom I worship’. In this case allah would function as a generic term [emphasis added]. This interpretation would also account for the high number of personal names that contain the element Allah against the scarcity of the word occuring in isolation… That means that in actual inscriptions, the name of the god invoked is mentioned, whereas in names a particular god is only implied but simply designated as ‘the god’.”

Kiltz finds support for this use even from the Quran (43:87, 10:31 and 39:38) and concludes,

“These verses seem to address ‘polytheists’ rather than Christians or Jews. Hence they would seem to suggest belief in a supreme creator God among ‘pagan’ Arabs. In brief, we find the use of allah denoting either ‘the god’ in a specific context or an individual god who might have been viewed as a ‘high god’ before Islam. The term was also used by Christians to denote their God.”

“To sum up, Arabic allah denoted a specific god, in the sense of ‘the god in question’ or an individual god who, at least at some point, had assumed the role of a ‘high god’. The word was therefore, on the one hand, suited to be taken over into Syriac as a generic term for ‘god’, especially so, because in the receiving language the Arabic definite article did not necessarily manifest its determining character [emphasis added]. On the other hand, in Arabic and on the Arabic peninsula, it was understood as ‘the god’, and thus lent itself to the designation of the monotheistic God, as, next to Judaism and Christianities, ‘pagan’ henotheistic or even monotheistic tendencies were already present.”

Taken from David Kiltz, “The Relationship between Arabic Allah and Syriac Allaha” Der Islam bd 88 (Waler de Gruter 2012), pp. 33-50.

To conclude, comparative philology and historical linguistics of the cognate Semitic languages suggest the word Allah, al-ilah is not a personal name that refers exclusively to a unique individual or that it refers only to the supreme deity of Islam. Morphologically the word Allah is a proper noun, but the actual word usage (when the word is not viewed in isolation, but in relation to the other syntactical categories in the inscriptions) allows for a generic or a range of meanings depending on the deity referred to in different contexts. This brings to mind the revolutionary dictum of James Barr that meaning of a word is not its etymology but its contextual usage. The generic function of the word Allah aptly illustrates the linguistic principle mentioned above: Modern linguists therefore define nouns not in semantic (meaning-based) terms but in distributive terms, that is, how they are used in relation to other syntactic categories in the language.

Confusion arising as the Malay language (Bahasa Malaysia/Melayu) has no definite article.

Confusion continues to reign over some Malay Muslim scholars, evident from their fumbled handling of the semantics of Allah because there is no definite article in the Malay language. It would be helpful for them to reconsider the significance of the definite article in the Arabic and other Semitic language.

In the Arabic language the definite article is quite clearly denoted as “ta’rîf”, the one which makes known or which defines, and a word standing in an undefined position (in English either “a” or nothing at all) is “nakira”, the “unknown”.

Allâh, coming from al-ilâh, clearly is defined by the article, the “ta’rîf” “al-” (English: the) which has to go whenever the word is determined by another word. The presence of the determiner also confirms that Allah is not a name as every name is determined by itself, e.g., we have “Muhammad” and not al-Muhammad.

Note – Similarly, Quirk and Greenbaum authoritative Grammar points out that in English, “We may therefore draw a distinction between a proper noun, which is a single word, and a name, which may or may not consist of more than one word. A name normally functions as a single unit with respect to grammar. This means that, even if a composite name has an internal structure that is grammatically analysable (eg as King’s College is analysable as genitive noun + head noun), that structure cannot normally be varied by the insertion of words, by change of inflection, etc.” (p. 288).

The word that can be determined (and consequently morphologically inflected in the case of Semitic languages) is not a name. For example, the al- disappears when Allah is determined by another word, e.g., The God of Abraham (Ibrahim) becomes ‘ilah Ibrahim’ and not ‘Allah Ibrahim.’ Conversely, names are not inflected or modified as a result of their syntactical relations in the sentence. In short, the modification of the words ilah and Allah confirms that Allah is not a personal name.

Summary: Proper nouns are pointers to individuals without themselves defining the semantic content (qualities etc). The word Allah has no rigid designation. It is not a personal name. The semantics of the word Allah as a proper noun (properly nuanced) shows that there is no justification that the word be used exclusively for the supreme deity of Islam.

To repeat:

Confusion continues to reign over some (otherwise intelligent) Malay Muslim scholars evident from their fumbled handling of the semantics of Allah because there is no definite article in the Malay language. It would be helpful for them to reconsider the significance of definite article in the Arabic and other Semitic languages.


For an authoritative, exhaustive (and exhausting) discussion on nouns see, “Nouns and Determiners” in Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum etc, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, chapter 5, (Longmans 1985), pp. 241-331.

* The meaning and role of proper names is recognized as one of the most recalcitrant problems for modern analytical philosophy. This problem is compounded when our discussion shifts between languages – Arabic, Hebrew, English and Malay. This article seeks to clear some ambiguities that remained in some of my earlier articles – See, “The Semantics of Allah” and “Allah is not a Personal Name”. My basic position remains unchanged.

** Note: Proper names are distinguished from proper nouns. A proper noun is a word-level unit of the category noun, while proper names are noun phrases (syntagms) (Payne and Huddleston (2002), p.516). For instance, the proper name ‘Jessica Alba’ consists of two proper nouns: ‘Jessica’ and ‘Alba’. Proper names may consist of other parts of speech, too: ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ contains the common noun ‘Bridge’ as well as the proper noun ‘Brooklyn’. ‘The Raritan River’ also includes the determiner ‘the’. ‘The Bronx’ combines a determiner and a proper noun. Finally, ‘the Golden Gate Bridge’ is a proper name with no proper nouns in it at all. See “Names”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Galileo’s Trial on Trial: From teleological science to mathematical empirical science

Precis: Secular critics of Christianity typically appeal to the infamous trial of Galilee Galileo in Rome (1616) as indisputable evidence that Christianity is an intolerant and intellectually bankrupt system. The secular critics’ story is one of the inexorable retreat of Christianity into the backwaters of social progress, and of its being left behind in the advancement of the knowledge enterprise. Consequently, one would have expected the Christian religion to wither at the margins of society and eventually go the way of the gypsies. But this has not been the case. It calls to mind Mark Twain’s remark, “The report on my death was an exaggeration.”


Secular critics of Christianity typically appeal to the infamous trial of Galilee Galileo in Rome (1616) as indisputable evidence that Christianity is an intolerant and intellectually bankrupt system. Bertrand Russell described the trial in these words,

Galileo, as everyone knows, was condemned by the Inquisition…he recanted, and promised never again to maintain that the earth rotates or evolved. The Inquisition was successful at putting an end to science in Italy, which did not revive there for centuries, but it failed to prevent men of science from adopting the heliocentric theory, and did considerable damage to the Church by its stupidity. Fortunately there were Protestant countries, where the clergy, how-ever anxious to do harm to science, were unable to gain control of the State.[1]

Voltaire in his essay on “Descartes and Newton” (1728) spiced up the episode even more to ensure dramatic effects: “the great Galileo, at the age of eighty, languished in the prison of the Inquisition for having demonstrated the earth’s movement.”

The secular critics’ story is one of the inexorable retreat of Christianity into the backwaters of social progress, and of its being left behind in the advancement of the knowledge enterprise. Consequently, one would have expected the Christian religion to wither at the margins of society and eventually go the way of the gypsies. But this has not been the case. It calls to mind Mark Twain’s remark, “The report on my death was an exaggeration.”

Perhaps it is time to take a fresh look at the trial of Galileo. The story of science discrediting the Christian faith took on the character of a dramatic myth that portrays a fallen hero or martyr for the great cause of reason (Galileo) in the face of tyrannical authorities defending the ignorance of religious dogma (represented by Pope Urban VIII and Robert Cardinal Bellarmine). Galileo, the icon of freedom of scientific inquiry, was crushed by an intolerant and oppressive religious system. The myth ends with a memorable one-liner protest attributed to Galileo when he blurted out after his recantation, “Eppur si muove” (“Yet it does move”).

But the truth is that the Galileo affair was not a battle between Christianity and science. It was a battle between old science (Aristotelian teleology) and new science (Galileo’s mathematical, mechanical science), in which entrenched university professors spared no quarters to protect their vested interests. Politics muddled the conflict as a weak Pope came under pressure to act tough against reformist movements.

Indeed, the fact that the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo found reception among the Protestants elsewhere in Europe where there was no centralized bureaucratic power belies the charge that Christianity is inherently hostile to free scientific inquiry. But given the persistent myth, it is necessary to go back to the beginning of the protean saga of the relationship between Christian faith and science to sift myths from historical facts.

The Historical Context

When Galileo offered a plausible (but not conclusive) defence to the alternative heliocentric universe proposed by Copernicus, he was not so much going against Christian theology as against the dominant Aristotelian-Ptolemiac model of the geocentric universe. The Ptolemaic model does work in explaining the irregular movements of the planets, albeit through introducing epicycles to the circular orbits of the planets and requiring cumbersome mathematical calculations to match what was observed in the heavens. Copernicus’ model may provide equivalent predictions of the movements of the planets, but it was not supported by adequate empirical evidence and in fact defied the common-sense experience of an immovable earth and moving stars and planets in the sky. The Copernican model remained controversial; or rather, it was tolerated as a helpful, though unproven hypothesis. There were not enough reasons then to discard a more or less working system that had reigned unchallenged for fourteen hundred years.

The heliocentric universe advocated by Galileo remained a speculative hypothesis that lacked corroborative evidence from empirical astronomical observations. The telescopes at that time were not sensitive enough to measure the parallax movements of the stars and no less an authority than Tycho Brahe (1541-1601) rejected Copernicus and favoured the old system as it provided an alternative explanation of everything that Galileo observed through his telescope.

Indeed, Copernicus’ system itself was plagued with inconsistencies as it continued to rely on the ancient idea of circular orbits for the sun. It was only much later that the heliocentric system provided simpler and more accurate calculations with the adoption of elliptical orbits proposed by Johannes Kepler. Even then Kepler did not provide compelling evidence to support the model and his astronomical tables were accepted so long as the heliocentric model was regarded as no more than mathematical calculations based on an unproven hypothesis.

The heliocentric universe advocated by Galileo remained a speculative hypothesis that lacked corroborative evidence from empirical astronomical observations. The telescopes at that time were not sensitive enough to measure the parallax movements of the stars; and no less an authority than Tycho Brahe (1541-1601) rejected Copernicus and favoured the old system as it provided an alternative explanation of everything that Galileo observed through his telescope. It was estimated that between 1543 and 1600 not more than ten astronomers accepted Copernicus’ system.[2]

It was granted that the Galileo/Copernicus theory was useful in requiring less complex mathematical calculations. But at that time mathematics was regarded as an inferior intellectual discipline that provided only technical calculations and could not be relied on to provide true explanations and insights into the world around us. Indeed, the pecking order for the academic disciplines in the universities put theology at the top, followed by philosophy (natural science), medical science and mathematics at the bottom. Hence the scholars who opposed Galileo could brush aside astronomers like him with the denigrating remark that astronomers were “merely mathematicians.”

Natural philosophy and physics did not use mathematics as it was considered incapable of grasping the essential qualities of objects in the real world. People just did not expect mathematics to provide an explanation of the true nature of things or their causes. Anyone with some basic understanding of mathematics would know it is only an ideal conceptual, mental exercise – for example, calculations of trajectories of projectiles ignore resistance and wind currents. The results may be useful for practical purposes, but the whole exercise is nonetheless an abstraction.

Galileo’s proposal itself failed to provide an explanation why the earth should be moving – an explanation that had to wait till Newton formulated the theory of universal gravitation in 1687. Galileo’s piecemeal astronomy was no substitute for Aristotle’s system as the latter’s explanation that the earth is the centre toward which all things naturally gravitate to as their resting place seemed a sensible natural explanation. Further, the Aristotelian teleological explanation for dynamic change offered a more comprehensive description of the world. To support his theory, Galileo suggested that the tidal phenomenon was due to the rotation of the earth as it orbits round the sun. But this explanation was no more than a conjecture. His critics could easily point out that his tidal theory would predict tides at their highest at noon (the time for greatest retardation) and lowest at midnight (the time of greatest acceleration) and this simply contradicted daily observations. Convincing proof for the rotation of the earth was provided only in the mid-1800s with the introduction of the Foucault pendulum.

Scientific Skirmishes

Scholars took offence at Galileo for transgressing the boundaries of academic disciplines. One would not think kindly of a physicist trying to explain medical illness or a logician trying to explain sociology (a similar modern phenomenon would be socio-biologists who are no less speculative in their theorizing when they transgress the disciplines of ethics and psychology). In the eyes of his contemporaries, mathematical astronomers like Galileo were merely technicians – not intellectuals, much less philosophers or theologians. To compound matters, what irked the university professors was the fact that Galileo the technician had wormed his way into the court of Medici in Florence and secured the appointment to the position of ‘court philosopher’. In effect, Galileo bypassed the proper procedure of going through the university system.

To add insult to injury, this Galileo had the audacity to challenge the reigning ideas of the academia (where new ideas were tested discreetly in the classroom) by publishing and disseminating his new-fangled ideas to the wider public. It did not help that Galileo was generally recognized to be the superior debater who humiliated his opponents with satirical wit and sarcasm in a series of disputes.[3]

In 1610, Galileo presented his telescope discoveries of mountains on the moon as refutation of the Aristotelian teaching that the heavenly bodies made of ‘quintessence’ must be perfectly spherical. He pointed out that the moon-like phases of Venus show that Venus orbits round the sun, contrary to the Ptolemaic system. Still, his opponents refused to take these observations seriously since there was no theory of optics at that time and Galileo himself was not able to explain how the telescope worked to produce such observations. Indeed, his opponents insisted that the observations were not of things in the heavens but optical illusions created by the lenses. Galileo pressed his case unrelentingly and in 1611 presented the existence of sunspots which refuted Aristotle’s teaching that the heavenly bodies which are made of unalterable ‘quintessence’ must be perfect and not subject to change

For Galileo the goal of conducting experiments was not to formulate theories but to provide a platform to test theories. The resulting observations and mathematical measurements would either confirm or refute the hypothesis under examination. In short, Galileo sought to demonstrate the inadequacy of Aristotelian teleological science and substituted it with a new science that combined rational intuition (idealized mathematical models) and experimentation. That is to say, Galileo’s goal was to demonstrate that his opponents had got their theories wrong because their methodology was inadequate and unreliable.

The real goal for Galileo was not to promote Copernicus; it was to champion a new scientific method to investigate nature, i.e. a unified science of mathematics, observation and empirical experimentation that was free from constraints represented by Aristotelian philosophy that restricted the study of nature. Such a scientific method seeks to apply reason to delineate the various causes for change and to determine the teleology or ultimate purpose of natural events.[4]

Galileo was careful to assure the authorities that his method was consistent with the Bible. In his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christiana,[5] the mother of his patron Cosimo II de’ Medici, he argued that astronomical theories should not be regarded as tenets of faith. It would be inappropriate to use the Bible, which is given in everyday language, to settle competing astronomical theories. In effect, his polemics sought both to offer a superior model for scientific investigation and free bible interpretation from an alien, historically contingent intellectual framework. For Galileo, purely scientific questions should be decided on their own merits, based on the best evidence available and are not to be confused with matters of faith.

Facts of the Trial[6]

Perhaps Galileo was overconfident about the persuasiveness of his intellectual arguments. But how could he expect a dispassionate and objective response when he himself poured scorn and sarcasm at his opponents? To make matters worse, university careers were at stake, and with it the coveted salaries, prestige and influence. Scholars attacked by Galileo would defend their interests at all cost. Indeed, the academic ‘Evil Empire’ did strike back. Galileo’s opponents formed a league, the Liga, under the leadership of Lodovico delle Colombe, to deal with the pretender – a mere mathematician pretending to lecture theologians on their own turf. When they failed to beat him in logical debates, they took the matter to the ecclesiastical court.

It was easy for them to trump up charges accusing Galileo of teaching heresy since Galileo’s system was premised on Copernicus’ system, which had already been proscribed by the authorities. The charges were cynically motivated but given Galileo’s pugnacious attacks it would be naïve to think he would be given a fair hearing. It also didn’t help that Galileo had publicly offended the Pope by portraying him as an ignorant simpleton in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

Galileo was summoned to the ecclesiastical court where he denied that he was teaching Copernicus’ system and protested that he was using Copernicus only as a hypothetical test case. But the court was not persuaded as it was clear to the reader of the book Dialogue that Galileo was out to present a convincing case for Copernicus’ system. In the end, the court found Galileo “vehemently suspect of heresy.”

Galileo pleaded for mitigation in judgment – asking that the court still acknowledged that he was a good Catholic and that he did not deliberately deceive his readers especially since he had obtained licence to publish the Dialogue. Upon receiving these concessions Galileo knelt and confessed aloud to the court,

I have been judged vehemently suspect of heresy, that is, of having held and believed that the Sun is the centre of the universe and immovable and that the Earth is not the center of the same, and that it does move…I swear that in the future that I will neither say nor assert orally or in writing such things as may bring upon me similar suspicion.

Undoubtedly, the trial and judgment of Galileo is one of the embarrassing episodes in church history when theologians, acting out of professional jealousy and personal animosity, found it expedient to silence an intellectual genius. It was laudable that Pope John Paul II in 1992 sought to correct the error of the Church. He declared,

Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture.

The Pope publicly apologized for the error of the church in the year 2000 – an act that demonstrates that though not infallible, nonetheless the Church possesses within itself the resources and intellectual integrity to undertake self-critique and reform.

Several caveats should be also noted here. First, there is no record that Galileo blurted out in protest – “Eppur si muove” (“And yet it does move”) after his judgment. Regardless of Galileo’s abrasive and arrogant character, he knew better than to exacerbate a bad situation. He knew the chips were down for him and was quick to ask for leniency and was leniently treated subsequent to the trial.

Second, the historical records do not support the myth that Galileo was rigorously interrogated à la grand inquisition style (torture). Galileo was treated with respect and was allowed to lodge at the Tuscan embassy until the trial began, whereupon, he was transferred to the prosecutor’s apartment accompanied by a servant. Galileo was transferred to the palace of the grand duke of Tuscany after being sentenced. He was then hosted for five months (albeit under house arrest) at the residence of his friend, the archbishop at Siena. The Pope eventually allowed Galileo to return to his farm at Arcetri near Florence and provided him with pensions until his death in 1642.

Finally, the dramatic myth of conflict between science (Galileo) and oppressive religion (the Inquisition) indeed stands as an aberration alongside the more mutually supportive relationship between Christian authorities and scientists throughout Christian Europe. Galileo evidently continued to enjoy support for his scientific work from important leaders of the Catholic Church. Christians elsewhere, especially among the Protestant countries had no problem with either Copernicus or Galileo. Indeed, recent historiography of science, represented by scholars like Robert K. Merton, Herbert Butterfield, R. Hookyas, Stanley Jaki, Colin Russell and James Hannam, emphasize the vital role Christians played in the advancement of modern knowledge through empirical investigation and experimentation.[7] It would be claiming too much to say that Christianity was solely responsible for the rise of modern empirical science. But it is certainly misleading to focus on the trial of Galileo as the determinate event in the interaction between Christianity and modern science.

That modern science was built on the Greek legacy of rational thought and mathematics cannot be denied. At the same time, it should be stressed that it took the Christian doctrine of creation to liberate society from a deified view of nature that inhibited empirical study of nature. Greek mathematics and Greek rationality (mediated by Arabic philosophers to Medieval Europe) were crucial factors that contributed to the rise of modern science. But by the same token the Greeks were trapped by their over reliance on reason. H. D. F. Kitto noted that to the Greeks nature was both rational and knowable through reasoning, “The Greek never doubted for a moment that the universe is not capricious: it obeys Law and is therefore capable of explanation.”[8] But this faith in reason was so exaggerated that the Greek “tended to impose pattern where it was in fact not to be found, just as he relied on Reason where he would have been better advised to use observation and deduction.”[9]

Greek society was built on slave labour and as such manual labour was regarded with disdain. Aristotle’s justification for investigation was to satisfy curiosity rather than to master nature and therefore relied on a priori reasoning. There was no need to change the world. Indeed, since nature shares a divine nature, the focus was on discovering the teleological reasons for natural phenomena, by relying on rational intuition and deduction rather than careful observation corroborated with experimentation that characterizes modern science.

It cannot be denied that the Greeks provided essential tools of logic and mathematics for the development of science, but in restricting themselves to reason, Greek science could only stagnate. The dominance of Aristotelian science was a testimony to its comprehensive explanatory goals, but inertia set in with untested and therefore inadequate theoretical explanations that led to complacency and stagnation in knowledge.

The dynamism of modern science was achieved when Greek rationality was supplemented with the Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation. On the one hand, the Christian doctrine of creation relativizes nature from a deified (and untouchable) status. On the other hand, because nature is regarded as a product of God, it is both an orderly and dependable world. But the orderly mechanism by which nature operates is to be discovered not through fallen (and hence limited) reason, but through experience and experimentation.

Whereas for the Greek the workings of nature were rationalistic and purposive (since purposefulness is inherent within nature itself), in the Hebrew-Christian tradition purpose resides in God, not in nature. If man seeks to discover the patterns of order in nature he must resort to experience, for he cannot discover them by intuition or reason alone. The early-modern Christians adopted a chastened confidence in reason which should not be regarded as an infallible god. Likewise, for them the quest of science is not to produce absolute truth – it is just a human enterprise that systematically investigates into divine ‘revelation’ in nature.

M. B. Foster suggests succinctly that the Christian doctrine of creation provides the fundamental presupposition for the emergence of modern empirical science:

The reliance upon the sense for evidence, not merely for illustration, is what constitutes the empirical character peculiar to modern natural science… Modern…natural science could begin only when the modern presuppositions about nature displaced the Greek (this was, of course, a gradual process, but its crisis occurred at the date of the Reformation); but this displacement itself was possible only when the Christian conception of God had displaced the Pagan, as the object (not merely of unreasoning belief, but) of systematic understanding.[10]

To summarize, modern empirical science flourished when the mathematical rationality exemplified by Galileo and Kepler was supplemented with the empirical experimental method of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle.[11] It should be stressed that the new historiography of science does not seek to minimize the important contribution from the Greeks, but to recover the crucial role played by Christianity in the rise of modern science without ignoring the rich and multifaceted, sometimes mutually supportive and sometimes conflicting relationship between science and Christianity. The nuanced and protean relationship should not surprise us given the tentativeness of scientific knowledge complicated by the human foibles of scientists and theologians that include academic rivalry and vested interests and intense competition for financial patronage.[12]

But the findings of the new historiography of science with its overall positive assessment of the interaction between Christianity and science ought to alert us to the incongruity of elevating the Galileo trial to epitomize the fatal defeat of Christianity in its ‘warfare with science’. Indeed, it would be ironic for science, with its insistence on verifiable facts, to perpetuate myths about the Galileo affair that are without historical foundations.

**A fuller version of this article was published in Church & Society in Asia Today 15 (Aug 2012), pp. 113-127.

Publisher: Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological College, Singapore.



[1] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1961; Oxford: Routledge reprint, 1995), 520.

[2] Robert S. Westman, “The astronomer’s role in the sixteenth century: a preliminary study”, History of Science 28 (1980): 105-147. Westman writes: “most sixteenth century astronomers understood, then, that by inspecting each of Copernicus’s planetary models one could convert the motions of the geokinetic-heliocentric framework into those of the observationally equivalent geostatic-heliokinetic framework frame.” 106.

[3] For a straightforward narrative of Galileo’s disputes with the university professors see Charles Hummel, The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflict Between Science and the Bible (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986).

[4] For Aristotelians, all changes in nature could be adequately explained by material, formal, efficient and final or purposive causes.

[5] Galileo, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, translated by Stillman Drake (New York: Anchor Books, 1957), 173-216.

[6] For a brief and accessible entry, see Stillman Drake, Galileo: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). Drake noted that the philosophers of Aristotelian science that focused on causes initiated charges against Galileo for championing a new science that focused on framing mathematical-mechanistic laws. William R. Shea and Mariano Artigas, Galileo in Rome: The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome Genius (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) provides a readable narrative sensitive to the nuances between Galileo and a divided Church leadership. Pietro Redondi, Galileo Heretic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) notes that Galileo’s opponents accused him of heresy since his nominalist and atomist philosophy considered sensible phenomenon (colour, tastes, sounds) as subjective experience rather than intrinsic qualities of objects. This view would undermine the objective distinction between the substance of Christ’s body and blood and the equally real properties of bread and wine. The accusation was an expedient charge; but it was, fortunately, not taken seriously by the Pope.

[7] See Robert K. Merton, “Puritanism, Pietism and Science,” in Sociological Review 28 (1936), reprinted in Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (New York: Free Press, 1957), 574-606. Herbert Butterfield, Origins of Modern Science 1300-1800 (Kent: Bell Publishing,1950), R. Hookyas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), Stanley Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways of God (Chicago: University Chicago Press, 1978), Colin Russell, Cross-currents: Interaction between Science and Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985) and James Hannam, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2011). Robert Merton continues to attract much debate because he supported the thesis that the Puritans played a disproportionate and decisive role in the development of modern science with quantitative empirical analysis. The more significant voices in the debate are conveniently collected in I. Bernard Cohen, ed., Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science: The Merton Thesis (Chapel Hill: Rutgers University Press, 1990).

[8] H. D. F. Kitto, The Greeks (New York: Penguin 1951), 176. Kitto elaborates, “Here we meet a permanent feature of Greek thought: the universe, both the physical and the moral universe, must be not only rational, and therefore knowable, but also simple; the apparent multiplicity of physical things is only superficial.” The Greeks, 179.

[9] Kitto, ibid., 187

[10] See M. B. Foster’s classic article, “The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Natural Science,” in Mind 43 (1934), reprinted in C. A. Russell ed., Science and Religious Belief. A Selection of Recent Historical Studies (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973), 294-315. R. Hookyas concurs, “The biblical conception of nature liberated man from the naturalistic bonds of Greek religiosity and philosophy and gave a religious sanction to the development of technology that is, to the dominion of nature by human art.” Religion and Rise of Modern Science, 74.

[11] Robert Boyle observed: “Thus the universe being once framed by God and the laws of motion settled and all upheld by his perpetual concourse and general providence; the same philosophy teaches, that the phenomena of the world are physically produced by the mechanical properties of the parts of matter, and that they operate upon one another according to mechanical laws. ‘Tis of this kind of corpuscular philosophy that I speak.’” Quoted in Hookyas, Religion and Rise of Modern Science, 62-63.

[12] Colin Russell in his book Cross-currents aptly exploits the metaphor of the ebb and flow, the cross-currents of the river to describe the protean relationship between Christianity and science: (i) Springs of Mount Olympus Greek science, (ii) Copernican watershed, (iii) Converging streams of science and biblical ideology, (iv) Deepening waters of Scientific Revolution, (v) Harnessing the river of science, (vi) Temporary Flood with new geology, (vii) Troubled waters of evolution, (viii) Sacred stream of Romantic scientific naturalism, (ix) Powerful currents of Newtonian physics, (x) Polluting effluence of science and environment and (xi) Floodtide of nuclear science.

Inconvenient truths

On the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, it is worth reflecting again on the question: whose history do we read?

Towards the end of the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson presented to the US Congress an ambitious scheme for a new international order based on democratic government, the right of small nations to self-determination, the reduction of armaments, and free trade. Even as the US was suppressing liberty in central America and the Philippines (which they had annexed in 1898), Wilson was proudly declaring that “we are chosen, and permanently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”

Wilson’s rousing rhetoric, leading up to the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris, was seized upon by anti-colonial nationalist leaders from Egypt to China. Despite some glaring faults, Pankaj Mishra’s latest book From the Ruins of Empire deftly portrays the hypocrisies and brutalities of colonial rule and the responses of subjugated Asian and North African intellectuals. Mishra chronicles how their hopes were dashed when Wilson (who was, for a brief moment, the most admired politician all over the world) caved in to cynical imperialists such as the British Prime Minister Lloyd George and Clemenceau of France. Britain and France had dispatched hundreds of thousands of artisans and soldiers from all over their colonial empires to their battlefields in Europe, with vague promises of self-rule if victorious. After the war, both nations promptly forgot their promises.

Mishra tells us how racist slurs and jokes by Western powers marred the discussions about the constitution of the proposed League of Nations, with many Asian and African nations barred representation at the conference. Even the Japanese, an Asian imperial power on par with the Europeans, and who arrived in Paris seeking an end to trade restriction on Japanese imports in French Indochina and an end to discrimination against Japanese immigrants in California, were humiliated by being given a seat at the far end of the table, next to Ecuador and Guatemala.

The British manipulated Wilson, who was an Anglophile himself and surrounded by advisers drawn mainly from the east-coast WASP elites. They persuaded him to support British rule in Egypt, and informed him that even poets like Rabindranath Tagore were dangerous firebrands!

Among the people disillusioned by Wilson was a young Vietnamese man living in Paris, Ho Chi Minh, then known as Nguyen Ai Quoc. He was a poor menial worker in Paris when Wilson arrived with his bold plans for a new international order of self-governing states. He rented a morning suit and sought a personal audience with Wilson, “carefully quoting from the United States Declaration of Independence in his petition”. He was allowed nowhere near Wilson, or any other Western leader.

Like so many other anti-colonial thinkers and activists, Ho was then attracted by Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet which asserted that the US was no less an imperial power than Britain, France or Japan, greedy for resources, territory and markets, and that it was the inherent instability of the global capitalist system that had caused the Great War.

1919 was a crucial year for many nations struggling to be freed from colonialism. Ho Chi Minh joined the French Communist Party in 1921. “It was patriotism, not Communism”, he later recalled, “which had prompted me to believe in Lenin.”

In India, the 29-year-old Jawaharlal Nehru wrote of how the “Wilsonian moment” had passed, and “for ourselves it is again the distant hope that must inspire us, not the immediate breathless looking for deliverance.” A 25-year-old Chinese journalist by the name of Mao Zedong lamented, “So much for national self-determination, I think it’s really shameless!” He wrote to his friends in France to say that he was through with all other ideas save “the Russian Revolution” which was the only way to liberate China. Two years later, the Chinese Communist Party was birthed in Shanghai. Mao later recalled: “The whole of the Chinese revolutionary movement found it origin in the action of young students and intellectuals who had been awakened.”

We know how Germany took its revenge on Britain and France two decades later, having been utterly humiliated at the Paris conference of 1919 and excluded from the League of Nations. And Ho Chi Minh not only drove the French out of Indo-China but inflicted on the United States the most humiliating military defeat in its history. Over 50,000 Americans lost their lives, not to mention numberless Vietnamese and Laotians, because of Wilson’s decision to ignore the humble petition of a Vietnamese migrant worker.

One of the unofficial Chinese representatives to Paris, Liang Qichao, wrote back home that “China’s only crime” had been “her weakness and her belief in international justice after the war. If, driven to desperation she attempts something hopeless, those who have helped to decide her fate cannot escape a part of the responsibility.”

If the next generation of Maos, Hos, Osamas and Castros are being formed today in Gaza, the West Bank, North-West Pakistan, the Congo, or northern Sri Lanka, who bears responsibility?

And whose stories will be told in the global media in 2019, when the world “remembers” 1919?

A fine-tuned and designer universe

Precis: The precise values of the physical constants of nature and the serendipitous state (initial conditions) of the beginning of the universe all point to a cosmic designer who has fine-tuned the universe. The evidence available from contemporary science suggests that theism provides a more plausible explanation for the emergence of life in the universe than naturalism or atheism.

The Apostle Paul declares that nature displays clearly the existence of God and his divine power (Romans 1:19-20). The atheist may retort that this is just an assertion and demand for evidence. He would be surprised to be told that the evidence is available from recent advance in science, as the investigations of the intricate mechanism of the universe uncovered by modern cosmology rule out the suggestion that the universe is a product of chance. Indeed, a more plausible conclusion would be to view the universe as designed by a supremely intelligent and vastly powerful designer whom men of faith call the Creator God.

It is arguable that the first theologian to use the knowledge of modern science to support the case for the existence of God was William Paley who formulated the ‘watch-maker’ argument in his book Natural Theology (1802). Paley wrote, “suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.”

The logic of the watchmaker argument may be outlined as follows:

  1. A watch shows that it was assembled for an intelligent purpose (to keep time)
    1. The spring provides energy to keep the parts moving
    2. The gears ensure the motion is regular and transmitted to the watch-hand
    3. The glass cover protects the moving hand and allows easy reading of time
  2. The world shows far greater evidence of design than a watch
    1. The world displays greater complexity that a watch
    2. The world shows endless variety of means adapted to ends.
  3. Therefore, if a watch points to a clever watchmaker, then the world demands an even greater intelligent Designer.

We can frame the argument more succinctly:

  1. All design implies a designer
  2. Great design implies a great designer
  3. There is evidence of complex design in the universe
  4. herefore, there must be a great Designer of the universe.

Put differently,

  1. The material universe resembles the intelligent products designed by human beings
  2. Like effects have like causes
  3. Therefore the design quality of the universe is the effect of an intelligent designer (creator)

How persuasive or sound the argument is depends on the veracity of the first premise, that is, that the universe does exhibit marks of design. In this respect, the breathtaking advances and new discoveries of science since 1802 cumulatively provide compelling evidence of a designed universe. Scientists are increasingly aware that life emerged on earth under the most improbable (or miraculous) circumstances. Further reflection on recent scientific discoveries seems to suggest that the discovered pattern and regularities of nature must be fine-tuned to make life possible.

The world famous physicist-writer, Paul Davis observes that there is now broad agreement among astro-physicists and cosmologists that the Universe is in several respects ‘fine-tuned’ for life. He adds that the universe is not only ‘biophilic’ [friendly towards life] to make life marginally possible, but the universe is optimized to ensure the flourishing of life.

Indeed, scientists are beginning to appreciate the great precision of optimization or fine-tuning parameters that must be in place before life can emerge. These parameters must be exact to great order of magnitude.

Martin Rees in his book, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe, highlights 6 numbers or dimensionless constants needed to be fine-tuned in order to have a life-permitting universe. These values control the interrelationship between space, time and energy.


N = ratio of the strengths of gravity to that of electromagnetism; if the ratio were smaller, there would have been only a short-lived miniature universe; no creatures would grow larger than insects, much less would there be time for biological evolution.

Epsilon (ε) = strength of the force binding nucleons into nuclei and controls the power of the Sun. It has a value of 0.007. If the number deviates say either to 0.006 or 0.008 we could not exist.

Omega (ω) = relative importance of gravity and expansion energy in the Universe; if the ratio were too high the universe would have collapsed long ago; if it were too low, no stars would have formed. In other words, the present universe exists because the value of Omega is just right.

Lambda (λ) = cosmological constant; the biggest scientific news in 1998. It is a cosmic ‘antigravity’ that controls the expansion of the universe. Fortunately, it is surprisingly very small to allow formation of stars and galaxies.

Q = ratio of the gravitational energy required to pull a large galaxy apart to the energy equivalent of its mass; If Q were smaller, the universe would be inert and structureless; if Q were larger it would be a violent place with no stars and dominated by vast black holes.

D = number of spatial dimensions in space-time. String theory for all its worth suggests that the 10 or 11 original dimensions at the origins of the universe were compactified into 3 (Time, the fourth dimension is different as it has a built-in arrow: we ‘move’ only towards the future). Rees observes that if D were two or four life could not exist.

Dr. Hugh Ross spells out more concretely why the precise balance of physical constants is absolutely necessary for the emergence of life (Hugh Ross gave 25 such parameters in his book The Creator and the Cosmos).

1. Strong nuclear force constant
if larger: no hydrogen would form; atomic nuclei for most life-essential elements would be unstable; thus, no life chemistry
if smaller: no elements heavier than hydrogen would form: again, no life chemistry

2. Weak nuclear force constant
if larger: too much hydrogen would convert to helium in big bang; hence, stars would convert too much matter into heavy elements
if smaller: too little helium would be produced from big bang; hence, stars would convert too little matter into heavy elements

3. Ratio of electromagnetic force constant to gravitational force constant
if larger: all stars would be at least 1.4 solar masses; hence, stellar burning would be too brief and too uneven for life support
if smaller
: all stars would be no bigger than 0.8 times solar masses, thus incapable of producing heavy elements

4. Expansion rate of the universe
if larger: no galaxies would form
if smaller
: universe would collapse, even before stars formed

5. Mass density of the universe
if larger: too much deuterium from big bang would cause stars to burn too rapidly for life to form
if smaller: insufficient helium from big bang would result in too few heavy elements

6. Initial uniformity of radiation
if more uniform: stars, star clusters, and galaxies would not have formed
if less uniform: universe by now would be mostly black holes and empty space

7. Ratio of neutron mass to proton mass
if higher: neutron decay would yield too few neutrons for the formation of heavy elements essential for life
if lower: proton decay would cause all stars to collapse into neutron stars or black holes

Indeed the ratio between the physical forces (physical constants) must be fine-tuned to amazing order of accuracy given below.

Fine Tuning of the Physical Constants of the Universe


Max. Deviation

Ratio of Electrons: Protons 1:1037
Ratio of Electromagnetic Force: Gravity 1:1040
Expansion Rate of Universe 1:1055
Mass Density of Universe 1:1059
Cosmological Constant 1:10120


These numbers represent the maximum deviation from the accepted values, that would either prevent the universe from existing now, not having matter, or be unsuitable for any form of life. The order of accuracy would probably remain an abstract number for most lay readers. Dr. Hugh Ross in his book The Creator and the Cosmos (p. 108) gives a graphic illustration to help the reader grasp the well-nigh impossibility of the universe achieving the required ration based on random occurrence or chance.

“Cover the entire North American continent in dimes all the way up to the moon, a height of about 239,000 miles …Next, pile dimes from here to the moon on a billion other continents the same size as North America. Paint one dime red and mix it into the billions of piles of dimes. Blindfold a friend and ask him to pick out one dime. The odds that he will pick the red dime are one in 1037. And this is only one of the parameters that is so delicately balanced to allow life to form.”

The necessity of precise physical constants must be maintained not only in the realm of physics but also in the realm of biology. The physical constants give a distinctive chemical quality to the Carbon atom which is foundational for formation of all life-forms as we know.

Alister McGrath elaborates,

“The entire [biological] evolutionary process depends upon the unusual chemistry of carbon, which allows it to bond to itself, as well as other elements, creating highly complex molecules that are stable over prevailing terrestrial temperatures, and are capable of conveying genetic information (especially DNA) …Although one might be argued that nature creates its own fine-tuning, this can only be done if the primordial constituents of the universe are such that an evolutionary process can be initiated. The unique chemistry of carbon is the ultimate foundation of the capacity of nature to tune itself.” (A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology, pp. 138-139).

Life emerged only as a result of an exact and unlikely combination of physical conditions pertaining to the strength of gravity and electromagnetic forces, and the precise density of the beginning state of the universe. The slightest departure from their actual values in an early universe would make life impossible.

Going by the immense odds, life could not have emerged through a random process of nature or by chance. But life has emerged from such improbabilities and this suggests some intervention from an agency outside the processes of nature. As one scientist surmises, it seems that some higher intelligence has cooked the physical constants under just the right condition at the beginning of the universe to make life possible.

We can formulate an argument for the existence of God based on the fine-tuning characteristics of the universe as follows:

  1. The fine-tuning of the universe to support life is either due to chance or design
  2. It is not due to chance
  3. Therefore, the fine-tuning is due to design

To conclude, the precise values of the physical constants of nature and the serendipitous state (initial conditions) of the beginning of the universe all point to a cosmic designer who has fine-tuned the universe. The evidence available from contemporary science suggests that theism provides a more plausible explanation for the emergence of life in the universe than naturalism or atheism.


Useful Books.

Alister E. McGrath. A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology. WJK 2009.
Hugh Ross. The Creator and the Cosmos. NavPress 1993.
Ropert Spitzer. New Proofs for the Existence of God. Eerdmans 2010.

Religious dialogue: whose responsibility? – Part 2

The challenge of approaching ‘Dialogue’

Next, I would like to raise three concerns on the way we approach the question of interfaith relations with the aim to clarify how we may understand the challenge of inter-religious dialogue, and specifically Christian-Muslim dialogue in the case of Malaysia. These concerns are pertinent because often we may not be talking about the same thing even if we use same terminology.

First, in the discussion on religious dialogue, perhaps we need to clarify what are we describing by the word ‘dialogue’?

Which level of ‘dialogue’ are we discussing?

Is it at the ground level – a personal neighbourly dialogue between Uncle Ali and Grandfather Surin?

Is it the academic ‘dialogue’ between Professor Bakar and Professor Ng?

Is it the dialogue between the church institution and the Home Ministry of the Malaysian government?

Is it a dialogue between an NGO like Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) with the young wing of the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM Youth)?

We can add to the list and have different ways to narrow down which ‘level’ we are focusing on. One may assume the ‘rules of engagement’ would be different at different levels depending on who are the participants and the shared goals -implicit or explicit – one has.

Secondly, we may ask what are the different types of ‘Dialogue’?

The contribution from the Federation of Asian Bishop (FABC) is helpful place to start as there has been substantial reflection on this.

Is it a ‘dialogue of life’ where the focus is on the ordinary day to day contact?

Is it a ‘dialogue of action’ where the point of contact is first when different religious communities work together and also reflect together on a shared project?

Is it a ‘Dialogue of discourse’ focused on theology and beliefs? So, besides clarifying the levels of ‘dialogue’ we are addressing, we also consider the types of ‘dialogue’ in operation.

One could even ask whether it is a direct dialogue where we are comparing religious understandings of respective teachings, or more indirect dialogue where we focus on shared concerns and common issues but drawing from the reservoir of the best our faith traditions and the lessons where we have not met up even to our own standards.

Third, and I see this as the ‘biggest’ critical concern because, for each level and types of ‘dialogue’, direct or indirect, there are different conditions that might facilitate or hinder the progress for either subjects or structures.

These conditions have an important impact on pre-existing animosities orsuspicions, and also corrective and creative possibilities.

Put in concrete terms, even if we imagine that the Christians and Muslims in ABIM and CCM youth for example, have to at least some extent disciplined their psychological state of minds, the socio-political context that was generated from incidents such as the recent ‘JAIS-DUMC’ controversy, cannot simply be ignored.

In short, the personal or in this case, between two NGOs, while can be distinguished analytically from the political, one might even try hard to ‘bracket’ the political out for a moment, but the complex relation between the two still needs to be attended to, sooner or later. Therefore, the political returns. Or more specifically, the politicians return to the picture again.

The ‘political’ strikes back

Therefore, while one must not get too personal with regards to Mahathir, and after some critical distance, we may entertain a qualified critical agreement that Mahathir probably cannot be held solely responsible for “the failure to bring Malaysians together in a respectful debate about their individual faiths”.

Perhaps we hear the overtone that, “We were all in this together” past, present and future. The implication of Sven’s argument suggests a challenge to the people i.e. religious communities is a welcome one but not at the expense of neglecting the political conditions that the people – religious or non-religious – live in and need to contend with.

We still need to look at the policies or structures during Mahathir’s premiership, and more importantly, for today, what are the policies and structures post-Mahathir during the administration of Abdullah Badawi and now Najib Razak, that are pertinent for our current situation. This is clearly political in both the broad and narrow sense of the term.

What I mean by the political thus far at least is the policies, the existing structures and also one must add the public articulation of the vision of Malaysia especially through the various media networks. Following the Centre of Dialogue, we could consider that at least ‘Dialogue implies a relationship between ‘self’ (in-group) and other (out-group) which is characterised by a degree of empathy, the result of which is to curb the severity of intercultural, inter-religious and international conflicts.” Now applied to the Malaysian politicians across the political divide, how have they fared in fulfilling their responsibility to facilitate the conditions where at least the kind of ‘dialogue’ described in the definition of the centre can be successful?

So, from the perspective balancing the ‘weight of responsibility’ on the people or the politician, the weight should lean more on politicians, especially current and future politicians who desire to be remembered as ‘Statesmen’ defined even in its simplest, “a wise, skillful, and respected political leader”. I would like to stress the whether one is wise and respected, it will depend on how the politician concerned carries out their ‘responsibilities’ mentioned briefly above as the elected representatives of the people. The final verdict is rightly up to the jury of the Malaysian public to decide, and perhaps with the hindsight of history a more complete picture in due time. It appears at the mean time that religious communities are engaged in ‘meaningful inter-religious dialogue’ in spite of unfavorable conditions.

Moving forward

After all is said and done, we still need to keep the conditions that enable or disable religious dialogue on the table for critical discussion. In that way, the people of Malaysia are then included in two ways, first, to have the potential and capacity to change the personal conditions, i.e., addressing possible uncritical inheritance of animosities and suspicions (as recommended in Sven’s argument). And at the same time, the people – yes, even religious people can then be empowered to address the political conditions in ways that will hold our elected representatives responsible on how they are helping or hindering the shared project of religious people with the wider civil society that is “to build consensus for action on the truly great issues facing humanity, including pervasive greed, the increasingly unjust and inequitable distribution of wealth and power, racism and hatred committed in the name of God, nuclear proliferation, violence and exploitation of earth’s finite resources.”

I must confess it is hard to keep the ‘political’ out considering the grand vision for a better humanity implied in an earlier paragraph! It is almost a common mantra to hear that we should not ‘politicize’ religion. If that means religion must not be abused for political mileage, who is to disagree? However, with a cautious note, we are reminded that “Everything is political, even though politics is not everything!” Perhaps, in our reflections, we are tempted to simply ignore or separate the religious from the political since it might be too ‘sensitive’, or maybe what we really need is actually to critically reclaim ‘the religious’, and at the same time, we might as well reclaim ‘the political’ in the process. Hopefully, through confronting the issues head on respectfully we will then live happily ever after – yes, maybe inMalaysiathat is still possible.

In closing, I offer a counter hypothesis:

“The biggest impediments to a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue” in the case of Malaysia is not “historically grown animosities and suspicions” assumed to be in religious leaders or religious people.

On the contrary, the biggest impediments are the social-political conditions generated by the concrete actions of politicians directly or indirectly, through the government institutions, agencies and media networks.

Over to you now – the ones who have the ability to respond – the people!

P.S. perhaps the politicians too?

Religious dialogue: whose responsibility? – Part 1

Mahathir not personally responsible?

Sven Schottmann’s argument is simple and important: First, he offers a defense on Mahathir’s contribution to interreligious relations, and second, our attention is turned to the people – the religious people – with due attention to historical factors that impacts their disposition to people of other religions. Both ideas are summarised succinctly in the following:

“Mahathir himself, while in power, personally fostered such encounters and frequently spoke to Christian and also to Buddhist and Hindu audiences, both locally and overseas. It thus seems inaccurate to hold Mahathir personally responsible for the failure to bring Malaysians together in a respectful debate about their individual faiths.

The biggest impediments to a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue, in particular a more meaningful Muslim-Christian dialogue has been historically grown animosities and suspicions that will take time to overcome.”

In non-academic terms, one might read it as (1) Don’t put all the blame on Mahathir, because he has personally fostered and encouraged interfaith encounters, and (2) It’s really about the social psychological state of mind of religious people due to historic upbringing that is the main problem. Therefore, (3) it follows that we should turn away from the blame game on Mahathir (or perhaps by implication politicians in power?) and focus on addressing ingrainedanimosities and suspicions in religious communities, and in due time we will live happily ever after.

Who is responsible then?

As a result of reading Sven’s essay, a more general question emerged in my mind, whose responsibility is it – the politicians or the people? My main concern is not so much on the notion of ‘historically grown animosities and suspicions’ as one of the ‘impediments to a more meaningful inter-religious dialogue’. The word ‘biggest’ is what in my view warrants a minor intervention. Even if we answer both the politicians and the people, in the case of Malaysia, where does the greater ‘weight of responsibility’ lean towards?

Admittedly, most of us are aware that assigning singular causes to the complex realities in which religious people seek to negotiate their relation to ultimate mystery and the daily grind of earthly matters is a dead end street. Making Mahathir the sole cause for “the the overall failure of an inter-religious dialogue culture to take root in Malaysia” though might be therapeutic is not only contestable as suggested by Sven but might actually distract us from some needed self-critical reflection, is where I think Sven is leading us. In that sense, I appreciate Sven’s contribution. But, is it not equally simplistic to unload the ‘weight of responsibility’ from those in positions of power – I am speaking more generally now – to overburden religious communities with unnecessary guilt?

To begin, let me state that I believe both Sven and I are on the same page when it comes to the significance of inter-religious dialogue as part of the solution to prevent, as well as overcome ‘religion’ being used as a source, justification, and even ‘scape-goat’ for conflict and violence.

To add value to Sven’s original contribution, I would like to mention contributions of Christians and Muslims critical reflection on interfaith dialogue that has already been done that addresses some of these animosities and suspicions. For example, Malaysian theologian Albert Walters’ (2007) work on Christian-Muslim relations, Sociologist Syed-Farid Alattas’ (2008) reassertion on the Islamic commitment to dialogue and Robert Hunt’s (2009) emphasis on identity and narrative are most illuminating, just to name a few.

A side note to mention, the discussions here in New Mandala on ‘Apostasy’ from at least two perspectives are a breath of fresh air even though it might be uncomfortable to some, and counter-productive for others. The main value is that we are engaged in a form of dialogue that others can build on.

However, as contributors to the challenge of inter-religious dialogue, so often, we recognise that our work is necessary but not sufficient. Hence, I would like to raise a number of concerns from a civil society perspective, hopefully in order to develop a way to understand the Malaysian situation, and subsequently find ways together in true dialogical fashion towards some solution/s. The perspective I am hoping to bring aims to take into account the struggle of people – especially religious people – on the ground in the current conditions of Malaysia post-Mahathir.

Voices from the ground

As a point of entry, in the case of Malaysia, religious communities have historically recognised the need for a healthy environment for living together. For example, from a non-Muslim perspective, since 1983, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) has dedicated, at the institutional level, towards the following:

(a) To promote understanding, mutual respect and co-operation between people of different religions.

(b) To study and resolve problems affecting all inter religious relationships.

(c) To make representations regarding religious matters when necessary.

(d) To advance and promote the religious, cultural, educational and social rights and interests of the religious bodies.

Besides the presence and the work of the MCCBCHST, in recent years, I would like to suggest that in civil society there are indicators that perhaps Malaysians of different faiths and persuasions do not have such strong animosities andsuspicions that might be assumed prior to further empirical investigation. And especially in times of controversy and tension, it is the religious communities together with other civil society groups that have taken the lead in public to confront what potentially can be disastrous outcomes if left unattended. Below are some significant excerpts from non-Muslims, Muslims and other civil society groups during times of tension:

“We, the undersigned civil society organizations are shocked, angered and saddened by the “Cow-Head protest” in Shah Alam last Friday, 28 August 09, against a proposed Hindu temple in Section 23 of the city. The carrying of the head of a freshly slaughtered cow, a sacred animal to the Hindus and the unveiled threat of bloodshed on the eve of Merdeka celebration suggests that all Malaysians need to reflect deeply about our 52 years of nationhood, and the clarion call of 1Malaysia.

From the outset, these heinous acts of crime perpetrated by the irresponsible few must NEVER be seen as a conflict between the two faiths or the two faith communities. All major spiritual traditions, Islam and Hinduism included, uphold peace and human dignity as their common and core values. Our spirituality and love for humanity mandates us for the perpetual quest for peace and abhorrence of all forms of hatred and civil disorder.” – The Cow-Head Lesson for Merdeka: Delegitimize Violence and Hatred

“This act of arson, committed presumably in the name of Islam desecrates the very religion it purports to protect. The Holy Quran unequivocally prohibits destroying the houses of worship of all religions, as warned in Surah Al-Hajj, Verse 40.

“ … Had not Allah checked the excesses and aggression of one set of people by means of another, surely would be destroyed monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated …” – MPF Statement On Church Torchings

“As in the past, Malaysians of other faiths see the attack on Islam as an attack on their own faiths. In an immediate response, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) have condemned any such violence on any house of worship as “a sin of the highest order”.

The inter-faith solidarity of Malaysians is a clear and loud testimony that Malaysian society has passed another test on communal relations and emerged only ever stronger than before. No cow head, pig head or fire can set the fraternity and goodwill amongst Malaysians on fire. The agent provocateurs are only burning themselves in stark desperation devoid of any modicum of civic consciousness or religiosity.

The indomitable spirit of mutual respect and muhibbah of the Malaysian society in the face of challenging inter-faith issues is however tarnished by the continuous failures of the Malaysian state of law and order. The police must stop dismissing such attacks as purely acts of vandalism or juvenile delinquency.” – Police investigation on mosque attacks must pursue the political operators

“In a multi-religious country such as Malaysia, adopting views that disallow non-Muslims to enter mosques, which are established in some school of thoughts, is inappropriate. Nobody from other faiths should be barred from entering mosques or any places of worship for Muslims, as long as their purpose is good, respects the sacredness of the place of worship and is modestly dressed. They should also be allowed to deliver speeches, provided that the speech is in line with the spirit of enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil.

It is in the interest of maslahah or common good of Islam that non-Muslims should feel welcomed and not intimidated from visiting mosques. Calls to ban non-Muslims from entering mosques or any knee-jerk reaction by the Islamic authorities to bow to certain political pressure in preventing the commendable attitude of cooperation and mutual respect are regrettable and uncalled for.” –IRF Stand on the Issue of Non-Muslims Entering Mosques

The above suggests strongly that religious communities can draw not only from within their own spiritual tradition, but also from the shared understanding of living together as part of a mosaic Malaysian society. This does not however mean that there is harmony, no prejudices and good understanding among the different religious communities. But perhaps at the ground level, hostility is not the point of departure in the interfaith relations between ordinary Malaysians, rather the capacity for solidarity seems to the greater force at work here.

First published in New Mandala

Towards a peaceful Malaysia: What role can Muslims play?

by Ahmad Fuad Rahmat | Research Fellow, Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF)

Some 500 Muslims gathered at the main hall of Kelab Golf Perkhidmatan Awam, Mont Kiara in honor of Maulidur Rasul to discuss the pressing issue of Islam and peace in the Malaysian context. The apex of the conference, if not the moment everyone was waiting for, occurred in the afternoon when a panel between Drs. Dzulkefly Ahmad, Ahmad Farouk Musa, Maszlee Malik and Muhammad Asri on the very subject was held.

Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the landscape of Malaysia’s complex Islamic political discourse can see the range of moderate to progressive Muslim perspectives represented by the charismatic and unique personalities chosen to explore the topic. It was to unfold into the rich exchange that one could expect.

Much continues to be said on the issue of peace and democracy but often with very little consideration of the complexity therein. It was left to the panellists to help us think through that very issue.

Given the philosophical nature of the topic, it was expected that the first round of questions were met with philosophical responses. Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad offered what essentially amounted to a natural law approach: To envision peaceful relations among citizens we must first inquire into our purpose for existing, that is to say, we must reflect on why it is that we were created by God in the first place.

The Quran indicates that as human beings, our existence is predicated on our duty to serve God and to do right on earth as his Caliphs. Grasping this reality, for Dr Dzul, is imperative as the first step towards achieving any peace on this earth. For it places the Qur’an and Sunnah, as sources of God’s wisdom, as the primary guide for society and politics and our service to the wisdom therein as the key criteria for attaining any peace.

Dr. Maszlee Malik did not disagree but continued by adding emphasis to the concept of falah and soleh (success and righteousness). Suspecting too strong a hint of a legalistic approach in Dr. Dzulkefly’s answer, Dr. Mazslee added that we should not forget that whatever scriptural guidelines that may have been set were for the purpose of manifesting a society of progress and virtue, with responsible and enlightened citizens.

In other words, a peaceful society is to result in concrete desirable outcomes. If Dr. Dzulkefly’s answers can be said to point to the starting point of a peaceful society, Dr. Maszlee Malik reminded the audience of what the result should be in Islamic terms.

Echoing the indispensable activist adage of “no justice, no peace”, Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa grounded the discussion further by emphasizing the importance of justice for any attempt to conceptualize an ideal society. Furthermore, if justice is to have any meaning it should be comprehensive, encompassing the legal, social, economic and human spheres. The depth and profundity of upholding justice compelled Dr. Farouk to specify further, the active agency of human beings in establishing it, that even if we must refer to the canons of Islam, the element of human interpretation that is required by that endeavour cannot be neglected.

This implies first, human free will and choice, in arriving to the right interpretation and secondly the importance of contemporary contexts, since all interpretation can only be meaningful to address issues of a particular time, an insight that goes against the dominant literalist current of Islamic thought that wishes to return to an idyllic past in nostalgia for the era of Prophecy and the pious predecessors (as-salaf as-soleh).

In what appeared to be the moment the audience of hundreds was most eagerly waiting for, Dr. Muhammad Asri provided what can best be termed as an existential interpretation of the question. Fundamentally, human beings are hoping creatures. We are always forward projecting, desiring and envisioning a better state of affairs, however much we may already be living in comfort. The dean reiterates, over and over again, the dire importance of not losing hope in life, for God’s greatness is predicated on his power to grant, allow and change.

More importantly, hope is envisioned differently by different people, depending on the community and cultural contexts they are in. A vision of peace must be attentive to this complexity lest we risk speaking only for ourselves at the expense of ignoring others, however construed. This is why, with a hadith to support his claim, Dr. Asri emphasized the importance of love. The ideal scenario is of mutual love between a leader and his people.

After each of the panellists offering their concept of peace, it then became time to discuss politics. Where does politics come in, in the endeavour to establish a peaceful society? What should politics mean within that project?

Dr. Dzulkefly also began the second round of discussions: In congruence with his conceptualization of peace, he believed that politics founded on the Qur’an and Sunnah should encourage us to be good people. Politics then should essentially focus on upholding the laws needed towards amar ma’ruf nahi mungkar (enjoining good and forbidding evil).

Dr. Dzulkefly, however, is quick to allay any fear suspicion of theocratic tendencies. He stated that in the era of post-Islamism Islamization can no longer follow the old script. The Arab Spring has confirmed the return of popular politics that is no longer dependent to the leadership of clerics. Thus, the establishment of an Islamic state cannot be the be-all end-all of politics. The route to a virtuous society must now appeal to reason, discourse and civility. Dr. Dzul of course hastened to add that he is simply reiterating PAS’ current stand.

Dr. Farouk, however, was quick to raise the obvious question: how can PAS claim to have taken the route of civility if it is still beholden to hudud politics? Their Islamic commitment to falah and soleh notwithstanding, the issue of contemporary political Islam is democracy not laws: Given the hapless state of democracy in our country, never mind the injustices that are plain for everyone to see, the issue at stake remains freedom.

The goal is to firstly cultivate enlightened citizens, through improving the education and social support systems, ensuring the just management of nation’s wealth and resources and not the fixation of issues like hudud.

Dr. Maszlee responded by offering a counterweight to both positions. He disagrees with the separation of religion and politics that is implied in Dr. Farouk’s position while adding that Islam by nature is political. Every Muslim is a politician, he added rhetorically. There is an undeniable activist thrust in the very design of Islam that we cannot in good conscience ignore.

He also emphasized that process is important in this case. In particular, he stated that religious leaders have a role to play not as dictators of a movement but as resources and points of references for the people. Thus, unlike the old model where a hierarchy with clerics on top were to walk the movement to the whims in their own desires they in turn offer mere guidance and signposts to explain and clarify whatever issues that the people face.

Dr. Muhammad Asri added a note of caution to this talk of politicizing Islam. He said that religion, over centuries, served as a convenient tool for the exploitation of human beings if not their outright murder. There is plentiful evidence of this in the history of the West, before the onset of modernity, when artists, poets and philosophers were burnt to the stake for differing in opinions.

But recent examples abound of the same problem in the Muslim world, where violence and upheaval are unleashed purely based on the erroneous whims and directions of clerics with political interests. Thus the challenge that Dr. Asri rightly states is how to pursue the activist justice oriented political potential in Islam without falling into the trap of exploitation.

One can notice by now that what is glaringly absent throughout the panel is any serious reflection on Malaysia’s multiracial-multicultural realities. Malaysian Diversity was only discussed once towards the end, when Dr. Maszlee mentioned his lack of knowledge of Hinduism despite having a Hindu student. Other than that, one would be hard-pressed to find any real introspection on how Muslims in the globalized 21st century are to co-exist with people of other faiths who hold not only different but markedly opposing worldviews.

Besides the token and obligatory reference to how Allah had made us to be of diverse peoples so that we can get to know one another, there appears to be no real attempt to even diagnose the multicultural situation as it has manifested within the Malaysian context. What we find instead were references from each of the panellists on how much better life is in the West and while the West can in some sense serve as a good model to aspire to, it barely scratches the surface of the deeply complicated challenge at home.

To be fair, the panellists are in fact among the Muslims in Malaysia you can most count on for excursions into intercultural engagements, but the little that was mentioned about that this afternoon did not do much to shrug the suspicion that Muslims in multicultural Malaysia ultimately put themselves first and foremost.

The discussion on justice too left much to be desired. Dr. Farouk did the most to highlight its importance, stressing it by and by, but this was somehow missed as the panel soon enough veered into defensive statements about hudud.

Dr. Maszlee said, owing to historical changes, that it could very well be the case that the hudud laws would be needed one day (which raises the question – are the hudud laws permanent or changeable?). Dr. Dzul said that the hudud laws should be accepted should a majority decision on it be attained through peaceful democratic channels (to which one can simply ask – is something right simply by virtue of it being agreed by the majority? How are we to understand the ‘tyranny of the majority’ in this case?)

The most ignorant comment of the afternoon came from the audience, a libertarian, who upon concerns that his ability to accumulate property might be curtailed by the existence of a welfare state, claimed that a welfare state by default will accrue deficits. How would PAS’ Negara Berkebajikan then deal with this?

Dr. Maszlee and Dr. Dzulkefly simultaneously hastened to clarify in apologia that Negara Berkebajikan does not translate to a welfare state but a state of care and opportunity. The proper answer, if justice was in any way a genuine concern, is that deficits are not necessarily in themselves bad. They must be weighed against a country’s reserves and overall productivity.

Every nation needs to borrow should it want to develop. The problem is when the borrowing exceeds the country’s ability to service its debt. One wonders why rather than to immediately dismiss welfare, it was just not said that the country with the largest sovereign debt in the history of mankind is not Cuba or Venezuela but the U.S.A. which is the closest thing to a libertarian haven on earth one can find.

Malaysia is a small developing country, in a fast growing region of hundreds of million others with a towering India and China nearby. To compete in the goal of fast growth to meet the arbitrary and unrealistic 2020 deadline it has had to bend over backwards to attract foreign investors, which explains why the power of unions had been significantly curtailed over the past decades.

Thus foreign corporations, who do not vote nor hold any real concern for Malaysia, can employ Malaysians by the cheap to work with no rights. This explains why the bottom 40% of Malaysia’s households earn less than RM 1500 per month (and we do not want to know what “less” in that phrase really amounts to). Needless to say the majority of that 40% are comprised of Malays.

It is in this world – not Egypt, not Iran, not the West – that Islam in Malaysia will be politicized, when desperation in everyday survival, desperation in financially trying times, in a deeply ethnicized economy, will be the circumstance in which Islam is understood, explored and represented.

Dr. Asri was right to say that religion, owing to its delicate and powerfully emotive nature is easily manipulated to suit the aims of the religious elite, but he forgot to point out, as Nietzsche, Marx and more recently Tariq Ramadan did, that the exploitation is most effective when the masses live desperately insecure to survive and find meaning in this world.

No justice, no peace.