Should religions appropriate individual good?

Amidst all the usual spicy media stories, it was heartening to read through a series of articles in the Malayalam media Matrubhumi, discussing religious identity, secular morality, identity politics, etc.

“This is Islam” : It all began with the reporting of a man’s courageous attempt to save a hearing impaired person from an approaching train in northern Kerala. Unfortunately, both of them lost their lives. K. P. Ramanunni, in his article, illustrated this incident to argue against the ‘selfish gene’ theories, which sees human nature as inherently selfish and cruel. He exclaimed how beautiful the word ‘human’ has been made by this action. Moreover, the liveability of life was reaffirmed with such selfless human beings around, he noted. However, the main purpose of the article, as evident from the title “This is Islam”, was to portray the true face of Islam, especially at a time when widespread attempts are out to paint it the cause of all of world’s problems. The intent of the article seems to be right both in highlighting compassion and showing forth the humane face of a religion that is at risk of being misrepresented. The article, however, had to face scathing criticism from a line of intellectuals, paving way for an intellectual debate. Two aspects: i) reducing personal identity to religious identity; and ii) the relevance of emphasizing religious identities in a communally less sensitive society, were problematized. The original article seemed to beg for criticism as it presented the incident as a case in which a Muslim (Abdurahiman) helped a Hindu (Raman), instead of appreciating a man’s selfless effort at saving another human being without any consideration, even regardless of his own safety.

“Which is Islam?”: The first critical response to the report came from M. N. Karassery in an article titled “Which is Islam?”. In his response, Karassery questioned the aptness of registering a human act of selfless compassion into the accounts of religion. He listed a number of dimensions of the person of Abdul Rahman such as, his geographical identity, age, gender, religious belief etc. and questioned how one could claim that any one of them alone prompted him to such an action. It would be too much of a reduction to say that he acted the way he did because of his religious belief alone. Another point of criticism was the relevance of overemphasising religious identity of the persons involved. It was pointless and dangerous in a society where religions enjoy relatively peaceful co-existence. C. R. Parameswaran in his article “Intellectuals’ corruption” further detailed this argument and laid bare T. T. Sreekumar’s support for the original article.
Sreeikumar, in his article “Secularism’s trial of religion” had affirmed the reality of religion and its significance in forming individual morality. He asserted that no individual, believer or non-believer, can be seen isolated from religion or history so long as he is part of a society. He reasoned that the criticism of the original article was due to the inefficiency in understanding this reality and mistaken secularism. Majority religious consciousness intertwined with nationalism was taken for secularism by the disparaging intellectuals, he argued. Popular secularism probably could not digest any good being spoken about Islam. C. R. Parameswaran, while explaining the socio-political existence of Muslims in different parts of the country and the world, expressed dismay over ignoring the relatively peaceful and enlightened existence of the Kerala Muslims. Where Hindus and Muslims live amicably and cooperation among them emerges naturally, what was the significance of emphasizing the religious identity of the two and making it news that a Muslim has helped a Hindu? Here the original author commits the fallacy of making conspicuous something that is common, and thereby implying religious identity is more significant than it actually is.

Did reporting of the incident deserve problematizing?

Many readers thought, as evident from the comments that the debate received online, that a needless fuss was created by intellectuals who saw a promising opportunity to fame. They reasoned that the original article was indeed exemplary in that it showed forth to the world the innate goodness of Islam and would motivate others for humanitarian acts. If Abdurahiman’s religious life inspired him to humanitarian acts, that should be appreciated and advocated, especially when the same religious factor is propagated to instigate individuals to callousness and cruelty worldwide. But instead, why did it trigger much debate? Was it because the popular hindu secularism could not digest a Muslim being appreciated for a humane act? I do not think so and wish to elaborate here on the two aspects mentioned above from the perspective of positive morality.

a) Personal and religious identities: The rise of communalism is neither abrupt nor explicit. It crawls in by negating individuality and affirming collective religious identity. Reducing the good or evil of an individual’s action into a religious affair is wrong for this reason, which Ramanunni inadvertently commits. There is no one time when the whole essence of a man finds expression. Being religious is one among many dimensions that an individual has like, the roles of being a parent, an elder, a teacher, a brother/sister etc. Now, every time some good or bad is done, we cannot take recourse to any one of them and say it is because of this particular dimension alone. We are not denying here the social reality of religion or its significance in informing individual morality, but disapprove the reduction of a human person into another number in the religious-political collective and negating all the experiences that life has given him/her individually. Being in any social role helps one imbibe values just as one’s practicing of Islam or any other religion. A person is more than his/her religious belief and practice.

When individuals have no personal stance but rather take the religious doctrine as their only stand, they end up subscribing to everything good and bad within religion. Any criticism of their religion starts hurting their sentiments as they see no distinction between their own identity and that of their religion. Often the group’s position outgrows the individual’s inherent goodness. When religion is institutionalized, the group struggles for political power,and in the process forsakes tolerance instead of being a platform where individuals seek out moral and spiritual ideals.

How can one claim that individual goodness is due to someone’s religious upbringing and at the same time demand individual responsibility for his/her vices? M. N. Karassery places it well: “If individual goodness gets registered in the accounts of religion, should his vices not get in there, too?” If religion takes claim of individual good, then it cannot wash off its hands for individual vices. If you take claim of something, then it becomes your responsibility. If religion counts individuals’ perspectives and temperament responsible for the evil they commit, then the same logic should apply to individual good as well. You cannot appropriate what is advantageous and detach from the rest. It is either both or none. And if religion takes responsibility for both, individual virtues and vices, then it should stop preaching about individual freedom and final judgement. A religion cannot be blamed or praised for all that an individual perceives and practices. Being a socio-political institution, religions have both good and evil in them. The onus is on individuals as to how they engage and act on their religious beliefs. There could be angelic and devilish Muslims, Hindus, Christians, or Atheists. It is not religious doctrines, but individuals who form personal moral codes and act on them. Individual morality is multi sourced; religion often being prominent among them, is neither the only one nor the ultimate.

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M. N. Karassery

It is true that we cannot see the person ‘Abdurahiman’ devoid of his religious identity, but that is not all that he is. Every dimension of his person together did not make Abdurahiman a good Muslim, but everything (including his religious faith) made him a good human being. His doing good is an outcome of that totality and not of any particular aspect alone. It may not be strange if people do not make or see any distinction between personal identity and religious identity. And, I think, this failure is unfortunately a major reason for the communal mess that the country is in today. Religions may promulgate good values but may restrict individual freedom. When individuals have no personal stance but rather take the religious doctrine as their only stand, they end up subscribing to everything good and bad within religion. Any criticism of their religion starts hurting their sentiments as they see no distinction between their own identity and that of their religion. Often the group’s position outgrows the individual’s inherent goodness. When religion is institutionalized, the group struggles for political power,and in the process forsakes tolerance instead of being a platform where individuals seek out moral and spiritual ideals. We often refer inadvertently to the individual’s religious identity, negating all that the individual otherwise is, without even caring to know what all in one’s religion s/he subscribes to and does not. Religion should be seen as just another aspect in an individual’s social life. People are more than their religious belief; more than what their surnames might imply, and at times, they could just be the opposite. Acting to know everything about a person from what his/her surname implies, bares an individual of all intellectual freedom and personality. The danger is explicit in counting any individual act, especially if evil, as a religious act. We know some of the past communal riots in the country were flared up by invoking the religious identities of the youngsters who got into uncivil behaviour. Counting those acts in the accounts of the religious communities cost many of their lives and well being. We have much to learn from small children!

b) Relevance of signifying religious identity: There may be political and social situations where such looking back to religious identities becomes relevant. In cases like, a woman from a particular religion that does not promote female education making an academic achievement or a Muslim family saving Hindus during a Hindu-Muslim clash, or an atheist offering his place for believers to offer prayers, such identities become relevant and significant. Anyone defying the said-and-unsaid norms of religion in giving expression to one’s individual goodness is a matter to be celebrated, like in the case where a young Sikh man removed his turban in public to help a bleeding child. It is appreciating the sheer will of individuals to resist their individuality and goodness being subsumed by the political intentions of their religions and ideologies. When individuals go against the norm and public opinion, it makes news.

Considering the contagious communal polarisation existing in different pockets of India, there is a danger in the author’s thinking that this incident is noteworthy because of the religious identities of the persons involved. By emphasizing the same, the author seems to stealthily infuse into the reader’s mind that the Kerala society is no better and one should be politically conscious of religious identities.

By emphasizing that a Muslim has helped a Hindu, the author unwittingly gives away the message that it was against the normal Islamic norms that Abdurahiman helped Raman, and therefore it needs to be celebrated. Hamid Chennamangalore formulated the argument in his article, “Secular Humanism” that a Muslim helping a Hindu in the Kerala society was not the rarest of the rare incident. It was not an exception, but the norm. The criticism seems to be right for the reason that this incident would not have merited special applause in this manner if the helping person was a Hindu, as Hindus are generally kind and selfless. There seems to be some unwelcome message against Islam going through. It is appalling to think that the incident may not have merited appreciation had it been a case of a Hindu helping another Hindu or a Muslim, or a Muslim helping another Muslim or a man saving the life of an animal. In the Kerala society of today, there is no political situation that forces one to consider another unworthy of human affection and possible goodness on the basis of religious faith. Here I do not argue that the Kerala society is exclusive and immune to the kind of maligning campaign happening globally against Islam, nor the Muslim community does not face social problems due to their religious identity there. But I argue that the natural humanness expressed between different religious communities is powerful enough to overwhelm such malignity. Witnessed goodness overpowers propagated evil. Individual vices are often seen not as springing from any particular faith but as individual perversions. Now, trying deliberately to prove otherwise is dangerous.

Abdurahiman, in no way, was required to make a political statement that a Muslim can and should help a Hindu nor he had any intention of utilising the opportunity to prove to the religious fanatics what true Islam was. He might not have thought of any heavenly reward as well at that point. It was a mere extension of his normal life - an immediate human act motivated by his caring and selfless nature, as natural as one crying when hurt –and it should have been appreciated as such. Considering the contagious communal polarisation existing in different pockets of India, there is a danger in the author’s thinking that this incident is noteworthy because of the religious identities of the persons involved. By emphasizing the same, the author seems to stealthily infuse into the reader’s mind that the Kerala society is no better and one should be politically conscious of religious identities. It is better that we do not make people conscious of something that they are non-conscious of, for good.

Significance of Positive Morality

"A man's ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death."
(Albert Einstein)

As the original author claims that it was his strict Islamic upbringing and involvement in religion based social service that motivated Abdurahiman to selfless sacrifice, it becomes pertinent to ask if he should have done the same had he not been a believer or Muslim. The author also makes a statement that it is better to have believed in something than in nothing in the context of a group of youngsters in Kerala who recently video graphed a woman collapsed on a railway track instead of helping her. It is preposterous to say that non-believers cannot be moral as they do not believe in afterlife or reward and punishment. Moral actions are good, not because God or religions have approved of them; religions approve of them because they are good. It is, in fact, religions that take recourse to inherent human goodness in placing its points like “God loves man even more than a nursing mother loves her child.” Morality precedes religion and man has come to master the sense of right and wrong as he did fire and wheel. Literature is rich with arguments for secular morality, which sees no reason to admit religious belief the source of morality. There has neither been any study validating believers are any better at being moral. In all probability, Abdurahiman could have jumped to action regardless of his safety even if he was not a practising Muslim. Being a Muslim did not matter much as Muslim companions with him even tried to prevent him, fearing for his safety. Religion in its pure form has to be considered a private affair, one that helps individuals become good within. A good Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Sikh all mean the same - a good human being. Another enlightenment era saint of Kerala, Narayana Guru, becomes relevant here in stating “man should be good, no matter what religion he believes in”. It is appreciable to live and die as a good Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Atheist. Their religious goodness should be justified by their being good human beings. Humane values like compassion and love could in itself be another religion outside the purview of any institutionalized religion - the religion of humanity. Every organised religion should motivate its followers to embrace it. It is where everyone can share commonness and brotherhood – even the atheist. Rooted well within but growing beyond the boundaries has to be the goal – growing to the oneness of humanity and from there, to the oneness of nature.

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K. P. Ramanunni

Positive secularism marks a grade above religious morality as it springs from freedom and self awareness rather than expectations of heavenly reward or restraints for the fear of hell. When morality springs from a virtuous person’s love or compassion, it becomes marvellous. Rabiah, the Sufi saint’s prayer exemplifies this: “Lord, if I do good in the expectations of heavenly bliss, throw me into the fires of hell; If I do no evil for the fear of hell, burn me forever in its fires; But if I do good for the sake of pure love of you, do not deny me the fortune of seeing thy face.” Foundations of morality could be laid in religion, but one needs to transcend it. Religion is a child’s cloth, opines Schopenhauer, something that one is not expected to go on wearing. That is how we become secular – not by denying religion but by outgrowing religious identity to personal goodness, respecting individual for all that he is, including, but not only for, his religious identity. Secularism is when no one gains or losses anything for the reason of being born accidently into a religion or subscribing to it. Religion has a mission to accomplish – motivating individuals to humanness and not appropriating their goodness and individuality. It is for the individuals to make use of the precepts of religions for their ethical formation, and not for religions to make use of individuals’ goodness for their political gains. The negative propaganda against a religion is not to be fought off with positive propaganda as was intended in the reporting of this incident but by ignoring the religious identity and holding individuals responsible for their being good or bad. If individuals do harm or good in the name of religion, it is because they or their group have interpreted religion that way, for various reasons. Human beings should not be reduced into smaller categories of Muslim or Hindu or Christian or Atheist. A Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Atheist should be uplifted to the higher category of good human being. Religion should be a social means, not a political end.