The Opening of the International Seminar on Islam and Confucianism: A Civilizational Dialogue, Kuala Lumpur 13 March 1995

This seminar marks the beginning of a major development in the Asian consciousness. Until today discourses on comparative cultures and civilizations have been dominated by a preoccupation with the West. The West had more often than not been regarded as the focal point, or even as some kind of a criterion against which other cultures and civilizations had to be measured. This state of affairs was not so much the consequence of the Asian being oblivious of his own traditions, rather because of historical antecedents.

Since the 19th century, Asian nations had been overawed by the wealth and power of the West. Under the yoke of colonialism, Asian nations had no choice but to examine themselves critically vis-a-vis their masters, not their neighbours. Even after having gained independence, they were unable to exorcise the ghost of their erstwhile superiors. Thus all their energies and efforts went towards the quest for parity with the West, brought about by a deep-rooted sense of inferiority and the need to restore their self-esteem. This was the fundamental cause of the crisis in the Asian consciousness, manifested by a profound sense of helplessness in the face of the Western military and political onslaught. The natural upshot of this was an almost total erosion of confidence in their own traditions, in their ability to come to grips with the new realities.

Now, almost 100 years later and after East Asia has come to rival Europe and North America in economic strength, the Asian mind has finally broken free from the intellectual morass. We are at the threshold of a new Asian consciousness; charactrized by self-confidence, a more positive attitude towards our own traditions, and a genuine interest in the traditions of our fellow Asians. If one can risk drawing a parallel, it is a new consciousness in the cultural sphere, as Bandung was in the political domain. What we are about to embark on is a voyage of self-discovery, a journey through the myriad Asian traditions in order to understand and know each other better.

This seminar on Islam and Confucianism is merely a starting point of the quest for mutual understanding, which will pave the way for discourses on the other major Asian traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. By doing so, we are not downplaying the importance of continuous dialogue and the need for rapprochement with the West. None of us can honestly claim that the civilization of the West has not left an indelible mark on us. Even the current surge of interest towards things and ideas non-Western, more specifically Asian, is being facilitated by certain intellectual currents in the West, namely the collapse of Modernity as the dominant perspective and the continuous assault on established ideas by the practice of deconstruction. As a result, no self-respecting intellectual in the West today believes only the West can offer the high road to prosperity and political order which is the one of the prime concerns of Asian societies.

In the context of the Muslim consciousness, the search for knowledge and the quest for greater understanding in a diverse world is sanctioned by no less than a Quranic imperative:

Oh mankind! Verily we have created you all from a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes that you may come to know one another.

With regard to China, the knowledge that we should acquire from that civilization must invariably include and understanding of the Lun Yu or the Analects, the Da Xue or the Great Learning, the Zhong Yong or the Doctrine of the Mean, the Taoist texts such as Dao Te Jing and the writings of Zhuang Zi.

The Muslim would say that a profound understanding of Islam would require familiarity with the writings of al-Ghazali and Ibn Taimiyyah. Likewise, the Confucianist would assert that if the intellectual and cultural engagement with Confucianism is to go beyond a superficial interest it must include familiarity with the Neo-Confucianist flowering which produced great thinkers such as Chu Xi of the Sung Dynasty and Wang Yangming of the Ming Dynasty. The modern Muslim and the world are indebted to the socio-historical ideas of the philosopher-historian Ibn Khaldun. Similarly, we have a lot to learn from the ideas and practical experience of Wang An-Shih, especially his reforms and his battle against corruption and injustice in feudal China.

It is our conviction that a civilizational dialogue between Islam and Confucianism would greatly contribute towards global peace and understanding. Here are two great traditions of the world whose adherents have generally been living, if not in perfect harmony with each other, certainly not in antagonism and discord, for the greater part if the last one thousand years. Indeed, through genial co-existence, they have contributed, both in the past and in the present, towards regional order and prosperity. One is reminded of the fact that centuries before the Enlightenment in the West, there had already been established productive engagement between the Muslim-Malay Sultanates of Southeast Asia and the Confucianist Ming Dynasty of China. Trade, rather than war, was the governing mode of relations. Today in Southeast Asia, both communities collaborate in the making of a prosperous region. In this country, they form the backbone of partnership in various domains -- competitive business, democratic politics, grassroots organizations, scientific research and many other areas of endeavour.

The goings-on in the world in our day, and in the days to come, will largely be prompted by economic imperatives. Thus, the greater integration of East Asia will no doubt be a phenomenon borne of the same economic necessities. Nonetheless, the role of culture and tradition cannot be glossed over, for among Asians they are realities which are very much alive and powerful. To my mind, they should not be realities we have to merely contend with but energies to be harnessed for the good and benefit of mankind. In fact, the future of Asia will be shaped by the creative interaction between these cultural forces and the demand of competitive industrialism and democratic political community.

In the early part of this century Max Weber propagated the idea that Chinese religions and non-Western traditions do not provide the impetus for their societies to progress economically and to develop culturally. The fact of the economic rise of East Asia has effectively debunked such a sweeping generalization. Some recent sociological writings have even recognized the role of Confucian ethics and way of life in promoting social discipline, frugality, industrial diligence and the accumulation of capital. The Muslims in Southeast Asia have made no less remarkable social and economic progress precisely because they view the pursuit of economic growth and development as an integral part of Islam. Muslims in Malaysia, for example, do not consider socio-economic programmes such as the eradication of poverty, the provision of basic necessities including quality education and health care to every citizen, and the cultivation of learning as purely secular pursuits. On the contrary, we consider them as central to the endeavour to realize the Muslim vision of justice and compassion.

Our exertions for the alleviation of the socio-economic conditions will continue. But the quest for prosperity and wealth accumulation must not serve to undermine the virtues and humanitarian concerns. In this regard, the Confucian reproach against obsessive greed in unequivocal, for Kong Fu Zi said: "The superior man thinks of virtue; the inferior man thinks of profit." The pursuit of wealth must go hand in hand with the commitment towards social justice. Muslims are enjoined to regard wealth as a trust given by God, to be employed not only for personal enjoyment but also for the benefit of society at large. In this regard, there are specific imperatives in the Quran in respect of the distribution of wealth to the poor and destitute, orphans and other needy persons, to prevent the rich from getting even richer while the poor remain uncared for.

There are a number of striking similarities between Islam and Confucianism, both in ideals and historical experience, in their refusal to detach religion, ethics and morality from the public sphere. The Islamic argument against secularism, that is the separation of politics and other societal concerns from religion and morality, is not dissimilar to the Confucianist perspective presented by Professor Tu Wei-ming in his admirable book Way, Learning and Politics. A Muslim would have no difficulty identifying with the Confucian project to restore trust in government and to transform society into a moral community.

In order to be able to accord a more meaningful role to traditional concepts and values in the making of a new Asia, a cultural renewal is a condition precedent. In so doing, one must however guard against religious fanaticism and ethnocentricism, whose destructive consequences are self-evident enough. At the societal level, genuine cultural renewal expands our mental domain. It widens our horizons and enhances our threshold of tolerance. At the individual level, it clears our vision and takes us from egoism to altruism. In commenting on Kong Fu Zi's vision of the relationship between self, family, community, nation and humanity, Huston Smith, the famous scholar of religions noted:

In shifting the centre of one's concern from oneself to one's family, one transcends selfishness. The move from family to community transcends nepotism. The move from community to nation transcends parochialism, and the move to all humanity counters chauvinistic nationalism.

We believe that a revitalization of tradition, with all its cultural and intellectual richness, is the most effective countervailing force against religious fanaticism and ethnocentricism. In the context of Islam, this process of revitalization comprehends the reassertion of the values of justice (al-adl), tolerance (al-tasamuh) and compassion (al-rahmah). these values have enabled the Muslims, throughout history, to accept diversity not merely as a fact but as an essential feature of human civilization to be celebrated. Because of diversity, man becomes richer through the impetus of the quest to know and understand one another

Thus Muslims who have been guided by this principle have been active practitioners and advocates of multiculturalism, long before this term gained currency. The Muslim revulsion towards racism and all forms of jingoism is rooted in the Tradition of the Prophet.

In the Malaysian context, it is our continuing commitment to guarantee economic success without neglecting humanitarian values. To maintain this balance is a tremendous challenge, requiring immense dedication, as well as profound humility or tawaduk. Humility is indeed a source of strength, for according to Lao Tze:

Who thinks his great achievements poor shall find his vigour long endure.

Let me conclude on a personal note. Some 25 years ago, I was offered to serve as a temporary teacher at a Chinese primary school in my hometown in Bukit Mertajam. I thought it was time for me to start being acquainted with the foundations of Chinese culture. I started with the Analects and Meng Tze, copying the beautiful quotations in an exercise book. Today, as I continue the reading of Chinese classics, I have come to realize the full meaning of the saying of the Prophet Muhammad, that "wisdom is the lost treasure of the believer. He has the right to it wherever it is found." It is in this spirit that I declare open this seminar.

Thank you.