THE following is the royal address by the Sultan of Perak, Sultan Nazrin Shah at the 2nd Malaysia-China Youth Civilizational Dialogue on Islam and Confucianism in conjunction with the 45th anniversary of Malaysia-China diplomatic relations.
I AM delighted to join all of you at this conference. Although it is organised by the old members of two well-known universities of Malaysia and China — the International Islamic University Malaysia and Peking University — today’s event is in fact directed for the benefit of our next generation, the youths of Malaysia and China.
Furthermore, this civilisational dialogue celebrates the 45th anniversary of the bilateral relations between our two countries.
We are here today to reflect on the contributions of two distinct, major spiritual traditions, Islam and Confucianism, to ethics in the 21st century.
May I commend the two alumni associations most sincerely on their selection of a conference theme which foregrounds — indeed, celebrates — the potential for dialogue and collaboration between different religions, cultures, and communities.
It seems to me that we are, in many ways, ideally situated for such a conference today. Geographically speaking, I am proud that Malaysia is vibrantly multicultural, a fitting location for a dialogue between different religions and sets of beliefs.
Indeed, with its majority Muslim and substantial minority Chinese population — comprising about 61 per cent and 25 per cent respectively — Malaysia is essentially a living, national example of this cultural exchange in action.
In Malaysia, Muslim and Chinese citizens — the latter with a centuries-old heritage of Confucian philosophy — exist side-by-side, living and working together with others from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and creeds.
In this sense, the conference is taking place in the ideal setting for an intellectual collaboration between Islam and Confucianism.
It is my sincere hope that Malaysia will represent the harmonious relationship between these two great traditions for many years, decades, and centuries to come.
Yet today’s conference is ideally situated not only geographically speaking, but also, I believe, in time. We are living in an increasingly conflicted and divided world.
According to the Global Peace Index — a measure of international harmony published by the leading think tank, the Institute for Economics and Peace — our world today is less peaceful than it was 10 years ago.
One need only skim the newspapers or tune in for the news headlines to be convinced of such a claim. Countries across the globe are experiencing violence fuelled by intolerance, and a hatred of racial, cultural, and religious difference.
Now more than ever, we need international, intercultural, and civilisational dialogues: we need — to return to a favoured image of mine — to build bridges, both within and between countries throughout the world.
Now, it is fair to say that there is much bridge-building work already being done, not least by international organisations such as the United Nations.
A prime example, in our current century, is the UN’s “Alliance of Civilizations” initiative, which began in 2005.
This was established largely in defiance of Samuel Huntington’s controversial “Clash of Civilisations” thesis, which proposed that the Islamic world, China, and other non-Western powers would join forces in a conflict against the West.
The “Alliance of Civilisations”, in response, sought to forge international, intercultural, and interreligious cooperation, particularly between the Western and Islamic worlds.
The “Alliance” was fully supported by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation — an organisation which, notably, is patron to the International Islamic University Malaysia — and the OIC’s support, in itself, demonstrates the enormous potential and will of Islam to spread peace and build bridges throughout the globe.
However, the historic cultural and political dominan
ce of the West has meant that, for decades and even centuries, the focus of international bridge-building has been between the West and other countries and cultures, as with the “Alliance of Civilizations” project.
This, in turn, means that the equally important bridges that should — and indeed do — exist between eastern civilisations have often been sidelined or overlooked.
We are, I believe, on the brink of a major shifting or widening out of focus. As exemplified by the work of the Oxford historian, Peter Frankopan, especially in his recent book The New Silk Roads, the spotlight of world history is presently on the move, becoming less Western dominated and Eurocentric, and more interested in the countries and cultures of the East.
As such, this conference could hardly be more timely. Today, we have come together to consider Islam not alongside the cultures and beliefs of the West, but instead alongside one of the oldest spiritual traditions of the East.
This is an intercultural dialogue which many — including the renowned Chinese Harvard scholar, Professor Tu Weiming — believe holds great promise for the future wellbeing of humanity as a whole.
I must say that I, too, feel greatly optimistic about this dialogue, and its potential to make a truly positive contribution to ethics in the 21st century.
I have indicated already that we are inhabiting a world in crisis, and thus, today’s conference is brilliantly poised to explore how Islam and Confucianism can help us to overcome these major global challenges.
On the face of it, there is much that seems strikingly different about Islam and Confucianism. Confucianism is one of the world’s oldest spiritual traditions, beginning in China in around 500 BC, with the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius.
By contrast, Islam is a relatively young world religion, founded more than 1,000 thousand years after the death of Confucius, by the Prophet Muhammad sallallahu ‘alayhi wassalam, in the 7th century.
In addition to their founding dates, another major contrast between Islam and Confucianism is the extent to which they can be considered religions.
As the distinguished Chinese philosopher, Professor Chung-ying Cheng, rather boldly puts it, whereas Islam is an organised religion, Confucianism may be thought of as an “unorganised non-religion”.
Now it goes without saying that, for some adherents of Confucianism, this is clearly not the case — and indeed, there has even been a Holy Confucian Church established in China in recent years.
But it is certainly true that, whereas Islam is unquestionably a leading monotheistic world religion, Confucianism’s religious identity is less definite.
And this brings me to a final, apparent point of difference: that of size. Islam today has around 1.8 billion followers, making up just under a quarter of the world’s population.
By contrast, while the numbers are more difficult to estimate, it is thought that less than 1 per cent of people worldwide are followers of Confucianism today.
However, these figures fail to tell the full story. While a relatively small number of people might identify as “Confucian”, Confucianism’s cultural reach is far broader. It is estimated to have some form of influence over the lives of more than 1.6 billion individuals — or 18 per cent of the world’s population — living predominantly in China, as well as in the Korean peninsula, Japan, and in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia.
Thus, Islam and Confucianism are in fact similar in that they both influence the lives of billions of individuals worldwide.
Both are, moreover, experiencing what we might think of as a period of flourishing at present. Research by the Pew Centre in the US shows that Islam is by far the world’s fastest growing religion.
Although perhaps on a smaller scale, meanwhile, Confucianism is currently witnessing what many in the scholarly community are calling a “revival”, not least in China.
Indeed, the predictions of many 19th and 20th century philosophers, particularly in the West, of the decline of religion, have
been starkly contradicted by the trends in both Confucianism and Islam today.
Far from “Gott ist tot” — the “Death of God”, to invoke Nietzsche’s famous phrase — what we are witnessing today is a resurgence of religion and spirituality, and I believe that it is hardly any surprise. In troubled times such as those through which we are living, humanity cries out for faith, for guidance, and for the sense of community that can be found in shared beliefs.
For all their seeming theological differences, a major area of convergence between Islam and Confucianism is that they both see religion as inseparable from politics and ethics.
This was a point made numerous times at the first conference of its kind on Islam and Confucianism, hosted by the University of Malaya’s “Centre for Civilisational Dialogue” a little over 20 years ago.
At this conference, for example, Professor Tu Weiming spoke of how “the inseparability between political leadership and moral authority” is an idea “shared by the two traditions”. He described how both traditions draw a direct line between the “healing and development of one’s own spiritual body” and the “serving” of the “body politic”, and suggested that “a spiritual leader is also a political authority” in Confucianism and Islam, in terms of providing the “standard of inspiration” for the people, and for the nation.
In other words, both Islam and Confucianism would propose a spiritual, not a secular approach to handling even those crises which are often viewed as being beyond the remit of religion, such as economics or climate change.
With this in mind, I would like to spend what remains of my speech sharing some preliminary reflections on the ways in which Islam and Confucianism might contribute productively to the global ethical tradition today. Many of the themes and ideas I touch on will no doubt be explored at greater length and in greater depth in other papers throughout the conference’s two days.
I would first like to suggest some of the ways in which I see Islam and Confucianism interacting with a global issue very close to my heart: that of climate change. We are now in the midst of what many are calling a “climate emergency” — a “climate emergency” has indeed been declared in countries such as
Canada and the United Kingdom.
The global temperature is rising at an unprecedented rate due to the emission of greenhouse gases, generated particularly by the burning of fossil fuels.
This in turn means melting ice caps and rising sea levels; climate scientists, for instance, estimate that most central and eastern Himalayan glaciers will have disappeared entirely by 2035.
Climate change, along with human activities such as deforestation, is also having a devastating effect on biodiversity, with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimating that the rate of species extinction is at least 1,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate — that is, the rate without human-induced damage to the planet.
With last month, July 2019, confirmed as the hottest month on record, and with some leading climate scientists estimating that we have as little as 18 months to take action before the damage becomes irreparable, our world is in now desperate need of a new ethical imperative.