By Shagufta Gul
“True religion has a universal quality. But a true religion will feel that all the prophets are saviours of mankind. Forgiveness, compassion, tolerance, brotherhood and the feeling of oneness are the signs of a true religion.” — Sri Chin Moy
The believer of any faith may be able to relate to the aforementioned definition of religion. There are at least 4200 religions all around the world. Each one of them provides an ethical system and a code of life for human beings.
In a situation of growing intolerance in our society, we need to take major steps to cultivate peaceful coexistence and acceptance of difference. Let’s have a look at the concept of coexistence in different religions. In Hinduism, speech and behaviour need to be honest and not harsh. If peace is desired, peace of others needs to be taken care of. Christianity talks about human interdependence and mutual concern for one another. Buddhism believes in sharing sufferings and happiness and working alongside other individuals in society. Islam clearly states that there shall be no compulsion in religion.
Contemporary incidents of intolerance towards other faiths alert us to the lack of learning opportunities that may enable people to familiarise themselves with different faiths and their followers.
If we speak to ordinary Pakistanis about religions other than their own, we would see that they vague and incomplete information about other faiths.
Ever since its inception, Pakistan has been struggling to come to terms with its status as an Islamic state — reliance on a system of government left by the British under the Government of India Act of 1935 seems to be a reason for this. After independence, a strong decision making mechanism was needed to bring the state closer to the ideal of an Islamic welfare state. Unfortunately, nothing significant could be attained till the first constitution was framed in 1956 besides the Objectives Resolution, which was added to it as a preamble.
General Ziaul Haq’s government had claimed that it sought to bring the state closer to that ideal, though it’s doubtful whether he really wanted Pakistan to be an Islamic welfare state or if he used religion as a slogan for his political motives. On taking charge of his office, Zia promised to bring the social, legal, and economic system in conformity with the Sharia. The various steps initiated for the purpose were limited to enactment of Hudood Ordinance and Zakat and Ushr ordinance, and decision to make Islamiat and Pakistan Studies compulsory subjects to be taught in all bachelors of arts, sciences, medical sciences and engineering programmes along with a provision to allot 20 additional marks to Huffaz-e-Quran (no similar provision was announced for non-Muslim students). While these and other steps were hailed as leading the state towards an Islamic welfare ideal, they contributed towards radicalisation and intolerance in society.
We can combat or reverse this situation through reforms in the education sector.
In efforts for curriculum reforms, one of the most important achievements so far has been the preparation of a curriculum of Ethics for non-Muslim students in 2006-07. The final version of this document mainly covers five areas: introduction to different religions; social and moral values; social etiquettes; personalities; and religious festivals. The document explores different religions — their basic teachings and life history of their great leaders.
Unfortunately, such a comprehensive document hasn’t yet been used to its full potential. The promotion of the said curriculum could have supported efforts in curtailing religious extremism.
The recent incidents of mob lynching of innocent citizens are a result of measures initiated years back by a dictator.
We have never thought of religion as a connector, rather it has been used as a divider. It is about time the state and policy makers realise the importance of religion as a connector — by introducing comparative religious studies as a subject not only in schools but also at higher level of studies. The curriculum developed for Ethics can easily be used for preparing textbooks for the said subject from grade three to 10, and beyond. Let it not be an option only for non-Muslim students but provide Muslim students with the opportunity to study it as well.
This will help us bridge the gap among different faith communities as followers of these faiths will be exposed to authentic information about one another’s faiths. This will also prevent pupils from imbibing misconceptions about other faiths at early ages. Finally, such an introduction to different contemporary religions will encourage students to do further research of these issues and nurture critical thinking.
Shagufta Gul has experience in the field of education and is currently working as a resource person in the development sector