Syriaâ€™s Grand Mufti Sheikh Dr Ahmad Badr Al Din Hassoun is no stranger to churches and temples. He has visited more than 300, giving speeches there and calling for tolerance and mutual respect among different religions.
Sheikh Dr Ahmad Badr is not one to mince his words. The Grand Mufti of Syria applauds Malaysiaâ€™s achievements but cautions that there is â€œsomething that blocks your highest achievementâ€.
â€œThere is disrespect and discord between racial groups. You have to be united and at one in order to advance further,â€ he says bluntly.
The â€œchildren of Malaysia,â€ he stresses, should be encouraged to respect, appreciate each other and guard the country.
â€œIf enmity and disrespect occurs among you, then you will forfeit and lose the most beautiful thing which is the well-being of life,â€ he says.
Dr Ahmad Badr was in town recently to speak at the International Consultation on Faith, Shared Wisdom and International Law.
He says that Malaysian Muslims, and every Muslim in the world, should â€œopen their breastâ€ and when they give thanks to God every day, they need to be aware of what is incumbent upon them and their faith.
â€œGod is not the lord of the Muslims only. He is the Lord of all the worlds and the Prophet Muhammad (s) was sent as a mercy to all the world, so a Muslim must be someone who is cosmopolitan and international.â€
He argues that Muslims who oppose inter-faith debates and dialogues are those who lack genuine and deep knowledge of Islam.
â€œThey donâ€™t truly comprehend what Islam really is so they have closed in on themselves and confined Islam to their own identity.â€
He points out that the Holy Qur`an is in fact a book of dialogues and debates.
â€œWhat did Abraham say to his people when he was arguing against idol worship and what did they say to him in reply? Moses was arguing with the Pharaoh and Muhammad (s) with his opponents who are the non-believers. All this is in the Quran.
â€œGod is reciting to us all these debates as part of the Qur`an. Even the angels protested and argued with God when He was about to create man â€“ and that too is recorded in the Qur`an,â€ he says. His point is that â€œGod is teaching us the discourse of dialogue and exchange.â€
Using that argument, he asks, how can a child know about life if he does not have a dialogue with his mother or how can students in primary schools learn without some form of dialogue with teachers?
â€œHow can we build a state or country without exchange of some kind?
â€œI love Islam and choose it because it doesnâ€™t deny the other religions. Every day I affirm to myself that my Lord is the Lord of the universe, so how can I reject and turn my back on dialogue when my God and theirs is the same?â€
And Dr Ahmad Badr puts what he preaches to practice. To date he has visited over 300 churches and temples and spoken in them.
He has even prayed in churches!
â€œThe Holy Prophet was in Mecca for 13 years and he used to go and pray in the Kaabah area. At that time, there were 360 stone idols circling the Kaabah and he would stand in the midst of them and pray to God.
â€œHe wasnâ€™t concerned about the presence of the stone idols there. He never once touched (destroyed) any with his hand. He let those who believed pray to them, while he prayed to God itself. He was patient with them for 21 years but asked how they can worship idols that they made with their hands.â€
For Dr Ahmad Badr, it is crucial to engage and relate with the rest of the world.
â€œWe shouldnâ€™t simply fight and oppose non-Muslims. Neither should we turn our back or refuse to go out and reach out to them,â€ he says.
He notes that the Holy Prophet (s) always reached out to Jews, pagans and non-believers. Prophet Muhammad used to visit the council house of the pagans when they made decisions and even went to their homes where there were idols. He also visited the homes of the Jews in Medina.
â€œHe never had any problems going to those places. He went there to display the true behavior and virtue of the Muslim. So why are Muslims afraid to go to these places?
â€œI go to the house of Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. I visit them and bring them presents. This is what Islam taught me to do â€“ to respect the human being.
â€œI think this is what Muslims need today,â€ he urges.
Furthermore, Dr Ahmad Badr does not believe in a so-called Islamic state or a state defined by religion because he deems it to be divisive and even dangerous.
He points out that religion and state are relatively recent terms, and that during the time of the Prophet there were Jews, Christians and pagans living together and the Prophet (s) interacted with them. They were allowed to keep their religion and they were part of the state.
Hence, he says, the notion of a â€œreligious stateâ€ rejects such an arrangement.
â€œIn such a state, there should be only one religion, which implies a rejection of the religion of others. This is not what is preached by Islam,â€ he says, adding that there should be no compulsion in religion.
â€œReligion is my relationship with God and not my relationship to the state,â€ he stresses, adding that faith is rooted in the heart â€“ and the heart is the house of God.
â€œEveryone has a heart which is a place of worship of God and this place is lit up by light and faith,â€ he explains, adding that if the seven billion people on earth had their hearts enlightened by faith, then they would realise that any individual who is slain reflects on God himself.
â€œI donâ€™t believe in religious wars nor in holy wars. The killing of another human is not a holy deed. I never saw religion bid me to kill anyone. My religion has commanded me to try to reach out to people to bring them to a state of peace,â€ he declares, adding that it is important to teach people, especially the young, to have respect for all sacred teachings.
Having studied the different faiths in the world, Dr Ahmad Badr says, religions do not conflict as they all invite to one essential value, which is the sacredness of the divine and the inherent dignity of the individual.
But the problem, he says, is that followers do not really comprehend the religion they adhere to and that some political leaders exploit religious sentiment and â€œlight the fire to promote discord and enmityâ€ between the followers of different faiths to advance their own special interest.
â€œThis is what is happening today in the world,â€ he says.
Educate and enlighten
Touching on the Palestinian and Israeli problem, he says that in the past (before the state of Israel was formed in 1948) Muslims, Christians and Jews used to live in peace and harmony and there were no problems with people of any faith going to worship at the holy sites and shrines, be it in Jerusalem or Bethlehem.
But now, because of the international partitioning, millions of Palestinians have been evicted from their homes and made refugees (so that Israelis can move in) and there are also thousands of armed Israeli troops around the holy sites so â€œhow can I go and pray to God when armed men are around meâ€.
He also highlights the irony that Europe, with 33 countries, a number of languages and religions, has lifted the borders between them, while in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, it is the opposite.
Some want Iraq split into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish states, he says, while in Sudan there is a threat of the north and south being divided based on religion.
Dr Ahmad Badr also laments that Muslims are abused more by their own leadership than by the non-Muslim world.
â€œDonâ€™t ask me about the Arab lands. I am so saddened by what they are doing in those places. I donâ€™t complain about the enemies,â€ he says.
And what does he think about the Danish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet (s) and the American pastor who threatened to burn the Qur`an?
He says he had actually invited the cartoonist (Kurt Westergaard) and Florida pastor (Terry Jones) to Syria for a dialogue (but they did not agree) so that they would learn what Islam is really like and what the Quran represents.
â€œI donâ€™t curse them and I donâ€™t oppose them in fighting. I try to educate and enlighten. If the cartoonist really knew who Muhammad (s) was, he would never ever have distorted the image in such a cartoon fashion.â€ (The cartoons which first appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2005 and sparked Muslim outrage internationally have been recently republished in a book titled The Tyranny of Silence.) As for pastor Jones, Dr Ahmad Badr says he did not read the Qur`an so he does not know there is a most beautiful and profound portrayal in it of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
â€œThe Qur`an teaches me as a Muslim to respect and value the views of the Jews and Christians. The pastor wants to burn a document that ensures we have mutual respect, which he claims is lacking in us. So he is the one who loses, not me.â€
In any case, he says, the real copy of the Qur`an for Muslims is not on paper but in their breast.
â€œWe keep it preserved pure in our heart. These men should not be opposed or condemned in a violent manner. If they really understood and realised the reality of Islam, then they would learn to love and respect it.â€