From Tolerance to Compassion

On November 16th, it will be the International day of Tolerance, one of those UN designated days that are designed to gather global support around a cause, this one being the need to tolerate each other. However, as attacks over the last couple of months in Nigeria and Myanmar and now the recent incidents once again in the Middle East have shown, tolerance is in short supply and there is now shadows over the future of peaceful inter religious and cultural coexistence.

I think the concept of tolerance itself is problematic and deserves some reflection. Whilst the dictionary gives a slightly different definition of the word, in my opinion, tolerance is about accepting the status quo without necessarily doing much about it; it is about putting up with something, not because you want to. Ultimately it is a sign of ignorance, as you tolerate someone because you need to and because convention dictates it, but it doesn’t mean you know that person or want to know that person. Hence through tolerance, you perpetuate ignorance.

To truly accept someone on the other hand, one has to understand and respect that person. Understanding, respect and acceptance ultimately comes from placing value not only on the individual human being but also on whom they are and what they represent.

One method of doing this is through love and compassion (which are found in all tenants of different faiths) as detailed by Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion, which states that we must “…work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

What does this exactly mean?

“Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.” Thus, compassion is about the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and to experience with the other.

If  we reconcile ourselves with religious scriptures like the Bible for example, where we are reminded in Isiah (58 6-7) to “loosen the bonds of wickedness and to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him,” or what the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) said “You shall not enter Paradise until you have faith, and you cannot have faith until you love one another. Have compassion on those you can see, and He Whom you cannot see will have compassion on you,” we see that a world which makes sense, is a world in which we connect with other people, often beyond our immediate communities and experience, and show them compassion and love.

This does not require anything big or substantial. Every small act, every little word, every minor thought is equally important. We are reminded of a story from Islamic Heritage that was related by the Prophet Mohammed (Peace be Upon Him) about a thirsty dog, which was on the brink of death and a passing lady, who witnessed this, removed her shoe and used it to draw water from a well, to give to the animal. This woman was granted forgiveness for her lifetime. The anecdote highlights that none can know where God’s favour lies, and that being “Muslim” is not defined only by ritual prayer and practice, but by minute acts of kindness and humility, which may escape the attention of all but God.

We are told in Islamic teachings that that “no one is a believer if you go to bed whilst your neighbour is hungry.”  Your neighbour is not specified as the parable of the Good Samaritan shows.  The Qur’an, Bible and other religious teachings remind us of freeing the oppressed and sharing the bread with the hungry. This is what binds us in partnership with our neighbours and friends working together towards that one single goal of fulfilment and well-being in an atmosphere of peace, compassion and justice.

It is this sense of compassion that allows us to treat others as we wish to be treated that we wish to reawaken today.  As a Muslim, this is fed to me by the universal humanitarian principle based upon the following verse from the Holy Qur’an “…If anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind…” (Q5:32).

Yet peace, compassion, justice, doing the right thing, self reliance are not the sole property of  any one faith or spiritual teachings and one faith cannot claim to hold the monopoly. These are universal values that bind us in the brotherhood of humanity – Muslim, Jewish Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, people of faith and also none.  These are collective values that bind us together and what the Almighty has inculcated us with as our natural spirit.

We are reminded of the story of the father who comes home late one night from work and is not allowed to read the newspaper by his 5 year old son. Annoyed by the constant interruptions, the father takes a magazine and tears a page of a world map from it, which he proceeds to tear into little pieces. Giving that to his kid, he thinks that this will take at least an hour for the child to put the pieces back together again. Dad, after a while finds to his dismay that his child has cleverly recreated the whole map within a short space of time. Surprised, he asks his child how he did it so soon.

The child explains, “Dad! That was easy. When you gave it to me, I also looked at the reverse side of the map and saw a picture of a man. So, all I did was to put the picture of the man together instead of the map, which I found easier. Automatically, the world came back to shape.”

So putting human affairs into order naturally puts the world into order and it takes the single man to make that difference and to have that compassion. In this sense we are taught in all spiritual teachings of single men who received divine revelation, and worked hard to influence their societies to become more spiritually aligned, fighting for injustice and speaking for the voiceless. It is that compassion that will allow our conscience to be pricked in order to “light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

Compassion is about rediscovering the spirituality of commonality which will allow us to recognise the common space and substance amongst all doctrines that will provide the fuel for social change and trigger action for the unity of humanity. This shared language will enable us to develop a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences; a running thread of hope that makes this improbable experiment of reconciling and rehabilitation of vulnerable communities. These values and ideals will have to be living, which cannot find expression on paper or monuments or in the annals of history books, but which remain alive in the hearts and minds of people inspiring us to pride, duty and sacrifice. These living values will help us to build on shared understandings and should be the glue that binds every healthy society.

People might scoff at the naivety of this statement but the point is that we have no choice. We have got to a position where something new needs to happen. For too long, narrow interests have vied for advantage with ideological minorities seeking to impose their own versions of absolute truth.

Now more than ever is the need to move towards this sense of peace and mutual respect for people of faith and no faith, through compassion. Spiritual scriptures all envision a pluralistic world, mutual understanding and religious tolerance, emphasising love of the Creator and love of the neighbour in contributing towards meaningful peace around the world. There is a need to collectively work to restore love and compassion to the forefront of our initiatives such that breeding violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate. We have to educate people especially the youth so that they have a much more accurate understanding about other traditions, religions and cultures.  We need to address critical issues of religious freedom and difference.

There need to be more initiatives like The World Parliament of Religions to join together, condemning all forms of discrimination, intolerance and oppression against ethnic and religious minorities. There is a need to n speak out whenever and wherever abused occur, whether it be their own religion or government or someone else’s that is the oppressor or the victim.  It is only with this type of attitude that the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community is possible.

Photo, “Show Compassion Now,” by Jenny Balase; attribution via Flickr Commons. 

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