Religion, Symbol and Politics

Ahmad Sahidah, Malaysia

It is necessary that religious text relates its context. This statement is actually recurrent of old postulate concerning close relations between them. A hermeneutical process presupposes the text-context relations and such a confidence is called relation of ayat (text) and asbab al-nuzul (context) in religious language.

We often understand it differently and not the same at all when we find it in the different time and space. Logical consequence of this condition springs the different belief and commitment. Each group prefers their point of views and ignores the others. These insights imply the complex social and cultural communication. In one hand, the humanity relations stress the equality and egalitarian attitudes, and the other hand, they impose the narrowness based on subjective revelation interpretations.

The diversity appears in religious acts. The later does not exist without the symbolical expressions. Although the young Schleiermacher advanced the idea of religion as a purely interior feeling, detachable from its symbolic expression, but the phenomenologist considers such external expressions as prayer and sacrifice to be communal activities essential to the religious act. It aims at a transcendent (and hence not directly expressible) telos, it requires a symbolic representation to exist concretely (Louis Dupré, 1998: 7).

Religion consecrates objects in space and time, in order, through them, to transcend the spatial and temporal order itself. Here it seems paradoxical in practice. It draws its symbols from the whole range of the finite: inanimate objects, plants, animals, and humans. The very variety of these representations shows how finite forms fall short adequately representing a transcendent reality. To compensate for this inadequacy, said Dupré, religious symbolization needs the assistance of the word, the most flexible symbol and the one least bound to a single intentional direction. The word alone is able of linking religious intention to expression. The duties of religions, like hymns, sermons, articulate the above ideas, among others.

Religious act itself bears religious experience that reveal that religion does not only relate to thought but also experience. Regarding this issue, Schillebeeckx, Christian theologian, ask the question how can historical figures, living in a remote culture, initiative a universal experience and even elicit new experience a time that has become fully estranged from the religious culture in which the message was delivered? Although this question is asked to Jesus, but it is still applicable to the other figures who declare the message of prophecy and truth.

He expressed two things related to the above question. First, revelation can be received in and through human experience. Experience is an essential part of the concept of revelation. Second, the whole experience contains elements of interpretation. The past experience does not be able directly to be comprehended by contemporaries, because it presupposes the different things. This thesis shows us clearly and simply that the distortion and bias possibilities of religious text occur easily. The fair and pure treatment of the text and experience their self would essentially introduce a true apprehension. This task is not only normative but also affirmative through dialogue, communication and co-working concretely in all areas of life. Enemies of religion are actually injustice, poverty, oppression and exploitation.
The most of theoretical and practical norms of scriptural religions (Yudaism, Christian and Islam) derive from what they called as revelation that brings the uniqueness of personal, cultural and socio-political aspects of prophets. It interacted the surrounding culture and the later would color each cosmology and social moral of religions.

There is at least two responds of the above issues: understanding of them through rational inquiry and faith acts. First, it is found in scientific search for the meaning of life and the second, exclusively given in a divine revelation. The two distinguished sides appear simplistic, but reflect a reality of religious thinking existed in society. Two responds cannot ideally separated in contrary but complementary.

Achievements of textual interpretation inevitably vary either externally or internally. The exclusively claim of validity does not only deny social reality of adherent of religions, but refuse inward messages as well which tolerate the diversity. Pluralism is not a jargon only of rulers to create society order and underestimate conflicts in the different religious communities, but religions have an obligation to play their role of endorsing peace, harmony and co-existence.


Political domain is undeniably a trigger for competing religious symbols in order gain the power. The internal religious scholars strongly criticize the use of religion as a bumper and vote getter, because the appearing of conflicts in a massive scale, reminding the force of religious to mobilize the floating mass and support for realizing values of religion in society without striving of formalizing of religious principles.

The choice of inclusive views is not only a tactic one because the diversity of people, but also actualization from a religious teaching itself, normatively or historically, as a very core of its message. It is true that al-Ghazali said the role of ulama and government is completely different. The first is responsible for implanting moral values and the second has the duty of making the rules that enables them manifest suitable with their own society.

In sum, their role are more moral than politics. It also solves the tension between many groups more effectively. Does the end of religious code not create the peaceful condition, does it?

The writer is a PhD Candidate of Islamic Civilization, University of Science Malaysia


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