There is a popular saying that all faiths lead to God.
Just recently, a fellow blogger and Muslim Internet activist Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi, better known as Menj, published a book, Buddhism: A Muslim Primer, one that caused quite an caustic reaction from agnostics, atheists and many non-Muslims.
Now what might interest you is that fact that I have a copy of this book, thanks to Menj, who sent the copy to my office at my request. In return, I promised him that I would write a 'professional review' of the book and that I would try to be as objective as possible in this attempt.
This is the review, and with a topic as serious (and sensitive) as religion, I wish to remind readers that the subject matter can be quite heavy as it might be offensive to many.
In an introductory sypnosis found on this post, Menj describes his book as 'a critical introduction to the beliefs of Buddhism and its soteriology, as well as its ethics and social order from the Islamic viewpoint'.
The book runs in six main sections, providing readers, mainly a Muslim audience, a brief introduction to Buddhism the 'religion' and its true identity as a teaching and philosophy, the practise of idolatry in Buddhsim, its soteriology and eschatology, ethics and social order, the treatment of the feminine gender in this religion and Buddhism today. All these are discussed in 30-odd pages, a 11-point-serif typeface with a 11/13 pt spacing (technical terms in printing, but that's about 1.5 spacing if transfered to an MS-Word document).
Did I just emphasize that personally, I feel that 30 pages on a half-A4-sized page to discuss two religions comparatively is an ambitious attempt?
I digress, but back to the topic.
Many people have yet to reconcile the differences in society that each and every one of us is bound to face. Understandably, for many, including myself, it is not easy to practise religious tolerance when our personal religious doctrines have clearly taught us that 'all the other things are wrong'. Contradicting beliefs, not necessarily religious ones, have been the very cause of man-against-man arguments, and in the context of religions and multireligious differences, living in current times causes our separating lives to be even more intricately opposing, but interesting and exciting, nonetheless.
This is both a fortunate and unfortunate existence at the same time.
It is quite apparent that Buddhism: A Muslim Primer was not an easy book to pen. A lot of research is required by the author, and I can respect the efforts that Menj has put into producing this book.
However, a big hindrance to Menj's efforts to be 'as tolerant as possible' towards a contradicting belief against that of his own was his very own beliefs. It is no secret that Menj is a Muslim Activist who says no to liberal Muslims, and when one cannot tolerate differing treatments of the same religion who puts the faith in the One Same God, I can understand it can be quite difficult to be 'objective' in one's own writing.
No I stress again the author is not a bad person. This I can attest from personal experience, and in our scarce e-mails to each other.
Menj just loves God very, very much, and has a zeal for Islam which I can totally respect. He loves God so much, that everytime I come across a chapter that makes me feel, 'Wow he's hit it here,' his own words overturn against him and places him in that vulnerable position where Buddhists and other non-Muslims are bound to label him as a fanatic.
The result of this, of course, is Menj's failing in being objective and tolerant in his book. As he tries too hard to overcome the strict beliefs that he has imposed upon himself, what is ringing is Menj's fierce attempts to acknowledge the presence of the many non-believers of Islams against Muslims like him may be personal battles for himself to overcome.
Just by reading the preface, the reader would have formulated an expection for the author to be objective, tolerant and impartial. Yet in most parts of the book where discussions of the two contradicting doctrines are presented, Menj's overzealousness towards Islam has resulted in many occasions of adjectival misuse that Buddhists (and non-Muslims) will certainly define as 'insensitive'.
An example, in point. On page 15, Menj talks about the Buddhist principle that desire is the root cause of all suffering. He says
The principle of Buddhism soteriology, namely that desire is the root cause of all dukkha (suffering), is in itself problematic. This philosophy of Buddhism is self-contradictory because the third truth says 'suffering and misery can be removed by removing desire'…
…and then, in the closing line of the same paragraph, Menj sums it up,
It is self-contradicting as well as self-defeating to say that desire will only be removed by continuously having a desire.
I have this to say. Language is a powerful tool, and like any other tool, you can mold it to your advantage. This is something that Menj has failed to do. The same thoughts as presented above could have been, could have been written in a softer, more convincing stance.
I might have chosen to define the Buddhist principle that desire is the root cause of all suffering as 'quite contradictory from what Muslims believe. For Muslims, the concept of wanting to eliminate desire may be considered a desire within itself, and it probably causes the basic fundamentals of Buddhism to be both self-contradictory and self-defeating'.
That would have been me, if I were to write the book as Menj. But I didn't write the book, and all I can do is review and criticise, so here it is: I feel that Menj's work would have been more formidable if only he had chosen his phrases and adjectives with more caution.
Instead of impressing a sceptic of Islam into acceptance and tolerance, when he employs words like 'self-contradictory' and 'self-defeating', the reader is merely further convinced that the overzealous religious-self within this student of comparative religion has overcome his trying efforts to be tolerant.
In conclusion, everything else is discounted and what remains of this book just that, a primer for Muslims, unacceptable to non-Muslims.
Technically, of course, Menj, I need to comment a little on the publication price, and the editing methods of the book. If not mistaken, the book is printed on 70 gsm paper, and around 230-240 gsm artcard cover with UV varnishing. The publishers have priced the book to be about RM7.90 (after conversion).
RM7.90 for a 40-page book, which amounts to about five unprinted signatures, of the above-mentioned paper quality, is rather overpriced, is it not? (Sorry readers, getting a bit technical here.)
I'm also quite sensitive to the 'lifting' situation. In copyright law, you are not allowed to reproduce more than 100-words of a pre-published text (whether or not it is already protected by law, and whither the publication medium, which means, INCLUDING THE INTERNET). In this book, I noticed that acknowledgement to original sources is quite scarce. Where you don't lift, there is a serious need to, well, dot your i's, and check the subject-and-verb-agreement.
The editing of the book could have been more thorough, and I feel that this book is certainly overpriced.
In the preface to the book, Menj wrote, 'it is clear that as a belief, Buddhism is contrary to logic and intelligence.'
In return, I ask this of my readers, 'Which religious belief on earth is not contrary to logic, and not asking of a disregard of human intelligence?'
Faith is a very powerful thing, and just as it has provided firm believers of The One True God to hold steadfast to His Word, so it will allow other staunch practitioners of the teachings of their many Boddhisattvas to bow their heads in humble honour and remember the ancestral teachings that have been passed down from generation to generation.
As for our contradicting opinions, well, variety is the spice of life, and if we all felt the same way about everything, the world would be a very boring place to live in indeed.