SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 pandemic has shown Singapore's Muslim community that it can and must forge its own religious compass as it charts its way forward, said Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir on Thursday (May 19).
To achieve this, the community will need to be confident in its own religious identity as well as in the leadership of the local asatizah, or religious teachers, he added.
Dr Nazirudin, who is Singapore's top Islamic leader, was speaking to around 250 asatizah at the first annual Hari Raya Aidilfitri gathering for them to be held physically since the pandemic hit.
He reminded his audience that they were responsible for the well-being of Singapore's Muslim community.
"Beyond our little red dot, no one else is as vested or interested in our future, not the religious preachers or scholars who live elsewhere and occasionally throw comments or remarks about us," he said.
"Let us strive to strengthen our religious credibility and leadership as we continue to find solutions for our own contexts and challenges. We have done this before, and we will continue to do this."
In his speech at The Chevrons in Jurong East, the mufti thanked the asatizah for keeping the community's religious spirit alive amid Covid-19 restrictions, saying this was possible because of the way they understand and practice their faith in the country's unique context.
He noted that in the pandemic's early days, Singapore had no precedents to follow, whether from religious texts and traditions or the experiences of other Muslim communities.
Religious leaders had to work with experts and find new solutions, and at times take different decisions from other Muslim communities.
While they felt fearful at times, this did not weaken their spirituality, he said, noting that similar decisions were later replicated across the Muslim world.
"It is in these difficult times that we build resilience and find courage to change and adapt, and to stand by our decisions," he said.
Covid-19 could be a dry run for similar situations in the future, he added.
Citing another instance where Singapore had differed from other countries, Dr Nazirudin noted that when Muslims here celebrated Hari Raya Puasa on May 3, a day later than in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, some people had voiced their criticisms online.
They suggested this could lead to disunity among Muslims, when such differences took place in Islamic history, and were recognised as religiously valid.
Dr Nazirudin reiterated that the religious authorities here had relied on astronomical calculations and guidance from the time of Prophet Muhammad in determining the date, as the crescent moon which traditionally marks the start of the new month could not be seen in Singapore on the evening of May 1, unlike in other countries in the region.
Dr Nazirudin said while Singapore uses the criteria agreed upon by MABIMS, an informal gathering of religious ministers of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, in determining the sighting of the crescent moon, this "does not, and will never mean that there will be no differences in our conclusions".
"The outcomes may differ based on our unique circumstances," he said.
"But what was alarming was how some were quick to view this difference as a weakness, even an error and misguidance," he added.
"Instead of any sound arguments, the voices which criticised our decision were at best conjectural, and at worst, carried untruths and were ignorant of the basics of falak (astronomy). Most were purely emotive in nature, as has often been the case with many other issues," he said.
Dr Nazirudin acknowledged more had to be done to educate the community and improve its capabilities, skills and expertise as it navigates a more complex world.
His office and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore will do more, but they need the support and partnership of asatizah, he added.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of asatizah here to guide the Muslim community, he said, urging them to draw from their experiences during the pandemic to remain open-minded while being confident of their own decisions.
This is especially important, since the Muslim community here, as a minority, is often viewed as being a disadvantage by others, due to the misconceived notion that Islam and Muslims can only thrive in majority contexts, he added.
"On the contrary, I have always believed that our context offers us opportunities to truly live and embody the dynamic values of our faith, when it speaks of peace and cohesion in the context of diversity, when the syariah calls for flexibility and progress, in the context of scientific and technological progress," he said.
"In fact, we are better placed to exercise the richness of our religious heritage and the beauty of our tradition, because of our unique situation."