Education that builds tolerant minds

Khairil Azhar, Jakarta | Opinion | Fri, October 04 2013, 11:35 AM

Around 50 people sat on the carpet in the school hall and listened to the lecture on how to achieve higher spirituality through understanding Sufism. They were university lecturers, school teachers and around forty junior and senior high school students.

That Saturday night, they learned together and amid their effort to discern the metaphysical concepts they could laugh crossing age and status boundaries.

Nearing midnight, after the students went to their dorm to rest, teens of the salik — the people who are stepping on the path of Sufism – moved to a multi-function building. For half an hour, they stayed in the library enjoying snacks and a flowing dialogue on some topics.

Again, in the dialog with religious nuance, smiles and laughter became the dominant fragments. There was nobody speaking with anger or shouting voice of opinion.

There was not hatred reflected on their faces and words. Their time and energy were spent all flowingly to understand what was going on around and to locate themselves wisely in the life course.

In the next 20 minutes, seven new members underwent the initial process to join the Sufi brotherhood. Physically, they had to take minor ablution.

Spiritually, they had to clean up their minds from everything that might stain them — worded as satanic substances — through verbal and mental rituals guided by a Sheikh.

Happiness, the Sheikh preached, would be reached whenever our hearts could be freed from unnecessary feelings — such as greed, hate, envy and arrogance — and focused on the act of causing God to be present. Minds must be continuously employed to look inward contemplatively and not to look outward as they are ordinarily used.

After the closing prayer in the initiation procession, all of the salik sat around a table with books, food and drink. A tranquil talk on music started, soothed with Sufi music with a Turkish tinge.

It was not merely a spiritual talk, for sure, as there was a business element there. Yet, it was very comforting and constructive as business was planned with the effort to positively create a distinctive value with spiritual improvement in the core concept.

That night, put simply, comparing to what is going on nowadays among Muslims, we first learned that learning and practicing religious teachings could be very different.

That night, instead of blemishing the hearts with contemptible qualities of hate, hostility or the idea of war, tens of people focused themselves on how to achieve higher spiritual levels where nobody else could be bothered.

As what the “modern” salik do, someone practicing religion, if he would like to find it beneficial in his life, would be better cultivate golden qualities such as compassion, empathy and tolerance in his heart through rituals, heartfelt dialogues, poetry, music or even movies.

This way will be more appeasing compared to listening to the hate speech in the mosques or joining assemblies or destructive protests and mobs in the name of religion.

Second, Sufism, as the above story tells us a bit, makes its disciples psychologically healthy. Contemplative mind, with the “proper diets” of spirituality, will be very positive. Jalal al-Din Rumi, a prominent Sufi from the 13th century, taught it beautifully,

With the positive mind, once it is successfully constructed, negative feelings or destructive ideas will be only like thought bubbles. Once one realizes they have no essence, they dissolve.

In the social life, where interactions often take place uncontrollably, the ones with the quality will play the appeasing part.

Lastly, as an alternative to the positivistic paradigm in education, as learners are positioned more as learning machines who must be able to calculate, explain and analyze, contemplative education can be a better or at least a supplementary choice.

As human beings, the learners should also develop their inner capabilities, not only to understand the virtues or characters prescribed in their school curriculum cognitively, but also to livingly live in those values in real world settings.

In the practical ground, for example, Padmasuri de Silva (2011) suggests that critical listening model — as one listens in order to be able to develop a counter argument and mentally grade what he hears — can be complemented or even changed with a deep listening model, an empathic form of listening as one listens with deep, open and ungrudging way to the other person.

This way, with the more complete picture of what the other means as well as himself, empathy and tolerance can gain more space and play a significant part in dialogs.

The writer is a researcher at Paramadina Foundation, Jakarta.