ARDENT ADVOCATE OF MULTI-RELIGIOUS WISDOM

Dear Nilupul Gunawardena,

It is with much sadness that I received the news from Ian Fry.Please convey our deepest condolences to Justice Weeramantry’s wife and family.

Judge’s passing away is a huge loss to all of us who are concerned about the human future. His was a voice of wisdom and reason. There will not be another public intellectual of his calibre for a long, long time to come.

I am informing all my colleagues in the JUST leadership about Weeramantry’s sad demise. We shall also share this sad news on FB and on the JUST website.

I pray that God Almighty will give his wife and family the strength and fortitude to bear the pain and sorrow that one must feel when one has lost someone so dear and near to oneself.

May God place Judge Weeramantry’s soul among the righteous in the hereafter.

In sorrow,

Chandra Muzaffar
WEERAMANTRY

ARDENT ADVOCATE OF MULTI-RELIGIOUS WISDOM

By Chandra Muzaffar

The article below was written for a Congratulatory Volume on Weeramantry in conjunction with his 90th birthday in November 2016. He died on the 5th of January 2017.

I have known Justice Weeramantry for many years. I first met him after he delivered a memorial lecture in Kuala Lumpur in 2005. That brief meeting was followed by other encounters mainly in Melbourne. There was also a World Future Council conference in Berlin in March 2010 where we were both speakers.

In October 2010, Justice Weeramantry and I together with our good friends, Professor Emeritus Joseph Camilleri and Dr. Ian Fry, organised an international consultation in Kuala Lumpur entitled ‘Faith, Shared Wisdom and International Law’. The Consultation was an attempt to explore some of the values and principles that different religions share and to see how they can help to shape international law and global society. It was a theme that was close to Weeramantry’s heart.

The Consultation inspired the four of us to establish a loose, informal network that would try to garner the shared wisdom embodied in the various spiritual and moral philosophies in order to address the great challenges of the day. Called The Initiative on Shared Wisdom (ISW) it was launched in the middle of 2011. The ISW held to the belief “that finding common ethical grounds can help overcome mistrust and suspicion, weaken religious and political extremism, and pave the way for collaboration in a dangerously divided world.” The overriding objective was “to translate the shared wisdom of the world’s major religions and ethical traditions into concrete steps to promote a peaceful, just and ecologically sustainable world order.” The ISW’s specific aims were “to address the tensions between the followers of different faiths that endanger peace and security in many parts of the world, including the Middle East, the birthplace of the three Abrahamic faiths and the site of some of the world’s most intractable con
flicts and to identify important values shared by the world’s major religious and ethical traditions that can offer useful guidance in the further development of an international legal order conducive to peace, human security and a sustainable environment.”

A number of leading personalities associated with civil society groups, religious movements, and the academic world endorsed our effort. Among them were Seyed Mohammad Khatami, the fifth President of the Islamic Republic of Iran; Ms. Karen Armstrong, a British writer on religion; Abdul Koroma, from Sierra Leone, a former Judge at the International Court of Justice in the Hague; and Tu Weiming from China, a professor of philosophy at Peking University.

In spite of the support we received, the network failed to take root. The lack of financial resources was the main reason. We were not able to employ a couple of knowledgeable, competent individuals who could devote all their time and energy to the huge task of giving meaning and substance to the nascent initiative. By the end of 2014, we were forced to wind up the ISW.

Nonetheless, we have in our own ways sought to pursue the ideas and ideals associated with ISW. Justice Weeramantry in particular continues to show through painstaking research and analysis why it is so important to imbibe from the wisdom of the ages in trying to resolve some of the issues that confront the contemporary world. He has made this his mission, the passion of his life.

To appreciate better the significance of the good judge’s perspective on the wealth of values and principles contained in our religious philosophies, I have identified two gems each from three of the five traditions that Weeramantry often writes about. In alphabetical order, I shall begin with Buddhism.

Weeramantry regards the Noble Eight-Fold Path as relevant to the judicial function. For instance Right Concentration is vital for a Judge. It “requires both a consideration of the wide range of factual matters relevant to the topic in hand and also a detailed study of the applicable law. No judge can be remiss in any of these, and right concentration helps to focus intensive attention on all matters.” He goes on to say that “Since the decision of a case involves intensive consideration of all relevant facts and every relevant legal provision, judges can never afford to be superficial in their consideration of these matters. Also, while concentrating intensely on the minutiae of the written law, they must pay due attention to the overarching principles of law and equity relevant to the matter.” He further emphasises that “Right concentration requires a realization that one is discharging a solemn trust. One is not only deciding a dispute between parties but also laying down a precedent for the future which may operate for many years to come.”
Weeramantry also argues persuasively on how one can apply Buddhist principles to the environmental crisis. The moral degradation that causes human suffering is also at the root of the destruction of the environment. He points out that the causes of moral degradation in Buddhism are “human greed (lobha) which shows lack of concern for other humans, or future generations or other forms of life; human aggression ( dosa) which shows lack of love or empathy or caring; (and) human ignorance ( avidhya) which blots out our vision of the causes of problems and the means for their resolution.” He is of the view that “As greed, hatred and ignorance pollute the mind, so also do they pollute the environment.”

Turning to Christianity, Weeramantry observes that the religion is very much aware “that legal systems often trap and punish the smaller offender while the more powerful offender escapes untouched by the law. In the words of Jesus, “You strain a fly out of your drink, but swallow the camel.” (Mathew 23:24). The little offender is caught and punished but the rich and powerful often go unscathed and carry on their illegal activities often within the legal system itself, without impediment.” Weeramantry urges judges “to be very conscious of this and the observation of Jesus two thousand years ago is full of relevance in our time.”

Beyond law and judges, Christianity offers a vision of life which is of eternal significance. In Weeramantry’s words, “Humility is the prescribed mode of life for Christians. This means the avoidance of greed, pride, ostentation and acquisitiveness. The Lord’s Prayer speaks of giving us this day our daily bread. We need sufficient for our comfortable and healthy existence but not vast stores of wealth with which to impress, overawe or subjugate our neighbours. The pursuit of wealth on a lavish scale seems to be the norm today, producing environmentally devastating effects, and this would be avoided by compliance with the prescribed modes for a Christian lifestyle. He further reiterates that, “Humility, stressed so heavily in Christ’s teachings, as for example the Sermon on the Mount, is central to Christian living and at the same time central to the protection of the environment.”

In appraising the Islamic view of judges and the judiciary, Weeramantry encounters principles and practices which are the very essence of modern human rights and democracy. The judiciary, he points out, was totally independent of executive control in many of the Islamic caliphates of the past. The independence of the judiciary is “ingrained in Islamic teaching down the centuries and the Islamic notion of the judicial function places this concept of independence of the judiciary at the very centre of all judicial activity. The slightest departure from it, whether through a deference to authority, advantage to one self, partiality towards one group or another, communalism, racism or any other, is absolutely contrary to the traditions of Islam and to centuries of religious writing on the judicial process.”

If an independent judiciary is a vital prerequisite for the dispensation of justice it is because justice is the leitmotif of Islam. It is at the crux and core of life in its entirety and is a fundamental dimension of the human being’s relationship with her fellow beings and with the environment. The Qu’ran, as Weeramantry emphasises over and over again, has many passages on the importance of living in harmony with the environment. As custodian of the earth, the human being has a duty to respect nature and to protect the environment — especially the delicate balance in the whole of creation. It is — and Weeramantry recognises this – “integrally linked to the concept of sustainable development. This involves a balance between what humans take for themselves out of the environment and what must be retained in the environment for the future. To upset this balance, which has been so carefully set, becomes then a serious violation of religious duty.” It is in this context that Islam exhorts us to tread lighty on the earth which incidentally is the title of Weeramantry’s magnificent study of religion and the environment. As the Qur’an puts it, “the faithful servants of the Beneficent are those who tread upon the earth gently.” (Qur’an 25:63)

By drawing out the abiding values and principles from Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, among other religions and evaluating them through the lens of a contemporary thinker, Justice Weeramantry has succeeded in establishing their relevance and their significance to our time and our place. In the process, he has demonstrated how encyclopaedic his knowledge is and how much empathy he has for faith traditions other than his own. He is arguably one of the most erudite and eloquent inter-faith bridge-builders on our planet today.

And yet, his message about the relevance of shared spiritual and moral values, the relevance of the perennial wisdom of the ages, to international law and the contemporary world does not seem to have elicited a positive response from the general public. How does one explain this? Is it because religion is no longer perceived in much of the Western world and in many non-Western societies too as a guide for resolving humanity’s problems? Is it because religion has lost precious ground to science and technology? Is it because civilization’s material progress is so alluring that it has obscured our vision of the spiritual and the sacred so much so that we do not appreciate anymore the real meaning and the ultimate purpose of life ?

Even in those societies where religion remains a powerful influence, it is not the eternal wisdom embodied in its spiritual and moral values which Weeramantry constantly alludes to, that its followers preach and practise. For these followers of religion, it is its rituals, its forms, its symbols that really matter. This is what defines faith for them. Of course, rituals and related expressions of faith are important. But when love and kindness are subordinated to some rule about prayer or some procedure about pilgrimage, it means that form has trumped substance. This has happened in every religion right through history.

This has to change if religion is to play the sort of transformative role in the contemporary world that Weeramantry and other kindred spirits envisage. Will the emphasis within religion change from form to substance? Wouldn’t that require a new understanding of religion itself?

If such an understanding emerges in the future, Weeramantry’s monumental writings would have played a decisive role.

REFERENCES

1) C.G. Weeramantry Tread Lightly On The Earth Religion, The Environment And The Human Future Weeramantry International Centre for Peace Education and Research, World Future Council. A Stamford Lake Publication 2009.
2) Essays by Judge C.G. Weeramantry i) The Noble Eight-Fold Path and the Judicial Process ii) Christianity and the Judicial Process and iii) Islam and the Judiciary.
3) Various documents associated with the Initiative on Shared Wisdom (ISW) 2011 -2014.
4) Chandra Muzaffar Exploring Religion In Our Time (Penang, Malaysia: Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2011)
5) Chandra Muzaffar A World In Crisis: Is There a Cure? Malaysia: International Movement for a Just World, 2013) e-book.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST)

2nd September 2016.