Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Stand by Those Re-Thinking Islam Part II: Conversations

Reaching-out across the Air-Curtain
The air curtain keeps the cold air in and the hot air out. We have in Malaysia built air curtains between the Muslims and non-Muslims. You cannot see them but they are there. They are real.

We can never hope to have a peaceful, united nation if our people do not talk and interact with one another. We need to reach out across that Air Curtain to talk to our fellow Malaysian of different ethnicity and religion. I ask you to carry out an active commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of religion to care for our neighbours and share our ideals and dreams with them and theirs with you. Reach out to our Muslim and non-Muslim friends and have conversations. Have a dialogue with complete sincerity and deepest respect for each other’s ethnicity and religion.    

In Part I of this Article, I pointed out that the politicization of Islam and the Traditionalistslaid down the idea that the primary obligation of Muslims is to establish an Islamic state ruled by sharia. Liberal democracy, pluralism, inclusiveness and tolerance of other religions are labelled as un-Islamic and heretical. I set out in Part II a thumbnail sketch of a few of those Re-Thinking Islam who argue that these concepts, far from being un-Islamic are in fact,part of the universal values of Islam. I urge non-Muslims to know more about the ongoingdebate contested by the Traditionalist and Re-Thinkers. This is because due to the politicization of Islam and the PAS/UMNO cooperation the result of this debate affects us all,Muslims and non-Muslims alike.   

Islam: Tolerance, Democracy and Pluralism
Dr Nurcholish Majid (March 17, 1939-August 29, 2005) known affectionately “Cak Nur” was a prominent Indonesian Muslim intellectual. Throughout his career he argued that for Islam to be victorious in the global struggle of ideas, it needs to embrace the concepts of tolerance, democracy and pluralism. In the 1970s, he coined the slogan: “Islam, yes; Islamic parties, no” which became very popular. The slogan helped to combat the view that it was sinful for Muslims to vote against Islamic parties.

Nurcholish influenced by his growing up in a multi-religious society, advocated a secular democracy incorporating a strong policy of religious pluralism. He denounced those that oppose multicultural, multi-religious and multinational life, noting that the Quran states many times, “If God wanted, He could create you to be one nation, but He wanted you to be different nations, so you get to know each other…”

Nurcholish Majid played a critical role in Indonesia’s transition to democracy. His experience as an Islamic activist, student leader, opponent of both the Sukarno and Suharto regimes and also the infighting and inability of Islamic political parties to work together led him to conclude that the mixing of state and religion is counter-productive.

Nurcholish delivered a landmark speech on 2 January 1970 entitled “The Necessity of Renewal of Islamic Thought and the Problem of Integration of the Islamic Community.”According to Nurcholish, one measure of the intellectual lethargy afflicting Muslims was their inability to differentiate between values that were “transcendental from those that were temporal.” The core problem as he saw it was that “everything becomes transcendental and valued as “ukhrawi [pertaining to the hereafter] without exception thus excluding it from critical scrutiny due to the alleged sacredness. The results of this general Muslim attitude “are most injurious.” He observed that the “glasses through which Muslims see the scales of values have made them unable to respond properly to the development of thought in the world today. He observed, Muslims, in other words were intellectually unprepared for meeting the challenges of the modern world because they could not distinguish between issues which were sacred (and off limits to excessive critical scrutiny) and those that were not. The solution he offered was the “temporalizing” of values which are in fact worldly, and the freeing of the ummah (Muslim community) from the tendency to spiritualize them. He called for new creative thinking and the cultivation of a “mental readiness to always test and retest the truth of a value in the face of material, moral or historical facts (so this may be)characteristic of Muslims.

Nurcholish’s argument is based on the idea that only God is transcendental and divine and as a consequence everything in the earthly realm should be viewed as temporal and subject to criticism. To confuse the temporal with the transcendental, or worse yet, to assign divine attributes to the sphere of worldly activity is a theological contradiction. “For to sacralise anything other than God, is, in reality, shirk [polytheism]”  

Insisting that no Quranic basis exists for the creation of an Islamic state, Nurcholish warned that modern constructions of an Islamic state reduced Islam to a profane ideology, easily manipulated by those who imposed their own views in the name of religion. He equated it with the sin of polytheism (shirk) or idolatry. Thus he also rejects modern Islamists’ contention that imposing sharia as the rule of law is necessary to make Indonesian society more Islamic, insisting instead that true spirituality and religiosity comes from an inner transformation (individual and national). Rather than imposing Islamic law, what is needed is a spiritual path and cultural path that fosters ethics in society rather than an Islamic state. The primary means to this path are education, to transform individuals and society, and dialogue, an open exchange, to improve relations between Muslims and other religious communities as well as the Muslim world and the West.

Madjid was a prominent advocate of democracy believing that democracy has Quranic precedents in Quranic and traditional Islamic notions of deliberation and consultation (musyawarah and shura). He insisted that religious pluralism and tolerance were not simply a theological issue but a divine mandate, rooted in Quranic passages (2:62; 5:69) that teach all believers will be rewarded equally in the next life. All religions are on par with Islam and God gives salvation to anyone regardless of his religion. So too, since all religions are committed to ethical values and social justice, all religions - not just Islam – have a role to play in the implementation of religious values such as social justice and democratic governance in politics and society.   

Need for Secular State to be Muslim 
Abdullah Ahmed An-Na’im, a prominent Sudanese-American Muslim scholar and human rights activist, has been a major voice on issues of Islamic reform, human rights and the secular state. He is the Professor of Law and Senior Fellow of the Study of Law and Religion of Emory University. 

An-Naim is influenced by and draws heavily upon the ideas of Ali Abd al-Raziq as well as An-Na’ims own teacher, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha – both advocates of shariah reform and of a secular  state that does not seek to impose any one interpretation of religious law as the law of the nation. Each suffered for their ideas; al-Raziq lost his teaching position at Al Azhar University and Mahmoud Taha was hanged by the Gafaar Numeiri government for apostasy.
The role of Islam in the modern state depends largely on the interpretation of the authority of the past. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im argues in his book published in 2009“Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shariah” that the coercive enforcement of shariah by the state betrays the Quran’s insistence on voluntary acceptance of Islam.
Just as the state should be secured from the misuse of religious authority, shariah should also be freed from the control of the state. State policies or legislation must be based on civic reasons accessible to citizens of all religions. He showed in his book that throughout the history of Islam, Islam and the State have normally been separate. 

An’Na’im maintains that the ideas of human rights and citizenship are more consistent with Islamic principles than with claims of a supposedly Islamic state to enforce shariah. In fact, he suggests, the very idea of an “Islamic state” is based on European ideas of state and law and not shariah or the Islamic tradition.

An-Na’im explained that in making a claim that the state should be secular he means the state is neutral regarding religious doctrine, that it does not take a position on religion. He says the state cannot be religious. No matter how hard those in control of the state try, they will never achieve a claim of making a state religious because the state is a political institution it is incapable of having a religion. 

He clarifies that whenever this claim is made what it means is that this is a political institution that is controlled by elites who are using the state institutions to enforce their view of religion. So the religious quality is of the ruling elite, not of the state as such. He says once this is recognised than it can be realised how dangerous it is to concede that the state is religious: “You don’t have authority unless I concede it to you. So if I do not concede to the ruling elite that they made a religious state by claiming it to be so, it is not religious.” 
An-Na’im says“As a Muslim I need the state to be secular so that I can be the Muslim I choose to be by conviction and choice”

He adds: There is no possibility of being a Muslim by coercion. You may be forced to conform to certain practices, certain lifestyles, dress style, but it never makes the religious quality of being a Muslim, unless it is by free and totally autonomous choice. So the pious intent to comply is integral to every religious act as a Muslim. The possibility of belief logically requires the possibility of disbelief. If I cannot disbelief, I cannot belief. Belief has to be a choice. It is totally incoherent to speak about a situation where I have no choice but to believe what I am made by others to believe.”

Na’im said his argument against an Islamic state or enforcement of shariah by the state is from an Islamic point of view but he is also aware that the idea, pushed by Islamic fundamentalists and other forces, of the Islamic state that enforces shariah, has been taken for granted. He says this idea is totally groundless and meaningless. He made this point in his book that the idea of an Islamic state is an extremely recent discourse. It has no precedent and it has no basis in pre-colonial Islamic history or intellectual tradition. He says:
“It is totally premised on a European ideal of the state and a European ideal of positive law. The notion that the state can enact and enforce shariah as a state law is a colonial idea, a postcolonial innovation”

The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism      
Abdulaziz Sachedina is Professor and IIIT Chair in Islamic Studies at George Mason University. He has been a professor for more 33 years, He teaches Classical Islam, Islam in the Modern Age, Islam Democracy and Human Rights. In 1998, Grand Ayatollah Sistani issued a statement against Sachedina that advised Muslims not to listen to his talks or to ask him questions about religious matters.

In his 2007 book “The Islamic Roots of Democratic Plauralism” Sachedina argues that doors of religious interpretation must be reopened - to correct false interpretations, replace outdated laws and formulate new doctrines. His book critically analyses Muslim teachings on such issues as pluralism, civil society, war and peace and violence and self-sacrifice. 

Sachedina’s basic argument is that the Quran provides a solid basis for shaping a pluralist, just and inclusive society. He analysed three core Quranic concepts: that humanity is one community; people of different religious backgrounds should compete among themselves to do good; and the necessity for compassion and forgiveness. Sachedina affirms that each of the three principles concerns not only personal convictions or morality, but also the need to establish an ethical public order consistent with Islam’s role as a “faith in the public realm”

Sachedina takes on some of the most controversial issues in contemporary Islamic thought: the legal rights of non-Muslims (dhimmi) in a majority Muslim state, the rules regarding apostasy and retribution, and the practice of jihad and its relation to rebellion and martyrdom. Despite the fact that numerous examples of tolerance and legal flexibility exists in the Islamic community, nevertheless, he maintains, Muslim jurists formulated legal codes relating to the status of non-Muslims that allow for discriminatory practices. These laws are not in accordance with modern conceptions of pluralism and inclusiveness and therefore must be rejected: “Most of the past juridical decisions treating non-Muslims minorities have become irrelevant in the context of contemporary religious pluralism, a cornerstone of inter-human relations”
Sachedina relates apostasy and jihad to freedom of religion and forgiveness in Islam respectively. Both rests on the key concept of fitra,” a human being’s natural predisposition towards justice and knowledge of good and evil. (“Fitra” according to Islamic theology, human beings are born with an innate inclination of tawhid (Oneness) which is encapsulated in the fitra along with compassion, intelligence, ihsan and all other attributes that embody what is human) This inherent morality reinforces a belief “basic to Muslim identity” that the divinely mandated vocation to realize God’s will in history is communal as well as individual. Fitra not only forms the basis of a “God-centered public order,” it also provides the key to interreligious dialogue because it speaks to the nature of all humans regardless of creed. Sachedina envisions, therefore an Islamic theology of religions for the twenty-first century in which law based on God’s revelation acts as an instrument of justice and peace in society.

Sachedina does not accept the type of religious state proposed by the fundamentalists in which Islam has an exclusive claim over authority in the community. Rather Sachedina argues that the Prophet laid the groundwork for a “universal community” that was subsequently corrupted by the political imperative to subdue people of other faiths and by a reading of traditional sources that lost sight of their original plural intent. By reclaiming the belief that all human beings are “equal in creation” the Muslim community can serve as a model of a religious faith that also calls for justness in society through the creation of pluralistic, democratic institutions.

Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation
Tariq Ramadan is a Swiss academic, philosopher and writer. He is the professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford and visiting professor to the University of Perlis, Malaysia. He was elected by Time magazine in 2004 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and by Foreign Policy Magazine as one of the top 100 Global Thinkers.

In his book published in 2009 “Radical Reform Islamic Ethic and Liberation” he called for a radical reform and challenged those who argue defensively that reform is a dangerous and foreign deviation and a betrayal of the faith. 

Ramadan says the debate over the question of the renewal, revival and reform of Islamic sciences, and more specifically of “fiqh”, is a very old one among Muslim scholars. The awakening of Islamic thought necessarily involves reconciliation with its spiritual dimension on the one hand and on the other, renewed commitment to rational and critical thinking (ijtihad) of the scriptural sources in the field of law and jurisprudence (fiqh).
Authentic reform, he says, has always been grounded on Islam’s textual sources, spiritual objectives and intellectual traditions. Today’s Muslims, urgently need contemporary fiqh, distinguishing, what in the texts is immutable and what may be changed.

Similar to Nucholish’s argument, Tariq Ramadan says that literalists fail to distinguish between that which, in the Revelation, is immutable (thabit), absolute, and transhistorical, and that which is subject to change, linked to temporal evolution and environmental changes (mutaghayyir). Tariq Ramadan asserts that by failing to distinguish between the immutable and the changing, contemporary literalist bestir a series of confusions involving grave consequences.

Principles can be immutable, absolute and eternal, but their implementations in time or in history-historical models- are relative, changing, and in constant mutation. Thus the principles of justice, equality, rights and human brotherhood that guided the Prophet of Islam indeed remain the references beyond history, but the model of the city of Medina founded by Muhammad in the seventh century is a historical realization linked to the realities and requirements of his time. Muslims must, in the course of history, try to remain faithful to those principles and strive to implement them as best as they can according to the requirements of their time, but they cannot merely imitate, reproduce, or duplicate a historical model that was adapted for a particular time but no longer corresponds to the requirements of their own.

To confuse eternal principles and historical models is simplistic and, most of all, particularly serious, idealizing something in a moment in history (in this instance the city of Medina) leads to thoughtless and guilty denial of that history and reduces the universality of Islam’s principles to the dream of an impossible return to the past, to an irresponsible “nostalgia of origins.”

The same temptation can be found in some contemporary salafi trends that advocate an almost exclusively political commitment: they reduce faithfulness to the message of imitating, or returning to, a specific historical political structure, a particular type of “state” or the reference to a “caliphate,” which they set against any other possible political organization (dismissively arguing that these alternatives arise from the era of ignorance or opposition of Islam, al-jahiliyyah)
The distinction between principles and models appeals to Muslims’ conscience and requires them to display intelligence and creativity to achieve, at each moment in history and whatever their environment, a society modelled as faithfully as possible to the ethical principles they adhere to. Whereas for literalists that act of being faithful to the Prophet, his Companions and the salaf essentially consists in imitating their behaviour and simply trying to reproduce their historical dated achievements. Tariq Ramadan says essential faithfulness consists in recapturing their spiritual strength and intellectual energy to achieve the most coherent social model for our own time (as they did theirs.) The point is not to imitate the historical result achieved but to reproduce the ethical demand and human efforts through which it was achieved. It is not to repeat its form but to grasp its substance, spirit and objectives.

Amongst the ways is through ijtihad and maqasid al-shariah (the Higher Objectives of Islam.)It is necessary to think through and reconsider the list of principles and higher aims that can be deduced from the scriptures, the text and the Universe, to preserve what is good, beneficial and useful to the human race and to protect it from what is evil and harmful.

Liberal Democracy and Maqasid al-shariah and ijtihad

Anwar Ibrahim had from long ago spoken of the need for Ijtihad, maqasid al-shariah, tolerance and moderation. In his book “Asian Renaissance,” he said Islam came to Southeast Asia borne on the seas by Sufis and merchants rather than overland by soldiers brandishing swords, conversion was by choice, not coercion.

The peaceful and gradual Islamization has moulded the Southeast Asian Muslim psyche into one which is cosmopolitan, open-minded, tolerant and amenable to cultural diversity. Of course the outlook is also fashioned by the strong presence of people of other faiths who reciprocated Muslim tolerance. By being moderate and pragmatic, Southeast Asian Muslims are neither compromising the teachings and ideals of Islam nor pandering to the whims and fancies of the times. On the contrary, Anwar says such an approach is necessary to realize the societal ideals of Islam such as justice, equitable distribution of wealth, fundamental rights and liberties. This approach is sanctioned in a saying by the Prophet of Islam, to the effect that “the best way to conduct your affairs is to choose the middle path” (Hadith narrated by al-Baihaqi)
Anwar said (at that time 1996-97) the proponents of the imposition of Muslim laws or the establishment of an Islamic state are confined to the periphery, Southeast Asian Muslims prefer to concentrate on the task of ensuring economic growth and eradicating poverty, instead of amputating the limbs of thieves. They would rather strive to improve the welfare of the women and children in their midst, than spend their days elaborately defining the nature and institution ideal Islamic state. They do not believe it would make one less of a Muslim to promote economic growth, to master the information revolution, and to demand justice for women. Nor do they believe it would strengthen one’s commitment to religion by instilling anxiety among people of other faiths.

However, Anwar warned even then, against the process of intellectual decline and decay that was and continues to gradually set into Islam. With the deterioration in economic activities over the centuries of colonial subjugation, poverty and destitution began to surface in Muslim societies. Patronage of learning, arts, and sciences suffered. As the level of learning declined, superstitions grew. The general public could no longer be counted upon to participate intelligently in societal processes as responsible and enlightened citizens. 

Among the ulema, conservatism and rigidity began to take root in the face of external challenges and internal decadence. The doctrine of taqlid (uncritical imitation) was instituted. Innovation, change and inquiry became suspect. In such a climate, the ulema devoted themselves almost entirely to the issue of fiqh (jurisprudence) and limited study and commentary to the works of the great scholars of the classical era. 

Serious problems which cried for urgent attention, including poverty, illiteracy and other forms of social malaise, were ignored. Islamic scholarship was confined to textual studies of language, traditions and orthodox jurisprudence. It became absorbed, not in the urgent task of championing the broad vision and civilizational ideals of Islam in the face of the onslaught of modern secular ideologies, but in attempting to unearth past solutions to resolve sometimes petty issues.

The effort to revive the spirit of inquiry and reasoned discourse (tajdid) required no less than a thorough transformation of mental outlook. To regain their central position in society, the ulema need to manifest intellectual vigour and societal relevance. They have to compete among the multifarious contending forces for the hearts and minds of the people. If a disproportionate number of ulema were to devote themselves entirely to jurisprudence, the other sciences and arts would be bereft of moral leadership. The issue of penal sanction of the shariah, for example, is a preoccupation of the majority of the ulema, although the mass poverty is more pervasive than criminality, and the suffering of the destitute and the hungry in so many parts of the Muslim world demands greater attention and compassion.

Muslims need to address urgent social and economic issues such as the eradication of poverty and illiteracy, the provision of employment, decent housing and other social amenities. These are preconditions before certain shariah injunctions can be translated into legislation. Indeed, the construction of an outer edifice of Islamic governance without the true substance of physical and spiritual well-being of the ummah would be a travesty of the maqasid al-sharia, the ideals and objectives of religion itself. It is tantamount to insisting on a form of religion devoid of substance.

Anwar ended with a caution that the wave of Islamic revivalism that began with the anti-imperialist struggles of the previous century had gained further momentum among Muslims in Southeast Asia. He had the prescience in 1996 to warn that the energy potential must be properly directed so as not to deteriorate or be corrupted into blind fanaticism which could precipitate into violent clashes with other cultures. He said there were indeed signs, however, that these religious energies, aligned with forces of social conservatism, have served to marginalize the Muslims in the rapidly changing world. Thus there is a need to reassert the universalism of Islam, its values of justice, compassion and tolerance in a world that is yearning for a sense of direction and for genuine peace. If this could be achieved, Muslims can truly contribute to the shaping of a new world.

Unfortunately, as we all know Anwar was incarcerated not long after “Asian Renaissance” was published. On his release he has continued to push for the ijtihad and the adoption of the maqasid al-shariah approach to bring the modern concepts of democracy, pluralism, tolerance and human rights as comparable to the universal values of Islam in his many talks, forums,seminars, local and international and in his public rallies.

His position did not waver despite his imprisonment. In an essay “Universal Values and Muslim Democracy” as Distinguished Visiting Professor in the School of Foreign Services at Georgetown University which draws upon his speeches at the New York Democracy Forum in December 2005 and the Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy in Istanbul in April 2006, Anwar in referring to the increasingly growing alienation between East and West over issues of freedom and justice, said he was reminded of his upbringing in multicultural and multi-ethnic Malaysia. Malaysian psyche is infused with a plurality of identities. Malaysians study the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and at the same time devoured the works of Dante, Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot. There is never any doubt that our world and the West are compatible and the spirit of inclusiveness and pluralism will continue to be a source of inspiration in bridging the gaps between culture and civilizations.

Anwar called the “harrowing theories” concocted to claim an inherent contradiction between Islam and democratic values, are attempts to drive a wedge between two great civilizations. The argument that liberal democracy places sovereignty in the hands of the individual, in Islam sovereignty belongs solely to God, thereby reducing the individual to a mere agent with little concern for the exercise of creativity and personal freedom, is a misreading of the sources of religion and represents a capitulation to the extremist discourse. The proper view is that freedom is the fundamental objective of the divine.

Anwar wrote that the freedom defined by the West is the same in the maqasid al-sharia (the higher objectives of sharia):
As articulated by the great jurists al-Shatibi (d. 790 CE), the maqasid al-sharia (higher objectives of the shariah) sanctify the preservation of religion, life, intellect, family and wealth, objectives that bear striking resemblance to Lockean ideals that would be expounded centuries later. Many scholars have further explained that laws which contravene the maqasid must be revised or amended to bring them into line with the higher objectives and to ensure that they contribute to the safety and development of the individual and society. Notwithstanding the current malaise of authoritarianism plaguing the Muslim world, there can be no question that several crucial elements of constitutional democracy and civil society are also imperatives in Islam-freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and the sanctity of life and property – as demonstrated very clearly by the Koran, as well as the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, perhaps most succinctly and eloquently in his farewell address.”

Anwar Ibrahim said the conclusion to be drawn is that human desire to be free and to lead a dignified life is universal. So is the abhorrence of despotism and oppression. These are passions that motivate not only Muslims but people from all religions and civilizations.

They have imprisoned Anwar again. However his spirit and his ideas remain free. His struggle for the inculcation of a culture of a plural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society living in peace and harmony continues unabated.    

Anwar and those Re-thinking Islam faces continuous challenges including assaults to their credibility, reputation, physical security and loss of personal liberty. They have spoken up with courage and fortitude that Muslims should not be concerned about an Islamic state ruled by shariah but to be in a state of Islam.  For non-Muslims I urge you join this journey. It is not a journey to be taken by Muslims alone. We have to walk together in the search for greater cohesiveness, in fostering a better sense of community with shared values, in findingand articulating a common moral and ethical ground beyond mere tolerance. Then together we can confront corruption, authoritarianism, modern feudalism, bigotry, racism hatred and injustices. Only by moral fortitude can we have the courage of conviction to battle these iniquities as one.          

William Leong Jee Keen
Member of Parliament Selayang
Parti Keadilan Rakyat
23 January 2016 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Stand By Those Re-Thinking Islam Part I : A Different Narrative and Discourse

Realignment of the Political Landscape

As we enter 2016, the shifting loyalties of politics find two once bitter foes joining forces in a corroborative alliance. Despite contradictory statements by PAS leaders, Malaysians have no illusions the compact is a done deal. For PAS, the cooperation makes it’s Holy Grail of turning Malaysia into an Islamic state and implementation of sharia, potentially, just an election away. For UMNO, it gets to retain power despite the corruption scandals, fiscal mismanagements, failed economic policies, rising costs of living and falling value of the Ringgit.

Convergence of PAS Islamism and UMNO Islamism

With the PAS/UMNO cooperation we now have a convergence of PAS Islamism to establish an Islamic state ruled by shariah with UMNO Islamism on the Islamisation of the bureaucracy, laws and policies of the nation. Both favour a literal interpretation of the primary sources of Islam and harken back to earlier times to return to the fundamentals of the religion which is out of line with modern times (“the Traditionalist”)

The cooperation presents the daunting prospect of the ulema working with Federal and State religious authorities, state agencies and bureaucrats in establishing not just an Islamic theocratic state but a brand of Islamic state fused with intolerant ethno-nationalism where the supremacy of Islam and supremacy of a particular ethnic group are one and the same.[1]  

Re-Thinking Islam

There is, however, an increasing number of Muslim scholars and political leaders who utilize rigorous, historical and texture analysis to re-examine, reconcile and re-think the role of Islam in a secular state and related issues so as to bring modern concepts of democracy, human rights, inclusivity, tolerance, pluralism and religious freedom to be comparable to Islam’s universal concepts. They assert good governance, economic development, inclusiveness, protecting basic rights and freedoms are Islamic objectives adopting a maqasid approach and ijtihad. In this article I call these Muslim scholars and political leaders “the Re-Thinkers”

Muslims First Malay Second

The electoral strategic interests of winning Malay votes have changed to winning Muslim votes due to the increasing number of Malays who identify themselves based on the religion rather than the race. With Malays forming 60% of the population and 114 parliament seats out of 165 in Peninsula Malaysia being Malay majority seats, the importance of Malay/Muslim votes is obvious. According to a 15 August 2015 Merdeka Centre report, 60% of Malays say they are Muslims first. This is up from 54% ten years ago. Those who see themselves as Malays first fell from 11% to 6%. If the Re-Thinkers wish to reform the thinking of the religion, the narrative and discourse must address the Muslim audience.

Non-Muslims’ Understanding of the New Narrative

This article seeks to obtain non-Muslims’ understanding on the need for a different narrative and discourse from the existing Islamic state- secular state debate and not to be alarmed by the Re-Thinkers’ use and reference to Islamic authoritative traditions and religious arguments.

A Different Discourse from the Constitutional Argument

The argument based on the interpretation of Article 3(1) that Islam is the official religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony, the guaranteed freedom of religion under Article 10 and the Supreme Court decision of Che Omar bin Che Soh v Public Prosecutor [1988] 2 MLJ 55 that the laws of Malaysia is secular, although sound is not the narrative and discourse that can be used for the intended Muslim audience. The road to Islamic re-thinking despite the twists and turns cannot reach its destination without passing through the gates of Islamic authoritative traditions.

Those Re-Thinking Islam have to frame the narrative and discourse to engage Muslims in accordance with the practices and authority of Islamic traditions. This is a critical problem that all religious scholars or leaders of whatever faith face. They need to demonstrate a relationship between their re-thinking and the authority of tradition. The Re-Thinkers must show some form of continuity between tradition and change. For Muslims, the interpretations and practices sanctioned by the ijma of the past, the classical Islamic traditions, consensus of religious scholars or ijma represents the source of religious authority. If the Re-Thinkers are unable to establish the necessary link or continuity between the authoritative ijma of the past and modern change their efforts will fail.

Non-Muslims need to understand that the success or failure of the re-thinking and approach to interpret the universal values of Islam to be comparable with modern society depends on the narrative and discourse being put in the language and in accordance with the Islamic belief system. It is only upon this being established can we go into heart of the matter. The core question to be answered is not whether Malaysia should be an Islamic or secular state, it is what Malaysian Muslims want. It is submitted that on reflection it is not different from what non-Muslim Malaysians want.

Effect of the Politicization of Islam in Malaysia

Malaysian Muslims want to practice their religion and live their lives in accordance with Islamic values. However, they do not wish to impose their beliefs on non-Muslims. This is the same as every other citizen practising their own religion. However, the politicization of Islam in the battle by PAS and UMNO for the hearts and minds of the Malay Muslims has been a contest of one trying to out-Islamise the other in accordance with the tenets of fundamental Islamism. As a consequence, Muslims have been pushed by the two political Islamist parties to the right of the Islamic political spectrum much to the despair and alarm of non-Muslims and the silent and silenced majority of moderate Muslims. In my opinion this have caused negative effects in at least three major areas.

Effects of Politicisation of Islam: Radical or Militant Islamism

Just as Malaysians are recovering from the shock of a 16-year old “lone cub” attack inspired by ISIS in the attempted kidnapping of a sales assistant in a shopping complex in Sungai Petani, we are reeling under the horrifying news of the ISIS terrorists attacks in Jakarta so close to home. It is estimated that approximately 200-250 Malaysians have joined ISIS as fighters. With a population of 31 million and only 60% of which are Muslims this is an exceedingly high rate compared to the 400 Indonesians who joined ISIS with a Muslim population of more than 300 million. Social media have gone viral with videos of Malaysians fighting and dying for ISIS. A growing number treat them as martyrs and heroes. Malaysian girls have also gone there to become comfort women to the ISIS fighters. “Jihad al-Nikah” refers to a controversial concept where women allegedly offer themselves to provide sexual comfort to fighters for the establishment of an Islamic state.

According to a recent PEW poll, 11% of Malaysian Muslims have a ‘favourable’ view of ISIS. Malaysian Muslims are more likely than Indonesian Muslims to consider suicide bombing justifiable (18% versus 7%). Transport Minister, Dato Sri Liow Tiong Lai told a conference in Kuala Lumpur on 12 December 2015 that based on police intelligence estimates there are approximately 50,000 ISIS supporters in Malaysia.

Although both PAS and UMNO have gone officially on record to condemn ISIS and other terrorist attacks, to a large extent, impressionable Malaysians being enamoured with the romanticised idea of jihad is due to the politicization of Islam by PAS and UMNO. While JAKIM (Malaysian Islamic Development Department), Biro Tata Negara (National Civics Bureau or “BTN”) and similar bodies do not officially support ISIS or its brutally cruel and murderous ideology, they have promoted a uniquely narrow Malay Islamic worldview which indirectly supports and complements the ISIS brand of intolerance. Many young Malays at the primary and secondary school steeped in the view of Malay Islam finds ISIS’s ideology easy to accept, having grown up with a state-sanctioned view of intolerance towards non-Malay Muslims.[2]

A different narrative and discourse is urgently needed so as to review the politicization of Islam in Malaysia, the Islamization agenda, policies and strategies of all parties to reduce these factors contributing to the rise of right wing ethno-nationalist sentiments and extremist religious activities.

Effect of Politicisation of Islam on non-Muslims

In the quest by PAS and UMNO to win Muslim votes, freedom of non-Muslims to practise their religion have been encroached upon and is diminishing over time.

The ban on the use of “Allah”, the seizure of Bahasa Malaysia language Bibles and CDs intended for Christian use, the Islamization of the bureaucracy, the enactment and implementation of narrow Islamic policies by UMNO-run state and local governments have fundamental and far-reaching consequences in the politicisation of Islam in Malaysia. This includes the control of building non-Muslim religious buildings and curtailment of land plots for non-Muslim burial sites. Demolition and desecration of religious places of worship have become regular and repeated problems.

Amendments to Article 121 of the Federal Constitution and the insertion of Article 121(1A) which provides that the High Court shall have no jurisdiction in respect of any matter within the jurisdiction of the Sharia Courts have led the Civil Courts to abdicate their jurisdiction to determine sensitive religious cases such as conversion, child custody and child conversion cases. Cases such as Lina Joy, Shamala v Dr Jeyaganesh, R. Subashini and the recent Court of Appeal decision of Indira Gandhi have caused great grief and distress. The lack of judicial activism and deference to the shariah courts mean more suffering and injustice shall continue unless something is done.

Effect of Politicisation of Islam on Muslims

Muslims are in fact bearing the brunt of the Traditionalist approach to Islam in Malaysia. Over the years, Islamic authorities have gradually become more rigid in their interpretation and application of the Shariah code in Islam.

This Christmas the Sultan of Brunei decreed a maximum five year prison sentence for Muslims who celebrate Christmas or non-Muslims who celebrate too openly. Some quarters in Malaysia support this. Before this, the National Fatwa Council issued an edict banning Muslims from celebrating Halloween which is categorised as a Christian celebration of the dead.

Muslim gymnasts have recently been criticised for their “revealing” uniforms. The organiser of a dog-petting event received death threats. In Kelantan Muslim men are fined up to RM1,000.00 or jail up to a year or both, for failing to attend Friday prayers thrice in a row under s state by-law.[3]

Friday sermons prepared by religious authorities paint non-Muslims as enemies of Islam. Muslims who engaged in liberalism, pluralism and humanism are condemned as being anti-Islam. Malaysian religious authorities also frequently warn against liberalism, with the Federal government’s Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) reminding Muslims that this concept, along with pluralism, are threats to Malay-Muslim unity as they could weaken their faith. JAKIM also said the National Fatwa Council had in its 74th meeting in 2006 declared liberal thinking as heretical.

Islamic authorities prohibit dissent and discussions of the country’s predominant religion. Muslims are told they cannot use logic and rationale to understand and practise Islam. They must only refer to the Quran and hadith and nothing else.

Thinking Muslims are being marginalised and persecuted. Octogenarian, Muslim intellectual, Dr Kassim Ahmad was charged by the Federal Territory Religious Department (JAWI) for insulting Islam and disobeying religious authorities for participating in a seminar entitled “The Thoughts of Kassim Ahmad” organised by the Perdana Foundation where he apparently accused some ulema of imitating the “priesthood class” and questioned the use of hadith to interpret the Quran. The former Malay studies lecturer at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies lamented that people in Malaysia are losing their freedom to think and voice their views, and that the authorities are becoming more narrow-minded. 

There is a climate of fear, suspicion and prejudice. Muslims who do not prescribe to the belief system of the religious authorities do not see themselves as being welcomed or even tolerated in their own country.

A Different Discourse: Islamic State or State of Islam (Higher Objectives of Islam)

It is hoped that through the different narrative and discourse there will be a better awareness of the concept of an Islamic state and its origins. The maqasid al-shariah approach and ijtihad would provide a different solution to the negative effects suffered by non-Muslims and Muslims in Malaysia.

Roots of Radicalism in Political Islam

It helps in the understanding of the issue of Islamic state to know that militant Islamism has the same root as political Islam. Both share the same dream of establishing an Islamic state and implementation of shariah, the difference is one is by the bullet while the other is by the ballot.

Muslims in the Arab Spring countries aghast with the cruelty and brutality of ISIS, Boko Haram and extremist violence is amongst the reasons for political Islam’s decline and on the defensive post-Arab Spring. It is hoped that by having this different discourse Muslims come to a realisation and appreciation that it is not a religious obligation to set up the Islamic state and that the Caliphate is not relevant in today’s world.

The discourse reminds Muslims that Prophet Mohamed and the successive early generations especially the four rightly-guided caliphs did not establish a state. Their focus was on organising the life of the ummah (community of believers) to be a moral community, with its hierarchy, social arrangements, economic system and defence capabilities. The idea of a state is a modern invention. It is therefore a fallacy to believe that setting up the Islamic state is a religious obligation.  

Ali Mamouri, a researcher and writer who specializes in Religion wrote in Al-Monitor “The Roots of Radicalism in Political Islam” that political Islam is the umbrella term of fundamentalism. The goal of fundamentalism is to return to the “sacred text” carefully executing what it says without any interpretation and rejecting the official, and more conservative, historical interpretations of it. For the fundamentalists, a return to the original and primary reading and avoiding any latter interpretation, is the solution to all current problems.[4]

Creating an Islamic state ruled by the principles of sharia is the cornerstone which a growing Islamic ideology depends on. This general aim serves as an ideological façade concealing behind it a heterogeneous mixture of groups and organisations that differ in their strategies, priorities and interpretation of reality. The point worth noting is that these different approaches have very similar ideological structures as well joint historical roots. Understanding this fact can change one’s outlook towards conflicts in the Middle East.

Islamic fundamentalism, in its current form as a social movement and apart from its historical religious background, is a recent phenomenon of approximately only 100 years. The movement was a reaction to the frailty and weakness of Islamic countries compared with their glorious pasts. Therefore, the fundamentalists emerged not out of conservative circles but rather out of reformist movements which aimed for an “Islamic Awakening.”

The concept of an Islamic state is of recent origin arising from the independence movement from British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It was first developed by Maulana Abul A’la Maududi and is a product of modernity. In response to the Muslim League’s call for a Muslim state of Pakistan, Hindu call for a secular India and communist call for a socialist state, Maududi called for the establishment of “hukumat-e-ilahiya (“Allah’s government) or an Islamic state[5]. He arrived in Pakistan from India with the ambition to turn what was to him a nationalistic abomination into becoming a “true Islamic state” based on shariah. Maududi formed his party in 1941 with a vanguard of learned and pious Muslims to bring an “Islamic revolution” and do away with the forces of jahiliya (socialism, communism, liberal democracy, secularism and a faith distorted by innovators).  

Maududi’s concept of Islamic state was so without foundation that he struggled to find ideological roots for an Islamic state grounded in historical evidence, while portraying the concept as theologically Islamic. As such Maududi offered the term “hakimiyya”.

Azzam Al-Kassir, a Syrian scholar at the University of Exeter points out that the term “hakimiyya” which resides in the rhetoric of contemporary political Islamist movements, similar to the term “Islamic state”, is not mentioned in the Quran or the Hadith. Nor does it exist in Arabic lexicography. Maududi links the term “hakimiya” to its linguistic root “hukm” whose derivations are mentioned in the Quran more than 200 times. Yet not one of these verses points towards the assumption or practice of political power. Instead the term suggests the need for insight and distinguishing between right and wrong, or education and jurisprudence.[6]

Maududi’s concept of an Islamic state found support among other influential Islamic thinkers and leaders. Among them were Sayyid Qutb in Egypt and Ayatollah Khomeni. Sayyid Qutb adopted and fully exploited the term “hakimiyya” and used it to branch out into “jahiliyya” (ignorance), takfeer (excommunication) and jihad. His exposure to abuse of power undoubtedly contributed to the ideas of his famous prison-written Islamic manifesto “Ma’alim fi-l-tariq (Milestones) where he advocated a political system that is opposite of dictatorship. Qutb wrote Muslims should resist any system where men are in “servitude to other men”- as un-Islamic and a violation of God’s sovereignty (hakimiyya). The way to bring about this freedom is for a revolutionary vanguard to fight jahiliyya with a twofold approach: preaching and abolishing the organizations and authorities of the Jahili system by physical power and Jihad. The vanguard movement would grow with preaching and jihad until it formed a truly Islamic community, then spread throughout the Islamic homeland and finally throughout the entire world.

Qutb is considered one of the most influential Muslim thinkers and activists of the modern era, not only for his ideas but also for what many see as his martyr’s death. He was accused of plotting to overthrow the state and subjected to what many considered a show trial. He and six other members of the Muslim Brotherhood were sentenced to death by hanging for the conspiracy to assassinate the president and other Egyptian officials.

It is argued that Qutb’s approach towards violence does not necessarily stem from the spirit of Islam, so much as the prevalent social injustice coupled with an imbalanced infrastructure, expressed through high rates of unemployment and the lack of channels for political participation. All this paved the way for radical Islamist thought to sneak into the deprived countryside and the poverty belts surrounding the cities.
Maududi’s ideas were eventually adopted by General Ziaul Haq, who pulled off a successful military coup in July 1977 and then invited Maududi to help him make Pakistan into a true Islamic country. The course charted by Zia eventually mutated into becoming a destructive and highly polarising legacy that the state, politics and society of Pakistan has been battling with till this day.

The spread of the Islamic state concept was contributed in part by the translation of Maududi and Qutb’s works into Bahasa Malaysia, Indonesian and English where Muslim students in USA and Britain encountered such writings in their campuses. Maududi and Qutb’s books were required reading in such institutions as the International Islamic University Malaysia and there are clear influence of Maududi’s ideas in PAS’ concept of the Islamic state and God’s sovereignty.

Azzam argues that essential questions must be publicly discussed, for the dissection of religious mythologies is no longer sophistry. The stagnation of Islamist thought and its defensive position is at the crux of this issue. Heaven, hell, predestination, jihad are issues that have directed a generation of youth that is pessimistic, disenfranchised from their surroundings, a generation that has become fuel to the illusion of an “Islamic State.” He concludes, Islamist thought will recover and restore its vitality only when debate blows some depth into it. In this important debate the events post-Arab Spring suggests a maqasid approach is most relevant to providing appropriate guidance to political Islam.  

Relevance of Maqasid to Political Islam Post Arab Spring

Dr Halim Rane, Deputy Director of the Griffith Islamic Research Unit and Senior Lecturer at the School of Humanities at Griffith University wrote that post-Arab Spring, the first generation of Islamic political parties which are generally anti-Western, ideology-oriented, focused on moralistic discourse and defined by their commitment to establishing an Islamic state based on shariah as a law code have lost much of their electoral support.[7]

He said those twentieth-century parties that did not evolve were superseded by a second generation of Islamic-oriented political parties that seek positive relations with Western nations, are policy-oriented and do not advocate the concept of an Islamic state based on the shariah. These parties developed in response to the needs and aspirations of their people for honest and sincere leadership. They seek to reduce corruption and unemployment, promote economic growth and raise living standards and protect basic rights and freedoms.

These parties developed comprehensive political programmes, appeal to broad and diverse constituencies and emphasize Islamic values, principles and objectives, the maqasid al-sharia approach and ijtihad are central to this process.

Dr Rane named among others, Mohammad Hashim Kamali and Tariq Ramadan as the intellectuals and Anwar Ibrahim, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Tunisia’s Rachid Ghanouchi as the political leaders who have striven to demonstrate Islam’s compatibility with democracy, human rights, plurality and peaceful co-existence with non-Muslims.[8] He identified Keadilan, Turkey’s AKP, Indonesia’s Properous Justice Party (PKS) as the second generation Islamic-oriented parties.

I include in the list of intellectuals, prominent Muslim scholars, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Abdulaziz Sachedina and Nurcholish Majid. In the list of political leaders, the progressives who left PAS to form the Parti Amanah Malaysia (“Amanah”), in Keadilan the leaders championing the struggle of Anwar Ibrahim.

The Moment of Truth

The issue of Islam and secularism represents one of the most contested debates in contemporary Islamic scholarship and policy circles. The Re-Thinkers bring a different narrative and discourse to the existing one by the Traditionalists. In Part II of this Article, I will touch on the ideas the Re-Thinkers bring to this debate. This debate will bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. The moment of truth will come and reveal what each of us, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, really are. There will be no place to run or hide and no fence to sit on. You either stand on the side of the Traditionalists or stand on the side of those Re-Thinking Islam.

William Leong Jee KeenMember of Parliament SelayangParti Keadilan Rakyat23 January 2016

[1] Malaysia’s Isis Conundrum by Joseph Chinyong Liow
[2] Malaysia: Clear and present danger from the Islamic State by James Chin December 16, 2015
[3] Growing Islamic fundamentalism seen pushing Malays to quit country Malay Mail Online by Boo Su Lyn
[4] “The Roots of Radicalism in Political Islam” by Ali Mamouri Al-Monitor
[5] The Relevance of a Maqasid Approach for Political Islam Post Arab Revolution by Halim Rane Journal of Law and Religion Vol xxviii page 500
[6] Understanding calls for reinstating the Islamic State OpenDemocracy Azzam Al-Kassir 14 October 2014
[7] The Relevance of a Maqasid Approach for Political Islam Post Arab Revolutions by Halim Rane
[8] The Impact of Maqasid Al-Shariah on Islamist Political Thought Implications for Islam-West Relations 2 Islam & Civilisational Renewal 337 (2011)