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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #74

Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

Reform in Islam


Islam is fortunate in that right from the very beginning it has a tradition of revival and reform. A tradition of the prophet has it that Allah will send every so often unto each ummah those who will renew the faith. Implicit in this hadith is the recognition of a community’s dynamism. The great Muslim reformists of the 19th and early 20th Centuries were handicapped because their native lands were under Western colonization. Many were necessarily consumed with the battle to free themselves from colonialism and by association, Western influences.

They understandably regarded the West as an enemy of Islam. Nonetheless despite such burdens, reformists like Muhammad Abduh of Egypt and Pakistan’s Muhammad Iqbal were able to forge a new understanding and insight into Islam. While many reformists of his time were consumed with the futile effort of trying to bring Islam back to its glorious past, Iqbal was forward looking. He rightly distinguished between the eternal and immutable principles of the Quran on the one hand, and those laws, regulations, and practices that were the products of human interpretation.

While he rightly acknowledged the great contributions of earlier scholars and ulama, Iqbal reemphasized the necessity for present-day Muslims to use their God-given akal (intellect) to forge new meanings and interpretations to serve modern society. He was rightly contemptuous of the fiction of the “closing of the gate of ijtihad” (rational discourse)” of the 11th Century, and with it the arrogant presumption that everything had been decided and that no fresh insight or thinking was warranted. All that was needed was for the faithful to follow what had been established. That particular hubris resulted in the subsequent stagnation of Islam.

Like many contemporary reformists, Iqbal believed that Muslims must once again emulate our earlier brethrens and reassert our right to ijtihad, that is, to reinterpret and reapply Islam to changing social conditions. More significantly, this right belongs to all Muslims and not just the ulama. He felt strongly that the views of individual members of the ummah must be heard and that the mechanism for this can be achieved through a variety of mechanisms. To him, modern participatory democracy is indeed an idealized form of the Muslim concept of mesyuarah (consultation). This is his take on the Westminster model of democracy: “It is…the spirit of the British Empire that makes it the greatest Muhamadan Empire of the World.”

Iqbal was the product of the great universities of the West (Cambridge and Munich) and the beneficiary of the finest tradition of liberal education. Having seen the best of the West – its dynamism, unrivalled intellectual fervors, and powerful technology – he was not nearly so dismissive of Western achievements. Iqbal was very unlike those ulama who had never ventured beyond their villages and whose intellectual horizons rarely extended beyond the worn-out pages of ancient religious texts. Although Iqbal was very much aware of the excesses and weaknesses of the Western tradition as exemplified by its legacy of colonialism, exploitative capitalism, and rampant secularism, nonetheless he viewed such central Western values as the equality of man, and the rights and dignity of the individual as very much the ideals of Islam also.

While traditional ulama may contemptuously dismiss Iqbal because of his Western training, they cannot easily reject Muhammad Abduh. He was after all, one of them, having served as the Grand Mufti of Egypt. He rejected the orthodox notion that constrained Muslims to a literal reading of the Qur’an and sunnah. Clearly he felt that Muslims were mistaken in rejecting the ideas of the West simply because they originated with non-Muslims.

Later 20th Century reformists carry on the Iqbalian tradition. Unlike Iqbal, they were not burdened by having to live under colonial rule or foreign domination. Indeed many benefited from the West in terms of their education and freedom. I will mention two in particular. One is Sudanese Mahmoud Taha. He excelled under the British as an engineering student at the rigorous Gordon College (the precursor of the University of Khartoum) and had a thriving private practice before turning to politics, occasioned by the turn to extreme fundamentalism of the Sudanese military government. He feared that the government’s headlong rush to implement Shari’a would severely disadvantage and disenfranchise the significant Christian population. Unchecked this would only lead to a destructive civil war.

His observation was particularly prescient. He was not against Shari’a, rather the form in which it was to be implemented. There were too many provisions that were simply inconsistent with modern and widely accepted concepts of justice and simple fairness. He founded the Republican Brotherhood, a movement whose objective was to reform the Shari’a to meet the demands of a modern pluralistic populace. Sadly the military rulers interpreted that to be apostasy, a capital crime under Shari’a. Taha was executed in January 1985.

In a turn of events that could only be interpreted as divine intervention (or perhaps simple justice), those same military leaders were later killed in yet another military coup. The Sudanese Supreme Court in reviewing the appeal brought by Taha’s daughter, reversed the earlier decision and excoriated those who participated in the sham trial. It was of course too late for Taha.

Mahmoud Taha’s enlightened views are now widely accepted by the Sudanese and others. Equally significant, his many disciples, in particular Abdullahi An-Na’im, are carrying forward his torch. Na’im is uniquely positioned to spread that message from his vantage point as a professor at a leading American university. With the vast resources afforded by Emory University, An-Naim is able to effectively propagate Taha’s ideas to the wider world. An-Naim’s translation of Taha’s seminal work, The Second Message of Islam, and An-Naim’s own tome, Toward an Islamic Reformation, represent some of the most original and enlightened interpretations of Islam and the Shari’a.

Taha’s basic thesis is that we should, like earlier Muslims, go back to the Qur’an and divine its immutable and eternal theme, and then reformulate a new set of laws to meet the needs of contemporary societies. Just as the ancient Muslims were able to reconcile the apparent inconsistencies and contradictions in the interpretations of the various passages of the Qur’an and successfully formulated a remarkable set of laws, so too should modern Muslims do likewise. While ancient Muslims out of necessity emphasized the later passages of the Qur’an that was revealed to the prophet while he was attempting to build the first viable Muslim community at Medinah, present-day Muslims having successfully established our community, must now go back to the Qur’an and ponder its earlier messages, the Meccan verses, that address the idealistic and universal values of Islam.

Early Muslims introduced the concept of naskh (abrogation), to justify their emphasizing certain Qur’anic passages over others. Volumes have been written on this topic, with some denying entirely the very concept. Nonetheless the reality remains; that is, the Shari’a relies on certain passages of the Qur’an while de-emphasizing or simply ignoring others. Thus it justifies capital punishment for apostasy by referring to the Medina verses while ignoring the Meccan passages that encourage Muslims to lead a life of peaceful coexistence with non-believers, and that there be no compulsion in religion.

As Muslims accept the Quran to be infallible and consistent, perceived differences must therefore be just that – a matter of perception. Thus instead of analyzing to death particular Quranic verses to support one’s viewpoints – the atomistic approach – present-day Muslims should instead emphasize the totality of the message. In the words of the late Fazlur Rahman of the University of Chicago, we should deduce from the particularities of the Qur’an its underlying unifying principles, and then apply those same principles to specific present-day situations. Obviously modern society differs from those of the prophet’s time, but the moral principles and imperatives remain the same.


Next: Confusing Examples For Principles

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