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Is our faith so fragile?

June 14, 2012

FMT LETTER: From Sarajun Hoda Abdul Hassan, via e-mail

Irshad Manji, a Ugandan-born Canadian author who claims she is a faithful Muslim, was in Malaysia recently to launch ‘Allah, kebebasan dan cinta’, the Malay translation of her book ‘Allah, liberty and love’. But the Malaysian authorities banned it under section 7 subsection 1 of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, on the grounds that it contravenes the teachings of the Quran and Hadith.

This is her second book banned here. The earlier book ‘The trouble with Islam’, later renamed ‘The trouble with Islam today’, was banned in 2009. Malaysia sees her as a threat to Islam.

The world sees Manji as a Muslim reformist, a celebrated professor from New York University – but to Jakim, the Islamic authority in Malaysia, because she is an LGBT activist, she is a deviant. Hence her books must be banned. She is also wickedly being blamed for trying to reform Islam when what she is doing is only to reform the understanding about the religion. And those who strive in our paths to find us (God) – we will certainly guide them to our paths: For verily God is with those who do right (Quran 29:69).

This is because Quranic teachings are grossly misinterpreted to justify terrorism, human rights abuses against women, injustices, grave worship and honour killings, just to give a few examples. Verses from the Quran are cherry picked, taken out of context, sometimes partially and most times given their own meaning.

If Islam is really a religion of peace, then where are these abuses coming from? Why then are these damaging beliefs still followed with total conviction in almost all pockets of the Muslim milieu? How can murky water come from a clear well? Who is misleading them? Why is it necessary to correct the wrongs?

Quran 13:11 – God does not change the condition of any people unless they change themselves. Unfortunately, countries with sizeable Muslim populations that give power or political clout to the clergy – see Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Sudan, Yemen and many more – are the very places where you find the most horrific abuses to the rights to dignity, honour, life, freedom, respect and justice.

These abuses are atrociously committed by Muslims against other Muslims. Mind you, these countries are also signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It cannot be a coincidence. Can it? Can it be Islamic teaching?

Islam cannot be blamed for evil and discriminatory practices by Muslims who blindly follow skewed interpretations of the faith. Truly God commands you to give back trust to those to whom they are due, and when you judge between people, to judge with justice… (Quran 4:58); …. And act justly. Truly, God loves those who are just (Quran 49:9); …And let not the hatred of others make you avoid justice. Be just, that is nearer to piety… (Quran 5:8).

Jakim’s attitude towards Manji’s books is dreadfully mystifying. If Manji and Jakim are both proponents of Islam and believe in the Quran, how is it then possible that these two believers cannot with maturity reconcile their diverse views? Why can’t they both be right? I mean even coins have two sides. The believers are nothing else than brothers (in Islam). So make reconciliation between your brothers and fear Allah, that you may receive mercy (Quran 49:10). In the event, it was Jakim that unwisely shunned engaging her.

Ijtihad – intellectual reasoning

Manjii is known to be always on the lookout to engage people for healthy intellectual discourses, even with those who oppose her faith. That’s why in choosing to revive the traditions of intellectual reasoning, ijtihad, she prefers to talk to those in higher education institutions all over the world, not the unassuming illiterate villagers.

But on this soil, Malaysian authorities had to cancel her programmes both at the Islamic and Monash Universities and ban her books without seeing the need to justify their actions to the believers.

Contrary to the concept of taqlid – copying or obeying blindly, ijtihad is a concept promoting debates that helps reconcile faith with the teachings, disciplines, beliefs, traditions and practices of followers of the Islamic faith.

It is a science promoted in the Quran but disastrously abandoned by Muslims on the wrong advice of the clergy, who took it upon themselves to abrogate the thinking faculty of the Muslims. Did Allah mention anywhere in the Quran that ulamas need to teach his religion or speak for him?

In the Quran verse 3:7, Allah says, he has sent this scripture very simple, for everyone to understand and follow … no one knows the correct interpretation except him … only those who posses intelligence will take heed. Does that mean one cannot question in order to seek truth? Furthermore, Allah proclaims, “their affairs are decided by consensus among them” (Quran 42:38).

This development is only possible through freedom of scholarly research, the acceptance of different expressions and views, and the active appreciation and conciliation of diverse views of the learned, scholars and thinkers. Then should Islamic authorities outrightly reject the different interpretations from people within the same faith?

Only with constant and continuous ijtihad can any Muslim stay firmly committed to the teachings of Islam. The Quran, chapter 17, verse 36 says: Do not accept anything that you yourself cannot ascertain. You are given hearing, the eyes and the intelligence (mind), in order to examine and verify. Failure to verify and follow blindly, will lead them to hell (Quran14:21), and Those who listen to all the views and follow the best are the ones guided by God, these are the ones that possess intelligence (Quran 39:18). Are these Quranic verses foreign to Jakim?

Hence, why did Jakim so arrogantly think it better for the Home Ministry to ban her books and cancel all her local engagements instead of sensibly inviting Irshad Manji for a dialogue that would have allowed her to present her point of view and engage in healthy discussion as directed by the Quran? Are our ‘jaguh kampong’ intellectuals not ‘man’ enough and do they not have the stomach to face her? Or were they simply cowed with fear that their lack of intellectual capacity would be exposed?

Insecurity

Jakim insists that her book contains elements that will confuse and deviate Muslims from their faith and that her writings insult Islam. Fair. How can these claims be proved? Or are they above God’s laws that it isn’t obligatory for them to justify their actions? Did they at least read her book before judging her?

When the announcement of the ban was first made in the mainstream newspapers, it was also reported that a copy of the book was sent to Jakim to study – meaning they opted for the ban simply because of complaints from certain quarters, even before exploring the book. Simply out of insecurity, our religious champions just automatically went into a defensive overdrive mode?

Why do we Muslims feel so insecure? Is our Islamic faith so fragile that it cannot stand scientific and intellectual analysis and examination? That would be a shame. Let’s say freedom of speech and expression is not divine and that it comes with responsibilities. Let’s also say, Jakim is right in finding that Manji’s book is indeed damaging to the Islamic faith.

Then shouldn’t Jakim first come up with the quotations or passages from the book that it deems to be offensive and misleading and would deviate Muslims in this country; shouldn’t Jakim put these passages forward to the people to judge for themselves?

In the spirit of Quran 17:36, the people have to decide for themselves. The people would want to hear Jakim’s side of the story and their arguments but before anything is proven why must our authorities jump the gun and ban Manji’s book banned. Regimes that thought they could genuinely control people’s minds, thought and expression anywhere around the world failed miserably.

Anyone who does not agree with Manji’s opinion has a choice not to read her book or throw it away the moment they find the book is deviating from the teachings of the Quran. But when and to whom did Allah ever grant the right to decide what is true about Islam and which is the only opinion that we must statutorily believe and follow? Is Islam really about policing morality? Banning on the basis that one particular teaching is deviating from one’s own belief is playing God.

There are so many books of other faiths available on the bookshelves and on the internet – do we then ban them all, fearing they might fall into Muslim hands? Manji’s book can still be downloaded free from her website. Surely inquisitive Malaysians with a God-given thinking faculty and a mind of their own will still get to read her opinion. This is a free world. Why should one think and decide for others?

There are thousands of different Islamic sects around the world, all claiming support from oral traditions that overrule the written laws of the Quran. Malaysia officially follows only one. How do we make sure we are definitely on the right track? And that such representation actually receives God’s sanction. Blind followers should be reminded … the devil on judgment day will say, “Don’t blame me, God gave you the truth, I just invited you, who asked you to follow me?” (Quran 14:20).

Enlightenment: Accepting differences

It is an internationally known fact that Manji is a Muslim and she is not talking about reforming Islam but reforming how we actually understand and interpret the faith, more so in changed circumstances. She talks about ijtihad, the return of enlightenment, the very glory of Islam and the rich diversities that actually unite the people of the Muslim faith.

We also know dogmas and ideologies can never be static. They adopt and assume current manifestations. Isn’t that why God gave humans brains and Allah says think and scrutinise, not just accept what is thrown at you? (Note: Which explains why the beginning of the Quran starts with the verse, Iqra’ .

What’s wrong with how we interpret our faith? Look at how Muslim societies have broken down, how women are treated and how pagan teachings that Prophet Mohamed spent his live to repel, later after his death crept back in the name of ‘sunnahs’ riding on the back of fake hadiths.

We find very many beliefs and practices, believed to be from the religion, are actually recycled traditions of the local tribals and pagan rituals that were picked up along the path that the Islamic faith passed – the very practices that Prophet Mohamed himself (as were many other messengers of Allah) was sent to correct.

It is certainly a tragedy today – and not uncommon – to find one Islamic cleric calling another cleric ‘infidel’ on the basis of the slightest difference in opinion or interpretation. Questioning or disobedience can invite death.

Honour killings in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and in the Arab and African states that have sizeable Muslim populations prove this point. Here, Muslims are guided purely by mullahs not by reading and understanding the Quran themselves.

Differences in the early Islamic period were tolerated. Otherwise, how could we have so many sects called ‘mazahabs’? This renaissance period of glory was the catalyst that led Muslims to invent so many theories in the arts and sciences. When the difference of opinion stopped being tolerated, when the concept of ijtihad was thrown out of the window, Islam stopped growing in quality and its glory has been tumbling ever since.

Today, we may have a bigger Muslim population but it is hollow in substance. We lost our excellence in science , astronomy, medicine, mathematics etc to those who took over and further worked on them to produce countless discoveries and inventions. Muslim minds froze because indulgence in critical thinking as encouraged by the Quran was prohibited all together.

In an immediate response, Manji said she was very disappointed and added “censorship treats citizens like children and denies human beings to think for themselves”. The Quran actually, she claims rightly, advocates the use of the heart and mind in forming opinions.

Does Islam really prohibit differences in opinions? Does Islam really prohibit engaging in intellectual discourses? The pagan followers in seventh century Mecca ordered that nobody should talk to Prophet Mohamed, saying he was a dangerous man, that he brought strange teachings that insulted their gods and called for him to be pelted with stones. Those in authority are now quite fond of repeating these same words.

Taking a leaf from history, when Prophet Mohamed first decided to lead an entourage to go to Mecca for Haj from Medina, he was stopped at a place called Hudaibiyah. He was not allowed to enter Mecca because he was propagating a teaching that would deviate and confuse them.

In subsequent negotiations, Prophet Mohamed pleaded that it was all right to have a difference in faith, that there was no compulsion and that they should not prevent him from engaging and communicating with the Meccans. Being able to communicate and engage with the people was a victory for Prophet Mohamed which changed the Islamic landscape for good.

No vacancy

Isn’t it better to teach, train and empower Malaysians to think right? For example we can make all the laws to punish theft, but isn’t it better to help people think and feel that stealing is sinful and wrong? If we cannot make them feel the guilt, you punish the thief today, tomorrow he will steal again.

Similarly if Jakim really does its work effectively, more Muslims will know better what is right and what is wrong in understanding the finer intricacies of Islam. But in a world where it is increasingly ‘open skies’ and borderless, how can people’s thinking be restricted? People instead should be taught how to make better judgements for themselves, both for the sake of themselves and for upholding the sanctity of their faith.

We can stop Manji from coming to Malaysia but we cannot stop people from going to Manji. We should talk about what we can agree and move forward. If indeed she is a lesbian, it was God that created her as such and let’s leave it to Allah to do his job. She even says, you don’t have to follow her.

Finally, as Manji rightly says, God’s post is already filled and there is no vacancy. So let’s stop playing God. Nobody is asking us to believe her, but think for ourselves and thank you, we do not need others to think for us. If there are books by Manji, how could they have been published if it wasn’t God’s will?

The wisdom lies in reading them and all other similar books that challenge out convictions; then we decide. Not decide first and shun. After all, if we are sure about our faith, why do we worry that others will deviate us. Allah hates people who do not scrutinise.

The writer is an Aliran exco member


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