PETALING JAYA: Mustafa Akyol has questioned if Perlis mufti Asri Zainul Abidin had actually read his views on the issue of bikini-clad foreigners in Pulau Besar, following his response to the Turkish scholar.
Akyol said based on Asri’s comments reported in a news portal, Asri had ignored the point he made on the Quran’s commandments on dress codes for Muslim women.
“I did not say ‘lowering your gaze’ is the only commandment in the Quran that is relevant to dress codes,” he told FMT. “Instead, my point was that the Quranic commandments about modesty in dress is for Muslim women only.”
According to The Merdeka Times, Asri had said that Akyol’s “ignorance” had led him to only cite the verse on lowering one’s gaze when the Quran had a chapter on dress codes.
Asri was responding to Akyol’s comments on the Melaka Islamic religious affairs department’s (JAIM) plans to erect signboards reminding tourists in Pulau Besar to dress modestly.
This followed a three-minute video of beachgoers in bikinis at a beach on the island which had been making the rounds on social media since Dec 25.
Akyol went on to compare the situation to the alcohol ban for Muslims, which he said did not apply to non-Muslims. He said even in many Islamic states of the past, such as the Ottoman empire, “non-Muslims were free to consume alcohol in their quarters, and even had taverns”.
The senior fellow at Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity also dismissed Asri’s contention that based on Akyol’s logic on lowering one’s gaze, there would be nothing wrong to turn up to office naked.
Akyol said Asri was “absolutely wrong” as he had clearly stated that “every society had certain norms of appropriate behaviour and dress code”. He argued, however, that Muslims are not supposed to impose specific Islamic norms on non-Muslims.
Today, many non-Muslims see it quite normal to wear swimsuits on beaches, Akyol said, adding that this was their custom. In return, he said, it was better for Muslims to lower their gaze instead of trying to interfere in what one wears.
“In general, I believe this wise Quranic teaching about male self-restraint is often disregarded,” he said, adding that “and the emphasis is put on controlling female behaviour, which can go as extreme as the Taliban’s severe dictates”.
However, he said, religious sites deserve special rules, and if Pulau Besar was officially considered such a place, he would not object to regulations.
Besides beach resorts and minor outlying islands, Pulau Besar is well known for its ancient graves, tombs and mausoleums of notable Islamic preachers.
On being ‘liberal’ and lacking Islamic beliefs
On Asri’s criticism that he was not a religious scholar, but a political scientist with no background in religious studies, Akyol said he never claimed to be one in the “traditional” sense of the word, “namely an alim who studied at a madrasa”.
But, he said, he spent more than two decades studying the Quran, Islamic history, Islamic theology and current affairs in the Muslim world, which has led him to author half a dozen books about Islamic faith, theology and law, praised by prominent Muslim academics from Turkey, Bosnia or the West.
“We respect them, but alims (traditional scholars) are not the only ones who can have opinions about how to interpret Islam today,” he said.
“There are also modern academics and public intellectuals. Also, I don’t offer any fatwa (religious ruling), but just share perspectives on how the Quran can be read anew in the light of contemporary questions.”
He brushed off criticisms that he held “excessive” liberal beliefs which were not rooted or tied to basic Islamic tenets, but said he represented a “reformist view which accepts hadith reports only if they are fully compatible with the Quran, and also sees traditional jurisprudence (fiqh) as contextual”.
Akyol also said he finds it surprising that “liberalism” has a negative connotation in Malaysia, as if it means “anti-religious”. Quite the contrary, he said, the kind of “liberalism” he defends comes from his faith in Islam.
To him, liberalism meant taking the Quranic verses against religious coercion not as “abrogated”, or limited, but universally valid.
“If there is one simple motto of this liberalism, it is the Quranic phrase, ‘la ikraha fi al-din’, or ‘there is no compulsion in religion’. I know that in Malaysia they insert a word into that verse, in parentheses, so it reads, ‘there is no compulsion in (entering) religion’.”
He, on the other hand, did not insert any parentheses, and believes in the plain meaning of the verse.
“It means there really should be no compulsion in the practice of Islam. People should practise it, or not, freely, with the dictates of none other than their own conscience.”