AT THE forum “Rethinking Secularism in the Globalised Era: Seeing Beyond Modernity” organised by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) and Penang Institute earlier this month, the keynote speaker political scientist Dr Heba Raouf Ezzat argued that a history of separating Islam from secular public policies had resulted in the rise of political powers with a polarised Islamic stance. This stance often paints secularism as a neoliberal and capitalist enabler.
As a consequence, those who had felt “left out” from the gains of capitalism created grassroots movements with a common ideology of rejecting capitalism – turning to religion (Islam) as a form of resistance. Such movements had sparked the fire of The Arab Spring and to some extent, the extremist views that created ISIS/Daesh.
Dr Heba cautioned policymakers to include Islamic values when drafting new policies and laws, but emphasised that secularism is what allows Islamic principles such as justice and compassion to be harmonised with policymaking.
Further, she cautioned that having authorities imposing a strict, often top-down definition of religion in governing laws would result in a society that is less pious, thus defeating the tenets of Islam as a religion of rahmah(compassion).
Unfortunately, we are currently seeing the oppression of diverse ideas and intellectual debates especially where Islam is concerned (what Dr Heba termed as “ideacide”). Islam has been reduced to a mere slogan that is used to gain votes, sympathy, and unfortunately in some cases, to cause chaos and division.
In the same week as Dr Heba’s visit, it was reported that our government had proposed for the post of Mufti to be equivalent to State Executive Councillors (EXCOs). While this move appears to be in line with Dr Heba’s proposal (after all, who better to “harmonise Islamic principles with policymaking” than muftis), I am personally of the opinion that this proposal should be treated with caution, lest our country starts slipping towards a theocratic state.
This also begs the question of how much Islam should we have in our policies? Lest we forget, Malaysia is made up of Muslims as well as non-Muslims, as well as those who do not subscribe to any organised religion; we are all citizens of this nation state.
While the powers of muftis are defined under each state in Malaysia and should only be applicable to Muslims, are we going to further divide this nation that is barely 60 years old down the lines of those who are governed under shariah and those who are governed under civil laws?
Moreover, what brand of Islam are we talking about – one that, to quote our first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, aligns with “the ideals of justice and liberty; a beacon of light in a disturbed and distracted world”, or one that is merely a tool of subjugation and control?
In his book, Memories of Muhammad, Professor of Islamic Studies Omid Safi opined, “In the Quranic worldview, ‘Islam’ is not so much the name of a new religious tradition as it is the quality of submitting oneself to God wholeheartedly… For the most part in the Quran, the word “Islam” is a verb, not a noun.”
This should be the basis for Muslims, not only in Malaysia, but globally, to live in this secular, modern world. The current liberty that we enjoy is the privilege to practice our religion peacefully; the ability to continue living the miracle that we, as the last ummah, have received – that is to return to intellectual discourse via scholarship of the Quran and hadiths.
We would not have this privilege under a theocratic state. As we approach the celebration of our 60th Independence Day and 54th Anniversary of the formation of Malaysia, we must return to upholding our Federal Constitution and strive for a democratic nation. After all, as Winston Churchill so succinctly put, “Democracy is the worst form of all government, except for all the others.”
In her book, If the Oceans Were Ink, Carla Power spent a year studying with Sheikh Muhammad Akram Nadwi in order to better understand how Muslims reconcile what she felt were conservative, restrictive worldviews with living in a modern, secular world. What she discovered was quite different from her earlier views.
Islam as an original faith was malleable and spiritually intellectual – yet throughout the course of history, it had had been hijacked and made out to be an oppressive political tool.
The principle of intellectual scholarship in Islam was clearly exemplified in Sheikh Muhammad Akram’s actions in changing his stance, i.e. his fatwa, with regards to child marriage. He was initially adamant that child marriage was allowed in Islam due to the hadiths on the age of Aisha’s marriage to Prophet Muhammad.
Following discourse with his students, he returned to the texts and cited Ibn Shubruma, an eighth-century judge and jurist with a sound fatwa against the practice of child marriage, who argued that the issue hinged on a woman’s autonomy.
The Sheikh added to this argument, stating that the oppression and injustice occurring within child marriages today emphasises the need to oppose it at the juristic level. The pursuit of justice, the Sheikh told his students, needed women’s voices and experiences. Muslims shouldn’t merely look to classical texts to understand their faith.
If only we could have such rich, intellectual discourse that is backed by sound research and data in our state assemblies and parliament; and even among our muftis. If our politicians and policymakers were afforded the same liberty to speak about Islam in a secular language, surely then, Islamic values would occupy a fitting space in policymaking.