by AB Sulaiman
26 November 2012
The case of Nurul Izzah Anwar, the PKR vice president, making the statement that there is no compulsion in religion and that this should apply not only to non-Malays but to Malays as well is now commanding the public domain.
Thanks to Utusan Malaysia and the Internet, the speed at which Nurul’s statement spread was staggering. The very next day, it appeared as a front-page headline in the Malay daily but with a twist: it was reported that she had been ‘suggesting’ Malays could commit apostasy; or showing the way to do so. (Apostasy is considered the greatest sin in Malay reckoning.)
To the Malay-Muslim, she has committed a grave offence for which she must be taken to task.
I will try to identify what really is at issue by way of asking some pertinent and relevant questions.
Cutting through the confusion
First question: Nurul quoted the Quranic edict that “there is no compulsion in religion”. Is she right? The answer is yes, she is, as in Surah 2.256.
Following question: Did she state that this edict should apply to Malays as well? Her words spoken at the Nov 3 forum held at the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Subang Jaya, according to the transcript provided by Malaysiakini, were:
“How can anyone really say, ‘sorry, this only applies to non-Malays.’ It has to apply equally.”
Her statement can be understood as meaning that the Article 11 constitutional provision on the freedom of religion must apply for Malays as well. Since nowhere in the Quran does it mention the Malay ethnicity, we should logically infer that Nurul’s remark was a comment on Malaysian law rather than on Islamic jurisprudence.
Next: why then did former PAS deputy president Nasharudin Mat Isa reportedly say that the Surah was not applicable to Malays? I do not wish to answer for him, but according to the reports it is because as a religious scholar he feels qualified to comment on such things while others are not.
Sri Gading Member of Parliament Mohamad Aziz raised the Nurul issue in the House on Nov 7 saying
“Apa hukum dari segi syariat Islam atas kenyataan Ahli Parlimen Lembah Pantai yang menyatakan orang Melayu Islam bebas memilih agama yang diminati? Dalam erti kata lain, boleh keluar daripada agama Islam yakni murtad. Kenyataan ini seolah-olah meraikan orang Islam menjadi murtad.”
Translated into English, the MP had described Nurul’s remark as more or less as a statement to celebrate Malay conversion because apostasy will now be permitted among Muslims.
You might ask: Did she actually encourage apostasy for Muslims? The answer is no.
Syariah augmented by civil laws
In her reply to Mohamad Aziz, Mashitah Ibrahim – the Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Islamic affairs – said that under the law, anyone found guilty of mocking or maligning Islam could be sentenced to prison not exceeding two years, fined RM3,000 or both.
If wielded, this piece of prohibitive legislation portends a conflict and tussle pitting a reformist and progressive Malay-Muslim mind such as Nurul Izzah’s on the one hand, and the orthodox and conservative mind represented by Mashitah, Nasharudin, Mohamad Aziz and the rest of them on the other.
This conflict is common enough in any religion and Islam is not spared. In Islam, this conflict stemmed from the tussle between Revelation and Reason, which I shall delve into immediately.
For this discourse, I will refer to a scholarly work Crisis in the Muslim Mind by Dr Abdul Hamid Ahmad AbuSulayman who was a Rector of the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). In his 1993 book, the author explained the relationship between Revelation and Reason.
Which takes precedence?
Revelation in Islam decrees that all knowledge comes from God via His Revelations found in the Quran which is ‘God’s word’. Reason is Man’s ability to rationalise by using his God-given intelligence and memory. Reason is God’s way of making mankind understand Revelation.
As Revelation is ‘stored’ in the Quran, mankind must use his reasoning ability to adhere to all of the edicts, rules and regulations inherent in this holy book. It is at this point that there appears a split in understanding between the orthodox and the progressive.
To the orthodox, as the Quran is God’s Words, its entire contents are to be the ultimate Truth. The Quran has to be adhered to without any hesitation, doubt, scepticism.
To progressives the Quran might indeed be God’s Words but mankind has been given intelligence by God. The Muslim can and should employ thought and rationality to everything, even to the Quran.
Bow and obey
An illustration taken from Islamic history might help you to understand the point. For this I will refer to the writing of Pervez Hoodbhoy’s work, Islam and Science (1992) from where I take the case of Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi or better known as al-Kindi (801-873 CE) – a philosopher, mathematician, and musician during the Caliphate of Al-Mutawwakil in Baghdad.
Al-Kindi pointed out that Surah 55.5 of the Quran states that the sun, moon, stars, mountains, trees and beasts ‘bow themselves’ before God. For the unsophisticated, this invokes an idea wherein all creation literally bends in prayer – a bowing tree, a bowing mountain (for example) bending in prayer.
He had some doubt over this term in its literal sense. After a long mental search, al-Kindi interpreted that ‘bow’ could mean ‘obey’ – the mountains and trees and all other creations obeyed God’s Words but did not bow in doing so.
A point to note is that al-Kindi lived during the period when human civilisation was rudimentary and the literacy rate was low. The aristocratic class was all-powerful and feudalism was the norm. There was also an emergent clergy or ulama class of citizens, usually aligned with the aristocracy. In the event, al-Kindi’s radical views had to be acceptable to the rulers and the ulama class.
Apparently in this specific ‘bowing’ case, they did not agree and deemed his opinion a heresy.
The reaction was swift to his heretic and dangerous beliefs. The Caliph had al-Kindi flogged in public and confiscated his library the ‘Al-Kindiyah’. The old philosopher fell into depression and silence, and died a broken man.
Revelation had won over Reason. God’s Words (and by extension the Syariah) are an immutable set of rules which cannot be modified according to the times.
Sure enough when the four Imams – Maliki (d.795 CE), Hanafi (d.767 CE), Shafii (d.820 CE), and Hanbali (d. 855 CE) – codified the Islamic jurisprudence that is applied right up to today, they were all under the influence of Revelation over Reason.
“There were slight differences in weight they attached to various Quranic verses and degree of validity they assigned to various Prophetic traditions”, says Hoodbhoy. Nonetheless their philosophies were otherwise uniform: Revelation over Reason.
The orthodoxy and conservatism of Islam was later strengthened by the immensely influential Al-Ghazzali (d.1111 CE).
Islamic commentators claim that by the end of the 11th century, all major problems of Islamic jurisprudence had been resolved between these Islamic schools. After that, all the doors for discourse or Ijtihad were slammed shut.
Bolting the Gates ofIjtihad
Let’s pause a little over the points made in the last paragraph. Before the closing of Ijtihad, the flame of learning had burnt bright in Islamic civilisation. Scholars like al-Kindi, Ibn Sina, Omar Khayyam and many others were leading the known world in intellectual development and study. Modern day scholars and adherents of Islam will not miss the opportunity to remind the non-Muslim world of Muslim contributions to human knowledge and science.
But after this glorious era, there was the ascendency of an ossified religiosity making it harder for secular pursuits to exist. It appeared that the closing of Ijtihad had also closed the minds of the Islamic civilisation.
Partly because of this closed mind, the Muslim civilisation missed out in the subsequent human intellectual developments: the thoughts of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton and a long list of illustrious names that had led to the explosion of science and scientific thinking; the growth of democracy, capitalism, the Industrial Revolution. It missed out from the burgeoning economic, social, political, intellectual and technological opportunities and advancements faced and undertaken by the universal human civilisation.
When Islam was brought into this country (circa 1403 CE), it was this orthodox and conservative version that arrived. I have not come across of any record of any meaningful intellectual development from the Malay civilisation from this date.
Kaum Tua, Kaum Muda
Malay intellectual discourse began in the early 20th century, as shown by recent Malay social history. During this time there appeared the tussle between the Kaum Tua and Kaum Muda. Farish Noor has written a concise and fairly authoritative account of these factions under an article titled Pre-Net Reformists in Malaysiakini (22 March 2001).
According to Farish who is presently a senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, the Kaum Tua comprised mainly the traditional ruling elite led by the royals and aristocrats of the Malay sultanates on the peninsula while the Kaum Mudawere the modernist reformist Malay and Peranakan intelligentsia based in the more cosmopolitan centres on the West coast.
Both groups were worried about the future development of the country and their collective fate under British rule.
The royal families and aristocrats, Farish writes further, launched a number of initiatives that were aimed at protecting the interests of the local communities against the onslaught of British political and economic hegemony. One such effort was the Majlis Agama Kelantan (Kelantan Religious Council) that was formed in 1915. But the Majlis and many other bodies like it soon came under the leadership and patronage of Malay rulers who were more interested in protecting the interests of the traditional ruling elite than the Malay masses.
Another source quoted the conflict between Kaum Muda and Kaum Tua as centring on the validity of Reason to verify religious matters (or Ijtihad) versus those who blindly followed the teachings of early scholars (or Taqlid), see Middle-East Journal of Scientific Research 7 (special issue of ‘Diversity of Knowledge on Middle East’: 07-13, 2011 © IDOSI Publications, 2011).
The advocators of taqlid, Kaum Tua, rejected the use of reason in religion as they claimed that the practice conflicted with the Quran. The task of genuine social reform and political organisation therefore devolved instead to the new generation of Malay reformers and modernists who came to be known as Kaum Muda, writes Farish Noor.
Kaum Muda had this modernist opposition towards blind imitation (taqlid) and their emphasis was on the dire need to use Reason. To them, instead of simply accepting the words and opinions of the religious scholars, Man is required to make use of Reason to distinguish between the valid and invalid opinions, or to reinterpret them.
Those arguments are strikingly familiar and from this I can safely deduce that they refer to the tussle of Revelation over Reason in the Malay social context.
In that pre-Internet era, the Kaum Muda was trying to disseminate the new mental order via newspapers, journals and magazines. One prominent personality, Syed Sheikh al-Hadi who hailed from Penang went over to Singapore and Malacca to open madrasahs or religious schools hoping to spread progressive Islam.
The win goes to Kaum Tua
From what I can gather, the inter-generational tussle was ‘won’ by the orthodox Kaum Tua, replicating the win by the clergy over al-Kindi in the early years of Islam as mentioned earlier.
What could have caused this loss by the Kaum Muda? Again I would attribute it to the social environment surrounding the Malay community during the material time or to borrow Farish’s label, the ‘pre-Net’ period.
During that era, the country was under colonial British rule and the rural Malays were an agrarian society. Coupled with this were a low literacy level and the great influence of informal education which centred religion, Malay customs and local traditions.
I remember Malay schools teaching students just the rudiments of reading and writing, basic arithmetic and some history and geography. There was this glaring absence of imparting to the students the ability to think and intellectualise – an endeavour which requires the ability to look for alternatives in the search for truth. There was no teaching them to be critical, innovative, creative, and imaginative.
Without these abilities they had very little capacity to accept change.
Post-Net and info-have era
All this brings us back to the present ‘post-Net’ also known as the ‘info-have’ era. What do we have and where are we today?
We have an independent Malaysia, a higher level of formal education and literacy, knowledge, the ability to analyse and an open mind that can roam far and wide. We have economic progress and a huge middle class.
We are living in the ‘info-have’ era of the second decade of the 21st century.
We have the potential and opportunity to give Reason precedence over Revelation. We have the opportunity to join the Reason-based post-modern universal human civilisation. And within this context, I feel that in addition to Nurul’s answer to the question being spot-on, she is also a true champion of the progressive Kaum Muda of today.
Her Kaum Tua detractors appeared inadequate in clear and independent thinking. Utusan Malaysia had to use the power of suggestion to smear the truth. Nasharudin had to add his own prejudice to corner Nurul by claiming that Surah 2.256 was not meant for Malays. Mashitah had to admit that Malaysian legislation prohibited missionaries to proselytize other religions to Muslims but our law failed to cover Nurul’s situation.
In their ‘Revelationist’ enthusiasm (or blindness) to ‘protect’ Islam, they had all been intellectually dishonest.
Nurul Izzah seems to me to be a victim of the type of criticism levelled by the Kaum Tua mentality that overtly and habitually champions Revelation over Reason in any religious dispute.
Capitalizing on the orthodox and conservative Kaum Tua mindset, it is no surprise that her political enemies seem to be seizing the opportunity to dampen and destroy her promising political career.