Zairil Khir Johari
The Malaysian Insider
February 19, 2014
Islam and freedom are two inseparable concepts, though one may not arrive at this conclusion based on the behaviour of many Muslims worldwide, particularly those claiming to carry the torch for the religion.
When the Prophet Muhammad introduced Islam in the 7th century, he not only brought with him a new deen (faith), but also through it delivered fundamental moral and social reform to the Arabian society. As it were, Islam brought light to end the darkness of slavery, female infanticide and social injustice.
At its height of glory during the Islamic Golden Age from the 8th to the 13th century, the Arab-Muslim world transformed from a warring, largely illiterate society to one characterised by major intellectual advancement in culture, mathematics, life sciences and philosophy.
It was an era of inclusiveness, symbolised by the establishment of the Baitul-Hikmat, or House of Wisdom, in Baghdad, where scholars both Muslim and non-Muslim converged to exchange and produce knowledge. Inspired by the call to ijtihad (independent reasoning), the goal was always to expand and include, and not to retreat and exclude.
There was no narrow-minded attempt to discard the works of other civilisations, or to brand certain knowledge as belonging solely to Islam and therefore unusable by non-Muslims. Instead, knowledge was cultivated, documented and shared with all.
Unfortunately, Muslim civilisation has suffered a sharp decline since then. Today, Muslim countries throughout the world are associated with authoritarian regimes, gaping income inequality and the suppression of civil liberties and human rights – ironic for a religion that promises the gift of freedom and enlightenment.
Progressive Malay-Muslim thought
In our part of the world, contemporary Islamic discourse appears to be captured by the likes of the Harussanis and Ridhuan Tees. However, such belligerent parochialism actually masks the rich history of progressive thought by great local Muslim thinkers and advocates of freedom.
Take, for example, the raging polemic over the “ownership” of the name of Allah, and the constant fear-mongering of an apparent Christian threat in our country. There are very few of us who realise that Malay translations of the The New Testament are not new, and have been around since the 1800s.
In fact, probably the very first Malay translation of the Bible, or the Kitab Injil al-Kudus as the author terms it, was produced by the father of modern Malay literature himself, Abdullah Abdul Kadir, better known as Munshi Abdullah. Of course, if he were to publish it today, a fatwa would be declared branding him a deviant, rabid protests would be organised by Perkasa, he would somehow find himself labelled a DAP member, and the authorities would prosecute him for sedition.
Munshi Abdullah not only read the Bible, he translated it into Malay. Yet he neither converted out of Islam nor caused mass apostasy, as is so feared by our authorities today. In fact, in Munshi Abdullah we had a visionary Muslim thinker of unwavering faith, who dared to push the boundaries of what was then socially acceptable.
In his writings, he constantly appealed to Malay society to shake off their traditional reverence for their feudal lords – the bangsawan (nobility), whom he saw as self-serving and oppressive. In Hikayat Pelayaran Abdullah, for example, he writes: “Apabila seseorang itu dijadikan Allah ia Raja bukan untuk memuaskan nafsunya dan berbini sepuluh atau dua puluh atau mencari harta dan membunuh orang dengan aniayanya, melainkan disuruh Allah memelihara manusia….” (When God makes a man a king, it is not so that he may satisfy his lusts and to take 10 or 20 brides, or to seek fortune and to kill with his cruelty, but instead to do as God bids that is to protect his people….)
Munshi Abdullah was of the view that in order for Malay society to advance itself, it must embrace modern values while holding steadfastly to the true teachings of Islam (he did not see such an undertaking as contradictory), and even more importantly emancipate itself from the irrational grips of Malay feudalism, characterised by the kerajaan of the absolute monarch. In his day, he was considered ahead of his time. Two hundred years later in modern Malaysia, one could say he remains ahead of our time.
Another reformist-minded Malay thinker was the Pendeta Za’aba (real name Zainal Abidin Ahmad). Among the many treatises penned by Za’aba, one entitled Jalan Keselamatan Bagi Orang-orang Melayu (The Salvation of Malays) mentions that true emancipation can only be achieved through the pursuit of knowledge.
In this monograph, Za’aba states: “Bahawasanya keselamatan orang-orang Melayu ini pada pihak jalan kehidupannya (pencariannya) dan pada pihak perangai-perangai yang kekurangan itu hanyalah boleh didapati pada satu jalan sahaja, iaitu diubati kemiskinannya yang pada pihak otak itu – yakni kemiskinan pengetahuannya – dengan jalan diberi mereka itu pelajaran-pelajaran daripada jenis yang betul. Maka disitulah, dan disitulah sahaja boleh didapati keselamatan ini, tiada pada lainnya.” (Verily there is only one path towards the salvation of the Malays insofar it concerns their life (livelihood) and weaknesses in their attitude, that is to ameliorate their intellectual poverty – their lack of knowledge – through the right kind of education. This is the only way that salvation can be found, no other way.)
To Za’aba, the high incidence of poverty among Malays corresponded directly to the society’s mental capacity. Therefore, the only salvation for the society was to free themselves from poverty through knowledge and the ability to think critically.
Meanwhile, there have also been a few progressive Malay-Muslim thinkers who were early champions of women’s rights. In the 1920s, writers such as Syed Sheikh al-Hadi and Ahmad Rashid Talu – both coincidentally Penang-based – brought to the forefront the debate on the emancipation of women and their right to education. In their hands, the female lead characters from Hikayat Faridah Hanum (al-Hadi) and Iakah Salmah? (Talu) were, unlike the societal norms of the time, dynamic, progressive and modern.
It is an inescapable fact that freedom has always been, and will always be, a key feature in Islamic and Muslim discourse, simply because it is an essential part of Islam. This is true even in our country, where, as the works of Abdullah, Za’aba, al-Hadi, Talu and many others clearly prove, progressive Malay-Muslim thought throughout the last two centuries have constantly pushed the envelope by placing great value on the pursuit of knowledge, the ability to reason, as well as the freedom of thought and conscience.
Today, these values are under threat. Extremism, bigotry and sexism now dominate, spurred on by an overzealous establishment bent at banning everything they cannot control or understand. As Martin Luther King Jr once said, “nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Seen in this light, the real threat that we face is not the fools or the bigots, but the ignorance within our society. It is this ignorance that we need to challenge and overcome if we are to rise out of the abyss of doom and destruction.
Today, Za’aba’s advice is even more pertinent than it has ever been – our salvation lies in knowledge, enlightenment and freedom from ignorance. – February 19, 2014.