A brother-sister great debate – Isma vs SIS

by Azly Rahman
Nov. 1, 2014

The current debate between Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) and Sisters In Islam (SIS); the former a masculinist-Islamist-para-jihadist group and the latter a feminist-Islamist study group, seems to present an interesting case-study analysis of Malaysia’s own 16th Century ‘Protestant- Lutheran Reformation’ breakthrough.

Ironically it is a debate on the word ‘liberalism’, seemingly as confusing a concept as ‘democracy’ and also of ‘Islam’. Here is why, as I see it, the debate is interesting and Malaysians should pay attention to it:

Malaysian Muslims are yet faced with another challenging situation; one which presents an interesting extrapolation of the historical dilemma the Muslims have been facing intellectually.

Coming soon would be a public intellectual crisis that involves the grand and subaltern voices in Islam. Those of the Wahabbi, Salafi, Sunni, Shiite, Sufi, and the ‘denominations derived from traditional and indigenous practices’ (the tariqats primarily) will come out in the open to assert the ‘truth-ness’ of their perspective and practice of Islam.

Essentially now, Islam seems to have many ‘denominations’ based on cultural, geographical, political, economic, and intellectual factors – as a consequence of globalisation. Muslims are all part and products of the various authorships of these ‘denominations’ – thanks to the power/knowledge matrix of the evolution of Islam. These denominations are even mutating, depending on class and consciousness of the adherents.

On a crude psychological plane in Malaysia, here is the situation, stated in simple terms:

The subaltern voices in Islam are clashing with each other. Examples abound.

The Sufis are saying that the Wahabbis are on the wrong path, the Wahabbis claim they are preaching the one and true tauhid and that Sufism is a strange invention, the Shiites in Iran are probably building more powerful weapons against the Sunnis the Mid-East over, the Malaysian government is propagating Hadhari and the halal hub in a haram casino-capitalistic environment, the Malays have produced their own messiahs or Rasul Melayu (Malay prophets) and their variants of Ayah Pins and their Sky Kingdoms, the anti-hadiths are roaming cyberspace declaring themselves Quranic-only Muslims, the liberal Muslims are at loggerheads with the strict ones bent on moral policing, the gangsta-rapper-Busta Rhymes-type Muslims are angry with the soft-spoken Raihan-a capella-type-Muslims, the Sisters in Islam are angry with the Malaysian Brotherhood of Islam called Isma, the Death Metallists are having a field day with all these chaos amongst Muslim ideologues, the Catholics are fighting in court over the issue of the ‘Allah’ ban, the whirling dervishes are still whirling… it is a postmodern situation in the field of Islam in Malaysia.

I hope this is a useful sketch of the postmodern Muslim condition. Now we have the rose of violent Islam as in the Islamic State of the self-proclaimed Khalifah Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, Islamic conspiracy theorists said to be a child of America’s Foreign Policy and trained by the Mossad.

How to read the Quran then?

Are Muslims then better off reading the Quran hermeneutically? Is it better for them to remove themselves from the philological, historical, and most importantly cultural context, take the scripture in whatever meaningful language it has been translated into, and take only the spirit of it, and like a Prometheus unbound, soar to greater theological heights? This is a challenging question.

Or maybe religious sentimentality and critical sensibility must come from one’s own exploration using a triad of sense awareness, intellect, and intuition, drawn from purely cultural sources? – We can then be free from cultural biases and these ‘geographically and politically-bound’ schools of thoughts?

In that case then we will be going into the realm of what I consider ‘truly spiritual democracy’ and use reason and rationality to read the Quran (or any religious text) for that matter. Will the collection of hadiths be necessary any more? I think this question has been answered by the subaltern Muslims that has already begun their systematic critique of the narratives of the Great Prophet.

There is a growing number of Muslims who are beginning to assert that the highest faculty is human reason, which we must exercise in order for us to be truly human. This is the essence of the Enlightenment and of the Renaissance in that only through reason and feeling that we can arrive at an understanding the meaning of who we are.

Some say through lots of zikir, chanting, and even dancing (whirling dervishes included) that one can reach what needs to be reached mystically. The dancer danceth the dance of the dance itself (like what Michael Jackson lived for, maybe), and in his/her dance, as she whirls and twirls, he loses himself into the abyss of nothingness… profound… even looking from the outside.

But in all these and applicable to all religions, the question remains: at what point is innovation in religion allowed, acceptable, and tolerated? At what point is the ‘denominationalisation’ of Islam acceptable without the religion being demonised by those who think they have understood the Divine presence but actually clutched by the Devil’s right hand?

We are prisoners of language, trapped in a prison-house of language. We can avoid the answers but we can never run away from more questions. Like in the song Hotel California (by the California rock group Eagles) that goes “you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave”.

Perhaps, in all these lie a possible marriage between philosophy and religion – finally. In Malaysia though, is this at all possible?

Bring on the debate, O brothers and sisters! But debate wisely without raising voices.

DR AZLY RAHMAN, born in Singapore and grew up in Johor Baru, holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in four areas: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies and Communication. He has taught more than 40 courses in six different departments and has written more than 350 analyses on Malaysia. His teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He has edited and authored six books; Multiethnic Malaysia: Past, Present, Future (2009), Thesis on Cyberjaya: Hegemony and Utopianism in a Southeast Asian State (2012), The Allah Controversy and Other Essays on Malaysian Hypermodernity (2013), Dark Spring: Essays on the Ideological Roots of Malaysi’s GE-13 (2014), a first Malay publication Kalimah Allah Milik Siapa?: Renungan dan Nukilan Tentang Malaysia di Era Pancaroba (2014), and Controlled Chaos: Essays on Malaysia’ ‘New Politics’ Beyond Mahathirism and the Multimedia Super Corridor (forthcoming 2014). He currently resides in the United States where he teaches courses in Philosophy, Cultural Studies, Political Science, and American Studies.

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