Stand by Those Re-Thinking Islam Reformers

In Uncategorized on 27/01/2016 at 10:31


Conversations: Reaching-out across the Air-Curtain

by William Leong Jee Keen

The air curtain keeps the cold air in and the hot air out. We have in Malaysia built air curtains between the Muslims and non-Muslims. You cannot see them but they are there. They are real.

We can never hope to have a peaceful, united nation if our people do not talk and interact with one another. We need to reach out across that Air Curtain to talk to our fellow Malaysian of different ethnicity and religion. I ask you to carry out an active commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of religion to care for our neighbours and share our ideals and dreams with them and theirs with you. Reach out to our Muslim and non-Muslim friends and have conversations. Have a dialogue with complete sincerity and deepest respect for each other’s ethnicity and religion.

In Part I of this Article, I pointed out that the politicization of Islam and the Traditionalists laid down the idea that the primary obligation of Muslims is to establish an Islamic state ruled by sharia. Liberal democracy, pluralism, inclusiveness and tolerance of other religions are labelled as un-Islamic and heretical.

I set out in Part II a thumbnail sketch of a few of those Re-Thinking Islam who argue that these concepts, far from being un-Islamic are in fact, part of the universal values of Islam. I urge non-Muslims to know more about the ongoing debate contested by the Traditionalist and Re-Thinkers. This is because due to the politicization of Islam and the PAS/UMNO cooperation the result of this debate affects us all, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Islam: Tolerance, Democracy and Pluralism

Dr Nurcholish Majid (March 17, 1939-August 29, 2005) known affectionately “Cak Nur” was a prominent Indonesian Muslim intellectual. Throughout his career he argued that for Islam to be victorious in the global struggle of ideas, it needs to embrace the concepts of tolerance, democracy and pluralism. In the 1970s, he coined the slogan: “Islam, yes; Islamic parties, no” which became very popular. The slogan helped to combat the view that it was sinful for Muslims to vote against Islamic parties.

Nurcholish influenced by his growing up in a multi-religious society, advocated a secular democracy incorporating a strong policy of religious pluralism. He denounced those that oppose multicultural, multi-religious and multinational life, noting that the Quran states many times, “If God wanted, He could create you to be one nation, but He wanted you to be different nations, so you get to know each other…”

Nurcholish Majid played a critical role in Indonesia’s transition to democracy. His experience as an Islamic activist, student leader, opponent of both the Sukarno and Suharto regimes and also the infighting and inability of Islamic political parties to work together led him to conclude that the mixing of state and religion is counter-productive.

Nurcholish delivered a landmark speech on 2 January 1970 entitled “The Necessity of Renewal of Islamic Thought and the Problem of Integration of the Islamic Community.” According to Nurcholish, one measure of the intellectual lethargy afflicting Muslims was their inability to differentiate between values that were “transcendental from those that were temporal.”

The core problem as he saw it was that “everything becomes transcendental and valued as “ukhrawi [pertaining to the hereafter] without exception” thus excluding it from critical scrutiny due to the alleged sacredness. The results of this general Muslim attitude “are most injurious.” He observed that the “glasses through which Muslims see the scales of values have made them unable to respond properly to the development of thought in the world today.” He observed, Muslims, in other words were intellectually unprepared for meeting the challenges of the modern world because they could not distinguish between issues which were sacred (and off limits to excessive critical scrutiny) and those that were not.

The solution he offered was the “temporalizing” of values which are in fact worldly, and the freeing of the ummah (Muslim community) from the tendency to spiritualize them. He called for new creative thinking and the cultivation of a “mental readiness to always test and retest the truth of a value in the face of material, moral or historical facts (so this may be) characteristic of Muslims.”

Nurcholish’s argument is based on the idea that only God is transcendental and divine and as a consequence everything in the earthly realm should be viewed as temporal and subject to criticism. To confuse the temporal with the transcendental, or worse yet, to assign divine attributes to the sphere of worldly activity is a theological contradiction. “For to sacralise anything other than God, is, in reality, shirk [polytheism]”

Insisting that no Quranic basis exists for the creation of an Islamic state, Nurcholish warned that modern constructions of an Islamic state reduced Islam to a profane ideology, easily manipulated by those who imposed their own views in the name of religion. He equated it with the sin of polytheism (shirk) or idolatry. Thus he also rejects modern Islamists’ contention that imposing sharia as the rule of law is necessary to make Indonesian society more Islamic, insisting instead that true spirituality and religiosity comes from an inner transformation (individual and national). Rather than imposing Islamic law, what is needed is a spiritual path and cultural path that fosters ethics in society rather than an Islamic state. The primary means to this path are education, to transform individuals and society, and dialogue, an open exchange, to improve relations between Muslims and other religious communities as well as the Muslim world and the West.

Madjid was a prominent advocate of democracy believing that democracy has Quranic precedents in Quranic and traditional Islamic notions of deliberation and consultation (musyawarah and shura). He insisted that religious pluralism and tolerance were not simply a theological issue but a divine mandate, rooted in Quranic passages (2:62; 5:69) that teach all believers will be rewarded equally in the next life. All religions are on par with Islam and God gives salvation to anyone regardless of his religion. So too, since all religions are committed to ethical values and social justice, all religions – not just Islam – have a role to play in the implementation of religious values such as social justice and democratic governance in politics and society.

Need for Secular State to be Muslim

Abdullah Ahmed An-Na’im (above), a prominent Sudanese-American Muslim scholar and human rights activist, has been a major voice on issues of Islamic reform, human rights and the secular state. He is the Professor of Law and Senior Fellow of the Study of Law and Religion of Emory University.

An-Naim is influenced by and draws heavily upon the ideas of Ali Abd al-Raziq as well as An-Na’ims own teacher, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha – both advocates of shariah reform and of a secular state that does not seek to impose any one interpretation of religious law as the law of the nation. Each suffered for their ideas; al-Raziq lost his teaching position at Al Azhar University and Mahmoud Taha was hanged by the Gafaar Numeiri government for apostasy.

The role of Islam in the modern state depends largely on the interpretation of the authority of the past. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im argues in his book published in 2009, “Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shariah” that the coercive enforcement of shariah by the state betrays the Quran’s insistence on voluntary acceptance of Islam.

Just as the state should be secured from the misuse of religious authority, shariah should also be freed from the control of the state. State policies or legislation must be based on civic reasons accessible to citizens of all religions. He showed in his book that throughout the history of Islam, Islam and the State have normally been separate.

An’Na’im maintains that the ideas of human rights and citizenship are more consistent with Islamic principles than with claims of a supposedly Islamic state to enforce shariah. In fact, he suggests, the very idea of an “Islamic state” is based on European ideas of state and law and not shariah or the Islamic tradition.

An-Na’im explained that in making a claim that the state should be secular he means the state is neutral regarding religious doctrine, that it does not take a position on religion. He says the state cannot be religious.No matter how hard those in control of the state try, they will never achieve a claim of making a state religious because the state is a political institution it is incapable of having a religion.


He clarifies that whenever this claim is made what it means is that this is a political institution that is controlled by elites who are using the state institutions to enforce their view of religion. So the religious quality is of the ruling elite, not of the state as such. He says once this is recognised than it can be realised how dangerous it is to concede that the state is religious: “You don’t have authority unless I concede it to you. So if I do not concede to the ruling elite that they made a religious state by claiming it to be so, it is not religious.”

An-Na’im says; “As a Muslim I need the state to be secular so that I can be the Muslim I choose to be by conviction and choice”He adds: “There is no possibility of being a Muslim by coercion. You may be forced to conform to certain practices, certain lifestyles, dress style, but it never makes the religious quality of being a Muslim, unless it is by free and totally autonomous choice. So the pious intent to comply is integral to every religious act as a Muslim. The possibility of belief logically requires the possibility of disbelief. If I cannot disbelief, I cannot belief. Belief has to be a choice. It is totally incoherent to speak about a situation where I have no choice but to believe what I am made by others to believe.”

Na’im said his argument against an Islamic state or enforcement of shariah by the state is from an Islamic point of view but he is also aware that the idea, pushed by Islamic fundamentalists and other forces, of the Islamic state that enforces shariah, has been taken for granted. He says this idea is totally groundless and meaningless. He made this point in his book that the idea of an Islamic state is an extremely recent discourse. It has no precedent and it has no basis in pre-colonial Islamic history or intellectual tradition.
He says:

“It is totally premised on a European ideal of the state and a European ideal of positive law. The notion that the state can enact and enforce shariah as a state law is a colonial idea, a postcolonial innovation”

The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism

Abdulaziz Sachedina is Professor and IIIT Chair in Islamic Studies at George Mason University. He has been a professor for more 33 years, He teaches Classical Islam, Islam in the Modern Age, Islam Democracy and Human Rights. In 1998, Grand Ayatollah Sistani issued a statement against Sachedina that advised Muslims not to listen to his talks or to ask him questions about religious matters.

In his 2007 book “The Islamic Roots of Democratic Plauralism” Sachedina argues that doors of religious interpretation must be reopened – to correct false interpretations, replace outdated laws and formulate new doctrines. His book critically analyses Muslim teachings on such issues as pluralism, civil society, war and peace and violence and self-sacrifice.

Sachedina’s basic argument is that the Quran provides a solid basis for shaping a pluralist, just and inclusive society. He analysed three core Quranic concepts: that humanity is one community; people of different religious backgrounds should compete among themselves to do good; and the necessity for compassion and forgiveness. Sachedina affirms that each of the three principles concerns not only personal convictions or morality, but also the need to establish an ethical public order consistent with Islam’s role as a “faith in the public realm”.

Sachedina takes on some of the most controversial issues in contemporary Islamic thought: the legal rights of non-Muslims (dhimmi) in a majority Muslim state, the rules regarding apostasy and retribution, and the practice of jihad and its relation to rebellion and martyrdom. Despite the fact that numerous examples of tolerance and legal flexibility exists in the Islamic community, nevertheless, he maintains, Muslim jurists formulated legal codes relating to the status of non-Muslims that allow for discriminatory practices. These laws are not in accordance with modern conceptions of pluralism and inclusiveness and therefore must be rejected: “Most of the past juridical decisions treating non-Muslims minorities have become irrelevant in the context of contemporary religious pluralism, a cornerstone of inter-human relations”

Sachedina relates apostasy and jihad to freedom of religion and forgiveness in Islam respectively. Both rests on the key concept of “fitra,” a human being’s natural predisposition towards justice and knowledge of good and evil. (“Fitra” according to Islamic theology, human beings are born with an innate inclination of tawhid (Oneness) which is encapsulated in the fitra along with compassion, intelligence, ihsan and all other attributes that embody what is human) This inherent morality reinforces a belief “basic to Muslim identity” that the divinely mandated vocation to realize God’s will in history is communal as well as individual. Fitra not only forms the basis of a “God-centered public order,” it also provides the key to interreligious dialogue because it speaks to the nature of all humans regardless of creed. Sachedina envisions, therefore an Islamic theology of religions for the twenty-first century in which law based on God’s revelation acts as an instrument of justice and peace in society.

Sachedina does not accept the type of religious state proposed by the fundamentalists in which Islam has an exclusive claim over authority in the community. Rather Sachedina argues that the Prophet laid the groundwork for a “universal community” that was subsequently corrupted by the political imperative to subdue people of other faiths and by a reading of traditional sources that lost sight of their original plural intent. By reclaiming the belief that all human beings are “equal in creation” the Muslim community can serve as a model of a religious faith that also calls for justness in society through the creation of pluralistic, democratic institutions.

Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation

Tariq Ramadan is a Swiss academic, philosopher and writer. He is the professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford and Visiting professor to the University of Perlis, Malaysia. He was elected by Time magazine in 2004 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and by Foreign Policy Magazine as one of the top 100 Global Thinkers.

In his book published in 2009 “Radical Reform Islamic Ethic and Liberation” he called for a radical reform and challenged those who argue defensively that reform is a dangerous and foreign deviation and a betrayal of the faith. Ramadan says the debate over the question of the renewal, revival and reform of Islamic sciences, and more specifically of “fiqh”, is a very old one among Muslim scholars. The awakening of Islamic thought necessarily involves reconciliation with its spiritual dimension on the one hand and on the other, renewed commitment to rational and critical thinking (ijtihad) of the scriptural sources in the field of law and jurisprudence (fiqh).

Authentic reform, he says, has always been grounded on Islam’s textual sources, spiritual objectives and intellectual traditions. Today’s Muslims, urgently need contemporary fiqh, distinguishing, what in the texts is immutable and what may be changed.

Similar to Nucholish’s argument, Tariq Ramadan says that literalists fail to distinguish between that which, in the Revelation, is immutable (thabit), absolute, and transhistorical, and that which is subject to change, linked to temporal evolution and environmental changes (mutaghayyir).

Tariq Ramadan asserts that by failing to distinguish between the immutable and the changing, contemporary literalist bestir a series of confusions involving grave consequences.Principles can be immutable, absolute and eternal, but their implementations in time or in history-historical models- are relative, changing, and in constant mutation. Thus the principles of justice, equality, rights and human brotherhood that guided the Prophet of Islam indeed remain the references beyond history, but the model of the city of Medina founded by Muhammad in the seventh century is a historical realization linked to the realities and requirements of his time.

Muslims must, in the course of history, try to remain faithful to those principles and strive to implement them as best as they can according to the requirements of their time, but they cannot merely imitate, reproduce, or duplicate a historical model that was adapted for a particular time but no longer corresponds to the requirements of their own.

To confuse eternal principles and historical models is simplistic and, most of all, particularly serious, idealizing something in a moment in history (in this instance the city of Medina) leads to thoughtless and guilty denial of that history and reduces the universality of Islam’s principles to the dream of an impossible return to the past, to an irresponsible “nostalgia of origins.”

The same temptation can be found in some contemporary salafi trends that advocate an almost exclusively political commitment: they reduce faithfulness to the message of imitating, or returning to, a specific historical political structure, a particular type of “state” or the reference to a “caliphate,” which they set against any other possible political organization (dismissively arguing that these alternatives arise from the era of ignorance or opposition of Islam, al-jahiliyyah).

The distinction between principles and models appeals to Muslims’ conscience and requires them to display intelligence and creativity to achieve, at each moment in history and whatever their environment, a society modelled as faithfully as possible to the ethical principles they adhere to. Whereas for literalists that act of being faithful to the Prophet, his Companions and the salaf essentially consists in imitating their behaviour and simply trying to reproduce their historical dated achievements.

Tariq Ramadan says essential faithfulness consists in recapturing their spiritual strength and intellectual energy to achieve the most coherent social model for our own time (as they did theirs.) The point is not to imitate the historical result achieved but to reproduce the ethical demand and human efforts through which it was achieved. It is not to repeat its form but to grasp its substance, spirit and objectives.

Amongst the ways is through ijtihad and maqasid al-shariah (the Higher Objectives of Islam.) It is necessary to think through and reconsider the list of principles and higher aims that can be deduced from the scriptures, the text and the Universe, to preserve what is good, beneficial and useful to the human race and to protect it from what is evil and harmful.

Liberal Democracy and Maqasid al-shariah and ijtihad

Anwar Ibrahim had from long ago spoken of the need for Ijtihad, maqasid al-shariah, tolerance and moderation. In his book “Asian Renaissance,” he said Islam came to Southeast Asia borne on the seas by Sufis and merchants rather than overland by soldiers brandishing swords, conversion was by choice, not coercion.

The peaceful and gradual Islamization has moulded the Southeast Asian Muslim psyche into one which is cosmopolitan, open-minded, tolerant and amenable to cultural diversity. Of course the outlook is also fashioned by the strong presence of people of other faiths who reciprocated Muslim tolerance. By being moderate and pragmatic, Southeast Asian Muslims are neither compromising the teachings and ideals of Islam nor pandering to the whims and fancies of the times.

On the contrary, Anwar says such an approach is necessary to realize the societal ideals of Islam such as justice, equitable distribution of wealth, fundamental rights and liberties. This approach is sanctioned in a saying by the Prophet of Islam, to the effect that “the best way to conduct your affairs is to choose the middle path” (Hadith narrated by al-Baihaqi).

Anwar said (at that time 1996-97) the proponents of the imposition of Muslim laws or the establishment of an Islamic state are confined to the periphery, Southeast Asian Muslims prefer to concentrate on the task of ensuring economic growth and eradicating poverty, instead of amputating the limbs of thieves. They would rather strive to improve the welfare of the women and children in their midst, than spend their days elaborately defining the nature and institution ideal Islamic state. They do not believe it would make one less of a Muslim to promote economic growth, to master the information revolution, and to demand justice for women. Nor do they believe it would strengthen one’s commitment to religion by instilling anxiety among people of other faiths.

However, Anwar warned even then, against the process of intellectual decline and decay that was and continues to gradually set into Islam. With the deterioration in economic activities over the centuries of colonial subjugation, poverty and destitution began to surface in Muslim societies. Patronage of learning, arts, and sciences suffered. As the level of learning declined, superstitions grew. The general public could no longer be counted upon to participate intelligently in societal processes as responsible and enlightened citizens.

Among the ulama, conservatism and rigidity began to take root in the face of external challenges and internal decadence. The doctrine of taqlid (uncritical imitation) was instituted. Innovation, change and inquiry became suspect. In such a climate, the ulama devoted themselves almost entirely to the issue of fiqh (jurisprudence) and limited study and commentary to the works of the great scholars of the classical era.

Serious problems which cried for urgent attention, including poverty, illiteracy and other forms of social malaise, were ignored. Islamic scholarship was confined to textual studies of language, traditions and orthodox jurisprudence. It became absorbed, not in the urgent task of championing the broad vision and civilizational ideals of Islam in the face of the onslaught of modern secular ideologies, but in attempting to unearth past solutions to resolve sometimes petty issues.

The effort to revive the spirit of inquiry and reasoned discourse (tajdid) required no less than a thorough transformation of mental outlook. To regain their central position in society, the ulama need to manifest intellectual vigour and societal relevance. They have to compete among the multifarious contending forces for the hearts and minds of the people. If a disproportionate number of ulama were to devote themselves entirely to jurisprudence, the other sciences and arts would be bereft of moral leadership. The issue of penal sanction of the shariah, for example, is a preoccupation of the majority of the ulama, although the mass poverty is more pervasive than criminality, and the suffering of the destitute and the hungry in so many parts of the Muslim world demands greater attention and compassion.

Muslims need to address urgent social and economic issues such as the eradication of poverty and illiteracy, the provision of employment, decent housing and other social amenities. These are preconditions before certain shariah injunctions can be translated into legislation. Indeed, the construction of an outer edifice of Islamic governance without the true substance of physical and spiritual well-being of the ummah would be a travesty of the maqasid al-sharia, the ideals and objectives of religion itself. It is tantamount to insisting on a form of religion devoid of substance.

Anwar ended with a caution that the wave of Islamic revivalism that began with the anti-imperialist struggles of the previous century had gained further momentum among Muslims in Southeast Asia. He had the prescience in 1996 to warn that the energy potential must be properly directed so as not to deteriorate or be corrupted into blind fanaticism which could precipitate into violent clashes with other cultures. He said there were indeed signs, however, that these religious energies, aligned with forces of social conservatism, have served to marginalize the Muslims in the rapidly changing world. Thus there is a need to reassert the universalism of Islam, its values of justice, compassion and tolerance in a world that is yearning for a sense of direction and for genuine peace. If this could be achieved, Muslims can truly contribute to the shaping of a new world.

Unfortunately, as we all know Anwar was incarcerated not long after “Asian Renaissance” was published. On his release he has continued to push for the ijtihad and the adoption of the maqasid al-shariah approach to bring the modern concepts of democracy, pluralism, tolerance and human rights as comparable to the universal values of Islam in his many talks, forums, seminars, local and international and in his public rallies.

His position did not waver despite his imprisonment. In an essay “Universal Values and Muslim Democracy” as Distinguished Visiting Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University which draws upon his speeches at the New York Democracy Forum in December 2005 and the Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy in Istanbul in April 2006, Anwar in referring to the increasingly growing alienation between East and West over issues of freedom and justice, said he was reminded of his upbringing in multicultural and multi-ethnic Malaysia.

Malaysian psyche is infused with a plurality of identities. Malaysians study the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and at the same time devoured the works of Dante, Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot. There is never any doubt that our world and the West are compatible and the spirit of inclusiveness and pluralism will continue to be a source of inspiration in bridging the gaps between culture and civilizations.

Anwar called the “harrowing theories” concocted to claim an inherent contradiction between Islam and democratic values, are attempts to drive a wedge between two great civilizations. The argument that liberal democracy places sovereignty in the hands of the individual, in Islam sovereignty belongs solely to God, thereby reducing the individual to a mere agent with little concern for the exercise of creativity and personal freedom, is a misreading of the sources of religion and represents a capitulation to the extremist discourse. The proper view is that freedom is the fundamental objective of the divine.

Anwar wrote that the freedom defined by the West is the same in the maqasid al-sharia (the higher objectives of sharia):

“As articulated by the great jurists al-Shatibi (d. 790 CE), the maqasid al-sharia (higher objectives of the shariah) sanctify the preservation of religion, life, intellect, family and wealth, objectives that bear striking resemblance to Lockean ideals that would be expounded centuries later. Many scholars have further explained that laws which contravene the maqasid must be revised or amended to bring them into line with the higher objectives and to ensure that they contribute to the safety and development of the individual and society. Notwithstanding the current malaise of authoritarianism plaguing the Muslim world, there can be no question that several crucial elements of constitutional democracy and civil society are also imperatives in Islam-freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and the sanctity of life and property – as demonstrated very clearly by the Koran, as well as the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, perhaps most succinctly and eloquently in his farewell address.”

Anwar Ibrahim said the conclusion to be drawn is that human desire to be free and to lead a dignified life is universal. So is the abhorrence of despotism and oppression. These are passions that motivate not only Muslims but people from all religions and civilizations.

They have imprisoned Anwar again. However his spirit and his ideas remain free. His struggle for the inculcation of a culture of a plural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society living in peace and harmony continues unabated.


Anwar and those Re-thinking Islam faces continuous challenges including assaults to their credibility, reputation, physical security and loss of personal liberty. They have spoken up with courage and fortitude that Muslims should not be concerned about an Islamic state ruled by shariah but to be in a state of Islam. For non-Muslims I urge you join this journey. It is not a journey to be taken by Muslims alone. We have to walk together in the search for greater cohesiveness, in fostering a better sense of community with shared values, in finding and articulating a common moral and ethical ground beyond mere tolerance. Then together we can confront corruption, authoritarianism, modern feudalism, bigotry, racism hatred and injustices. Only by moral fortitude can we have the courage of conviction to battle these iniquities as one.






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