An Islamic Revolution

January 1, 2012

As Islamic conservatism gains ground in the country, progressive think tank the Islamic Renaissance Front aims to open up space for a more diverse discourse.

IT is a bit startling, and even a little unnerving, to open an English translation of the Quran and find the words “For People Who Think” on the first page.

But it is exciting because it actually makes people sit up, pause and think.

Youthful input: Edry and Fuad are two of the young men on board the IRF.

Which is really what the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) a two-year-old organisation promoting “progressive” and “democratic” Islam is trying to do: to make Muslims think, and think rationally.

The IRF is pleased that the authorities (specifically the censorship committee on religious books chaired by Perak Mufti Tan Sri Harussani Zakaria) have given the thumbs up for the Message of the Qurantranslated and explained by Muhammad Asad to be published and distributed in Malaysia.

This is the book that proclaims it is “for people who think”.

As IRF’s founder and chairman Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa puts it, Asad’s translation and commentary is contemporary because it gives a context and meaning to the words of the Quran.

It does make people think, he argues.

“The thrust of Islam is rational. If you believe religion is only about faith, then it would exist only as blind faith without you really knowing why you believe in it.

“And if we say that everything is codified in the Quran then what is the reason for God to give us the faculty of reason, our akal, our wisdom? If there’s no place for reason at all,” he asks.

Dr Farouk makes it clear, however, that he is not questioning the rukun iman (pillars of faith) or the rukun Islam (pillars of Islam) which are sacred and fundamental to Muslims.

“We don’t question things like prayer, fasting, zakat (tithes) or the Haj. But there are day-to-day activities where there are no strict rules and that is where we require the faculty of reason,” he says.

He believes that God did not lay down strict rules on political aspects because the Quran is timeless, universal and because Islam is relevant today as it was during the Prophet’s time and as it should be in the 23rd or 25th century.

Why else, he says, would God in the Quran ask people to reflect upon God’s creation, the earth, the sky, sun, moon and the stars.

Alternative view: Dr Farouk believes that God gave us our ‘akal’, our wisdom to make us think and reason.

“If everything is codified, then the Quran would not be valid because time and civilisation changes,” says Dr Farouk, a cardiothoracic surgeon and an academic who admires Muslim leaders like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Tunisia’s new leader Rached Ghannouchi.

The IRF drew inspiration from Islamic reformist thinkers like Tariq Ramadan (grandson of Hassan al Banna who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), Muhammad Asad, Malik bin Nabi, Muhammad Abduh, Ibn Ashur, Dr Salim Al Awa, among others who have pushed for a study or re-interpretation of the meaning of the Holy Quran and its objectives.

Like them, the IRF believes that people should not just rely on the text interpretation by clerics of yesteryears but to use reason to keep up with changing times.

Crucially, the IRF does not shy away from controversial topics such as the so-called proselytisation of Muslims, freedom of religion, Islamic state, hudud (Islamic criminal law) and even sex change.

All these, they believe, are and should be open for discussion and debate.

“Everytime you question something like hudud they say you can’t question such things because this is Islam, this is the word of God. We want to dispel this. We are not questioning the religion or the laws written in the Quran but we are questioning whether we can achievemaqasid (objectives) if we implement the laws and the interpretation. That is okay to question.

“The maqasid, the higher intention of the syariah is to establish justice. But we can see that in countries all over the world where hudud is implemented, the segments of society that are punished are the poor and the women. Is this just?”

IRF’s target is to engage the young generation of Muslims undergraduates, postgraduates, working professionals and young adults and empower them with knowledge, understanding and the desire to think things through rationally.

But Dr Farouk doesn’t believe in getting them too young because “we don’t want to be indoctrinating our ideas into young minds” and “we want to allow them to develop their maturity first”.

Nor does he believe in going for the older generation because “there’s no point trying to change their minds because they have kind of made up their minds”.

“We believe in engaging people who can really think, discuss and debate with us from different angles.”

As the IRF is a think tank and an intellectual movement, Dr Farouk says, they want to keep it small. For now, it has 20 to 30 active members.

“We are very selective of our members. We don’t want to be a cult or a mass movement like Abim and Jim (Jemaah Islah Malaysia). They are more about getting numbers but we are more into shaping minds.

“We want to be the voice of conscience. We want to keep the numbers small so that it is easier for us to maintain and educate and then perhaps it will grow,” he explains.

Two of the young men on board the IRF are Fuad Rahmat who has a masters in politics and social philosophy and Edry Faizal Eddy Yusof, a graduate from the Multimedia University.

Fuad who is a research fellow with the IRF is happy with keeping things cosy and family-like.

“By keeping the numbers small and the network loose, people will be freer to speak their minds and be more comfortable. We have got to start with the base which are professionals and urban.”

But what religious credentials do these people have to speak about Islam?

“I am a Muslim so I have the right to speak about what I believe. Everybody needs to speak up. Different views are important in a democracy. You may think that the conservative voices are the majority but they may not be, they are just the most vocal,” says Edry.

Fuad believes that one does not need to have a turban and a long beard plus Islamic credentials to discuss Islam.

“Islam interacts with other issues with politics, with medicine, with arts, with literature so while you may be trained to memorise the Quran, you may not know the first thing about medicine or political science or philosophy.

“Religion is always interacting with all other spheres of society. That’s why dialogue is important.

“Even though we are not classically trained (in Islam), we know at an instinctive and human level when something doesn’t sound right.

“For example if they say women shouldn’t be politically active’, this runs against our human instinct and we will say wait a minute, why do you say that’. We want to bring discussion back down to earth,” he says.

This is not something alien or new to Islam.

Fuad points out that when Baghdad and Andalusia were the centres of Islamic civilisation, knowledge especially the sciences thrived due to the widespread appreciation that Islam is a religion of rational discourse which encouraged various debates.

“It’s just that now we are at a different time where the more conservative elements have taken over and our position looks odd.

“Islam had a Golden Age because we were encouraged to think, explore and question whereas now everything is all taboo.”

He highlights that the first constitution ever written is the Madina Constitution where there is no mention of the hudud while the rights of the Jews are protected.

“It shows that people can come to a consensus in an open rational discourse about what they want in a society. This has been in our practice. We just have to rediscover it,” he adds.

Diversity of thought

If religion is taught and communicated well, says Fuad, people will be able to make the right decisions for themselves and there would be no need for snoop squads and a nanny state.

“Any moral judgment is meaningful only if it is made out upon free will.

“You can’t force somebody to be good because then the person isn’t really a good person if he is forced to be good. It has to be based on conscience. It is better that a person does something because he thinks it is the right thing to do than because he doesn’t want to get caught.

“The choice to do good must come about freely and not coerced.”

Fuad, for one, has a bone to pick with the recent Himpun Rally held to protest against the proselytisation of Muslims.

Nobody can even agree on the number of Muslims who purportedly converted to Christianity, he says.

“One person says it’s 260,000, another claims it’s 135,000 but the official census says zero’. We can’t even diagnose the problem because everybody is busy getting heated up and speaking out of knee-jerk reaction.

“They should just pause and ask themselves what are the facts, what are the problems, what is the solution. Nobody is taking the time to really reflect.”

Dr Farouk takes it a step further. He believes Islam allows a Muslim to leave the faith if they choose to, citing the often quoted verse 2:256 in the Quran that “there is no compulsion in religion”.

Dr Farouk says this verse only makes sense if there is no coercion in matters of faith.

Hence, Dr Farouk opposes any moves for a so-called Faith Crimes Act which he says is contrary to Islam.

Fuad feels that one peculiarity in Malaysia is that the Malay identity and Islamic identity are so closely defined to one another that any perceived affront against Islam is seen as an attack on the race.

He tells of Muslims who are not religious at all but become defensive of the hudud because they see it as an attack against the race.

In other countries, the definition of race and religion is far more elastic, he says, while “in Malaysia you can live your whole life in this country and never meet a non-Muslim Malay”.

That is why the Malay politicians can easily play the Muslim card, he opines, “They know they can get an audience that way. It is hard to have rational discussions when the sensitivities are so high. The easiest way to react is to get angry and that is what you have here.”

One of the ways the IRF discusses issues is through what they call a book dissection.

Here, one of them will present what he or she understands from a particular book of an Islamic scholar and the others will discuss it.

Something a little unusual for Malaysia is that most of IRF’s events and discussions on Islam are in English.

Explains Fuad, the authors they discuss like Muhammad Asad, Tariq Ramadan, Malik Nabi and Abdul Wahab Effendi have not been widely translated into Malay.

“So a lot of the thinkers we turn to as resources appeal more to the English speaking crowd because the works are written in English.”

He notes that in comparison the Malay discourse on Islam is dominated by conservative writers who do not necessarily focus on contemporary issues.

This, he says, is because most of the Malaysians who study Islam have had their training and education in very conservative places like Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia so they are exposed to conservative thoughts and these are the kind of ideas and influence they bring back with them.

“You have people who memorise the Quran but cannot speak about the philosophy of it, the higher intention of it. The challenges in the modern world is so complex that memorising isn’t enough,” he adds.

Dr Farouk chips in that those who know Arabic in Malaysia are not inclined to translate the works of Islamic reformist thinkers and seem to lean towards the works of orthodox conservative thinkers such as Saudi cleric Bin Baz.

He feels that due to the Saudis’ funding of education, the Salafists movement is becoming very strong in Malaysia and are allegedly infiltrating various sectors.

Edry says they are friends with the Salafists and other Muslim groups too but unity does not mean uniformity.

Next year, the IRF hopes to bring the different groups of Muslims the Salafists, the Shi’ites, the traditionalists and reformists together to share knowledge and for discussions.

“Hopefully, we will be able to build bridges among these different groups.

“We are trying to make them understand that irrespective of the different beliefs, we still have a common ground to hold on (Islam) and a common understanding of what religion is. And that the differences are all political opinion.

“Nobody has done this here before. I don’t know if it will be successful but the important thing is to try.”