Talking About Islam

April 8, 2012

By Shanon Shah
[email protected]

CAN Muslims and non-Muslims question or critique Islamic laws? Are Islamic laws inherently unjust? Should Malaysia be an Islamic state? Does one need to be an Islamic “authority” in order to figure these issues out?

Islamic Renaissance Front founder and chairperson Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa shares some of his ideas with The Nut Graph, in the second and final part of this 5 Apr 2010 exclusive interview in Kuala Lumpur.

TNG: Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and state leaders have repeatedly stressed that Islamic law and opinion cannot be questioned in Malaysia. Let’s take the example of forbidding the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims — would you consider it fair for something like this to be criticised or questioned by the public?

Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa: For the record, it was very commendable of (Opposition Leader) Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to invite the various Islamic NGOs to a meeting at his residence on the “Allah” issue. It was well attended and we had lengthy discussions, and we heard various opinions.

A verse in the Quran says, “And if you ask them who created the heavens and the earth, they will certainly say: Allah” (Surah Luqman, verse 25). Now PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat look at this and agree that “Allah” can be used by non-Muslims. So they can use the kalimah of “Allah”, as long as it is not abused.

Perhaps that is an easier thing to discuss, because that is a matter of theological opinion. What about public criticisms or questions on Islamic laws?

The reason why we have the kind of Islamic laws we have [in Malaysia] is because we are kind of trapped in one mindset, that we must follow only the Shafie school of jurisprudence. But this stand doesn’t seem to apply when we discuss the Islamic economic system. In Malaysia, we allow ideas from any mazhab (school of jurisprudence) to be applied in this system. But when it comes to hudud, we want to be strict in applying only Shafie jurisprudence. Why can’t we be open in this area as well?

Do you believe that non-Muslims, then, also have the right to question or critique Islamic laws?

Yes, they do. After all, their lives are affected, too, in this state, whether directly or indirectly, by the application of these laws.

They must understand, though, that syariah and fiqh are two different things. Syariah is divine, while fiqh is not. Fiqh is merely an extrapolation of syariah by human interpretive faculties. And “syariah laws” as we know them actually fall under fiqh.

But on one end of the spectrum, there will also be those who say that it is Islam that is inherently unjust and cruel. What would you say to them?

I think they should differentiate between the divine and [human constructions]. This is not just a problem among non-Muslims, this is also a problem with many Muslims: they accept codified Islamic laws as being divine. But these laws were established by human ijtihad, or independent reasoning.

If we dissect this claim, perhaps it is based on the fact that across many Muslim societies, their codified Islamic laws largely violate international human rights standards.

Yes, well, across the Muslim world you have people trying to portray themselves as more “Islamic” than their opponents. This is part of current politics in Malaysia and other countries, too.

By introducing more “Islamic” legislation, these leaders think they can gain popularity. But the more important thing is really to ensure that society is just. We want a society that upholds equitable rights, and in which freedom of religion and expression, and the right to association, and a vibrant democracy are all intact. We tend to forget these prerequisites to a just society and just impose more “Islamic” laws on people — and then many of these laws end up going against the spirit of the Quran itself.

I recall a provision in Sabah’s Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment, which criminalises non-performance of the five daily obligatory prayers. It seems as though the law conflates non-performance of a personal, religious obligation with a crime against the state. Is this what you are talking about?

Yes, they are infringing upon Allah’s hak (rights) versus the people’s hak. There are certain things that should just be left as is; for example, your conviction or observations of your religious duties. What’s more important is that we respect the rights that are due to Allah, and defend the individual’s rights in society; for example, to be free from slander.

The Nut Graph has been asking Members of Parliament from both the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat if they think Malaysia should be a secular or Islamic state. Their responses have been quite diverse, and so we thought it would be interesting to ask what you think about this issue.

We have to understand that the term “daulah”, or state, in the sense of “political power”, cannot be found in the Quran. The closest term is “dulah”, which means “economic power”.

I think the only reason many Islamists believe they need to set up an Islamic state is because of some of the obligations God has prescribed, such as the need for a cavalry in times of war. How are you going to have a cavalry if you don’t have a state? That sort of thing. So they extrapolate on these verses to justify setting up an Islamic state.

But the Quran is actually silent on the form of state that is needed [for a just society]. It is clear on two things: one, the sovereignty of Allah, and two, that justice and ihsan need to be upheld. Muhammad Asad believes that in terms of principles of governance, the Quranic exhortation to syura (consultation) can actually be interpreted as an endorsement of democracy.

It seems as though whether Islamists or secularists, the hot-button issues [some use] to evaluate a person’s “Islamic” position are on apostasy, tudung and gays. In other words, to be a real Muslim by whosever’s definition, you have to want to punish apostates, impose the tudung on women, and kill homosexuals. What do you think?

I think I’ve answered two out of three of these issues (laughs). Look, let’s just take one example. I said before that the Quran is timeless, not time-bound. And so, for example, on the issue of hijab or tudung, the Quran laid down some basic guidelines.

What’s more important is the principle of modesty. The verse in the Quran (Surah An-Nur, verse 31) that calls for women to cover up says “except for the parts [of your body] which are apparent”. The majority of ulama have interpreted this as meaning only the hands and the face of the woman.

The Quran is actually silent on what is the definition of “apparent”. But the same verse is explicit about the need to cover the cleavage or the bosom. And so, while the Quran is silent on the extent to which we define what is “apparent”, it is clear that a woman’s bosom is non-negotiable.

And so, standards of modesty can be and are determined by every society. What if a woman surgeon needs to, as part of her practice, wash her arms up to her elbows? Doesn’t that fall under what is “apparent”? What about women padi farmers who need to roll up their sarongs up to their knees? Aren’t their calves or shins part of what is “apparent”?

You are a medical doctor, and yet you also lead an Islamic organisation. What would you say to critics who claim that you are not qualified to do this, since you are not a traditionally trained alim?

I really have no hang-ups or insecurities about this. If you look at the verse, “Those of His servants only who are possessed of knowledge fear Allah” (Surah Fatir, verse 28), you will see that the verses preceding this describe the heavens, the earth, the rivers and mountains, saying that these also contain signs for humankind.

And so, according to the Quran, God speaks to us in two ways: one is through the Book, or the Quran, and other is through the book of the universe. If we are knowledgeable in anatomy, or biology, or chemistry, or physics, we, too, will understand the workings of God