Protesting hegemony: The search for true islah

January 31, 2013 by Zairil Khir Johari

JAN 30 ― “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” ~ Muhammad Abduh

Not too long ago, a young Malaysian political leader got herself into a spot of controversy for suggesting, essentially, that there is no compulsion in religion. Such a seemingly innocuous statement was immediately sensationalised by the media, following intense pressure from vocal conservatives.

Until today, I find it strange that someone should be castigated for simply repeating a fundamental truth espoused by none other than the Holy Quran itself.

And even more recently, there has been a fierce debate over the name of God ― who can use it, who cannot use it, and whether it should be banned or prohibited for use by certain communities ― as if the name of God can be monopolised or owned by anyone. So heated did this debate get that it soon culminated in vitriolic threats to burn the Bible.

I suppose all this fuss and overreaction is a reflection of how intellectually immature our society is, despite our economic progress. It is indeed sad to note that the state of religious, especially Islamic, discourse in Malaysia has been reduced to banal arguments over lexical semantics, dress codes, moral policing, punitive laws and the constant regulation of everyday life, from what we can eat to what we can say.

It also doesn’t help that Islam is highly politicised in our country, with two dominant factions claiming ownership over the religion. Historically, religious contest is usually manifested by a tension between conservatism on the one hand and reformism on the other, as was the case between the Kaum Tuaand Kaum Muda movements during the first half of the 20th century.

Today, however, the Islamic debate in Malaysia is no longer between revelation and reason or between taqlid and ijtihad, but simply over who has more right to control the religion.

And worse, the politicisation of Islam has turned it into a convenient front for ethno-religious hegemony, through which the competing factions both project a vision of state dominance through the institutionalisation of what ― in their minds ― is a monolithic religion. The quarrel is not over whether Malaysia should be an Islamic State but over who can better govern an assumed Islamic State.

And so Islam in Malaysia is divided by two opposing views that differ in form but carry the same substance ― both intend to impose a narrow set of values on the larger society, both suppress differing opinions and both are antithetical to reason and enlightenment. Somehow, the maqasid or higher intention of Islam ― to achieve social justice, equality and solidarity ― has been lost along the way.

Hence the need for a third, though certainly far from new, way. The reformist spirit of Muslim intellectuals such as Muhammad Abduh and, closer to home, Syed Sheikh Al-Hadi, needs to be revived. Theirs was the spirit of reasoning, of questioning, of not accepting something simply because “it is so”. Theirs was the spirit of true islah, or reform.

In this context, the Islamic reform movement has some parallels with the Protestant Reformation of 16th-century Europe. As such, some have even coined the term “Islamic Protestantism” as another label in reference to Islamic reformism or modernism.

And in similar vein to its Christian counterpart, Islamic Protestantism is not a protest against scripture but in fact against the manipulation of religion as a tool of enslavement, against the abuse of religion as a means to suppress intellectual progress. And just as Martin Luther and his cohorts remonstrated against papal dominance, so too does Islamic reform movement challenge the subjugation of religion by a self-serving class of clerics that have installed themselves as gatekeepers between God and the ummah.

But however it is called, be it Islamic Protestantism or Islamic reformism, it does not entail the advocacy of any “new” ideas on Islam. If anything, it merely encourages the rediscovery of the true values of, in the words of Iranian historian Hashem Aghajari, a “rational, scientific (and) humanistic Islam”.

In other words, it provides an escape from dogmatism and the mindless debates about whether this or that should be banned. Instead, it focuses on understanding that progress and knowledge are values that are not just compatible with Islam, but also once the domain of Muslims.

Today, there are nearly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, yet only two have won Nobel prizes in the sciences (one in physics and one in chemistry). In contrast, the Jews, who are outnumbered by a hundred to one by Muslims, have produced 79 science Laureates. And perhaps the best depiction of the state of Muslim intelligentsia is the case of the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, which reportedly has three mosques on campus (with another one in the works) but not a single bookshop.

This is of course in direct contrast to the scientific progress of the Muslim world between the eighth and 13th centuries, during which much knowledge was pioneered in the fields of medicine, mathematics and physics. Without a doubt, the foundations laid by Muslim scholars such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and many others would later have a profound influence on European philosophy.

Though the Islamic Golden Age has been confined to history, it is certainly not impossible to re-engineer another Islamic renaissance, so long as there is a substantial commitment to integrate scientific and worldly knowledge with core Islamic values such as justice, freedom and equality. For as long as Muslims remain fettered by the rigidity imposed by “Islamic authorities” and the pseudo-clergy class, the ummah will continue to be left behind.

That said, there is now an undercurrent sweeping the Muslim world. Some have termed it a “spring” while others call it an “awakening”. However one calls it, there are now signs that Muslims are beginning to rise to reclaim their space under the sun.

In Egypt, a former engineering professor now sits in the presidential office while Tunisia is now led by the prominent Islamist intellectual Rachid al-Ghannushi. These countries now join Turkey and Indonesia as other examples of burgeoning Muslim democracies.

As freedom and democracy begin to take root in the Muslim world, so too, it is hoped, would the pursuit of knowledge and the thirst for scientific progress be revived amongst Muslims.

As for us in Malaysia, still consumed by doctrines that brook no dissent and the domination by two sides of the same repressive coin, sitting idly by is not an option. If we are to achieve the ultimate goal of true islah, then protest we must.


Zairil Khir Johari is the CEO of Penang Institute. The writing was based on the speech delivered on Friday 25 January 2013 at Wawasan Open University during the Colloquium on Democracy and Social Justice jointly organized by the Penang Institute and Islamic Renaissance Front. The plenary lecture entitled “Contemporary Muslim Revival: The Case of Protestant Islam” was delivered by Prof Syed Farid Alatas of the National University of Singapore.