What does book banning, in this age of globalisation and information technology, really achieve for Muslims?
This question echoes throughout social media as countless Malaysians express their ire and bafflement at the sudden arrest of Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz, an employee at bookshop Border's, who had allegedly defied Jawi's ban against the sale of Allah, Liberty and Love by Irshad Manji.
As a store manager, Nik Raina had no say over the selection of books that were sold. And yet she now faces the possibility of imprisonment, with no legal counsel offered at the time of arrest. Many wonder why a simple warning was not enough.
Before that, a book of popular local author Faisal Tehrani, Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang was also banned for obscure reasons, though one may suspect that it has to do with the author's leaning towards the Shi'ite sect.
Thus, suspicions that maybe Islam has nothing to say about the freedom of expression are increasing. Perhaps our talents and resources should all be channelled towards moral policing, book banning and intolerance, as that appears to be what Muslims want most.
Perhaps we should just forget about exploring solutions to real pressing challenges facing humanity.
Indeed, if non-Muslims, or even some Muslims for that matter, are expressing doubts about Islam's potential to be a religion of progress, then who can really blame them?
New ideas can only come from fresh minds
New ideas can only come from fresh minds that are not discouraged or inhibited from original thinking, but it appears that new thinking is what Muslims fear the most. They are not even open for any intellectual debate.
The question we must now ask if this has always been the case? Have Muslims really been afraid of new, different or unconventional ideas?
A brief consideration of history will confirm the fact that there is nothing at all Islamic about book banning and religious policing. For if that was the case, then Islam would not have had its Golden Ages, which saw centuries of science, art and discovery flourish.
Indeed, the freedom to think, express and to risk original ideas defined the many Muslim civilisations that prospered across the Islamic world, from Baghdad to Spain in the West and India, China and the Nusantara in the East.
Take for example, the advances under the Abbasid caliphate in the 8thcentury, which saw the rise of algebra, astronomy, medicine, literature and even agricultural technology, advances that are still considered to be far ahead of its time. These advances did not emerge de novo, but were born in conversation with knowledge inherited from Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese and Indian civilisations.
But the culture of exploration and experimentation can also be found in the novel ideas about religion that also flourished then. It was during this era that the Muslim world became the intellectual centre for learning, during which the famous House of Wisdom orBaitul Hikmah was established. Muslims and non-Muslims worked together, hand-in-hand, to translate and gather all the possible knowledge that was within reach to them at the time into Arabic.
The underlying basis of this intellectual culture at that time was none other the "Mu'tazilite" school of rational theology. They were inspired by the hadith and Quranic verses that emphasised the value of knowledge, reflection and discovery in Islam and considered "the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr".
The Mu'tazilite school of thought claimed, among other things, that humans have total free will, that our actions were not predetermined. They do so to protect God's total innocence of any evil in this world, while reserving all responsibility for evil deeds to humans: in other words, humans must have the power to choose their actions in order to be held accountable for them.
Thus, humans would receive the appropriate reward in heaven or punishment in hell as a result of their good or bad free choices. Anyone who believes in a just God had to accept that man is the creator of his deeds.
"There shall be no coercion in matters of faith''
This idea of free-will doctrine led them to conclude that the whole world had to be seen as an abode of trial where people are tested on whether they are willing or unwilling to accept the true faith. The acceptance of faith could occur only with genuine conviction, an idea that emanated from the Quranic teaching: "There shall be no coercion in matters of faith." Their conclusion was that people deserved the liberty to make their own choices.
This commitment to human autonomy and God's supreme transcendence also led them to conclude that the Quran was created, and not "uncreated". Otherwise it would be elevated almost to the level of a second deity, something that contradicts Islam's uncompromising monotheism. This led to an important conclusion in that a created al-Quran can be interpreted; whereas an uncreated al-Quran can only be applied.
As strange as all this may sound to contemporary Muslims, it is nonetheless a historical fact that the Mu'tazilites endured as the most dominant school of theology in Baghdad for nearly three centuries.
Hence, the idea of freedom, be it freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of speech or freedom to read whatever we want to read was not unknown in classical Islamdom. The People of Reason clearly aspired to it. And they may have headed toward establishing a genuine concept of "hurriyyah" or freedom.
The end of the People of Reason or Mu'tazilite's reign did not, however, signal the end of rational inquiry. Indeed, the thriving culture of science and exploration eventually produced the likes of Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina who undertook indepth exploration of Greek philosophy while the West was still in its dark ages.
Indeed, philosophy was so dominant that it compelled Al-Ghazali to in turn produce his magnum opus, The Incoherence of the Philosophers. He used some choice words to describe the philosophers but note that he did so through rational argumentation and discourse.
Note also the cosmopolitan nature of the Golden Age: none of the philosophers mentioned above, with the exception of Al-Kindi, was Arab. Al-Farabi was Turkish, Ibn Sina and Al-Ghazali were Persians. Ibn Sina in fact was believed to be a Shi'ite. The openness to ideas was accompanied by a remarkable openness to other ethnicities and sects.
Culture of openness and rational inquiry continued
This was not just happening in Baghdad. The culture of openness and rational inquiry continued in Andalusia, Western Europe, most notably in the works of Ibn Rushd who painstakingly undertook indepth studies of Aristotle.
The intellectual culture of Muslim Spain is all the more fascinating for how it also became where the Golden Age of Jewish Culture occurred. Jewish philosophers like Maimonides and Moses Ibn Ezra thrived under Muslim rule.
Today, contemporary Muslims only hark back to our past military conquests for simplistic proof of Islam's historical glory, when the reality is that those were only few and far between.
What is undeniable is the depth of learning and exploration that Muslims throughout the world pioneered over centuries, and this could have only been possible because of the love of learning that was part and parcel of Muslim culture then.
This is of course not to paint a perfect and rosy picture of the past. There were other problems of medieval life that need not be romanticised. But it does suggest that the notion of Muslim progress need not be defined in terms of state power or control over the life of others but terms of genuine inquiry, exploration of knowledge and discovery of the world.
All this is of course, a stark contrast to the reality of today, where conformity, often by coercion, has become the norm in Muslim societies. Muslims are expected to simply obey and listen to authorities who are effectively in power due to random reasons that have nothing to do with whether or not they understand the modern globalised world in which young Muslims are living in today.
But there is still hope. Muslim Spain lasted for 700 years. The conservative Salafist-inspired Islam that has not stopped scrambling for nation-state power only ascended over the past 30 years. Things can be otherwise because Muslims have not always been like this.