Sunday, May 29, 2011

There is Islam, and there is Islam: What is Malaysia's system of Islamic education producing?

Previously I have posted Shabbir Akhtar's revealing testimony about the state of Islamic education in Malaysia. Just a few days ago, Zan Azlee, a Muslim documentary filmmaker in Malaysia, wrote about his experience of the education system and cultural expression of his religion in the country. It coheres well with Akhtar's testimony.

Here are some of the highlights:

"I used to go to religious school in the evenings during my primary school years. There was no doubt that I learnt a lot in religious school. [...] What I definitely didn’t learn there was the religion itself. Well, to be fair, I did learn the Jawi text [...] But the school was really a place that was the death of true critical thinking when it came to understanding Islam. Let me give you an example of a typical classroom conversation I would have with the ustaz.:

“Ustaz, why can’t we touch dogs?” I asked.

“Because it’s haram.” the ustaz said.

“I know that. But why is it haram?”

“Because God says so.”

“Then why did God make it haram?”

“Because it just is.”

“There’s no reason?”

“Don’t think too much into what God says. It will make you go crazy! Now go back to your seat!”

Honestly, it’s freaking annoying. I cannot believe that Islam, my chosen faith, actually wants people to accept things blindly and never question anything.

If I was in his position, I would be as annoyed. Another incident:

"I’ve even met people who have told me not to ask and question too much about Islam because if you do, then you may be at risk of being blasphemous.

“Why would God punish a person for sinning if He has already determined that person’s fate?” I asked a friend whose skullcap was about to fall off.

“God has his reasons,” he answered, readjusting his skullcap.

“Yeah, but wouldn’t that be unfair since he already determined the person to sin?”

“Zan, stop questioning God. That’s blasphemy!""

Akhtar and Azlee are telling something important here: The 'Islam' as practiced and propagated in Malaysia is, in their view, is not only dumbing down Muslims, but threatening Islamic teaching itself.

There are many examples that reflect the version of Islam widely held in Malaysia. In this post, I'll point to three.

First, there is Zulkifli Noordin, the Member of Parliament for Kulim Bandar Baru, who made the following speech on 7 May 2011 at a forum titled 'Islam Under Siege: What Can We Do?' organized by the Muslim Organisation in Defence of Islam (Pertubuhan Pembela Islam, a.k.a. 'Pembela', which means 'defender'):


"Don't question our religion. What they [Christians] are doing now is questioning our religion."

"You know AlKitab... it is not even the Bible. Ianya hanya terjemahan separuh daripada apa yang dikatakan Bible. It is not even the Bible. Yang dia nak bising pasal apa? I bet you don't even know that AlKitab is not even the Bible. It's not a Bible."

(Translation: You know AlKitab [the Malay Bible] is not even the Bible. It is just a translation of half of what is said to be the Bible. It is not even the Bible. So why the big fuss [over the AlKitab issue]? I bet you don't even know that AlKitab is not even the Bible. It's not a Bible.)

"You cakap soal murtad tadi: Orang boleh pilih agama. Kita tadak masalah kalau you nak pilih agama. Kalau you nak keluar daripada Islam, keluar la. But don't challenge us. Jangan pertikaikan kita. Masalah dengan Lina Joy ni, dia nak keluar pi kahwin dengan Hindu kah, kahwin lah. Tapi yang pi question Islam tu pasal apa? Murtad is samakan dengan jenayah dalam Islam. Unless you are not a Muslim, you won't understand. Kami sebagaimana orang Kritian ini lihat paderi tak boleh kahwin itu hak dia. Bagaimana orang Hindu tengok hak ini untuk cucuk kepala dia, lidah dia, dada dia, macam itu la. Hak kita sebagai orang Islam. [...] Kita tengok orang yang murtad ini penjenayah. Kalau tak suka, that's your problem. The point here is, as a Muslim we believe that orang murtab ini penjenayah yang harus dikenakan tindakan mengikut prosedur yang ada di dalam Islam."

(Translation: Regarding your question on apostasy in Islam. We don't have problem with freedom of religion. If you want to leave Islam, you may do so. But don't challenge us. The problem with Lina Joy is that she questioned Islam. If she wants to leave Islam to marry a Hindu, she has the rights to do that. But why does she want to question Islam? Apostasy is akin to crime in Islam. Unless you are not a Muslim, you won't understand. It is our rights as Muslims to view apostates as criminals in the same way Christians and Hindus have their rights over their religious observance. So if you cannot accept Muslims' view on apostasy, then that's your problem. The point here is, as a Muslim, we believe that apostates are criminals that have to be dealt by measures according to the procedures in Islam.)

See my friend Ramanathan's well-written response to him.

It just amazes me that Noordin, who claims to respect the rights of other religious people and defend Islam, in the speech above neither showed respect to others' rights nor seemed to know about the religion he claimed to be defending.

1) He outrightly denied that AlKitab is the Christian Bible. The term 'AlKitab' is simply 'Bible' in the Malay language. AlKitab is the Malay translation of the entire Bible. Not a translated portion, as Noordin claimed. Denying another religious community the real meaning of their used language to refer to their holy scripture is not respecting their rights.

2) Lina Joy did not question Islam. What she wanted was for the civil court of a secular country to change the religious indication on her Identity Card from 'Islam' to 'Christianity' given that she has left Islam. Noordin chose to ignore the facts and re-interpreted Lina Joy's case as one that questioned and challenged Islam. He made a red herring out of the case.

3) Minus the mistake in his sentence, "Unless you are not a Muslim, you won't understand," Noordin is simply wrong that (1) Muslims necessarily deal with apostates with measures according to the procedures in Islam, and (2) there is such procedures in Islam.

There are two explicit instances where the Islamic Prophet and his companions dealt with apostates.

The first one is narrated by Jabir bin 'Abdullah as recorded in Sahih al-Bukhari, volume 9, book 89, number 318:

A bedouin gave the Pledge of allegiance to Allah's Apostle for Islam. Then the bedouin got fever at Medina, came to Allah's Apostle and said, “O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge.” But Allah's Apostle refused. Then he came to him (again) and said, “O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge.” But the Prophet refused. Then he came to him (again) and said, “O Allah's Apostle! Cancel my Pledge.” But the Prophet refused. The bedouin finally went out (of Medina) whereupon Allah's Apostle said, “Medina is like a pair of bellows (furnace): It expels its impurities and brightens and clears its good.”
(The Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement website: Translation of Sahih Bukhari, Book 89, Judgments [Ahkaam], [accessed 12 May 2011].)

Although the Prophet refused to recognize the bedouin’s apostasy, yet it is evident that there was “made no reference to any punishment at all, and the Bedouin, despite his persistent renunciation of Islam was left to go unharmed.” (Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Freedom of Expression in Islam [Malaysia: Berita Publishing Sdn Bhd, 1994], p. 94.)

The other instance was pointed out by Tariq Ramadan: the apostasy of Ubayd-Allah ibn Jahsh as recorded by Ibn Isḥaq, the first person who wrote the biography of Prophet Muhammad:

Ubaydullah went on searching until Islam came; then he migrated with the Muslims to Abyssinia taking with him his wife who was a Muslim, Umm Habiba, d. Abu Sufyan. When he arrived there he adopted Christianity, parted from Islam, and died a Christian in Abyssinia. […] [W]hen he had become a Christian, `Ubaydullah as he passed the prophet's companions who were there used to say: ‘We see clearly, but your eyes are only half open…’”
(Tariq Ramadan website: Interview with Ehsan Masood, David Goodhart, and Adair Turner for Prospect Magazine, dated 24 July 2006, [accessed 12 May 2011]. The Ibn Ishaq's text can be read at Answering Islam website: Ubaidullah B. Jash, [accessed 12 May 2011].)

These two instances show that there was no temporal punishment being executed by the Prophet and his companions on those who chose to leave Islam. No doubt there was refusal to acknowledge the person’s apostasy on the part of the Prophet, and rejection of the person’s integrity on the part of the Prophet’s companions, yet in both cases, there was no punishment inflicted on the apostate.

Neither does the Qur’an say anything about measures dealing with apostate. As how Selim al-Awa put it, “Qur’anic verses do not impose a temporal punishment.” (quoted in Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam [UK: Ashgate, 2004], p. 81.)

Or, in Mohammad Hashim Kamali’s words, “The Qur’an prescribes absolutely no temporal punishment for apostasy, nor has the Prophet, peace be upon him, sentenced anyone to death for it.”(Muhammad Hashim Kamali, Islamic Law in Malaysia: Issues and Developments [Malaysia: Ilmah Publishers, 2000], p. 209.)

Shabbir Akhtar, in his recent book on political Islam wrote, “In Muhammad's day, private apostasy was commonplace; the Quran specifies no worldly penalty for it.”(Shabbir Akhtar, Islam as Political Religion: The future of an imperial faith [USA: Routledge, 2011], p. 280, n. 5.)

Besides the absence of scriptural basis in the Qur’an and historical practices in the life of the Prophet that sanction any temporal punishment on the apostates, there are Qur’anic passages—as understood by Islamic scholars who are no less Muslim than Zulkifli Noordin—that provide allowance for believers to leave Islam conscientiously.

The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, of the Sunni community, publicly announced that Muslims can chose to switch to other religion, “[T]hey can because the Quran says, ‘Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,’ [Quran, 109:6], and, ‘Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve,’ [Quran, 18:29], and, ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ [Quran, 2:256].” (The Washington Post website: John Esposito, Apostasy and Religious Pluralism, dated 1 August 2009, [accessed 12 May 2011].)

Correspondingly, the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a public statement—drafted with the consultation of the Fiqh Council of North America—that made the same point: “Islam advocates both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, a position supported by verses in the Quran [10.99, 18.29, 42.48, and 2.256].” (The American Muslim website: CAIR Calls for release of Afghan Christian: Islamic civil rights group says conversion a personal, not state matter, dated 23 March 2006, [accessed 12 May 2011].)

Sayyid Tantawi, the late Grand Imam of al-Azhar Mosque and Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University, held the view that "a Muslim who renounced his faith or turned apostate should be left alone as long as he does not pose a threat or belittle Islam. If the Muslims were forced to take action against the apostate, he said it should not be because he or she had given up the faith but because he or she had turned out to be an enemy or a threat to Islam." (The As-Sunnah Foundation of America website: The Grand Imams of Al-Azhar (Shuyukhul Azhar), [accessed 12 May 2011].)

Irfan Ahmad Khan, President of the World Council of Muslims for Interfaith Relations, wrote: "[T]here are people who stand for freedom to change one’s religion only when someone is entering into their own faith community. These people would not allow the members of their own faith community to convert to any other religion - even if they would do so out of their own free will. From the perspective of ‘freedom to change religion’, their policy involves a double standard. A self-contradictory principle is inherent in this policy [...] It is a matter of principle that in choosing one's religion, every individual should be free of all external pressures and temptations. In fact, it is due to this freedom that one is responsible for what one believes. [...] Therefore, no one has any right to use pressure of any kind to make a person change or stop from changing his/her religion. An individual out of his/her own free will should himself or herself do entering into a religion or coming out of a religion." (Quoted at Mohammad Omar Farooq's Study Resources Page website: Irfan Ahmad Khan, Freedom to Change One's Religion, [accessed 13 May 2011].)

Ibrahim B. Syed, President of Islamic Research Foundation International, held similar conviction: "[T]here is no bigger misconception-strengthened with misunderstanding of Islamic beliefs over the years-other than the belief that Islam doesn't tolerate apostasy. [...] The Qur’an is completely silent on any worldly punishment for apostasy and the sole Tradition that forms the basis of rulings is open to many interpretations." (Quoted at Islamic Research Foundation International website: Ibrahim B. Syed, Is Killing An Apostate in the Islamic Law? [accessed 13 May 2011].)

These other Muslims show that Noordin is simply wrong that (1) Muslims necessarily deal with apostates with measures according to the procedures in Islam, and (2) there is such procedures in Islam. This shows that Noordin is not defending Islam and the Muslims' rights, but merely his own religion that he gave the name 'Islam'.

It seems that Noordin neither knew about Islam nor other religions. What he knew perhaps was nothing more than these empty phrases stamped on his siege mentality: "Don't question our religion... don't challenge us... don't question our religion... don't challenge us."

I'm not criticizing Islam here, but pointing out how this great religion is being misused, manipulated, and distorted by some who claim to defend Islam. They are defending nothing but their own sectarian religion.

The other example that reflect the version of Islam in Malaysia is Siti Nor Bahyah Mahamood, a Muslim preacher. It is reported that in 2010, she made accusations on Christianity which are factually false:

"Siti had said in a television programme aired on TV9 more than a year ago, that “vices, going to discos and to be in remote place with a partner as Christian tradition.”

"She also called Valentine’s Day a Christian festival, claiming it started as a celebration to commemorate the fall of the Islamic administration in Spain." (Emphasis added.)

The third example is found in the same report on Siti:

"The Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) said yesterday it will launch an anti-Valentine’s Day campaign, quoting a fatwa issued by the National Fatwa Council in 2005 which called it an immoral Christian celebration." (Emphasis added.)

Noordin, Siti, and Jakim claim to be representing Islam. Yet it is puzzling why should they give the impression that one needs to make up false accusation and statement on non-Muslims, and creating their own Islamic orthodoxy, in order to represent Islam.

Given Akhtar's and Azlee's testimony, it is not difficult to see these three examples as the natural products of Malaysia's Islamic education system.

Again, I need to emphasize that I'm not criticizing Islam here. All the references that I have listed here are taken from Muslims. I'm only pointing out how the current education system in Malaysia is a threat to Islam itself by allowing those who claim to defend Islam to misuse, manipulate, and distort the great religion.

How do they defend Islam when they themselves are the threat?

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