Saturday, May 16, 2009

Prominence, moderate Muslims

Influential scholar urges Muslims to shed victim role
By Shannon Teoh malysiainsider

LAMPETER (Wales), May 16 — Muslims in Malaysia need to shed their conservative and defensive mindset if they want to convince non-Muslims not to fear their religion, says former Perlis mufti Mohamad Asri Zainul Abidin.

The maverick Muslim scholar, who has a strong following among young Muslims in Malaysia, told The Malaysian Insider in an exclusive interview that it was crucial that moderate Muslims become dominant in mainstream society if it wanted to introduce Islamic governance that can be accepted by non-Muslims.

Over the last few years, Asri has become an icon for progressive Muslim voices for his stand against the propensity of religious authorities in conducting raids on Muslim couples engaged in khalwat, or close proximity, and has stated that non-Muslims had a right to use the word "Allah".

In the interview, he expounded on the "Allah" issue, stating that "Malays need to shed their defensive mentality. Why is it we believe that when Christians use Allah, Muslims will be confused and become Christians?"

"Maybe it is Christians who will become confused and join Islam. Why must they always see themselves as the victim? This is as an opportunity to evangelise," he added.

He maintains, however, that he is not a liberal but a "fundamentalist," and said that conservative Muslims leaders have made skewed interpretations that have hurt Islam in Malaysia.

"We need to bring to prominence, moderate Muslims who are well-versed in the religion but able to frame it realistically. Our conservative thinkers tend to see Islamic state in terms of 700 years ago where 98 per cent of Malaysians were Muslims.

According to the scholar, who was Perlis mufti for two years until leaving to conduct research on Islam last December, the fear of an Islamic state or Islamic governance was due to it being synonymous with hudud, which prescribes amputation, stoning and whipping as punishment.

But Asri stated that hudud is only a mechanism to deal with crime, and according to scripture, it is commanded that "when you judge man, you must judge justly" and that those selected to lead must lead fairly.

"Allah calls for those selected to lead to be those qualified. This does not mean those who wear serbans but those with quality," he quipped.

Asri is also critical of the Malay influence over Islam in the country, citing, for example, the fact that a non-Malay who converts must then adopt a Muslim name and replace his father's name with bin Abdullah.

"Why must it be bin Abdullah? The whole Islamic world does not do this, only Malaysia. Why must a person's father be denied? The Quran says you should call a child by his father's name. The Prophet Muhammad never changed the names of new converts.

"How is it they become more Malay instead of Islamised? If Malays want to defend their rights, go ahead based on Bumiputera rights or whatever. But you cannot say Islam does not defend you because you are Chinese or Indian. Islam was not given just to the Malays," he added.

Asri said that there needed to be a change to the National Fatwa Council and for an NGO or political party driven by moderate Muslims to be formed so that Islam is guided by mature minds.

"Opinions of experts in the field, not just the conservatives, should be sought. That is why I have proposed a National Fatwa Council that is not under any government but independent with representatives of ulamas from PAS, Umno and other parties to sit with both moderates and conservatives to come up with mature decisions.

"I hope to see an NGO or political party that is driven by moderate Muslims that can bring non-Muslims to understand the elegance and fairness of Islam and give constructive criticism about Islam in the country so it can stop being Malay in nature but universal."

He said the problem is that there is a strong conservative faction in both Umno and PAS and so "a change of government will not solve this but the solution is to encourage the growth of mature Islamic intellectualism."

When quizzed on apparent changes in the outlook of PAS, which has recently seen widespread acceptance by non-Muslims, he agreed that the party has become more pragmatic but that the faction that is seen as more open-minded needed to have figures who are well-known scholars of Islam to gain credibility in the party.

"They must have a strong Islamic figure supporting them which is a problem the conservatives do not have as they are considered the ulamas," he said.

Asri concluded, however, that in any party, religion should not be politicised for self-interest.

"This is dangerous. I am not talking about secularism where religion and politics have no relation. Politics can be guided and instructed by religion. But bringing politics into religion makes religion the victim."

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