Redefining 'real' Islam

NOV 8 — When asked at a recent forum whether Islam goes against civil human rights, I had to preface my answer with the question: “Which kind of Islam?”.

While certain parts of the Islamic holy texts do contravene human rights, more often than not the worst offence come from the many interpretations of Islamic teachings.

This is, of course, understandable. Commonly described by adherents as syumul, the universality of Islam has made it, to a certain extent, timeless and relatable by different strata of people from all over the world.

However, this also lends itself a weakness in the form of vagueness, where many aspects of it can be interpreted in many ways, and as such be justified to support different and even competing ideologies.

In Malaysia, we can see this done by Islamist group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) which has tried to paint itself as purveyors of the “true” way of Islam.

To achieve this goal, Isma needed a benchmark against what it sees as a lesser, “less true” group, and as such has made a bogeymen out of “liberal Muslims.”

At an Isma event in September, an Islamic preacher had helped it define a “liberal Muslim” as among others those who support democracy, pluralism and human rights and do not see those values as opposed to Islamic ones.

According to the group, these “liberal Muslims” also value a democratic government that ensures good governance, instead of insisting on an Islamic state, and would not mind if a non-Muslim were to one day take over the leadership of the country.

In another attempt this week, an Isma activist even redefined liberal Muslims as extremists. According to Umar Hakim Mohd Tajuddin, on one end of the Muslim spectrum are the liberal Muslims, and on the other are those who resort to violence.

“The effort to put the moderate label on these groups is inaccurate and deviant,” said Umar on Isma’s website, as he sought to remove the tag and perhaps pin it on a more deserving group, such as Isma.

Despite that, I can see how in the eyes of Islamists, liberal Muslims can look similar to Muslims who resort to violence.

On one side, you have those who are extremely fundamentalist and literal with their interpretation of Islam, and on the other you have those who are extremely liberal with theirs.

The “true” Muslims are then those who are not too orthodox, but at the same time not too open, I reckon. 

I prefer to see the spectrum in another way. In my spectrum, at the very end you have the Islamic fundamentalists, those who are extremely dogmatic.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, I put those who completely reject Islamic dogma. This would include those considered apostates and atheists: the ex-Muslims. 

Closer to this end would also include those who do not see dogma as an important nor necessary part of their lives. These are those who can be called “cultural Muslims”, who probably might even constitute the majority of Muslim-born individuals.

In this spectrum, naturally the so-called liberal Muslims can be placed somewhere at the centre, since they wish to adhere to Islamic teachings, but at the same time they refuse to be confined by an orthodox interpretation of it.

As such, it is perfectly fine to call these Muslims moderate. But does this group make up the “real” face of Muslims worldwide? Is this a more realistic representation of Islam?

Frankly, I have not met enough Muslims to make up my mind yet, not without fear of falling into the familiar pitfalls of lumping Muslims together into one monolithic view.

What I do know though is that it is unwise to assume that the “real” Muslims, the “true” version of Islam is the one as preached by such divisive organisations like Isma.

I do not believe that the public should leave “real” Islam to be interpreted as Isma’s version which does not respect the rights of other fellow human beings, or prejudiced against others from different ethnic groups.

I do not believe that people think “real” Islam should mean putting Muslims on an exalted level a distance away above others, and as such should be afforded special treatment.

Often, “true” Islam is defined as the version which adheres the closest to the “original” teachings of Muhammad through Quran and the Hadith.

In this specific context, I guess I am not so much interested in figuring out how Islam initially was during its inception, but rather how it should be practised now.

Interpretations aside, I wish for Muslims to move on with the times and fit in with the global society without feeling a need to sacrifice their faith.

There is no reason why Muslims should not abide by international human rights standards instead of creating excuses and making up their own set of competing standards such as the Cairo Declaration.

I believe this is possible because Muslims have been adapting for hundreds of years, and with them Islam itself.

I believe it would only benefit all of us when Muslims do not have to feel that they need to segregate themselves away from the world.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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