By Syed Akbar Ali
In April 2006, I was interviewed by a young woman who was writing a thesis for her degree in Islamic Studies at the University of Malaya. I was flattered (for a while) to find out that the subject of her thesis was my writing along with that of the other Malaysian writer Farish Noor. Her thesis was titled ‘Liberal Islam in Malaysia: Issues raised by Farish Noor and Syed Akbar Ali’. But my exuberance was dampened by the fact that I had been labelled a ‘liberal’ by her teachers.
This type of labelling – especially negative labelling – is a favourite tool of the religious fraternity. Name calling and trying to stigmatise people with whom they may not agree is among their tools of the trade. And just like their confusion about who really is an ulema they are also confused by labelling me a ‘liberal’. Just for the record I would like to declare that I am a hardcore, fundamentalist Muslim. And this is what I told the young woman from the University. We have no choice but to return to the hardcore fundamentals of Islam that are carefully preserved in the Quran. The Quran is almost entirely different from what is preached by the religious scholars.
And indeed it is the religious scholars who are the real liberals. Let me explain why. In this book I have reproduced enough comments and provided enough references recording the really mindboggling and unbelievable divergences and differences in the interpretations and implementation of religion that is practiced by the hundreds of shades of religious sects. They all claim to be Islam. I have also recorded in this book the violence, hatred and killing that is still going on in the world between the various sects belonging to the ummah. They are all at odds with each other and hating each other because each sect has very liberally interpreted its own flavour of religion according to its own whims and fancies.
The word liberal is rooted in the word liberty which means ‘exercising freedom’. So the religious scholars are the ones who have liberally exercised the freedom to interpret and prescribe religion as they see fit. Among the Sunnis, the Shiahs, the Wahhabis, the Druzes, the Sufis, the Tablighis and a thousand other sects they all very liberally exercise their own way of thinking and doing things. And more often than not, what they say cannot be found in the Quran at all. This is solid incontrovertible proof of their liberty in interpreting things the way they want. They are the real liberals. And as we have seen above, they are definitely not ulema either. The Quran does talk about these liberals.
About the people who are very liberal with their interpretations and their different theologies the Quran asks: ‘What is wrong with you? How do you judge? Do you have another book that you uphold? One that gives you anything that you desire? Or do you have certain pledges from Us to be fulfilled on the Day of Resurrection about whatever you decide? Ask them who guarantees anything for them.’ Surah 68: 36 – 40.
So to the people who so liberally interpret and practice their religion in the so many divergent ways and sects, who guarantees anything for them? Do they have any pledges from God that what they have so liberally decided is indeed correct? Or do they have another book or other books which justify for them anything that they desire? Do they uphold other books? How do they judge? What is wrong with them? Where did they learn to be so liberal with their beliefs and interpretations?
It is clear that those religious scholars who uphold a thousand different books are the real liberals. Each one follows his own sect and his own school of thought. These are the real liberals. We must all become fundamentalists who uphold the Quran.
It is important to note that before the resurgence of science and the Renaissance in Europe, the Europeans had to get rid of religion. Today India and also the Islamic countries are trying to duplicate the success of Europe and the West but they have only imported Europe’s scientific method without importing the other vital component – you must get rid of religion just like the Europeans have done. Science is like the pump that pumps out water from the leaking ship and saves humanity but religion is the leak that must be fixed or it will drown everyone. If you do not get rid of the leak, then when the pump breaks down or slowsdown the ship will still sink. Or if the leak becomes bigger, the pump will be overwhelmed and the ship will ultimately sink.
China is a good example of an Asian country that has successfully imported both components of the European success story i.e. getting rid of religion and superstition and using science to rebuild their civilization. I recall my Chinese friends from Communist China doing postgraduate study in the United States in the early 1980s. When I wished them Happy New Year or Gong Xi Fi Cai they expressed surprise and said those were old superstitions of the old days and that they did not believe in such superstitions anymore. They had great faith in science and technology and faith in themselves without the baggage of religion or too much debilitating traditions to hold them back. Communism had purified them of religion. Is it any surprise then that 20 years later, those Chinese friends I met are making China into the greatest nation on the surface of the earth?
Despite India claiming to be a secular nation, Indian stockbrokers still place little idols by their computer terminals and Indian engineers invoke the blessing of their idols upon their trains. In the Islamic countries it is even worse. They want to reinvent science in the Islamic mould. Hence we have weird ideas like Islamic science, Islamic medicine and once upon a time even Islamic English. In his book ‘Crisis in the Muslim Mind’ Dr Abu Hamid Abu Sulayman even talks about Islamic economics, Islamic communications, Islamic social sciences, Islamic international relations, Islamic political thought and Islamic political systems’ (pg. 150-151). He did not mention the Islamic wheel!
The purported reinvention of things in the religious mould supposedly involves the spiritual element. The truth is there is nothing spiritual in Islam. This is just another Biblical term and it cannot be found in the Quran. I really don’t know how anyone is going to spiritually turbocharge anything.
The word ‘spirituality’ is derived from the word spirit. This word is found in the Bible. But in reality there are no such things as spirits. Other than Hollywood’s ‘spirit in a bottle’ no one has ever seen a spirit or communicated with one. So how can there be spirituality when no one knows what a spirit is?
God is not a spirit. God is the Creator of the universe. His handiwork is there for all to see. Our planet earth did not just pop out by itself. And as the physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawkings said ‘there is too much order in the Universe’. We cannot deny the presence of an Intelligent Design.
Some say that the soul is a spirit. Again soul is a Biblical concept. The Quran talks about ‘rooh’ but there is no evidence that the rooh of the Quran is the same spirit or soul of the Bible. And as for the rooh itself the Quran gives clear direction: Surah 17:85 “And they ask you about the rooh. Say: The rooh is one of the commands of my Lord, and you are not given any knowledge of it but a little”.
So even if anyone asks about the rooh, this is what the Quran commands us to say, basically that we do not know much about the rooh. End of story. It also makes the eminent suggestion that high falutin philosophizing about ‘spirituality’ may have been derived from the ‘bottled spirits’.
Islam is a ‘deen’ or a way of life. Islam is not compatible with religion especially organized religion. There cannot be a clergy in Islam. A true Muslim is answerable to God. He does not answer to any clergy. He prays to His God for help, guidance, to give thanks and so on. He does not go through the intermediary of a priest. But unfortunately this simplicity of Islam has changed over the centuries. In Shiah Iran there is a full blown priesthood. And unfortunately in other Islamic countries the idea of a religious priesthood is catching on fast too. Often the religion based political parties are at the forefront of promoting the leadership of the religious priests. This is a sure recipe for disaster.
[Syed Akbar Ali is a noted Muslim writer and activist from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org]