New Age Islam
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Islam and Politics ( 8 March 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Challenges for Muslim Democrats



By Nurul Izzah Anwar

March 5, 2015

According to the 14th Century jurist Ibn al-Qayyim, “Shariah is based on wisdom and achieving people’s welfare in this life and the afterlife. Shariah is all about justice, mercy, wisdom and what is good. Thus, any ruling that replaces justice with injustice, mercy with its opposite, the common good with mischief, or wisdom with nonsense, is a ruling that does not belong to the Shariah, even if it is claimed to be so according to some interpretation.”

Last year, Professor Hossein Askari of George Washington University found through research that none of the so-called Islamic countries adhered to the tenets of the Quran. The top 10 countries in his “Islamicity Index” were in fact so-called Christian countries, with Ireland topping the list. The highest ranked Islamic country – and this should not be a point of pride – is Malaysia, at Number 33.

The Islamicity Index looks at factors such as laws and governance, human and political rights, international relations and economics.

Meanwhile, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s survey of 167 countries for its Democracy Index has concluded with Malaysia ranking at Number 67. We are categorised as a “flawed democracy” and ranked behind Indonesia and the Philippines.

Something is clearly wrong. We are indeed facing serious challenges in the realm of governance and politics.

Let us look at Maqasid, a term referring to the purpose, objective, principle, intent and goal behind Islamic rulings.

In the traditional sense, Maqasid covers several kinds of necessities: necessities per se; necessities with regard to the preservation of faith, soul, wealth, mind, offspring and honour; necessities of beautifying or comforting; and necessities that are shields of protection to other necessities.

But what was luxurious then could easily be a necessity now. In Malaysia, for example, debate revolves around the decision by the government to tax important medicines and books under the GST regime, which some would argue are basic necessities, versus the decision to exempt luxurious items such as lobsters.

We must ensure the Muslim Democrat rises up to the challenge of bringing back both wisdom and people’s welfare as core elements of Islamic law.

Content Vs Context

A Muslim Democrat is someone who upholds the Maqasid. A Muslim Democrat is someone who uses his or her creativity, intelligence, experience and wisdom to perform continuous Ijtihad (independent reasoning). A Muslim democrat is someone who engages all stakeholders in society through contestation of ideas and manages the ideas through the ethics of Ikhtilaf (disagreement).

Finally, a Muslim Democrat is someone who holds optimistic and realistic yet idealistic perspectives by being forward looking in the spirit of Islah (reform).

Are we fixated with content rather than context? Historical, unilateral and arbitrary opinions about closing the door of Ijtihad should not be binding on new and future generations. Ibn Sina (Avicenna), one of the most significant thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age, once remarked, “Since temporal conditions change and new problems are continuously coming to the fore, it is necessary that in every age and in every period there should be persons who have complete knowledge and acquaintance with Islamic matters, and who can be the answerers to the needs of Muslims with attention towards the new problems that come forward in every age.”

We, as Muslim Democrats, must push forward the idea that debate must be done in an ethical manner as stipulated by Sheikh Taha Jabir al Alwani. His treatise, The Ethics of Disagreement, explains the etiquette envisioned by Islam for all those engaged in discourse and intellectual dialogue. The book leads us to the principles and purposes of the Shariah, which provide Muslims with perspectives far greater than those afforded by pedantic debate over points of law and procedure, or fine distinctions between conflicting theological arguments.

Just to give you a sense of the sets of priorities that Muslim Democrats must hold and the choices of Maqasid they should make, I ask, “What is the bigger problem affecting the Muslim community?” Is it the issue of non-Muslims uttering “Allah” when they call on God, or is it the blatant corruption that can easily spell the economic death of a nation?

We must also be process driven. Maqasid is an overriding ethos that guides us all. However, it is important for us to be focussed on the details of reform and change so that Maqasid doesn’t remain a pipe dream.

Experience has shown that long immersion in futile debates will produce minds that are incapable of understanding real situations and making value judgments on changing circumstances and needs.

Centralisation of Power

One of the biggest challenges that is facing Muslims is the centralisation of power, or the institutionalisation of religion. Religion should never be centralised because it opens up the opportunity for it to be abused.

Religious institutions must be liberalised so they are free from the shackles of any political elite or structure. One just needs to look at the Mamluk era, which spanned the 12th to the 18th centuries, to understand how a properly planned Waqf system can finance religious and educational institutions such that their independence as well as credibility is retained throughout.

Unfortunately, in the current era most religious institutions continue to exist on the political masters’ constant financial support. As Muslims, we must have moral authority so that we can lead. We can gain this through Maqasid.

Flawed institutions merely reiterate the need to polarize and deflect blame. The need for personal reform is often delayed or ignored, and focus is often on Western faults, flaws and victimisation of Muslims worldwide – which are valid, yet misses the point of self renewal.

As such, the current climate then opens up the accusation that religion is being used as a mere tool for political control. What we need to start thinking about is empowering Muslims with knowledge so that they are capable of making their own inferences on issues that they face. We must promote inclusiveness and common universal values. We must look towards the future.

Faith is a personal journey and institutionalising religion reduces our opportunities for discovering God.