By Yoginder Sikand
Chandra Muzaffar is one of Malaysia’s best-known human rights activists and public intellectuals. Born in a Hindu family with origins in Kerala, South India, he converted to Islam as a young man. Having worked at several Malaysian universities, he now heads the Kuala Lumpur-based Just World Trust, an NGO dedicated to promoting inter-community dialogue and justice.
Author of numerous books, Chandra is a prolific writer, having published widely in Malaysia and abroad. One of his principal concerns, in his writings and activist involvement, is to promote an Islamic ethic of inter-religious dialogue. Such dialogue, he believes, is an Islamic imperative, besides being indispensable in today’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious Malaysia. It is also crucial, he stresses, at the global level, particularly since many conflicts across the globe, while rooted in economic and political factors, are sought to be projected and legitimised as religious conflicts between Islam and other faiths and ideologies.
‘Muslim, Dialogue and Terror’ is Chandra’s principal work on Islam and inter-faith dialogue, in which he seeks to articulate an inter-faith ethic rooted in an expansive understanding of Islam (available online on www.muslimsdialogueandterror.blogspot.com) This article examines the methodology and the arguments that he employs in the book to articulate this project.
Like many other contemporary socially-engaged non-ulema Muslim scholars, Chandra seeks to directly approach the Quran in order to understand and interpret his faith, largely by-passing the corpus of traditional fiqh, and making only passing reference to the corpus of Hadith. This is hardly surprising since the latter two sources contain numerous prescriptions that are plainly inimical, to put it mildly, to harmonious relations between Muslims and others. In approaching the Quran, Chandra does not rely on the works of traditional exegetes (mufassirun), whose views and perceptions were undoubtedly influenced by their own socio-historical contexts, and many of who were sternly prejudiced against people of other faiths. Instead, Chandra seeks to interpret the Quran on his own, guided by a deep concern for justice, peace and equality that transcend narrowly-inscribed religious and communitarian boundaries.
Islamic Inter-Faith Theology: A Values-Based Approach to Re-Interpreting Islam and Inter-Community Relations
Chandra describes the Quran as ‘in essence, a Book whose fundamental aim is to raise the spiritual and moral consciousness of the human being.’ This understanding of the Quran leads him to stress what he sees as the underlying spirit or ethical values of the text over its letter. Some of the fundamental values that he discerns in the Quran are freedom, accountability, justice, kindness, mercy, love, equality, honesty, compassion, fairness, and devotion to the cause of the poor and the oppressed. These values he regards as universal, not limited in their applicability to fellow Muslims alone. In this way, he is able to articulate an Islamic ethic of inter-faith dialogue that is Quranic, that prioritizes the spirit over the letter of the text, that is based on what he regards as the fundamental and universal values of the text, and one that is also contextually-relevant.
Chandra describes this way of relating to the Quran as a ‘values-based approach’. He contrasts this with the traditional ‘fiqh-based ‘approach, which prioritises the letter of the Quran over its spirit, draws heavily on the cumulative fiqhtradition, and stresses, to the point of obsession, forms, externalities, symbols, rituals, laws, regulations and narrowly-construed understandings of Muslim identity. The former is universal, flexible, open, and inclusive, while the latter is particularistic, rigid, closed and exclusive. The former stresses justice, freedom, love, compassion and equality, the latter authoritarianism, control, harshness and hierarchy. The former is open to non-Muslims, actively embraces them as fellow human beings and appreciates the common values that their religions share with Islam. The latter is stridently hostile to people of other faiths, or only grudgingly tolerates them at best.
Appealing for this fundamental transformation in Islamic thought based on the ‘values-based’ approach to the Quran, which would also be reflected in the way Islamic theology and jurisprudence are imagined, including with regard to non-Muslims, Chandra argues:
It is only too apparent that a non-dogmatic approach to Islam, which recognises the primacy of eternal, universal spiritual and moral values while acknowledging the importance of rituals, symbols and practices, is the most sane and sensible way of living the religion in today’s world. The values approach to Islam—the antithesis of the rituals and symbols approach—is not only legitimate from the perspective of the religion but also necessary at this juncture in history.
Making a broad survey of relations between Muslims and others in various countries, and at the global level as a whole, Chandra argues that a host of factors have contributed to increased polarization between them in recent years, particular after 9/11. Much of the responsibility for this rests on the Muslims themselves, he says, but he also regards what he calls ‘the politics of global hegemony emanating from Washington’s imperial ambitions’ as a major factor. This latter points leads him to argue, as he does in many of his other books, that inter-religious and inter-communal solidarity for peace and justice must necessarily also require a forceful challenging of the structures of power at the global level, most importantly Western, and, in particular, American, political, economic and cultural hegemony, because this is one of the major causes for conflict between Muslims and others.
skip to main | skip to sidebar This task, Chandra insists, must go hand-in-hand with a willingness on the part of Muslims themselves to introspect, and to cease blaming others for all their ills. In turn, this requires a fundamental re-evaluation of the way Muslims understand their religion, identity and tradition. In particular, it requires, Chandra says, ‘breaking through the hardened crust of exclusive, dogmatic thinking’, and embracing ‘an inclusive, universal approach’. Seeking to pre-empt critics who would regard this as compromising on Islamic teachings, he insists that it is perfectly in consonance with Islam, which ‘regards all human beings as brothers and sisters, imperilled by the same human condition.’ The pathetic state of most contemporary Muslim societies and states, including the increasingly strained relations between Muslims and others, have much to do, he says, with a dogmatic understanding of Islam that negates the fundamental Quranic values that he distils from the text, as mentioned above.
Chandra traces this ‘dogmatic’ understanding of Islam to the deep-rooted tradition of taqlid, strict adherence to received understandings of Islamic theology and jurisprudence, and a dogged refusal to re-examine and re-interpret these in changing contexts. These understandings reflect deep-rooted biases against non-Muslims (and women) and an underlying notion of Muslim supremacism and communalism. New understandings of Islamic theology and jurisprudence are thus urgently required for Muslims to be able to seriously dialogue with others and work together with them for peace and justice. As Chandra puts it,
‘The taqlid-conditioned notion of morality will have to yield to a concept of ethics which articulates in crystal clear terms the Islamic commitment to justice, compassion, freedom and equality […] Such a view of morality, there is no need to emphasise, would be true embodiment of the spirit of the Quran and Sunnah.’
For this new approach to Islam and Islamic morality to emerge as a dominant paradigm would require Muslims to ‘re-orientate their thinking on Islam’, focusing particularly on what Chandra regards as the basic moral values of the Quran. From this would emerge understandings of Islamic theology and jurisprudence that are rooted in these values—values that are universal, not limited just to Islam alone. Accordingly, Chandra writes, received theological notions and fiqh prescriptions that depart from these values would no longer be considered relevant, normative and binding. This values-based understanding of Islamic theology and fiqh would, clearly, be more receptive and conducive to genuine inter-faith and inter-community dialogue, something that traditional understandings upheld by conservative ulema and radical Islamists greatly militate against.
Were Muslim societies and countries truly committed to the Quranic vision and values that he outlines, Chandra argues, relations between Muslims and others, both within countries and at the global level, too, would have been vastly different than they are today. True inter-faith dialogue and solidarity thus urgently require these fundamental Quranic values to inform, once again, Muslims’ understanding of their faith as well as their behaviour. Chandra does not consider these values to be exclusively Islamic, though. He regards all religions as reflecting, in various ways and to various degrees, precisely the same values. This being the case, genuine inter-community solidarity and understanding must be built on the firm foundation of these values that are common to all religions.
Inter-Community Dialogue and Social and Political Activism
The sort of dialogue that Chandra envisages departs from the traditional approach that involves religious ‘leaders’ from different faith communities coming together to discuss their respective religious beliefs and practices, an approach characteristic of many religious groups that use dialogue simply as a means for missionary work. For Chandra, dialogue goes much beyond this and seeks to bring people of different faith traditions together to recognize their common humanity and the common values that their religions uphold, and to work together for common social purposes, including peaceful resolution of conflicts and challenging despotism, dictatorship, injustice, imperialism, radicalism in the name of religion (including Islam) and the global capitalist system and its underlying materialistic and consumerist ethos or what he calls ‘moneytheism’.
Aware of the growing influence of conservative as well as radical groups that are vehemently opposed to inter-faith dialogue and interpret Islam accordingly in a narrow, exclusivist fashion, Chandra insists that Islam calls upon Muslims to dialogue with others. He points out, for instance, that the Quran exhorts Muslims, Jews and Christians to come together on the basis of certain shared beliefs and values. He also regards the Pact of Medina, between the Muslims, led by the Prophet, and the Jews and pagans of the town, and the Pact of Najran between the Prophet and Christians, as the Prophet’s practical expression of the Quranic call for inter-faith dialogue and solidarity and the imperative of ‘coming to terms with “the other”’.
Chandra critiques self-styled Islamist groups for misusing the doctrine of jihad to legitimize the killing of innocent people, non-Muslims as well as Muslims, including perfectly innocent civilians, something that has played a major role in worsening relations between Muslims and others in recent years, besides giving Islam a bad name. Chandra recognizes the justice and legitimacy of certain causes that radical Islamists champion, such as countering Zionist occupation in Palestine or opposing the American invasion of Iraq. He also recognizes that Islam allows for armed defence as a form of jihad under certain extreme circumstances. Yet, he points out, Islam does not sanction indiscriminate violence against non-Muslims in the name of jihad or preach hatred for people of other faiths, as some radical Islamists claim. He regards this tendency to be a major hurdle to inter-faith dialogue and improving relations between Muslims and others.
Islam opposes every form of injustice and oppression, Chandra writes, and it is thus the duty of Muslims to actively seek to oppose and end injustice and oppression, even if it is perpetrated by Muslims themselves against others. This struggle against injustice and oppression is a form of jihad. Critiquing the tendency to equate jihad with warfare, he writes that non-violent forms of protest and mobilization, are themselves forms of jihad and are often more efficacious, besides being approved of in Islam as well. He cites in this regard the peace treaty entered into by the Prophet and his Meccan opponents at Hudaibiyah, and the valiant resistance put up by Imam Husain to the forces of the tyrant Caliph Yazid at Karbala, which he characterizes as ‘the noblest instance of resistance to injustice, motivated by principle and conscience.’
Critique of Religious ‘Revivalism’
Chandra finds much of the phenomenon of the contemporary global rise of religious ‘revivalism’, including of Islam, deeply problematic. While he recognizes that, in many cases, such ‘revivalism’ represents a protest against despotic ruling elites or Western political, cultural and economic hegemony, or forcible occupation of Muslim lands, as in Iraq, Kashmir and Palestine, he points out that for many ‘revivalists’ religion is deployed simply as a mobilisational device, often used as a means to bolster a narrow understanding of religious and community identity as pitted against what are portrayed as menacing ‘others’. In such cases, religious ‘revivalism’ is simply another term for communalism and a potent tool for identity politics and conflicts. This, in turn, completely over-turns and thoroughly undermines what Chandra regards as the fundamental values of religion. Accordingly, Chandra appeals for inter-communal solidarity and dialogue to challenge narrow communalism that often masquerades in the guise of ‘religious revivalism’. His opposition to radical Islamist groups demanding the creation of an ‘Islamic state’ in Malaysia, which he regards as a threat not just to the country’s non-Muslims but also to his own understanding of Islam, is a case in point.
Critique of the ‘Islamic State’
A fundamental concern of contemporary Islamic ‘revivalists’ is the establishment of what they call an ‘Islamic state’—that is to say, a state ruled in accordance to what is commonly regarded as the shariah. Chandra has consistently opposed the notion of such a state, arguing that it would inevitably harm non-Muslims, women and even Muslims themselves, and deleteriously impact on inter-community relations. One reason for this is that the historical shariahthat Islamists as well as the conservative ulema seek to impose, based mainly on the inherited corpus of fiqh rather than on a direct reading of the Quran, is heavily biased against women and non-Muslims. Besides, it is sternly authoritarian and anti-democratic, and for centuries has been cynically employed by oppressive regimes to legitimize their rule in ‘Islamic’ terms and to crush dissent. A state based on the historical shariah would thus lead to tyranny, repression and dictatorship, ironically in the name of Islam, a religion that, Chandra argues, is stridently opposed to every sort of oppression. Hence its legitimacy even in Islamic terms is questionable.
Thus, Chandra elaborates:
‘There is another equally serious threat to freedom and civil society in the Muslim world. It comes from a trend that is often described as “Islamic resurgence”. Though in their drive to establish an Islamic State, these resurgents, like other dissidents, espouse the ideals of freedom, human rights and civil society, a close examination of their ideology and their performance in power reveals a pronounced proclivity towards authoritarianism and hegemonic dominance. The contrast between the Islam of the Prophet and the Islam of the resurgents is so stark that one wonders whether the resurgence that is occurring today is Islamic at all. Can we call this an ‘Islamic resurgence’ if it does not bring into fruition the eternal values of love and compassion, of justice and freedom, of equality and dignity embodied in the Quran and exemplified in the life of the Prophet? Or, is this resurgence the contemporary expression of some other trend in Muslim history? […] It is [a] reactionary, conservative, law oriented, power centred Islam that the resurgents have inherited and seek to propagate.’
By thus seeking to distinguish Islam from the historical forms it has taken and in which it has been understood, and by offering a values-based approach to the Quran, stressing its underlying moral principles over external symbols and rituals, Chandra is able to articulate a refreshing alternative to stultified Muslim discourses about Islam’s approach to other religions and ideologies and their adherents. In this way, he points to the rich theological resources that the Quran contains to argue the case for a true global ecumenism, a universal ethic that he regards as indispensable in today’s context to promote justice, peace and inter-community solidarity and to challenge all forms of oppression.
Chandra Muzaffar can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org, The website of his Just World Trust is www.just-international.org,  The book is available on www.muslimsdialogueandterror.blogspot.com