Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Q&A: Muhammad Asri Zainul Abidin

AUGUST 22, 2011, 12:49 AM ET

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Malaysian Muslim scholar Muhammad Asri Zainul Abidin.

Malaysia is known for its moderate brand of Islam and has been touted as a model for other nations. But government officials have recently warned that more conservative strands of the faith -– especially the Wahhabi version of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia -– are on the rise.

Malaysian Muslim scholar Muhammad Asri Zainul Abidin is drawing attention across Malaysia for talking openly about conservative Islam, with his speeches drawing big crowds across the country. The Wall Street Journal’s Celine Fernandez recently spoke with Mr. Muhammad Asri about the changing role of religion in one of Asia’s key economies. Edited excerpts follow.

Q: Critics say your interpretations of Islam sets you apart from other Islamic scholars in Malaysia. What are your main religious beliefs and how are they different from Islam as defined by Malaysia’s religious establishment?

A: In Malaysia at the moment there aren’t many conservative Muslims — but they are in important government positions. While progressive groups have contributed a lot of significant reforms over the years, they are marginalized by conservative groups who control the institutions of religion in government and ensure that only their school of thought is given an opportunity. The government is probably concerned that members of the progressive movement will criticize things they see. Perhaps there is a tendency of certain parties to maintain elements of racism and extreme religious fanaticism to protect their political interests.

My grasp of Islam is that Islam is a religion that blesses everyone, regardless of race or religion. More than that, the blessing encompasses the entire universe. Any interpretation of Islam that leads to injustice, oppression, hostility to other people, ignorance, caste systems in society, racism, fanaticism that doesn’t respect the rights of others -– all of these must be rejected. Islam must be described as a religion of love for others, with a respect for rights, respect for knowledge, rejecting superstition and basing all practices on real arguments.

Q: A local newspaper quoted you as saying, “My duty is to present Islam in its modern face and get it out of the clutches of ultra-conservatives, who have made the religion look obsolete.” How do you propose to do this?

A: Some of the fundamental Islamic beliefs, ways of worship and principles of morality do not change. However, there are things that can be changed by factors of place, time and people. We must understand that some religious texts are actually based in a particular context during the Prophet’s time. We just have to take the spirit of texts only, not implementing the texts literally. Islam is not rigid. We live in a technological age. Islam has the approach and language to this age. Most of the texts of Islam have general meanings, and they are open to various interpretations because God knows people will live in a variety of conditions.

Q: You have said some of Islam’s traditions and rituals have no basis in the Prophet’s teachings. Some view this as extremist and allege that your views are linked to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Is that true?

A: If the talk is about how to worship in Islam, yes, there are many things I agree with in the schools of thought against innovation in worship. I cannot accept practices of worship that are not based on evidence from the Quran and the hadith. (But) I am not a Wahhabi. I am not a follower of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhabi. In fact there are many fatwas from Saudi scholars that I do not agree with. But I still think they have their own distinctive contribution for Muslim societies around the world. We should appreciate all the parties.

Q: Why is the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam not encouraged in Malaysia?

A: If “Wahhabi” means inviting people to be fanatical, rigid, stern, uncompromising, and the like, I oppose it. In my opinion some religious views in some Gulf countries are rather narrow, especially on women, non-Muslims and political issues and a few other things. There are also a lot of sound and relevant opinions among them. However, even if we disagree with their views, that doesn’t mean we can accuse them of terrorism.

In the context of Western journalism, the word “Wahhabi” has many connotations. All of them lead to an understanding that it is an Islamic movement perceived as strictly following the legal opinions and evidences from al-Quran and as-Sunnah in their literal senses, while refusing to consider more modern or Western-influenced interpretations. In Malaysia, the word “Wahhabi” is quite a mysterious term. Many use the term or slander others by it, without a clue about its meaning. In some places, a person is accused of being a Wahhabi for disagreeing with superstitious rituals and beliefs. This includes hanging pictures of certain individuals like the sultan or a sheikh in the belief that it brings good charm or increases their earnings, or tying a black thread on a newborn’s hand in the belief that it will protect the baby from bad luck, and many other erroneous beliefs haunting parts of our society. When people begin to criticize the practices, they simply say, “you are Wahhabi.”

Q: What do you think about the current political/religious situation in Malaysia more broadly? Do you feel free to practice your beliefs? Is Malaysia heading in the right or wrong direction, and why?

A: Religious authorities in Malaysia should be more open-minded. Their attitude is to force others to think in only one way, and that is not the attitude of a civilized people. They should remember what happened to the church when they refused to change and suppressed people who wanted to change.

Q: What is your long-term goal for Malaysia? Where would you like to see it go in terms of practice of religion here?

A: We need “tajdid” in Muslim society in Malaysia. There are two different definitions that can be assigned to tajdid. The first definition is to restore the religion’s original look just as we would restore the condition of something that has gone bad or has expired. A practical example is the renewal of our driving license.

The second definition of tajdid involves the innovation of certain elements to fulfill contemporary needs, such as the innovation of a modern vehicle. In this instance we’re talking about something that has never been created before, but it serves the same basic purpose required by humankind. In the context of Islam, innovation should be performed such that it does not change the religion but rather satisfies the new understanding or views brought about by changes in circumstances, though it should not deviate from the essence and the requirement of al-Quran and al-Sunnah. A lot of the contemporary issues we are encountering these days were not known in the past. To ensure a continuous survival of society, various new opinions are required. The opinions of preceding theologians may not be wrong, but may have expired due to changes in time and circumstance.


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