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Freshening Up Our Understanding of Islam

OurIndonesia – In my view, Islam is first and foremost a living “organism”, a religion that evolves in accordance with the pulse of humankind’s development. Islam is not a static monument that was carved in the 7th century CE and thereafter regarded as a beautiful “statue” that may not be touched by the hand of history.

As I see it, the tendency to make an unchanging monument of Islam is very prominent at present and the time has come for clear voice to combat this tendency.

Below I will put forward a number of basic thoughts as a simple effort to “freshen” the Islamic thought that in my view has gone stale – it is treated as a “package” that can hardly be queried or discussed, a divine set of doctrines that is placed before us with the curt message: take it or leave it! This way of presenting Islam is extremely hazardous for the progress of Islam itself.

The sole route which can lead to the progress of Islam is to raise the question of how we interpret this religion. To move in this direction, several things are needed.

First, an interpretation of Islam that is not literalistic, that is substantial, that is contextual and that is in step with the ever-changing civilization of humanity.

Second, an interpretation of Islam that can separate out whatever is the product of the local culture from the values which are basic. We have to be able to distinguish those teachings which reflect Arabian cultural influence from those which don’t.

Islam is contextual, in the sense that its universal values have to be translated into particular contexts – Arabian, Malay, Central Asian and so on. But the differing contextual forms are merely cultural and we are not obliged always to conform to them.

Any aspects of Islam which are reflections of Arab culture, for instance, are not binding on us. Examples of what we do not have to take over, because they are merely expressions of a particular local Islam in Arabia, are the jilbab (female head covering), the amputation of hands (for theft), retaliation (for death or injury), stoning (for adultery) and obligatory beards and gowns of particular styles. What have to be followed are the universal values which underlie these practices.

The essence of wearing the jilbab is to conform to a standard of public decency. What is generally regarded as decent is obviously flexible and may change in accordance with the development of culture. So it is with the other practices mentioned.

Third, the Muslim people should not regard themselves as a community or “nation” (ummat) which is cut off from other groups. The ummat of humankind are a universal family who are united by their very humanity. Humanism is a value in line with, and not in opposition to, Islam.

The ban on inter-religious marriage, in casu between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, is no longer relevant. The Quran itself never explicitly forbids it, because the Quran espouses a universalist view that people are on the same level, irrespective of differences of religion. All those legal products of classical Islam which discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims should be amended on the basis of the universal principle of human equality.

Fourth, we need a social structure that clearly distinguishes between political power and religious power. Religion is a private matter, while the ordering of public life is entirely the product of the community reaching agreement through democratic deliberation. Certainly it is to be hoped that the universal values of religion will contribute to the formation of public values, but the particular doctrines and worship practices of each religion are an internal matter for that religion.

In my opinion, “the law of God”, as most Muslims understand that concept, does not exist. For instance the law of God concerning theft, buying and selling, marriage, government and so on. What do exist are general principles, which in the classical Islamic tradition of legal study are called maqasid al-shari’ah, i.e. the general goals of Islamic law.

These values are the protection of religious freedom, reason, property, the family and honor. How these values are translated into any given historical and social context is something the Muslims must work out for themselves through “ijtihad” (intellectual endeavor).

How do we locate the position of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, in the context of this kind of thinking? I view him as a historical figure who should be the object of critical study (and so not become just an always admired mythical figure by ignoring his human aspects and possibly weaknesses), yet he must be a model to be followed (qudwah al-hasanah).

How should we follow the Prophet? Here, I disagree with the dominant view. In his endeavors to translate Islam into the social-political context of Medina, he certainly had to encounter many constraints. Indeed, he succeeded in Medina in making a translation of the social and spiritual aspirations of Islam, but the Islam thereby realized was a historical, particular and contextual Islam.

We are not obliged to imitate the Prophet literally, because what he did at Medina was to “negotiate” between the universal values of Islam and the concrete social situation at Medina with all its constraints; the result was a “trade-off” between the universal and the particular.

The Islamic ummat must strive-in-interpretation (ijtihad) to seek a new formula to translate those values in the context of its own life situation. The Prophet’s

“Islam” at Medina was one possible translation of the universal Islam onto the earth’s face. But there are possibilities of translating Islam in other ways, in different contexts. Islam at Medina was one among others, one of the forms of Islam that have existed on earth.

Consequently the Muslims should not come to a halt looking to the Medina model only, because life goes on, in the direction of betterment and improvement. For me, revelation did not cease with the age of the Prophet; it still works and descends to mankind. True, verbal revelation ceased with the Quran, but non-verbal revelation continues in the form of ijtihad by human reasoning.

The great discoveries of human history as part of the endeavor to improve the quality of life are divine revelations too, because they were the fruits of human reason, which is a gift of God. This is why all the works of human creativity, from whatever religious group, are the possession of the Muslims.

There is no point in Muslims erecting a great wall between Islamic culture and Western culture, pronouncing the one superior and the other low, because all cultures are the products of human endeavor and consequently belong to all nations, and thus to Muslims too.

The Muslims have to understand that Islam as interpreted by a certain group is not absolutely true, so there must be a readiness to accept truth from all sources, including those outside Islam. Let each group value the right of others to interpret Islam in their own way; what has to be combatted is every effort to absolutize a religious viewpoint.