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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.

I would go further and say that all good and positive values, wherever they are, are in their true nature Islamic values. Islam --as Cak Nur and a number of others have pointed out-- are “generic values” which can be found in Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism, Taoism, in local religions and beliefs, and elsewhere. It may be that there is “Islamic” truth in the philosophy of Marxism.

I am no longer looking at the form but at the substance. Islamic convictions and practices embraced by people who call themselves Muslims may be only a “garment” and a form; this is not what is important. The essential thing is the value that is concealed behind the form.

How foolish it is when people bicker over the different garments they wear, while forgetting that the heart of the matter is to guard the dignity of men and women as civilized creatures. All religions are garments, means (wasilah), tools directed towards a fundamental end: the surrender of the self to the All-True. There have been periods when religious people thought that the “garment” was absolute and all-in-all, so that they squabbled over those differences in outward form. But the time for such squabbling is past.

The enemy of all religions is injustice. The value that Islam stresses is justice.

The mission of Islam that I regard as most important now is how to erect justice on the face of the earth, especially in the political and economic fields (also, of course, the cultural). I don’t want to erect the jilbab, restore the segregation of women, conserve the proper conformation of the beard, regulate the shape of the trousers and other fine distinctions that I regard as quite secondary (furu’iyyah). Justice cannot be only sermonized about, but must be realized in the structure of the system and in the rules of the game, the laws and so on and it must be realized in deeds.

The present efforts to implement Islamic (shari’ah) law are for me a demonstration of the incapacity of the Muslim ummat to face up to the problems that are pressing on them and deal with them in a rational manner. The ummat take the view that all problems will automatically be solved as soon as the shari’ah, in its most traditional and dogmatic form, is applied on the earth.

Human problems cannot be solved by simply referring to the “law of God” (to repeat, I do not believe in any “law of God”, I only believe in divine values which are universal), but must be dealt with by resorting by the laws or regularities (sunnah) which Allah himself has implanted in each field of endeavor. The field of politics knows its own intrinsic laws, so does the field of economics, so does the field of society and so on.

The Prophet is supposed to have said: man aradad dunya fa’alaihi bil ‘ilmi, wa man aradal akhirata fa’alaihi bil ‘ilmi; whoever wants to overcome the problems of world, let him do it by science, and whoever wants to attain happiness in the next world, let him do that by science too. Each field has its own rules and principles, and cannot arbitrarily refer to the law of God without first doing the appropriate research. Each science, in its own field, continuously develops, in accordance with mankind’s evolution. In that sense the divine sunnah also changes

It goes without saying that laws which regulate each field of life must be subordinated to the primary value, namely justice. Therefore the Islamic shari’ah is only a collection of basic values which are abstract and universal. How these values are realized and can fulfill the need to deal with a particular matter in a particular period is left entirely to humankind’s own ijtihad

The view that the shari’ah is a “complete package” fully made up, a prescription from God that settles every problem in every age, is a manifestation of ignorance and incapacity to understand the sunnah of God itself. To put forward the shari’ah as a solution to all problems is a form of mental laziness, or even further a way of fleeing from problems, a form of escapism using the law of God as an excuse.

It is this escapism which is the source of the decline of Islam in the world. I cannot accept this kind of laziness, especially when it is clothed in the excuse that all this is for the sake of implementing the divine law. Do not forget: there is no law of God. What exists is the divine sunnah and the universal values which all human beings possess.

The most dangerous enemy of Islam at the present time is dogmatism, a kind of closed conviction that a particular doctrine is an infallible medicine for all problems and ignores the fact that human life is continually evolving, and that the development of civilization from the past to the present is the result of common endeavors, an accumulation of achievements supported by all nations.

Every doctrine which wants to build a wall between “us” and “them”, between the hizbul Lah (party of Allah) and the hizbush shaithan (party of satan), with a narrow interpretation of these two terms, between “the West” and “Islam”; such a doctrine is a social disease which will destroy basic values of Islam itself, the value of the equal dignity of the human race and the value that we are all members of one world.

The separation between “us” and “them” as the basic root of dogmatism denies the fact that truth can be studied anywhere, in the environment that is called “ours”, but also in “their” environment. In my view, the knowledge of God is greater and broader than just what is found in the pages of the Quran.

The science of God is the totality of all the truths inscribed on all the pages of the Holy Books as well as the non-Holy ones, plus the pages of knowledge produced by human reason, as well as the truths not yet spoken, and so not printed in any book. Thus the truth of God is greater than Islam itself, considered as a religion that is embraced by a social entity called the Islamic ummat. The truth of God is greater than the Quran, the Hadith (prophetic traditions) and the entire corpus of exegetic books produced throughout the history of Islam.

Because of this, Islam is actually better regarded as a “process” which never ceases than as a “religious institution” that is dead, completed, stiff, archaic and a restraint on freedom. The verse Innaddina ‘indal Lahi Islam (Q 3:19) is more appropriately translated “Verily the path of true religiousness is the relentless process that ends in submission (to the All-True).”

Without any feeling of shyness or awkwardness, I say that all religions are on a road like that, a long road towards the All-Truthful. So all religions are true, but with variations in the level and depth to which they “live” that religious road. All religions belong to the same extended family: the family of the lovers of the way to the truth which will never end. So, fastabiqu al-khayrat, says the Quran (2:148): “compete in experiencing the road of religiousness”.

The fundamental requirement to understand Islam aright is always to remember, however we interpret the religion, that the prime criterion is benefit (maslahat) for humankind. Religion is a blessing on the human race, and as humans are an organism that always develops, quantitatively and qualitatively, religion must also be able to develop itself in accordance with the needs of humanity. What exists is the laws of humanity, not the law of God, because it is people who are the stake holders who have a vital interest in all discussions of religious matters.

If Islam is to be dragged into an interpretation which is precisely in conflict with the welfare of mankind or even oppresses the human race, then that kind of Islam will have become a fossil religion that is no long useful to humanity.

Let us all seek an Islam that is fresher, more enlightened, more able to be of benefit to mankind. Let us abandon the rigid, inflexible Islam that has become a nest of dogmatism which oppresses human welfare.


This article is the author's translation of his original article pubished in Kompas, November 18th, 2002.