A case for the teaching of Islam in English

December 18, 2013

Abdar Rahman Koya

Abdar Rahman Koya is at the end of his thirties, and considers himself to have all the qualities of an ordinary Malaysian, a practising Muslim, and an incorrigible cynic.

The recent parade of ignorance about Islam and its history, beamed from the cushy sofas in the polished halls of Putrajaya, calls for a rethink of the way Islam is taught at our schools.

Such official ignorance on Islam as we have seen the past two weeks is not new in Malaysia. I have always blamed this state of affairs on the fact that Islam in Malaysia has been narrowly studied, defined, taught, practised, and of late, defended, all through a racial perspective to serve a communal purpose. But the bigger explanation to this lies in the fact that our Islamic discourse has been limited by our dependence on Malay sources on the subject.

Don't get me wrong. I am a great proponent of the Malay language as a national medium. Which is why I have never been really convinced by arguments in support of the Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English, or PPSMI, but that is another matter.

But I am all for English to be used in subjects such as history and geography, and Islam, not only because these subjects force students to expand their vocabulary and think in English in order to explain and analyse. In the case of Islamic studies, many of the major sources of Islam are available in English, rather than in Malay.

The media debate on Shia Islam only underscores the need to teach Islam in English. The media's coverage on the issue reveals a Malayised understanding of Islam, even subscribing to a very localised system of orthography (or spelling) for Islamic-Arabic terminology. The English dailies' coverage on Islam, for example, uses Malay Roman spellings such as “Syiah”, “syariah”, “doa”, “akidah” - a tell-tale sign that our traditional media workers are still hostage to the official interpretation of Islam as understood by our salaried bureaucrats.

This situation is further compounded by our closed door policy on Islamic scholarship, made worse by the existence of well-funded government institutions which want to take over God's role of protecting Islam till Judgement Day, as if to ensure Malaysian Muslims would crowd God's heaven.

There are more books on Islam, whether classical or contemporary, written in English by English-speaking scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim. The size of English Islamic scholarship is simply immense, and this is made possible by the fact that English is now considered a major language of Islam, even replacing Arabic.

It is unfortunate that many Malaysians' exposure to English works on Islam only borders on the so-called controversial books by hitherto unknown writers. So we see ourselves always kicking up a fuss about people like Irshad Manji or even that third-rate scholar Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The fact is that the English Islamic publication industry has been thriving since the end of World War 2, with many quality original English works on Islam coming out from Western capitals, especially London.

The serious Muslim reader of English has been exposed to a plethora of interpretations, schools of thoughts and backgrounds on the subject of Islam, which are not necessarily controversial. Some of the greatest works on Islam are available in English, including those by al-Tabari, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Khaldun and al-Ghazali, all of which have complete translations in English long before the summarised Malay versions appeared.

Then we have works of some of the greatest Muslim scholars of the 20th century, representing different schools of thought, such as Abul Ala Maududi, Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shariati, Muhammad Asad, Gai Eaton, Yusuf Qaradawi, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Muhammad Hamidullah, Martin Lings and Tariq Ramadan, who are household names to the serious  Muslim reader.

Then again, how many of us have really read the works by Ayatollah Khomeini? His extensive work on Hadith is enlightening, a far cry from those superficial interpretations we have grown used to. Which is why I found it funny when not long ago PAS's ulama scrambled to deny they were Khomeini's admirers, out of a fear of being branded Shias. Funny because it shows none of them have read his works, no thanks perhaps to the fact that they are not available in Malay other than his writings on the Iranian revolution. The naked truth is that none of the Home Ministry officials and religious bureaucrats now busy trumpeting their Sunni faith could come even close to where the sun doesn't shine on Khomeini, no matter what biases one may have about him.

It is interesting that the spectrum of English Islamic scholarship is not limited to prayer and marriage, the latter for some reason a favourite topic of our PhD-titled Islamic preachers whose names occasionally appear on glossy manuals on Islamic rituals they call "books".  The Malaysian source of Islam is limited, indeed suffers from, Malay-language titles, which for some reason have not grown out of their capsules.

Even today, our bookshops  are flooded by Islamic books that still talk about how to wash this or that part of the body, or the merits of fasting, or the responsibility of a good Muslim wife or husband.  Some even reinforce myths and ignorance – the number of books written by unknown Ustads on Shia Islam being an excellent example of this.

More recently, publishing houses awash with petrol money from Gulf countries have littered our shores with their brand of true Islam, namely, an aversion to any attempt at explaining Islam in rational and intellectual terms, characterised by an omission of scholars who do not share their simplistic puritan Islam. Their books have nothing new to offer, either, to those seeking to increase their knowledge of the world's fastest growing religion.

A case in point is books dealing with the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Most are mechanical manuals on Hajj, rather than providing philosophical and ideological explanations about this largest annual gathering of humans around a black stone. In the end, our Malaysian pilgrims come back from Hajj or Umrah without knowing the true meaning of their journey, as brilliantly explained by the late Iranian scholar Shariati in his masterpiece, The Hajj. It is no surprise, then, that we see rich Muslims treating the Kaabah as their confession booth or their Ganges River, spending tens of thousands of ringgit every year for a trip or two, or three, or four, to Mecca.

Some argue that Arabic, being the language of the Qur'an, is the correct medium to teach Islam. It is true Arabic too boasts of a rich corpus of contemporary writings, but there is an absence of an Arabic book industry here such as those in the book capitals of Lebanon and Egypt - coupled with the unfortunate lack of interest in serious and contemporary subjects among our local Arabic-educated scholars who graduated from the Middle East.

It is only practical that English sources become the basis of our studies in Islam. This should begin from school, and not introduced at the university level where students are more interested in a paper chase than knowledge.

After all, what better way to understand the world's fastest growing religion than through the world's most widely used language? Ignoring this reality may condemn us back to the cushy sofas of Putrajaya. - December 18, 2013.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.