A criticism of Islamic practices in Malaysia

FEB 21 — I count myself blessed to have been able to attend Projek Amanat Negara 2012 in London recently. It never occurred to me that such an event, stimulating though it might have seemed to many of us in the UK, would be illegal if it were organised in a Malaysian varsity. But that is an article for another day.

I was very interested in Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz’s speech on intellectual arrogance. At a glance, the title does suggest that the writer is an arrogant airhead living in his own bubble. But after consulting the dictionary, I thought the word “criticism” was apt.

This article is a humble attempt to point out what appears to me to be the faults of Islamic practices in Malaysia whilst trying to keep my feet planted firmly on earth.

A few examples are given. Needless to say these are non-exhaustive. This is not a comprehensive assessment of Islamic practices in Malaysia. It should also be noted that these are not “Islamic” practices per se, but rather an anti-intellectual culture that is embedded in our psyche as axiomatically non-Islamic.

It is not the intent of the writer to leave out our fellow Malaysians who are non-Muslims. I am merely concerned that a substantial number of Muslims are allowing these dangerous idle practices to foster. Indeed I think it would do the nation good if our non-Muslim friends would give us constructive criticism and if need be, slap some sense into us.

Christmas Day is haram

At a time when Europe is fiercely atheistic, it is laughable that some commentators still invoke Christianity as the justification for the complete ban on Muslims to celebrate Christmas. If you want to make a case against something, at least make sure that the case would be able to withstand public scrutiny. It might appear that you are merely doling out these edicts and invoking the most convenient stereotype as an excuse.

Personally I do not see anything particularly wrong with joining in another faith’s celebration as long as one’s faith is not compromised. I hardly think that to have a Christmas tree inside your house and to exchange presents on December 25 each year counts as a radical departure of faith.

Besides, Christianity is probably the last thing on the minds of many of the people who celebrate Christmas each year. Christmas is wildly popular in Japan and China even though, Christianity is merely the minority religion in both countries.

As I have stated above, many Europeans are atheists yet they still celebrate Christmas. The celebration then is not a manifestation of their faith in Christianity but rather to have a festival where they can celebrate together as family and friends.

Intellectual discourse

We seem to put certain quarters of society on a pedestal; beyond criticism. This indeed is a dangerous development. I concede that insult and criticism should be clearly distinguished. When the American legal system ruggedly protects the right to insult (which I personally disagree with), some quarters in Malaysia unfortunately are even curtailing criticism based on intellectual discourse.

Even though this is done merely through societal pressure and not via legal sanctions, I would argue that this is dangerous, as it would stifle debate. Quite a number of us Muslims for example seem to think that just because an individual holds an opinion dissimilar to an ulama, it becomes an act worthy of condemnation.

I remember a particularly controversial moment during the Projek Amanat Negara. A participant pointedly dismissed Zainah Anwar as unworthy of commenting on Islamic law simply because she did not have an Islamic Law degree.

At first glance, this may seem like an understandable criticism on the part of the participant. But it does give us an indication that there is a notion existing amongst society that there are certain things beyond our discussion and debate (note that I am not talking about insults here but rather intellectual discourse).

Zainah’s answer — I thought — was simple and all encompassing. She responded by arguing that if Islam is to become a source of law or public policy, then its different interpretations must also be open to debate and discussion with the public as a whole.

Before any zealots out there start wielding their knives and get ready to run amok at the audacity of such a statement, it should be noted that even Khalifah Umar al-Khattab (may Allah’s blessings be upon him) allowed public criticism of his policy and went on to change it.

It was reported that when Umar wanted to put a maximum cap on the amount of Mahr for marriages, a woman stood up and invoked a verse from the Quran establishing that the Mahr is the right of the woman, hence the Caliph had no authority or power to put a cap on the amount of Mahr. Umar immediately agreed and discontinued the policy.  

All Muslims can attest based on the countless stories and anecdotes that Umar and the rest of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. are all Islamic intellectuals in their own right. It would seem that by extension, criticism of a government policy, even if it is based on an Islamic injunction, is not wrong per se.

Indeed it is pertinent for the development of society to have completely free and informed discussion of all issues involved. Insult of course should be discouraged. But it would be gloom and doom if one cannot even discuss an issue that is of public interest openly and in an intellectual manner.

The bigger picture

I concede I may be wrong in my opinion, but that is unimportant. Truthfully the only reason why I write in the first place is to spark debate and discussion. Nothing more.

The day when we as Malaysians in general and Muslims in particular, concede our right and obligation to think and debate on our two feet is the day when we cease to become functioning servants of God and citizens. So intent are we at ensuring that the details of the majestic portrait is not missed that we fail to grasp the beauty of the picture as a whole.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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