Malaysia Battles On For The Soul Of Islam

Farish A. Noor

Posted Nov 18, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Malaysia Battles On For The Soul Of Islam

By Farish A. Noor

The Sharia authorities in the Malaysian state of Selangor have charged the former Mufti of Perlis, Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, of preaching Islam without a permit to do so. For Malaysian-watchers worldwide, this case will be seen as a litmus test for Malaysia, the Najib administration, the government and Sharia authorities of Selangor (now under the control of the Pakatan Rakyat), and the state of Islamic praxis in Malaysia in general. The outcome of the case will tell us where Islam is heading in a country that has for some time now been seen and cast as an exemplary model of normative Islam at work. But is it really?

Former Mufti Asri’s ‘crime’, if one could even call it that, was to preach Islam without an official permit. But in the course of the past few weeks the man himself has been vilified by his critics and accused of being – among other things – a Wahabi Muslim as well.

Those who have been following the case however will note that Dr Asri’s profile and career thus far have demonstrated an inclination towards rational debate and objective discourse above all else. During the recent controversies that raged over the question of whether Yoga was permissible for Muslims, for instance, he noted that the fatwa against Yoga did not make sense. His speeches have been peppered with constant reminders for Muslims to think and behave in a rational manner, and not to be blind in matters of faith and religious praxis.

Is this, then, the root cause of the anxiety over the man and his ideas? Asri’s critics have labelled him as arrogant and confrontational, but those who have leapt to his defence – which includes prominent politicians from both sides of the ideological divide – have argued that his polemics have been directed mainly at the outdated traditional practices that have for too long been mistakenly assumed to be Islamic. In this respect, Asri can perhaps be likened to the ‘Kaum Muda’ (Younger Generation) of Muslim progressive intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s, who likewise challenged the authority of traditional scholars whom they regarded as out of synch with the times they lived in. Then, as now, any critique of the traditional status quo was seen as an attack on Islam per se, and the progressives were likewise called ‘Wahabis’ .

At the heart of the matter however is the question of who has the right to speak on Islam and matters Islamic. Islam does not have a clergy or priestly class, and men like Dr Asri continue to emphasise the role of individual reason in the search for faith. Right after he was charged by the Selangor religious court he noted that “This will not stop me from delivering the message… they think this is a small matter, they think they can just stop people from teaching, but for me this case is very significant.” Clearly the man is prepared to go to court to defend the right for Muslims to think for themselves and to ask serious questions about Islam, rather than to believe in whatever their teachers tell them, blindly.

But perhaps this too is the reason why Dr Asri is loathed by so many in the religious establishment, and why he has been seen as a threat by some. Whatever the facts may be, the fact remains that Dr Asri is in many ways a unique individual in the contemporary Malaysian context: An Ulama who is at ease when dealing with real issues of society and whose appeal actually transcends ethnic and religious barriers, he has even been seen as a moderate voice among the country’s non-Muslims. The outcome of the case will therefore tell us where Malaysia is heading today at a time when both the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat are desperately trying to carve out a new image and identity for Malaysia as a united multicultural and multi-confessional nation. Will the ‘new Malaysia’ dreamt of by the Najib administration and the opposition have a place for rational Muslim intellectuals like Dr Asri? Or will he be sacrificed for the sake of realpolitik? Either way, it is Malaysia and Malaysians who will pay the bill.

The writer is a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University NTU.