Life is indeed full of pitiful and ridiculous ironies. Having just returned from Europe (last night) after a conference on the distorted image of Islam in the West, I am preparing to leave for another conference abroad where I will once again talk about the negative stereotyping and misunderstandings concerning Islam and Muslims in the world media. It seems that since the fateful events of 11 September 2001 I have spent most, if not all, of my time trying to convince people that Islam is a religion of peace, brotherhood and tolerance.
But when I woke up this morning, I discovered reports in the internet that some Ulama in Malaysia have taken exception to some of the comments I have made about them and that some of them now accuse me of ‘insulting Islam’ in the process. The person who has spent his whole academic career trying to promote a positive image of Islam is now being labelled a ‘traitor’ to Islam, by a handful of Ulama who hope to monopolise the discourse of Islam all to themselves!
This ironic turn of events raises some puzzling questions: Just when did criticising the inconsistencies and contradictions of a handful of self-appointed guardians of the faith amount to ‘attacking Islam’ itself? As far as this writer is concerned, to condemn obscurantism, bigotry, intolerance, fanaticism, extremism and militancy among some quarters of the Muslim world may well be the best - if not only - way of defending and protecting Islam itself from those who want to hijack it for clearly political reasons.
One is also saddened to see that as the Ulama grow ever weary and defensive in the face of growing assertiveness and independence among many thinking Muslims, their own defence is to claim that all who oppose them happen to oppose Islam itself- a tactic that has sadly been tried and tested many times over in the history of the Muslim world. (Thankfully without much success, as there are still millions of liberal-thinking Muslims in the world, despite the Pharisees among us.)
Rather than talk about my own private situation, I would like to make a few comparisons with other such cases in the Muslim world today: In many other countries like Pakistan, Sudan, Egypt, Iran and Nigeria, we have witnessed the rise of an increasingly defensive, introverted and exclusivist form of Islam. This is another kind of Islam that we here in the Malay world are not really accustomed to. It is one based on intolerance of difference and alterity; one which wilfully and deliberately isolates itself from external currents of thought and culture; and one which inculcates in the hearts and minds of its followers the belief that they alone are correct, pure, upright and good.
All those who oppose this form of thinking are called ‘traitors’, ‘heretics’, ‘infidels’ and are summarily expelled beyond the pale of society. In many Muslim countries today, scores of progressive Muslim thinkers, academics and activists find themselves at the receiving end of the barbed accusations of the Ulama who wish to keep the doors of ijtihad (rational interpretation) closed and exclusive to themselves alone. Thus we hear of countless Muslim academics and intellectuals who have been accused of ‘insulting Islam’ or betraying their faith just because they had the temerity to confront the Ulama and their teachings. In Pakistan, a professor of medicine is facing the death penalty- simply because he correctly stated that the Prophet Muhammad was a man who had normal physical needs like anybody else. (Incidentally, the Prophet himself never claimed to be anything else than a man with ordinary human needs too.) Before the debate proceeds any further, some crucial points need to be repeated here once again:
Islam is an egalitarian creed that recognises no essential hierarchy between individuals. The universal message of Islam was sent to mankind as a whole and not to a select grouping only. The emergence of the Ulama - now with their costumes and accessories - is a later phenomenon which has no basis in Islam. The creation of the Ulama as an institution of power and politics which has become normalised is itself a case of the ‘invention of tradition’ and how history and customs have been instrumentally used by the Ulama to serve their own ends. Sadly, it is the ordinary Muslims who have lost out the most, and many of them no longer feel they have the right to speak up against the Ulama, even when they are in the right.
Secondly, we Muslims need to rescue the message of Islam from the grip of both religious and political elites who want to turn it into a political ideology to suit their own ends. As more and more Ulama turn to politics (some would say that the Ulama have themselves become closet politicians) and more and more parties adopt an Islamist outlook, we need to ensure that Islam remains free from the contaminating influence of realpolitik considerations. Now, more than ever, we Muslims need to speak out and show ourselves and the world that we are not captives of a handful of men who speak the language of the middle-ages.
Thirdly, we also need to educate ourselves more about Islam and to recognise the various discursive strategies that are used by the Ulama to keep Islam solely in their possession. Accusations of ‘betraying Islam’, ‘insulting Islam’ and ‘attacking Islam’ have been the weapons of the Ulama for centuries. Are we prepared to sit by and allow this sad state of affairs to continue and to let our religion remain under the monopoly of people we did not even elect to represent us?
Islam, as I have stated time and again, is simply too important to be left in the hands of the Ulama. While it is true that not every Muslim is an expert on Islamic law, theology and history, this does not mean that we do not have the right to speak and ask questions about it. On the contrary, it is because the discourse of Islam is open that we all need to understand more about it and contribute to our common understanding of it. Ordinary Muslims and non-Muslims have every right to speak and write about Islam and to contest each others’ interpretations. It was this open atmosphere of free rational enquiry which made Islamic culture and civilisation one of the greatest in the world, and we can rekindle this spirit of intellectual enterprise if we put our minds to it.
The one thing we cannot and must never do is to allow Islam to grow fossilised and ossified, frozen in time and in its interpretation, thanks to the conservative elements in its midst. Let us show to the world that there is more to Islam than what many of us imagine, that it is more than a religion of bearded Mullahs and Ulama who will stop at nothing to keep the Muslims in check for their own purposes. The Ulama may have helped to guard and preserve the integrity of the discourse of Islam in the past, but today their role has to be taken up by the Muslim Ummah as a whole. That is the only way that Islam will become the living religion of all Muslims, rather than a private domain to be guarded by a handful of self-appointed guardians of the faith whom we did not even choose.