A shorter version of this essay was published in Malaysia Today on the 12 November 2012 and the extended version of this essay is presented below.
I am as fond of my own intellectual freedom as anyone else, but I want to be free to agree with somebody when I think what he says is right.
– Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy
We follow with thoughtful interest and increasing concern the various developments in the public sphere in the aftermath of the forum “Islamic State: Which version? Whose responsibility?” was held on the 3rd November 2012 at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Petaling Jaya.
It is truly bewildering that the affairs of Muslims were recklessly discussed without the guidance of scholars of Islām whose true knowledge, moral character and spiritual discernment have been demonstrated and affirmed. What is even more disconcerting is that the so-called representatives who were invited to speak on behalf of Islām at the forum appeared to mould the content and tone of their presentation to suit their political calculations, without careful consideration of the truth, veracity and implications of their statements. How can one be sure that those who betray such blatant indifference are speaking earnestly and truthfully on behalf of Islām?
To begin, let us return to the original controversial statement made by a certain politician at the forum pertaining to religious freedom and Islam as recorded in the transcript produced after the event and as reported on Malaysiakini:
Nurul Izzah: Yes, umm, but the idea itself, I think, goes back. And when you ask me, there is no compulsion in religion, even Dr (Ahmad) Farouk (Musa) quoted that verse in the Quran.
How can you ask me or anyone, how can anyone really say, ‘Sorry, this only apply to non-Malays.’ It has to apply equally… apply equally.
The audience applauds.
Nurul Izzah: In the Quran, there is no specific terms for the Malays. This is how it should be done. So I am tied, of course, to the prevailing views but I would say that.
Before we delve into the merits of her statement, let us address the oft-repeated defense made on her behalf that she was unfairly and grossly misquoted by a biased press as part of a widespread ‘smear campaign’ against her. Our reply to this facile objection is that even if she was misquoted, one can view and read her actual recorded statements directly through other channels or websites – such as on YouTube – without the mediation of a so-called biased press and thus come to one’s own free judgment regarding what she has said and how she said what she said.
Hence, to absolve oneself from passing correct judgment on the merits of what she has said on the excuse that she was misquoted by a biased press does not and cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged, especially if such a position is stubbornly held by those who make Islam their political raison d’etre. If such groups persist in holding on to such a position, then one may conclude that factors other than truth and justice are being allowed to override one’s position; if truth has to acquiesce to political bias, so much the worse for truth.
Furthermore, a non-Muslim making ignorant statements about Islām may be excused on the basis of not professing to be a Muslim himself or of being woefully misinformed about Islām or of being obstinate in the face of facts and truth. To our mind, a greater cause for concern is when an ignorant Muslim makes ambivalent declarations about the nature of Islām as a religion, thus misrepresents the correct and true understanding of religion and of freedom in Islām. It is imperative for us to ponder over which condition is the worse between the two: somebody making untrue statements about other people’s religions, or somebody making indefensible and unsound statements about his or her own religion?
The said politician then brought forth the following argument in an effort to clarify her earlier position:
Namun ditambah, saya berpegang pada pendirian umum sedia ada, iaitu setelah memeluk Islam, seorang Muslim tertakluk dengan Syariat Islam; sebagaimana seorang warganegara tertakluk dengan Perlembagaan Persekutuan.
It is incorrect for Nurul Izzah to clarify her stand by equating, if not denigrating, a Muslim’s being subject to the laws of Shari‘ah with a citizen’s being subject to the Federal Constitution. In fact, this betrays a categorical confusion on her part because from the Muslim understanding, Islām is the true revealed religion, and the affirmation of this fact has consequences both in this world and in the hereafter. In contrast, the Federal Constitution is a legal document produced through a collective human effort and which is made subject to societal conventions and which compels assent and loyalty from the citizens for only so long as these conventions are accepted and acknowledged by the society. A citizen can willingly give up his or her citizenship and other rights accorded in the laws of a country. However, the case is fundamentally different for the Muslim who is subjected and obligated to all aspects of the religion of Islām.
The submission of a Muslim to the religion of Islam cannot be put in the same category as the loyalty a citizen owes to his or her country. It follows therefore that the duties of being a Muslim and the duties of citizenship are not the same. The former pertains to the foundational and inescapable relationship of a person to his Lord, his Creator and Sustainer; whilst the latter refers to the relationship of a person towards the State, which one may choose to opt out if one so pleases.
Perhaps it is a mark of how politics have rudely intervened into spheres of life and thought in which it has no right and business of being in the first place that even discussions pertaining to the nature of God and of religion have been re-casted in political jargons and perceived through the dark and distorting glass of politics. It does not bode well for our society when politicians are easily excused for making ambivalent, if not downright false, statements about matters which they have no deep knowledge of whilst the true scholars are openly ridiculed, scolded and shunned simply for courageously speaking up in defense of the truth. Those who justify such situations as a result of the ‘democratization of knowledge’ or as indicating an increased awareness amongst the masses towards contemporary issues ought to realize that the ‘democratization’ that forces everybody to be at the same level in matters of knowledge and virtue is no different from the security enjoyed by a prisoner and that freedom unbound is a form of un-freedom.
In the context of this discussion, the so-called “fallacy of equivocation” that unjustly equates two distinctly unequal objects indicates an error in the understanding of the proper definition of religion, specifically the nature of the religion of Islām.
The religion of Islām requires both belief (imān) and submission (islām) from its believers. Both are not identical, but they are mutually inseparable and indispensable, which means that one cannot do without the other (refer Qur’ān, 49:14). Therefore, belief as correctly understood in Islam is not the same as “to have faith” as commonly understood in the English language in the sense of agreeing or disagreeing to a proposition or a statement of belief, but it involves becoming true to the trust that God has confided in one; it is the verification (shahādah) by deeds in accordance to what is known to be the truth.
Imān consists of three components; assent by the heart, verbal declaration and action in accordance with the principles of Islām (taṣdīq bi’l-qalb wa iqrar bi’l-lisān wa’l-‘amal bi‘l-arkān). Therefore, it is misleading to say that all that is demanded from a Muslim is simply for him to make the claim that he has a strong and firm belief, as though merely stating that one has a strong and firm belief alone is sufficient to secure and prove his or her commitment to the religion.
Indeed, there has been a lot of misunderstanding over this particular point about the importance of belief, especially with regards to religion in general and Islām in particular. No doubt belief is important insofar as it serves as the starting point of any purposive action. But it does not follow that belief alone is enough. It is presumptuous to believe that one can simply will or publicly declare oneself to be good, and it follows automatically from it that one is good and consequently, one ought to be recognized by others as being good.
To take an easy example, if a person were to make a claim that he or she loves the mother, if his or her actions are not in conformity with that claim, then the claim itself is disproved or at least its veracity can be called into doubt. Furthermore, it is not enough for that person to simply set an intention that “I love my mother” if that is not followed up by correct and proper words or actions that verifies that belief. Belief — as important as it is — is not a substitute for words and actions that conform and make manifest that belief. Indeed, it is through correct action that one’s belief is verified, actualized and acknowledged.
Since the public interest and discussion in this topic revolves around the permissibility of changing one’s religion and how it derives from the concept of the freedom of worship, it is important to establish a correct and clear definition of religion. Following upon what has been said about the concept of religion as understood and practiced in Islam, we may now proceed to further elaborate on this matter.
In Islām, “al-dīn” is understood as the proper and correct term to portray the definition and conception of religion. The language of the Holy Qur’an with its systematic root words system permits to determine the precise and correct meaning of this particular word by analyzing its semantic field in the scientific fashion. One of the manifestation of the root word of “al-dīn” is “madīnah”. For Muslim, “madīnah” has a profound epistemological role in the belief and practice of religion for it is the period when the belief of the religion of Islām (aqīdah) was actualized by the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace!) who is the final Messenger of God for mankind. What was actualized during the time of Holy Prophet (upon him be peace!) constitutes the reality of religion (sharīʿah).
The clarification on the concept of dīn must also include a recognition of the fundamental indebtedness of Man to his Lord who has brought him out from non-existence into existence. God has, as it were, given Man the gift of existence and the ‘repayment’ of this loan entails a conscious and willing submission by Man to his Lord by way of prescribed acts in the manner intended and approved by Him (Qur’ān, 3:85). Therefore, Man’s ultimate purpose in this world is to continually recall and return himself to that original state (fitrah) in which he recognizes the true nature of his indebtedness to his Lord and consequently, to direct, arrange and live his life in this world to be in conformity with that recognition. Therefore, the recognition by Man of being in the state of utter indebtedness to his Lord is prior to the acknowledgement of that state by willingly and consciously submitting oneself to his Lord in the way and manner which have been approved by his Lord. It follows that unwilling submission is a sign of obstinacy, of arrogance and of the refusal to acknowledge the true reality of one’s existence and of one’s ultimate destiny in this world, for one cannot renegade from the Primordial Covenant that one has made to his Lord and in His presence (refer Qur’ān, 7:172).
Given that the purpose of Man’s existence in this world is to return to the state in which he recognizes and acknowledges his utter indebtedness to his Lord, therefore willingly submits to Him, it follows that this natural world, which we now find ourselves in, is not completely profane but also has a spiritual aspect to it. In Islam, the world of created things is conceived as being packed with His Signs, each of which can become the stepping stone through which Man can begin to know and remember his Lord if it is contemplated and interpreted in the correct and proper manner. In this sense, we agree with the concept of the secular if what is meant by secular is the turning of one’s attention to the exercise and fulfillment of worldly affairs within just limits, whether it be through deeds in the private or public domains. Hence, ‘religion’ as understood in Islam is not something made to suffer the dichotomy public and private, the individual and the state, the inner and the outer, for both aspects are necessary for the complete fulfillment of one’s duties as God’s vicegerent (khalifah) in this world. However, if what is meant by secular is the absolute denial of the existence of worlds other than this world we currently live in which manifests itself in the extreme and total devotion to the affairs of this world alone so that any consideration of Man’s ultimate fate in the Hereafter is neglected and suppressed, then the concept of secular understood in that manner – secularization as a philosophical program – cannot be made to conform to the religion of Islam and is in fact completely antagonistic to it and also to all other religions.
The Holy Qur’an enjoins the Muslims to invite others to the path of Islām with wisdom and good instruction, and if there arises an argument, the Muslims should argue with them in the best way or manner (refer Qur’ān, 16:125). It is precisely because Islam accepts the existence and diversity of religions other than Islam that Muslims are instructed to continually invite others to religion of Islam; such an instruction is meaningless if Islam neither recognizes nor accepts the rights of other religions to exist and their respective adherents to be respected and protected, specifically their rights to perform their religious duties and to preserve and transmit their religious and cultural identities.
However, the recognition of Islam of the fact of religious diversity does not extend to it accepting other religions as being the same and equal to it, especially at the theological plane. It follows from this that the Muslims do not have the authority to acknowledge other belief systems as being the same and equal to it, notwithstanding the few apparent similarities across various religions, for it will then be in direct contradiction with the position affirmed by God in the Holy Qur’ān. Lest Muslims be accused of being exclusivists or of condemning the followers of other religions or belief systems or of arrogating themselves to the Divine perspective in determining the salvation of individual men and women, we reply that the non-Muslims should not worry about the fact that the only religion accepted in the sight of God is Islam (refer Qur’ān, 3:19) since to believe in the Holy Qur’ān is not a basic tenet in their belief systems. It is also important to emphasize that knowledge pertaining to the ultimate fate of a person rests with God alone and that those who have been given Divine Guidance must continually persevere to keep one’s aim and course steady and true by increasing one’s knowledge of religion and of oneself, by improving one’s moral character and by restraining one’s baser desires. Nevertheless, if one recognizes and accepts the argument in the Holy Qur’ān to be rationally sound and true, then one should not reject its definition and conception of religion.
The following verse has been repeatedly invoked in the storm of public opinion that ensues pertaining to the freedom of religion and worship as it applies to the Muslims:
“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold, that never breaks. And Allah hears and knows all things.” [Qur’ān, 2:256]
Since the verse above was revealed to the Holy Prophet (upon him be peace!), who himself is first and foremost a Muslim, it is only fitting for us to examine the issue of religious compulsion within the ambit of the worldview of Islām. In Islām, religion is an important matter because it is reflection of the Truth and “al-dīn” is the way Islam describes its conception of religion, as have been explained above.
From the authoritative exegesis of Prophet Muhammad’s companion, Ibn ʿAbbās, as collected by al-Fīrūzabādī (1329–1414), the phrase “there is no compulsion in religion” is understood to refer to the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) and the Magians after the Arabs submitted to Islām. The scholars of tafsīr clearly indicate that this verse is directed to non-Muslims and not to those who are already Muslims. These views have found resonance in many authoritative tafāsīr and it has never been grossly misinterpreted in the way that is being peddled by certain groups – the likes of the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) and Sisters in Islam (SIS) – to suit their fanciful slogans of enlightenment and reason.
Referring to verse 256 in chapter 2 of the Qurʾān, the Muslim scholar and the celebrated author of Tadabbur-e-Qurʾān (“Pondering over the Qurʾān”), Shāykh Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī (1904-1997), was fully aware of the tendency for confused Muslim throughout the ages of using the notion of “there is no compulsion in religion” in making the religion of Islām conforms to their fancy whims and desires, and said:
Some people unfortunately take this verse away from this sense and try to use it for rejecting all legal constraints. They argue that since there is no compulsion in Islām, any attempts to invoke punishments for certain acts are invalid in Islām and are, moreover, mere fabrications on the part of ‘mullahs’ (note: Muslim scholar title that is widely used in India and Pakistan). If this line of argument is accepted as valid, it would mean that the Islamic Sharīʿah (i.e. Law) is without any prescribed punishments and penalties and that it allows people to behave and act as they please without imposing any restrains on them.
What this clearly demonstrates is the ready awareness amongst the learned scholars of Islam regarding the susceptibility of this particular Qur’ānic verse to misrepresentation and misinterpretation in the hands of those who possess neither the prerequisite knowledge nor the proper training that befits a true scholar.
Therefore, the statement made by a certain politician that this verse must apply equally to both non-Muslims and Muslims are in direct opposition to the learned opinions of the scholars of tafsīr, which betrays her debilitating lack of knowledge necessary to plumb the depths and grasps the true meaning and implications of this particular Qurʾānic verse; this blindness to her own shortcomings in matters pertaining to the correct interpretation of the Holy Qurʾān had led her to draw incorrect conclusions about the ‘irrationality’ of barring a person from leaving the fold of Islam and to sow grave doubts in the hearts and minds of the Muslim general public regarding the correct and proper authorities in matters of religion in Islam.
Furthermore, for her to assert that this particular verse must apply equally both to Muslims and non-Muslims, against the clearly established consensus of the scholars of tafsīr over many generations, assumes that to her way of thinking, the concept of equality is higher than that of justice. For if she sincerely upholds the virtue of justice instead of equality, then she will have conceded her ignorance on the true and correct meaning of the verse and by being true and just to her own state of ignorance, chooses not to pass any judgment on the matter without first consulting or referring to a proper authority in the matter in question. By presuming to give her own interpretation to the verse and then elevating her interpretation to surpass the position established by the true scholars, she has been led to commit injustice to her own self and as a result, generate enormous confusion in the minds of the public. Her attempts to appear equal in knowledge and stature to the true scholars of Islam has unfortunately driven her to be unjust to herself and to others around her. When justice and equality are directly opposed, it is often the case that justice will be sacrificed for the sake of equality for the common people prize equality far more than justice.
It is doubly unfortunate – though not entirely surprising – for her statement to be made to imply that she condones apostasy among Muslims. For if one defines apostasy as abandoning or leaving or changing one’s religion into another, and one means by the freedom of religion the “…freedom to change his religion or belief…” as stated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then it is not difficult to see how her statement can be read, interpreted and concluded to imply that she condones apostasy, whether it be to leave Islam or other religions. If one were to say to a person that he or she is free to do anything he or she wishes, then one should not be shocked if that person decides to commit a crime for the action committed by the person is simply a working out of what is inherently implied in the statement “You are free to do anything you want”, especially if such a statement is made without any qualification or specification. The said politician may complains all she wants about how she has been wrongfully misquoted or misunderstood, but she should know that no amount of protestations profusely given can overturn the hard and inevitable logic inherent in her original statement. Even the craftiest and wiliest politician cannot escape from the strict demands of logic, provided of course that the politician accepts consistency as a virtue.
It is perplexing to note certain tribes of Muslim pundits prefer to chastise Muslims for being too fixated with the literal meaning of the text of the Holy Qur’ān to the point of ignoring its context, when in this particular instance, it is they who choose to remain blind to the historical context in which the particular verse was revealed to the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and the interpretative context in which the true and correct meaning and implication of the particular verse were drawn, elaborated and established by the learned scholars of tafsīr. If one were to grant promissory notes for such a literal interpretation of the particular verse devoid of scholarly consensus and right guidance, then there is nothing to prevent the likes of fanatics, demagogues and even militant extremists from appropriating Islām in order to justify atrocities and perpetuate even further injustices. Rather, such methodology of blind interpretation is characteristic of the Wahhabi ideology that has produced extremists in the past. All of us should do well to observe the warning by the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), which can be found in the Six Books of authentic traditions (Sunan Sittah), regarding the danger of spiritual and intellectual blindness:
A people will come out at the end of times, immature, foolish and corrupt. They will hold the discourse of the best of creation and recite the Qur’ān, but it will not go past their throats. They will pass through religion the way an arrow passes through its quarry.
Those who argue along the lines of half-baked understanding of the verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion…” often overlook – whether deliberately or otherwise – the second part of the verse,
…Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold, that never breaks. And Allah hears and knows all things
that makes clear and affirms the distinction between Truth and Error. It is pointless to invoke this verse ad nauseam if this distinction is only mentioned in briefly or outrightly dismissed without equally serious consideration. The religion of Islām makes clear its claim to the Truth, and this is why its content is cognitive to the human mind. If this is not granted, then the Holy Qur’ān as a book containing guidance to mankind becomes entirely useless, just as it is useless for someone to proceed to enter a burning house even after having been warned of its clear risks and dangers. Such obstinacy stems from sheer stupidity on the part of the person.
It must also be established that to change one’s religion is neither similar to changing one’s clothing nor is it similar to changing one’s taste for certain kinds of food. A Muslim begins his religious life with a firm certainty with regards to the truth of his or her religion as revealed in the Holy Qur’ān and exemplified in the life of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Consequently, the act of choosing falsehood after having been acquainted with truth and living with the truth is certainly something unreasonable and cannot be made reasonable.
It can be argued that anyone who makes a conscious decision to leave the religion will leave the religion, come what may. However, the correct response by sincere and knowing Muslims to such a situation is to investigate the reasons that person wishing to leave the religion of Islam and to seek a proper and correct remedy – based on knowledge, compassion and wisdom – to persuade the person to return to the fold of Islam with a greater clarity of purpose based on a firmer foundation of knowledge, through good counsel and virtuous companionship. It is improper to instigate and collude in helping that person to leave the religion – be it at the personal or institutional levels – especially without being given the opportunity to carefully examine the reasons for the person wanting to leave the religion in the first place. Just like somebody who has been woefully misinformed about Islam cannot be expected to develop a favorable view of the religion; just like somebody who is not in full control of his faculties cannot be given heavy duties and responsibilities; just like a child cannot be held accountable for the sins of his or her parents, the family and friends of a person who expresses a desire to remove himself or herself from the fold of Islam must be given the opportunity to discover why he or she wishes to leave the religion, especially if the person is driven to leave Islam due to economic hardships or emotional depressions or religious prejudices or other factors outside his or her control, in which case the successful alleviation of such difficulties may led the person back to embrace Islam with greater certainty and truthfulness.
Of course in order to do so requires knowledge, patience and wisdom and the person who chooses to leave the religion may ultimately chooses to leave even after all that is possible to do has been done. But the fact of the matter is that it is not a given that if somebody decides to leave the religion, then the only and natural thing for the rest of the Muslims to do is to show the person the shortest and fastest way to the door and to make sure that the way is not barred by other sincere and knowing Muslims who wish to persuade the person to return to the religion. If somebody whom you love expresses his or her desire to give up that thing which is most precious to him or her i.e. his or her religion, your love for the person will compel you to do all that is reasonably possible to persuade him or her to not do so. It may be argued that it is more important for us to respect the personal wishes and choice made by the person; true, but that presupposes that all personal wishes and choice made by the person are decided freely and with consent. But just like one can be forced to embrace a religion or a belief system, one can also be forced to leave a religion or a belief system, whether due to internal or external reasons to the person. Therefore, why is it often assumed – especially by certain groups of Muslim Modernist and Reformers in this country, whose gaze remains immovably fixed at the intersection of Islam and politics – that when one wishes to leave the religion of Islam, that choice is a free choice and thus it should be made easy upon the person, whilst when one wishes to embrace the religion of Islam, that choice is assumed to be forced or coerced or inherited from one’s parents and thus should be ‘re-examined’ and ‘re-constructed’ on a more ‘rational’ basis? Such groups often declare, in a rather childish fashion, that “Islam is not a one-way street” or that Islam is not “Hotel California” where “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”, but in truth it is they who have unjustly misconceived Islam by incessantly problematizing the certainty of faith of those who are already Muslims whilst remaining aloof and indifferent to those who, whether wilfully or not, chooses to leave the fold of Islam. Their fetish of casting aspersions to the worth and credibility of Muslims – be it in relation to the question of religion and race, or of Islam and politics, or of Islam and modernization – which they masquerade as a form of academic scepticism, which offers no positive answers and practical solutions to the pseudo-problems which they themselves raise in order to enchant and beguile the masses as to their supposed intellectual worth, exemplifies most clearly the condition of the loss of adab as diagnosed and described by Prof. Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas in his seminal works such as The Concept of Education in Islam and Islam and Secularism.
Finally, given the fact that imān also depends on the Muslim’s actions in accordance to the principles and the truth of Islām, therefore it is not correct to assert – without means of proving and demonstrating that assertion – that one’s own aqīdah remains intact after having consented to or worse, having participated in securing the apostasy of another Muslim. But then again, those who possess nothing do not fear to lose anything.
There is no denying that it is of utmost importance for Muslims to reflect the highest of morals and virtues of Islām in their words and actions; this is emphasized numerous times in the Holy Qur’ān without the cries of the Muslim Modernists and Reformers having to wake us up to the realization of the significance of this injunction.
In our current situation, what is more important is our response – whether in thought or attitude – on finding out that the nature and character of Islām has been misinterpreted or distorted by people whose knowledge of the religion does not come close to the level that qualifies them to speak regarding the religion of Islām. The question is then to what extent should we as sincere and knowing Muslims allow these misunderstandings and confusions to spread unchecked and unchallenged?
Muhammad Husni Mohd Amin, Wan Mohd Aimran Wan Mohd Kamil, Muhammad Syukri Rosli and Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal are Fellows at Himpunan Keilmuan Muslim (HAKIM) and postgraduate students at Centre for Advanced Studies in Islam, Science and Civilization (CASIS)