DURING a press conference in 2003, then Perlis Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim tried to defend the state’s decision to loosen conditions for polygamy. Perlis had decided that Muslim men did not need to seek their first wife’s consent to marry another woman.
At the press conference, which Jacqueline Ann Surin covered, the Perlis mufti stressed that according to hukum syarak, men were allowed to be polygamous. He would not answer the question by a women’s rights activist about whether such a move by the state was fair and just.
Nearly all of the Muslim journalists were silent. In fact, after the press conference, one woman journalist declared loudly that the women’s rights activist had no business asking the question about justice and fairness. Presumably, hukum syarak could not be questioned.
When Surin asked her Muslim colleagues what hukum syarak meant, she was told not to worry if she didn’t understand what it meant. “Even as Muslims, we sometimes don’t understand,” was the reply.
That was the moment Surin decided that if Muslim journalists were not going to step up to the plate to understand their religion, then it was critical for non-Muslim journalists to do so. This was especially when Islam was being used to determine public policy and life.
Furthermore, how did it come to be that Muslims in Malaysia believe that questioning the administration of Islam amounts to questioning, or even insulting, the religion?
This was clearly demonstrated during a Sisters in Islam workshop for the media in 2004, where only three journalists indicated that they were comfortable reporting on Islam. They were Surin, Shanon Shah (a Muslim), and another non-Muslim senior journalist from a traditional print publication. Many of the Muslim participants would have left the room if they could. One of them explained, “I cannot question my religion, because I answer to Allah, not my editor.”
What is amply clear to us, having written about Islam in Malaysia, is that syariah laws and fatwa are products of human interpretation. They are not divine truth, as the Muslim authorities in this country would have us believe.
For example, if it were such a crime for Muslim women to participate in beauty pageants according to a fatwa gazetted as law in Selangor, how is it that Muslim women could participate in a 1Malaysia pageant in Putrajaya?
It follows that if human interpretation is involved, shouldn’t such interpretation also be subject to human critique and criticism?
Here is what Egypt’s highest official fatwa-making authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa, concludes about a fatwa:
“[The] conclusion of a mufti is one of opinion and therefore always open to dispute. This follows a principle of Islamic law that whoever is in tribulation due to an issue in which there is a difference of opinion, they are allowed to follow whichever opinion takes them away from their tribulation.”
Furthermore, Gomaa stresses that a fatwa is but “a non-binding legal opinion that serves to guide [Muslims] out of their difficulty”.
How flabbergasting, then, that in Malaysia, a fatwa, once gazetted, carries the force of law. Indeed, that was how five Muslim women were arrested by religious authorities for participating in the Miss Malaysia Petite contest in 1997. They were subsequently charged and fined in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur under syariah laws. The incident created an uproar, and a memorandum was submitted to then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad over the need to reform syariah laws that undermined fundamental liberties.
Despite the memorandum and advocacy, however, little has changed. In fact, to question or disagree with a fatwa remains a crime under the Syariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act. But why the stark discrepancy between fatwa in Malaysia and Egypt?
Reclaiming the debate
What is clear is that there are differences in opinion and interpretations of Islam throughout the world, even among Islam’s highest authorities. What needs to be constantly pointed out, therefore, is that it is a fallacy to talk about what “Islam” says, or what “Islam” preaches and forbids. “Islam” is not monolithic or homogeneous, whether in intellectual history, current practices, or political systems.
The truth is that people with different interests often speak for Islam. And so it is important to question exactly who is speaking for Islam when they say “Islam forbids this” or “Islam prohibits that”.
Thus it bears asking, are the people who claim certain absolutes about Islam representatives of certain Islamist political parties? Or are they state-appointed Islamic functionaries? Are they even independent Islamic scholars and ulama?
Furthermore, to extend Gomaa’s logic, if public policies and laws are determined based on certain interpretations of Islam in Malaysia, why should there not be open public debate and deliberation on them?
Self-styled guardians of Islam will label these debates an insult to the religion. On the contrary, these debates could actually help identify and clarify the gaps between the ideals and actual practices of Islam, and will help name the various interest groups that use “Islam” for particular agendas.
Hence, shouldn’t lay Muslims be able to participate in these discussions? Shouldn’t non-Muslims be able to participate as well? Isn’t it our collective responsibility in the interest of upholding the spirit of Islam?
Imagine how much embarrassment and misconception about Islam could have been avoided if Muslims were allowed to contest the fatwa on beauty pageants. We definitely would not have the contradictory situation we do today with regard to the 1Malaysia pageant and the previous Miss Malaysia Petite contest.
What is even more troubling is that Muslims are repeatedly told they cannot question even when the most atrocious decisions are made in the name of God. And when non-Muslims speak up in the interest of justice and compassion — the core ingredients of Islamic teaching — the mob is ever ready to lynch. No wonder then that most Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia feel disempowered to question the imposition of Islamic law and ill-informed fatwa as laws in Malaysia.
But if we remain silent, it only means that Islam will continue to be held hostage by those who claim to have the power alone to interpret it for others. No matter that their interpretation could appear illogical and unIslamic, even to other Islamic experts.
Disclosure: Shanon Shah is an associate member of Sisters in Islam.