It all started when Selangor executive councillor in charge of religious affairs Datuk Dr Hasan Ali delivered a pro-Pakatan Rakyat sermon at a mosque during the April 2010 Hulu Selangor by-election. Hasan is also the Selangor PAS chief.
It was in response to this that the sultan ordered for mosques not to be used for political activities.
Sultan of Selangor (Wiki commons) PAS spiritual leader and Kelantan Menteri Besar Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat joined in the fray, saying it was not wrong to use mosques for political campaigning. Nik Aziz was soundly attacked by Umno leaders and the Umno-controlled media.
It was then that Zaid posted his comments about the sultan’s decree being a “personal opinion”. The PKR political bureau chief was promptly accused of disrespecting the monarchy, and had a police report lodged against him.
Few, however, are questioning the separate assumptions behind this spat on whether mosques can be politicised:
Is it true that mosques have never been politicised in the first place, according to the teachings and traditions of Islam?
Is there a new and rising trend of mosques being politicised in Malaysia, in particular?
If mosques are indeed being politicised, is this good or bad?
Islamic scholar Prof Dr Abdulkader Tayob has studied the relationship between mosques, imams and sermons in South Africa and also throughout Islam’s history. In his book, Islam: A short introduction, he quotes prominent Iran-born scholar Prof Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr‘s conviction that the earth and nature are Islam’s “primordial mosque”.
In other words, a Muslim can pray and prostrate anywhere on earth, as long as the space meets standards of ritual purity. Nevertheless, Tayob points out that Islamic jurisprudence then sought to define the sanctity of religious spaces, or mosques, for community use.
Tayob goes on to say that the issue becomes more complicated when the subject of the congregational Friday prayer comes up. There are certain rules that need to be fulfilled in order to perform Friday prayers according to Islamic jurisprudence; for example, the quorum of at least 40 worshippers and the pre-prayer sermon.
Tayob points out that in the Shi’ite tradition, “the Friday congregation could not even go ahead without the permission of the ruler”. In short, Friday congregational worship in Islam has historically been the expression of a political community.
Prayertime at the National Mosque (Public domain; source: Wiki commons)
The swift evolution of the Islamic polity, however, meant that Sunni Muslims dropped the requirement to obtain the ruler’s permission. Nevertheless, Tayob stresses that this does not mean mosques in Islamic capital cities lost all importance.
According to him, “As a mouthpiece of the reigning political ruler, such a mosque continued to espouse the sometimes tenuous legitimacy of the ruler. The Friday sermon was obliged to acknowledge the reigning caliph, and sometimes became a signal during periods of political instability.
“When a preacher stopped mentioning the name of a prevailing ruler or substituted it with another, it was an indication that the palace inhabitants had changed. Clearly, the mosque now became simply the site from which the political fortunes of the elite were announced.”
This tension between the political and the religious has since defined the nature of Friday sermons in Islam. Tayob observes: “Mosques in contemporary Islamic cities usually serve the interests of ruling political regimes, and their leaders are carefully chosen for the purpose.”
Muhammad Khusrin (Wiki
commons) For example, in contemporary Malaysia, it is the Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (Jakim), under the federal government’s administration, that writes Friday sermons for public consumption. According to the Jakim website, these sermons are to be used by the various state and district religious departments.
But according to Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (Jais) director Datuk Muhammed Khusrin Munawi, state syariah laws clearly forbid mosques from being politicised.
Who defines “politics”?
Perhaps it is useful here to define what “politics” actually means. In its narrower sense, “politics” refers to the art and science of government. At its broadest, it refers to any activity concerned with the acquisition of power. To “politicise” someone is merely to make that individual politically aware, or to take part in political discussion or activity.
And so, when Jakim’s 8 Jan 2010 sermon, Akidah benteng kekuatan ummah, actively protested against the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims, it could have been construed as a political stand. After all, it is largely the Umno-led federal government and several right-wing Muslim groups that are behind the attempt to prohibit the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims.
In fact, several Muslim groups held post-prayer protests at mosques across the nation against non-Muslim use of “Allah” that very Friday. No palace representative rebuked them then for politicising mosques over an issue that even Islamic experts and scholars themselves remain divided on.
Demonstration at the National Mosque on 8 Jan against the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims
The politicisation of mosques in Malaysia also occurs outside of the Friday prayer structure and sermon mechanism. Take the emergence in Malaysia of Hizbut Tahrir, a self-professed “political party” whose main goal is to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate. Hizbut Tahrir now has access to Masjid Jamek Sultan Abdul Aziz, a major mosque in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, to run its programmes and spread its political ideology.
Hence, it is unclear what exactly the Selangor sultan meant when he “decreed” for the end of politicisation of mosques. Fact is, mosques have been politicised throughout Islam’s history and are intensely politicised in modern-day Malaysia, often under the watchful eyes of officialdom.
Further, in theory, we could flip the issue. Mosques could be politicised to educate Muslims — about responsible and accountable government. Muslims could be “politicised” — to become more aware about democratic principles and processes essential for building a better Malaysia for all citizens.
But could any mosque possibly do this when virtually all discourse on Islam is so tightly regulated by the state? These could be worthwhile issues — for both Malaysian Muslims and non-Muslims — to discuss calmly and at length.
Sadly, the debate now revolves around a spat among political parties. Some are even appealing to the monarchy’s authority to silence discussion and debate, hence robbing Malaysians of yet another opportunity to better understand political Islam in Malaysia.
For related stories, see In the Spotlight: Political Islam
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