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Who speaks for Islam?

CAN non-Muslims speak about Islam? For that matter, can faithful, practising but non-scholarly Muslims, or Muslim women, or Muslim human rights activists, speak about Islam? As long as the fundamentals of Islam are given due respect, can’t there be room for comment or to express concern about aspects in the implementation of Islamic law, which, directly or indirectly, has affected or can affect all citizens, even non-Muslims?

Apparently, the answer is “no”. There seems to be growing hypersensitivity over different views on issues involving Islam, whether about using the word “Allah“, or the caning of women. Any contrarian view is deemed as an insult to the religion.

It takes far less than these examples. Recent muscle-flexing took place over a column in The Star expressing concern about the first time women were ever caned in Malaysia. Following police reports and pressure from the Home Ministry, the paper apologised and retracted the article.

Just yesterday, the paper capitulated again to these voices that cannot distinguish fair comment from actual insult, by spiking social activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir‘s regular column on weaknesses in the formulation of syariah laws. And so, it is clear that it is not just non-Muslims who are intimidated and silenced — practising but dissenting Muslims are also targeted by the religious status quo.

There is a clear distinction between running down a religion by disputing its theological tenets, and discussing human weaknesses in interpreting and implementing a religion’s teachings. With regards to the canings, nobody is disputing Islam the religion. Rather, what people have questioned is the proportionality of punishment to the crime, the secrecy with which it was carried out, and its effectiveness in policing personal sins.

Grounds for speaking up


Shahrizat (Courtesy of theSun)
So here are some grounds for why dissenters — both Muslim and non-Muslim — have a right to question the administration and implementation of Islam in Malaysia.

  There’s already diversity of views and interpretations in Islam. What constitutes appropriate punishment? If scholars themselves have differing opinions on implementing Islamic law, how do we know what is definitive? Even a Muslim cabinet minister, Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, notes that implementation of syariah caning of women here is lacking in input from Muslim women as stakeholders.

Taxpaying citizens, including non-Muslims, are funding Islamic activity and implementation of syariah laws in Malaysia. Taxpayers not only fund national development but also public institutions, which include the syariah courts, the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim), and the state religious councils. Part of Jakim’s functions is to formulate and coordinate syariah law enforcement.

Taxpayers also fund dakwah activities and Islamic education, as provided for under Article 12(2) of the Federal Constitution regarding education rights. It is “lawful for the Federation or a State to establish or maintain or assist in establishing or maintaining Islamic institutions” that provide instruction in the religion of Islam. The government may “incur such expenditure as may be necessary for the purpose”.

Non-Muslims have by and large not complained about this publicly, and have instead accepted it as constitutional and part of the reality of living in Malaysia. But as taxpayers, they should not now be accused of challenging Islam by commenting on the laws and enforcement they help to fund. If public debate on other laws is the norm in any society, why should civilised comment on syariah laws and their enforcement be an issue?

Non-Muslims are already affected by syariah law. Non-Muslims are often told that syariah law doesn’t affect them. The reality is quite different, especially when conversions by family members are involved. And so, non-Muslim family members must deal with the body-snatching of a deceased loved one. With no locus standi in the syariah court, they are affected when they are denied a hearing, then denied the right to bury their deceased, and also to the person’s inheritance.


Indira Gandhi
A non-Muslim mother like M Indira Gandhi must deal with being separated from her baby who was unilaterally converted by her estranged spouse. Sometimes the conversion claim, including the certificate, is said to be dubious, such as in Mohan Singh‘s case. Or the conversion was made without the convert’s full awareness of the implications, like in S Banggarma‘s case when she was a child.

Non-Muslims may be prosecuted in the future for committing a crime with a Muslim. A Malay-Muslim Malaysian writer notes that syariah law “is about policing behaviour, not belief”. And in a multiracial and multireligious society, the behaviour of one group is bound to interface with others.

In April 2008, a syariah law review seminar heard a proposal for non-Muslims to be held liable for khalwat or close proximity with a Muslim. The suggestion was for the non-Muslim party to be charged in the civil court. If such an idea has already been thought of, can non-Muslims be blamed for fearing that one day, their personal deeds will be subject to Islamic law? If that were to happen, should they not speak about what concerns them?

Whatever assurances cabinet ministers may utter, public trust is gradually being eroded, not least by actions like the government’s own covert move to secretly cane the three women and only announce the matter later.

Negative publicity affects the country’s economy. Should bad press over the canings translate into further drops in foreign investment and economic activity, everyone will be affected. Is it still justifiable to say that non-Muslims shouldn’t speak about actions that concern them as citizens and stakeholders?

Fair comment

I’ve yet to hear those who say that non-Muslims and “lesser Muslims” should stop talking about syariah law ever explain what they understand by the Quranic verse “let there be no compulsion in religion”. It’s the most-quoted verse whenever Muslim politicians speak in ceramah to a multiracial and multireligious crowd. But when it comes to public debate about religious issues, non-Muslims are quickly told that they have no stake in the discourse.

Stating a view about a religious law does not necessarily amount to insulting the religion. Let others express their concerns as long as it’s done in a civilised and respectful manner. It’s how Malaysians of all races and religions can share this country. Engage and educate if views expressed are contrary, but don’t censor, and don’t say we have no right to speak.


Deborah Loh believes in God and knows that He listens when we question. Why can’t those who claim to speak in His name listen, too?

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21 Responses to “Who speaks for Islam?”

  1. Paul says:

    Excellent article. Thanks.

  2. ron says:

    When non-Muslims comment, they say “Cannot, you are not a Muslim.” When Muslims comment, they say, “Cannot, you are not an Islamic scholar, and you are liberal.” When foreign Islamic scholars comment, they say, “Cannot, this is Malaysia, we are different.” When local Islamic scholars comment, they say, “Cannot, you preach without certificate.”

  3. Ibnu Yusuf says:

    1. A comprehensive article by Deborah Loh. Commendable.
    2. My humble comment:-

    Quote: “Rather, what people have questioned is the proportionality of punishment to the crime, the secrecy with which it was carried out, and its effectiveness in policing personal sins”.

    Comment: The Quranic verse is very clear on banning of consuming alcohol (Surah Al-Maidah: 90). The punishment is very clearly established by Hadith of the Prophet (40 strokes). Questioning of the proportionality is questioning the Al-Quran and Al-Hadith, thus questioning the basis tenets of Islam. Questioning the effectiveness is to distrust Islamic Law enshrined in Al-Quran.

    Quote: “What constitutes appropriate punishment? If scholars themselves have differing opinions on implementing Islamic law, how do we know what is definitive?”

    Comment: As far as the punishment is concern, the scholars differs in number of strokes, and not on the relevancy or effectiveness of the punishment. In Malaysia, it’s only a few strokes, and not even close to what Prophet s.a.w did i.e. 40 strokes. Therefore, the punishment for caning is definitive unless you can tell me which Ulama’ said that what Prophet did was wrong.

    Quote: “Taxpaying citizens, including non-Muslims, are funding Islamic activity and implementation of syariah laws in Malaysia”

    Comment: But Muslims in Malaysia also contribute to the government coffers and the same fund is being used to fund construction of churches, temples etc. But Muslims hardly interfere in basic tenet of other religion for example interpretation of biblical verses, etc. Except for the “Allah”‘ issue (which in my opinion is not exclusive to Muslims because the Quran stated that the word Allah is being used by Jews for a very long time, and yet they are non-believers), I cannot remember any other interference in the administration of church or temple institution on basic tenets of their belief.

    Quote: “Non-Muslims are already affected by syariah law”

    Comment: Are converted Muslims who reverted to [their] previous religion being punished by Syariah Law in Malaysia?

    Quote: “The suggestion was for the non-Muslim party to be charged in the civil court. If such an idea has already been thought of, can non-Muslims be blamed for fearing that one day, their personal deeds will be subject to Islamic law?”

    Comment: That is only a suggestion. But let us be positive. We are angry to see the declining moral in civil society, abortion, killing new-born babies, adultery of married men etc, but we still want to believe that sexual activities outside wedlock is ok. Syariah Law is meant to bring harmony and peace in the society. When adultery can be prevented, society will live in harmony. There will be no more angry wife waiting to beat her husband who spend time with prostitutes or scandals. That is the purpose of Syariah. But to me, i dislike the idea of charging non-Muslims in civil court because non-Muslims may have their stands and principles on sex outside the wedlock. Just punish the Muslim.

    Quote: “Stating a view about a religious law does not necessarily amount to insulting the religion.”

    Comment: If you can promise me that there will be no insult, or opening a floodgate of insult, then may be it’s ok. But we have seen comments on Facebook by non-Muslims saying bad things about The Prophet and Islam being cruel to women etc. That is insulting. You can’t argue with Quranic verses as it is the word of God, at least according to Muslim’s belief.

    Quote: “Deborah Loh believes in God and knows that He listens when we question. Why can’t those who claim to speak in His name listen, too?”

    Comment: Glad to have a professional people who can give their idea professionally like you. If you belief in God then we are the same on that point. Just tell others who believe in God, don’t question God because God is Omnipotent and Omniscient.

  4. kelefeh says:

    Thank you very much for writing this and bringing forward the rightful concerns of people at stake with regards to this issue. This is really creating awareness on the matter at hand, at least for me.

    I feel the representation and “practise” of Islam has been so distorted in Malaysia (mostly by seemingly ill-informed Muslims who are unfortunately in a position of authority which [some] seem not to deserve) so much so that it becomes very difficult for people who do not understand the belief of Islam (be they Muslims or not) to see any good in it or its followers.

    This is very unfortunate. We have got to find a way to move on.

    Thank you for highlighting this.

  5. beegees says:

    It’s different when Satan is preached rather than the Almighty. As RPK wrote, cover the head, expose the butt. It’s perception rather then reality.

  6. animah kosai says:

    Hear hear.
    It is important that many Malaysians speak up on this issue. My friends and I have prepared a very simple petition condemning the caning of three young women recently.

    If you agree, please do sign: http://www.PetitionOnline.com/OMOMOM/petition.html. Alternatively, go to the petition online website and type in “Caning of Women”.

    We cannot allow our beautiful country and people get taken over by a few but very loud right-winged views. Please spread the word.

  7. Gefree says:

    Well written, balanced, most relevant to the times of today. Let’s hope the Malaysian dinosaurs will gradually come around to seeing that the members of Malaysian society are intertwined, and stop their propogating of so much separation along religious lines which has negatively put back the true, rightful potential of a 1Malaysia.

  8. Reza says:

    Bravo…well said.

  9. vincent says:

    To Mr Ibnu Yusoof,
    Please tell us which churches, temples etc are built with government funds. I do understand not all mosques are built with government funds, but how easy [it is] for them to apply for state land to build one. However, if you ask any non-Muslim, how difficult it is to apply to the government to built a place of worship, you will get the answer (except in PAS-ruled Kelantan). [...]

  10. euro islam says:

    ‘Quote: “The suggestion was for the non-Muslim party to be charged in the civil court. If such an idea has already been thought of, can non-Muslims be blamed for fearing that one day, their personal deeds will be subject to Islamic law?”

    Comment: That is only a suggestion. But let us be positive. We are angry to see the declining morals in civil society, abortion, killing new-born babies, adultery of married men etc, but we still want to believe that sexual activities outside wedlock is ok. Syariah law is meant to bring harmony and peace in the society. When adultery can be prevented, society will live in harmony. There will be no more angry wife waiting to beat her husband who spends time with prostitutes or scandals. That is the purpose of syariah. But to me, I dislike the idea of charging non-Muslims in civil court because non-Muslims may have their stands and principles on sex outside wedlock. Just punish the Muslim.’

    I am not sure punishment will help declining moral activities, lower the rates of abandoned, or the killing of, new babies. In Scandinavia it is normal that couples move in together. And in many cases have children before getting married, if they were ever get married. But they are not punished for that. And there is no cases of killing or new-born babies being abondoned in the rubbish dump here in Scandinavia which is the opposite from what’s happenning with what is seen as ‘morally right’ in Malaysia. And this same moral is what might actually suppress the mothers to abandon or kill their babies because of the fear of being punished and put to shame by the society they are living in.

  11. To Ibnu Yusuf:

    I want proper sources saying that the taxes paid by Muslims are used to construct churches and temples — at least churches. From what I understand, most churches rely on their own building fund. We can get permits to use land specified for religious use, but that’s different from using government tax money to construct our churches.

    I also don’t know where you’re coming from when you say that Muslims don’t debate the interpretation of Christian Scriptures. Argument about whether Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit or Muhammad in the Gospel of John, or whether Paul is a legitimate apostle of Christ, or taking potshots at the priesthood, frequently emerge in Islamic polemical debate against Christianity. So there is an ‘interference’ in interpretation, it’s just that when it happens it’s more likely to be seen as ‘healthy debate’.

    That you don’t find yourself joining in the argument over the Christian application of their religious praxis has nothing to do with non-interference, but simply the way the two different religions are structured.

    Deborah:

    I don’t like the first point you made: that of differing interpretations. Let’s say that an atheist in the West was trying to make it illegal for religious organizations to turn down gay couples wishing to be married in church. When churches object, the atheist argues that there is a wide scope of interpretation anyway. Do you think churches who do not accept gay marriage can accept this argument? There may be many interpretations, but for the sincere believer there is only one truth.

    (I’m trying to make this something that can be related to because a real-life issue popped in the UK over the Equality Bill, which if carried out would mean that Catholic, Orthodox and conservative Anglican parishes would have no grounds to reject women who wish to become priests. The bill was canned, much to the disappointment of many in the UK. But it’s probably difficult to convey this to someone of Protestant convictions, who would see no reason for an instituted priesthood. TBH, I really don’t like using the analogy, since so many gay people have been hurt by Christianity, and I think too many Protestant interpretations of those verses have been more harsh than they were intended to be, but it’s the only analogy I could find)

    As with anything related to debate about Islam, there has to be some attention paid to theology, and simply stating that “hey, here’s an Islamic scholar whose opinions are like mine, great!” is committing a kind of intellectual dishonesty.

    Using the analogy of the atheist and the churches conducting marriage, the question isn’t about whether there is a wide intepretation or not, the question is about whether someone has the license to defend one particular interpretation through unethical means.

  12. Roslan Ramli says:

    There is no Allah but God. The non-Muslims are created by the same God. Only the perceptions of God are different among us. Like it or not, we are created by the same creator.

    There is no freedom for us Muslims in Malaysia.

  13. Iskandar says:

    See…this is what a “healthy” discussion is all about. No one here is attempting to insult anyone. Everyone has different beliefs. Even within Islam, the various mazhabs have different beliefs, as with Christians.

    The truth is no one has any real freedom in Malaysia, unless of course you are one of those in high places who are often in the media, and where you are free to commit crimes and no one can touch you.

    “Insulting Islam” is just a convenient excuse to keep everyone quiet, and unfortunately the average “easily-confused” Malay [Malaysian] has been sucked in by the condescending ruling party politicians hook, line and sinker to keep selling this idea to the public…so…so sad.

    How different things would be today for want of a broader-based and progressive education system.

  14. edosmera says:

    That is the problem when the Muslims were thought to obey, listen and absorb by the so called ulama but not to use their brains to think as required and stated in the Quran. The Quran was written in Arabic but it has been translated in different languages. The languages and various races in this world were created by God. So I don’t see any problem for non-Muslims to talk about Islam if they have read the Quran in their mother languages. But to the ulama this is a taboo. Only those who understand Arabic can talk about Islam.

  15. James says:

    In commenting on [religious] issues, please think about democracy. Do not let religion rule the country, let’s its people decide. Like Singapore.

  16. jules says:

    This is well-writen. Thanks.

    I humbly opine – a secular state that promotes civil liberties is the best because it is consistent with most religious teachings. Theocratic states on average tend to be more turbulent than secular states. Theocratic states give the greatest leeway to manipulate the populace for the benefit of the state’s leaders. A secular state celebrates diversity and promotes the individual’s right of worship. Legislation of morality is problematic because it impinges on freedom of personal choice. Legal sanctions on personal choices should only be considered in the light of how great the societal costs are. No leader should fear losing political power over the principle of [secularism].

  17. Onan says:

    Why waste time writing such a beautiful article? You are writing about the blind and the deaf and the poorly-educated wearing blinkers. You should know they won’t change nor want to change. The change can come only from the more enlightened Muslims themselves, others are just wasting their time. If you are worried just leave Malaysia and let the ayatollahs ruin it. Even then they are unlikely to wake up.

    I know you won’t have the guts to print this.

    ===

    Just a point of clarification – “ayatollah” is a Shia designation, while Malaysia is a Sunni-majority state. Sunni Islam does not have the same hierarchies as Shiite Iran. Perhaps an intelligent discussion on those you are dismissing would benefit from a little more accuracy and a little less stereotyping.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  18. Luke says:

    There are basically two types of food for the human species (other species, only one type of food):
    1. Physical food , i.e. protein, carbohydrates, starch, trace minerals, etc., but please bear in mind people react to allergies, as the proverb goes ‘one person’s meat is another’s poison’.

    2. The other type of food people take is the ‘spiritual’ food (called whatever you want – religion).

    The similarity of both types of ‘food’ is the same, excessive or improper method of consumption of ‘physical’ food leads to obesity, diabetes and other bodily diseases, likewise improper interpretations or administration of ‘spiritual’ foods will corrupt one’s mentality, and the ‘my food is best, other foods are prohibited’ mentality.

    Conclusion:- Like the proverb ['change is the only constant'], so it is the same with food, if a particular food offered to you makes you sick then it is your prerogative and choice to try other foods. If it is still not beneficial try another kind until you find the most suitable food – for example, grass-hoppers which are packed with protein without unhealthy trans-fat compared to fatty prime lamb that can cause diabetes that leads to coronary heart disease and heart attacks. It’s your choice of staying healthy in body, mind and soul.

  19. Darren says:

    Firstly, let me congratulate you on how fine, well balanced, and well thought out this article is. Unlike other opponents to Islamic Law – the Islamisation of Malaysia, etc – you have not blatantly attacked Muslims but argued for the root of the problem, the human condition. Must I say, it is only fair that we should not categorise Muslims as being solely responsible for the current affairs in Malaysia, but it’s mankind in general that led to what seems to be hierarchal super-dominance of Islam.

    Humankind has always been close-minded to different opinions, and when we have the comfort of monopoly and dominion, we tend to shrink back from our liberties in exchange for security. I think Malaysians need to realise that it’s not Islam, nor is it a Muslim issue, it’s a human problem that needs to be fixed. Those in power, who are playing this religious-political game, need to be given a good lesson that any society that gives a little liberty for a little security deserves neither and would lose both, *to paraphrase Roosevelt, US President*.

    Too much attention has been given to Islam, race, and politics – it is the human condition that needs to be attended to. Educate Malay [Malaysians], teach tolerance to the leaders, and build a common national identity that doesn’t favour one religion, race, creed, or language over the other. When everyone is only equal, legislatively, judicially, and religiously, then can Malaysia move forward. Can we truly say that we, non-Muslims, and Muslims alike, are truly tolerant of each other?

  20. Roslan Ramli says:

    Years ago when I was in my twenties, my father-in-law reported to the qadi I was a kafir. It stated with a silly argument. I just could not accept that only Muslims go to heaven. My father-in-law brought me to meet a few ustaz but somehow the explanations given were difficult for me to accept.

    I was called up for a meeting with the state qadi and was advised to learn more of Islam. My father-in-law believed that my marriage was not legitimate. Somehow my marriage ended up in a divorce.

    Muslims expect me to believe 100% what they believe. Isn’t knowing your reality a life long process? Not that I am thinking at all about it, only sometimes.

    Some people that are in the Islamic hierarchy are benefiting financially and politically if they can keep us under sunnah wal jamaah. Some have doubts and questions but it is best to toe the line. The government will keep on supporting these groups to win the next election. It’s getting out of control and dangerous.

    The way I see it, most of the Muslims in Malaysia have a closed mind, although I might be wrong. I hope I will always have an open mind, to listen, until I die.

    We all should be able to have an open discussion on Islam., without fear and in a friendly atmosphere but how do we make it happen?

    After all, God is not going to put you in hell just for your religious beliefs.

  21. Sumat says:

    As Islam is the official [religion] of the land, we deserve the right to talk about Islam, don’t we?


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