PERTH, 2 Nov 2009: The focus on punishment of personal sins in Islam is misguided, a professor of Islamic Studies said.
SaeedProfessor Abdullah Saeed was partly referring to calls from certain Muslim groups to uphold the caning sentence on Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno in Malaysia for consuming alcohol. Saeed is currently the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies and director of the Asia Institute at Melbourne University, Australia.
“The idea that an Islamic state’s first job is to punish or safeguard the personal morality of its people is parallel to what happened in Europe in the 14th to 17th centuries,” he told reporters on 29 Oct, on the sidelines of the Fifth Regional Interfaith Dialogue, held in Perth, Australia from 28 to 30 Oct.
Saeed explained that both the state and church in Europe at that time would try to force conversions of Jews and Muslims to Christianity and even imposed an Inquisition on those who did not comply.
“This is so similar to what some Muslims seem to want to impose right now,” he said.
“The question now is, will these punishments solve all the problems in Muslim societies? I, for one, am sceptical,” he said.
Saeed was a keynote speaker at the dialogue, which was initiated by Indonesia in 2004, and is now co-sponsored by Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines. The dialogue’s theme this year is Future Faith Leaders: Regional Challenges and Cooperation, and involves the participation of 14 countries from Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, including Malaysia.
Saeed reiterated that there was no punishment prescribed in the Quran for drinking alcohol, but somehow in the Islamic law-making process, many Muslims now believe that punishments in Islam were objectives in themselves.
The Quran does not focus on
punishment (© Asif Akbar
/ sxc.hu) “The Quran does not focus on punishment, but on internal transformation and an internalisation of values. The question remains: Will Muslim societies be perfect if more and more punishments are carried out?” he said.
He gave the example of the period of alcohol prohibition in the US in the 1920s and 1930s, during which the consumption of alcohol actually increased instead of declined.
“Unless people genuinely accept a concept or idea from within, the state will not be able to control the behaviour of society,” he said.
Room for argument
Saeed also stressed that there was a lot of room provided by the foundational texts of Islam to argue for justice and human dignity.
“Take the example of Sisters in Islam in Malaysia, who argue for gender equality. The Quran, a whole [lot] of other supporting texts, and the traditions of the prophet Muhammad all uphold gender equality,” he said.
However, he explained that in the development of Islamic laws over the centuries, women were marginalised, and this was subsequently institutionalised.
Debate on gender equality in Islam is bound to continue
(© Ruth Livingstone / sxc.hu)“And so, contemporary Muslims are relying on these institutions that have marginalised women,” he said. “So, even though I would say there is plenty of room to argue for gender equality, we will now hear counter-arguments from the Islamic religious establishment that such arguments are Western-driven to destroy Islam.”
Saeed, however, said that the debate on gender equality in Islam was bound to continue over time.
“Right now, scholarship on this subject might be on the margins, but these ideas might be acceptable later in the future,” he said. “For example, in the 1930s, there were debates on whether democracy was compatible with Islam, but nowadays it’s a non-issue as far as debate is concerned.”
He said he was optimistic that there would only be more discussion and debate on such issues.
Shanon Shah was selected and sponsored by the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as part of its International Media Visits Program, to cover the dialogue. Four other journalists were also selected, from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. Shanon is an associate member of Sisters in Islam.
The role of intra-faith dialogue
The Nut Graph needs your support