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
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Well said. Unfortunately the majority of Muslims in this country will never agree to such a “liberal” view from an intellectual academic from a Western institution, preferring instead to listen to the fanatical rantings of our ulama who are not nearly as intelligent.
Abdullah Saeed’s point is spot on.
Ida Bakar says
The current situation with Islam is akin to that of Christianity in the 15th Century. The Catholic Church got too powerful, too all encompassing, too controlling that it only took Martin Luther’s thesis to affect a great change. Thankfully, Islam’s strong point is that personal relationship with the Almighty, without intermediaries. As long as Muslims remember this there will always be amongst us the likes of the Tariq Ramadan, the Perlis mufti and the prof above.
Unfortunately, the Malays of Malaysia are still shacked to the feudal past. Now that the reign of raja-raja is over, the vacuum is filled by the so-called ulama class and their various offices – JAIS, Jakim etc etc
Until such time that the ownership of the Quran and Sunnah is returned to the believers, Muslims in Malaysia will always be at the mercy of those who claim to be the holders of legacy of the Prophet (pbuh) but without his intelligence or compassion.
Mohamad Yusof says
Of course the focus of the Islamic law on punishment is to punish rather than educate. If done under the strict guidelines of the Quran and sunnah,such a goal can be achieved. Even the prophet himself didn’t do [it] to people and asked people if they fornicated, rather, if the condemned one confessed to the prophet, he would [withdraw] punishment as the person had already shown signs of repentance.
But of course [pre]conceptions, and lack of knowledge always lead people to think otherwise.
Oi Perth! 78 Records!!!!
Wonderful analysis, as always.
It’s amazing that so much effort is devoted to policing public morals, which, aside from the usual objections, is a total diversion from things that really matter. For example, why can’t religious leaders focus instead on the ethics of (over)consumption? We are in the process of destroying this planet. Does Islam has nothing to say about the ethics of how we treat our environment? (Answer: it does.) Do the ulama have a role to play in raising people’s consciousness that their choice of what and how much to consume has ethical implications? (They do.) Can we at least start moralising about things that objectively matter to the future of our planet? (We should.)