Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Dr Azmi-Sharom
Reconciling the role of religion
Dr Azmi Sharom, The Malaysian Insider
In her book The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah (2006), Karen Armstrong asserts that religion is a factor that cannot be ignored in public discourse. This assertion is particularly true in the so-called “Islamic World”.
If we take the “Islamic World” to mean countries with a majority Muslim population (let us not get into the “Islamic State” debate), what is evidently clear is that these nations are generally behind the rest of the world in terms of economic, social and intellectual development.
As Richard Dawkins correctly stated, albeit in his rather cruel manner, Trinity College in Cambridge has more Nobel laureates than all the Muslims in the world. To be fair to the pugilistic poster boy of Atheism, he did add that Muslims did wonderful things in the Middle Ages.

Dawkins was clearly trying to point out that religion was a hindrance to progress and development. Yet his concession that Muslims did “wonderful things” in the Middle Ages undermines his own theory. For surely religion, and in this particular instance, Islam, had a massive role to play in Middle Ages Muslim society, just as it does, as Armstrong claims, in today’s society.
What then is the difference between these two periods in time?
I would suggest that it is not religion which hinders progress but one’s attitude to religion. Any ideology whether completely secular or religious can be a stumbling block to human growth and development.
Take the example of Mao’s China. His version of communism made no allowance for religion whatsoever, yet his policies practically drove the world’s most populace nation into a period of social barbarity (the Cultural Revolution) and economic backwardness (the ill-fated attempt at creating a steel industry by having the people melt their cooking utensils).
This is in no way an attack on Communism, or some small-minded defence of religion, merely a submission that it is how one uses and enforces ideology, whatever it may be, that could either raise society, or drive it into the ground.
Yet it cannot be denied that religion has such strong emotional resonance that it can be more easily used to manipulate society compared to more secular ideologies. If I were to claim in a World Trade Organization meeting that I am a socialist and that I reject capitalism, this will in no way raise the same reaction than if I were to stand up during Friday prayers and say that I reject Islam.
It becomes even more vital therefore that there be an underlying respect to intellectualism in society; especially societies that make claims towards religiosity. Anything less would lead to a society governed by reactionaries, bigots and tyrants. Perhaps it is this respect for intellectual thought and discourse which created the “Islamic Golden Age”, just as the converse rejection of intellectualism is what colours the Islamic World today.
We cannot ignore religion, yet we must reconcile the need for spiritual fulfilment with the kind of societal intellectual openness and freedom to allow for a forward momentum in the development of all peoples.
* Dr Azmi Sharom is an academic at the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya. This article is adapted from his preface to the book Wacana Pemikiran Reformis Jilid II (IRF, 2014).
Dr Azmi Sharom is a close friend and someone who I have great respect for. I spotted his 513-word essay in The Malaysian Insider today and thought I would comment on it, hopefully without sounding as if I am rebutting what he wrote or disagreeing with him.
I stressed on the fact that it is a 513-word essay because 500 words (plus-minus) is normally the restrictions on our academic essays (and 1,000 words for our final essays). So I know how hard it is to present your views with a limited word count.  I normally end up with about 2,000-3,000 words and need to edit it down to 500 words before I submit them to my tutor in Oxford.
Anyway, Dr Azmi, being an academic, needs to restrict his essays to 500 words or so. Hence that is probably why his above essay is only 513 words. Hence, also, I feel he could have said much more had he not been so ‘disciplined’ and was more cheong hei like me. (My introduction alone is 176 words…sigh….)
First, the statement that Muslims did wonderful things in the Middle Ages.
That was the period called ‘Zaman Gemilang Islam’ or ‘The Golden Age of Islam’ about 200 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad. That was when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. That was also when England was still Anglo-Saxon and it would be more than 200 years before the Normans would invade England and ‘modernise’ and unite the country.
In short, England and Europe were still living in what we call ‘the dark ages’ while the Middle East was going through a period of enlightenment or a ‘Golden Age’.
But this happened not because of Islam or because of the fact that they were Muslims. In fact, the Rulers of this period were extremely poor examples of ‘good Muslims’. It was what some would call a period of decadence. Yet it was the Golden Age of Islam.
Many, non-Muslims included, are aware of the Islamic laws called the Sharia. And most people think that the Sharia was ‘invented’ during the time of the Prophet. Actually, although the Sharia is based on the Qur’an, Sunnah and Hadith, it did not really become ‘formalised’ until the Golden Age of Islam that I talk about above.
Is it not ironical that Islamic laws got formalised during what one can consider also the period of decadence?
Actually, early Muslim jurists of that ‘Golden Age’ period such as Muhammad ibn Idris ash-Shafi’i were the people who laid down the basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence. In his book, Al-Risala, he details the four roots of these laws — the Qur’an, Sunnah, ijma, and qiyas.
Now, how did this happen? How did the most ‘liberal’ period in Medieval Islamic history about 200 years after Muhammad also become the period that Islam began to lay down strict laws that are still the cause of many disputes in the Muslim world, Malaysia included?
You see, in the past, the Ruler was the Ruler of everything, laws included. But when the Rulers started to get too liberal, like during this ‘Golden Age of Islam’, the ulama’ became concerned. How can a Ruler who is supposed to be the head of Islam drink wine and have orgies and so on? Is it right for the head of Islam to be setting a bad example and live a most un-Islamic lifestyle?
So they decided to take away the powers of religion from the Ruler and transfer this power to the religious scholars or ulama’. They still needed the Rulers, though, because the ulama’ did not have political power. So they did not oust the Ruler or abolish the Monarchy. The ulama’ would make the laws and the Ruler would enforce these laws. The ulama’ would decide what is right and what is wrong and the Ruler would punish these wrongdoers.
The Ruler would recognise the religious authority of the ulama’ and the ulama’ would recognise the political and military/policing powers of the Ruler. It was an arrangement of mutual cooperation and coexistence. Each would allow the other to exist.
So the Middle East did not progress because of Islam. It progressed in spite of Islam. And it progressed because both sides respected the boundaries between the giver of the laws and the enforcer of these laws. No one tried to encroach into each other’s territory. And the Middle East continued to become the centre of the world while Europe was steeped in anarchy and superstition for a long time before they woke up and overtook the Middle East.
On the next point that Dawkins argued that religion was a hindrance to progress and development, I would disagree with this statement because this was not what happened in the beginning but what happened later when these ‘boundaries’ were no longer respected and religion encroached into the territory of freewill.
Once freewill is removed and religion adopts the policy of compulsion, this would be when religion stifles progress.
The cure to this is we must recognise that God allows us freewill and we decide ourselves whether we wish to choose heaven or choose hell. Once man plays God and decides that we must go to heaven and that we are not allowed to go to hell is when the problem starts.
I mean God allows us freewill and yet man disallows it. Is man not only playing God but also trying to become a higher power than God? We believe that heaven and hell exist. We also believe that if we choose correctly we will go to heaven and if we choose wrongly we will go to hell.
So, what the hell, let us choose! Who are you to tell us what we can and cannot do and tell us that we must only do things that will bring us to heaven and not do things that will bring us to hell?
And this is the real problem facing the Muslim world, Malaysia included. People think they know better and they tell us what we can and cannot do. They forbid us from doing what they think will get us sent to hell and insist we only do things that will get us sent to heaven. And they can’t even show us any evidence that hell and heaven do indeed exist.
Anyway, allow me to stop here because I can go on and on if you want me to. There are so many more things I want to say but I will stop here for the meantime and maybe address the balance of these issues in another article.
And note that, so far, I have addressed only two points in Dr Azmi’s 513-word article. And I am sure Dr Azmi will give me a ‘fail’ in my 1,150-word response to his 513-word essay.

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