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Islamic Liberalism in Southeast Asia

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This article consists of excerpts from "Islamic Liberalism in Southeast Asia" by Muhamad Ali available on
Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

Islamic Liberalism in Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asia, Islamic liberalism refers to a religious philosophy that recognizes freedom in approaching Islam, primarily characterized by a rational interpretation in accordance with liberal philosophies and institutions. Charles Kurzman, whose work has been translated and is read by Muslim scholars and activists in Southeast Asia, uses “liberal Islam” to refer to the form of Islam that promotes such liberal themes as democracy, freedom of thought, social equality, and human progress. This liberal Islam has emerged in a response to “customary Islam,” which embraces the local customs, and to “revivalist Islam,” which seeks to renew the fundamentals of Islam in the modern world (Kurzman, pp. 5–13).

Since the 1970s, liberal Muslims in Southeast Asia have viewed themselves as part of a religious revival in the public sphere, as a substantive norm that is progressive, rational, critical, and inclusive, in opposition to what they view as a conservative, literal, exclusive, or political Islam. Thus, liberal Muslims or Muslim liberals promote such values as freedom, democracy, pluralism, justice, and peace although they interpret them in various different ways.

In Singapore, liberal Islam is defined in terms of the state’s construction of religious moderation and modern global economy. Some Singaporean activists seek to redefine Islam in terms of antiterrorism and liberal capitalist global economy, although they too are engaged in international liberal themes across national boundaries.

Liberal Muslims see themselves inspired by the universalized, rather than particular message of the Qurʾān and Prophet Muḥammad, and find various religions, philosophies, and histories relevant for reforming Islam and Muslims in the modern time. They quote such ḥadīths as the one saying ‘religion is reason, and there is no religion without reason,’ as well as the Qurʾān passages, such as “If one wishes he may believe, and if one wishes he may reject.” (Qurʾān 18:29). Reason serves not as the antithesis, but as a means of interpreting revelation. They regard liberal democracy, separation of religion and politics, freedom of thought and expression, religious freedom, gender equality, human progress, peace, as both universal and divine, in their diverse expressions. They trace their thought to the spirit of reform throughout Islamic history as well as the spirit of Enlightenment in Western history. For example, they emphasize the objectives of Law (maqāṣid al-Sharīʿah) formulated by medieval Shāfiʿī jurist Al-Shatibi (d. 1388), namely: protection of religion, soul, intellect, property, family, and honor, and interpret them in light of modern notions of religious freedom, freedom of thought, individual property rights, and other private and civil rights.

The rise of Islamic liberalism in Southeast Asia can be attributed to an increased degree of education among middle-class Muslims, to a more sophisticated communication technology and organization, and to political opportunities. Muslim liberals are therefore characterized by their eclecticism, employing a wide range of literature produced in the Middle East, Europe, the United States, Africa, as well as Asia, in seeking sources for reformist ideas. Indonesian liberal Muslims cite select medieval scholars from Al-Shatibi, Ibn Taimiyya, al-Ghazālī, Ibn Rushd, to Mohammed Arkoun, Muḥammad ʿĀbid al-Jābirī, Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd, Ḥasan Ḥanafī, Jamal al-Banna, Fazlur Rahman, Fatima Mernissi, Farid Esack, Khalid Aboe al-Fadl, and Abdullahi
Ahmed al-Naim, among contemporary scholars. Malaysian progressive thinkers, such as Chandra Mudzaffar, Anwar Ibrahim, Faris Noor, and Zainah Anwar, and Singaporean writers make references to these scholars as well as Indonesian scholars such as Harun Nasution, who coined the phrase “rationalist Islam,” Abdurrahman Wahid who promotes “domestic Islam,” and Nurcholish Madjid, who says “Islam Yes, Islamic Party No” and promotes rethinking Islam in the context of nationhood and modernity. Nurcholish Madjid (1939–2005) was well known for “secularization,” the process of making world affairs, such as politics and economy, worldly, not sacred. There has been an increased movement of liberal ideas and scholars across Southeast Asia and the globe.

For liberal Muslims, the gate of independent reasoning (ijtihād) should not be closed because of modern challenges, seeing the imitation of the tradition (taqlīd) as the cause of stagnation. In their view, conservative memories and cultures have placed women second to men, have viewed other religious communities as a threat or an enemy, and have triggered the idea of reviving an Islamic caliphate, an Islamic state, an Islamic politics, regarded as the orthodox-conservative mindset. Liberal Muslims find the urgent need to engage with both Western and Muslim scholarship in an intellectual war (ghaz al-fikr) often referred to by their conservative counterpart. The intellectual context has been primarily historical and global, but its varied manifestations are primarily national and local. Educationally, Islamic liberalism is born in a multicultural context. Liberal Muslims have diverse backgrounds, but many study at the traditional schools (pesantren), at the Islamic studies institutes (Institut Agama Islam Negeri, IAIN) and in various places: Egypt, India, the United States, Australia, Europe, and other Southeast Asian countries.

The Liberal Islam Network(Jaringan Islam Liberal, JIL) was founded in March 2001 as a response to what the founders saw as the rise of Islamic conservatism in the public sphere. They published articles and books, held talk-shows that were broadcast on radio and discussions via online and offline, and worked with local networks across the country to disseminate their progressive ideas. They saw political and conservative Islam as a threat to a “blessing to all humankind” - to Islam as well as to the state philosophy of Pancasila and to the constitution. They seek to develop an Islam that is nonliteral, substantive, contextual, distinguishing the Arabic and local customary laws from the fundamental message of Islam so that Islam may conform to national progress, democracy, and world peace.

Zainah Anwar, the cofounder of SIS (Sisters In Islam), resists a literal interpretation of the Qurʾān and a blind following of the jurisprudence interpreted predominantly by male authority. Zainah Anwar says all that the sharīʿah has produced throughout history is a human understanding of God’s law, not God’s law itself; therefore it is subject to change given the context of changing times and circumstances.

The emphasis upon public ethics and civic values rather than religious ritual and symbols, a characteristic of Islamic liberalism, can also be found in the thought of Chandra Muzaffar, who is involved in the International Movement for Just World.

Islamic liberalism has often been linked to interfaith discourse and movements. Religious pluralism has become one of the key issues that both advocates and critics address. In Indonesia, Muhammad Syafiʾi Anwar, director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP), defines pluralism as respecting the faiths of others. He says, “I believe that Islam is the true religion, but others say the same about their religions.” (quoted in Munawar-Rachman, p. 218). Within the diverse faiths, liberal Muslims argue, there are commonalities and common platform, namely humanism.

The Reading Group Singapore  may be categorized as part of progressive, liberal Islam, although the Council of Islamic Religion in Singapore (Majelis Ugama Islam Singapore, MUIS), embracing moderation and progress, envisions “a community of excellence that is religiously profound and socially progressive.” Being progressive in practicing Islam means working beyond ritualism, riding the modernization wave, appreciating Islamic and other civilizations, developing good citizenship in a multireligious society and secular state, and being inclusive and pluralist without contradicting Islamic fundamentals. The Reading Group, engaged with such scholars as Fazlur Rahman, Asghar Ali Engineer, Khaled Abou el-Fadl, Nurcholish Madjid, demonstrates a sociocultural critique of religious bigotry, violence, and terrorism, as well as consumerism and commodification prevalent among the Singaporeans. They see themselves as a minority in a predominantly Chinese society and the secular state, and stress the value of religious freedom and the rights of minorities, tolerance, and peace. They define Islam in substantive, rather than legalistic terms, and promote a democratic Islam. One of the writers emphasizes Islamic norms of compassion and peace. He says that many Singaporeans are proud of their degree of religious freedom. The citizens are free to observe their religious beliefs and practices so long as they do not insult other religious communities.

One of the activists, Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, says, “I am essentially a pluralist Muslim. By this, I mean I accept the inherent and necessary diversity - not only across various faith systems or religions, but more importantly, within Islam itself.”. He recognizes no single formulation on pluralism, but he is inclined toward what he regards as the “liberal” stand of Islam. For him, an interfaith engagement is sanctioned by the Qurʾān, embracing human dignity, mutual learning, and competition in goodness, and by the examples of Prophet Muḥammad, including the one that says the religion most loved by God is the upright and tolerant one (al-hanafiya al-samha). Thus, a peace-loving and rational Muslim will interpret Islam as a peace-loving and rational religion whereas an intolerant and parochial Muslim will interpret Islam in an intolerant and parochial manner.

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