Liberalism and Pluralism in Islam

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

The fatwa by the Selangor Fatwa Committee declaring outspoken Muslim women’s rights group, Sisters in Islam (SIS) as deviating from Islam has caught many by surprise. The edict, sanctioned by the Selangor Islamic Religious Council and approved by the Selangor state government, was issued in July but was only known to SIS on October 20. The group learned of it by chance when the matter became public. The secrecy surrounding the whole episode is baffling. Must it take that long for the news to travel? Or was it a simple case of wanting to keep matters under wraps for some ulterior motives? The latter seems to be the answer.

Muslims deemed liberal and pluralistic in their outlook, like the members of SIS, are being labeled as “deviants” as they have strayed from the true path of Islam. This is not only cruel but totally unjustified. How could a religious body consisting of mortals usurp the power of God? When Muslims the world over insist that their religion preaches “simplicity, magnanimity and love” and that there is “no one in between God and humans”, our co-called “clerics” are passing judgments on fellow Muslims at their whims. This is not only unbecoming but downright silly. If they believe in Judgment Day, as other Muslims do, who are they to label others as deviants and sinners?

What is so sinful about being liberal? Is thinking outside of the box wrong? Must a liberal-minded person be condemned for being so? Is speaking what you think is right, wrong? I can think of only one reason why those who sit in the state religious councils are so afraid of talkative people – fear. They fear people who talk because they, the religious people, are not as smart as those who talk. And God forbid if you are a woman. That is why Sisters in Islam is on their “wanted list”.

The other dirty word is “pluralism”. What does it mean? To the religious authorities liberalism means the acceptance that “all religions are the same and, therefore, Islam is on par with other religions in Malaysia.” Thus Muslims in Malaysia are prohibited from being pluralistic because Islam is the only true religion.

The thinking comes about by the way these Muslim clerics are being brought up. Most are from rural areas and are educated either in national schools or religious schools known as sekolah pondok. They hardly mix and keep mostly to their own kind. Chinese and Indians are aliens to them. So whatever religions that are being practised by these “aliens” are unacceptable to them.

The other pertaining reason is academic qualification. If you cannot become a scientist or an engineer or an architect because of your limited educational capacity, becoming a tuan guru (religious teacher) is an option too good to miss. You can still preach and label people as infidels and deviants from the safety of the pulpit. The fact that most Muslims, out of reverence, do not challenge their preaching makes them feel invincible and, eventually, a demi-God.

Mind you, I have seen this happening in my kampong and to my Malay brethren. I don’t look down on them but I sympathise with them for they don’t know what they are missing. If only they care to accept diversity as a way of life in a multi-ethnic and multicultural society like ours then these hang-ups about liberalism and pluralism will not have surfaced in the first place.

The attitude of our leaders too is to be blamed. They will only profess their religious moderation when speaking at international forums, and the medium will always be in the English Language. What they say and what they do are two different things entirely. So don’t bank on them for salvation.

Having said so, my conclusion is this – being smart, articulate and opinionated is un-Islamic, pure and simple. If you are a Muslim and possess these qualities, Malaysia is not your home. Period.

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