Even the most eloquent of speakers can be stifled by controversy and racism. Last year I watched as Moazzam Begg refused to engage on internal topics concerning Muslims living in the UK, issues that if discussed openly might strengthen the community and break barriers with others. On this occasion Begg preferred to engage the outrageous stereotypes of Islamophobia and ideas, or ideals, of terrorism. It strikes me that this is a significant issue for much of the Muslim community in the UK, at least when it comes to public forums. That is why I want to bring to focus alternative thought from Islamic thinkers.
Taufik Adnam Kamal, of the Faculty of Law of the Islamic Institute in Makassar, points out that from the beginning the Koran itself had a textual and reading tradition that was varied; it was not singular or closed. This helps explain why contradictory directions emerge, after all it is the person reading and quoting the Koran who determines how it is interpreted. At the end of the day that person’s behavioural, cultural, mental and spiritual priorities will guide their decisions. With this in mind it is, at times, hard to appreciate why some Muslims choose takfirism, a term from within Islam’s own history similar to ‘fundamentalism’. Not being able to defeat the world with all its wrongs some Muslims attempt to cut themselves off from it, totally, to purify their behaviour. Takfirism ultimately invokes attitudes of rejection and opposition. The Islamic communities across Indonesia feel the pressures of Islamophobia like those elsewhere yet for the most part their thinking seems much more alive than in the UK. People do not all agree and they do not have to, but neither do they feel that the situation is beyond hope and that all kafirs are devils.
On 31st March 1973 a young man was hit by a motorcycle and killed. Ahmad Wahib was unknown but had participated in intellectual discussions on Islam with a group that would eventually influence the future of Islam in Indonesia, some taking up government positions. From these discussions Ahmad Wahib had written seventeen volumes that would be found after his death and published, they documented the changes in Islamic thought in Indonesia. The group took up questions such as ‘is it true that Islam is an ideology complete and perfect capable of answering everything?’ and ‘is an Islamic state ideal?’ Young Indonesians continue to take up such questions, walking on ground where God, the Koran and faith are questioned without the intention of heresy. As Ahmad Wahib wrote on 19th May 1969, “God, I face you not only at times that I love you, but also at times when I neither love nor understand you, at times when it as though I want to rebel against you. In this way, Lord, I hope that my love for you will be restored”.
Nurcholish Madjid reminds us that the word syriah means ‘path’ thus having a much broader meaning than some mere set of rules. When syriah is reduced to a set of regulations memorised from ancient recitation the ‘path’ is no longer but rather a series of obstacles and limitations. In other words explanation ceases. Abdulkarim Soroush followed the ‘path’ and rebelled against institutional religion in Iran where he was attacked. In Iran the ‘community of the faithful’ is often represented as the ayotllahs but it remains possible to disagree and negotiate with them. Soroush is an example of this; “I ultimately realised that there is such a thing as individual religion based on personal experiences, whose teacher is Rumi, just as there is such a thing as collective religion which what the syriah and fiq’h teach”. The latter is an Islam of identity that often attempts to flaunt and ideologise ideas of a ‘pure’ Islamic reality, thereby conflating it. Soroush is uncomfortable with this and prefers ‘the expansion and contraction of interpretation’, to him all truths are compatible. It is easy to see why he likes Rumi so much and why his book on Rumi is one of the most respected. Like Ahmad Wahib before him, Soroush believes that Islam does not have to become an ideology; something capable of explaining all things and guiding all affairs.
Nassaruddin Umar says, “He who most understands the Koranic texts is certainly God alone” consequently “it has been possible to write and read a number of verses in more than one way”. It is these types of issues that cannot come out in the current mainstream media but neither do they come out in times of ‘Islamic awareness’ organised by the Muslim community in the UK. These ideas immediately break down barriers as they reveal a ‘community of the faithful’ that isn’t about the defense and rejection of something so pure it doesn’t relate to reality, but rather questioning itself and others on a spiritual path that is based in lived experiences. These ideas help to explore the diverse experiences of Islam around the world and that claims of purity are based on a specific place and time, on culture and conditions rather that a belief in the Koran alone. I think the crucial point in breaking down Islamophobia is separating the Koran from culture. As Ahmad Wahib wrote on 15th September 1971, “in identifying the Koran as the pen of God, we have insulted God… He is ineffable [too great to be expressed in words]… He meets man in man’s reason and faith. Faith is merely a medium for the meeting. Because of this, the concept of faith can change according to the level of human experience using it”.
Much respect to Goenawan Mohamad!