I have a lot of respect for Islamic scholar Dr Syed Ali Tawfik Al-Attas, the director-general of the Malaysian Institute of Islamic Understanding. I blogged on him in Islamic Scholar: "Stop F**king Around with Marriages!" where he expressed his concerns over the proposed misyar form of marriage. Then, he said he was disturbed by the debates, which largely touched on the issues of sex and lust.
Dr Syed Ali has just been interviewed by Malaysiakini where he provided his views on the Malays, Islam and a host of issues that we wanted to ask but wasn’t sure who to turn to.
After reading the first of his three interviews, I would venture to categorise his discourse into 3 groups of information – firstly there’s the revealing and informative ones, then a second batch where I seems to have more questions than enlightenment, and lastly and most disappointingly, some of his views on non-Islamic matters that I totally disagree with.
Firstly, he explained why Islamic hudud laws are not applicable to modern Malaysia. He explained that hudud law was similar to an emergency declaration provided certain elements are present to warrant it.
He said: “(This is) because one of the intentions of the hudud law in the beginning was to prevent the Arabs from going back to the mentality of the pagan tribe people. If the danger of Muslims becoming pagans existed today, then I would say apply it but this condition does not exist, so why speculate when there is no precedent.”
He elaborated: "... It seems like now, we’re reducing Islam merely to the laws, halal haram halal haram, that’s all. Islam does not merely fall within the category of law alone."
"Let’s take the issue of punishment for apostasy that they are talking about now as death. That is the hudud law. It’s not mentioned in the Quran as far as I know and there’s a historical precedent to why these laws were first established during Khalifah Omar’s time."
"He could see that the Arab population was already reverting to the tribal pagan mentality. In order to preserve and protect Islam from being miscommunicated and confused, right at the onset he put the most stringent laws. This is the reason."
"Therefore, the hudud laws are very strict precisely because of the intent designed to prevent the Arabs from returning to the jahiliyah mentality but that doesn’t mean they apply for all time, especially not in a country with a multi-religious, multi-social strata like Malaysia."
Another version that I had heard was that Islamic laws such as the death penalty for apostasy came into being during a time of war, when the act of apostasy was then akin to desertion during a military campaign. And we know that desertion during war even in modern times could be met with capital punishment.
Dr Syed Ali then said the Malays in Malaysia are Muslims first, else they won’t be Malay by definition. He went on to discuss issues of the constitutional definition, Malay language, culture, Islamic value system etc – I’ll blog on this much later because his explanations have filled me with more questions than information.
Another issue that has angered him has been what he perceived as interference by non-Muslims into Islamic affairs. He wants them to back off and mind their own business - more of this in another posting.
On the third group of information, eg. non-Islamic matters such as the building of churches and temples, he said that “in this country there is no stringent law that says you cannot do that (build places of worship). Look at every other corner or tree and you’ll see a little red Buddhist shrine. People don’t disturb it, they respect it. We don’t go and break it, for heaven’s sakes!”
“I think sometimes these people are also stepping over their boundaries, the ones who demand too much. There already is freedom of worship, you’re free to worship anywhere.”
Well, much as I respect him for his intellectual knowledge on Islam, he knows diddly squat about Buddhism. To suggest that there is a red little Buddhist shrine at every corner or tree indicates his lack of knowledge on Buddhism.
As I blogged before in Sneaky Buddhists, Scary Buddhists!, Buddhists don’t give two hoots about the mercy or goodwill of god or gods. The Buddhist belief calls upon the adherents to break free of the cycle of life, death and reincarnation, by their own efforts of right action, right thoughts and right understanding of the Truths.
So why would they have little shrines under trees or elsewhere. Quite frankly, Dr Syed Ali has confused the practice of animists’ or superstitious people with the religion of Buddhism.
I had also touched on Buddhism in Buddhism sans Saviour where I commented that blogger MENJ had been wrong in his book titled 'Buddhism: A Muslim Primer', where he described his publication as 'a critical introduction to the beliefs of Buddhism and its soteriology, as well as its ethics and social order from the Islamic viewpoint.'
The use of word ‘soteriology' implies 'the religious doctrine of salvation through a saviour'. I said I had to disappoint MENJ because, unlike the Abrahamic religions, there’s no such person as a saviour in Buddhism. The Buddhist’s own efforts are his saviour, not any personality like Allah swt, Jehovah, Jesus, Krishna, Siva, etc.
I wonder why most (though not all) Muslims have difficulty comprehending that Buddhists are actually almost-aethists - ‘almost’ because, while not discounting the existence of ‘devas’ (god or gods), they ignore all spiritual beings as irrelevant and nothing more than just another life form.
The second mistake commonly made has been that Chinese religious practices, like worshipping at roadside shrines, are Buddhist in nature, when that’s more of superstition based on animist beliefs.
Dr Syed Ali has also been wrong on a second count to aver that authorities don’t break roadside shrines. Ask those angry Hindus whose decades old shrines have been smashed by DBKL enforcement squads in unmitigated fashion.
Thirdly, maybe a Christian can tell me whether they have succeeded yet in building a church in Shah Alam (or is it some other town in Selangor), where for decades the State government has refused to approved the church's building plans for a site already allocated for Christian worship?