ON RELIGIOUS CLARIFICATION –
ISLAM AS IT SHOULD BE
By: Kassim Ahmad
20 January, 2007
A month ago, we wrote an essay entitled “On Religious Confusion”, seeing that for one whole year we suffered from that disease.  The recent outspoken but reasonable views of the Dr. Mohd. Asri Zainal Abidin, the 35-year old Perlis mufti and of two other state muftis who seem to represent the new enlightened face of Islam in our media  naturally raise hopes of a better understanding of the true Islam in our country. Therefore, it occurs to us to write another essay to be titled “On Religious Clarification – Islam As It Should Be”, in which we intend to explain major issues pertaining to religion in the hope that Islam will bring us out of darkness into light, as it should do. 
It must be admitted that religion that is supposed to lead men to lead pure, ethical and happy lives have, in history, actually contributed to wars and much unhappiness. Sad to say, a very, very few people indeed can think and act rationally in a religious discussion, because religion involves deep emotions and in religion people are faced with fear of the unknowns of death and of afterlife. Such being the case, we shall tread our ground very carefully, while strictly avoiding being apologetic.
Although conceding that reason is weak in the face in religious dogmatism, we cannot abandon reason or reasoned religious discourse. This is because Life itself is meaningless without reason. There is reason to Life and that our lives in this world and in other worlds related to this world have to be meaningful.  In the absolute terms, the world, i.e. the universe, is knowable and therefore subject to willful change by Man’s lawful activity. 
It is said that Man cannot live by bread alone. Bread only satisfies his physical needs. His moral and spiritual needs require different nourishments. Religion, or a set of beliefs or what we can call a worldview, provide these nourishments. However, here is the snag: religion, or set of beliefs, or worldview – its truth cannot be verified, at least directly.  All civilizations and religions have at some time or other existed on myths or partial myths. 
Man’s problem is therefore to have a faith that is congruent with the truth. He needs to believe and to act morally in his mortal life-span, but that belief and the moral imperative must be true, in the sense of its congruence with the lawful creation of the Creator God, in short, with the Truth, written with a capital T. This truth will, of course, be apparent to him progressively, as he makes the discovery, covering the span of immortal Man, that is Eternity. His problem is that the mortal man needs this religion or belief system to live out his mortal span. He therefore needs faith, but a faith consistent with reason.
Therefore, this religion, this worldview, this belief system has to be truthful and consequently simple. That is what the Religion of Truth , the Creator-God’s religion  is. If Islam is its name, that is because “Islam” simply means “peace” or “to totally surrender oneself” to the lawful working of the Creator’s universe. Thus, it is practical, universal, just, harmonious and compassionate.
The Quran states: “The true religion with God is Islam.”  Islam is strictly monotheistic: “There is no god, but God” is its simple credo.  It is simple and practical, and to live by Islam, one simply has to believe in God, to do good and be accountable for one’s actions. Since Islam is the true religion of the human family, its development or manifestation is through historical stages that are suited to the development of human societies. From the earliest times of Adam through many generations and climes up to the times of Prophets Abraham, Moses and Jesus and, ending the series of prophet-messengers, Prophet Muhammad whose message was final and addressed to the whole of mankind,  the religion of Islam developed stage by stage until it was completed and perfected with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad in the Quran.
Every thesis brings an anti-thesis. At every stage, Islam encountered its opposite, its enemy.  It is through its successful struggle with the enemy that Islam triumphed and developed. What Moses brought to the Israelites was, of course, Islam of that time, but it broke up, one to become a “new” religion, Judaism, and the other to pass on as Islam of the new stage, into Jesus, who brought the New Testament, the Islam of his times. This later broke up again into a “new” religion, Christianity , while the true Islam passed on into the last stage when Muhammad arose in Arabia to bring Islam into completion and perfection, in the last sacred Book of God, the Noble Quran.
Even with Prophet Muhammad’s teachings, the inevitable natural process of thesis-anti-thesis cannot be avoided. After 250-300 years, the perfected Islam of the Quran broke into many sects and schools of thought, ending with us today at the beginning of the 21st Century, an “Islam” almost beyond recognition, contributing not only to confusion, but total disaster. Yet, the true Islam remains, since the true teachings of Prophet Muhammad are perfectly preserved in the the Quran, and the Quran is protected from corruption by God Himself. 
To return to the beginning of human society, the Adams of mankind, about a million years ago, primitive men and women living in caves, what ideas of a Creator-God did they have? We do not know for certain. Such ideas must be elementary, vague and unformed. Although testimony from the Quran suggest that they already have a belief in God, it was not until the time of Prophet Abraham, in the valley of Ur, present-day Iraq, about 4,000 years ago, that the first definite community of monotheists, Abraham and his followers,  lived. Muhammad himself declared that he was a follower of the religion of Abraham. 
The anti-thesis of monotheism is polytheism, the belief in many gods. Polytheism has many forms. It may even have developed or rather degenerated from a belief in one God, as Judaism and Christianity did, on the testimony of the Bible itself.  Polytheism self-destructs as it leads to rivalries and fights among the gods, leading to chaos and self-destruction.
There is no priesthood in Islam. A person or a community deals directly with his or its Creator. Neither Muhammad, nor his immediate successors were priests, or had any priests with them. No intermediary can intervene. How then a priesthood arises in all religions, including post-Muhammad Islam, is an intriguing question. It must have happened something like this: ordinary members of a community regard religion as something sacred and they need a knowledgeable person in the religion to act on his or their behalf. Because this class of people, whatever their name is, is in charge of an important area of their life, they become very influential. Thus, today, in all Muslim countries, we see this religious class, the Ulama, the so-called religious scholars, have become very powerful. It is they who teach and interprete the religion as well as issue religious rulings. In Islam this should not be so. Every member of the society is responsible for the affairs of Islam. It is the society who rules. Of course, there must be those who study and teach the religion, but they are no means its custodians. The whole community is its custodian.
The priesthood is an interested party. The religion becomes their means of livelihood. The development of Muslim religious education, through the pondok and the madrasah, ending in the University of Al-Azhar in Cairo, has helped to preserve religious doctrines, albeit in distorted forms, in Muslim lands throughout the times when they were under foreign domination. In those days it is these religious institutions that produced the religious teachers, the imams, the kadhis and the muftis. After independence, they have been absorbed into or taken over by the state educational system. Thus, the system is a dualism: state policy is in the hands of the secular elite; religious policy in the hands of the religious elite. However, both are united in Government.
Thus, revelation, which should give us the truth from our God-Creator, has turned into its opposite -- falsehood. In this incessant struggle between truth and falsehood, the faithful believe that truth will triumph. In the broad sweep of history, from the beginning of human society until now, we can discern the lines of advance, in spite of the many regressions. Let us name the points of advance: government through participation of the people, as opposed to government by a small oppressive elite; more humane laws under enlightened governments (including abolition of slavery), as opposed to severe cruel laws under oppressive regimes; better conditions and quality of life for more and more people; advance of knowledge, science and technology; better control of the forces of nature through science and technology; better food, improved medicine, better health and longevity.
The agnostics and pessimists will cite other aspects of our present-day life to make their case, such as the real danger of nuclear war that will destroy civilization, the current phenomenon of global warming that can lead to the same thing, and the so-called problem of over-population and scarce resources. Our answer to them is simple and straightforward: Being the vicegerent of God Himself, Man is destined for a great destiny – eternal happiness in this world – in the Abode of the Blessed. We shall achieve this sooner or later. Time is immaterial, since with God, time does not exist. With Him, time is Eternal Now. What has prevented us from achieving this sooner is our own inclination to the earth, as the Quran puts it.  We fail to struggle hard enough to reach this Abode of the Blessed.
So, revelation is a double-edged sword. It can give you success and happiness; turned into its opposite, it can lead you to arrogance and destruction.
The polytheists may be in the category of what the Quran classifies as “The People of the Book” In the Quran, this term properly refers to the Jews and Christians, as people who have received scripture from God. The Hindus and Buddhists also possess scriptures. Therefore, they may correctly be also so-termed. Although, the Hindus believe in many gods, they also believe in the idea of a Supreme Being, the Brahman. Similarly, one might argue about the Buddhists (not properly professing a belief in God, but impliedly so) and a few other religious followers. But polytheism is opposed to monotheism in the sense that its philosophical and moral relativism undermines a belief in absolute truth. A belief in absolute truth is the basal strength of monotheism. Truth is but another name for God. God therefore wants the truth to prevail. 
As in the case of all books, the Quran has to be understood scientifically. There must a scientific methodology of interpretation; otherwise our understanding of it will be defective. In my personal experience with Islam, before I came to accept it fully, I had to resolve my doubts about a few matters. These were: the position of women, the so-called fixed punishments, slavery and the division of property. It took me many years, 36 to be exact, from the time when I was debating religion with my Christian and Buddhist classmates when I was about 16 years old till 1985 before I could resolve all these questions and was happy to accept Islam fully as my freely-chosen religion.
After so much reading and research and reflection, I wrote a tentative essay titled “A Scientific Methodology of Tafsir”, which I included as Addendum in the English translation of my book, Hadith – A Re-evaluation.  While the teachings of the Quran are addressed to the whole of mankind and are universal in nature, there are those that are historical in nature and apply to circumstance of that historical time or similar historical times. The historically-bound teachings need to be re-interpreted in accordance with the universal principles behind them. The position of women illustrate this clearly. Due to the economic dependence of women on the men and their lack of education and experience in affairs outside the home, their status in Arabia of that time is inferior to men. This explains general unlimited polygamy, before it was limited to four under strict conditions, political and social leadership assumed by the men, as well as their getting half of what the men get at the division of property. These are stipulated in clear enough verses. But over and above these verses, there are those verses which stipulate the equality of women to men. Many of such verses must have just escaped the notice and understanding of our ancient scholars! We cannot blame them too much. Had we been in their shoes, we would most probably have done the same thing. The blame is on those scholars who came later and who should adopt a critical attitude towards their heritage. Instead these scholars elected to follow them blindly and thus continued and perpetuated the mistakes they have made.
The so-called fixed punishments or Hudud laws may be placed in the same category of historically-bound teachings, but they are really a hotch-potch of a mixed-up. Firstly, the Arabic word hudud (singular had meaning ‘boundary’) does not refer to punishment at all; it refers to a figurative boundary line which one should not cross for one’s good.  Secondly, there is no and cannot be such a thing as a fixed punishment. A judge has to take into account many factors and considerations before deciding on a punishment for any crime. Thirdly, although capital punishment for rebellion, cutting off the hand for theft and a hundred stripes for adultery are stipulated in the Quran (to be interpreted in the historical context),  cutting off the head for apostasy is out of the question, since this punishment taken from a hadith is clearly contradicted by the teaching of the Quran, which unequivocally gives absolute freedom of religion.
For any problem, the Quran usually gives more than one answer. Take the five daily prayers, for instance. In normal circumstances, one can perform them in the normal way. But under abnormal circumstances, one is allowed to adapt to the demands of the circumstances.
The beauty and easy practicability of Quranic teachings is that when confronted with a emergency situation one is allowed to do what under normal conditions one is not allowed to. Pork under normal circumstances cannot be eaten by a Muslim, but if circumstances are such that without his eating the pork, he can die of hunger, then pork is allowed to him.
Further, it is Islam’s teachings that God wishes to bring into being a just and happy world for us. He is bringing this about through our human struggles.  Moreover, in the Quran, we find the strongest endorsement for the triumph of truth and justice and for the triumph of the oppressed.
What about Islam and modernity? Is modernity consistent with Islam? We shall take the questions of secularism, democracy, human rights and nationalism. Islam should and must take a critical attitude towards all legacies, ancient, medieval and modern, including its own. This is because the true Islamic worldview is scientific, critical, life-affirming, death-defying and optimistic. In the first place, Islam considers the world as a unified whole. The two departments of life (the secular and religious, the worldy and other-worldy) are interconnected. One cannot be totally divorced from the other. Other-worldy simply means a higher rung in the ladder of life.
Therefore, one cannot say that Islam rejects secularism. In his famous Medina Charter, Prophet Muhammad stipulated autonomy to the various religious communities on matters of their rituals and worship.  This autonomy is indeed derived from a teaching of the Quran. Of course, Islam does not condone a secularism which means a separation of state policy from morality and ethics. Islam does not envisage a politics and an economics that are not ethical. In fact, it should be well noted that the Medina Charter is the only constitution in the world that forbids injustice.
As to democratic forms of government, the last three centuries have witnessed many forms. Plato in his famous dialogue, The Statesman, has already pointed out the weaknesses of democratic rule. Although modern Muslim countries are still experimenting with Western democracy, Islam stipulates a few principles of good government: governmental power is delegated by God to the society as a trust and responsibility; a participatory form of government whereby the people are involved; that a government should rule justly; that deliberations and discussion should be part of governmental procedures; that certain matters particular to a community should be autonomously administered by that community on behalf of the state. 
Under this head comes the question of human rights and the rights of minorities in Muslim countries. It goes without saying that the above principles govern these questions. We would say that the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights is fully consistent with and endorsed by the teachings of the Quran.
As to nationalism, there seems to be some confusion among Muslims whether they should accept nationalism or not. The Quranic teaching on this is very clear. Let us have a close look at the verse. “O people, we created you from the same male and female, and rendered you distinct peoples and tribes that you may recognize one another. The best among you in the sight of God is the most righteous. God is Omniscient, Cognizant.”  Races, tribes and nations are natural categories and we should recognize them as such, but no nation is superior to another. Each is equal to the other. Thus national chauvinism or superior race status is wrong and to be condemned. The only quality that makes a nation superior to other nations is in its righteous doings. Therefore, the love of one’s country or patriotism is not wrong; in fact, it is good and natural. But the concepts of the “Chosen People”, as claimed by the Jews, the “Master Race”, as claimed by the Nazis, and “Superior Civilization”, as claimed by the West are nothing but racist and to be condemned.
Islam stipulated three relationships to other religions. Firstly, tolerance and peaceful co-existence.  It must be pointed out that this is a very beautiful idea of how different religious communities can live side by side. No religious community should consider itself superior to the other, the truth being left to God to prove.  Secondly, a relationship of dialogues and discussions in order to call one another to goodness and to the truth.  Thirdly and lastly, of course, in the end it is God Who decides which religious community is on the right path. 
It is clear that the goodness of religion, of all religions, have been offset by its or their manipulation by vested interests within and without the religion. But also without the Religion of Truth we are landed on the waste land of amoral and immoral secularism that is the undoing of the modern civilization. It is high time we correct ourselves. It is clear that we have to do this quickly, as great forces of destruction, unleashed into the world within the last three decades, must be resolutely curbed and defeated.
We do not want to conclude this essay without making a special appeal to enlightened Muslim leaders and intelligentsia. You must act quickly and resolutely to bring the Muslim ummah back on the right track. It is your bounden duty to do so. Rise above the petty issues of mazhab and past bitterness. The future, the immediate future, is important. True Islam, the Religion of Truth, can save the world and everything that is good in modern civilization. You owe it to yourselves, to your peoples, to humanity and to God to do this. Not only the enlightened Muslim peoples will support you. The entire enlightened mankind will support you, and we shall win.
Kassim Ahmad is a Malaysian free-lance writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org His website is http://www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com/
 See http://www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com/
 See New Sunday Times, 10 December, 2006 and Mingguan Malaysia, 7 January, 2007.
 See Quran, 65: 11.
 In Christendom, the Crusades (11th - 13th centuries), the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), the Spanish Inquisition ; and Western colonialism and forced conversion; in Islamic history, the breach and formation of the Shi’ah sect after several battles in the early years after Prophet Muhammad’s death, including the massacre of al-Husayn and his 200 supporters at Karbala, Iraq in 680 and in modern times, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88)
 See Kassim Ahmad, “The Meaningfulness of Life”, http://www.stormloader.com/qsmjam/
 Through Man’s knowledge of natural laws, he has been able to harness natural forces to serve his purposes. This abililty of Man is alluded to in the Quran by God’s elevation of him to the status of vicegerency (Quran, 2: 30-34) and by God’s affirmation of his ability to bend natural and social forces to his purposes. (Quran, 31: 20)
 We can argue reasonably and logically against polytheism, pointing to the perfect harmony of the Universe as proving the existence of a single Creator. Many and therefore competing creators would result in chaos and destruction.
 For the Muslims, we have the myths of the doctrines of Prophet Muhammad’s superiority to other prophets of God, Muhammad’s infallibility and Muhammad’s power of intercession on Judgement Day. For the Jews, the myth of the “Chosen People”, and for the Christians, the myths of the Trinity, the Sonship of Christ, the risen Christ and Christ’s Second Coming.
 This congruence is implied in this Quranic verse: “No one can believe except with God’s leave, and He bars those who refuse to reason.” (10: 100)
 “He it is Who has sent His messenger with the guidance and the Religion of Truth that He may make it prevail over all religions, though the polytheists are averse.” (Quran, 9: 33)
 See Quran, 110: 2. The Arabic phrase is din’ul-Lah = God’s religion. Note that in both phrases, the name “Islam” is not used. The divine promise of the triumph of the Religion of Truth or the Religion of God (note not Islam) was given five times (9:33, 48:28, 61:9 & 110:2).
 Quran, 3: 19.
 Quran, 3: 18 and also 37: 35 & 47: 19 where this simple confession of faith is strictly enunciated.
 See Quran, 2: 62.
 “Say, ‘O mankind, I am God’s messenger to all of you.’ ” (Quran, 7: 158)
 “Then We revealed to you this scripture truthfully, conforming all previous scriptures and superceding them.” (Quran, 5: 48)
 We thus set up against every prophet enemies from among the guilty. Your Lord suffices as a guide and master.” (Quran, 25: 31)
 “Christian theology, however, was shaped principally by the work of St. Paul. Jesus presented a spiritual message; Paul added to that the worship of Christ.” Michael H. Hart, The 100 – A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, Golden Books Centre, Kuala Lumpur, 1989; p.47.
 It is to be noted that the advent of Prophet Muhammad was foretold both in the Old and the New Testaments. This is what Jesus said: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but you cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of the truth is come, he will guide you into all truth; for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak; and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me.” John, 16: 12-14.
 This does not mean it was predetermined. Had post-Muhammad Muslims kept vigilant guard against deviations, they would have avoided the deviations that occurred. God gave them ample warnings in the Quran, but those warnings passed them by.
 The confusion is caused by the extra-Quranic teachings that have crept into Islam 300 years after the Prophet’s death through the so-called Prophetic traditions as well as through the teachings of the so-called great ulama whom the Muslims have idolized. The disaster is of course the downfall of the Muslims.
 “Surely, We have revealed the Reminder, and surely We are its Guardian.” (Quran, 15: 9) “This is an honourable Quran. In a protected book. None can grasp it except the sincere. A revelation from the Lord of the universe ” The manner in which the Quran is protected has been explained in detail by Dr. Rashad Khalifa in his book, The Computer Speaks: God’s Message to the World, Renaissance Productions International, Tuscon, 1981. See also his English translation of the Quran, The Final Testament, Authorised English Version with Arabic Text, Revised Edition II, Universal Unity, U.S.A., 2000.
 “Abraham was indeed an exemplary vanguard in his submission to God, a monotheist who never worshiped idols.” (Quran, 16: 120)
 “Then We inspired you (Muhammad) to follow the religion of Abraham, the monotheist; he never was an idol worshiper.” (Quran, 16: 123)
 In both the Old and the New Testaments, the monotheistic teaching of belief in One God is more than clear (see Deutronomy, 6: 4-5; Mark, 12: 29-30), proving that the polytheistic elements are extraneous.
 “Their affairs are decided through consultation among themselves.” (Quran,42: 38)
 In religious terminology, Paradise. Men must struggle to achieve this Paradise. “God has bought from the believers their lives and their money in exchange for Paradise. Thus they fight in the cause of God, willing to kill and get killed. Such is His truthful pledge in the Torah, the Gospel and the Quran – and who fulfils his pledge better than God? You shall rejoice in making such an exchange. This is the greatest triumph.” (Quran, 9: 111)
 “O you who believe, when you are told: ‘Mobilize in the cause of God,’ why do you become heavily attached to the ground? Have you chosen this worldly life in place of the Hereafter? The materials of this world compared to the Hereafter are nil.” (Quran, 9: 38)
 “That is because Allah, He is the Truth, and He gives life to the dead and He is possessor of power over all things.” (Quran, 22: 6)
 See Quran, 21: 16-18 and 17: 81.
 That was when I wrote Hadis – Satu Penilaian Semula.
 Later this Addendum was expanded into a chapter and included in my Hadis – Jawapan Kepada Pengkritik, Media Indah, Kuala Lumpur, 1992. Unfortunately, I have not seen any review of this book, particularly any comment on my attempt at a scientific methodology of tafsir.
 “O people, observe your Lord, the One Who created you from one being, and created from it its mate, then spread from the two many men and women.” (Quran, 4: 1) What is stated here that mankind is created from one being is a profound truth. It also means that men and women are equal. The historical differences are due to historical circumstances which are temporary. Regarding division of proper, please see verse 7 of Surah 4 which does not state the share, meaning that it is open to decision by state authorities.
 See Kassim Ahmad, Kontroversi Hukum Hudud, Forum Iqra’ Bhd., Pulau Pinang, 2002.
 Even these verses give a way out for lighter punishments, incuding pardon. See Quran, 5: 38-39 (for punishment against thieves) and 24: 2-5 (for punishment against adultery). Why these have been ignored by our anciet scholars is truly a wonder!
 “There is no compulsion in religion: the right way in now distinct from the wrong ay. Anyone who denounces the devil and believes in God has grasped the strongest bond; one that never breaks.” (Quran, 2: 256) It should be noted that this very important verse on men’s freedom to believe comes immediately after the Throne Verse which majestically proclaims God’s immense and awesome power over His creation, indicating to us the extreme importance of this God-given freedom.
 See Quran, 2: 173.
 The concept of Man’s vicegerency (Quran, 2: 30-34) alludes to this role. Verse 111 of Surah 9 places the struggle to build a just and happy world on the shoulders of believers.
 See Quran, 17: 81 dan 28: 4-6.
 See the writer’s article: “A Short Note on the Medina Charter”, http://www.stormloader.com/qsmjam
 See Quran, 22: 67.
 These principles of government have been cited and referred to in several places in this essay.
 49: 13.
 “To you is your religion, and to me is my religion. (Quran, 109: 6)
 It must be conceded that Muslims in Malaysia, for the last 20 years or more since their religious re-awakening , have not lived up to this excellent precept of peaceful co-existence. The Muslims themselves may have complaints against their co-religionists. That is why this writer thinks that an Inter-Religious Council, where every religious group is represented should be set up to have regular dialogues and discussions whereby communal inter-religious problems can be civilly discussed and resolved.
 See Quran, 16: 125.
 See Quran, 3: 61-64.