[Nasional-e] [Nasional] Ulil's Controversial Article in English
Wed Dec 18 03:01:53 2002
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>FRESHENING UP OUR UNDERSTANDING OF ISLAM
> In my view Islam is first and foremost a living "organism", a
>religion that evolves in accordance with the pulse of humankind's
>development. Islam is not a static monument that was carved in the
>7th century CE and thereafter regarded as a beautiful "statue" that
>may not be touched by the hand of history.
> As I see it, the tendency to make an unchanging monument of
>Islam is very prominent at present and the time has come for clear
>voice to combat this tendency.
> Below I will put forward a number of basic thoughts as a
>simple effort to "freshen" the Islamic thought that in my view has
>gone stale – it is treated as a "package" that can hardly be queried
>or discussed, a divine set of doctrines that is placed before us with
>the curt message: take it or leave it! This way of presenting Islam
>is extremely hazardous for the progress of Islam itself.
> The sole route which can lead to the progress of Islam is to
>raise the question of how we interpret this religion. To move in this
>direction, several things are needed.
> First, an interpretation of Islam that is not literalistic,
>that is substantial, that is contextual and that is in step with the
>ever-changing civilization of humanity.
> Second, an interpretation of Islam that can separate out
>whatever is the product of the local culture from the values which
>are basic. We have to be able to distinguish those teachings which
>reflect Arabian cultural influence from those which don't. Islam is
>contextual, in the sense that its universal values have to be
>translated into particular contexts – Arabian, Malay, Central Asian
>and so on. But the differing contextual forms are merely cultural and
>we are not obliged always to conform to them. Any aspects of Islam
>which are reflections of Arab culture, for instance, are not binding
>on us. Examples of what we do not have to take over, because they
>are merely expressions of a particular local Islam in Arabia, are the
>jilbab (female head covering), the amputation of hands (for theft),
>retaliation (for death or injury), stoning (for adultery) and
>obligatory beards and gowns of particular styles. What have to be
>followed are the universal values which underlie these practices. The
>essence of wearing the jilbab is to conform to a standard of public
>decency. What is generally regarded as decent is obviously flexible
>and may change in accordance with the development of culture. So it
>is with the other practices mentioned.
> Third, the Muslim people should not regard themselves as a
>community or "nation" (ummat) which is cut off from other groups. The
>ummat of humankind are a universal family who are united by their
>very humanity. Humanism is a value in line with, and not in
>opposition to, Islam. The ban on inter-religious marriage, in casu
>between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, is no longer relevant.
>The Quran itself never explicitly forbids it, because the Quran
>espouses a universalist view that people are on the same level,
>irrespective of differences of religion. All those legal products of
>classical Islam which discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims
>should be amended on the basis of the universal principle of human
> Fourth, we need a social structure that clearly distinguishes
>between political power and religious power. Religion is a private
>matter, while the ordering of public life is entirely the product of
>the community reaching agreement through democratic deliberation.
>Certainly it is to be hoped that the universal values of religion
>will contribute to the formation of public values, but the particular
>doctrines and worship practices of each religion are an internal
>matter for that religion.
>In my opinion, "the law of God", as most Muslims understand that
>concept, does not exist. For instance the law of God concerning
>theft, buying and selling, marriage, government and so on. What do
>exist are general principles, which in the classical Islamic
>tradition of legal study are called maqasid al-shari'ah, i.e. the
>general goals of Islamic law. These values are the protection of
>religious freedom, reason, property, the family and honor. How these
>values are translated into any given historical and social context is
>something the Muslims must work out for themselves through "ijtihad"
> How do we locate the position of the Prophet Muhammed, peace
>be upon him, in the context of this kind of thinking? I view him as
>a historical figure who should be the object of critical study (and
>so not become just an always admired mythical figure by ignoring his
>human aspects and possibly weaknesses), yet he must be a model to be
>followed (qudwah al-hasanah).
> How should we follow the Prophet? Here, I disagree with the
>dominant view. In his endeavors to translate Islam into the social-
>political context of Medina, he certainly had to encounter many
>constraints. Indeed, he succeeded in Medina in making a translation
>of the social and spiritual aspirations of Islam, but the Islam
>thereby realized was a historical, particular and contextual Islam.
> We are not obliged to imitate the Prophet literally, because
>what he did at Medina was to "negotiate" between the universal values
>of Islam and the concrete social situation at Medina with all its
>constraints; the result was a "trade-off" between the universal and
> The Islamic ummat must strive-in-interpretation (ijtihad) to
>seek a new formula to translate those values in the context of its
>own life situation. The Prophet's
>"Islam" at Medina was one possible translation of the universal Islam
>onto the earth's face. But there are possibilities of translating
>Islam in other ways, in different contexts. Islam at Medina was one
>among others, one of the forms of Islam that have existed on earth.
> Consequently the Muslims should not come to a halt looking to
>the Medina model only, because life goes on, in the direction of
>betterment and improvement. For me, revelation did not cease with the
>age of the Prophet; it still works and descends to mankind. True,
>verbal revelation ceased with the Quran, but non-verbal revelation
>continues in the form of ijtihad by human reasoning.
> The great discoveries of human history as part of the
>endeavor to improve the quality of life are divine revelations too,
>because they were the fruits of human reason, which is a gift of God.
>This is why all the works of human creativity, from whatever
>religious group, are the possession of the Muslims. There is no point
>in Muslims erecting a great wall between Islamic culture and Western
>culture, pronouncing the one superior and the other low, because all
>cultures are the products of human endeavor and consequently belong
>to all nations, and thus to Muslims too.
> The Muslims have to understand that Islam as interpreted by a
>certain group is not absolutely true, so there must be a readiness to
>accept truth from all sources, including those outside Islam. Let
>each group value the right of others to interpret Islam in their own
>way; what has to be combatted is every effort to absolutize a
> I would go further and say that all good and positive values,
>wherever they are, are in their true nature Islamic values. Islam --
>as Cak Nur and a number of others have pointed out-- are "generic
>values" which can be found in Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism,
>Judaism, Taoism, in local religions and beliefs, and elsewhere. It
>may be that there is "Islamic" truth in the philosophy of Marxism.
> I am no longer looking at the form but at the substance.
>Islamic convictions and practices embraced by people who call
>themselves Muslims may be only a "garment" and a form; this is not
>what is important. The essential thing is the value that is concealed
>behind the form.
> How foolish it is when people bicker over the different
>garments they wear, while forgetting that the heart of the matter is
>to guard the dignity of men and women as civilized creatures. All
>religions are garments, means (wasilah), tools directed towards a
>fundamental end: the surrender of the self to the All-True. There
>have been periods when religious people thought that the "garment"
>was absolute and all-in-all, so that they squabbled over those
>differences in outward form. But the time for such squabbling is
> The enemy of all religions is injustice. The value that Islam
>stresses is justice.
> The mission of Islam that I regard as most important now is
>how to erect justice on the face of the earth, especially in the
>political and economic fields (also, of course, the cultural). I
>don't want to erect the jilbab, restore the segregation of women,
>conserve the proper conformation of the beard, regulate the shape of
>the trousers and other fine distinctions that I regard as quite
>secondary (furu'iyyah). Justice cannot be only sermonized about, but
>must be realized in the structure of the system and in the rules of
>the game, the laws and so on and it must be realized in deeds.
> The present efforts to implement Islamic (shari'ah) law are
>for me a demonstration of the incapacity of the Muslim ummat to face
>up to the problems that are pressing on them and deal with them in a
>rational manner. The ummat take the view that all problems will
>automatically be solved as soon as the shari'ah, in its most
>traditional and dogmatic form, is applied on the earth.
> Human problems cannot be solved by simply referring to
>the "law of God" (to repeat, I do not believe in any "law of God", I
>only believe in divine values which are universal), but must be dealt
>with by resorting by the laws or regularities (sunnah) which Allah
>himself has implanted in each field of endeavor. The field of
>politics knows its own intrinsic laws, so does the field of
>economics, so does the field of society and so on.
> The Prophet is supposed to have said: man aradad dunya
>fa'alaihi bil `ilmi, wa man aradal akhirata fa'alaihi bil `ilmi;
>whoever wants to overcome the problems of world, let him do it by
>science, and whoever wants to attain happiness in the next world, let
>him do that by science too. Each field has its own rules and
>principles, and cannot arbitrarily refer to the law of God without
>first doing the appropriate research. Each science, in its own field,
>continuously develops, in accordance with mankind's evolution. In
>that sense the divine sunnah also changes
> It goes without saying that laws which regulate each field of
>life must be subordinated to the primary value, namely justice.
>Therefore the Islamic shari'ah is only a collection of basic values
>which are abstract and universal. How these values are realized and
>can fulfill the need to deal with a particular matter in a particular
>period is left entirely to humankind's own ijtihad
> The view that the shari'ah is a "complete package" fully made
>up, a prescription from God that settles every problem in every age,
>is a manifestation of ignorance and incapacity to understand the
>sunnah of God itself. To put forward the shari'ah as a solution to
>all problems is a form of mental laziness, or even further a way of
>fleeing from problems, a form of escapism using the law of God as an
> It is this escapism which is the source of the decline of
>Islam in the world. I cannot accept this kind of laziness, especially
>when it is clothed in the excuse that all this is for the sake of
>implementing the divine law. Do not forget: there is no law of
>God. What exists is the divine sunnah and the universal values which
>all human beings possess.
> The most dangerous enemy of Islam at the present time is
>dogmatism, a kind of closed conviction that a particular doctrine is
>an infallible medicine for all problems and ignores the fact that
>human life is continually evolving, and that the development of
>civilization from the past to the present is the result of common
>endeavors, an accumulation of achievements supported by all nations.
> Every doctrine which wants to build a wall between "us"
>and "them", between the hizbul Lah (party of Allah) and the hizbush
>shaithan (party of satan), with a narrow interpretation of these two
>terms, between "the West" and "Islam"; such a doctrine is a social
>disease which will destroy basic values of Islam itself, the value of
>the equal dignity of the human race and the value that we are all
>members of one world.
> The separation between "us" and "them" as the basic root of
>dogmatism denies the fact that truth can be studied anywhere, in the
>environment that is called "ours", but also in "their" environment.
>In my view, the knowledge of God is greater and broader than just
>what is found in the pages of the Quran. The science of God is the
>totality of all the truths inscribed on all the pages of the Holy
>Books as well as the non-Holy ones, plus the pages of knowledge
>produced by human reason, as well as the truths not yet spoken, and
>so not printed in any book. Thus the truth of God is greater than
>Islam itself, considered as a religion that is embraced by a social
>entity called the Islamic ummat. The truth of God is greater than the
>Quran, the Hadith (prophetic traditions) and the entire corpus of
>exegetic books produced throughout the history of Islam.
> Because of this, Islam is actually better regarded as
>a "process" which never ceases than as a "religious institution" that
>is dead, completed, stiff, archaic and a restraint on freedom. The
>verse Innaddina `indal Lahi Islam (Q 3:19) is more appropriately
>translated "Verily the path of true religiousness is the relentless
>process that ends in submission (to the All-True)."
> Without any feeling of shyness or awkwardness, I say that all
>religions are on a road like that, a long road towards the All-
>Truthful. So all religions are true, but with variations in the
>level and depth to which they "live" that religious road. All
>religions belong to the same extended family: the family of the
>lovers of the way to the truth which will never end. So, fastabiqu
>al-khayrat, says the Quran (2:148): "compete in
>experiencing the road of religiousness".
> The fundamental requirement to understand Islam aright is
>always to remember, however we interpret the religion, that the prime
>criterion is benefit (maslahat) for humankind. Religion is a
>blessing on the human race, and as humans are an organism that always
>develops, quantitatively and qualitatively, religion must also be
>able to develop itself in accordance with the needs of humanity. What
>exists is the laws of humanity, not the law of God, because it is
>people who are the stake holders who have a vital interest in all
>discussions of religious matters.
> If Islam is to be dragged into an interpretation which is
>precisely in conflict with the welfare of mankind or even oppresses
>the human race, then that kind of Islam will have become a fossil
>religion that is no long useful to humanity.
> Let us all seek an Islam that is fresher, more enlightened,
>more able to be of benefit to mankind. Let us abandon the rigid,
>inflexible Islam that has become a nest of dogmatism which oppresses
>Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, Co-ordinator of the Liberal Islam Network (JIL),
>Jakarta. This is a translation of Ulil's article published in Kompas.
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