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Saving ‘Private’ Islam – OpEd


I am beginning to believe that the private and personal aspect of belief is more important to be nurtured than to be engaged in the act of making religion public and having an agenda for promoting it, leading to the ugly word called ‘proselytising’.

Religious wars are fought not only out of the need for more land, wealth, and control over human and material resources but also the belief that one’s religion need to be ‘spread’ and an ‘empire of faith’ created. This is the main feature of history of social evolution: conquest in the name of this or that god.

How do we bring back the idea that we have probably made a wrong historical turn and that religion need to again be kept private and faith need to be nurtured only on the inside and not to be made public as a process of expanding institutions. In the case of Islam for example, how do we save it from further damage from all these sectoral violent conflicts and keep it private, as in the idea of separation of religion and the state.

Saving ‘private’ Islam comes to my mind.

Here are my random thoughts. It is about making Islam private again and having the believers think about the most fundamental and foundational inner thought that will guide action: Tawhid or the Quantum Physics idea of Singularity
One of the realities about Islam as it is represented today is that very few understand its meaning in a contemporary social context, let alone be able to apply it to the world that is organic, emotionally unstable, and constantly evolving as patterned by organised chaos and complexity.

What is missing in the discourse of contemporary Islam is the idea of the fluidity of One-ness and the bounded-ness of Multiplicity as twin paradoxes of what philosophy in this age of cybernetics, terrorism, and ‘neo-frankensteinism’ means.

In other words, what Muslims of today need is not about debate, dialogue, and discourse in ‘what is the correct ideology that constitutes Islam’, but a radical rephrasing of the question itself: what is this notion of peace within the self, as it interacts with the outer boundaries of the self and how must the “self” behave in a world of complexity of beings without losing the fundamental believe in the holistic and philosophic-ness of the self itself.

This is the notion of ‘tawhid’ in traditional Islamic discourse Islamic scholars of today need to explore.

What Muslims need to develop is a version of reconstructed ‘Tawhidism’; one that is not about the Islamic concept of it, with the cultural baggage of Arabism; rather, it is about the interplay between Singularity and Multiplicity we frame using some version of Complexity Theory.

Scholars need to look at the Islamic notion of the ‘knowledge of the One-ness of god’, from the philological and philosophical perspective and see how this idea can move nations, especially as we see the relevance to the Muslims in Malaysia.

‘An interesting case study’

Malaysia is an interesting case study because of its interesting evolution not only as a plural society but also one impacted by contemporary advances in globalised technologies and ideologies.
In the Malaysian scenario, a ‘version’ of Islam began being imposed upon the rakyat (people) since the 1980s during a first phase of ‘Islamisation’.

The reign of Mahathir Mohamad brought mega-changes such as the imposition of Malaysia Incorporated, the Privatisation Policy, and The Look East policy.

It also brought the push to ‘Islamise society’, through the work of Mahathir’s deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.

Educational, cultural, and governmental institutions were made to be more ‘Islamic’, and the nation was hegemonised by this idea of moral and intellectual leadership.

As this idea evolved and permeated through the system, this ‘Islamic version of Malaysia’s developmentalist paradigm’ became one that couldn’t be questioned as to its singularity, where any person even hinting of deviating from the official view would face authoritarian consequences through the ‘Sharia police’.

There is a transculturalist and revisionist perspective on the Islamic scriptures. Scholars have begun to acknowledge the fact that the Islamic text or the Quran is ‘cultural-bound’ and speaks of the time and place unique to the people of the Middle East. The stories in the Quran are essentially about prophets and messengers of the land of Arabia.

There is then the problem of universalising the experience of reading the text without ‘transferring the culture embedded in the language itself’. This has led to immense disagreement and conflict in how to approach the text of the Muslims without a culture subjecting itself to the process or even the onslaught of Arabisation.

In addition, centuries old Islam-predated cultural ideas such as animism in parts of South-East Asia included have been planted their roost in the psyche of the peoples, giving the unique identity such as those manifested in the idea of Javanese syncretism.

Especially in South-East Asia, Hindu-Buddhist philosophy was already in vogue in the early kingdoms such as those in Srivijaya, Mataram, Singhasari, Majapahit in Java and in the kingdoms in Champa and Siam. Islam came at a later stage through the work of Arab traders and also those deliberately trying to spread this new religion from Arabia.

The triumph of Islam is clear today: the Muslim man is becoming the Arabian man. How is this possible in relation to the idea of Islam as a private affair for the soul of the believer?

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Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman is an academician, educator, international columnist, and author of nine books He holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in international education development and Master's degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies, communication, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Columbia University chapter of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here. His latest book, a memoir, is published by Penguin Books is available here.

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