Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Returning to the true Islam

Dr Mahathir Mohamad

Text of speech by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, yesterday. I HAVE chosen to speak on a very sensitive and controversial subject, "Islam and the Ummah: Re-examining and Reinventing Ourselves in the Face of New Challenges". I hope I don't touch any raw nerve by doing so.

First, does Islam need to be re-examined? To determine whether it should or should not, we have to understand the fundamentals of Islam, the original Islam as brought and preached by the Prophet, and see whether there is any difference between this Islam and the Islam that we believe in and practise today.

We cannot change the fundamentals of Islam or we will be changing the message and the teachings of Islam as brought by the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad. We will, in fact, be changing the religion of Islam. And it cannot then be Islam any more. All we can do is to determine whether the Islam of today has deviated due to the inter-pretations of the fundamentals in order to suit changing circumstances. We cannot and must not accept a "New Testament" for Islam.

Islam changed the feuding Arab tribes into a united, highly organised and sophisticated people who built a great civilisation which lasted 1,300 years. But today, the followers of Islam, the Muslims, are no longer the great people they were in the early years of Islam.

The great Muslim civilisation has almost disappeared and the Muslims today are looked down upon, oppressed and humi-liated, their religion said to be a terrorist creed, propagated by a terrorist prophet. Yet we know from the Quran that the Prophet brought glad tidings to the human commu-nity and promised good to those who accepted Islam.

And we always pray to Allah for good (hassanah) in this world, and good (hassanah) in the akhirat.

The prayers by Nabi Adam Alaihissalam on his arrival on earth in Surah AlBaqarah, verse 201 clearly stated that he asked "Our Lord, give us good in this world and good in the hereafter".

Can we honestly say that the situation of the Muslim in this world today is good? It certainly is not. And if it is not, is it because of Islam, because of its teachings? Or is it because changes have been made to Islam so that it is no longer in accordance with the original teachings of Islam.

Changes occur to everything over time. All religions change over time. All ideas and values change over time.

The Christian religion, for example, has changed and changed again until the early Christians must find it impossible to reconcile their Christianity with that practised today. The sins of yesteryear are now no longer sins, so much so that even the priests can indulge in them openly.

The same things happen to the ideals of egalitarian ideologies. The French Revo-lution was supposed to be about liberty, equality and fraternity, but no equality was accorded to the aristocrats. Over time, the ideals of the Revolution evolved into socia-lism, communism; and then to the Dicta-torship of the Proletariat, the dictatorship of a few in the communist regimes.

Millions were killed during the evolution of the egalitarian ideas of socialism and communism. Eventually, the ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood were made convenient excuses for denying them to those opposed to the communist elites.

Today, we are seeing the same thing happening to democracy. It has become an excuse for applying sanctions, denying food and medicine, and finally to war against innocent people, killing and maiming them, invading and occupying their countries.

The wishes of the majority are negated by the veto of one, even as it talks about pro-moting democratic processes. And we can expect more changes to the application of democracy until a dictatorship of demo-cracy eventually destroys the great ideals. As with the communists, the wheel would turn full cycle.

Clearly, it is not just Islam which needs to be re-examined. All the religions, the ideo-logies and the value systems of the world's human community need to be re-examined. But we are, of course, concerned today with the religion of Islam.

Is it the religion that the Prophet preached or is it different? If it is, then is it responsible for the sad state of the Muslims today? Or is it because the religion has been changed that it cannot deliver the good that was promised? Is it true as some would have us believe that what the Muslims suffer today have been pre-ordained by Allah and Muslims will just have to endure it? Is it true that they will enjoy heaven in the next world because of their sufferings on this earth? The Quran says that all that is bad is from us and all that is good is from Allah. So we must conclude that the present miserable fate which we suffer, our oppression by others and the denigration of our religion is due to us, not pre-ordained by Allah.

If that is so, then we must find out what we have done which is wrong, which is not in accordance with the teachings of Islam, and has brought misfortune upon us. We have to know this and in knowing we have to correct ourselves and return to the true Islam so we may once again be blessed by Allah.

Islam as all Muslims know is not just a religion, a belief in the one God, Allah, in His Prophet. It is not just about the performance of certain rituals, the avoidance of sins. Islam is a way of Life — Addin. Islam governs every aspect of the life of the Muslims. It guides their behaviour and everything that they do, as individuals, as a community.

But is our way of life today Islamic? Many of us believe that by the Islamic way of life we must wear certain dresses, keep a beard and cover our body or aurat. But this is not everything as a way of life. Some Muslim reformers then began to question the orthodox views of the Muslim scholars. They wanted to "modernise", to emulate the Europeans. Some went so far as to believe that only by discarding Islam and becoming secular could Muslims regain their pre-eminence. They achieved very little success in the face of strong opposition by the influential orthodox scholars.

The problem was that some of the reformers were too much influenced by the European concept of the separation of state from the church. It may be possible in the Christian context. It is not possible in the Muslim world.

Islam is a way of life and a way of life cannot be compartmentalised into spiritual and material. Everything that a person does is part of a way of life. Certainly, the system of government of a country and its development is a part of the way of life.

It is entirely possible to be Islamic even if a modern administration or system, including democracy, is adopted. It is possible if we go back to the fundamentals of Islam. The problem is that Muslims tend to emphasise and venerate the form rather than the substance in the practice of everything. Even in mo-dernisation they look for the form.

Thus, clothing to cover the body is translated as the wearing of the Arab dress. That the other forms of dress, including the now universal coat and trousers can also cover the body is regarded as being of no merit, unIslamic. Reading to acquire knowledge is interpreted as reading to acquire Islamic religious knowledge only. Defence of the ummah is interpreted as veneration of the ancient weapons of war.

Perhaps this sounds too simplistic. But what is one to make of the neglect of learning and defence in the Muslim world? Must Muslims forever buy their weapons from others, some of whom may be their enemies? Surely, they must have indigenous capacities to invent and produce their defence needs themselves.

To do this, they must learn science, mathematics, technology and the rest. Far from regarding the pursuit of these subjects as not as good as the study of Islamic theology, it should be regarded as an ibadah, which should gain merit for the individual and merit for the community.

But to focus on the defence of the ummah will need political stability and economic wealth. And so Muslims must learn to restrain themselves and to make what ever system of government they adopt, work.

Democracy is compatible with Is-lam. The Prophet did not create a dynasty. He left it to his followers to choose from among themselves a leader, a Khalifah. It was only later that the Muslim dynasties were set up.

One can say that a system where the leader is chosen by an electorate, regardless of his antecedents, is much more Islamic than otherwise. Having been elected, a leader must care for his people, for the ummah. And caring means ensuring his people will have food, clothing and shelter and be secu-red from domestic or foreign ag-gression.

If the fundamentals of Islam are adhered to, there should not be conflicts and wars between Muslims. The fundamentals cannot differ. Muslims are brothers. This is fundamental to Islam. But we are hardly brothers to each other. We are ready to accuse each other of being apostates and we are ready to kill each other.

Islam means peace. We wish peace upon each other. This is also fundamental to Islam. We only fight against those who attack us, be they Muslims or non-Muslims. When the enemy sues for peace Muslims must respond positively. But we are doing none of these fundamental things.

Today, Muslims are labelled as terrorists. We don't think that it is justified. We may be right. But the fact is that we are killing people because of our anger regardless of who we kill, regardless of the consequences.

Admittedly, we are desperate and outgunned and there is very little else we can do to defend ourselves against the injustice perpetrated against us. But should we just lash out indiscriminately, killing innocent people, including those who sympathise with us? Shouldn't we stop to think, to plan and to strategise with ultimate victory as our goal? Is it impossible to do this? If we think rationally, we must admit that it is possible. What have we got after almost 100 years of fighting? Nothing. Even our anger is not assuaged. We are, in fact, getting more angry.

If we think, then we must realise that our present predicament is not pre-ordained by Allah. It is entirely due to our own doing. We have neglected and misinterpreted the teachings of Islam.

When we should be acquiring knowledge which can help us ward off the attacks against us, we reject such knowledge. We rely merely on praying to Allah for help when Allah has said in the Quran that we have to help ourselves first before He will help us. We have not helped ourselves, not in the right way as prescribed by our religion.

We do not have a need to reinvent Islam. Islam is perfect and is for all times. The present age does not make Islam irrelevant. It is relevant if we stick to the fundamentals, if we interpret them correctly. The problem is with the interpretation of Islam.

It has not only divided the ummah but it has made the ummah practically illiterate, incapable of dealing with even the simple problems of governing ourselves.

The fundamentals of Islam are still relevant. We must go back to the funda-mentals, to reading in order to acquire knowledge, to the brotherhood of the Muslims, to the way of life as pres-cribed by Islam, to the substance of the teachings of Islam in the Quran and the verified hadith and not to the forms of Islam or the weak unverified hadith.

Islam is still the perfect religion. It is the Muslims who are not perfect, who have allowed themselves to misinter-pret Islam, to deviate from the teac-hings of Islam. Muslims must correct themselves and it is they who must change, not through discarding Islam but through going back to the true, the funda-mental Islam.

The fundamentals of Islam are good. The early Muslims who succeeded in building the great Islamic civilisation must be fundamentalists, for the numerous and contradictory interpre-tations of Islam had not yet emerged to confuse and confound.

The Prophet brought to us only one religion of Islam. Today, there are hundreds of Islams. We have to go back to the one Islam brought by the Prophet. We must do so as thinking Man, not as emotional Man.

We can face the challenges of our times not by giving vent to our anger, our frustrations and our bitterness. We must instead use the brain, that thinking capacity that Allah has en-dowed us with. We take stock of our assets, we plan and we strategise. And Allah has endowed us with riches beyond imagination.

We have certain strengths, which we must identify and apply with wisdom.

Above all, we must reduce the en-mity between us, if not completely, at least selectively to face the threat against us.

There is no magic in the successes of our detractors. We can do what they can do. But we have to rid ourselves of the baggage of history and focus comp-letely on the problems we face today. And, Insya Allah, we will overcome the challenges without losing our faith or deviating from the fundamental teachings of Islam.

We must certainly re-examine the Islam that we practise. We have no need to reinvent it when facing the new challenges of today. But we must certainly correct the wrong interpretations of Islam if we are to overcome the threats and humiliation that we face.

New Straits Times, Tuesday 23/9/03

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