Change, we must

We must not only read the letter of the law but also look at what was behind the spirit of the law. And the spirit of the law would have to be considered against the backdrop of the prevailing conditions at that time, say 1,200 years ago.


Raja Petra Kamarudin

(Bernama) — The Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim), in collaboration with the Islamic Science University of Malaysia (Usim), will introduce the “Permata Ilmu” programme for Muslim students from next year.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Jamil Khir Baharom said the programme would be offered to smart students aged between eight and 18 years.

The programme is modelled after the “Permata Negara” programme mooted by the prime minister’s wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor.

“These smart students will be identified by the school or parents and they will be required to sit for tests which cover religious knowledge as well as science and technology,” he told reporters after attending a convocation of Kemas kindergartens in Guar Chempedak division, here today.

For a start, the Permata Ilmu programme would be offered to 100 students, he said.

“Through this programme the government hopes to create a pool of future leaders who are well-versed in religious matters as well as in science and technology,” he said.


Knowledge (ilmu), as we were taught in school in the 1960s, is not about what you know, but about your ability of being able to find information when you need to know. 20 years on and Malaysia’s education system changed. From objective it became subjective. No longer were students taught how to think. They were taught how to memorise. Memorising does not require thinking. You can even memorise Greek and Latin, even if that is not your mother tongue, although that does not mean you know what you are memorising.

And that is how religious education is being perpetuated. Muslims are made to memorise verses of the Quran, sometimes the entire Quran. But that does not mean they understand what these verses mean.

The Qadi or court officials between the mid-600s to the mid-900s took pains to research and interpret the law as laid down by the Quran. By the year 1000, though, they were no longer allowed to use discretion, as in the 300 years before that. Their job was merely to rule based on earlier research and interpretation, although some of those rulings may no longer be applicable to the current situation of that time.

Okay, let us move away from Islamic laws for the meantime and instead look at Malaysia’s secular laws. We have a law called the Internal Security Act. This law was passed by parliament in 1960.

When they tabled this law in parliament it was hotly debated. The opposition leader in parliament then, Darma Raja Seenivasagam, who was also the leader of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, Tun Abdul Razak, why the need for such a draconian law that allows for detention without trial — which is a violation of the Federal Constitution of Malaya?

Tun Razak explained that they need this law to combat the communist insurgency. There are about 800 or so communist terrorists operating in the Pahang jungles and along the Malaysian-Thai border and the ISA, if approved by parliament, will be specifically used to combat this problem. Tun Razak assured parliament that the ISA will be used for no other purpose other than to combat the communist insurgency in Malaya.

And with that assurance the ISA was passed into law with the support of the opposition as well.

In 1979, Malaysia signed a peace treaty with the Communist Party of Malaya and, technically, the Emergency was officially declared over. But the ISA was never abrogated or rescinded. The law remained and later was used against political dissidents, currency and passport forgerers, and whatnot. This is a violation of the very purpose of the law as approved by parliament and which also goes against what Tun Razak had promised parliament.

If we go by the letter of the law, no harm has been done because the ISA does not specify that ‘this law is only applicable to communist terrorists and to combat the communist insurgency and for no other purposes’. But if we go by the spirit of the law, then the ISA has been wrongly used.

This would therefore raise the issue of legal and moral. While it may be legally right to use the ISA against those who oppose Umno and Barisan Nasional (since the ISA does not say that it CAN’T be used against those who oppose Umno or Barisan Nasional), is it morally right to do so? So, what may be legal may not be moral. And therefore the morality issue also needs to be looked into. And this means just looking at the letter of the law is not enough. We also need to look into the spirit of the law and if it is legal, but at the same time immoral, then the law needs to be abrogated or rescinded.

And to use the argument that some Umno people use, in that the ISA is required to protect Malay interests, is both illegal as well as immoral. How can the ISA be good for the Malays when more than 90% of those detained under the ISA are Malays?

Even if we want to extend the use of the ISA — from combating terrorism or the communist insurgency to anything under the sun that threatens national security — detaining people who question Ketuanan Melayu can never be viewed as threatening national security.

And this brings us back to the laws passed by the Muslim Qadi more than 1,000 years ago. Then, they needed to interpret the law as they saw fit, taking into consideration the social, economic, and security conditions, say, in the year 700. In other words, the Qadi used discretion in applying the laws as the application or punishment for certain crimes was not always specified.

To sum up, the Qadi ruled according to what they thought best at that time but which may no longer apply today.

And this is not only the case for Islamic laws. Even the west had laws that would never be accepted today but which, say in the year 1200, were considered suitable. For example, if you kill a deer, you would be put to death. If you speak against the Monarch, your ears would be cut off. If you refuse to accept that Jesus was the Son of God, you would be burned alive at the stake. If you oppose the state, you would be put to death and your wife and children sold into slavery. And so on and so forth. Those laws were legal then, but, today, such laws would never pass the morality test.

And the same should apply to Islamic laws that may still be considered legal — since they have never been abrogated or rescinded since they were passed — but would never pass the morality test today.

Islam has never outlawed slavery. Technically, I can still buy a slave and no one can stop me from doing so. And if it is a female slave then I am permitted to have sex with her. I will never be subjected to the 100 lashes punishment for adultery.

But will society, today, tolerate me buying slaves from a slave market and using the female slaves for my sexual pleasure? It is legal, so what are the police going to do about it? They can’t do a damn thing.

Take the 80 lashes for drinking that I wrote about earlier. If you really want to punish a Muslim for drinking then it must be 80 lashes and not six lashes and a RM5,000 fine. Either you apply Islamic law or you don’t. You can modify it any way you want.

But the Shariah court in Pahang saw fit to modify the law from 80 lashes to only six lashes and a further fine of RM5,000. Why six lashes and a fine of RM5,000? Why not 80 lashes as what earlier Qadi had ruled?

This is because the punishment for drinking is not mentioned in the Quran. The 80 lashes was what Zayd ruled and which was accepted as valid. And Zayd’s ruling was based on the fact that 80 lashes is also the punishment for false allegation of adultery and he considered drinking the same as the crime for false allegation of adultery. That was Zayd’s take on the matter and that was his ruling, not the Quran’s ruling.

So maybe the Pahang judge thought that six lashes and a fine of RM5,000 is good enough for today’s environment. That is why he reduced it from 80 lashes to six lashes and a fine of RM5,000. And this means laws are not carved in stone. They can be changed, if change is necessary, even Islamic laws.

So, while I welcome the move, as reported by Bernama above, to better educate Muslims, it must be an education system based on research and critical thinking. We must not only read the letter of the law but also look at what was behind the spirit of the law. And the spirit of the law would have to be considered against the backdrop of the prevailing conditions at that time, say 1,200 years ago.

Have these conditions changed? Would, therefore, the spirit also have changed? And in that case, does the letter of the law also need to change?

This is what we must teach the young and impressionable minds so that Islam is made a dynamic religion that does not fear change whenever change is due. And if we stick hard and fast to the rule that only the Prophet’s way is the correct way and that any Muslim who apes the non-Muslims becomes an apostate (as some Muslim scholars are of the view), then we would have to sell our cars and buy horses and camels as the motorcar is a non-Muslim invention and certainly not something that the Prophet ever moved around in.