By whose standards? (UPDATED with Chinese Translation)


Afghanistan, Turkey and Malaysia, all Muslim countries. But they have different rulings on even such a ‘simple’ thing as the tudung. And all three countries have religious scholars who have issued religious decrees. But why is it not consistent? Why the differences?


Raja Petra Kamarudin

Did you watch the debate between Khalid, Yusri and Marina on Al Jazeera (watch the debate here)?

There are many reports and videos on this same matter but today I would like to talk about this one in particular. This is because, first of all, I personally know all three personalities and, secondly, because of what these three personalities represent.

Khalid is a PAS (Islamic Party of Malaysia) Member of Parliament. So he is supposed to represent the extreme, uncompromising, radical, intolerant face of Islam (as what most people view PAS to be). Yusri is ABIM (Islamic Youth Movement), a product of UIA (International Islamic University) as well as MCKK (Malay College Kuala Kangsar; a ‘secular’ school), plus one-time personal assistant to Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (the founder President of PKR; a non-race-based, multi-ethnic liberal party). Marina (the daughter of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) is Sisters-in-Islam (whom many Malays view as ‘deviant’ Muslims).

It is therefore quite a ‘mixed bag’ and represents the two extremes of Malay-Islam with the ‘in between’, if you know what I mean. In other words, the three can be viewed as almost representing the entire cross-section of Malay-Islam. At least that is what the ‘normal’ perception would be.

Surprisingly, Marina did not ‘let loose’ as she is quite capable of doing and what I thought she would do. She actually held back quite a bit and I felt she was happy just allowing Khalid and Yusri to say their piece without ‘adding to the heat’. Khalid took the liberal and more accommodating stand while Yusri spoke as if he and not Khalid was PAS. In other words, Khalid and Yusri ‘switched roles’.

What Yusri said was a repeat of what many others also said since the ‘Allah controversy’ first exploded. He said things like: this is the Islamic tradition, this is what the ulamak (religious scholars) say, this is the fatwah (religious decree), and so on. Now, notice, he did not say: this is my opinion. He said this is the tradition and this is what the experts say.

This strengthens the argument that I have been putting forward in that Muslims do not dare think for themselves or rationalise the issue. They ‘hide’ behind what others say and justify this by saying that the ‘experts’ have made their ruling so let us go with what the experts have ruled.

And this has always been the problem with religion, all religions, for thousands of years. ‘They dare to be different’ is not the catch-phrase of religionists. ‘We follow without question’, is.

Okay, let us go with Yusri’s argument, a man whom I have great respect for and whom I actually quite like (and whom I always enjoy bullying since he is my junior in MCKK and in the MCKK ‘tradition’ the seniors are allowed to bully the juniors and the juniors are supposed to take it without a whimper).

Hmm…there we go…tradition. And since Yusri is a great defender of tradition I am sure he will not oppose this MCKK tradition as well. After all, Megat Najmuddin is also my senior in MCKK and in the MCKK tradition I allow him to whack me without whacking him back. (Remember he asked me to come home and surrender myself and go to jail?)

Anyway, today I want to discuss the Islamic tradition and opinions of ulamak and religious decrees, which Yusri and many others talk about. And my question is: by whose standards are they talking?

Let me give you an example or two of what I mean so that you can understand my question.

At the height of the (second) Wahhabi uprising against the Ottoman Colonialists of the Arabian Peninsula soon after the First World War and just before the Second World War (read the story of Lawrence of Arabia), it was the Islamic ‘tradition’ to put to death all non-Wahhabi Muslims. The joint Wahhab-Saud forces swept across the Arabian Peninsula and while all Jews, Christians and ‘others’ were spared, the Muslims who were not Wahhabis were slaughtered. In fact, the town of Taif was put to the sword and every man, woman and child, including livestock, were massacred. Nothing was spared.

That was the Islamic ‘tradition’ then, 100 years or so ago, at least as far as the Wahhabi Muslims were concerned. So, as I said, according to whose standards are we making our judgment? According to which Islamic ‘tradition’ do we base our decision on? The ulamak had spoken. Religious decrees were issued. So was it right or wrong to massacre all Muslims not of the Wahhabi faith while non-Muslims were spared?

In 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded and Wahhabi Islam became the official religion of the Kingdom, just like Sunni Islam is the official religion of Malaysia. The Federation of Malaya was founded in 1957 followed by Malaysia in 1963. So Saudi Arabia was first. Malaysia came later. But Malaysia did not adopt Wahhabi Islam as the official religion of the country. Why? Why did the Malay religious scholars not follow the religious scholars of Saudi Arabia seeing that the seat of Islam is Mekah and Medina, both in Saudi Arabia?

So you see, there are scholars and there are scholars. And Islam is not just Islam. Islam comes in many ‘forms’, for want of a better word. And it all depends on your belief as to which Islam is the ‘correct’ version of Islam as far as you are concerned.

So, to say that this is what the scholars have decided and that this is the religious decree issued is not the end of the matter. You do not win the debate by arguing that this is what the scholars have decided and this is the religious decree they issued. It depends on when, where, who and why. And it also depends on what you believe in. So how do you regulate belief? It can’t be done as what the Malay-Muslims of Malaysia would like us to believe.

In short, you can’t argue that this has been decided and this is final. It may be as far as you are concerned. But who are you to impose the same on me?

When television was first introduced, the Saudi Scholars refused to allow television to come into the country — just like Rais Yatim says that the Internet is a western invention that will erode our Malaysian culture.

It took many years for the ruling elite to convince the Saudi scholars to allow television to come into the country. Finally they agreed to compromise. But television can only broadcast ‘filtered’ news, religious programmes and Quran recitals (now football as well). But they can’t broadcast movies and entertainment programmes, until today.

This was the opinion of the religious scholars or ulamak. This was their religious decree or fatwah. It is considered ‘politically correct’ for Saudi Arabia, the seat of Islam. So why does Malaysia not also follow the rulings of the Saudi scholars? Are these scholars wrong when they know Islam better than any non-Arabic speaking Malaysian like our Minister of Information?

The Saudi scholars also refused to allow planes to land in Saudi Arabia. People who wanted to perform their pilgrimage to Mekah had to take a ship (kapal haji). It was not until later that the Saudi scholars compromised and allowed an airline company to be formed and for foreign planes to land in Saudi Arabia. But the Saudi airline company may not employ local Saudi women as stewardesses and there must not be any liquor on board the plane — like MAS, the airlines from Malaysia, another country where Islam is the official religion.

I can go on and on; such as women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia and they can’t leave home alone and unescorted by a member of the family and so on and so forth. In Malaysia, the scholars have not ruled the same or issued any religious decree to that affect.

The point I am making is you can’t win an argument by saying that this is the opinion of the religious scholars and this is what they decreed because in different places, and at different times, different scholars have ruled differently. So what standards are you using for Malaysia when you talk about the Islamic tradition and religious decrees and whatnot?

In Afghanistan, another Muslim country, they beat women who do not wear a headdress (tudung) in public. In Turkey, yet another Muslim country, they ban women from using a headdress. Women must remove their headdress before entering the university compound or else they would be denied entry. One lady Member of Parliament was escorted out of the Turkish Parliament building because she refused to remove her headdress. In Malaysia, it is your choice to wear it or not. It is not compulsory and neither is it banned.

Afghanistan, Turkey and Malaysia, all Muslim countries. But they have different rulings on even such a ‘simple’ thing as the tudung. And all three countries have religious scholars who have issued religious decrees. But why is it not consistent? Why the differences?

In other words, whose standards do we apply? Afghanistan’s, Turkey’s or Malaysia’s?

The Malays will say we are Malaysians so we apply Malaysian standards. But why Malaysian standards? Does Malaysia have a monopoly on heaven? Is there a verse in the Quran that even mentions Malaysia by name? I have read the Quran from cover to cover so many times but I can’t find Malaysia mentioned anywhere. Okay, you may argue that reading the Quran alone is not enough. We also need to read the Hadith. Okay, then show me one Hadith, just one, that mentions Malaysia.

What if I were to argue that Prophet Muhammad was an Arab and the Quran is in Arabic so I would trust the Arabs more than the Malays, Afghans or Turks? I did not say I agree with this argument, I am just saying what if I were to argue that? And what if I argue: therefore I insist I follow the Arab ‘tradition’, which means the Wahhabi version of Islam?

Ah, then you will say that I am a deviant who has strayed from Islam and JAKIM will make a police report against me and ask that the police arrest me and send me to Kamunting, yet again, for religious rehabilitation. And I am yet to even say I want to follow the Iranian version of Islam and that I believe Shia is the correct version of Islam and that Ali is the real Caliph of Islam who, through a conspiracy by Abu Bakar, Omar and Osman, was denied his right to rule Medina as the First Caliph. 

Why must we impose our belief on others? To argue that this is what the scholars have decided and this is their religious decree, like what Yusri did, does not solve the problem. To you your religion and to me, mine, as what the Quran would argue. You have your scholars and I have mine. You believe whatever religious decrees you want to believe in and leave me to believe in whatever decrees I wish to believe in.

I once had lunch at McDonalds in Washington DC with a renowned Muslim scholar. This man was one of the ‘brains’ behind the setting up of Malaysia’s International Islamic University (UIA). He ordered a beef burger and I ordered fish. He laughed and said he knows why I ordered fish and not beef.

“It is okay, brother Raja,” he said. “Beef is halal. Any meat other than khinzir (pork) slaughtered by People of the Book is halal for us to eat. But I have spent many years in Malaysia and I know Malaysian Muslims very well.”

“But how do you know it was a Christian or Jew who slaughtered the cow? It could have been someone not of the Book,” I replied.

“Why question so much? You should not always be suspecting and question everything. Why forbid what God has allowed?”

Anyway, being the Malaysian that I am, I still insisted on a fish burger.

After lunch, we went for Friday prayers and I was at a loss as to how to take my ablution in the very tiny washbasin without flooding the extremely dry washroom. I was about to take off my shoes so that I could wash my feet in the washbasin when my Saudi Arabian scholar friend stopped me and asked me to follow exactly what he does.

He then took a Kleenex tissue, damped it, and used it to wipe the top of his shoes. He handed me a tissue and I also did the same. We then took off our shoes and entered the mosque to pray.

In Malaysia they would send me for religious rehabilitation if I did that. In the US, Saudi Arabian scholars who have memorised the Quran by heart do that.

So, again, which scholar are you asking me to follow? And which Islamic ‘tradition’ are we talking about?

Over to you, my good friend Yusri of ABIM, MCKK and UIA. By whose standards?


Translated into Chinese at: