Misrepresentations of Islam in the Contemporary Anglophonic Discourse


Having read a recent piece by AB Sulaiman entitled “Nurul Izzah’s statement in the Kaum Muda-Kaum Tua context” (26th November 2012, The Malaysian Insider), it exemplified in our opinion, a typical kind of writing that is laced with half-truths and prejudices with regard to the Muslims and to Islam.

Wan Fayhsal 

Of late, there has been a surge of commentaries and analysis with regard to the religion of Islam in the mass media. It was sparked by YB Nurul Izzah’s remarks on a verse of the Qur’ān that many were led to equate with the notion of the ‘freedom of religion’.

For the sake of clarity, the full verse that many have referred to is: 
“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.”
(2:256, trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali)

Sadly many who commented on this issue are guilty of misunderstanding and misinterpreting the words and neglecting the whole meaning of that particular verse. Such attitude will definitely derail the proper understanding of the whole meaning and context of that verse especially to the lay readers.

This trend is not conducive to true knowledge and correct understanding as it gives rise to inaccurate commentaries, which will eventually marginalize the real and true authorities in explaining about Islam. It will lead to confusions at various levels, not only amongst Muslims but more so to non-Muslims who sincerely want to understand the issue at hand.

Of course there are rooms and space to debate and discuss on matters of religion within the tradition of Islam. In order to arrive at a proper understanding, prejudices or half-truths must not be placed on the table. Anything that comes up short, despite possessing some grain of truths yet enmeshed with dubious facts are but an antipode of truth – which is error.

Verily in Qurʾān, God the Almighty has clearly stated that:
“And what is there beyond truth but error?” (10:32)

Having read a recent piece by AB Sulaiman entitled “Nurul Izzah’s statement in the Kaum Muda-Kaum Tua context” (26th November 2012, The Malaysian Insider), it exemplified in our opinion, a typical kind of writing that is laced with half-truths and prejudices with regard to the Muslims and to Islam. Furthermore, AB Sulaiman’s efforts exemplified misappropriation of proper tools of inquiry, especially on employing conceptual terms and categories. We have attempted to present clear and persuasive arguments in a systematic and rational manner on this issue, especially in two lengthy and technical essays entitled The Tyranny of Commonplace Mind and Censuring the confused in their erroneous reading of verse (2:256) in the Holy Qurʾān, both of which can be reached at hakim.org.my/ blog.

However, in the spirit of free and honest inquiry in pursuit of the truth and at the same time, in order to make clearer the distinction between truth and untruth with respect to this matter, we wish to address ourselves to several misrepresentations that have come to our attention in AB Sulaiman’s article and where necessary, to unmask and challenge these misrepresentations so that sincere readers may not be mislead to accept its false conclusions:

Misrepresentation #1: The alien conceptual categories of reformist-progressive, orthodox-conservatives, kaum tua-kaum muda.

In the piece written by AB Sulaiman, he employed conceptual categories that are really foreign to ears and the minds of Muslims such as reformist-progressive, orthodox-conservatives, kaum muda-kaum tua. These terms are ‘loaded words’ in English and each of them has its own historical baggage. It would be considered a gross misapplication if these concepts were to be forced upon in making general statements and in deriving vague conclusions about the social and political issues pertaining to the Muslims and the religion of Islam.

Most of the words mentioned by AB Sulaiman were often used within the sociological discourse of religion of Islam. In truth, Muslim society does not exhibit such phenomena that can come to terms with the suggested meanings of such words and conceptual categories. This is one clear mistake made by the writer – evoking false concepts in describing something that did not exist within the religion of Islam, what more in Muslim society at large.

He may have over-simplified the issue by adopting the categories that are unfounded in Islam, most glaringly on the notion of orthodox and progressive with regard to Reason and Revelation. By orthodoxy, he means a rigid conservative who failed to keep up with the pace and change of time and lack rational intelligence in studying the Holy Qurʾān; while a progressive is painted as someone one who is at home with rationality and considered to be the torch-bearer of enlightenment that Islam and Muslim of today desperately need.

This exemplified a kind of historical reductionism that does not do justice to Islam and its rich history – as we will prove in the subsequent points below.

Misrepresentation #2: Clergy and Orthodoxy: the inaccuracy of English to depict Islamic intellectual tradition.

Throughout the piece, AB Sulaiman cast a myriad of English terms to describe the intellectual history of Islam in a manner that these words do not correspond to the truth, being pretty much alien to the subject matter being discussed. Even the most learned Orientalist would not use such words like clergy, orthodoxy, ossified religiosity (whatever that means) and heresy – which are typically English and Christians. And for him to use such cliché of ‘Revelation won over Reason’ is again another form of misrepresentation as the true scholars of Islam (ʿulamāʾ) will never conceive of Reason as being pitted against Revelation.

Another misconception by AB Sulaiman is when he used the term ‘religious school’ to imply ‘madrasah’. Madrasah in the past – before secularization crept into Muslim world and the adoption of modern schooling system – were places where religious sciences like jurisprudence, creed, were taught alongside with subjects like mathematics, algebra, physics even medicine.

Renowned historians of Islamic history the likes of George Makdisi and Francis Robinson have documented historical and empirical evidences with regard to the harmonious and integral relationship between ‘knowledge based-on text – Revelation’ (naqliyyah) and ‘knowledge derived by Reason’ (ʿaqliyyah) that was the common substratum of all madrasah within the tradition of Islamic education.

Makdisi also demonstrated in his seminal work Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1981) that the most celebrated institution of higher learning of today which we call ‘university’ was imitated and modeled upon Muslim higher education institutions like Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt and Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco that existed far earlier than the likes of Oxford and Cambridge.

In short, we cannot simply describe Islam using English terms that are loaded with Westerners’ religious experience. Dimitri Gutas, the author of Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ʿAbbāsid Society 2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries (London: Routledge, 1998) writes the following:

“Unlike say, the Vatican in the Roman Catholic Church, which might promulgate an ‘official’ truth and legislate it by virtue of the institution’s coercive powers, Islam has never had a centralized authority. In the Muslim world there are no ordained clergy; no institutionalized religious orders; no synods; and no pontifical truth, a deviation from which constitute heresy.”

It is clear from the arguments that we have posited, one must be very particular and demonstrate meticulousness in using English to describe Islam and not haphazardly employ ill-fitting terms and conceptual categories that do not commensurate with the real facts and truth about Islam.

Misrepresentation #3: Al-Ghazālī – the orthodox theologian who stunted Reason and Science 

Imām “The Proof of Islam” Abū Ḥāmid Al-Ghazālī (1058 – 1111) was one of the most distinguished and authoritative scholar of Islam in history. His ideas and intellectual imprint have flourished throughout Muslim world for millennial even up to this very day.

Sadly, he has been continuously misunderstood and it has really become a cliché nowadays to put blame on Al-Ghazālī as the one who was guilty for the demise of Reason in the Muslim world.

We are continuously drummed by popular culture – despite it having been completely discredited and rejected in the scholarly community – that Al-Ghazālī attacked Hellenistic science along with the very notion of laws of nature via his famous work Tahāfut al-Falāsifah (Incoherence of the Philosophers), hence Reason as a whole.

This is quite unwarranted as it was Al-Ghazālī who introduced the science of logic (ʿilm al-manṭīq) as the primer in philosophy and methodologies of Islamic jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh).

Moreover Al-Ghazālī throughout his life had valiantly worked hard to establish a more robust rational method by doing what Professor Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud called ‘Islamization of Hellenistic science’ – which rendered such science fit to be included in the methodology of religious sciences.

As a result, the entire edifice of traditional Islamic sciences post-Ghazālī, be it tafsīr (exegesis of Qurʾān), hadīth (traditions of Prophet Muhammad), fiqh (jurisprudent), kalām (science of discourse), taṣawwuf (sufism) were further strengthened with more complex reasoning tools in which they are totally indispensable for teachers and students of Islamic sciences till this very day.

Al-Ghazālī’s remarkable efforts are clearly exemplified in his various philosophical and jurisprudential works such as Miḥakk al-Naẓar (Touchstones of Reasoning), Miʿyār al-ʿIlm (Standard of Knowledge) and Al-Mustaṣfā minʿIlm al-Uṣūl (Choice Essentials of the Methods of Jurisprudence).

According to Jamil Ragep, Professor of History of Science at McGill, recent scholarly work has shown that science in Islam not only continued after Al-Ghazālī but in fact flourished for centuries thereafter. George Saliba in his Islamic Science and the Making of European Renaissance (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007) has shown that medieval Islamic society exhibits an ‘open marketplace’ of ideas, in which knowledge derived by Reason such as medicine (ṭibb), mathematics (riyāḍiyyāt) and engineering (al-ḥiyal) were not marginal activities but pretty much central to Muslim intellectual life and harmoniously flourished alongside religious sciences that were based on Revelation.

It is not surprising that well-known historians of science like George Sarton and Marshall Clagett regarded the contributions in the past of Muslims to science as not just mere preservation of science of the Antiquities (Greek, Indian, Chinese and others) but also the creative role played by the Muslims in reconceptualizing, improvising and extending the discourse that made modern science what it is today.

The giants of modern science such as Copernicus and Newton built their scientific works on the ground laid by Muslim scientists, mathematicians and philosophers such as Al-Khāwarizmī, Ibn al-Haytham, Ibn Nāfis and others who lived and flourished after Al-Ghazālī.

Misrepresentation #4: Islam in the Malay Archipelago came from an inferior version.

It is a surprise to note AB Sulaiman admitted that he did not come across “any meaningful intellectual development from the Malay civilization beginning circa 1403.” In actual fact, he had not done proper scholarly homework before proclaiming the version of Islam that arrived to the Malay Archipelago was conservative and orthodox.

Islam that arrived in the Malay world is not monolithic what more deemed by AB Sulaiman to be ‘ossified’ and anti-Reason. Textual evidences in the form of Jawi (Bahasa Melayu in Arabic script) texts and manuscripts are abundant, case in point is the oldest known Malay manuscript called ‘Aqāʾid al-Nasafī – a 16th century text on the creed of Islam which presented a higher-form of intellectual discourse on the possibility of knowledge (epistemology) and nature of reality (ontology).

By 17th century, we already have Metaphysicians like Nūr al-Dīn al-Rānīrī discussing about Greek philosophy and by 18th century scholars like Raja Ali Haji and Ahmad Khatib Al-Minangkabawi were busy writing numerous intellectual works on political philosophy, medicine and mathematics.

Our foremost authority in Islamic Thought and Malay History – Tan Sri Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas once delivered a monumental professorial lecture way back in 1972 at UKM entitled ‘Islam dalam Sejarah dan Kebudayaan Melayu’ (Islam in the History and Culture of Malay). In that lecture, he cogently argued that it was due to the advent of Islam in the Malay Archipelago that had caused a ‘Copernican revolution’ of a historical-kind, which in turn gave rise to ‘modernity’ for the Malays as early as 13th century.

In that lecture Al-Attas emphasized the important role of taṣawwuf (Islamic metaphysics) in the Islamization process of the Malay Archipelago. The process became the cornerstone in the development of a highly intellectual and rationalistic religious spirit that was projected in most Malay literary works of that new period – hence transforming Malay language to become more rational and scientific than before – in contrast to the aesthetic and exclusive literary works that were not meant for the profane ear of the masses in the Hindu-Buddha period.

Al-Attas highlighted the role of Ḥamzah Fanṣūrī – a great Malay Muslim metaphysician of early 17th century – as a shining example of homo intellectus of that era. Through his various works such as Asrār al-‘Ārifīn, Sharab al-‘Āshiqīn and al-Muntahi, he demonstrated a highly rational and philosophical thought that was unique in contrast to earlier Malay works of pre-Islam era. Al-Attas also affirmed that it was Ḥamzah Fanṣūrī who pioneered the usage of the Malay language in a rational and systematic manner by elucidating philosophical ideas through his creative intellectual prowess in writing.

From there on, the impact of rational and systematic usage of the Malay language had influenced many scholars in various parts of Malay Archipelago to produce important works in Malay literature that depicted highly scientific and rational thought.

Such evidences are crystal clear – the version of Islam that had transformed the Malay people since its earliest days was not of the orthodox and conservative-kind, what more anti-Reason.

Islam has molded the minds of the Malays to be more rational and scientific and such force of change was unprecedented before.


It’s all about worldview

Discerning readers will realize that currently many written materials in the mass media are not able to capture and present facts on Muslims and Islam satisfactorily. One must be able to distinguish things carefully by sifting the wheat from the chaff in order to arrive at the kernel of truth. For that to be possible, writers and readers must possess to certain degree, some basic understanding on the worldview of Islam.

Worldview is an integral component for man to interpret the reality that he is bounded to. Such reality can be meaningfully understood among us through the proper use of language. Language acts as the medium for our worldview to be manifested within our mind as well as in our expression to the outside world.

The intimate connection of language and worldview is best understood from the explanation by Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas via his important work Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam:

“The narrative of language can be depicted as a thin veil in various colours that always be placed at the front view of the observer, whether the observation is about the physical or a metaphysical world. Therefore, the colour and the design, the characteristic and the shape of the world that being observed will be influenced by the thin veil of language.”

Concocting various kinds of modern and foreign terms that were inferred from other languages would be detrimental to the effort of capturing the right meanings of a particular discourse that had not undergone a similar kind of experience or of not having the same intellectual dimension – as in case here, between the Western tradition and Islam.

Such careless ways of conveying things as demonstrated by AB Sulaiman will do no good in assisting our collective effort to provide the proper understanding about Islam to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

This is more so true for the Muslims because if we fail to explain Islam in accordance to the correct methods as laid down by the scholarly authority of Islam, it will only hamper the readers, especially the non-Muslims, from getting the right facts on how Islam should be understood in the context of present times alongside with its rich history.

Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal reads Islamic Thought and Civilization at Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilization (CASIS-UTM).