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Who Speaks on Behalf of Islam? Jun 26, 2007

Posted by MOHD IDZANEY ZAKARIA in Akidah, Cara Hidup.
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Dr. Syed Ali Tawfik Al-Attas/ Md. Asham B. Ahmad
Ketua Pengarah/ Fellow IKIM

Just one year after the tragic events of 9/11 a dialogue was held in Granada, Spain. It was the inaugural meeting which sought to bring together the different ideologies under a programme entitled Dialogues: Islamic World–US–the West. The programme itself was conceived in the aftermath of 9/11 to entertain discussions concerning the relationship between Islam and the West. According to the report, the conference witnessed considerable discussion on what constitutes Islamic authority today. Sadly no answer to the question who speaks for Islam was offered.It is interesting to note that the question was posed in a dialogue where Muslim were invited (either as participants or as paper presenters) as ‘representatives’ of the Muslim World. If they were really qualified they would have realized that question should not have been asked in the first place. On the other hand, if they were not qualified, then they should not have been invited. Therefore, one may conclude that the organizer was either ignorant of who should have been invited to such an important dialogue, or had intentionally invited those who were not qualified!

The question may also indicate the psychological condition suffered by the inquirer. It betrays a situation where there is a great deal of confusion and disagreement as to whom should be entrusted with the responsibility of speaking for the Muslim World. The fact is, we have in our midst government officials, academicians and intellectuals, social and political activists, modernists, reformists and traditionalists, each apparently potraying a different and conflicting interpretation of Islam. In such a situation it is normal to ask: who (truly) speaks on behalf of Islam?

Assuming that the inquirer is sincere, our initial answer would be direct: only those who know Islam should speak for Islam. Normally the reply would necessitate another question: who are those people? By ‘normal’ we mean it is a common question. It is not normal in the logical sense.

Logically, if one knows how to define knowledge the question does not arise because the answer is all too obvious. One who knows what wealth is should know who is wealthy and who is not!

Hence, the correct question should be: what is knowledge? If one knows what knowledge is one would know who is in possession of it, and the question of who speaks for Islam should not arise.
However this problem is not as simple as it seems. The problem of knowledge is the most fundamental problem in philosophy. What makes the problem even more complicated is the fact that every culture and civilization has its own conception of knowledge depending on what it defines as ‘real’ and ‘true’. Hence, it is not appropriate to impose the general criteria accepted in a particular culture and civilization as the standard criteria for all. Islam, in this regard, has got its own criteria of what constitutes knowledge and authority, and this important fact must not be ignored.

However, to get people to scrutinize a concept is a big problem today because people are in the habit of thinking that concepts cannot be applied to action, and are thus useless (see Dr. Zaidi Ismail’s article: Must All Concepts be Translatable into Action?, The Star 22 May). So one may ask: what is the relevance of talking about knowledge when the ‘real issue’ confronting us today is, let us assume to be, terrorism? Here the problem of ‘the real issue’ has been confused with ‘what is happening’. In reality the latter is an indicator of what is actually false–in other words it has been wrongly and falsely conceived and as such has led to conflict and more confusion.

Nevertheless, in order to appreciate this, nevertheless, it is necessary for one to realize the difference between knowledge and mere opinion. Opinion can be true or false, but knowledge cannot be. If one claims to have knowledge about something which turns out to be false, then it is not knowledge but opinion or theory.

Returning now to the original question, who speaks for Islam? Thus far we have assumed that the inquirer is simply ignorant but nevertheless sincere in his efforts to rid himself of his own ignorance. But what if the inquirer is one who denies the possibility and objectivity of knowledge altogether? In other words, what if the inquirer is a skeptic?

A skeptic denies the possibility and objectivity of knowledge, including knowledge concerning Islam. In other words the skeptic believes that either no one really has the authority to speak on behalf of Islam, or that everyone has the right to interpret Islam in his own way because whatever is being said is actually subjective. To a skeptic there is no difference between knowledge and opinion. In this case, what has been made of the question is actually a statement: that no one truly knows about Islam; and that whatever is being said about Islam is merely an individual’s subjective opinion!

We observe this kind of attitude everywhere today, even among Muslims. We hear people asserting that only God knows what is meant by His words, whereas the human interpretation of those words are subjective and historical. As such, the Qur’an has to be continuously reinterpreted according to the continuous changes which occur in human history. If this sounds familiar it is because it has been taken by many as dogma regardless of its truth or falsehood.

Skepticism and subjectivism are not alien to the Western intellectual tradition but they are certainly alien to Islam. Islam is a practical and common-sensical religion, and by virtue of this fact, there is no room for skepticism and subjectivism.

Affirming the possibility and objectivity of knowledge is assumed in ‘being a Muslim’. How could one ‘be’ a Muslim if it is not possible to know objectively what Islam ‘is’? Hence, the label ‘a Muslim skeptic’ is an oxymoron. One who denies objective knowledge and subsequently denies the immutable interpretation of Islam has no business speaking on behalf of Islam.

Knowledge is the foundation of Islam. Muslims affirm that adequate knowledge concerning Islam and the worldview projected by it is always possible. They know that it is not possible to understand and practice the religion of Islam if the authenticity of its original source is questionable or subject to corruption and alteration. Hence, we may observe in Islamic tradition, that from the very beginning utmost care was given to the preservation of its source: the Qur’an, and the Sunnah (Tradition) of the Prophet which aids in the interpretation of its truth. By necessary implication therefore the purity of Arabic language also has to be preserved and protected, and the correct method of reasoning has to be outlined, clarified and applied. In short, the Muslims must be made to be aware that the corruption of knowledge is the mother of all corruption, and that all the necessary measures to protect their religion from corruption should be applied.

Since the source of Islam is intact, and the method of dealing with the source is established, we can always know who truly speaks for Islam and who does not. The truth of what is being said may be verified and defended, falsehood may be exposed, refuted and condemned.

Certainly we admit that the Muslim society today is backward in many respects, but with regard to religion this is certainly not true. The Muslims, unlike their Western counterparts, have not and will not allow their religion to be corrupted because it is they who are entrusted with the responsibility of preserving it for all mankind until the day of judgement. However, if one is speaking of the administration of justice and the practical application of this administration, its true and correct application or its corrupted application, then the onus of responsibility does not assume the religion itself but rather the capacity to understand and correctly apply that understanding of the practitioner, namely the Muslims themselves.

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