A NOTICEABLE trend in religious lectures and public forums on Islam is that they are growing in popularity in Kuala Lumpur and other major cities with packed audiences in the mosques and lecture theatres.
Local religious teachers also have a large following on TV.
For the English-speaking Malays, especially among the younger generation, their favourite speakers are those from Britain and the United States, perhaps because these foreign, Western-born scholars speak about religion with a practical approach, reflecting the democratic and open society in which they grew up. These speakers are highly educated, second or third-generation British and American Muslims whose tolerant view of Islam resonates well with most Muslims in Malaysia.
The religious openness of the foreign scholars can be seen when they explain the origins of some Islamic customs and traditions. In many cases, these were shaped by the influence of the ancient Greek, Roman and Persian civilisations which were the dominant cultural force in the entire Mediterranean and Middle East centuries before the arrival of Christianity and Islam.
Our local religious teachers, on the other hand, tend to ignore the external influence on Islamic culture and would like us to believe it grew on its own. They often sound like they grew up in the desert.
The Western Muslim scholars do not shy away from making comparisons with Christianity or the Jewish religion to explain certain viewpoints. For example, the hudud punishment for women caught in adultery is also the
same as the punishment prescribed in the Old Testament of the Torah and the Bible, i.e. death by stoning.
Medieval Christians used to put women on the stake and set them on fire as salvation for men’s sins on earth. Ancient Jewish laws had very severe punishments for stealing and usury, like cutting off the hand. After the Renaissance in Europe, and the Reformation of Christianity, all these cruel punishments were regarded as barbaric and were abolished.
Well-educated ulama and preachers, including our own, when asked about the syariah law of hudud, explain that Muslims should look beyond religion to understand that the greater priority for government in many countries is to provide enough jobs and take care of the poor so that they are not driven into crime and immoral activities to support their families.
They also advise Muslims not to push Islam too much into politics because that will complicate efforts at trying to address the reforms that most Muslim countries need urgently to deal with the social and economic issues that are making life so difficult.
They strongly recommend keeping religion separate from the nation state so as not to let it be used as an excuse for not implementing democratic reforms and human rights for men and women. These enlightened views are indeed refreshing to hear.
Modern reforms to create trust and respect for parliament, the judiciary, civil service and the law, including reforms on human rights, will have a far greater impact on correcting social ills and improving moral behaviour than religious prescriptions.
As proof, developed countries tend to have better standards than Muslim countries because they have strong institutions to ensure clean government and empower their citizens to act against abuse of authority by the rich and powerful.
Indeed, we can see for ourselves that there is more Islam in developed countries than in the badly-governed Muslim countries.
Malaysia wants to be a role model for the Muslim world. The best way to do this is to carry out the reforms for a better system of governance, with high emphasis on transparency and accountability, the trademark of successful countries.
TAN SRI MOHD SHERIFF MOHD KASSIM