Home Articles Interview: Chandra Muzaffar on Islamic Inclusivism and Muslim Exclusivism

Interview: Chandra Muzaffar on Islamic Inclusivism and Muslim Exclusivism

By Yoginder Sikand, TwoCircles.net,

Chandra Muzaffar is Malaysia’s leading public intellectual. Author of numerous books, mainly on religion, hegemony and resistance, he is the President of the International Movement for a Just World. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about various aspects related to Islam and Islamic assertion in Malaysia.

Q: Could you tell us something about yourself and your academic and activist background? How did you get interested in Islam?

A: I was born in 1947 in the state of Kedah in northern Malaysia. Both my parents were Hindus who were originally from Kerala in southern India. My mother was a third generation Malaysian but my father had been born and brought up in India.

Since my teens I evinced a strong interest in religion. I kept wondering about the purpose of life, life after death and so on. And so I began reading about religion. I started with Hinduism, and then went on to Christianity and then to the Bahai Faith. I was even actively involved with a Bahai group but I left after a while. There was more emphasis upon rituals than I had expected. In 1967, I enrolled at the University of Singapore to do a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics and History, eventually specializing in Politics and that is where I began reading about how Western philosophers looked at the big existential questions about life.

In the second year at the University, I became very close to a leading Malaysian intellectual, who was at that time the head of the Department of Malay Studies at the University of Singapore—the late Syed Hussein Alatas, a very well-known sociologist and author of numerous books on Islam. I began spending a lot of time with him in his house. He had just then set up an opposition political party in Malaysia, and so we would spend hours together discussing politics, national unity, inter-communal relations and social justice in Malaysia. It was he who inspired me to start reading about Islam. I read numerous works by many Muslim authors who represented a diverse range of understandings of Islam. I also read Alatas’ own works on Islam and was influenced particularly by his personality, lifestyle and his very universalistic understanding of and approach to Islam.

After graduating from Singapore I returned to Malaysia, where I registered at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang to do a Master’s degree. For my thesis I worked on Malaysian politics, in the course of which I did fieldwork, which gave me the opportunity to meet many Malay Muslim leaders from the Islamic party PAS and to learn more about their understanding of Islam as a political ideology. By this time, I had strengthened my own conviction in Islam—not the ritualistic, dogmatic sort of Islam, but the Islam that stands for universalism, that stresses fundamental values over forms, that does not recognize mere rituals and externals as a criterion of one’s religious commitment. And so in May 1974 I formally embraced, or, as it is said, reverted to, Islam.

Q: You mentioned that one reason for your disenchantment with the Bahai Faith was its ritualism. Given what some might call the excessive ritualism associated with the general practice of Islam in Malaysia and elsewhere, it might seem strange that you were attracted to Islam, is it not?

A: As I just mentioned, I was attracted by the universalism that I discovered in the Quran, but which Muslim practice very often tends to completely negate by associating Islam with a particular community and with a set of rituals. This is quite in contrast to the understanding of Islam that I learnt from Syed Hussein Alatas. I think one could argue that every religious community has betrayed its leading figure by turning into a separate group, using rituals to shore up boundaries to set it apart from other similarly constructed groups. This has happened with Muslims as well, and has led to the universal message of Islam being negated in practical terms.

My own understanding of Islam is that it is basically a worldview, a distinct attitude, a weltanschauung, and not the creed of a narrowly-defined community. I do not believe that the purpose of Islam is to create a community defined in this sense. Rather, it is to nourish a certain outlook or way of living that reflects certain basic values and which should not be seen as being confined to a certain community. My understanding of Islam is one that is fundamentally opposed to communal thinking. I mean, how can one consider a person who commits a heinous crime like murder a ‘Muslim’ in the true sense of the word—which means one who submits his will to God—simply because he has an Arabic name and has verbally recited the shahada, the Islamic testimony of faith?

I firmly believe that the various messengers of God did not intend to create new communities of followers defined by external markers and rituals that had little or nothing to do with the central core of their message. Instead, they were sent by God to reform attitudes, to nourish proper ways of being human. Sadly, however, precisely the opposite happened after their demise in every case. According to conventional religious thinking, people are judged or viewed not in terms of the basic values that the prophets stressed, on the basis of how they relate to others, to Nature, and so on, but in terms of an elaborate set of rituals and external markers. This is really tragic.

Q: You seem to argue, if I get you correctly, that Islam did not intend to establish a separate community. But what about the concept of Muslims as an ummah, as a separate people defined on the basis of religion?

A: I think there is a lot of confusion about the term ummah. The Quran uses the term in different senses, which do not negate each other. For instance, it is used in the context of the ummah of Medina, which included the Muslim Ansars and Muhajirin and various non-Muslims, including Jewish tribes who were brought together through the Covenant of Medina. A second sense in which the term ummah is used is for those who accepted God and Muhammad as His messenger, as opposed to those who rejected one or both. A third sense in which it is used is to refer to the whole of humankind in general. In none of these senses does it necessarily convey the exclusivist notion of community that many Muslims understand it as.

So, I would contend that one of the major challenges before Muslims today is to reappraise the whole notion of ummah, to retrieve what I believe is its actual connotation as a group based on values and that transcends communal divisions. This notion of the ummah is suggested in the Quran but it has been subverted in the ways in which it has conventionally been understood and interpreted. I believe that in today’s context of rapid communications and the breaking down of barriers dividing countries and communities, it could be possible to move towards what I regard as the true Quranic understanding of the ummah that goes beyond the narrow notion of religious-based communities.

For this we also need to reevaluate our understanding of what ‘Muslim’ means. A Muslim should be understood not as someone born into a particular community that claims to be ‘Muslim’, but, rather, as a person who upholds certain values and reflects or possesses certain attributes, a person who believes in the one God, submits to His will and does good, irrespective of his or her community. This is why the Quran regards all the many thousands of prophets who appeared before the Prophet Muhammad, in different parts of the world, as Muslims. This means that belief in and devotion and surrender to God, which is also reflected in righteous deeds, suffices to be considered a Muslim in the literal sense of the term as one who has submitted to God’s will.

The Quran refers to the Prophet Abraham as a true believer, as a Hanif, and when it specifies that he was neither a Christian nor a Jew it seems to me to suggest the point that he did not create any sect or community defined in this narrow sense, and that he was free of any narrow communal affiliation.

Q: If, as you say, to be a Muslim is to believe in the one God and lead a righteous life, and that this suggests Islam’s universalism, why do ‘Muslims’ in practice place so much more importance on the Prophet Muhammad over the other prophets although the Quran very clearly specifies that all the prophets are equal and that no distinction should be made between them?

A: I think this has a lot to do with history, with the development of identity of an expanding community over time. So, very often what Muslims are protecting in the name of Islam is this narrowly-conceived identity or historical tradition rather than what the Prophet stood for—the basic values and beliefs, which, unfortunately, are not conventionally understood as the defining attributes of Muslims today. And what many of them defend in the name of Islam is not what the Prophet taught and stood for, but, rather, what some medieval scholars and jurists or fuqaha had written centuries ago, which they wrongly equate with Islam.

This blind adherence to the views and prescriptions of the fuqaha is one of the most fundamental problems of Muslims. Ironically, those who claim to interpret the divine word are themselves considered ‘divine’ now. Much of what passes off as divine shariah, which Muslims generally think is wholly unchangeable, is actually fiqh, the product of the ijtihad or the thinking and interpretation of ulema, who were after all, fallible human beings like the rest of us.

Q: Let’s turn to Malaysia. Many Muslims (and others) outside Malaysia think of Malaysia as a ‘model Muslim state’ or even as a ‘model Islamic state’. Do you agree with this perception?

A: What those who think in this way see when they look at Malaysia is just the brighter side of the picture: a country with a fairly high per capita income, a very high literacy rate and good infrastructure, and which has to a great extent succeeded in eradicating absolute poverty. On all these indices undoubtedly Malaysia has done well, much better than most other Muslim-majority countries. So, when non-Malaysian Muslims see all this they regard it as the achievement of a people and government who do not subscribe to a narrow version of Islam, and who are trying to ward off the creeping influence of this sort of Islam, and they contrast this with their own countries. They admire the fact that Malaysia, as a Muslim-majority country, has been able to do well by these standards without imposing a narrowly-conceived shariah state, for they know that the kind of progress Malaysia has achieved could not have happened if we were ruled by that sort of state.
This is what particularly impresses them. Also perhaps the willingness of the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to challenge the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and to raise the issue of continued Western imperialism.
But what people who consider Malaysia as a model Muslim country don’t look at is the other side of the picture: crass capitalism, rampant consumerism, lack of integration between the different communities and so on.

People who uncritically regard Malaysia as a ‘model’ Muslim state do not see or know that generally Muslims in Malaysia are very conservative when it comes to things that are presented in ‘Islamic’ terms, and that what the traditional ulema say or believe is still considered by most Malaysian Muslims as binding. Often, Malaysian Muslims have no problems if you talk about something as long as you don’t bring in Islam, but the moment you do, their approach becomes very traditional. A good instance of this is our legal system. In our civil courts we have had Muslim women judges for a long time. That has never been a problem. In fact, a few years ago the Chief Judge of peninsula Malaysia was a Malay Muslim woman. But till today we have had not a single woman judge in the shariah courts although there are many women in this country who are well-versed in what is considered to be Islamic law. This is because of a very conservative understanding of the Malaysian ulema that women cannot be judges in shariah courts, although there is actually no rule in Islam forbidding this. Even in countries like Sudan, Iran and Indonesia there are women shariah court judges, so why not in Malaysia?

Q: Are you suggesting that, overall, the traditional ulema still have a very decisive influence in shaping Malaysian Muslim understandings of their religion? What about alternate voices? The Malay middle-class has grown vastly in recent decades. Has this resulted in any sort of movement pressing for a re-thinking of Islamic theology and jurisprudence, for a contextual understanding of Islam?

A: There are only a very few, scattered individuals who are trying to do this sort of work. It certainly has not taken the form of a movement in this country. It is true that the modern educated and economically well-off Malay or Muslim middle class has expanded considerably in Malaysia. But still you find that when it comes to Islam they generally remain very conservative. For instance, on the issue of apostasy from Islam, a hugely controversial issue in Malaysia, most of middle-class Malays, despite their education, would continue to insist on its criminalization by the state even though this does not have any Quranic sanction and in fact violates the Quran’s insistence that there is no compulsion in religion.

Q: Scholars have argued that to a great extent the practice and perception of Islam among the Malays is influenced by Malay ethnicity. Does that have anything to do with the sort of conservatism that you refer to?

A: Yes, to a great extent. So, for instance, the issue of apostasy is also seen even by many well-educated Malays as a threat to the Malay community and its ‘special position’, as threatening Malay solidarity in the face of other ethnic communities in the country. This is a reflection of a pervasive fear among many Malays that if they move out of their ethnic cocoons, which they seek to bolster through appeals to a conservative version of Islam, and open up and embrace others the Malays will be overwhelmed by others. This is how Malay ethnicity and insecurities shape ‘Islamic’ understandings in the country.

Q: How valid are these insecurities, though?

A: Some decades ago some of these insecurities would have been understandable. At that time, the economy was almost entirely controlled by foreigners and ethnic Chinese. But today there is a very sizeable Malay middle class. Malays now play significant roles in the upper reaches of the economy.. So, I feel there is no need for them to feel insecure any more. Sadly, however, the political parties keep playing up, even creating and further magnifying, these insecurities. Even Islamic groups that otherwise insist that ethnic chauvinism is contrary to Islam are not averse to this sort of political manipulation.

I must add that this is not a phenomenon unique to the Malays. In large parts of the American mid-West you can find people who subscribe to the ridiculous theory that their country is under threat from poor little Cuba. Or in India many Hindus believe that the impoverished Dalits or heavily marginalized Muslim minority are a threat to them, while this is not the case at all. But because of this sort of ethnic and religious collective consciousness, which, contrary to what Marx claimed, is much stronger than class consciousness, many Malay Muslims, mid-West Americans or Indian Hindus would not be enthusiastic about opening up to others.

Q: Despite generous government patronage of various Islamic institutions, it appears that Malay intellectuals have not made a significant contribution to contemporary debates about Islam or in developing socially relevant and contextual understandings of Islam. This is in contrast to neighbouring Indonesia, where Muslim intellectuals have a rich legacy of articulating alternate Islamic perspectives on a host of social issues of contemporary concern. How do you see this?

A: Perhaps the over-dependence of the bulk of the Malay middle-class on the state, for patronage or for jobs or whatever, is itself a reason for the stagnation of Islamic discourse in the country. Obviously, if you are dependent on the state for your job or sources of funds you cannot really defy the line of the state, be it on Islam or any other issue. But equally or perhaps even more crucially, because of the ethnic issue in Malaysia few Malay intellectuals are willing to be seen as going against what is seen as the interests of their community. So, for instance, when it comes to many socio-economic or socio-political matters, very few of them would stress Islamic universalism over what they perceive as the ‘Malay position’. Another factor for the retardation of Islamic discourse in Malaysia is that, on the whole, the middle class Malay mindset is still conservative in matters of religion, relatively untouched by reformist trends in other Muslim countries.

When one compares the situation in Malaysia with that in neighbouring Indonesia the difference appears stark. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, religious reform movements were an integral part of radical nationalist and anti-colonial struggles in Indonesia. The Dutch in Indonesia directly interfered in Islamic matters. They did away with the local Sultans and set up their own board of Islamic affairs, which was staffed with Dutch administrators. This naturally made the Indonesian ulema much more involved in the anti-colonial and nationalist movement. In what was then Malaya, on the other hand, the British retained the royal houses of the Sultans and appointed them as ‘heads’ of Islam in their own states and generally refrained from interfering in Islamic matters. The perpetuation of these monarchical structures also resulted in the strengthening of a conservative approach to the religion since the Sultans wanted to preserve the status quo..

A second, and equally crucial, factor for the difference is that Muslims form almost 90 per cent of Indonesia’s population, while they only a little more than 60 per cent of Malaysia’s population. That is why Indonesian Muslims are much more confident about their identity and feel less threatened by other communities in their midst than the Malays. And so Indonesian Muslim religious intellectuals are much more open to questioning conservative understandings of religion and to promoting more contextually-relevant responses to a range of contemporary issues.

Q: Given the inextricable link between religious and ethnic assertion among the Malays, which numerous scholars have alluded to, how do you see the phenomenon of what is commonly described as Islamic revivalism in contemporary Malaysia? Is it really a purely religious or even spiritual phenomenon? Or does it have more to do with assertion of Malay communal identity?

A: I think it is related to a large extent to the quest for the assertion of Malay identity.in multi-ethnic Malaysia. It has little, if at all, to do with any spiritual awakening. In Malaysia, this superficial so-called Islamisation and Malay ethnic assertion are in many senses synonymous because ‘Malay’ and ‘Muslim’ are regarded as interchangeable terms. The Constitution of Malaysia even lays down that considering oneself a Muslim is an integral part of being Malay. So, especially due to the sort of ethnic-based politics in Malaysia, instead of heralding a truly cosmopolitan Islam, the sort of ‘Islamisation’ that Malaysia has witnessed is leading to further reinforcing of a narrowly conceived Malay ethnic consciousness. While it is portrayed as ‘Islamisation’ it is actually little more than Malay ethnic assertion.

Take, for instance, the question of hijab or modest women’s clothing. Today most Malay women wear a head-covering, though it is clear that the sort of covering that they are so particular about is not mandated in the Quran. But for many Malays, the woman’s head-cover is not just a religious statement. It serves as a crucial marker of Malay ethnic identity, to mark off Malays/Muslims from others.

Q: From Mahathir Mohamad onwards, successive Malaysian Prime Ministers have been using Islam as an ingredient in Malaysia’s economic development strategy. Has that at all worked?

A: I don’t quite agree. I don’t think Mahathir’s version of Islam or the Islam Hadhari of his successor, Abdullah Badawi, had any major role to play in shaping or influencing Malaysia’s development strategy. Mahathir’s use of Islam was a very political move in recognition of societal pressures, to win Malay votes and to out-maneuver the ‘Islamist’ opposition. So, he set up some ‘Islamic’ institutions, but was careful not to touch the country’s capitalist system. On the economic front, he established an Islamic Bank. His experiment in ‘Islamic insurance’ has not taken off. Other than this, he made no other effort to ‘Islamise’ the economy. And I must add that I don’t think the so-called ‘Islamic banks’ are really Islamic at all. At least in the form they have assumed in Malaysia, they have fully adjusted themselves to capitalism, and are now a lucrative means to make a lot of money, while small borrowers actually pay more than what they would have to if they took loans from commercial banks.

I don’t think genuinely Islamic banking needs an‘Islamic’ label. Any system that aims at proper generation and distribution of wealth, that helps sustainable growth along with equity, can be considered Islamic without needing the ‘Islamic’ tag. If someone wants to call it ‘Christian’ or ‘Buddhist’ banking it’s fine by me. I can still call it ‘Islamic’ if it cares for the poor and reinforces justice and equity.

Why must we want to put a so-called ‘Islamic’ label on everything? It is a reflection of a narrow-minded, communal, indeed tribalistic approach to Islam and Muslim identity, one that I feel is contrary to the Quranic spirit and its universalism. So, you have people talking about ‘Islamic’ sociology or ‘Islamic’ environmental science and even ‘Islamic English’ and so on. I think this is a very restrictive way of understanding Islam. We have to get out of this suffocating obsession with such labels.

Q: Let’s come back to the question of a certain vision of Islam, as articulated by Mahathir Mohamad or Abdullah Badawi, as an ‘input’ in Malaysia’s economic development policy. Can you elaborate a little more?

A: I don’t think Islam has been an input in this sense. Perhaps the only case is that of the Tabung Haji, the government-run Haj Fund, to which people who want to perform the Haj can contribute every month. Just before they leave for the Haj they are given the money that they have saved plus some bonus. The money collected by the Tajung Haji is invested in various companies. That, I believe, is the only Islamic ‘input’, if you can call it that, into Malaysia’s otherwise capitalist path of development which undoubtedly has some elements of social justice.

Q: Mahathir Mohammad and, after him, Abdullah Badawi, repeatedly stressed what they considered to be an ‘Islamic’ work ethic as essential to the country’s development. How effective were these exhortations actually?

A: Yes, Mahathir repeatedly stressed values such as dedication, hard work, loyalty and obedience, but overall in such a way as to make them capitalism-friendly. He did not, of course, refer to other such Islamic values as redistribution of wealth, compassion and social justice that would in any way challenge capitalism.

As for Abdullah Badawi’s Islam Hadhari, I don’t think it worked at all. Although it also ostensibly sought to promote a certain work ethic, and the agencies of the state tried to promote it, , it had no impact at all on people and society in general. Islam Hadhari consists of ten points. I have no quarrel with these points, which sound very lofty, but why brand this as a certain type of Islam or add an adjective to Islam? If you want to change Muslim attitudes you have to present and approach Islam as Islam itself, without any additional adjectives, like ‘Hadhari’ or whatever. That way of packaging Islam puts off Muslims and is sure to be rejected. This is one reason why many Malaysian Muslims resisted the very concept or label of ‘Islam Hadhari’.


Chandra Muzaffar can be contacted on [email protected]


[Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Social Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore.]