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JAKARTA - I was recently asked to address a conference in Seoul, Korea, organized around the theme of developing a culture of peace. Naturally, it fell to me to present an Islamic perspective on developing a culture of peace. My response was to explain that if we want to understand what Islam has to teach us about civilization, society and relations between communities, it is important that we consider the broad range of its rich intellectual heritage.
Of course the bedrock for this is the holy Koran and the Prophetic traditions (Al-Hadith). But in seeking to understand these scriptures, there is much that we can learn from 15 centuries of scholarship. Indeed, if we overlook such a legacy, we miss out on so many lessons that it has to teach us about the application of Islam to social life.
Consequently, from a scholarly perspective, we need to study the principles, of ushul fiqh, that is to say Islamic legal theory together with the treasury of the collection of legal maxims that have served to provide guiding principles down through the centuries (qowa'idul fiqh). There are also many other books and texts in the vast library of classical scholarship.
It might appear as if I'm talking of esoteric matters of interest only to scholars. In fact, there is a very practical and important point to be made here. During the 20th century, it became popular to talk of going back to the literal word of the scriptures and putting to one side all of the human scholarship that came between the reader and the text.
On the face of it this seems very pure and noble but it also contains a hidden danger. If we take, as it were, an anti-intellectual approach to studying the scriptures, one that is quick to dismiss centuries of thoughtful scholarship, we cut ourselves off from all that accumulated wisdom. And we are left with the danger of a scriptualistic formalism that prides itself on its literalistic approach to the Holy Scriptures.
In Islam, as in other scripture-based religion, this kind of narrow literalism can have devastating consequences, especially when it applied to society in a formalistic fashion. This sort of literalistic and formalistic approach to Islam is the common refuge of young men from non-religious families sent to study abroad. Very often these young people, overwhelmed by their confronting encounters with western society, take refuge in their faith and turn to religion as the source of cultural and personal identity.
This sort of response is both understandable and admirable; but unfortunately all too often these vulnerable young people fall under the influence of those who would teach simplistic religious solutions as an antidote to the complexities of the modern world. Instead of arriving at a deep understanding of Islam, in its rich and subtle intellectual and cultural context, they are presented with a simplistic, anti-intellectual reading of the scriptures that turns its back on historical and cultural knowledge.
As independent and concerned citizens in a free society, it is important that we wrestle with the difficult challenge of interpreting and applying Islam in modern society. This means that we have to not just accept, but also rather positively embrace, the fact that there exists a plurality of views on just how to do that.
A practical example of how the heritage of Islamic scholarship can assist us in finding answers to difficult questions is found in the case of apostasy. Not everyone will agree with me on this matter, but I speak frankly here in the spirit of encouraging the acceptance of a plurality of views. It is traditionally understood that, according to Islamic law, if a person converts from another religion to embrace Islam, they are doing a praiseworthy thing, but if the opposites occurs, and as Muslims they convert to another faith, then he or she is guilty of committing apostasy.
A "crime", in the eyes of some, that makes them liable to the death penalty. Needless to say, this understanding is indirect conflict with the principles of the declaration of human rights; a declaration which has been adopted by many Muslim countries. Indonesia, for example, the world's largest Muslim country, is one such country to have ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
According to a decision by the ulema, or Islamic scholars, of the mass based Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), at one of their national conferences, the application of religious law must be guided by reason, the principles of which are laid out in ushul fiqh.
At another NU congress, it was further agreed that changes in thinking about the application of religious law must be made subject to consideration of other laws and principles that have to bear on a case. What this means in practice is that it is possible to re-interpret the legal understanding of apostasy in Islam, so that it is not understood simply to refer to a Muslim converting out of Islam into other faith -- for to adopt that more simplistic understanding would be to bring Islam into conflict with the universally agreed principles of human rights.
This is a very important and practical point as the application of a simplistic understanding of the law on apostasy would require the putting to death of the 20 million or so Muslims who over the decades have converted to Christianity. If we insist on simplistic and literalistic interpretations of the scriptures, then we left in the embarrassing and troubling position of saying that the spirit of Islam means one thing but the letter of the law of Islam means another.
If however, we are prepared to learn from the insights gained over many generations of scholarship, we will be led to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of our faith. An understanding that reveals that there is no basic tension between the teachings of Islam and the need to value human rights and to allow freedom of conscience.
It is on this foundation, and on this foundation alone, that we can build an enduring culture of peace.

Abdurrahman Wahid

Posted in Religion @ 11 March 2002 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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