The recent proposal by some political and religious leaders to amend the Malaysian Constitution to specify that Article 3 which states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation” refers only to the teachings of Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah (ASWJ) has far-reaching implications. Does it mean that non-Sunni, minority sects will not be recognised as Islamic? If such sects — the Shias being a case in point — are not recognised as Islamic, what would be their status? How would such an amendment impact upon Malay Shias since Islam is one of the defining attributes of Malay identity?
From the perspective of the global Muslim community, this attempt to confine Islam to the ASWJ runs contrary to the thinking of the vast majority of Sunni scholars themselves. Though they acknowledge the differences between the ASWJ and the Shias, they have always regarded the minority sect as a legitimate part of the Muslim ummah. This was reiterated in unambiguous language in the Amman Message which has been described as one of the most important declarations produced by the Muslim world in the last one thousand years.
Initiated by King Abdullah 11, the monarch of Jordan, in November 2004, the Amman Message was formalised by 200 of the world’s leading Islamic scholars from 50 countries at an international conference in Amman in July 2005. Among them were the Grand Shaykh Al-Azhar, Shaykh Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi and Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, both Sunnis, and the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, a Shia. The Amman Message embodies three essential points.
1) It recognises the validity of all 8 Mathhabs (legal schools) of Sunni, Shia and Ibadhi Islam; of traditional Islamic theology ( Ash’arism); of Islamic Mysticism ( Sufism), and of true Salafi thought.
2) It forbids takfir (declarations of apostasy) between Muslims.
3) It sets forth the subjective and objective preconditions for the issuing of fatwas, thereby exposing ignorant and illegitimate edicts in the name of Islam.
These three points were adopted at the OIC summit in Mecca in December 2005 and at other scholarly assemblies culminating with its acceptance by the International Islamic Fiqh Academy of Jeddah in July 2006.
The official website of The Amman Message shows that the Message and its three points have been endorsed by a large number of Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers and other high officials, apart from notable religious personalities representing the majority and minority sects within the ummah. Both King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Khamenei of Iran are endorsers.
It is significant that from Malaysia, the former Prime Minister, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, heads the list of endorsers. The current leader of the Opposition, Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim is also an endorser as are two serving Ministers in the present Federal Cabinet, namely, Dato Seri Shahidan Kassim and Khairy Jamaluddin. Two established Malaysian Islamic scholars, Professor Hashim Kamali and Professor Kamal Hassan, are also on the list of endorsers.
In the last couple of years there have been other efforts to reduce the antagonism between Sunnis and Shias and to promote better understanding between the two sects. In May 2013, through JUST, I initiated a joint appeal from Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and the former Iranian President, Muhammad Khatami, to Sunnis and Shias the world over to stop killing one another. In early October this year, I co-convened a special session at the World Public Forum in Rhodes, Greece which brought together Sunni and Shia scholars from different countries who reiterated their support for the Amman Message and proposed various other measures to improve ties between the two groups.
Given the prevailing negative attitude towards Shias among some religious and political figures in Malaysia, it is imperative that the Prime Minister, the Minister in charge of Islamic Affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office, and State and Federal Territory Muftis publicly endorse the Amman Message. There are at least 5 compelling reasons why they should do so.
1) It would signal a clear rejection of the erroneous view propagated by a segment of the media and various public personalities that the Shias are a ‘deviant’ sect. As we have seen, this is a view that is totally unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Muslims who see them as integral to the ummah.
2) It would assure Malaysian Muslims as a whole that those who demonise Shias and place them in the same category as cults such as “Tuhan Harun” have not gained control of the Religious Establishment and are not dictating policies pertaining to Islam.
3) It would serve to assuage the fear among thinking Malaysians that certain aspects of our domestic and foreign policies are being increasingly influenced by the interests of retrogressive, conservative forces from elsewhere who are unwittingly undermining our social cohesion, on the one hand, and our national sovereignty, on the other.
4) It would reinforce our commitment to the unity of the Muslim ummah especially since the Sunni-Shia divide has been exploited by various groups to weaken Muslim solidarity in the face of monumental challenges emanating from global powers bent on perpetuating their hegemony.
5) It would contribute significantly to national unity since the Amman Message also contains ideas which are most conducive for fostering empathy in a multi-religious society. It states lucidly that “Islam honours every human being, without regard to race and religion.” It further emphasises that “Islam demands that the faithful treat others as they desire to be treated. It urges tolerance and forgiveness, qualities that elevate human life, and calls for treating others justly, safeguarding their rights and possessions.”
It is not enough for our political and religious leaders to merely endorse the Amman Message. The Message should be made part of the Islamic curriculum in secondary schools and universities. It should be distributed within the entire community of ustaz and ustazah (religious teachers) throughout the country. The Amman Message should be integrated into the Friday Khutbah (sermon) and the media, especially Radio and Television, should focus on it.
When the Amman Message becomes an important dimension of the collective consciousness of the people, Malaysian Muslims will have a better appreciation of the relationship between Sunnis and Shias. They will understand their similarities and differences in the context of the essence of Islam. It is when they become really knowledgeable about the essence of Islam that the inclination to switch from one sect to another will also diminish.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia and President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).
23 December 2013.