By Chandra Muzaffar
The deferment of the debate on the private member’s bill tabled by PAS President, Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 gives Malaysians some time to reflect on some of the implications of this move. Though some discussion has already taken place in the media on how the proposed amendment would impact upon the Malaysian Constitution, the legal system, modes of criminal punishment and non-Muslims, some significant dimensions of it have yet to be addressed by the public.
The amendment, presented as an attempt to enhance the status of Islam in fact reinforces a certain interpretation of the Syariah which distorts the real message of justice, compassion and mercy embodied in the religion. It lends credence to the 2P (Punish and Prohibit) approach to Islam. It is an approach that has been pursued by a number of Muslim majority states from Saudi Arabia and Sudan to Iran and Pakistan and has failed to resolve the ills of society or to give substance to the Islamic mission itself.
Increased punishments under Syariah which is what Hadi’s bill seeks to do have not been able to curb drug abuse in Pakistan. Neither have they been able to eliminate corruption and abuse of power in Sudan. Indeed, the 2P approach to Islam diverts attention from the fundamental challenges facing many Muslim countries — challenges related to the basic needs of the people; their rights and their dignity as citizens. It has failed miserably to ensure the honesty and integrity of Muslim rulers, or to protect the independence and sovereignty of the state.
The 2P approach to Islam is simply blind allegiance to dogma. It is dogma defined and determined by religious elites, past and present. It is dogma that boosts the power of the elites themselves. Political leaders sometimes yield to this dogma because it serves their narrow interests and enhances their popularity in the short run.
It would be a shame if out of some misconceived notion of fidelity to Islam, or because of political expediency, Muslim leaders in Malaysia align themselves to the 2P approach. They will not only betray the essence of Islam. They would be trudging on a slippery slope that will lead the nation sooner than later into a dungeon of disaster.
They should realise that for more than 250 years the 2P approach has been criticised in one form or another by leading Islamic scholars. From Shah Waliullah Dehlawi in the 18th century to Seyyed Jamaluddin Asadabadi ( al-Afghani) and Muhammad Abduh in the 19th century, to Muhammad Iqbal, Fazlur Rahman, Malek Bennabi, Nurcholis Majid and Syed Hussein Alatas in the 20th-21st centuries — they saw the weaknesses in an understanding of the religion that glorified rule over principle and form over substance. In the contemporary Muslim world, an expanding list of scholars, including Tariq Ramadan in Britain and Hashim Kamali in Malaysia, continue to espouse an Islam guided by reason and reflection rather than one obsessed with punishments and prohibitions.
Our politicians on both sides of the divide should absorb their thoughts and ideas. There are some who are already aware of the enlightened approach to Islam. They should set aside party allegiances and come together to put a stop to the 2P approach to the religion. Dissuading Hadi and his supporters from proceeding with his amendment to the Syariah Act would be a good start.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Yayasan 1Malaysia.
29 November 2016.