Malaysia: Muslim or Islamic?

Malaysia Ali Eteraz mused recently that the key to making Islam compatible with Mosque/State separation in Muslim countries is to declare Islam as the official religion, while retaining a lawmaking process that is not subject to theological review.

Great idea! That’s precisely the arrangement that exists in Malaysia. The government is predicated on a secular platform – there is no formal institutional method for vetting a law to ensure it’s compliance with Islam – but establishes Islam as the religion of the country, and backs this with funding of Mosques and so on. This has generally worked, although not without controversy since, among other things, Malaysia doesn’t have an overwhelming muslim majority (about 60% and growing). It’s a hot issue at the moment as the Malay-muslim dominated ruling coalition (UMNO-BN) continues to feel pressure from the opposition Islamic Party (PAS) to “Islamize” the country further. Our respected Deputy Prime Minister set off some debate a little while ago by declaring that Malaysia is and always has been an Islamic State. The contentious issue as I see it is not so much with calling Malaysia an “Islamic State” but with deciding what that means exactly and how that differs from what is meant by calling Malaysia a “Muslim Country”.

The point turns on what exactly is meant by “Islamic”. Prof. Sherman Jackson points out in his phenomenal book Islam and the Blackamerican that the term “Islamic”, a modern English-language designation that has no meaningful equivalent in the muslim world historically, does not mean “earning the pleasure of Allah” or even “fulfilling all the rules of sharia” but merely “a product of a traditionally muslim land”. Under that definition, our respected Deputy Prime Minister was perfectly correct. Malaysia is an Islamic state without the need to do anything at all. As a country full of muslims, who are choosing their national direction with Allah and His Messenger foremost in their hearts and minds, whatever the outcome may be can honestly be called an Islamic State, using that definition [1].

Perhaps that’s a bit jesuitical, but as Chandra Muzaffar points out in A Secular State or an Islamic State?, exemplifying the pragmatism that I would credit as Malaysia’s single most sustaining virtue, it is meaningless to argue over abstract titles the practical implications of which are not well understood by anyone, while ignoring the founding principles of the country that are clearly put forward in the constitution, are still in effect, and are still acceptable to just about every citizen around, namely:

1. A parliamentary form of government based upon the concept of one person, one vote.
2. A federal system of governance.
3. A constitutional monarchy.
4. The supremacy of the rule of law.
5. An independent judiciary.
6. Protection of fundamental liberties.
7. Malay as the national and official language.
8. The right to use and study other languages.
9. Islam as the religion of the Federation.
10. Recognition of the right of non-Muslims to practise their religions.
11. The special position of the Malays and other indigenous peoples.
12. The legitimate interests of the other communities.
(my emphasis)

Under this framework, the details that remain to be worked out, and of course these are innumerable, will need to be worked out by the totality of the citizenry regardless of what title like “Islamic” or “secular” is placed on it. Impressed by how far the nation has come in it’s first 50 years, I hope I’m around to see the next 50.

Photo Credit: Malaysia’s Flag, by Eric Teoh.


18 thoughts on “Malaysia: Muslim or Islamic?

  1. Salaam Br. Bin Gregory,

    Very interesting post…something that I too have been thinking about recently. I have much to say/ask, but I’ll start with this ‘quick’ question:

    “…there is almost no theological input to the lawmaking process…”

    How does such a system of governing provide us with an Islamic government? What is the source of the lawmaking process if its not theological?

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts!
    WA-
    Naeem

  2. wa alaykum salam Br. Naeem.

    Ok, I worded that so crudely that I\’m cringing now. My apologies. What I meant is there is no formal institutional method for vetting a law to say whether or not it is Islamically sound * . Parliamentarians propose laws, they are voted on, they pass or fail. Certainly there can be and is theological input in the sense that any lawmaker can propose legislation that is inspired by or based on the teachings of Islam. And that was my suggestion of the Deputy Prime Minister\’s intent, that if elected muslim politicians are passing laws that they feel in good conscience are in keeping with Islamic values, then is not this process the process of establishing an Islamic State?

    Part of the problem I think too is this unquestioned idea that an Islamic State is something static and fully formed, that just needs to be flipped on like a light switch and then *presto* we have earned God\’s approval. I think it\’s closer to the truth that an Islamic State is an organic evolving thing, more like an individual muslim who should always be between hope and fear of Allah on account of his deeds and should always be making progress towards bettering them. Only God in the end will judge whether we met our goal or fell short. Thus muslims laboring to govern themselves in the best possible manner available to them are an Islamic State.

    Loved your blog, btw! I\’ve added it to my feedreader.
    *[and now I\’ve revised the original sentence – Ed]

  3. Anglican is the official religion of England, but would you call it an anglican/christian state? And maybe also, if i’m not mistaken, Lutheranism in Sweden.

  4. AA- Bin Gregory,

    Thanks for the clarification, but it still leaves me with a basic question on what you said here:

    “if elected muslim politicians are passing laws that they feel in good conscience are in keeping with Islamic values, then is not this process the process of establishing an Islamic State?”

    What if the laws they are passing are NOT in keeping with Islamic values? Is there a mechanism/institution to prevent that from happening?

    (I have a feeling you may counter by asking *which* Islamic values or *whose* Islamic values – that’s a valid point but let’s leave that for later…)

    WA-
    Naeem

  5. Mat – according to a definition of “christian” that corresponds to the definition of “Islamic” that I led with above, “a product of a traditionally christian land”, yes they are. Bear in mind that I am not approving or condemning, but merely suggesting a way by which the statement “Malaysia is an Islamic State” could be held to be a true statement by the utterer.
    What I’m getting at here is that there is an unassumed definition of the term “Islamic State” whereas this means different things to different people and is not something we can reliably turn to history to settle, since “Islamic” or Islamiyin is not a qualifying adjective that was used by traditional jurists to approve or sanction a thing (see Prof Jackson’s discussion here), and moreover, the nature of the modern Nation-state is not entirely analogous to the nature of the kingdoms of the muslim world (or christian world) previously.

    Br. Naeem – I take your question to refer to Malaysia. In the case of Malaysia, the Sultan is the safeguarder of the faith and he has the authority to veto any law passed by parliament.

    I assume that you two brothers hold an idea of an Islamic state that is different from what I have suggested above.
    My question is this: Is it possible for an Islamic state of the sort you envision to behave unjustly?

  6. Congratulations on the anniversary of your marriage 🙂 Ten years and many children is a life’s work in itself 🙂 And may Allah aid your and your sons’ journey to the US, and guide your safe returns.

    Ya Haqq!

  7. AA-

    “Br. Naeem – I take your question to refer to Malaysia. In the case of Malaysia, the Sultan is the safeguarder of the faith and he has the authority to veto any law passed by parliament.”

    What if the Sultan were to become that “formal institutional method for vetting a law to say whether or not it is Islamically sound”, if he isn’t already? Would that be so wrong in your opinion?
    (If your not comfortable with one person, how about a group of scholars?)

    My question is why would that be so wrong? Are we striving for the establishment of a country of Muslims or an Islamic country (that is guided by Quran/Sunnah)?

    You ask “Is it possible for an Islamic state of the sort you envision to behave unjustly?”

    To be honest, I don’t have any clear vision of an Islamic state, so I can’t answer definitively. What I can say is that any man-made system has the possibility (and probability) of behaving unjustly. No system can ever make a claim to the contrary.

    WA-

  8. Dear binGregory, Naeem & Mat,

    The problem with Malaysia is that those who wanted Malaysia as an ‘Islamic state’ have no idea how to do so in the vibrant, often secular, multi-cultural society. As bin Gregory said, “Part of the problem I think too is this unquestioned idea that an Islamic State is something static and fully formed, that just needs to be flipped on like a light switch and then *presto* we have earned God\’s approval”

    To even suggest that application of Islam can be an evolving matter will cut no ice with the religious establishment in Malaysia. Recent ‘apostacy’ cases of Revathi and Lina Joy shows how out of touch the religious bodies are with the society as a whole.

    The Sultan as the defender of THE Faith (a bit like Prince Charles here) is a concept which is loosing popularity. Firstly, the sultans don’t really play ball with power-hungry ethno-religious establishments. Secondly, the sultans are no longer ‘infallible’, their ‘daulat’ is a thing of the past. Thirdly, their lifestyle can be far removed from the grassroot Malay-Muslim population who are increasingly falling under the guile of UMNO or PAS.

    So, let Malaysia stay secular. Her citizens guarded by the constitution – for the simple reason that the ‘Islamic state’ idea that has been put forward by the establishment cares little for the citizens

  9. salams Naeem,

    Yes, the Sultan does effectively function as such, and no, I’m not saying that’s wrong. I’m not advocating anything, in fact. My point is that what exists in Malaysia now can be taken to be an Islamic State (as open to definition as that term is) by virtue of the fact that muslims are involved in shaping it and that Islam is the religion of the Federation. Under this understanding, We are It. It may be flawed according to the opinion of some, but you have already ceded that infallibility is not attainable by humans. So there is no end-point to the process – there is just improvement in bringing ourselves closer to God’s vision for us, as we understand that to be and as mediated through our leaders. What I’m talking about here is Pragmatism: Malaysia, God bless it, is an extremely pragmatic country, and I pray it will continue adding What Works on top of What Works in pursuit of What We Want, which I hope is and will continue to be the Good Pleasure of Allah.

    What is disingenuous, and I do not say this of you as you admit to its essential human and therefor fallible nature, is when those who obsess about the necessity of an “Islamic State” of their dreams claim that such a State will by definition be successful in the here and now in terms of providing for what we turn to a State these days to provide: wealth, education, security, even morality, and so on. In fact, God has promised us none of these things. A True Islamic State ™ may still be tested by God through poverty, crime, natural disaster, war and so on and so forth. We are His slaves and He deals with us as He wills. May God give us all the best in this life and the best in the Hereafter, inspire the hearts of our Leaders, and reward us from His Mercy and not from His Justice, Amin.

  10. AA-

    Br. Bin Gregory, I understand where you are coming from but I find it a bit problematic when you say:

    ” It may be flawed according to the opinion of some, but you have already ceded that infallibility is not attainable by humans.”

    Yes I did state that infallibility is not possible in any human endeavor. But that does not mean that we should simply slap a label of Muslim or Islam on *any* person or system solely based on their claim. There are criteria for making such claims.

    A person who believes that alcohol is legal and continues to claim to be a Muslim while citing man’s weak nature as an excuse is not being sincere.

    The fact that a perfect system is not possible does not preclude us from trying our best to create a system most aligned with the Quran.

    That being said, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on where Malaysia can improve itself and bring itself “closer to God’s vision for us”.

    “May God give us all the best in this life and the best in the Hereafter, inspire the hearts of our Leaders, and reward us from His Mercy and not from His Justice, Amin.”

    Ameen, Thank you
    WA-
    Naeem

  11. was –
    you said: But that does not mean that we should simply slap a label of Muslim or Islam on *any* person or system solely based on their claim.
    The term in question is \”Islamic\” which you have yet to define, but which I have suggested, after Prof Jackson, is a neologism with no clear equivalent in traditional scholarship. My position is that it is in fact a label, nothing more, and that there are no clear criteria by which a government acquires the right to use the label (you allude that there may be such criteria – you would clarify your side of the discussion by sharing these), and more to the point, there is no value in applying the label in the first place, as a thing doesn\’t change based on what you call it.

    It is in my mind not much different from calling America a Free Country. It is not absolutely free, it is relatively so. It may be more than other countries, less than some, and at some distance from the amount of Free it could possibly be. But to declare it a Free Country â„¢ is not particularly meaningful and is just a drive for legitimacy. Basically, I\’m in agreement with Nizam when he said to you:

    Furthermore, I think the label “Islamic” on any state, ever, regardless of how it is constituted, can only be a label, and never anything more. That is in part because no worldly institution can ever claim a monopoly, or a unique insight, on what it means for a governmental system to be “Islamic”

    I agree fully that we should \”[try] our best to create a system most aligned with the Quran.\” although I attest that there is not one but a multiplicity of ways to do this as numerous as the nations, tribes and peoples on Earth. But we can do this whether or not we are in a self-declared and self-defined \”Secular\” government, a self-declared and self-defined \”Islamic\” one or in any other situation we find ourselves, according to the means at our disposal.

  12. AA-

    Br. Bin Gregory, you said “I attest that there is not one but a multiplicity of ways to do this as numerous as the nations, tribes and peoples on Earth.”

    I absolutely 100% agree. There is no single definition of Islamic. That’s why I’m all for *an* Islamic entity (be it state, republic, khilafa, etc.) and not *the* Islamic entity. Because I understand that no one interpretation can claim a monopoly over the term Islamic. But as I said there must be some minimum standards for making such claims.

    So you ask me what are my criteria for such claims? What does it mean to be ‘Islamic’?

    First of all, I don’t agree that the label ‘Islamic’ is only a label. I believe that its the fundamental identity of the values on which the society is based. Values such as justice, mercy, and ihsan. If these Quranic values are found in a society, it can only then be termed Islamic.

    Otherwise, having ‘Islamic’ in the official title of the nation makes no difference. I think that is what you meant when you said “there is no value in applying the label in the first place, as a thing doesn\’t change based on what you call it.”

    So what are the criteria? I think the most fundamental would be a clear declaration that ultimate sovereignty belongs to the Divine (that is why I’m so against popular sovereignty). This means that the leadership agrees to do its best to establish a just society based on the Quranic worldview. Interpretations will vary. An Islamic society would be one in which there exists the sincere collective attempt by the leadership, the scholars and the citizenry to apply an interpretation most suitable for the local community.

    That being said, I don’t envision a strong centralized governance. I see a minimal footprint which empowers the individuals to blossom spiritually and cultivates a just society with nominal enforcement.

    And yes an ideal Islamic system would also entail basic liberal values, such equal rights, rule of law, freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, and so on.

    Based on my, admittedly vague, definition of Islamic, can you see how I question the label of Islamic on a secular government, whose fundamental principle (as Chandra Muzaffar places as number one on his list of Malaysia’s founding principles: “A parliamentary form of government based upon the concept of one person, one vote.”) is antithetical to mine?

    One more question for you my dear friend: You stated that Dr. Jackson’s definition of ‘Islamic’ as: “does not mean “earning the pleasure of Allah” or even “fulfilling all the rules of sharia” but merely “a product of a traditionally muslim land”.

    Would this definition include a Muslim land in which blatant Quranic violations are sanctioned by the polity? I have a feeling that is not what the good doctor intended. Allah knows best.

    Naeem

  13. The point with Prof Jackson was making, which you can read by holding your mouse over the footnote [1] after the quote up there, is that the term Islamic does not carry any religious legitimacy in and of itself, as the term is commonly used. Consider for example Islamic Journalism, Islamic Environmental Systems Engineering, or Islamic Architecture. Now, if you want to define the word in a different manner and then dish it out so that only nations that meet your criteria receive the Naeem Certified Islamic label, suit yourself, but that is an equally meaningless exercise.

    can you see how I question the label of Islamic on a secular government, whose fundamental principle (as Chandra Muzaffar places as number one on his list of Malaysia’s founding principles: “A parliamentary form of government based upon the concept of one person, one vote.”) is antithetical to mine?

    No, I don’t see. I don’t see how it fails to merit your label of approval. I don’t see where one person one vote, especially in a nation where Islam is the religion of the state, is antithetical to “the sincere collective attempt by the leadership, the scholars and the citizenry to apply an interpretation most suitable for the local community.” Are you doubting the sincerity part? On what basis do you presume to evaluate, much less guarantee, the sincerity of a nation of individuals? What if half the country is sincere and the other half isn’t? What if the leadership is sincere but the followers are not? Weren’t there hypocrites and dissemblers living in Medina right under the gaze of our beloved Prophet, peace be upon him?

    Almighty God does not judge nations on the Day of Judgment, He judges individuals. No individual will achieve salvation based on the government he lived under, but based on his actions. To the extent that *trying to govern* by what Allah commands is a collective obligation, the individual discharges that obligation when he votes his religious conscience.

  14. AA-

    Br. BG, you wrote: “No, I don’t see. I don’t see how it fails to merit your label of approval.”

    Maybe I didn’t explain myself properly. When I said I find the fundamental principle of Malaysia in direct contrast with my understanding of an Islamic government, I meant the issue of supreme sovereignty.

    I understand a parliamentary government to mean “A national representative body having supreme legislative powers within the state.” And if those powers are limited by the Quran/Sunnah, then such a government would be Islamic. However, if the only limit to their legislative powers is the will of the people, that is where my Naeem Certified Islamic label will not be given. 🙂

    “Are you doubting the sincerity part? On what basis do you presume to evaluate, much less guarantee, the sincerity of a nation of individuals?”

    Basically, I added the condition of ‘sincere’ to imply that its the effort to attain a just Islamic society that is needed, not the end result per se. As long as the collective society is working to apply the Q/S, that is all we can ask for. Whether or not the Divine Will has been actualized is secondary.

    I figure that mere application of the outer form of an Islamic government is NOT in agreemtn with the Sunnah, so an element of sincerity, taqwa, and tawhid are necessary.

    Basically I see a fundamental difference between a group of Muslims who acting on their desires (which are obviously influenced by Q/S, but also by other outside forces) happen to enact legislation that is aligned with the Divine Will versus a group of Muslims who purposefully (and sincerely) attempt to extract the DW from the Q/S. Even if the latter group gets it wrong, I see that as being closer to the spirit of Islam than if the former group got it right.

    Now does *that* make sense?

    Allah knows best.

    Thanks for your thoughts bro,
    WA-
    Naeem

  15. Ok, I get what you’re saying. I still don’t agree, because I don’t see how you operationalize the sovereignty of Q/S with out placing it in the hands of a person or persons. There’s a famous story about Sayyidina Ali, karamallahu wajh, where disputants asked for their affair to be settled only by the Quran. Sayyidina Ali had them all sit in a circle with the Quran in the middle. The answer was not forthcoming. But I see where you’re coming from and I’m content to leave it at that.

    Thanks for the discussion and stop by anytime.

    wasalam

  16. the key to making Islam compatible with Mosque/State separation in Muslim countries is to declare Islam as the official religion, while retaining a lawmaking process that is not subject to theological review

    This sounds like it should sound good but first I think we should have a definition of what constitutes theology and then, theological review. After we have a better grasp on what Mr. Eteraz means by those terms we can make a better decision if we should be making a “key” for that lock or leaving the door open to other possibilites.

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