Ustaz Zhulkeflee's report for Pergas on the talk by Prof. Esposito. This was translated and published in the Malay newspaper, Berita Harian on 10 August 1997 (6 Rabiulakhir 1418H) under caption "Muslim harus hati-hati akan strategi halus ilmiawan 'Orientalis' "
Just so that this comment is not taken negatively, perhaps we need to firstly clarify that we do recognize the good effort and work attempted by the organizers towards the betterment of the community, through this talks We are sure that for every good deeds there is ample reward with Allah based upon our intention. Now that this talk is over, what are the effects from it? What can we learn from our experience?
There are many in MUIS (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) and MCAS (Muslim Converts Association of Singapore- Galaxy) whose hopes and aspirations of Da’awah is in trying to project the image of Islam favorably by inviting Prof.John Esposito, a non-Muslim academician to lecture about Islam and the Muslims. We recognize the fact that some of the Prof.’s works have been able to change some of the bias perception of Western audience concerning Islam, especially his efforts at “building bridges of understanding” between Muslims and Christians. As an academician his writings have been quite objective and does not display that rabid anti-Islamic tendencies of past orientalists. In fact he projects himself more as a sympathizer. Yet his not being a Muslim, inspite of his 30 years of study should be noted by all Muslim with caution. Also, he may have been useful for Islam in the context of Western milieu (for Western audience), but towards our Muslim audience, the effect can prove negative. Therefore it is the negative effects, what these factors are which may bring upon the audience, is what we are concerned with (notably since the majority of the audience being Muslims whose understanding of Islam is comparable to [if we may paraphrase the words of the Prof. in his first talk] “1st or 4th grade although their academic achievements may be higher.”). It is in this light that we would bring to the attention of the organizers our comments and perhaps suggestions, all for the sake of Islam and Muslim Ummah.
Generally, Prof. Esposito’s observations of Islam and the Muslim are objective and shed fresh light on the plight of the Islamic world. Although he shows reluctance in offering his personal comment or judgement on how the Muslims should proceed in the future, he seems to enjoy in tempting the Muslim audience with “provocative” questions which can bring about misinterpretations - (especially when the Prof. has acknowledged that majority of Muslim understanding of Islam is comparable to 1st or 4th graders). To be precise we list down the following :
In one stage he started by saying : “Islam brags that it did not have any class of clergy like the Church, and each Muslim is directly accountable to God Thus it allows for possibility of different interpretations of Islam.” Then he cited the different schools of thoughts - the Madzaahib.
To those versed in the religion, this statement is correct, and in fact potrays the dynamics of Islamic Shari’ah which can meet the needs of the Ummah in any generation. Yet, the Prof. did not qualify as to the necessary conditions for interpreters of the Deen. It is this “gap” of not providing the explanation of the necessary disciplines required before one is deemed capable of doing the interpretation, that worries us. It may be taken by the Muslim masses as a licence for them to do their own “ijtihad” and making their own “fatwas” without appropriate qualifications. (Although we cannot accuse the Prof. of directly causing this misinterpretation, we wonder whether the “gap” was created mistakenly or deliberately.) As the learned Prof. is well aware that in matters of scholarship, only those learned on the subject has the right to speak with authority on that subject and it is especially so in matters of “ijtihad”. So the Muslim masses must be informed concerning this Adab so as not to lead to “intellectual anarchy.” Our suggestion is that we should do something to prevent this possible misinterpretation from affecting the Muslim community in Singapore.
Using term “South-east Asian Islam” instead of “ Islam in South-east Asia”
Again another subtlety was in “semantics” which an audience from the floor pointed out and sought his clarification was very important - i.e. use of the phrase “South-east Asian Islam”. The effect this term could have was admitted by the Prof. for they connote different meanings. Yet, by lightly evading this slip as though it was a petty thing, is a contradiction because only in previous talk he stressed that the choice “Muslim-Christian Understanding” was his choice instead of “Christian-Muslim Understanding.” For such a person who understands very well the implication of word arrangements, it belies his stature to take words for granted. His excuse is incredulous and thus our advise to all Muslims for extra caution.
“What Islam ?” “Whose Islam ?”
The Prof. did make it very clear that his intention was to provoke, and to be fair, he did qualify this by stating “...to provoke you into thinking”. Thus afterwards, indeed he made many statements, which provoked the minds of Muslims. Generally we tend to see this as being positive. Our worry is that provocation can only be positive if those provoked have certain potentials. Perhaps the best approach in using this method is when there is a panel of equally prominent speakers - as in a forum, so that an equal opportunity for follow through discussion from the provocation or a satisfactory response can be made. Even if the organizer felt that opportunity for this response was possible in the said talk where audience from the floor can take him on, our concern for etiquette of the audience towards a guest speaker and the constrained of the “question / answer” session itself
It is ingrained in us Muslims to hold with respect those persons with knowledge. But respect should not lead us to be uncritical. Similarly, we are to have good opinions of people by giving them the benefit of doubt. But this must be tampered with caution, not to be gullible or naive, especially a person who is clearly not a Muslim yet. We ought to learn from what had happened in past history regarding the approaches of Orientalists e.g. Dutch orientalist scholars like Snouck Hugrounye, Ignaz Goldziher etc. When Muslim scholars of Islam are held in high esteem for their knowledge, they enjoy a special distinction on account that they are believers. But for the Prof., although we acknowledge him as a learned on Islam, we cannot place him in the same level as that of our Muslim scholars. This distinction, we feel, should be made known to Muslims. Unfortunately the organizers, especially MUIS which is seen as the authority by Muslims, may project a wrong signal to the masses. The tendency for general Muslims to regard scholars invited by MUIS as resource persons on Islam is a real and prevalent tendency. Our fear is that there will be Muslims who, in their innocence and ignorance becomes gullible or naive. Traces of this attitude amongst some of those who attended the talk can be observed in the question-answer session, for example:
- someone seeking the Prof.‘s advise on what Muslims in S’pore should do.
- the Chairman’s justification that the Prof. is knowledgeable because “he has studied Islam for over 30 years”
- someone’s insistence that the Prof.should ascertain or uphold “Tawhid”.
( We can understand the questioner’s perplexity that the Professor was not a Muslim even after learning and teaching Islam for a long time. This perplexity, we feel is common to many Muslims in the audience, although it is obvious that the Prof. did not believe in it because he is still a Catholic. It is noticeable that the Prof. made mention of “Trinity” several times, although in jest, perhaps to underscore that he is still a Catholic. He even mentioned of his scholarship in the Christian theology which therefore meant that he is as much a scholar of Christianity as of Islam. Yet the gnawing question still had to be asked “Does he (actually) believe in Tauhid, the way we Muslims do ?” Why the need to question ? Was the questioner being naive or was she attempting to do Da’awah ?. Obviously, the unspoken statement made by the Prof. it seemed was “Knowing your Tauhid does not in any way convinced me that my believe in Trinity is wrong.” )
- His response that “Tauhid” does help him to understand “monotheism” better.
“Islamic centre and Periphery”
The Prof.’s observation of the shift in the focus from the centre i.e.Makkah and the Hijaz, to the periphery with regards to the proliferation of centres of Islamic learning, is a useful observation for Westerners who tends to be shortsighted. In fact this phenomena is nothing new in the Islamic history. The fault actually lies in the Westerner’s perception of the Islamic world. But we are very uncomfortable about the Prof.’s subtle suggestion to the Muslim to make other parts of the Muslim world i.e. South-east Asia to be the centre of Islam. In fact one questioner raised this question and commented upon the significant dilution of Christian ideals when their centre was turned to Rome. The Judeo- Semitic context from which Christianity started were subsequently lost. Replaced by Roman-European imagery, thoughts, language etc. With this, much of the ideals which were taught by Christ was lost and forgotten. Not only that, it led to further fragmentation of Christendom. “Christian denominations” is not the same as “the school of thoughts in Islam.” Thus, we should be forewarned of ideas which may split the Muslim world by maligning certain Muslim, or convenient categorization such as Arab Muslim, South-east Asian Muslim etc. or encouragement to dissent. Islam have been able to accommodate racial plurality positively. The issue of the centre in Islam has been settled by Allah (the Qiblah and the Haramain) and infact the rites of Hajj which draw all Muslims back to the centre is one of the most important institution of Islam which also contributed in the transfusion of ideas amongst all Muslims, instilling vitality and motivating towards revivalism and the proliferation of Islamic centres of learning elsewhere in the “periphery”. The danger is the suggestion that a particular segment of Muslim is worst than the other, a sort of stereotyping. Any particular Muslim community’s adherence to Islam must always take into account the context (the reaality) of life in which they are faced with. For example the growing militancy amongst the Muslim Palestinians, orr Muslims in Algeria, cannot therefore be totally unIslamic if we consider the treatment meted to them by the Israelites. To advocate that they should be like Muslims in South-east Asia and be less militant is too simplistic. The Prof.’s praises of Muslims in south-east Asia can cause simple minded Muslims here to feel disgusted and begin to dislike their brothers in the Middle-east.
“Learning Islam under the Orientalist”
The video clip on Georgetown university with the mission for “Muslim Christian Understanding” is useful in the context of re-orientating the Westerners. The West especially the orientalist had learnt that their past efforts to smear Islam by falsehood and gross misinterpretation of Islam, inevitably exposed their bigotry and prejudice. For truth is clear from error. Response by our contemporary scholars had made their previous works redundant and ridiculous. They have now revised their “strategy” (refer to the Vatican III letter by the Pope to this effect). Although we welcome this change, it will be naive to think that they are fully on the side of Islam. To be on friendly terms does not mean to allow our own people to be subjected to their tutelage. Especially if those learning from them does not have the correct understanding on the fundamentals of Islamic faith. This could be dangerous in the long run. Just like the Prof. himself who had to undergo extensive and intensive learning on Christianity before he was told (we don’t know who had instructed him to ?) to learn about Islam, we Muslims must jealously guard our future brains from being easily tainted.
We have had comments by some Muslims who said that even Dato’ Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia had invited the Prof. to lecture in Malaysia. Although we do not know Dato’ Anwar’s motive but in the context of Malaysia which have invited so many Muslim scholars there, the danger of the “candle” to eclipse the sun is negligible. For us in Singapore, what we fear is that that “candle” may be regarded by some as the guiding light.
Our main suggestion are :
 that in future, platform to address our Muslims by scholars who are non-Muslims must be avoided, unless it be in a forum type symposium where other equally reknown Muslim scholars share the same limelight.
 All the “gaps” which this talk by the Prof. had created should be noted seriously and efforts be made to fill them.
 The subtlety of the “orientalist’s “ approach to Islam be made known to all Muslims. Not that we cannot learn from them but to be wary of their strategy. (To some who adamantly suggest that the Prof. is not an orientalist, we say “he is not as yet a believer according to his own admission. As for him learning from a renown Muslim Scholar the late Prof. Ismail Faruqi, that is irrelevant for many orientalists have also studied under Muslim teachers. Please also note that Snouck Hugrounye even declared himself as a Muslim at one time)
(The above is just a brief comment based on whatever recollection that can be made. When we have the opportunity to review the transcript of the Prof.’s lecture, a more elaborate comments can be made - InsyaAllah ! )
Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail (PERGAS)