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Saturday, April 26, 2008


Adapted from a talk by Ustaz Zhulkeflee delivered for
Darus-Salaam Mosque, Clementi, Singapore,
during their “Racial Harmony Day open house”,.
24th July 2005.


Initially the topic was only “Islam and the West”. I can understand the organizer’s choice (preference) seeing that the media discourses as well as recent happenings in London has inadvertently put Islam and Muslims further in a negative light. Although time and time people are told to not place any blame on the religion of Islam, yet unconsciously, many cannot differentiate Islam the religion, with actions of Muslims whether their actions be Islamic or un-Islamic.

Islam as a religion, in the present age, has been much misunderstood – especially so in the West. It would seem that with many negative images of Islam, the West may assume the attitude of confrontation towards it and may even alienate Islam’s message which every Muslim knows to be universal for all mankind. Thus, the topic chosen was perhaps to cast some light upon these, as many Muslims feel obliged to clarify possible misperceptions of the West about Islam (nay even by every non-Muslim). Yet, I am not comfortable with just reacting, but would advise caution by considering the possibility that certain response itself may perhaps accentuate further misconception about Islam rather than clarify. Therefore, I have added to the topic with “a reflection on Islam and the East-West dichotomy.”

One of the misconceptions, as can be gleaned from various intellectual and media discourses, was to reduce and categorize Islam as though belonging to the East. By choosing the topic “Islam and the West” only, we Muslims may unconsciously justify this misapplied categorization towards Islam. As with every religion which promotes universal teachings and values, attempt at localizing it would cause in some peoples’ mind, to unfairly disregard its relevance for possible benefits in its message for themselves and mankind elsewhere, irrespective of where they may be – East or West, North or South. Also, I suspect that in some Muslims, perhaps they are unable to distinguish (especially the possible implication) of saying “Islam belongs to us” (which sounds exclusivist) rather than with the correct message of saying “We belong to Islam.” For the truth is that Islam belongs to Allah and His messenger and meant for all mankind. The former statement (“Islam belongs to us”) can even lead to an unjustified “holier than thou attitude” where Islam is used by some such Muslims to only judge others and not themselves, whereas even as Muslims, we are to be judged even more so, by the teachings and pristine principles of Islam. To want to defend Islam is noble but, we must ensure that the methods used to achieve this purpose must firstly be in conformity with Islam. Arbitrarily applying the label “Islamic” by Muslims for whatever their agenda without them conforming to Islam’s true teachings, is itself un-Islamic. Non-Muslims too need to know the great distinction between “Islam” and “Muslim” and should not naively assume that these two terms are synonymous. Unfortunately, many (be they intellectuals and media) are obsessed with indiscriminate and careless affixing of such labels, thereby inadvertently they are condoning or encouraging mayhem to be perpetuated in the name of the religion

Power of religious labels and symbols

Every religion has its own symbols and has every right to use it, albeit in legitimate ways when truly representing its teachings. Yet, we are not unaware that religious symbols can be and have been misused to sway or even fanned blind fanaticism amongst the general followers of any religious faith. Agents’ provocateur exists on every side. We have seen these occurring in the history of Judaism (amongst the various Zealots and Messianic cults) or the Christians (crusaders and inquisitors) in early times; or even in modern times by cults claiming to represent Christianity. In the sub-continent (India and Pakistan), religious symbols were used by irresponsible groups to incite hatred that led to civil strife amongst Shiite-Sunni Muslims and in the numerous Hindu-Muslim riots there. Even in our neighbouring country Indonesia, when local social conflicts were allowed to be carelessly identified with religions and religious symbols, it had caused tragic consequences in Ambon and Maluku. What have we learnt? If not the simple fact that ordinary (laity) followers of any religion can loose their sense of rationality when irresponsible elements hide their evil agenda in the garb of religion and religious symbols. This becomes compounded when the knowledge amongst the lay followers of their own religion are allowed to remain superficial and their understanding of religious and regional history, truncated.

We are already aware of the fallacy of using name of religion, any religion, for evil acts. The persistence of media mislabeling mayhem and terror with “Islam” indiscriminately is indeed assisting these elements that seek to confuse the masses. For the general Muslims, it can become worst if they were to loose the knowledge and adab
[2] to distinguish the true religious leaders from the false; when traditional religious hierarchy of ulama’ (Islamic scholars) are allowed to be undermined with such callous call for general Muslims to undertake ijtihad (determining juristic rulings) themselves, when in Islam these are only for those qualified to be faqih[3] and mujtahid[4]. Although there is no priesthood in Islam, yet this does not imply an egalitarian notion as though there is absence of authority in matters of dictating Islamic teachings. Well meaning intellectuals and journalists in their discourses must know their place when commenting on Islam. They have a responsibility to ensure that what they comment about Islam are from legitimate authoritative sources from amongst true Islamic scholars (ulama’)[5]. To present views of dissenters and pseudo-scholars (of past and present), is only encouraging a form of ‘anarchy’ amongst general Muslim readers (audience of these discourses). If our remark here invites the question “who are these ‘ulama’?”, then perhaps the priority is for (those who asked from well-meaning intellectuals and scholars) themselves to be adequately informed of this aspect first, before attempting to offer suggestions of “this Islam and that Islam” as though there can be many types of Islam[6]. To detect this perplexity when reminded that there is only one Islam, even amongst many contemporary Muslims, is not surprising as the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have prophesied: “Bada-ad-diin gharii-ba wa-sa-ya-‘uu-du-gha-rii-ba kama bada-a….” meaning: “This religion (Al-Islam) began as something strange (rare or alien), and it will return to become something strange (rare)…”

“La sharqiyyah, la gharbiyyah, wah-dah, wah-dah Islamiyyah”

The Arabic phrase above means: “Neither East, nor West, (there is only) One, (there is only) One Islam” is also a call towards unity amongst Muslims in Islam – reflecting the basic principle of Tawhid (Attestation to the Oneness of God). This would imply clearly the distinction between “Islam” (the religion) which there is only One, from “Muslims” (its followers) which can be diverse. The non-Muslims and Western tendency to view Islam as being from the East, on account of the presence of its majority adherents happens to be found there, or that Prophet Muhammad s.a.w
[7]. appeared historically in Arabia which, geographically located in the Middle-east according to current convention), is only incidental.

Directional orientation of East-West-North-South is relative, and the current convention used is rather Eurocentric. Yet to Muslims’ worldview, Makkah is seen as the centre. And Islam came to address all mankind, east-west-north-south. Thus the name for Morocco is “al-Maghribi” (which has the meaning of ‘Western’) precisely because it was at that period the furthest known territory west of Arabia. Yet, today it is regarded to be ‘Eastern’ whereas; geographically it is in the same longitude with Western countries such as United Kingdom and Spain!

It is amazing that after knowing the earth to be a globe (sphere), the east-west perception remains, perhaps because originally it was for geographical (cartographical) convenience and can still be relevant. But now, the “East-West dichotomy” carries a non-geographical connotation for distinction – more of reflecting culture and civilization rather than location. We should reflect: “how did this ‘East-West divide’ come about?” It can perhaps be traced to its uncanny similarity with the previous categorization of Colonial-imperialist expansionist worldview of the term “Occidental vis-à-vis Oriental
[8]” and therefore may now seemed inappropriate, especially after post-colonial era as its use then reflected attempts by the European powers at demarcation of the world for conquest and domination. But, with the change in terms from ‘Occident’ to ‘Western’ and ‘Orient’ for ‘Eastern’; and when many of these countries have gained their independence from their colonial masters, would such ‘East-West’ identification removed the xenophobic effect and resentment it once had amongst people? The old sentiments (confrontational attitude between the colonialist and the colonized) may still exist as old baggage in many Asians and Africans, as it may also exist in the psyche of some people of America and Europe. Citizens in these newly independent countries may have shown willingness to bury past enmity towards their former masters, or even live with them, but it may still lay latent in their subconscious. Perhaps now, discourse in East-West dichotomy undertaken insensitively may have unconsciously revived these negative feelings. Some people may begin to perceive, rightly or wrongly, many foreign policies of the West directed towards Asia. Africa and Eastern Europe to be unjust or even coined a term “neo-imperialists” agenda; or the careless use of terms of “invasion”, warning of impending “clash” of civilizations, the problems or perception of “discrimination” experienced by Asian immigrants in these countries etc. indeed may have impeded process of transforming us all as global citizens of the world. To say: “we are not against Islam” and then follow it up by demanding “either you are with us or against us!” is sending a confused message. It has ignored the majority Muslims as well as amongst many other peace loving people who do not wished to be embroiled in enmity between two contending parties. Perhaps they are ignorant of the issue but they are already strongly committed to peace and perhaps advocate peaceful resolutions. And amongst Muslims, the knowledge that Islam advocates peace is a positive sign and should not be doubted. If their support is needed, than issues must be clarified sincerely and truthfully, for a principle in Islam teaches:

“And pursue not something in which you have no knowledge in, for every act of hearing, or seeing and (of feeling in the) heart, all these will be questioned (by Allah in the Hereafter)”
(Qur’an: al-Isra’: 17:36).

To hanker after them may backfire as it can expose a sense of perception of being suspicious towards them and their neutrality. To insist in using black and white argument can be regarded as unfair, nay a provocation, to those who know that, reality acknowledges the existence of grey.

The world’s populations are now becoming diversely mixed, and old territoriality constituting homogeneous race are decreasing with mobility and globalization. Unfortunately, we have yet a long way to eradicate hatred in people when such xenophobic mindsets are allowed to fester or insensitively ignored or even inflamed.

Righteousness neither belongs to East nor West

What does Islam have to say about “East and West”?. Below is a profound response in the Qur’an:

“It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces towards the East or the West; But it is righteousness to believe in God and the Last Day,
And the Angels and the Book, and the Messengers;
To spend of your substance, out of love of Him (God) for your kin,
For orphans for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask,
And for the ransom of slaves;
To be steadfast in prayer, and the practice of regular charity;
To fulfill the contracts which ye have made;
And to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and in adversity,
And throughout all periods of panic.
Such are the people of Truth, the God fearing.”
(Qur’an: al-Baqarah: 2: 177)

Islam’s refusal to be dragged into this sort of categorization, that it is neither East nor West should be reflected and appreciated. Religion and religious values, and call towards righteous living by all religion and moral philosophy can be the panacea. What we need is a genuine human consciousness that places universal values and brotherhood of man over concerns which are exploitative towards one another that leads to enmity and hatred. Thus religious harmony and cooperation towards instilling righteousness and morality, compassion and tolerance, which can be found in all religions are potential towards human survival, and may be the only way out of this man-made quagmire of hatred between fellowmen. The teachings are in all the world religions and genuine moral philosophies, but the important question that each of us must serious ask is: “how well has it been followed today?”

“Help ye one another in righteousness and piety,
But help ye not one another in sin and rancour (enmity and hatred):
Be conscious of God (and fear Him),
For God is strict in punishment.”
(Qur’an: al-Ma-idah: 5: 2)

Global consciousness must transcend East-West, North-South dichotomy

We recognized that we are entering into the era of globalization. But, what do we mean by being “global”? It is only when man is able to mutually respect each other as fellow humans irrespective of our diversity that we become truly global. Indeed this assertion is well-known in Islam through God’s message for mankind, revealed 1400 years:

“O Mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and female.
And made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you.
And God has full knowledge and is well-acquainted (with all things).
(Qur’an: al-Hujurat: 49: 13)

The message of one humanity as a global family is clear, despite the perceived external differences we see in each other. Such differences are meant to spur us towards acquaintance and friendship, respect and tolerance, and not to despise one another. Islam believes in the inherent good nature in every man, and we must guard it from being corrupted. Do we really know each other? If so, are we genuine in wanting to know one another? Tolerance can be possible when there is mutual respect; and mutual respect requires perception of justice and the upholding of the fundamental rights of every man. These are important elements to be considered. Evil and hatred should not be allowed to come between us, for “we belong to God and unto God we shall all be made to return to.”

WaAllaahu a’lam,
Wabillaahi-taufiq wal-Hidaayah,

God knows best!
And with God is the Success and Guidance.
And may Peace be unto all.

Ustaz Zhulkeflee Haji Ismail.

PERGAS (Association of Islamic Scholars & Religious Teachers Singapore)



[1] It is to be noted that this seems to be happening towards Islam and Muslims, and rarely when mayhem were perpetrated by others – not that it should be similarly applied. Perpetrator guilty of criminal act rightly deserves the label ‘criminals’ but do not link whatever religion which he profess to belong.

[2]Adab’ has in some instance been translated as ‘etiquette’ which is rather inaccurate because it actually mean “knowledge of placing the right thing in its proper place” in reflects sense of justice (‘adl) and therefore absence of it reflects injustice (zulm).

[3] Jurists.

[4] Jurists with competencies to extrapolate from Islamic principles and pass decree on Islamic law to guide the Muslim community, especially involving new or unprecedented matters.

[5] Amongst Muslims, the term “’ulama’ mu’tabar” has been used to categorized views from those Islamic scholars that is accepted and credible.

[6] There is only one Islam. Do not confuse “madzaahib” (schools of thought) with denominations as in Christianity. Even these (madzaahib) too have been carefully classified within the body of Islam as various forms of acceptable interpretations.

[7] s.a.w. (from “sal-lallaahu ‘alayhi wa-sal-lam” meaning “may God’s salutations (blessings) and peace be upon him”) a respectful address when the name of the Prophet of God is mentioned.

[8] These terms are now usually used academia.

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