Response by Ustaz Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail (PERGAS), to written questions posed by Ms Bharati Jagdish, Producer – presenter (RSI) Radio Singapore International- followed by Radio interview @ PERGAS, Wisma indah, November 2003.
- Q1. Islam and Radicalism: Could you share with us your views on the elements of radicalism in the Muslim world that have been receiving international attention recently.
“Radical”: favouring thorough or complete change, reform; holding extreme view; new and different.
This label is somewhat inherently very judgemental and subjective!
Life is also about change. No community should remain stagnated or fossilised. In the application of Islamic teachings, Muslims are taught to consider their current state and circumstances, the evolving customs and changing lifestyles and technology. So for Muslims element of changing is inherently taught in Islam “Allah does not change the state of any people unless they change what is in themselves” (Q: ar-Ra’ad: 13:11).
In the history of Islamic civilisation, there have been Muslims with ‘radical ideas’ but their ‘radicalism’ was never viewed as ‘bad’ but have proven to be a catalyst for ‘progress’ amongst the Muslims. But I guess you are not referring to ‘radicalism’ in this sense. Perhaps by ‘radicalism’ you mean the observed phenomena amongst people who assert their ideas or view in a manner which is ‘totally different” and thereby not easily accepted and are perceived generally as negative elements. It is something observed amongst people.
Regarding approach of study, many would already use the Western sociological / anthropological methods of observation. But wouldn’t this somewhat already be coloured by the Western bias (status quo), since generally Muslims who begin to be conscious of their identity, would resist being absorbed into what they perceived as efforts at changing their inherent nature? Thus, their attitudes would generally be seen as radical if judged from this perspective. Perhaps it is how they react that may qualify them to be regarded as radical.
Historically, Western imperialism has dominated the Muslim world for a very long time. The impact of the Western systems (especially education, economic and political systems) imposed upon the Muslims identity have somewhat, to a certain extent, alienated them from their own tradition. Emergence of independent states have not really freed them but rather left many to face a dilemma: that on one hand they cannot totally reject what the system have prepared them with (as well as their own lack of alternative due to inadequate knowledge of the religion), yet on the other they wish to assert their own identity of being Muslim.
The ‘experiment’ to evolve into their own saw many models being tried out in the Muslim world – from the Marxist socialist to western liberal democracy, usually led by the western educated (so-called ‘neo-colonialists.’) Generally the masses do not have their own choice but are willing to follow whatever their leaders adopt or adapt
Then there was the ‘reformist-modernist’; those who seek to return to Islam but in some ways may have adopted some of the western methods or tools. They rode on the general frustrations of the masses towards what they perceived as failures of these ‘neo-colonialists’. Yet, because of the lacuna (historically) in terms of the practical applications of the Islamic teachings (especially economic and political), they only rely on theories taken from classical era which may not be relevant in today’s context (e.g. the dual separation of the world into Darul Harb vs Darul Islam – remember these were times when Islam was dominant; fiqh legalism and obsession with forms and forgot the spirit; etc). We find ‘reformist’ movements with various emphasis e.g. Afghani’s Pan-Islamism, to Abduh and Sir Ahmad Khan’s accommodative approach through education; to Iqbal’s call for Reconstruction of Islamic Thought; Muadudi’s and Syed Qutb more political orientation etc. The most truncated was the Wahabbi movement of the Hanbalite school in Saudi Arabia. The Hanbalite has never in the past had the opportunity to apply their jurisprudence at the national level like the Hanafite, Malikite and Shafiite. This Hanbalite school is the most literal and legalistic and perhaps is likely to be seen as most radical even amongst Muslims. And the ‘oil’ or petro-dollar has somewhat facilitated the spread of this school. When ‘radicalism’ becomes misconstrued as being more authentic, this somehow set the stage for other schools to ‘react’ by themselves being radical.
Perhaps one of significant impetus, which heightened Islamic revivalism and perhaps ‘radicalism’, was during the Iranian Revolution. Yet, due to the inbuilt stress for obedience to the ‘authoritive heirachy’ of the Ulama’ in Imamiyyah Shi-ism, it’s spread is limited and localised in the Middle-east, although the fervour was inspirational to the general Sunnite Muslims elsewhere.
Of course there are also progress made by those who do not rely on slogan-chanting but through their striving to assimilate the best of the contemporary sciences (in education), divesting it of whatever anti-Islamic underpinning and philosophy and ‘integrating them to Muslim’s ethos and worldview. The latter groups effort perhaps is not seen as ‘radical’ but rather ‘gradual’ precisely because it rely upon objective assessment of strength and weakness of Islam and Modern science, through dialogue and striving to live Islam as alternative and model, without being confrontational. So do we then apply the term ‘conservatives’ to this people? To differentiate them with the ‘radicals’?
So I guess by ‘radical’ here perhaps, it would mean those who seek change in a manner that made them stands out ‘very different from what we expect’? or those who are ‘going against the grain’ of the general order?
Some of the elements of these forms of ‘radicalism’:
These are general observations of those whose approaches may somewhat lacks the ‘finesse’ in presenting their religious stand and which led them to be labelled as ‘radicals’.
 Truncated sense of history – and cannot link themselves with the perennial and continuous stream of the history of Islamic civilization. Thereby they appear to want to start on a clean slate (tabula rasa), jettisoning the vast accumulated learning and traditional wisdom of Islamic scholars of the past – while imagining themselves to be of equal rank with them whereas their grounding on Islamic sciences are most wanting. Thus they often fall into the adage of ‘reinventing the wheel’.
 Relying upon general principles and theories but lack the critical assessment of context and reality;
 Insistence on forms (exterior manifestation), neglecting the essential quality and value of the message of Islam;
 Too quick to label and reject without realising that many developments in this modern age are already intrinsically ‘Islamic’; actually this is symptomatic of their own ignorance about Islam. Instead of being truthfully and humbly submit that they do not really know, they’d rather reject it as being unIslamic on the basis of their not knowing (ignorance).
 May be due to some inherent frustrations or unhappiness (a human failing), or even their own social inadequacy but seek refuge in the name of religion. They liked to be seen as championing the religion whereas they should firstly apply the teachings of the religion itself as panacea to their own failings and inadequacy. I used to say: “Before talking about the Islamic state, consider the state of Islam in yourself!”
 can become elitist and adopt the attitude of ‘holier than thou!” even towards fellow Muslims. The tendencies to be suspicious of other Muslims and are swift to brand other Muslims who differ with them as ‘infidels’ are notable characteristics.
Why they received international attention?
Perhaps maybe because:
[a] they adopt a conspicuous and confrontational approaches;
[b] the media likes sensational news;
[c] being western trained, scholars and professional commentators are obsessed with them as Seyyed Hossein Nasr observed: “Western scientists and scholars in the fields of anthropology, the social sciences, and even the humanities are trained almost completely to study only change." Perhaps to them, radicalism is newsworthy.
[d] these radical groups unwittingly is seen as a threat to the status quo, especially by ‘obstructing’ the agenda of the dominant hegemony being spread globally. Some of their ideas may be valid as it confronts social injustices and materialistic immorality. Thus perhaps they are singled out, to be put on the spotlight so that they can be branded as ‘evil’ or ‘irrelevant’ to diffuse the spread of these ideas;
NB: Consider this (my own quote):
“There are some who dare to be different! Whereas others who would like to be there to make a difference! The former may be labelled (negatively) as ‘radicals’ but surely not the latter whom every society is in need of. Although both may be categorised in the same class of people who strive to be different, yet qualitatively they are poles apart!”
Q2. While Islam as a religion, does not purport radicalism, many radicals commit violence under the aegis of religion. With regards to these people who originate from the Islamic world, what are the underlying reasons for their actions. Many analysts have pinned it down to economic and political failure of state actors, which have led to militancy from elements in society. Your views on this.
Failure of state actors may be one factor.
But I think what led these people to such ‘radicalism’ is the perceived lack of social justice and humanitarian compassion of others in their country; they may already been relegated to the ‘fringes’ (outside the mainstream), felt threatened by the dominant lifestyles around them, which are seen as immoral and ‘evil’, and, lacking self-esteem and fortitude, they chose to over-react. Their thirsts for knowledge may lead them take the easy way out by involving themselves with ‘exclusivist group’ with questionable aims, but disguised with religious labels and rhetoric. This is also true in other faith too (e.g. The milinnearist, or doomsday cults amongst Westerners etc.) Their ignorant of the wider values and profound teachings of Islam as a religion that seeks to foster the brotherhood of man. They may suffer from the feeling of being ‘alienated’ compounded with feeling of ‘neglect’. This may even lead to the dangerous perception of being “victimised” when they misperceived that society at large has shown total indifferent to their pleas, as well as to consider their plight or the plight of their brothers elsewhere leads to a dangerous sense of helplessness and frustration. If not diffused it can lead to volatile and militant reaction. There is a saying: “the most dangerous person is one who feels he has nothing more to loose!”
The media too may have somehow further encouraged them on, by giving them ‘prominence’ and acknowledging their credentials as being representatives of Islam whereas they may not at all be truly so.
Q3. Militancy and radicalism from Islamists have also been attributed to the misinterpretation of Quranic verses. Can you touch on specific texts in the holy book and explain how these can be interpreted to suit the objectives of radicals.
"Invite all to the way of your Lord with wisdom, and fair (beautiful)
exhortations, and argue with them in ways that are best and gracious. For thy Lord knows who are astray and best He knows who that are guided.”
(Q: Surah an-Nahl: 16:125)
“Let there be no coercion (force) in matters of faith; the right way (truth) is distinct (clear) from error”
(Q: al-Baqarah: 2: 256)
What will be observed by these groups are arguments based on selective of verses and forgetting the context and the guiding principles above, and giving their own interpretations of it, without heeding Islamic scholars and authoritative ulama’s input on the subject
(Examples of specific text will be given on the day of interview)
Q4. Syariah Law: The question of implementing syariah law has been debated over quite a bit recently in Indonesia. Some say that implementing and practising Syariah law would set the country back. Do you agree?
Which is better, top down or bottom up?
[a] Shari’ah is meant to solve human problems.
[b] From the Prophetic era, before the Medina (where many laws were revealed), the early Muslims underwent 13 years of faith building in Makkah.
[c] how was Islam spread so successfully in Indonesia? Was is by insisting on the legal rules or was it not by teachings of values that also exude ‘tolerance’ and appealing to noble qualities of the Eastern people who already had been exposed to previous sublime culture.
[d] what really is the motivation or the reasons for the call for implementing the Shari’ah, and by whom?;
[e] Can Shari’ah be artificially imposed or should we not consider also whether there has been established adequately of other institutions (economics, the basic education of the individual, social organisations whether it be administrative, judiciary and other machinery) which are pre-requisite to it? The educative process must also be towards the non-Muslims who may not see the implementation of the Shari’ah as a solution to their problem and how does it guarantee their welfare.
Q5. The Islamic World’s relationship with the Western World and Modernisation. What is modernisation? Do the intrinsic teachings of Islam reject modernisation, free market economies, democracy. Many western analysts say that the Islamic world rejects modernisation and that is why hostility exists.
“Modernity” – impact of modernization on man’s mind, both individually and socially.
“Modernization” on the other hand is the process of rational transformation of nature and society by man through the development of science and its application of technology.”
So, my response is that Islam and Muslims do not reject modernisation. It is modernity – the inherent Western worldview, ideas and value in the Western mind that Muslims are cautious about.
Yes! Many Muslim countries are striving to modernise, some more successful than others do. The debate going on is when people are unable to discern that there is a distinction between modernisation and modernity. Muslim scholars and leaders may be critical of Western encroachment – the ideas that may affect the values of its adherents - not the benefits of science and technology. Thus the misperceived ‘hostility’ which actually is misplaced.
Regarding ‘free market economy’, democracy etc. these are actually being reviewed and debated not just by Muslims alone. About the ‘interest driven economy’, ‘unequal distribution of wealth’, the concept ‘human rights’, the emerging global village, about peace and justice, about morality and ethics etc. are contemporary issues being discussed. We have to remember that Islam has had an outstanding civilisation and therefore many Muslims believe that they can offer constructive ideas and alternatives. So it should not be seen as ‘hostility’!
Q6. How do you expect the relationship with the Western World to change after September 11th.
There has been too much sensationalisation; too much selective reporting and self-censoring. Too much attention is given to policy makers of the West but we fail to realise that their citizenry may be totally ignorant of many things. One positive impact of the 11th Sept attack is the sudden surge of interest by the laity towards Islam and Muslims. It makes many in the West to reconsider how their nation’s external policy may have inadvertently contribute to such repercussion. How ignorance of others has led to them to be a nation that has been guilty of being indifferent to the plight and sufferings of others. Hopefully the people can see the true reality of living in a global village; that the policies made by the few elected must be monitored, and not allowed to inflict sufferings upon others. How ‘self-interest of one group’ have deprived others of their God-given right to live in peace and prosperity.
More intercourse and dialogue would hopefully provide for availability of truth to reach all. With greater awareness, hopefully sanity (instead of anger and emotions) would prevail and every one would reflect in their own conscience as human beings. Pride and prejudice replaced with genuine love and concern. May this sense of morality, justice and compassion prevail. Our common existence is indeed fragile.
Q7. Recently, Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf commented on the backwardness in the Islamic World. He seemed to imply that Muslims are generally a backward lot. He said the Muslim world needs to embrace economic and technological advances. Academic Ashgar Ali Engineer spoke of the need for Muslims to undergo reform, to embrace Science and Technology. On the other hand, some other analysts I've spoken to claim that the Muslim World is already embracing such things. Your views on this.
It is not merely economics and science and technology. We need to ask:: what economics, what science and what technology? Why do we only see the fruits while failing to note that the whole tree, which is offering us its science and technology, may already be in the state of ruin?
The reality is that in the West, such advancement did not mean successful life for its people. Generally there, in can be observed that materialistic secularism held sway over people’s lifestyle. It has stripped their people of morality, of dulling their human conscience, of dethroning God and replacing it with the ‘god of science’, whose dominant hedonistic culture leads to a permissive society extolling wanton consumption to satiate the insatiable desires. Religions generally have been relegated to something unscientific and regarded as anti-progress to be kept away from public view – if not merely preserved as ornamentals. Sadly, the edifices of spiritual life and the family institutions are being threatened. Blindly imitating wholesale whatever the West can offer is foolish.
We in the East may already still possess the other essential aspect vital for a good life (spiritual and aesthetics) and we still practice and apply the esoteric wisdom of our ancient sages which is vital towards the attainment of true happiness and bliss. We can still rely upon the edifices of our strength (in these Eastern religions) to serve as a filter, such that the transference of culture and learning from the Western does not inevitable afflict us with their terminal diseases.
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From the interview, excerpts incorporated into RSI "Special report from Singapore" program - "Focus on Islam" posted on their web site To view (click here)