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By Chandra Muzaffar

When Malaysians ushered in 2006, the Moorthy ( Mohamed Abdullah) episode was still reverberating in the air. As 2006 draws to a close, the Rayappan Anthony incident is still fresh in our memory.

Many concerned Malaysians are now asking: will groups within the different religious communities continue to tussle over the dead? Will inter-community tensions rise again in the future when the religious identity of yet another forlorn corpse is subjected to yet another ugly dispute between contending elements?

One of the most urgent tasks facing the nation in 2007 is to establish clear, unambiguous rules on the entry and exit of a person from a particular religion. When a person enters a religion, there should be incontrovertible documentary evidence of his decision. Likewise, when a person exits a religion he should have concrete proof of his action, acceptable to all parties concerned. These rules should apply to all religions and should be effectively enforced.

In fact, there is a Committee under the Attorney General, created in the wake of the Moorthy episode, which is working on this and other related matters. Comprising representatives from different religious backgrounds, the Committee is engaged in an honest endeavor to find feasible solutions to contentious issues on which segments of the different religious communities espouse what appear to be irreconcilable positions. Understandably, achieving a consensus in such circumstances is not an easy task.

For many non-Muslims and a handful of Muslim lawyers and activists in Malaysia entering and exiting a religion is a question of human rights. It is part and parcel of one of the most universally recognized rights in any human rights charter, namely, the freedom of religion. However, for the vast majority of Muslims in the country, and indeed Muslims everywhere, leaving Islam is an unpardonable crime. For some of the ulama it is a crime that warrants the death penalty!

Becoming a Muslim is more than exercising a right. It is an immense responsibility. By proclaiming faith in the one God and acknowledging Muhammad as His Messenger, a person is in fact accepting his position as khalifah( vicegerent) and is prepared to discharge his responsibilities to God and humankind. This is why leaving the religion is often seen as abandoning one’s position as khalifah, abdicating one’s responsibilities and veering away from the path that God has laid out for the moral nourishment of the human being.

The Noble Qur’an itself views those who leave Islam — the murtadd( apostate)-with utmost displeasure. It says, “ Those who believe, and then disbelieve, and then( again) disbelieve, and then increase in disbelief, Allah will never pardon them, nor will He guide them to the (right) way ( Surah 4:137). But the Qur’an does not prescribe capital punishment or any other form of punishment for the apostate. Neither does the Sunnah. It was only when apostasy was coterminous with rebellion against the nascent state that the Prophet( may peace be upon him) had established in Medina, that the death penalty was imposed. The Righteous Caliphs followed the Prophet’s example. The jurists who came after them adopted a different approach. They felt no necessity to differentiate between mere peaceful change of faith and violent rebellions. Consequently, their rulings evolved into mainstream jurisprudence which is what the ulama of today have inherited.

There are many Muslim scholars who have subjected this jurisprudential thinking on apostasy to critical evaluation. One such scholar is the late Dr. S.A. Rahman, once Chief Justice of Pakistan, whose seminal work Punishment of Apostasy in Islam has recently been re-published in Malaysia by ‘The Other Press’. Through comprehensive research and analysis, Rahman shows how the jurists contradicted the letter and spirit of the Qur’an. He argues that “ in matters concerning the individual conscience, the Qur’an places no fetters on free choice”.

Though the Qur’an is the primary source of guidance for the Muslim, it is obvious that on the question of apostasy, jurisprudence and the jurists exercise much greater influence upon the Muslim mind. In a number of other spheres too— government and power; inter-state relations; economy and finance; religious and cultural diversity; the rights and roles of women; the concept of knowledge—Qur’anic values and principles have been subordinated to the jurisprudential tradition. Because jurisprudence or fiqh appears to be so overwhelmingly influential, contemporary Muslim societies have been described as fiqh oriented rather than Qur’an inspired.

One of the cardinal characteristics of the fiqh oriented approach to Islam is the emphasis it places upon the 2 Ps —— prohibit and punish. This explains why a plethora of juristic rulings have emerged in the course of the centuries which seek through prohibition and punishment to shape individual and social behavior especially in matters pertaining to sexual morality. It is an approach which has failed to achieve its objective as evidenced by the growing social malaise in a number of Muslim majority countries including our own.

What is worse, this subservience to fiqh has, in a sense, prevented Muslim thinkers from re-interpreting and re-applying eternal Qur’anic values and principles in a dynamic and creative manner to the contemporary age. How would one for instance harness and harmonize those values in the Qur’an which are closest to economic enterprise in order to achieve both growth and equity? Or, how would one tap the passion for knowledge embodied in the Qur’an for scientific inquiry in today’s world? Or, how would one seek guidance from the Qur’an in preserving the integrity of the family in a world where the demands of the market have put the family under tremendous strain?

If the Qur’an is to address these and other monumental challenges of our time, there will have to be a significant transformation in the Muslim mindset. The present preoccupation with the external trappings of the religion will have to yield to a more profound understanding of the substance of faith. In Malaysia, Islam Hadhari which focuses upon trustworthy government, economic and social justice and the pursuit of knowledge is perhaps a modest attempt to change prevailing Muslim perceptions of what Islam means to contemporary civilization.

Among non-Muslim Malaysians too there is a need for a major shift in their perspective on religion. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and others, on the whole, also tend to be preoccupied with rites and rituals, forms and symbols. Only a small fraction of the local Buddhist community for instance is committed to presenting and practising Buddhism as a religion that eschews greed and rejects hatred. Not many Malaysian Christians live by the principle embodied in the parable of ‘The Good Samaritan’ which emphasizes the importance of reaching out to the other with love and compassion. Similarly, there are perhaps only a few Hindus in the country who appreciate the significance of selfless service as one of the defining attributes of the Hindu way of life.

It is only when a genuine transformation takes place among Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and others in the way in which they understand and practise their respective faiths that inter-religious harmony in Malaysia will be on a sound and secure foundation. It is then that they will discover that the values that unite them are far more significant than the rituals that separate them.

At that point, Malaysians will realize that it is more important to raise the dignity of the living than to squabble over the identity of the dead.

The above essay was written at the end of 2006. It is now being published in the JUST Commentary, in view of a recent Malaysian Federal Court decision which brought to the fore the question of apostasy in Islam - Editor.



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