This is one of the “latest” terms being bandied about in our society – some use it in a positive way and some use it in a negative way. In most cases, most people use this term so carelessly in any way that they please which serves to demonstrate the mental confusion.
Any discussion of “Liberal Islam” is always liked to the criticism of “liberalism” by the critics. This is yet another term that has many meanings and being used by many in different ways. At the end of the day, the discussion descends into how the term is being used rather than the substance of the argument.
Liberalism is not necessarily a “bad thing”. The Latin word “liber” itself means “free” and what is wrong with the “soul” being free? Surely we do not support the opposite of being free which is being enslaved?
The online Encyclopaedia Britannica defines Liberalism as follows:
“liberalism, political doctrine that takes protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual to be the central problem of politics. Liberals typically believe that government is necessary to protect individuals from being harmed by others; but they also recognize that government itself can pose a threat to liberty. As the revolutionary American pamphleteer Thomas Paine expressed it in “Common Sense” (1776), government is at best “a necessary evil.” Laws, judges, and police are needed to secure the individual’s life and liberty, but their coercive power may also be turned against him. The problem, then, is to devise a system that gives government the power necessary to protect individual liberty but also prevents those who govern from abusing that power”.
Looking at the definition above, one can agree that Liberalism is not “bad” after all. It is true that one of the major roles of governments is to protect individuals from being harmed by others. However, governments themselves may exert harm on its citizens through abuse of power. Another philosophy central to Liberalism is the upholding of the human dignity and this is characterised by the notion that human beings are inherently good and hence they should generally have the freedom to decide for themselves on various aspects of their lives. There is of course a balance of “freedom” that is sought to be achieved and not as the critics suggest that Liberalism seeks absolute freedom for the individual.
On another note, the word “liberal” itself has both positive and negative connotations. Generally, in the first world and progressive countries, it is seen as a positive trait while in the third world and so-called “Islamic countries” it is seen in a negative light. One wonders why this is so – is it because of the differences in educational levels and economic levels or due cultural and religious factors?
In third world and “so called Islamic” countries, the word “Liberal” appears to mean “doing as you wish, being free without basis or deviating from a set of established fundamental understandings or behaviours”.
What has all the discussion above has to do with “liberal Islam”? Once again, even this term seems to have different meanings to different people.
In Malaysia, the term “Liberal Islam” has a very negative meaning among the mainstream conservative Muslims. They see “Liberal Islam” as a “deviationist” movement away from “true” and “accepted” understanding of what Islam is. Such general accusations without going into the substance of what the proponents of so called “Muslim Liberalists” are arguing does not augur well for the maturity of the Muslim population.
I want to digress a bit and take up a different argument. For the sake of argument let’s say we use the word “liberal” to mean the “act of departing from the original principles or the fundamental of something” and apply this to how Islam is being understood. Based on this understanding, we may have the following scenarios:
1) No one can deny that the first and fundamental source of Islam is the Quran. This was the revelation to the Prophet Muhammad who himself would have been guided by it and not his own personal whims and fancies. In this scenario, would not any references to his so-called acts and utterances (collectively called the “hadiths and/or sunnah of the Prophet”) to shape the understanding of Islam be considered a “liberal act” especially if the “Islam” that emerges is different as contained in the Quran?
For the sake of argument, it would appear that the Muslim who sticks only to the Quran to get his understanding of Islam is a “fundamentalist” but the one who seeks extra sources is a “liberal”. However, in today’s mainstream Muslim community, a Muslim who primarily wants to be guided by the Quran alone is labelled as “anti-hadith”, “anti-prophet” and even a deviant in law. The fact that the world of hadith is replete with debate seems irrelevant to the ostracisation of the “Quran alone” group either by societal pressure of by State laws.
In other words, the Muslim who wants to stick only to the Quran either has to be “closet Quranist” or he is compelled by law and society to adjust his behaviour and belief to that of the mainstream belief. Otherwise, he has to be prepared to suffer for his beliefs – imposition by coercion and possible oppression.
2) It is generally accepted that the main source of Islam is both the Quran and the Hadith/Sunnah of the Prophet. However, even this scenario also seems to pose problems because many also insist that while the hadith explains the Quran, the clergy is the expert group that explains both the Quran and the Hadith. Hence, they come up with a third category called the “consensus of the ulema” or “ijmak” ulema. The consensus of the ulema is actually the juristic reasoning and exposition of many things today that represents and shapes what Islam is. In this type of thinking, it becomes almost mandatory of the ordinary Muslims to accept unquestionably the “collective views” of the clergy as part of their faith.
Again for the sake of argument, if we take the position that Quran and Sunnah are the two fundamental sources of what Islam is, then would not the mandatory acceptance of clergy views be an act of being “liberal”?
3) If one studies Islamic jurisprudence or usul al fiqh as it is called in Arabic, one will find that there are many other “sources” which the clergy or jurists rely on to arrive at an understanding of “what Islam is”. This is the juridical process of exegesis and reasoning which in reality shapes mainstream Islam. Would this be argued as being "liberal"?
From the above discussion, it should be clear that it is pointless to hurl and be influenced by labels such as “anti-hadith”, “liberalists” and so on without understanding the substance of the argument or philosophy. It is even worse when one has the subservient attitude of accepting what the clergy, however learned and sincere they are, as the absolute truth without cross referencing with the Quran itself or without examining the thought processes of the clergy or the ulema.
The end question is – does the society itself allow the Muslim to seek out the answer for himself or is he expected to be a blind follower since it has all been decided by “some learned folks”?
NOTE: This article is not an indication that the author supports “liberal Islam” or “anti hadith”. No one is expected to agree with the views of the author and this article is intended to raise questions rather than to formulate conclusions. You make your own conclusions based on the level of passion you have for the truth and facts.