, The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Thu, 07/26/2007 11:54 AM
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, a noted scholar of Islam and human rights from Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, the U.S. state of Georgia, will launch the Indonesian version of his new book, Islam and Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Sharia, on Thursday in Jakarta. Prior to the book launch hosted by the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture (CSRC), he spoke with The Jakarta Post's Muhammad Nafik about the moderate Islam he has been campaigning for.
Question: What does sharia mean and where does it actually lie in the Islamic legal system?
Answer: Sharia is the normative system of Islam, which is based on the Koran and Sunnah (the Prophet Muhammad's traditions). But it must be the product of human interpretation, human reason and human experience. So when we say that sharia is divine it is misleading. Since sharia is the product of human interpretation, any understanding of it is not divine, not eternal and not binding.
It's Muslims who must understand sharia for themselves in their own context. Your cannot import any (sharia) interpretation from the Middle East, or from historical experience. The history is interesting to understand as comparative study, but it's not binding. That's why the subtitle of the book is Negotiating the Future of Sharia. It means that the future of sharia in every society is the product of negotiation. It is not given -- no choice, no interpretation and no contextualization.
There was no the term of sharia during the Prophet Muhammad's period. When was then it first introduced to Islam? We cannot find the term of sharia in the first century of Islam. It came in the second and third century of Islam. The Koran does not mention the word sharia in the same meaning as we talk about it today. Nor could you find it in the Sunnah. You wouldn't find any reference to Islamic state and codification of sharia throughout Islamic history until the mid 19th century during the Ottoman dynasty.
How should Muslims in Indonesia deal with the pro-sharia movement?
I would completely reject any claim that you can enforce sharia by the state. Sharia by nature is religious obligation, religious law. The state is a secular institution. Because it is not a person, it cannot believe. So the state cannot be Islamic. The state is a political institution, in which all citizens share equally. So to allow it to enforce sharia violates the possibility of being citizens of this country, because among Muslims and followers of other religions, you cannot discriminate between them in order to apply sharia in a way that does not violate the equal rights of even Muslims.
I think it (the sharia movement) is a dangerous trend, which is illegitimate and wrong from the Islamic point of view. We should keep Islam and the state separated, but Islam cannot be separated from politics because Muslims will act politically as believers and Islam cannot be kept out of public life. What is new in my book is that it tries to balance between those who call for a secular state and those who call for an Islamic state. My claim is not that we need to secularize the state in order to be modern. My claim is that we need a secular state to be better Muslims.
Under Indonesia's regional autonomy law, some regions have enacted sharia ordinances. How is this dangerous to a democratic Muslim country?
It is dangerous because these provinces are part of Indonesia and the country is part of the global economy. If you allow some provinces to enforce sharia, it's going to undermine and damage national interests, and the unity and stability of this country. Making a religion as the basis of citizenship is extremely dangerous because people do not agree on all religions. Any province that claims to enforce sharia is hypocritical because sharia has many aspects.
There are more fundamental aspects than the way women dress or whether halwah (indecency) is allowed between (unmarried) men and women. Social justice, economic development and healthcare are the real issues in sharia. In the same way, those who say Muslims must wear headscarves, they must also not be engaged in banking interest because it is riba (not permitted under Islam).
How about hudud (the term used to describe the fixed punishments for certain crimes considered to be ""claims of God"")? Are they going to enforce hudud? If not, what authority do they have to decide which aspect of sharia to enforce and which to keep away? What's the justification of selecting certain aspects of sharia and leaving out the others? This hypocrisy will discredit sharia among Muslims and the international community.
What does the central government have to do in response to these ordinances?
Be wise and careful. The central government should not act harshly in a way that creates a backlash and local political problems. The way to combat it is not coercion by the state or by the law, but through public debate. You cannot kill the idea by suppressing it. Because if you try to suppress it, it will make it more popular and it will grow underground.
For liberal intellectuals, they should not be offensive and arrogant. I am asking them to be critical of their own methodology and approach. They have to use Islamic arguments rather than secular abstract discourse, which the public cannot understand.
The fundamentalists have moved into the community and publish very, very cheap leaflets. They go to the mosque, pray and speak to them (worshipers). That's more persuasive rather than simply writing in newspapers and speaking at seminars, as the moderates have been doing.