Christian-Muslim Dialog in Malaysia: Terms of Engagement (Part 2)

Christian-Muslim Dialog in Malaysia: Terms of Engagement (Part 2)

Challenges for Muslims

Participants seeking dialog with Islam may well despair when confronted by what seems to be a religion that is fixed and unchangeable. Conservative ulamas (scholars) insist that there can be no fundamental reforms to Shariah since the gate to itjihad (new knowledge and new reforms to Shariah) has already been closed in the 10th century.

Indeed, many Muslims take pride in the claim that all that is necessary for salvation and for the ordering of society has already been revealed. Likewise, Syed H. Nasr emphasizing that it should not be the case of divine law accommodating to changing society; rather, it should be a case of changing society to meet the requirements of God’s immutable law.

How can dialog be possible if participants are not open to rational discussion? In this regard, it is encouraging to note the emergence of Muslim scholars calling for reformation of Islamic law as a necessity for successful engagement with Modernity. These Islamic social reformers are only too aware how risky it is for them to suggest making changes to Shariah law since they can be easily stigmatized as apostates who can then be judged to death. The danger is well captured by Abdullah An-Na’im, a Sudanese scholar now teaching at Emory University,

To Muslims, Shari‘a is the “Whole Duty of Mankind,” moral and pastoral theology and ethics, high spiritual aspiration, and detailed ritualistic and formal observance; it encompasses all aspects of public and private law, hygiene, and even courtesy and good manners. To attribute inadequacy to any part of Shari‘a is regarded as heresy by the majority of Muslims, who believe that the whole of Shari‘a is divine. This widespread view creates a formidable psychological barrier, which is reinforced by the threat of criminal prosecution for the capital offense of apostasy (ridda), a real threat today in countries such as the Sudan [Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Toward Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law (Syracuse Uni. Press 1996), p. 11].

Given such an entrenched attitude, one may well give up hope that dialog with Muslims can ever be meaningful. How can there be dialog if your counterpart claims absolute knowledge that can never in principle be open to change and where death threats are served to scholars who dare to critique the religion? It is therefore not surprising that there are few Islamic activists who dare to suggest fundamental reforms for Shariah law.

However, I find the proposal for reformation of Shariah law by Abdullahi An-Na’im, having the most potential for opening new possibilities for dialogue.

Abdullahi An-Na’im builds on the bold initiative of his teacher Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha.

The basic premise of Ustadh Mahmoud is that a close examination of the content of the Qur’an and Sunna reveals two levels or stages of the message of Islam, one of the earlier Mecca period and the other of the subsequent Medina stage. Furthermore, he maintained that the earlier message of Mecca is in fact the eternal and fundamental message of Islam, emphasizing the inherent dignity of all human beings, regardless of gender, religious belief, race, and so forth. That message was characterized by equality between men and women and complete freedom of choice in matters of religion and faith. Both the substance of the message of Islam and the manner of its propagation during the Mecca period were predicated on ismah, freedom of choice without any form or shade of compulsion or coercion [ Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Toward Islamic Reformation, p. 52].

However, the Meccans rejected Muhammad’s early message despite its message of freedom and justice. Evidently, society at that time was not yet ready to implement the Islamic ideal. Muhammad responded with a more realistic message embodied in the Medina message that was more appropriate to the seventh century society. An-Na’im explains,

According to Ustadh Mahmoud, “the Meccan and the Medinese texts [of the Qur’an] differ, not because of the time and place of revelation, but especially because of the audience to which they are addressed. The phrase ‘O believers’ [frequently used in the Qur’an of Medina] addresses a particular nation, while ‘O humankind’ [characteristic of the Qur’an of Mecca] speaks to all people.” This shift in audience was dictated by the violent and irrational rejection of the earlier message [Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Toward Islamic Reformation, p. 55].

That is to say, the Meccan message was suspended and replaced by the Medina message out of practical necessity. Ustadh Mahmoud, however, maintained that the suspension of the Meccan message was only temporary. Otherwise, the superior and eternal aspects of Islam would be irredeemably lost. The Meccan message was only postponed, waiting for Islamic society to develop and attain the pre-requisite conditions necessary for its implementation.

But Ustadh Mahmoud’s proposal seems to go against the Islamic doctrine of Abrogation, naskh, which suggests that later texts (Medinan) permanently abrogate the earlier texts (Meccan). Mahmoud rejects this doctrine as self-defeating since it renders the earlier revelation pointless. More seriously, the doctrine of permanent abrogation amounts to denying Muslims the best part of their religion. An-Na’im defends Mahmoud with an alternative interpretation of the crucial Quranic passage.

God said: “Whenever We abrogate any verse (ayah) or postpone it (nunsi’ha), We bring a better verse, or a similar one. Do you not know that God is capable of everything?” [the Qur’an 2:106]. The phrase, “When we abrogate any verse” means cancel or repeal it, and the phrase “or postpone it” means to delay its action or implementation. The phrase “We bring a better verse” means bringing one that is closer to the understanding of the people and more relevant to their time than the postponed verse; “or a similar one” means reinstating the same verse when the time comes for its implementation. It is as if the abrogated verses were abrogated in accordance with the needs of time, and postponed until their appropriate time comes. When it does, they become the suitable and operative verses and are implemented, while those that were implemented in the seventh century become abrogated… This is the rationale of abrogation. … [In other words, it was not intended to be] final and conclusive abrogation, but merely postponement until the appropriate time [Abdullahi An-’Naim, Toward Islamic Reformation, p. 59-60].

Abdullahi An-Na’im’s and Mahmoud Taha’s proposal turns the doctrine of Abrogation on its head. The traditional Islamic scholar view is that the superior Medinah revelation abrogated the earlier Meccan revelation. But Taha suggested the contrary – it is the case of temporary abrogation, that is, the Meccan revelation was only postponed temporarily in response to limitation of historical circumstances. As such, when better circumstances are achieved in the evolutionary development of societies, it will be time to abrogate the Medinah revelation and apply the superior Meccan revelation.

Undoubtedly, many conservative scholars reject strongly the radical proposal of Taha’s. Indeed, Taha was executed by the Islamic government of Sudan and Abdullahi An-Na’im himself was imprisoned and eventually went into exile.

Nevertheless, Taha’s view has gained acceptance among Muslims scholars who teach in higher institutions of learning that are not controlled by traditional ulamas. These scholars represent the most promising participants in inter-religious dialog between Christians and Muslims, since they are at least in principle open to more universally accepted views of fundamental liberties and equality to all people regardless of religious affiliation.

Conclusion on Christian Muslim Dialog
To conclude, dialogue in our context obviously addresses a host of sensitive issues. It demands exceptional courage for anyone to give honest answers to these issues in public. For this reason, it makes sense to begin dialogue at the informal level. The obvious advantage is that in such situations the participants are not cornered into any defensive position. One cannot hope for an immediate translation of agreements into just social policies through such informal channels. At the same time patient interaction is undertaken with the belief that dialogue inherently promotes peace in a difficult situation.

This does not mean that Christians should eschew from entering the national debate, using whatever opportunities as are available in the mass media and government consultations. Evidently, their rhetoric will have to be less direct or forceful. Indeed, their voice is often excluded by sections of the mass media which is controlled by the government. At the same time Christians should recognize that there are people in authority who possess goodwill. Consequently, one finds openings for Christian input at the operational level in departmental planning and development of the civil services. Christians should be alert to make use of such opportunities with wisdom and discernment.

Christians should be aware that men of goodwill always represent a minority in any society. Peace, religious and racial harmony are always precarious blessings in multi-cultural societies. It would be unrealistic to expect significant transformation of deeply held prejudices and religious barriers in the near future. But surely, this perception makes it all the more urgent and necessary for Christians to ensure that whatever righteousness they receive from God be shared and sown in sundry places to cultivate a just and peaceful society. Christians persevere precisely because they recognize that the final result is the work of God’s mercy


  1. Ibn Khaldun says:

    Dear Dr.Ng,

    Many thanks for your courageous and very pertinent and relevant elucidations above!

    Yes, it is time for the whole world to hear what the ‘other’ ulamas have to say – those uncontrolled by the traditionalists who are forced to unwaveringly follow ‘taqlid’ in opposition to what is typically and routinely accused as ‘ijtihad’.

    I, too feel that the only way forward for success and progress in Islam is to try applying the earlier Meccan surahs – as opposed to the later Madinan ones which supposedly have ‘abrogated them’.

    What do you think of this report in the open press about Dr.Azzam Tamimi :

    Is this considered ‘innovation’ by the traditionalists, or can it become a true sliver of hope for those who want to ‘exit the faith’? Is it similar to applying the earlier surahs in a changed situation?

    Thank you and His blessings be with you! Ibn Khaldun.

  2. Kam Weng says:

    I fully appreciate Azzam Tamimi’s emphasis that there can be no compulsion in Islam and freedom of choice means the right of people to leave Islam if they feel convicted to do so. Nevertheless, I have constantly repeated that theological statements must be accompanied by social analysis if a religious community seeks to influence social development. This means undertaking critique of existing social policies with a view of framing just laws that promote equality and justice for all citizens regardless of race and religion. Unfortunately, Islamic authorities generally seem unable or unwilling to go beyond the level of rhetoric and offer specific social policies and legislations, and set up institutions that promote freedom and social equality at ground level.

    While welcoming Tamimi’s voice of moderation reported in the Sun, I also want to take note of what he says elsewhere. In his interview with Tim Sebastian (BBC HARDTalk Nov 2, 2004) he says, “For us Moslems martyrdom is not the end of things but the beginning of the most wonderful of things.” Tamimi added, “If I can go to Palestine and sacrifice myself I would do it. Why not??

    I think the context of Tamimi’s interview relates to his support for suicide bombers from Hamas targeting Israeli civilians. Tamimi’s statement doesn’t seem right since he fails to make a distinction between suicide bombers who destroy military targets and suicide bombers who indiscriminately kill innocent civilians (often-times women and children) in trains and marketplaces. The former group may be granted medals for their heroism and sacrifice. But surely, the latter group only deserves moral condemnation.

    Taking into account Tamimi’s speeches elsewhere, I am sad to say that he does not belong to the group of moderate Muslim scholars I have in mind

    Nevertheless, it would be simplistic to judge any Muslim scholar based merely on his stand towards indiscriminate suicide bombing. I think we should rely on the fundamental criterion regarding the scholar’s willingness to come to terms with the modern project of pluralist democracy. The following questions may be useful in evaluating potential dialog partners.

    1) Do you accept the legitimacy of scholarly inquiry into the origins of any religion including Islam?
    2) Do Muslims have anything to learn from other religions?
    3) Do you accept pluralist democracy where non-Muslims enjoy completely equal civil rights with Muslims?
    4) Should Muslims accept civil laws (meaning laws that are not partisan towards any particular religion like Shariah?) as the means to adjudicate conflicts that involve both Muslims and non-Muslims?
    5) Is violent jihad towards non-Muslims living in Darul Harb (House of War) in contrast to Darul Islam a form of warfare acceptable in today’s world?

  3. Ibn Khaldun says:

    Thanks for your prompt and insightful reply. I too agree with Tamimi’s non-forcing of people into Islam. Thats the premise of QS2/256 anyway.

    However, I have also come across statements he made elsewhere which clearly sounded rather hard-line and radical. Much like the one above about ‘going to Palestine to sacrifice himself..”.

    Such statements clearly seem to contradict the sentiments behind his statements on ‘letting Muslims leave Islam freely.”

    Your five-point Questions are precisely what Muslims ought to be asking themselves and thinking seriously about, at ALL LEVELS.

    Only then, can they be able and prepared to engage in a meaningful and productive dialogue (and I mean productive for BOTH SIDES), with the Christians and other non-Muslims with relevance in this day and age!

    Thanks for spelling out the criteria for BOTH the Christians’ side and now, the Muslims’ side, clearly and practically for us. So that we truly can pursue an intelligent dialogue amongst ourselves with empathy and socio – economic relevance. And which is not merely window-dressing.

    Keep those insights coming!

    Blessings in Christ, Ibn Khaldun.

  4. HP says:

    Please answer the anti-spam question above before typing your comment. (WARNING: If you answer it wrongly and submit, your content may be lost!)

    Dear Dr Ng,

    I have a few comments.

    1. I think we should not try to show which religion is more superior or who is right. To dialog is to form mutual understanding. Find common grounds, so that we can work towards some common goods.

    2. In order for Christian to engage in public debate effective, we must be well equiped with both theological knowledge and knowledge of the issue concerned. The complexity of public issues such as education policies, economic policies and cultural policies often require specialise training just to understand them. Take for example the Muslim’s attitude that you write about above. Your atticle is already very comprehensive, yet I think the issue is much more complex than what you have explained. Issues about convertion out of Islam for example involve issues such as Malay identity, Ploitical and economic dominance and power, and not just a theological issue. What is absence among churches today is a awareness of a system to train chrian leaders of such quality. This leads to my next point.

    3. Christians trained at the higher level in social sciencesare are much needed. However, job opportunities and scholarships are very few in this areas. Should the Church do something about it? I thnik the church can at least set up a foundation to offer promising young christian leaders scholarship to support their study at post-grad level.

    4. Christian-Muslim coorperation is possible. The relationship between Christians and the Cape Muslims is South Afrrica is a good example.

    Above are my hamble comments.

    From a young Christian who have struggled for many year to engage in society.