Monday, May 22, 2006

Islamic Education

Once again, apologies for being absent for almost a week. I'm still having the residual effects of a "hangover" from the work and late nights last week. :) But how better to restart the blogging engines again, by touching on another potentially sensitive issue in the Malaysian environment - the nature of Islamic education in Malaysia.

I'll state upfront that Islamic education is not an area of expertise which I have, and neither do I have specific knowledge of what is "right" or "wrong" in Islam. What I do believe is that debate, in any subject from politics to economics to religion will bring further enlightenment. On that basis, I was particularly intrigued by this article by Zainah Anwar, which was published in the New Straits Times last Friday entitled "Changing the Muslim Mindset".

Zainah Anwar heads "Sisters in Islam," an advocacy group challenging traditional understandings of Islam. She has a Master's degrees in journalism and international affairs at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She often speaks about the gender bias in Islamic law, and explains how it comes from an understanding of Islam that discriminates against women: "These verses have been interpreted by men, living in patriarchal societies who wish to maintain their superiority and control over women."

While Zainah's publised article did indeed refer to the issue of gender bias, particularly when she quoted the Prime Minister that:
...there were "elements within our society who are uncomfortable with the advancement of women. They try to obstruct the progress of women through barriers and strictures legitimised in the name of religion or culture."

In making a plea for ijtihad (reinterpretation), he stated that "the problems confronting contemporary Muslim societies today are not the problems of the sixth century, and the solutions do not lie with the notion of a Syariah purportedly final and complete 1,400 years ago, particularly in the case of women".
What was more interesting to me was that
[m]any Muslim scholars, whether from this region or from the Middle East or South Asia, are puzzled how Malaysia could be so modern and progressive in many ways when the many Muslims they meet at academic meetings and international conferences are so conservative theologically and ideologically.

Dr Hiba Rauf, the well- known Islamist woman leader from Egypt, asked me at a meeting in Cairo two years ago why Malaysian students at al-Azhar University were so closed-minded. She was surprised as she had thought Malaysia was modern and progressive.

This same observation was made by an Indonesian activist who studied at al-Azhar. He said every single Malaysian student he met there, "down to the last 8,000th", was "ultra- conservative".

He observed that the closed- mindedness of the Malaysian students was not so much ideological but largely because they were exposed only to conservative traditionalist thinking in Islam. He said they had never read the more enlightened works of Islamic scholars, from the classical period, let alone contemporary times, that he had been exposed to as a student of Islam in a Nahdlatul Ulama pesantren and later at the State Islamic University in Jakarta.
Hence it appears that the Islamic education offered at our local universities and institutions tends to leave out almost entirely alternative thinking with regards to the religion. Its a little like doing a degree in Political Science by just studying liberal democracy without doing a institutional comparison to communism, socialism and other alternative forms of democracy.

Zainah argued that even in Indonesia, the religious study students are exposed to various lines of thought and some universities even if specific centres dealing with "gender studies".
In Indonesia, besides the abundance of progressive scholarship by their own thinkers, new writings by Muslim scholars in English, French, Arabic and Persian, are translated into Bahasa Indonesia within months of publication.

Gender studies are integrated into every discipline. The Gender Studies Centre in the Islamic universities in Jakarta and Yogyakarta train teaching staff and students in gender and Islam.

The undergraduate and graduate programmes offer courses in Gender and Theology, Gender and Islamic Jurisprudence, Family and Gender in Religious Perspective. A new Master's programme in Gender and Religion has been introduced at the State Islamic University in Jakarta.

In courses taught by these progressive scholars, a diversity of opinions from a diversity of sources and periods are studied and debated. Students are taught to understand critically and analytically the methodology and processes of textual and legal interpretation within historical and contemporary social and legal contexts.
Zainah criticised that none of the Islamic studies or Islamic law faculties in Malaysia "comes close to this pedagogy, even in offering a basic course on Contemporary Islamic Thought." And strictly from an intellectual perspective, I believe its important to be exposed to various lines of thought such that even if aline of thought is flawed, one will have better understanding of the subject.

Zainah fears that the limitation in our Islamic education, particularly in the higher education sector have resulted in the students being made "easy targets" for recruitment into PAS and Islamist movements pushing for the supremacy of Syariah rule.
In the wrong hands, [Pak Lah's] Islam Hadhari agenda... could be hijacked by the Maududi and Syed Qutb ideologues and the traditionalist ulama who still dominate the Islamic establishment here.
The Prime Minister himself have stated that:
The notion that the Islamic concept of law is absolute and hence immutable has resulted in intellectual inertia among some scholars, noticeably on the subject of women and, sadly, in a continued injustice towards them.

"When the history of the 21st century is recorded," he said, "let Malaysia be mentioned in the context of not only progress and achievement for the country but also the advancement, empowerment and emancipation of women."
That is a noble aim, and to do that, the Government Islamic and Islamic education department will have to seriously relook at the teaching of Islamic studies at our local institutions of higher learning.


Anonymous said...

She can comment about Dr Wahdud more better.

Anonymous said...

Dear dracula77,

Your comments are very true indeed. Even though some points in the articles have some merits, it is fundamentally 'skewed'. I feel really sorry for the Sisters in Islam since majority of Muslim women feel that they are not really protecting the rights of Muslim women but make women look bad.

Anonymous said...

In all honestty I wonder if the sisters in islam understand the possible repercussions of their action on muslims.
I do not like to question certain things about Islam which may have dire consequences. Dr Wadud has a very black history with regards to her attitudes towards islam.

Anonymous said...

Although she has some points, she's talking as if she's on par with islamic scholars. She's not. You have to have the islamic knowledge and background to talk with 'authority'. What she says can only be viewed as 'comments'. What I'm afraid is people might shun the ulamas in favour of some NGO like SIS. I'm not against women voicing out, of course u can, but get the knowledge first man.

Anonymous said...

Dear dracula77,

"But, some women just don't understand the limit set by God, and keep arguing about it. "

I suppose you are not particularly aware that at dawn of human civilisation, women were leading communities etc.

During those days, the God's of the time words must have said that man are inferior and must be submitted to women's authority. Things changes with time.

As physical forces dominated society, man came round and ruled. These were plan simply practical issues and has nothing to do with God's law. Islam and christian laws only existed for over 2000 years max while human society lived by man made law without problem for the last 10k+ years. Even god's law have to be communicated by human messenger and sadly, to be enforced by a human enforcer who has to free will to choose which to enforce.

It is plain and simple from economic point of view to train and educate women in order to provide more productive force into the society who can then create demand and meets demand and to enhance the standard of life.

Opression delights the donimating class but is never the best way to progress. Diversity leads to progress.

Many human accomplishment would not have occured if many great women were left at home cooking. For the sake of progress and hope that we stand a chance in the extremely unlikely event of an interesstrial invastion, we better let women to add value to the society :-), muslim or otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Dear Casper,

I disagree with you. As a Muslim woman myself, my religion has always encouraged women to prosper, intellectually and spiritually. Women can be leaders and in some fields, they should be a dominating force, for example in education field. Nonetheless, we also have to acknowledge that women and men are biologically different and thus certain things are done better by either gender (there are some exceptions of course). Islam never said NO to women leaders. In fact women can lead prayers among women but not among men..but it does not mean that ISlam is prejudiced agaist woman but rather protective to women. Sisters in Islam, as commented by Dracula are "manipulating some verses in Quran to suit their lifestyle". And back to Tony's real intention to enlighten us to the fact that ISlamic studies in Malaysia is unidimensional...I basically agree with that..but I feel that the article by SIS is not something that non muslim should referred to as it is wrong in essence.It potrays Islam as something orthodox and most Malaysian Muslim as 'narrow-minded'. If being an open minded muslim woman means that I should condone with Western lifestyle..i would rather be labeled as an orthodox.Yet Tony, I do agree that Islamic studies should open up a bit to comparative perspectives...I still remembered taking a course in comparative religion studies in the US and it helps me to understand my religion better...

Anonymous said...

OK anon and Dracula,

Right right..I think we are more or less in agreement except the limit as to how far this would go.

Anon -
"Islam never said NO to women leaders. In fact women can lead prayers among women but not among men..but it does not mean that Islam is prejudiced agaist woman but rather protective to women"

This sounds to be like in order to protect women, women shall never lead man (leading other women is OK). Which I think does not go far enough to promote equality. Can I also ask why this is to protect women ?

Anonymous said...

Dear Casper,

Well, Casper, I probably has misled you by giving example of woman 'imam'. Basically in other areas, there are no restrictions for women to become leaders but only in leading prayers. This is because women by nature and in general are alluring. Biologically and even since the creation of Adam, men are attracted to women. In prayer, the imam will be in front of you..just tell me how can men feel at ease during the prayer if you put a woman in front of them? Well, you might say that these men should lower their gaze etc but the reality is different. It is more sensible to avoid such incident by not allowing women to lead prayer. This is what i means by protecting the women.

Remember when we are small and our parents say no for certain things and we really hate them and think they are not treating us right...Well, we can say that in this context that the God knows what is best for us..although we might not agree with him. I guess I have said enough..:). Thanks

Anonymous said...

"This is because women by nature and in general are alluring. Biologically and even since the creation of Adam, men are attracted to women. In prayer, the imam will be in front of you..just tell me how can men feel at ease during the prayer if you put a woman in front of them? "

Excuse me, do u mean all men will be aroused when they see and hear a woman in front of them?

Then how can a woman be a teacher/lecturer/seminar speaker/stage performer/actress/athlete/public speaker?

Personally, I feel insulted as I think most men have more respect and self control. I don't get aroused everytime a woman appear in front of me.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

actually there is no gender bias in islam, it is just some muslims in Malaysia overused and missused words in the holy quran. conservative as always. wonder when they will change.

ps: sorry for spelling and gramatical errors

Abdu said...

Dear Anonymous (5/25/2006 1:53 PM)

I hope all is well. I would just like to respond to what you have said:

"Excuse me, do u mean all men will be aroused when they see and hear a woman in front of them?"

No he/she doesn't, but he/she means that many will be DISTRACTED, and prayer is supposed to be a time of strong focus on God, but with a woman bending over in front of a group of men, you are providing an easy route for possible (and highly likely) distraction...and a disturbing distraction at that. I mean, just pretend that the woman leading the prayer is your mother or sister or daughter....then it becomes a problem, right? If not, then I don't think anyone can really argue with you. (also, the reward gained by being the Imam is not a loss for women because they have many, many different ways to gain rewards from God that men cannot, such as giving birth and caring for a child)

"Then how can a woman be a teacher/lecturer/seminar speaker/stage performer/actress/athlete/public speaker?"

A woman can be some of these things (such as a teacher/lecturer/seminar speaker/public speaker/athlete(for some sports)), but should not be others (such as a stage performer/actress) because they can LEAD to sinning among themselves and bring about sinning in others, and this should be avoided whenever possible. Also, the action taken by the woman should be dependent on the setting in which she will be, whom she is addressing and what her, as well as the participants', intentions are.

"Personally, I feel insulted as I think most men have more respect and self control. I don't get aroused everytime a woman appear in front of me."

Sorry that you are insulted, and it is good that you are able to control your desires...may this trait benefit you and those around you, God willing, but unfortunately, not all men are like you.

Unknown said...

this writer needs to ask a lot of question to clarify her misconception of islam or comfirm her postion of wrong practice by Muslims. that is when objectivity can be assumed to have been allowed in the discussion of the subject matter of which she claims to know little or nothing.