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."What was more interesting to me was that
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".
[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.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.
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.
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.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.
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 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.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.
"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."