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On Islamic Reform and Liberation Theology: Interview with Chandra Muzaffar

Chandra Muzaffar is Malaysia’s best-known public intellectual.  He has written widely on questions related to Islam, inter-faith relations and liberation theology, issues that he discusses in this interview with Yoginder Sikand.

Q: Much of your writing focuses on a critique of capitalism and consumerism, or what you very aptly term as ‘moneytheism’, which you contrast with the monotheism of Islam.  How do you see Muslim scholars dealing with these issues?

A: Unfortunately, what is in some circles called ‘Islamic Economics’ has not sufficiently critiqued capitalism and the consumerist ethos.  In fact, many of those associated with the ‘Islamic Economics’ project have simply tried to apply a so-called ‘Islamic’ gloss on capitalism.  If at all those associated with the ‘Islamic Economics’ project critique consumerism, which is such a deeply-rooted phenomenon globally, including in predominantly Muslim countries, it is only at a very general level, in the form of statements to the effect that it is incompatible with Islam, or appeals for balance, restraint and moderation.  But this does not go along with any rigorous analysis of economic structures that generate consumerism in the first place.  I don’t know of any well-known writers associated with the ‘Islamic Economics’ project who have done this in a sufficient manner.  Rather, their focus tends to be more on the technical aspects, such as the ban on interest, interest-free banking and discussions about disallowing the production of things considered to be haraam.

I think one reason why these scholars have not sufficiently critiqued consumerism and capitalism is that they tend not to discuss issues that are not already written about in the fiqh tradition.  Then, the references in the Quran that could be interpreted as condemning consumerism are of a general sort, and are not, in most cases, specific, and so these scholars have not gone beyond these generalities.  Further, many of these scholars lack sufficient sensitivity to class issues, and so their project ultimately tends to work in favour of the powers that be, the ruling classes, their formulations being easily co-opted into the existing capitalist framework.  A good instance of this is what are fashionably called ‘Islamic banks’.

Q: Another major concern in your writings relates to the concept of ijtihad, which you use to argue the case for reformulating traditional Muslim understandings on a host of issues.  How do you envisage ijtihad in relation to vital issues of contemporary import, such as gender relations or relations between Muslims and others?

A: Generally, ijtihad, if at all it is discussed by Muslim scholars, is in the context of the nitty-gritty of fiqh formulations, but, personally, I think it should also apply to a whole range of other issues, including our world-views, the way we understand our religion and its relation to other faiths, inter-faith relations, issues of gender, and so on.  Sadly, this project has not gone very far, although in the recent past people like Abul Kalam Azad and Iqbal in India, and Malik Bennabi in North Africa, did argue along these lines, even though they may not have termed this as ijtihad as such, perhaps because, given the traditionalist ulema’s understanding of what qualifies a person to be called a mujtahid, these people would have been automatically disqualified by them.

Q: A major issue that ‘progressive’ and ‘modernist’ Muslim scholars are today focusing on is the need to go beyond traditional fiqh formulations, and, indeed, the very tendency to understand every issue in terms of the fiqh tradition.  How do you relate to this?

A: Personally, I feel that we need to emancipate ourselves from the traditional fiqh methodology.  The moment you view something from the traditional fiqh point of view, or look at it as a ‘Muslim’ issue, rather than one of universal human significance, you limit your own understanding, transforming it into something narrowly communal, which, as a Muslim, I see as going against the fundamental universality of Islam.  The fixation of many Muslims with fiqh, with the externalities of religion in terms of rituals or with Arabic linguistic terms and culture, completely negates what I regard as Islam’s inherent universality.

Frankly, I am increasingly despondent about the marked tendency to see and interpret things from a narrow ‘Muslim’ or so-called ‘Islamic’ point of view, and this applies to new fads such as ‘Islamic Economics’ or ‘Islamic food’ or whatever.  If one is looking for solutions to problems through traditional understandings of religion — any religion for that matter — at the end of the day, if one’s mindset is not universal, the quest is utterly futile.  I think one of the most basic tasks before us today is to evolve universal understandings of spirituality that go beyond, and transcend, religion and communal barriers, as traditionally conceived.  Sadly, we are in a situation where religion, in the sense of labels, language, dogmas and rituals, seems to be of more practical importance than God.  That is to say, even if we may not recognize it, we worship our own particular religions in place of God.  This is precisely what many Muslims tend to do with their exclusivity, their narrow approach to fiqh, their obsession with rituals and laws which they imagine to be the shariah, and, indeed, what amounts to the very idolization of the shariah.

Q: You have been at the forefront of seeking to promote inter-religious dialogue between Muslims and others, in Malaysia as well as internationally.  How do you reflect on your experiences in this regard?

A: In Malaysia we have tried to do this sort of thing, but the problems are daunting and we have not been very successful.  We have also tried to promote intra-Muslim dialogue, between progressive Islamic scholars and the traditional, or ‘orthodox’, groups, but here, too, we have failed.  One reason for this is that the latter are simply not open to dialogue with the former, whom they consider as having deviated from what they regard as true Islam.  If at all they are interested in any sort of dialogue, it is simply in order to impose their own perspectives on others.  This can hardly be called dialogue, in the true sense of the term.  They are simply too closed-minded, whereas dialogue presupposes that dialogue partners should be open-minded and amenable to listening to other views.  Otherwise, there is no point in even attempting to dialogue.

As for inter-faith dialogue, I, as a Muslim, believe that there is much that Muslims need to set in order before they can genuinely dialogue with people of other faiths.  Certain deep-rooted, traditionally-held notions, shared by millions of Muslims, must be recognized as being gravely inimical to genuine inter-faith dialogue, such as common assumptions about terms such as kafir and jihad, the alleged ‘impurity’ of non-Muslims, the notion of Muslim supremacism and the belief that all non-Muslims are ‘enemies of God’ or are doomed to perdition in hell.  We need to revise our understandings of these issues if we are at all to be able to proceed with the task of inter-religious dialogue and solidarity.  Many of these understandings emerged after the demise of the Prophet, at a time of Muslim political expansionism.  These were later reinforced in the face of Muslim political losses and traumas in the wake of the Mongol onslaught, the Crusades, and, then, European colonialism, and, now, Western, particularly American, imperialism.  We need to re-evaluate our views on these matters, and bring them in line with proper Quranic understandings, which I believe to be just and egalitarian.

Chandra Muzaffar can be contacted on <>.  Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Social Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore.

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