Opinion @ My LNA

Year 2020: Charting the transition in Islamic Reformism


Today marks 100 days of the new ABIM leadership mandated during ABIM’s Annual General Meeting on 26-27 October 2019 in conjunction with the Seminar Pembinaan Bangsa Malaysia held at Bangi Avenue Convention Centre.

Year 2020: Charting the transition in Islamic Reformism

The new ABIM leadership today is entering a significant decade, navigating the Islamic Reformism in the transition era towards its fifty years of establishment. ABIM was established on 6th of August 1971 and became the earliest Islamic organization in Malaysia carrying the message of the Reformist and Revivalist Imam Hassan Al-Banna- pioneer of Islamic movements in Muslim world history.

At the same time, ABIM had molded a diverse school of thoughts including from local scholars led by Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, Mohammad Natsir, and Buya Hamka. Syed Naquib’s skills in arts also had a significant influence on ABIM as he was the one who crafted ABIM’s official logo carried by ABIM’s activists until today.

Other renowned scholars like Ismail Raji Faruqi and Al-Qaradhawi also shaped the thoughts of the movement and their works were always referenced and discussed during the weekly usrah.

This openness in intellectual persuasions became the catalyst for ABIM to consistently forge ahead in dealing with changes to ensure that the element of Islamic reformism thrives in its ideas and activism.

Understanding the Islamic Reformism

The Islamic Reformism- or Islah- is not a new topic as debated by some. It has been in existence since the 16th century with the emergence of figures in Southeast Asia with outstanding contributions to reform the society’s culture and worldview. Among these figures was Abdul Raof Singkel, the scholar who held to the principle of recognizing the right of women to be the Sultan in Acheh when the majority of clerics in traditional scholarship back then disapproved.

Other scholars include Nurudin al-Raniri and Sheikh Yusuf Al-Makassari who had enlightened the society in imposing a rational understanding of sufism in Islam and reformed the administrative justice system in their respective states when both were appointed as Muftis.  

The movement of Islamic Reformists underwent the second phase in the 18th century as a response to the Western colonisation. This phase witnessed the rise of figures such as Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Ridha, Hassan Al-Banna and the likes with the tagline of Islamic Revival.

These figures had taken a moderate path in responding to colonization by accepting the knowledge and technological advancements as tools to liberate Muslim societies from economical backwardness. At the same time, they lifted the rational thinking in Islamic teachings within the context of systemizing political and social lives and subsequently accepting the parliamentary democracy system as a new system in the Muslim world.

They view colonization in two ways. First, they delicately reviewed the advantages behind colonization in the Muslim world and how those advantages can be fully benefited to lead the Muslims to revive from the period of decline.

At the same time, they acknowledged the need to boost the understanding of Islam through the intensive campaign “Islam as a way of life.”

Within the Malay world context, the establishment of ABIM had a direct link with the agenda of reassertion of the Malay identity and reversion to understanding Islam as a way of life. These agendas were in need given the hundreds of years of Malaya being under the influence of western colonization, the era that was written as “a period of de-Islamization and secularization” by M Rasjidi in “The Role of Christian Mission: The Indonesian Experience” in International Review of Mission.

A similar fact was articulated by Dato’ Dr Siddiq Fadzil, pointing out that “the westernization-secularization of the Malay politics officially began in 1874 with the Treaty of Pangkor which implied a clear dichotomy between religion and politics.”

Thus, ABIM had sparked discussions of the books “Islam & Secularism” and “Islam in the Malay History and Culture” by Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas and some of his ideas later were adopted to the extent of establishing the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) and ISTAC.

The existence of Islamic reformism needs to be understood as coming from a strong conviction and belief that Islam as a divine religion encourages the openness in accepting reform. The flourishing number of philosophers in Islamic scholarship from one era of civilization to another clearly illustrated the unrestrained and flexible atmosphere in the Islamic world.

It is thus not the attitude neither the approach of the Islamic Reformist movement to be apologetic towards what the critics perceive Islam or the movement to be- the open environment for discourses purely stemmed from the conviction that Islam champions progress, freedom, justice and human rights.

The transitional idealism of Islamic Movement

Engaging, Islah and Accountable

After a few centuries of having significantly contributed to the Muslim world, the essence of Islamic Reformism should be thoroughly embraced and its relevance preserved by enhancing its contents of core discourse and idealism.

The clash of ideas in certain thoughts in the Islamist Reformism could no longer stand as a theme in its direction. The movement should go beyond the framework of colonial, post-colonial and the dismantling of caliphate in their ideological construct.

Today, the world is now directed to a shared objective of the whole international citizens. This can be seen through Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 2030 – How human mankind under the name of global brotherhood helps one another to lift the dignity and prestige of human beings without leaving anyone behind.

The question before us now is- how can Islamic Reformism benefit from these shared objectives to bring sustainable development as a solving mechanism to the issues of underdevelopment in Muslim countries?

The discourse of Islah (reform) should be further understood through the reality context, which is tantamount to the need of having ijtihad (legal reasoning) as a guide in facing renewals and changes in a developing society.

In the history of a society’s adaptation towards change, clashes between tradition and modernization often took place which eventually held the society back. This was then the objective of Islamic Reformism to be centrist to balance out the differences and find ways to develop a new culture and way of thinking of society instead of remaining stagnant, and carry the society towards progress and keeping pace with the change.

Thus, the agenda to bring islah or revivalism is not restricted within a black-and-white framework nor confrontational in nature, but should be inclusive, bridge-building and appreciate the wide spectrum and multiracial fabric of the society, sharing a sense of ownership with all members of the community.

This includes sharing the aspirations and agenda with all citizens and stakeholders. The collaboration should not be limited only to the activities initiated, but also in terms of objective to bring reform for the betterment of the society.

In the real world today, there are diverse stakeholders who respectively put efforts to contribute to the society. One significant example is the rise of the millennials pulling themselves to become a force in advocating gig economy and climate change issues. The growth of these groups certainly needs engagements and smart collaborations with the Islamic movement.

Besides, the Islamic Reformists should thoroughly commit to the fulfillment of the highest intent of its ideas that is to provide prosperity to the society. The ill habit of carrying ideas without being accountable to the effect of the ideas towards the society should no longer stand.

As such, the concept of political religion should carry a universal intent to provide justice and rights to all human beings, and should not be limited to establishing the “Islamic state” for example. The failure to comprehend the objective of combining politics and religion will expose the religion and power to be manipulated by any regime to persecute and oppress the people under the name of religion.

The same position dealt with the issue of implementing the Syariah- it should be a significant process for the sake of the well-being of the society.

Otherwise, without taking into consideration of these two aspects, we will foresee a recurrence of the Islamist movement problems in the political arena described as “unprepared to govern effectively, transparently, neglecting public policy and a strategic vision of the country” by Fawaz A Gerges in his book “Making The Arab World : Nasser, Qutb, And The Clash That Shaped The Middle East”.

All in all, as what have been highlighted, the Islamic movement, through the Islah (Reformist) principle, together with engagement efforts and a strong sense of accountability can be uplifted and stay relevant in the eyes of the society.

This new transitional way of thinking will enrich the Islamic Reformist cauldron further and can be revisited by next generations in providing solutions for the society in the future.

Muhammad Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz
Muslim Youth Movement Malaysia (ABIM)

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