The problem with some Islamic scholars: Reply to Dr Wan Azhar on “Human Rightism” & Religion

I write this in response to the article entitled “Human Rightism” vs Religion by one Dr Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad, appearing on September 22, 2009 in The Star. I have for awhile now seen the articles of the learned Doctor appear in The Star and I must, at the very outset, state that I have always found his views to be lacking in intellect, coldly bigoted and void of any erudition whatsoever. I will seek to comb through the learned Doctor’s piece to highlight his highly inconsistent viewpoints as well as the lack of substance in most if not all his arguments.

He starts by highlighting of the issue of human rights being put in tandem with that of religion and states that conflicts are bound to happen when human rights come into contact with Islam. I suspect the learned Doctor has neither read any books dealing with the sociology of religion nor has he ever considered the research and works of such sociological luminaries as Max Weber or the concerted efforts of Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge.

From what I gather within the first 4 paragraphs, the learned Doctor has true to all his previous efforts provided his typical unsubstantiated one sided view of how the rest of the world is out to get Islam; a perspective that reeks of cowardice, fear and folly.

Islam, like most other religions, is nothing more than a series of teachings that are flawed and imperfect unto itself. It is but a collection social rules and conventions that were applied 1400 years ago in the deserts of Arabia and nowhere else. It was a powerful tool for social cohesion and political rallying. It is most certainly only applicable in the day and age of its conception and to import it to our modern age is an exercise of great futility when it is put on a pedestal together with advances in legal jurisprudence, philosophy and science.

God, is therefore reduced to a mere subjective private experience; something every individual must relate to at his own personal level and rather ironically, this is more so justified if one were to take the religious view that if “God created everyone to be unique and individual” – therefore everyone must have their own “unique and individual way” of relating to God.

It is on that premise that Human Rights seeks to afford individuals the freedom of religion. If the learned Doctor had spent a minute contemplating Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance – perhaps then the learned Doctor would come to realise the essence of “religious freedom” as well as the bulwarks erected for the hindrance of religious persecution and discrimination against individuals.

The learned Doctor then begins to give his commentary on Kartika Shukarno’s case. The learned Doctor’s views here are highly ambiguous if not completely incoherent. What seems to be certain is that he seems to be defending the Syariah Court; a court constituted by State Legislation in dealing with matters pertaining to those professing the religion of Islam.

While the learned Doctor is completely justified in taking such a view, I personally see no reason why civil society cannot stand up and voice their complaints and grievance against what I perceive to be an unjust punishment against a woman (not to mention one that was erroneously granted). This is what Democracy calls for – that ALL men and women be able to speak, assemble and associate for the betterment of society.

People, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, have the right to argue against the jurisdiction and powers of the Syariah court for this is our country. All Malaysians have the right to argue against the laws of this Federation and even the provisions of the Federal Constitution. This is our Malaysia. If our brother or sister is hurt, we must stand up for him or her. This is no longer a Malaysia where we say “ini bukan aku punya pasal sebab aku bukan Islam”. We are all inter-connected. Where there is injustice or where there are unjust laws, we must fight – that is what nationhood requires.

The learned Doctor concludes this part by saying that queries raised against the Syariah court have served to denigrate public confidence. On the contrary, I think it is the sheer lack of judicial behaviour and absence of a fundamental understanding of crime, sentencing and punishment that has served to erode public confidence in the Syariah jurisdiction. This, I think, is a completely warranted response from the Malaysian public and international media.

The learned Doctor then goes on to elaborate on the issue of alcohol consumption within religious texts. Yet again, as one would presume from his line of reasoning, the learned Doctor has most certainly failed to elucidate his mind with the necessary sociological perspectives on religion of individuals like Talcott Parsons and Emile Durkheim, failing which his views are immensely biased and merely offer the public one side of the story.

I verily believe that all religious texts are ultimately man made fictions. One merely has to read any of these texts, might it be the Quran, Torah or Bible to see the sheer inconsistencies and paradoxes offered by the verses. If God was truly behind this, he certainly did not do a good job. And one could assume that, if indeed God was behind it, He would’ve at least made his message so clear that even a child could understand it without a need for a degree from an Islamic University or a Christian Theological College.

Only when one works on such pretentious notions that somehow these laws came from God, that one would succumb to the error that the learned Doctor has made and that is assuming that all “divine laws” are unalterable. No law is fixed, unalterable or immutable. Everything is subject to change for Man is in constant change.

If we operated in such a close minded and stagnant conception of life, women still won’t be able to vote, slavery would still be legal and child labour would still be permitted. Such preposterous notions of the law being fixed are groundless.

In fact, if one insists on obeying strictly to religious texts then we’ll have to resort to killing homosexuals, stoning apostates, discriminating against different ethnic groups and maintaining slaves; all were actions condoned by very many religious prophets and traditions. But what kind of a society would we turn into?

The learned Doctor then moves on to what could possibly be his vilest argument yet and unfortunately also expressed by many other Muslims – “you cannot talk about Islam because you don’t know anything about it.” – what utter nonsense!

If Muslims insist on putting their religion in the public sphere and making it part of public life then they have no right to complain about people, Muslims or non-Muslims, commenting about it no matter how frivolous or vexatious the comments may be.

If you don’t like your religion to be commented upon, then don’t make it part of Malaysian public life – it is as simple as that!

And why is it that you must be an expert to discuss religion? Religion doesn’t deal with quantum physics, radioactive decay or Egyptian hieroglyphs. To talk about religion is to talk about a social institution that asserts the existence of its God and rules that purportedly emanated from that God. There is nothing difficult about it all. Any Tom, Dick, Harry, Ali, Ah Chong or Ramasamy can talk about it.

The learned Doctor should realise – commenting about his religion is what an established and democratic society calls for; discussion about the most taboo, sensitive and forbidden.

The learned Doctor continues to speak about Syariah law even alluding that it might apply to non-Muslims when our own Federal Constitution (Ninth Schedule List II) disallows it. The learned Doctor seems to think that all is good and well when it comes to Syariah law.

But civil society may disagree and argue that many issues still need to be resolved in relation to Syariah law. Do we afford officers the power to intrude into private spaces (in Khalwat cases)? Do we allow for moral policing (in alcohol consumption cases)? Are we to allow for the infiltration into our thoughts (in cases of deviationist teachings)? Are we to encroach into people’s privacy (in cases involving transsexuals and homosexuals)? Are we to question conscience and beliefs (consumption of food during Ramadhan)? Are we to punish people now or with humility leave the “punishments” to God in the afterlife?

The learned Doctor seems not to have contemplated the possibility that these laws are ultimately subject to public approval. As the constitution of the Syariah courts is a discretionary power given to a State (Article 74(2) of the Federal Constitution) unlike the High Court in Malaya and High Court in Sabah and Sarawak (Article 121), the State could always choose to discontinue its existence. This emphasizes the point that the choice is still within the people’s hands whether to be or not to be governed by Syariah law. The people still have the right to determine the lives they want for themselves. Thus, they must be allowed to speak and voice their opinions.

The learned Doctor then arrives to what convinced me that he has probably never read a single word regarding Human Rights doctrine or on secularism. And this is not the first time he is making such allegations. Perhaps, at this juncture, I should lay out a number of suggestions for the learned Doctor so he doesn’t commit himself to such errors anymore:

1. Open an English Dictionary and look up “Secularism”. Find out the meaning of the word. Write the definition down on a piece of paper. Then, look up the word “Hedonism” and write that definition down on a piece of paper. I hope the learned Doctor refers to these two words before he writes his next article to not cause any further embarrassment to himself.

For readers, Secularism does not mean free fornication on the streets, excessive boozing and drug taking (i.e. Hedonism). Secularism simply means that the laws that govern public life are not derived from any religious texts or dogma. Religion is a private matter for the individual to profess in his personal life.

2. Read the Malaysian Supreme Court case of Che Omar Bin Che Soh v. Public Prosecutor And Wan Jalil Bin Wan Abdul Rahman & Anor v. Public Prosecutor [1988] 2 MLJ 55 where the then Lord President Salleh Abbas said “However, we have to set aside our personal feelings because the law in this country is still what it is today, secular law, where morality not accepted by the law is not enjoying the status of law.”

Further, the Alliance Memorandum submitted to the Reid Constitution Commission on September 27, 1956 makes it clear that “the religion of Malaya shall be Islam … and shall not imply that the state is not a secular state.” And on May 1, 1958, then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman clarified in the Legislative Council that “I would like to make it clear that this country is not an Islamic state as it is generally understood. We merely provide that Islam shall be the official religion of the state.”

So Malaysia, is a Secular Country.

3. The learned Doctor ought to also consider more credible viewpoints in relation to biology and nature when writing about God. Might I suggest reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It is a compelling read which I think should not escape the shelves of any religious school or syllabus.

The learned Doctor makes a startling comment at the end of the article by declaring that the “common enemy” of the religious is secularism. I am uncomfortable with the phrase “common enemy” for it reminds me of Adolf Hitler and his fascism. Writing in Mein Kampf, Hitler says:

The art of truly great popular leaders in all ages has consisted chiefly in not distracting the attention of the people, but concentrating always on a single adversary… It is part of a great leader’s genius to make even widely separated adversaries appear as if they belonged to one category, because… the recognition of various enemies all too easily marks the beginning of doubt of one’s own rightness.

Such intellectual penury and overt demagogy by the learned Doctor should be greatly frowned upon.

It is indeed quite unfortunate too that The Star, a highly reputable newspaper, has allowed such mindless verbal drivel to be published. I certainly urge The Star to take greater precaution in studying its material in the future so as not to make itself a tool for the propagation of bigotry and prejudice.

Malaysia, on the other hand, as a nation has grown strong and we are far stronger today than we ever have been the past 20 years. I look around and I see a nation inspired by itself; a nation of men and women questioning social institutions and authority while boldly standing up for itself. I see a nation that today questions its very fundamental values, its traditions and its history while aspiring to be that much greater than it was yesterday.

I no longer see passivity, docility and blind obedience. I see volumes written on our current state of politics. I see demonstrations and protests. I see intellectual discourse and debates among civil society. I see youth groups making their voices heard. I see ordinary Malaysians who once spent their weekends picking their noses and scratching their asses in malls now being concerned with the Constitution.

We are courageous today not because our politicians have told us to be so or that our religious leaders have inspired us. Nay! We rise to the occasion today because we know who we are. We are aware of ourselves. We recognize the importance each and every one of us plays in the life of the other. No divisive categories of race, ethnicity, religion, descent or sex is going to keep us from progressing forward.

But we cannot stop here. We must keep going. We must reach a cultural revolution; a transvaluation of values. We must be able to maturely discuss all or any issue with each other and embrace that which takes us further. No issue must be left unturned. Nothing swept under the carpet. No one silenced.

We must even question God if we have to. Basing society on an invisible figure is no longer compatible with life in the 21st-century. We must embrace knowledge and philosophize. We must pose the important questions: Why are we here? What is God? Is there a God? If there is a God, who or what created God? We must aim to be the best we can; to question and inquire and yet to never be afraid of saying “I don’t know” if we haven’t found the answer.

We must always continue to be humble, to share and to be patient. To look to each other and say “We will live for Love for we are Humans”.

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Posted on 28 September 2009. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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13 Responses to The problem with some Islamic scholars: Reply to Dr Wan Azhar on “Human Rightism” & Religion

  1. Dr Wan

    Tahsabuhum jami'an wa qulubuhum shatta…

  2. ismail yurdakok

    Aston Paiva's sentences are not original. They are only an atheist's writings.First believe in Islam and then perform the daily prayers don't neglect especially subh prayer before the sun shines you will see how Islam is useful for our body and soul

  3. This weblog generally seems to obtain a large ammount of visitors. How can you get traffic to it? It offers a pleasant individual twist on things. I suppose having something authentic or substantial to state is an essential factor.

  4. Regi

    I find Dr. Wan's uncritical learning of Islam very disturbing. Religion is a source of knowledge and like all other forms of knowledge it must subject itself to re-assessment and critical revision. Islam has its own troubles in negotiating diversity, so is Christianity, Buddhism, Hindu, etc. The unwillingness to question the text – when the content of the text fail to relate to the passage of time – is a fool's learning.

  5. electra

    i may not know the writer personally but it is because nobody wants to liberate their minds from indoctrinated incarceration i am obliged to think that something different is better than not even being aware of the availability of options. now that's stupid.

  6. schu

    i may not know the writer personally. but i dont admire him at all. i dont submit to stupid respond. keep up the good work doc!

  7. electra


  8. t

    paiva, you belong to academia. gilababi panjang lebar!

  9. siew eng

    too bad star readers will likely not get to hear this argument.

    and that, imo, is the star's biggest sin – perpetuating mediocre thinking.

  10. mei1

    Thanks for the explanation, Aston. Check this out too:… (Human rights before religion)

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  12. cw

    The fascism is the political ideology adopted by Italy but Adolf Hilter. It is more proper to call it as Nazism.

  13. can this brother get a holler??! good one aston for stick it to the man… where the sun don't shine. hope the good doctor needs to walk in a sarong after this shafting.