In a world where Islam has taken center stage for reasons both good and bad, conscientious Muslims must arise to separate the former from the latter.
The Arabic term ‘kafir’ (plural: ‘kuffar’) shares roots with the word ‘kafara’, which means ‘to have obscured’. In a technical context, this is the term accorded to one to whom the undistorted message of Islam has been conveyed, yet he rejects it unconditionally. The word ‘harbi’ is a descriptor form of the word ‘harb’, which means ‘war’. In classical Islamic texts, the amalgamation of these two terms is ‘kafir harbi’, which refers to a non-Muslim with whom war can be waged, albeit only under clear indications and during which strict ethics are to be observed.
Such were the hues and colors which painted the landscape of classical Islamic texts. The nature of knowledge, though, is that it evolves. And this evolution process, in turn, is induced by discussion, presentation of evidence supportive of one’s argumentation, and rationalisation of thought. Old isn’t always gold; if we were to insist that every established principle in any sort of field to hold true till end times, then we would still accept the earth as being flat and the center of the universe.
However, old sometimes can still be gold, and this was the question Pertubuhan IKRAM Malaysia (Ikram) sought to explore on Saturday, 16 July during a forum held on the relevance of the term ‘kafir harbi’ in modern times. The forum saw five stalwarts of Islamic thought in Malaysia representing various streams of opinion, with respective followers of said streams packing the hall to the brim. The raison d’etre for the occurrence was a remark made by Dato’ Sri Dr Abdul Rahman Osman, the Mufti of Pahang, stating that those who oppose Islam are deserving of the title ‘kafir harbi’. Content aside, the fact that the forum came to fruition itself was a landmark event in the discourse process of Islamic thinking, converging different angles of view and leaving the audience to decide which carried the most substance: classical or contemporary, a modern-day Inquisition versus Galileo.
ACT ONE: DAYS LONG PAST
In olden times, long before the territorial borders of today’s countries were formed, Islamic scholars divided nation-states generally into ‘Darul Salam‘ (‘Land of Peace/Islam’) and ‘Darul Harb’ (‘Land of War’). This binary, politically-driven classification by scholars such as al-Mawardi and asy-Syaibani came about at a nascent age for Islam, when it was striving to make its mark on the world amongst the civilisations that existed and when the waging of war was much more the order of the day than in modern times.
In addition to this rudimentary categorisation of territories, supplementary definitions concerning non-Muslims were formed. They were further divided into ‘dhimmi’ (those under Muslim protection in exchange for a special tax), ‘mu’ahad’ (those from kuffar lands which have a truce with Muslim lands), and ‘musta’man’ (those coming to Muslim lands seeking protection). This process is dynamic, as a kafir musta’man can subsequently become dhimmi if he were to pay the ‘jizya’, the aforementioned special tax.
By opening on the abundance of mosques in Western countries today as a reality which was practically inconceivable by the scholars of yesteryear, Dr Maszlee Malik (of the International Islamic University of Malaysia) attempted to demonstrate how the prior mentality of creed-based territorial segregation has little place in the 21st century. To support his points, Dr Maszlee quoted the contemporary Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abu Zuhrah. In post-colonial times, the migration of minority Western populations to the East and vice versa has created a global situation where the intermingling of ethnicities, cultures, and religious groups leaves little room for rigid outlooks on faith-based citizenship.
Thus, according to Abu Zuhrah, the polities of today should be seen in the light of wataniah (nationality as defined in a legal context) rather than choice of faith. This would apply even more close to home, where the Chinese and Indians of today are the descendents of the diaspora brought by the British to the Malay Peninsula decades ago to work in tin mines and on rubber estates. Recognising the right of Malaysian minority groups to good treatment, panelist Ustaz Hasanuddin Yunus (of the political party AMANAH) did well to slip in a quote by psychologist Carl Rogers to reinforce to the panel and audience that the discussion was to revolve around the ‘here and now’.
A slightly harsher (but still very moderate) view brought forth for the deliberation of the eagerly-listening audience was that of Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradhawi’s, a scholar of contemporary Islamic jurisprudence par excellence. That is, the only real Darul Harb today is Israel, which has been systemically and persistently driving out Palestinian Arabs from their historical homeland for the past seven or so decades. In more recent times, though, this may or may not extrapolate to other nations where Muslims are persecuted and purged from their rightful homes. And this is in line with verse 8 of Chapter 60 of the Qur’an, where God decrees that Muslims have no case for enmity with non-Muslims who do not oppose them out of religious differences and who do not expel them from their abodes.
A CASE FOR WAR?
Ustaz Engku Ahmad Fadzil’s (of the Malaysian Institute for Islamic Strategic Research, or IKSIM) view on the matter was in contradiction to Dr Maszlee and Ustaz Hasanuddin’s, although not in total. Taking verses from the Quran, he argued that the default stance for Muslims to take against non-Muslims is one of vigilence, discretion, and restrained animosity. To build his case, he extracted from the Qur’an evidences such as verse 191 of Chapter 2, which explicitly orders Muslims to slay their non-Muslim foes.
Although Ustaz Engku agreed that this cannot be translated literally to mean that Muslims have a licence to kill whimsically, he seemed to insist that it gives the impression of the natural prejudice Muslims should have against people of other religion. However, after voicing a rather strong stance, he also pointed out that in spite of verses of staunch enmity against the kuffar, for thousands of years after the flourishing of Islam and the establishment of the Caliphate, there had been no documented rampage of senseless violence by Muslims against non-Muslims.
Ustaz Zamihan Mat Zin (of the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama’ah Society, or ASWAJA) advocated leaving the business of declaring others as kafir harbi to the Mufti, supporting him in his actions which took place two weeks prior to the forum. Concurring with the Mufti, he went on to give a view similar to that of Ustaz Engku’s, implicating that the term ‘harbi’ actually has degrees; there are supposedly harbi who are only opposed and whose lives cannot actually be taken. Accompanying this stance, he took from the Quran verse 279 of Chapter 2 – a well-known ‘declaration of war’ from God and His Messenger against those who commit usury that doesn’t implicate a ruling of actual, physical warfare.
OF COMPREHENSIVENESS, FORESIGHT, AND WISDOM
In any field of study, it is imperative that one trains oneself to look at things in a holistic manner and with depth, for this is the way one gains wisdom in said field. Countering Ustaz Engku and Zamihan’s viewpoints, Dr Maszlee showed that the content of the Qur’an cannot be looked at from a skyscraper; one must be willing to examine the conditions and context in which they were sent down.
The verse which asks Muslims to ‘slay (the kuffar) wherever they may find them’ (2:191) were conveyed at a time when the Muslims of Madinah were under constant threat from their enemies in Makkah. In addition, this particular verse follows and is followed by other verses which dictate conditions of war. The surrounding verses speak of how Islam prohibits excessive violence in warfare and of how Muslims are to reciprocate if the enemy ceases attack. Therefore, it would be out of place to quote the verse by itself.
Personally, I find it quite ironic that a scholar vehemently against religious liberals would read this verse on the surface and in isolation to justify an abrasive stance when he reproaches those same individuals who cite it superficially in attempts to depict senseless violence in Islam! And from yet another angle, this is dangerously close to the methodology of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), who’ve made themselves a household name when it comes to terror and violence under the (false) pretext of Islam.
This is something which Dr Maszlee can vouch for, as he was recently appointed to provide counselling to inmates who were caught by Malaysian police for being involved in ISIS-related activities. As had been prophesied 14 centuries ago by Muhammad the Messenger of God, there will arise a people who ‘read the Qur’an, but it will not reach past their throats’, meaning that the Qur’an will be interpreted literally and not fully comprehended. If this is the modus operandi of certain, supposedly learned scholars, then how much different are they from ISIS? The pot calling the kettle black, much?
There was also the question of whether the Mufti of Pahang had actually said what was reported, and if he did, what he had meant by it.
Admittedly, Dr Fathul Bari (the last panelist, of the United Malays National Organisation, or Umno) did well to enquire the Mufti of Pahang himself prior to the forum on what he meant when he uttered such seemingly vehement words. This process of tabayyun is enshrined in the Qur’an (49:6). But then again, there wasn’t much else that he contributed to the dialogue, including when he mentioned that the right to declare war belongs only to the imam (leader) of the Muslims in a territory, as that was a principle already established by Dr Maszlee at the start of the forum. I wouldn’t exactly laud him for his apparent rationality as have others; ambiguity and playing safe are easy ways to appear reasonable and decent.
Anyway, from Dr Fathul Bari’s practical non-presence, we discovered that yes, the Mufti really had expressed himself as was widely reported. But he was only responding to the ‘provocations of certain individuals of certain political factions (thought by many to mean the Democratic Action Party, or DAP)’ and that there was no intent to declare holy war on anyone.
I actually spoke to a notable expert on ahadeeth (prophetic narrations) the day after the forum who had no political affiliations, just to get another, much more qualified outsider’s perspective. It was clear that designating a side ‘harbi’ yet attempting to accord the consequences of the title degrees is a contradictory and odd affair, for it has all-or-none repercussions. You can’t be declaring war on someone and simultaneously decree that the man is only to be opposed in ideology and not to be killed altogether! On this academic basis alone, this angle (which was embraced both by Ustaz Engku and Ustaz Zamihan) could have well been deemed null and void.
And equally bewildering was that Ustaz Zamihan professed himself the president of an organisation of Muslims who practice the teachings of Imam as-Shafi’e; the latter was an early scholarly giant who himself wrote that one deemed a kafir harbi is deserving of his life and possessions to be taken. So what, then, was he going on about?
Such a milestone occasion in the history of religious discourse in this nation would not have been complete without a look at the repercussions of justifying that non-Muslims be labelled ‘kafir harbi’ nowadays, for the answer to some questions are found by looking from a retrograde point of view, i.e., from back-to-front. Malaysia is known the world over for being one of the most diverse countries (if not the most diverse country) on earth. This diversity entails not only different ethnic groups and cultures, but cuts across religious groups as well.
There is no argument over the terms ‘kafir’ and ‘kuffar’, but Ustaz Engku and Ustaz Zamihan were harping on their presence in the Qur’an throughout, leaving me puzzled as to whether the focus of the forum had flown over their collective heads. Islam makes no compromise on creed, but the benefits of just and fair Islamic rule are for all. Were non-Muslims here to be regarded kuffar harbi (including those in Sabah and Sarawak), this would open the floodgates to violence and bloodshed, as was suggested on social media by Dr Maszlee shortly after the Mufti of Pahang made headlines. And in other nations, not least of which is our southern neighbour Singapore, the Muslim minority itself would feel the backlash if they were to declare their rulers kuffar harbi. This is the wisdom of the principle in jurisprudence known as ‘saddu zharai’’, whose meaning runs along the lines of preventing the undesirable.
THE WAY FORWARD
Building a civil society is no easy task. No-one ever said it was. But one thing is for sure: unjustified presumptions and lack of tolerance will never go a long way in making it a reality. The one other thing that I can applaud Dr Fathul Bari that night for is citing a hadeeth where the Prophet speaks to the effect of, ‘the best sort of religious practice is that which does not deviate and is tolerant.’ Islam sets principles and ground rules for mankind to adhere to, but the intricacies of day-to-day living are for us to handle, with wisdom. There is a place for harshness and punishment when limits are transgressed, but preceding that is a vast space for dialogue, because dialogue is the only real way inside another’s mind. Instead of forcing our beliefs down others’ throats, we should convince them.
And as for dialogue and discourse, they are the remedies to prejudice, misunderstanding, and hateful perceptions. As a representative of Amanah, which together with Keadilan and DAP forms the main Opposition bloc in the country, Ustaz Hasanuddin told of how efforts had been undertaken to share Islam with the Chinese-majority DAP, including discussing with them on maqasid syariah (the objectives of Islamic law). Strangely enough, for all the banter and ranting of Ustaz Engku on non-Muslims and Dr Fathul Bari and Ustaz Zamihan’s emphasis on tabayyun, neither Iksim, Umno, nor Aswaja had taken steps to properly converse with DAP on Islamic affairs in Malaysia. Seldom do we see other non-Malay parties receiving flak for their insensitive, ignorant comments on Islam. Cui bono (who benefits)?
As dangerous and provocative the actions of individuals like Alvin Tan and, more recently, Nga Kor Ming are, they are outliers and mustn’t be taken to represent the majority of non-Muslim conduct. In today’s context, any non-Muslim sowing the seeds of discord should be considered criminals against a Constitution that guarantees freedom of religion for all (conditional of tolerance for others’ beliefs) and not kafir harbi. Far too often, many forget to view wrongdoers objectively and that what should be opposed is the sin and not the sinner; restrict their crimes to the punishment of the state and display good conduct to them otherwise, instead of taking vigilante justice. Likewise, due penalisation must be meted out on Muslims who disrupt societal harmony and are wont to ethno-religious friction.
Where I work in the healthcare sector, I see Malays, Chinese and Indians who have previously never met in their lives talk and communicate to each other in the most amicable of manners; I struggle to think what there actually is for us to argue over when a lot of the time, we can compromise for each other’s religious practices. If we actually took the effort to smile and speak to each other more, we would see the walls of racism, mutual awkwardness and hate being torn down bit by bit. For prejudice exists where dialogue fails to. As the eloquent preacher Hassan al-Banna once said, “We shall wage war against man with kindness.”