“You are not qualified to talk about Islam”: How to respond to attempts to close the public domain (Part 1)

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Rather than silencing the voices of Muslim women who are trying to understand and make relevant Islam for the age we live in, the conservatives among us should learn to listen to the critical and often constructive comments of others instead, urges Farish Noor.

“You are not qualified to talk about Islam”. How many times have I heard and read that same line, again and again? And more often than not, the same sentence is uttered or written by precisely the sort of self-trained autodidact whose own knowledge of Islam came from whatever he or she read on the internet or some cassette he bought at the local market.

It has become rather commonplace for conservative Muslims – as well as conservative Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews – to claim monopoly over the discourse of Islam and to try their best to close off the space of public discourse on all matters religious for the sake of protecting the integrity and sanctity of that discourse. Or so we are told. But one can also argue that such attempts at restricting the participation and contribution of others in a discursive arena that is hotly contested is little more than a conventional and predictable attempt at censorship and the narrowing of the Muslim mind.

A recent case in point is the attempt to once again label the Muslim feminist movement Sisters in Islam of Malaysia as a group of ‘western-educated’ ‘liberal’ feminists who have no right to speak on matters Islamic. And once again we are in a paroxysm of anxiety as to how to deal with such accusations.

Let us therefore calmly and rationally look into the matter and dissect it piece by piece:

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First of all, the claim that someone is ‘not qualified’ to speak about Islam simply because he or she did not go to a religious school is a rather bogus and shallow argument that should be exposed for what it is. The comparison that is often made is thus: Only a doctor can speak about medicine as he is trained to speak on medical matters, and only a pilot can speak about flying as he or she is trained in such matters as well; hence it follows that only the learned scholars (ulama) can speak about Islam as they have been trained to do so.

Now allow me to interject at this point: If I were to go to my doctor and complain to her of a headache, and she attempts to cure my headache by cracking my skull open with a hammer, I do reserve the right to object and to tell her that she is not a very good doctor. Likewise if I chose to take a flight to Jogjakarta and end up in Cuba , I do reserve the right to admonish the pilot. I don’t have to be trained in medicine or avionics to register such a complaint, for the simple reason that I am not objecting to the discipline of medicine per se, but rather the normative conduct of my doctor.

Likewise when Muslim feminists object to the abuse of women’s rights at the hands of misogynistic men who hide behind the cloak of religiosity, they are not condemning Islam or religion as a whole, but rather the normative culture of Muslims, and the abuse of law in the name of Islam. At no point is Islam being criticised or rejected, but rather the abuse of the law and the transgression of the egalitarian spirit of Islam.

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This is the point that is often lost in the over-heated debates that take place between Muslim progressives and the more conservative Ulama in our midst. Whenever there is an attempt to question, debate, reform or develop the normative religio-cultural praxis of Muslims anywhere in the world, we often see the same reaction from conservative Ulama who will never accept that those who didn’t go to the same schools as they did have the right to speak on matters of religious praxis.

But if we accept this argument of the Ulama then we are in danger of overlooking the reality of history and how the greatest advances in Muslim normativity and thought came from those who were precisely outside the traditional circle of orthodox thought. Today many Islamists claim to have received their inspiration from the likes of Abul Ala’a Maudoodi, Hassan al-Banna, Syed Qutb, et al. But have we forgotten that men like Maudoodi and Qutb were themselves lay Islamists whose own education sometimes was not rooted in classical Islamic teaching? Maudoodi was, after all, a journalist by training.

Dealing and responding to such attempts at discursive closure would therefore require us to look beyond the discursive pyrotechnics of legalism and theology, and to see that beneath all these warnings and demands for closure is nothing more than a strategy of censorship at work. For those who are trying to engage critically and intelligently with the discourse of religion, abiding by the rules of traditional conventional scholarship will simply not get us anywhere.

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If, for instance, a Muslim feminist were to abide by the rules set by some conservative male Ulama, they would be forced to conform to all the standards set by men: They would have to start from the beginning, go to the same schools as the ulama did, read the same books, dress and behave the same way, etc. But in the end, they would still be faced with yet another barrier to their participation into the discursive domain: “No, you are not qualified to speak on Islam. Why? Because you are a woman of course!”

In the struggle to understand and render relevant the concerns of religion in the modern age we live in, blind adherence to traditional conventions will get us nowhere; and can only in fact retard our development even further. What holds true for contemporary Muslim praxis is equally true for contemporary Christian, Hindu and Buddhist praxis as well. Conservative Muslims on the other hand have to realise that we now live in an age where modern developments in communication, education and the dissemination of knowledge means that Muslim women are more intellectually emancipated and equipped than ever before. Rather than silencing the voices of Muslim women who are trying to understand and make relevant Islam for the age we live in, the conservatives among us should learn to listen to the critical and often constructive comments of others instead. If Islam is indeed a universal religion, then it has to be open for discussion for all. If Islam is indeed for everyone, then everyone has the right to have a say in it.

See also:

Part 2

Part 3

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