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Humanizing the sacred pdf


  • Book Title:
 Humanizing The Sacred
  • Book Author:
Azza Basarudin
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Introduction Faith, Self, and Community – HUMANIZING THE SACRED

Suhana Khalid, an activist with Sisters in Islam (SIS), was walking a European journalist out of her office when I caught part of her conversation: “. . . but look at the small changes taking place. As I explained, our strategy might not appeal to many, but it is fantastic for us. It has been working for over twenty years, and I’m certain it will continue to work in the future.”1

The journalist responded, “I understand, but I’m not convinced about the strategy’s sustainability. You’re up against the Islamic establishment and trained Muslim scholars.” Not to be deterred, Suhana responded, “We’re still going strong, shaking things up, and rattling people’s chains. Come back in five years and we might just blow your mind!” The journalist smiled politely but looked unconvinced.

Struck by the rather grandiose tone of her response, I looked at Suhana and raised an eyebrow, and she winked at me with a slight smile. After the journalist left, we went into her office and she proceeded to tell me about the interview, chuckling at the journalist’s discomfort over SIS’s commitment to the strategy of claiming rights for Muslim women with Islam as a frame of reference. While discussing this matter Suhana made her convictions clear:

Islam is an integral part of my life. I can just be secular and use human rights, but Islam matters to me. SIS founding members feel the same way, and that is why we decided to advocate for women’s rights from within Islam. In the 1990s at international conferences, liberal Muslims told us that religion has no place in public life. They said that by working from within, we are validating the role of Islam in politics, supporting the lack of separation between Islam and the state, and strengthening the ‘ulama [scholars of religion] class.2

 They said we would never win the battle for Islam because we are entering the ‘ulama’s turf. I always felt that it was a mistake to leave religious matters to the ‘ulama. Our strategy is based on our context and conviction as believers. It is important for us to produce Islamic knowledge that supports kesaksamaan [equality] and keadilan [justice]. However, things have changed. Those who were unsympathetic to us are now seeking our expertise

. I think they realized that their rejection of Islam is based on patriarchal under- standing of the religion. We do not believe that Islam is unjust. We do not believe that God is unjust. While many Muslim women accepted the patriarchal version of Islam, we never wanted anything to do with it.

SIS is a nongovernmental organization consisting primarily of Malay Muslim professional women. The office is in Petaling Jaya, a city close to Malaysia’s federal capital, Kuala Lumpur. SIS is dedicated to “promoting an understanding of Islam that recognizes the principles of justice, equality, freedom, and dignity within a democratic nation state.”3

 It is internationally renowned and its members include academics, journalists, and artists. The members draw on and engage in feminist interpretations of primary sources of Islam—the Qur’an and sunna (practices of the Prophet that include hadith, traditions/narrations)—alongside constitutional law and human rights principles as a strategy to advocate for equality and justice in reforming Islamic law (commonly understood as syariah).

My conversation with Suhana took place in the SIS office.4 Suhana’s perspective depicts a staunch belief in a struggle for self- determination and human dignity that is spiritually, intellectually, and politically embedded within an Islamic frame of reference. It is a strug- gle rooted in the refusal to concede Islam to patriarchal interpretations that have compromised the rights of Muslim women. These activists are untangling human corruption from God’s injunction by clarifying the difference between syariah (literally, the way) as divine will and fiqh (lit- erally, the understanding) as human effort to make sense of the basic concepts and purposes of syariah (maqasid al-syariah). They are pro- ducing and transmitting Islamic knowledge that accounts for women’s experiences and lived realities, as well as shifting cultural and political landscapes of communities of Muslims.5

They are cultivating in Muslim women an active interest in reshaping national laws and restructuring power relations that regulate gender dynamics. Ultimately, their struggle is to reclaim women’s human dignity as believing Muslims and to call on their communities to reevaluate communal and moral obligations, as well as to ensure that Islam remains a “living” religion. That struggle, ani- mated by the courageous voices, passionate minds, and dedicated bodies of a group of women, is at the heart of this book.

My goals in this book are to demonstrate the possibilities and challenges of translating feminist interpretations of Islam into grounded activism to effect change in social mores and legal codes, and to illuminate how women’s activism within Islam is a space of dissent and of remaking “Muslim” self and identity. I suggest that the shift to feminist interpretation and transmission of Islamic sources by humanizing elements in the formulation of legal codes generates new meanings of women’s rights, asserts a sharp challenge to institutionalized religious authority, and reinvigorates faith and piety.

 I view this shift as “fracturing” the historical monopoly of textual interpretation in Malaysia and, consequently, the state’s authority to define and legislate Islam. The fracturing signifies how women’s activism is seeping through the cracks of religious authoritarianism and causing ruptures in structures of power. My usage of “institutionalized religious authority” and “religious authoritarianism” refers to the state-controlled bureaucracy that oversees Islamic affairs, law, and education, as well as propagates and monitors the normative interpretation of Islam and Muslim practices.

“Feminist interpretations” refers to how women activists interpret sources of Islam based on their understanding of Islam’s message of equality and justice, as well as on their consciousness of women’s subordination in society.

In these interpretive endeavors, women authorize themselves through a certain measure of ijtihad (independent judgment) to circumvent normative stipulations that marginalize them as producers of Islamic knowledge. In the process, they decide which aspects of Islamic tradition to draw upon to establish new relations of religious texts to cultural and historical contexts.

In doing so, these women produce dis- courses of knowledge and power that move away from privileging patriarchal interpreters and jurists, which contribute to the transformation of Islamic tradition itself. Eschewing the guiding voices of patriarchal interpreters, they are claiming the right to interpret the Qur’an by vir- tue of a direct relationship with God. As believers, these women assert the right to reconstitute Islam based on their belief that the sacred text encourages them to exercise their akal (mind or intellect) and pemikiran rasional (rational faculties). T

his strategy allows them to call attention to the “corruption from within” while creating a space for their feminist interpretation.

Members of SIS work with an understanding that conceptions of gender roles and rights as formulated in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) can- not be separated from the historical and cultural processes that produce exegetes and jurists. Therefore, these conceptions, which are a product of human agency, are amenable to change according to contemporary realities.

These women are developing a strategy of claiming rights that combines feminist hermeneutics, constitutional law, and the principles of human rights to reform laws and public policies. Their strategy is distinct, as it transforms textual interpretation into a living tradition through activism by which they claim the right to debate Islam publicly. The strategy is based on their cultural specificity, social location, professional training, strategic connections, and access to resources. I use cul- tural specificity to refer to how these women draw from their internal local elements, or their community, and to how these elements shape their organizational subcultures and influence their ability to engage effectively in their community. Moreover, these women draw on transna- tional ideas and practices and subsequently adapt them to their research and advocacy. For these women, Islam is a central site for feminist dis- sent and political activism.

This brings me to my second goal in this book, which is to explore activism as a space for women to transform themselves into political actors and visible religious subjects in the public sphere. As political activists, these women are intellectually aware, holistically educated, communally beholden, and realistically committed to social justice.

Their sense of identity and subjectivity is intimately linked to the forces that shape their existence, the social world they inhabit, and their negotia- tion of power relations. As Malays who are Muslims, these women belong to the racial and religious majority who are entitled to “special rights” or affirmative action.6 As women living under an increasingly politicized Muslim society, their gendered bodies bear the brunt of discriminatory laws while they themselves are excluded from the processes that produce such laws. As activists struggling for the right to self-determination, they subvert normative expectations of Malay and Muslim womanhood.

These women activists’ multiple positioning can be aptly described as “out- sider-within” (Collins 1986) in that they have internal knowledge of their faith community yet are relegated to the margins of power and excluded from defining communal ethics.

They occupy a state of nonbelonging, and this vantage point provides them with both the adequate insight and the critical distance with which to produce a distinctive knowledge of self, family, and community.

By connecting the personal-spiritual with the political, I demonstrate that SIS’s pursuit of equality and justice is not simply about asserting agency à la liberal feminist conceptions of individual rights and autonomy.

Their pursuit is not necessarily about the overthrow of patriarchy, but is rooted in a deeper desire to practice a lifestyle that balances faith with reason, and personal values with public interest. It is about drawing on their cultural and religious values to shape notions of rights and responsibility. I am especially interested in how these women are cultivating a self that balances religious specificities and a universal ethics of rights. They strive to inhabit a Muslimness, an identity that has to be struggled for by learning and striving to self-actualize outside the limits of religious authoritarianism. In turn, their process of becoming political subjects destabilizes the perception that there is a single concrete way of being Muslim or practicing Islam. These activists are reinvigorating the Malay culture and undermining the ways in which the Malaysian state reinforces its role as guardian of religious and cultural “authenticity.”7

Managing Islam in Malaysia

Malaysia is a multicultural and multi-confessional country with a population of twenty-nine million people, consisting of a majority of ethnic Malays and minorities of ethnic Chinese and Indians, as well as indigenous people. The country is divided into thirteen states and three Federal Territories.

 The Constitution defines Malays as Muslims, and Islam is the “official” religion of the federation. While ethnic minorities are allowed to practice their religions, they do so under strict condition that they do not propagate their beliefs to Muslims. The state monitors interpretations of Islam that deviate from the sanctioned version through a centralized agency—Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM, Depart- ment of Islamic Development Malaysia)—that is responsible for promot…

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