Cooperative society

September 26, 1997

The International Islamic University of Malaysia is far from the intolerant institution portrayed in a recent THES article, says Subki Bin Ahmad

Shabbir Akhtar made several allegations against the International Islamic University in Malaysia, where he taught philosophy for three years, in a recent article, "Ex-defender of the faith" (THES, August 22).

He argued that Muslims are authoritarians; they do not tolerate discussion of matters relating to Islam; condemn free thinkers as heretics and take every opportunity to criticise western attitudes. The main culprits, wrote Dr Akhtar, are Arabs, who are admired as the "white man" of the religion By Muslims of other cultures. By way of the Qur'an, Arabs are able to impose their culture, language and superior status on Muslims all over the world without question. This is particularly the case at the IIUM, where the rector, according to Dr Akhtar, rules as an unbending Islamic dictator. Dr Akhtar concludes that because Muslims have reached such a pathetic state, it is perhaps time to take stock and decide whether the religion which was first sent down to the Arabs should remain with them, releasing other, non-Arab Muslims, such as himself from the need to "defend the faith".

In his article Dr Akhtar cited the viewpoint, widely held in some Islamic circles, that "western-style free inquiry is aimless". He further attributed such a remark to the IIUM's rector. This remark may be construed as a comment on the atomistic nature of western society. Although there are many great thinkers in the West, they work individually and for their own interests rather than to improve the human condition in western societies. Consequently, Islamic thinkers conclude that talented scholars need a mechanism that imbues their work with a common aim for the good of society. In an ideal Islamic society, such people would work together in the interests of humankind for the great glory of God - a stance which carries little weight in the cynical West.

Dr Akhtar, however, interprets the rector's remark to draw three erroneous conclusions: that Muslims are not interested in education; do not encourage freedom of expression; are hostile towards the West. On the subject of education, Dr Akhtar's contention that Muslims feel that there is "nothing new to learn" because "God has already revealed to us the whole truth" is scurrilous. Muslims the world over distinguish between that which is known to be the truth and therefore beyond question, for example, the existence of God, and that which is not proven to be conclusively true and which therefore may be the subject of further inquiry, such as the theories that abound in every intellectual discipline.

As for freedom of expression, it is not true that it is proscribed, either in the Muslim world or, particularly, in the IIUM. Indeed, it is encouraged, but with the important caveat that free expression be accompanied by a sense of responsibility towards God and society. It is the gratuitous nature of free expression in the West that Muslim intellectuals deplore.

The accusation that the IIUM is hostile towards the West is also false. One aim of the university is to promote greater understanding among people. One example of the university's open-mindedness is the fact that a number of its staff are not Muslim but Christian and Hindu. Another example is the number of "best student" awards given to non-Muslim students at convocations over the years. The majority of the university's academic staff are trained in the West. At the time of writing, there are 40 staff members on scholarships in the United Kingdom and 40 in the United States.

Dr Akhtar also makes reference to Quranic hermeneutics in his attempt to set feminist readers against Muslims: "A brilliant interpreter can get away with anything. Some granted women certain human rights; others saw in the Qur'an the most comprehensive charter for keeping women in their place. All were united in their hatred of the West where women's lives are scandalously free," he wrote. Here Dr Akhtar again attempts to drive a wedge between two different world views. He neglects to mention that Islam was the first religion to address the issue of women's rights. Islam put a stop to female infanticide. Laws were introduced to regulate the conditions of divorce in order to protect the interests of maltreated wives. The Prophet Muhammad himself made a point of marrying a number of women who were considered by society to be too old or useless, in order to set the right example. Laws were also introduced to protect the rights of inheritance of daughters. This was 1,400 years ago when the West was still in the Dark Ages.

Dr Akhtar paints a picture of arrogant, patronising Arabs setting themselves up as the primus inter pares of the Muslim world. They are seen as "the white man of the East" and as the purveyors of "Arab linguistic imperialism", a people who dismiss the Malay language as "primitive". He goes on to argue that since the message of the Qur'an is couched in Arab culture, promotes Arab interests, sanctifies the Arab language and encourages the defence of Arab political rights in the Holy Land, it was originally aimed only at the Arabs and was not intended as a "universal religion". If Dr Akhtar wishes to distance himself from the universal message of the Qur'an on the grounds that he is a non-Arab, albeit a Muslim, that is his privilege. However such a stand runs counter to the Prophet Muhammad's final address: Be he an Arab he shall not be honoured more than a non-Arab; Be he a non-Arab he shall not be honoured more than an Arab; Be he a white man he shall not be honoured more than a black man; Be he a black man he shall not be honoured more than a white man; But by the depth of his piety.

Dr Akhtar's attack on the university's language policy is irresponsible, because he is well aware of people's sensitivities concerning national languages, particularly in Southeast Asia. Allegations that Arabs perceive the national language of Malaysia as "primitive" are inflammatory. It is therefore very important for the university to state categorically its view that all languages, whatever their origins, are equal.

Dr Akhtar's most damning claim concerning the university is his belief that its lecturers avoided or ignored the bigger issues relating to religion and faith. The IIUM has for several years promoted critical thinking and debating courses which students are required to undertake. Many of our students are champions of Malaysia in debating, mooting and counselling in English and Malay. Arabic is taught at the university, not because it is seen as a vehicle for political dominance and power, but because it is a necessary tool for reading important Islamic texts.

In his effort to undermine the Arab presence in the university, Dr Akhtar neglects to mention that 90 per cent of all university courses are conducted in English. The university, in fact, employs approximately 100 English language teachers and lecturers, many of whom are native speakers. As for the writer's contention that English is the most suitable language for the discussion of philosophy, philosophers such as Hegel, Kant, Descartes, Nietszche and Wittgenstein might have had something to say about that. Malay language courses are taught to all university students and a pass in the language is a graduation requirement.

Dr Akhtar claims that his examination questions were subject to the rector's approval. This is untrue. The job of vetting examination papers to assure quality control is the responsibility of the faculties and their academic departments. Dr Akhtar also implies that the philosophy department was closed down on account of his anomalous courses which were seen as heretical. The truth is rather more prosaic. Because of the unpopularity of the subject of pure philosophy in Malaysia there was too little demand for the subject by the students. The university therefore decided to shut down the department and transfer its academic staff to the department of comparative religion where philosophy is taught.

Subki Bin Ahmad is media relations officer of the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

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