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Islam is Like an Ocean

A week in Indonesia gives a good glimpse to British scholar Ziauddin Sardar about the future of Islam. In his eyes, Indonesia is the shape of Islam in the future. He considers that the diverse variety found in Indonesia might just be the uniting bound. In a relaxing atmosphere for an interview inside the British Council, Jakarta, Sardar accepted Iman F Yuniarto, Amin Madani, Johar Arief, and Ifan Junaidi from Republika daily to share his views on the future and agenda of Islam.

Q. Can you describe the future of Islam?

A.Yes. Most people think that Islam is like a river with borders on its sides that flows to one direction. But I consider Islam to be like an ocean that has no real borders. On that ocean you can direct people’s culture to certain directions that Islam has. On the river, you do need direction where to go. On the ocean, you need direction, because you can move to wherever direction. That is the value of Islam. According to me, most Moslems don’t really understand the values of Islam. They think that Islam is only about praying, fasting, and giving alms. They don’t realize that asking is a part of Islam. They don’t make asking questions as the key of Islam: whereas, if you read Koran, it is full of questions.

The first dialogue of the Prophet Muhammad upon receiving the revelation is asking. When the Prophet was asked to read, he asked, what he should read. So, why don’t we make asking as a value of Islam. For me, asking question is the basic value of Islam. Other than that, reading, thinking, and writing are also the values of Islam. Those even came before the order to pray and fast. And if you see an Islamic society, one thing that is lacking is reading. Writing is also something that Islamic society neglects. Another important essence is ijma’ (consensus). Why is this important? Because we find arguments and critics in Islam. If you argue or criticize, that means there is a different opinion. But one cannot force his opinion to another. You can conduct your argument when there is an ijma’. Islamic society has never approved of what is wrong.

Discussion becomes the basic value of Islam. Discussion is different from consultation. Discussion is a form of responsibility, while consultation is only a personal question. There are many mechanisms of discussions. Elections, referendum, are all forms of discussions. I think nowadays Moslems don’t have navigation because all the values they hold are ritualistic. They don’t hold real values. So, according to me, Islam in the future has many directions. I don’t see the future of Islam moving only to one direction. That is why I gave title to my book Islamic futures (showing plural), not Islamic future or The Islamic future. There are many ways to become a Moslem. Hence, the future of Islam is open, diverse, and dynamic. Islam is not only one, but diverse.

Q. In your opinion, is the future of Islam bright or dark?

A. I’ll answer that question. A good or bad future depends on us. We can shape the future. If we create the future to be dark, that would be wrong. But if we create the future to be bright, that’s what we fight for. So, it depends on us, not on something abstract. I believe we can make a better future. I think all the young scholars in the Islamic world have provided something we can count on. They can rejuvenate Islam in many aspects. But if we think that rituals are everything, we will never move anywhere. And we will not be anywhere in the next 500 to 600 years.

Q. Must the future of Islam be like it was in its glorious past?

A. No. If you move forward but you look back, you will stumble upon something. So, if you move forward, look ahead. But if you need to look back, make that as a milestone. That is what history provides us. We need to learn history, we need to move forward with our tradition, but we should not be bound with the tradition. Tradition is a very stiff limitation. Various traditions are needed to bring development to people, not to limit them.

Q. At present we are facing a major issue of the campaign war against terrorists. According to you, what is the impact of such campaign to Islam?

A. I think the issue of terrorism has prevented Islamic society to develop. At the moment, if you see Islamic societies, you will see what they really need. Most of them need education. See the UNDP reports. Look, in the whole area of Middle East there is no international-level university. From Morocco to Iran, there is not one university with international standards. In the Middle East, the ruling system is still a kingdom, and it is an oppressive one. Our current agenda is terrorism and education. Terrorism will not solve the problem (of backwardness) in the Islamic world. We have to admit that the West influenced Mubarak in Egypt. The West also colonizes and creates havoc in Iraq and numerous other things. That is true. But terrorism will not make the West not to do those things. So the problem for the Islamic world is not only the power of the West, but also the condition of the Islamic world itself.

Q. Should we be involved in war against terror?

A. Yes. Look at the examples. You have two bombings in Bali. You have to stop whoever did the actions. So, Indonesians are responsible to do something to stop it so that the terrorists will not kill innocent people. I think the extremists in the Moslem society are only a minority. But they are also a part of our responsibility. If we do not talk to them, we are letting them to be invisible. If we talk to them, they become visible. Visible men will never want to be terrorists. We shouldn’t let them live in a world separated from us.

Q. What makes them invisible?

A. Because they are marginal they want to hide and exchange ideas only with the members of their group. We need to bring them to our community and not let them hide in the marginal. We are very open to have a dialogue with them. We should not let them take our teenagers to be brainwashed.

Q. Some of us think that the war against terrorism is actually a war against Islam. Do you agree?

A. I think terrorism has been a problem to the Moslems more than to others. Moslems become the victims of terrorism in a greater numbers compared to others.  In the past 15 years, hundreds of Moslems died in Pakistan due to terrorists’ attack. There was one Moslem group who killed another, like what happened between Syiah and Sunni. Similar thing happened in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and others where the victims killed were Moslems. The 7/7 tragedy in London killed a lot of Moslems, too. So, terrorism makes Moslems as its first target. Hence, if we think that the war against terrorism is a war against Islam, it is the mentality of a wounded soldier. They think that there is nothing wrong with the Islamic world. The West always makes mistakes. We are left behind because of the West. We are careless because of the West, and so on. Everything is caused by the West. This is very dangerous.

Q. So, where exactly is the West positioning itself to the Islamic world?

A. It is very clear that the West is a dominant power. You know that the power comes from knowledge. You know that we need to develop the people to increase knowledge and to make economic growth. Military is only a small part of the power. You will never have military power if you don’t have knowledge. And we all are weak on this. We have to strive for that power because it does not come to us just like that.

Q. What should the Islamic world do concerning the Western power?

A. I think the Islamic world has to involve the West. This is the era of globalization. We have to take parallel part in bringing development in which the society is active. At the moment we are not parallel in terms of developing science, research, and society’s development. There are too many differences. We have to rebuild the development of our people.

Republika Newspaper, Jakarta, 9 October 2006