Amidst the confusion and phobia against Islam in general, I am grateful that a book has been published to answer those confusion and phobia. That book is titled “Islamic Foundations for A Free Society” (translated into Indonesian as “Islam dan Kebebasan: Argumen Islam untuk Masyarakat Bebas”) which consisted of essays authored by Muslim scholars and intellectuals, and edited by Nouh El Harmouzi and Linda Whetstone. This book is an invitation for its readers to discuss the idea and practice of liberal Islam.
In Indonesia, this book is published by Suara Kebebasan, and it tries to review and reevaluate the fundamental teachings of Islam which have been misinterpreted by extremists. Historically, Islam is a religion that was meant to bring love and peace to the world. In the Arabic society where it was first come about, Islam has successfully initiated social improvements. For example, the teaching of Islam encouraged men to regard women as equal, slave owners to treat their slaves kindly, and Islam also taught people to be peaceful and think rationally.
However, if we see today’s political climate and regulations in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East and Africa countries, we can easily find many gender-bias and even misogynous regulations. Legitimacy of religion and cultural influence in those areas have effectively marginalized women in society. Souad Adnane in her essay in the book exposes the fact that the gender gap women participation in the economy index in Middle East and African countries is still far from ideal.
Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco are the three countries with the worst index on gender equality and women participation in the economy. This is in the most part is caused by the prevalent patriarchal culture and constantly legitimized by religious teaching. In general, the society in Middle East and Africa are still considering it as a taboo to let women work in public domain. In part, such paradigm is inspired by a Quran verse: “And abide in your houses and do not display yourself as [was] the display of the former times of ignorance…” (33:33).
Souad Adnane argues that using that verse as the basis for marginalizing women is completely unjustified because that verse was specifically meant to address the Prophet wives, not all women in general. In addition, there is no strong and specific (Qath’i) verse in the Quran that prohibits women to work in public domain.
In the history of Islam itself, we can always refer to Khadijah as a great example of how a women can be a rich merchant while also be the wife to the Prophet Muhammad and supporting his struggle in spreading the word of Islam. This shows how Islam essentially never prohibit women to have a career and work.
However, such interpretation of Islam as a liberating religion is now buried under various types of revivalist movements that want to turn Islam into a political struggle. The purpose of these political Islamists is to build a new world order under the banner of Islam and sharia. They want to substitute democracy with caliphate, free market economy with sharia-based economy, and implementing sharia as the legitimate law of the land.
Such struggle is now falling into an extreme kind of political struggle. Initially, the Islamists tried to bring about changes within constitutional rules, but now the struggle has adopted a more aggressive stance. The defeat and sense of inferiority among muslims towards Western civilization have aroused a revolutionary spirit in the heart of militant muslims. This, in turns, has fueled many terrorism acts that hold the world as hostage.
Arguably, such revolutionary spirit does not come up instantly. There are external conditions that mold muslims’ way of thinking today to be more stagnant and extreme. Atiylla Yayla and Mustafa Acar in Chapter 2 of the book detail the conditions. One of the conditions is reflux in creativity and innovation in muslim society due to the prohibition of ijtihad (free thinking) in the13th century BC. Other conditions are the spread of colonialism and France and England success story in occupying Islam territory.
These are a few conditions out of many that cause muslim society to fall behind and think negatively towards ideas and civilization that come from the West. Today, muslims are tend to distrust ideas such as pluralism, liberalism, free market economy or capitalism, democracy, individual liberty, and universal human rights. They hate all of those ideas simply because those ideas come the “infidel” West. They do not realize that those ideas of liberty and tolerance have been contained in Islamic teaching all along.
This book is written with the purpose to demonstrate that the ideas of liberty, tolerance, and free economy are indispensable part of the religion of Islam and Quranic teaching.
For example, if we read Surahs or Chapters in Al Quran: “And if Allah had willed, He could have made you (of) one religion… And you will surely be questioned about what you used to do” (16:93). “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion” (109:6). These verses are written proof that the ideas of tolerance and peace are of essential part in Islam.
Azhar Aslam in Chapter 5 explains how the fundamentals of Islamic teaching today are being distorted and contradictory with the current reality. We can see how many muslims today are supporting the act of destroying churches, temples, and other houses of worship of other religions. This does not reflect the teaching of true Islam.
In one occasion, as written in the history book, the Prophet Muhammad once said, “I do not want my followers to destroy churches to build mosques in its place”. Even the famous greeting in Islam, Assalamualaikum, which means “may peace be upon you”, is a testament of how Islam does not intend to exude any hostility towards people of other faith.
Then how does Islam see individual liberty and free market economy? Many people think that Islam is much closer to socialism as the antithesis of liberalism that emphasizes on individualism. Many Marxist thinkers in Middle East and Europe have elucidated the ‘revolutionary’ aspect of Al Quran and interpreted Islam within the framework of socialism. However, historically, Islam in its early period was very much compatible with the idea of individual liberty and voluntary-based market economy.
For example, in Islam, you don’t need the role of a religious leader to practice observance as a medium or a requirement so that your observance is considered as acceptable. The practice of daily prayers, fasting, zakat (alms-giving), and even the haji pilgrimage, in principle, are personal observance that require no intermediary person whatsoever. This shows how Islam is basically a very individual religion.
More importantly, in economics matter, the prophet Muhammad was very supportive of individual liberty, especially in owning means of production and personal wealth. The Prophet was also fond of entrepreneurship and the merchants. He gave his approval of cross-territory trade. In 7th century AD, the City of Mecca has already been a hub of international trade where merchants from many countries, such as China and Persia, came to interact with one another. This fact is eloquently elucidated in an essay in this book written by Maszlee Malik and Hicham El Moussaoi.
From this fact alone, we can see how Islam is more compatible with the idea of free entrepreneurship and free market than with the collectivist idea of socialism.
This book, Islam dan Kebebasan (Islamic Foundations for A Free Society), clearly set out to engage its readers, especially muslims, to review and study the teaching of Islam from its early period. Far from the radical and aggressive face shown by contemporary Islam, this book tries to show its reader the true face of Islam, that is the face of tolerance, peace, inclusiveness, flexibility, and, more importantly, liberal.