| Saturday, February 24, 2007
| Youthful Perlis mufti just wants to shake things up
|Controversial Islamic scholar hopes to bring conservatives and liberals to the centre
By Leslie Lau
The Straits Times
A STATE Islamic scholar here has become the lightning rod in the struggle between liberals and conservatives.
Although Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin was named Perlis Mufti just last November, his statements have shaken the country's religious establishment.
At 35, he is the youngest mufti ever appointed here, and he is forcing Malaysia's Muslims to examine the way they practise their religion.
The most-publicised case in point is his criticism that Malaysia is the only country in the world where Islamic religious officers raid hotels and even private homes to arrest Muslim couples for either having sex or just being alone together.
For that, liberals have called him a breath of fresh air, while conservatives have used harsher words to describe him.
Dr Asri himself dismisses both labels.
'I am not a liberal,' he says in an interview early this month at his office in Kangar, Perlis. 'I am a modernist who wants to shake things up.'
He explains that he simply condemns khalwat raids because Islam considers it haram to snoop or invade people's privacy.
'If there are immoral activities, then we have to stop them, but if someone is hiding, then there is no need to bang on their doors,' he says.
'There are many other problems out in the open that we have to curb like transvestites, prostitutes or even Muslims gambling.'
Yet, he says it is compulsory for Muslim women to wear the tudung and to generally dress appropriately without over-exposure.
'A woman who does not wear the tudung is not doing something that is prescribed in Islam.
'But of course it is just one of many things that are expected of us in Islam. So if a woman does not wear the tudung, it does not mean she is not religious at all,' he says.
He draws the line, however, at women wearing the purdah, the loose-fitting clothing that covers them from head to toe.
Islamic text, he says, does not support the wearing of the purdah by Muslim women.
He feels that liberal Muslim groups in Malaysia like Sisters-
in-Islam, which demands women's rights and takes a liberal interpretation of Islam, misunderstand the religion.
'Sometimes what they do is react to some religious groups who are close-minded and conservative,' he says.
'What I want to do is to bring these two sides to the centre.'
Recently, Dr Asri stirred up controversy again when he said Chinese Muslims in Malaysia should be allowed to build their own mosques where imams preach in Mandarin.
'I just want to basically show the world that Islam is universal and does not belong to any one race. This can encourage the Chinese to look at Islam as a religion they can turn to,' he says, in reference to the practice of having mainly mosques here which preach only in Malay.
Islam, he says, is not the exclusive property of the Malays and Arabs.
He points out that in Malaysia, a Chinese cannot become a Malay, but he can become a Muslim.
The Chinese, he says, should not look at the way Muslims practise the religion, but discover Islam for themselves.
Dr Asri appears determined to continue stoking controversy while reaching out to more Muslims in his job as state mufti and his continuing career as an Islamic preacher.
Before becoming state mufti, he was a lecturer in Islam at Universiti Sains Malaysia and an Islamic preacher with a big following, especially among the young.
Young Malays clad in blue jeans and sporting long hair, more likely to be seen at rock concerts, often turn up at his religious talks.
Explaining his appeal, he says: 'I explain Islam in a simple manner. It is Islam light and easy. I use rational discussions and ideas to influence. I do not scold them.'
|posted by drmaza @ 9:58 AM