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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Is there a case for Protestant Islam in Malaysia?

An expert in the sociology of religion, Syed Farid Alatas, argues that one must be cautious when calling for a need for Protestant Islam in Malaysia.

Hudud forum NUS lecturer Syed Farid AlatasSyed Farid (left) said that the idea of Protestant Islam or the "protestanisation" of Islam have a few problems as parallels which are not there have been drawn between reforms in the Muslim world today and the Christian Protestant reformation of the 16th century.

"So I would not go so far as to say we need to protestanise Islam and certainly I am not calling for Islam to be protestanised," he said, at a plenary lecture in Penang's Wawasan Open University entitled ‘Contemporary Muslim Revival: The Case of Protestant Islam".

The two-hour lecture - held last Friday - was in conjunction with the Colloquium on Democracy and Social Justice jointly organised by Penang Institute and the Islamic Renaissance Front. 

Syed Farid is currently the head of Malay Studies a the National University of Singapore and has published extensively on the themes of Muslim revivalism, religious extremism, decolonisation of knowledge and democracy.

Superficial parallels drawn 

During the session, Syed Farid explained that the parallels that are drawn are often between specific Protestant movements in the 16th century and extremist Muslim movements of today.

"That alone should lead us to be cautious about advocating Protestant Islam unless we qualify what we mean," warned the well-known professor who read for his PHd at the John Hopkins University in the United States.

He added that discussions on the phenomena often gloss over the fact that those who have been calling for Islamic Protestanism were not suggesting that Islamic theology be reformed.

NONEThey were more concerned with social and jurisprudential reforms and were not calling for the kind of changes that Christianity underwent during the 16th century, he noted.

Syed Farid said a case can be made that Islam already had those ideas attributed to Islamic Protestanism, however, in reality, there is no equivalent of the Papacy in Islam.

"These parallels tend to be sometimes superficial, the Protestant reformation was the rejection of the obedience to the Papacy," said the professor who used to teach at University Malaya.

"It critiques the beliefs and practises of the Roman Catholic church. In the case of Islam, there is no church to break away from," he added.

"There were no central institutions similar to the Catholic church that could be the object of reform," he stressed. 

Do not neglect own tradition

Therefore, what Muslim revivalists sought to reform was certain Muslim beliefs and practises, and not Islam itself, said Syed Farid.
However, this is not to say there are no parallels or lessons to be learnt from the Protestant reformation, or from Judaism of Christianity, which is close to Islam, he added.

"When it comes to Christianity, obviously an important lesson is how Europe in the 16th century managed to break away from the rest of the world for its rapid phase of development due to reforms," he said.

"Christianity, the Protestant version of it, played a very important role in the rise of capitalism, educational institutions and the various political institutions that went through reforms to make up the democratic system," he added.

church christian in kuala lumpur 1"Christian theology underwent fundamental changes, which have a direct impact on the development of the sense of competition, diligence, hard work, more ethical and aesthetics kind of life which did not result in the believer turning his or her back on the world, but working in the world".

Syed Farid called on Muslims not to neglect their own tradition and to be aware of the danger of looking at Islam through the lense of Protestantism or Christianity.

"Because when we do that, we tend to neglect our own sense of understanding of our problems. 

"We should be seen as viewing our own problems from our own perspective rather than from the lense of others as the lense of others may distort," he said.

However, Syed Farid said that Muslims should not reject completely the lessons they have learnt and find the "middle path between extremes".

"As we look for this part, we need to be seriously studying the ideas of reformers from outside and inside the Malay world".

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