Book Banning: Of What Benefit is that to the Ummah

June 27, 2012

Book Banning: Of What Benefit is that to the Ummah

by Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa

COMMENT: What does book banning, in this age of globalisation and information technology, really achieve for Muslims?

This question echoes throughout social media as countless Malaysians express their ire and bafflement at the sudden arrest of Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz, an employee at bookshop Border’s, who had allegedly defied Jawi’s ban against the sale of Allah, Liberty and Love by Irshad Manji.

As a store manager, Nik Raina had no say over the selection of books that were sold. And yet she now faces the possibility of imprisonment, with no legal counsel offered at the time of arrest. Many wonder why a simple warning was not enough.

Before that, a book of popular local author Faisal Tehrani, Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang was also banned for obscure reasons, though one may suspect that it has to do with the author’s leaning towards the Shi’ite sect.

Thus, suspicions that maybe Islam has nothing to say about the freedom of expression are increasing. Perhaps our talents and resources should all be channelled towards moral policing, book banning and intolerance, as that appears to be what Muslims want most.

Perhaps we should just forget about exploring solutions to real pressing challenges facing humanity.

Indeed, if non-Muslims, or even some Muslims for that matter, are expressing doubts about Islam’s potential to be a religion of progress, then who can really blame them?

New ideas can only come from fresh minds

New ideas can only come from fresh minds that are not discouraged or inhibited from original thinking, but it appears that new thinking is what Muslims fear the most. They are not even open for any intellectual debate. The question we must now ask if this has always been the case? Have Muslims really been afraid of new, different or unconventional ideas?

A brief consideration of history will confirm the fact that there is nothing at all Islamic about book banning and religious policing. For if that was the case, then Islam would not have had its Golden Ages, which saw centuries of science, art and discovery flourish.

Indeed, the freedom to think, express and to risk original ideas defined the many Muslim civilisations that prospered across the Islamic world, from Baghdad to Spain in the West and India, China and the Nusantara in the East.

Take for example, the advances under the Abbasid caliphate in the 8th century, which saw the rise of algebra, astronomy, medicine, literature and even agricultural technology, advances that are still considered to be far ahead of its time. These advances did not emerge de novo, but were born in conversation with knowledge inherited from Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese and Indian civilisations.

But the culture of exploration and experimentation can also be found in the novel ideas about religion that also flourished then. It was during this era that the Muslim world became the intellectual centre for learning, during which the famous House of Wisdom or Baitul Hikmah was established. Muslims and non-Muslims worked together, hand-in-hand, to translate and gather all the possible knowledge that was within reach to them at the time into Arabic.

The underlying basis of this intellectual culture at that time was none other the “Mu’tazilite” school of rational theology. They were inspired by the Hadith and Quranic verses that emphasised the value of knowledge, reflection and discovery in Islam and considered “the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr”.

The Mu’tazilite school of thought claimed, among other things, that humans have total free will, that our actions were not predetermined. They do so to protect God’s total innocence of any evil in this world, while reserving all responsibility for evil deeds to humans: in other words, humans must have the power to choose their actions in order to be held accountable for them.

Thus, humans would receive the appropriate reward in heaven or punishment in hell as a result of their good or bad free choices. Anyone who believes in a just God had to accept that man is the creator of his deeds.

“There shall be no coercion in matters of faith’

This idea of free-will doctrine led them to conclude that the whole world had to be seen as an abode of trial where people are tested on whether they are willing or unwilling to accept the true faith. The acceptance of faith could occur only with genuine conviction, an idea that emanated from the Quranic teaching: “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith.” Their conclusion was that people deserved the liberty to make their own choices.

This commitment to human autonomy and God’s supreme transcendence also led them to conclude that the Quran was created, and not “uncreated”. Otherwise it would be elevated almost to the level of a second deity, something that contradicts Islam’s uncompromising monotheism. This led to an important conclusion in that a created al-Quran can be interpreted; whereas an uncreated al-Quran can only be applied.

As strange as all this may sound to contemporary Muslims, it is nonetheless a historical fact that the Mu’tazilites endured as the most dominant school of theology in Baghdad for nearly three centuries.

Hence, the idea of freedom, be it freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of speech or freedom to read whatever we want to read was not unknown in classical Islamdom. The People of Reason clearly aspired to it. And they may have headed toward establishing a genuine concept of “hurriyyah” or freedom.

The end of the People of Reason or Mu’tazilite’s reign did not, however, signal the end of rational inquiry. Indeed, the thriving culture of science and exploration eventually produced the likes of Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina who undertook indepth exploration of Greek philosophy while the West was still in its dark ages.

Indeed, philosophy was so dominant that it compelled Al-Ghazali to in turn produce his magnum opus, The Incoherence of the Philosophers. He used some choice words to describe the philosophers but note that he did so through rational argumentation and discourse.

Note also the cosmopolitan nature of the Golden Age: none of the philosophers mentioned above, with the exception of Al-Kindi, was Arab. Al-Farabi was Turkish, Ibn Sina and Al-Ghazali were Persians. Ibn Sina in fact was believed to be a Shi’ite. The openness to ideas was accompanied by a remarkable openness to other ethnicities and sects.

Culture of openness and rational inquiry continued

This was not just happening in Baghdad. The culture of openness and rational inquiry continued in Andalusia, Western Europe, most notably in the works of Ibn Rushd who painstakingly undertook indepth studies of Aristotle.

The intellectual culture of Muslim Spain is all the more fascinating for how it also became where the Golden Age of Jewish Culture occurred. Jewish philosophers like Maimonides and Moses Ibn Ezra thrived under Muslim rule.

Today, contemporary Muslims only hark back to our past military conquests for simplistic proof of Islam’s historical glory, when the reality is that those were only few and far between.

What is undeniable is the depth of learning and exploration that Muslims throughout the world pioneered over centuries, and this could have only been possible because of the love of learning that was part and parcel of Muslim culture then.

This is of course not to paint a perfect and rosy picture of the past. There were other problems of medieval life that need not be romanticised. But it does suggest that the notion of Muslim progress need not be defined in terms of state power or control over the life of others but terms of genuine inquiry, exploration of knowledge and discovery of the world.

All this is of course, a stark contrast to the reality of today, where conformity, often by coercion, has become the norm in Muslim societies. Muslims are expected to simply obey and listen to authorities who are effectively in power due to random reasons that have nothing to do with whether or not they understand the modern globalised world in which young Muslims are living in today.

But there is still hope. Muslim Spain lasted for 700 years. The conservative Salafist-inspired Islam that has not stopped scrambling for nation-state power only ascended over the past 30 years. Things can be otherwise because Muslims have not always been like this.
DR AHMAD FAROUK MUSA was trained as a cardiothoracic surgeon. He is an academician at Monash University and chairperson of the Islamic Renaissance Front, an intellectual movement that focuses on youth empowerment.

11 thoughts on “Book Banning: Of What Benefit is that to the Ummah

  1. Today we ban books, and if we continue along this path, we will soon be burning books. This is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution in China and Ground Zero in Pol Pot’s Demokratik Kampuchea. In our case, it will be the closing of the Malay mind and the start of our dependence on the Ulamaks and bureaucrats of state religion to determine the rights and wrongs of our society.

    Subjugation of the Malay has begun, now only in small doses of course. But the effects can be seen even on this blog. The message is ignored, but the messenger is attacked, or demonised for expressing an opinion that contradicts accepted Malay or UMNO “wisdom”.–Din Merican

  2. Benefit of banning books? It makes thousands read the book who would otherwise not have bothered. Education beats prohibition any day.
    Isa, rather cynical, I think. Banning won’t work. You can get an e-book version of any book you want. That is besides the point. The point is that the closing of the mind to ideas has a negative effect on the intellectual development of our people. We need people as civic citizens who can think for themselves.–Din Merican

  3. “All this is of course, a stark contrast to the reality of today, where conformity, often by coercion, has become the norm in Muslim societies. Muslims are expected to simply obey and listen to authorities who are effectively in power due to random reasons that have nothing to do with whether or not they understand the modern globalised world in which young Muslims are living in today.”

    Ideal condition for a totalitarian government or its variants to take roots. Incompatible with values and value system needed for democracy to thrive.

  4. @scarlet.pimpernel,1.41pm.

    that is true too. The condition is ripe for the malays to now have to start fighting back to survive or just be shut down for good. Yes they have had it good for a long long time. Time to struggle and learn lessons.

  5. Islam does encourage rational thinking but it should be guided by the Quran, Hadith, Ijmak and Qiyas through Ijtihad in recognition of the limits of human mental capacities. The Mu’tazilite school of theology tended to utilize reasoning to the extreme beyond those limits. One Abbasid Calif, Makmun, even went to the extent of coercion & forcing people to abide by the Mu’tazillite thoughts particularly in the subject of the Quran being Created. Who says the People of Reason in the Muslim Golden Age did not resort to coercion? In fact the Mu’tazilite school contributed towards deepening the division of Muslims into various extremist groupings and Mazhab. And a Muslim must not discard the belief in FATE despite his free wills and freedom of action. But this is beside the point.
    The point is, in these days of globalisation & internet age especially, book banning or other forms of knowledge banning for that matter is out of vogue and futile. JAWI and other Islamic institutions should face these counter/Anti Islamic teachings by countering with the accepted Islamic teachings and knowledge through dialogues, more books and other media of knowledge. They have to be creative and constructive rather than destructive so that Islam will not be tarnished by bad Muslims & others.

  6. ” They have to be creative and constructive rather than destructive…..” – hussin, that is very true indeed, and that is the root-cause that, if you start banning books, knowledge or thoughts, how does one distinguish between good & bad, between knowing right from wrong ? Even in the constituent of Nature ( or creation ), light comes from darkness, but darkness can never capture light !

    If the officialdom or Orthodoxy start burning books & eradicate knowledge does it not Stifle human thinking or Rationality? This unbecoming act of banning & burning has been precisely ” the ” factor that has caused muslims themselves the Inability to EVEN distinguish between the Syariah, the outer mode of worship through rituals, and the all important Tsauf ( Tasawuuf), which can liberate the schackled, mind of the Ummah, from the rigid or restrictive Syariah ? It is important to go into the Tsauf which actually is the Liberating Philosophical Islam…….And…..truly liberating….

  7. NB
    Perhaps, b’coz in many situations they go in “opposite ” ways – as the saying goes Never the Twain shall meet – these people prefer to stay in the comfort zone by shutting out the Knowledge of the “other” or the opposite – hence the narrow mind that one=way thinking is the only way….i would rather think its Indolence, so shut everything out !

  8. Yes, but if banning a publication that would otherwise open minds leads to more people reading it then my point is made.

    Similar effects can be seen with drugs and alcohol.

    Educate and then let people lead lives the way they see fit… that is the way.

  9. Try to use the same logic for DUI. No drinking and driving. Driving under the influence. How much education do you need and still many people drive while impaired or intoxicated resulting in fatalities. Over here if you kill someone while DUI they charge you with vehicular manslaughter.

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