Perlis Mufti speaks his mind

AT 36, Datuk Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin (pix) had the distinction of being the youngest person to be appointed a mufti when he assumed the post in Perlis in 2006. He is now described as a boldly progressive Islamic scholar. He talked to CHOONG BOON SIEW recently about some controversial religious issues and what attracts youths to the Islamic State (IS). Following are excerpts from the interview.

theSun: It looks like your first tenure stands in stark contrast to your current one. On what levels have this occurred?
Mohd Asri: The first time round, not many voiced a desire for open-minded thinking. In fact, Umno during the time was more open than PAS was. Many of my suggestions on matters such as khalwat (close proximity) were staunchly opposed by PAS. Largely, I was supported on many counts by Umno. But with changing times the roles have reversed. Umno's now more conservative, and PAS has opened up a bit more, especially their religious scholars, perhaps due to their Pakatan counterparts.

The number of ordinary Muslims worldwide who have cast aside their normal lives, families and friends to join ISIS has been a cause for concern. Young Muslims are particularly vulnerable. What could their primary motivation be?
Social media plays a fundamental role here. In the pre-social media days numerous things could occur without large public awareness. Now it's highly detailed... To do something about it is not unique to the Muslim world, as volunteers from the West to Palestine or eco-activists have shown. Some have even lost their lives in the process. But the West is familiar with open information for a long while now. When Muslims first experience this exposure, it triggers internal encouragement. Mix it with religious elements and some will, in their minds, they hear the beckoning for them to participate. It is my firm belief that we cannot wholly prevent people from heading to such conflict zones. In principle, I concur with helping the oppressed. After all it's a praiseworthy deed. So going there per se is not wrong, merely what's erroneous are the channels in which this occurs, as ISIS demonstrates.

But isn't there a deeper, underlying rationale for Muslim youths to do so?
I can name several. The action of the US and its Western allies in invading and bombing Muslim countries has engendered a sense of despair in Muslims worldwide. They simply don't know who to turn to. Disappointed in their own governments for its corruption and injustice along with anger at the US has made them look for solutions elsewhere. Thus they turn to faith for solace. When they hear of ISIS they are led to believe that it's a revival of the Caliphate during Islam's Golden Age, and as such wish to be a part of it. Call it a sort of idealism if you will. Never mind the fact that it's only a pipe dream, it cannot exist as how we understand it simply because circumstances are different in this day and age.

Could this be due to a lack of spiritual understanding, specifically teachings, Qu'ranic knowledge, hadiths, among others?
Yes, in a way. I always place emphasis on Muslims to understand Islam not merely from written texts but also at the surrounding context. You can only learn so much by reading or rote-memorisation. This lacking, so to speak, is why the idealised Caliphate is no longer relevant. The Caliphate does not exist to perpetuate warfare as how IS is doing. Its purpose is to establish good governance, instil Islam with a positive image for the rest of the world, and most important of all, to ensure and uphold justice for all.

Another point in fact, many religious movements have promoted the idea of an Islamic state over the years, without providing a clear explanation to what it's supposed to be. These movements often try to differentiate themselves from their surrounding political systems, yet commonly lack sufficient training in other fields, administration being one. Thus in previous times the populaces' impression of an Islamic State is one of rulings and penalties. Yet integrity, fidelity and social welfare is uniformly important. The second error is believing an Islamic state to be a clergy, or more accurately a mullah state. Certainly, Iran is a prime example. Hence, it's now more vital than ever for the populace to be comprehensively educated on what an Islamic state truly is. To understand its highest purpose and decide whether the state will be either one punishment after another or to live in peace with each other.

As one of Malaysia's religious leaders, what steps do you think the authorities can take to deter Muslim youths from joining IS?
Provide the right channels for those who want to help the oppressed, via various volunteer organisations for example. This could perhaps stem the tide. And involving oneself in high-risk areas does not necessarily mean taking up arms. Providing medical aid, or helping out in refugee camps is equally laudable.
Detailed methods would be under the federal government's jurisdiction, but as Mufti of Perlis then and now I promote mutual understanding of one another, endorsing tolerance whenever possible. By doing so I endeavour to reduce tensions among Muslims and non-Muslims and encourage peace and goodwill. In turn I hope that it will prevent youths from viewing radicalism as a solution when they realise there are always other ways.