My Say: Maqasid syariah and a better Malaysia

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 9 - 15, 2015.


TO label the main founders of the nascent Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) as eating sour grapes seemed appropriate. Dubbing them a splinter group of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, PAS, couldn’t be wrong either. What could be more pejorative and damaging for a newly founded party seeking acceptance and legitimacy?

But despite the very unfriendly greetings meant to discredit Amanah, the party has been visibly welcomed, much to the chagrin of its nemesis. In some states and constituencies, the support has been unmistakably overwhelming. I have always opined that Amanah is a blessing in disguise.

A blessing in disguise is what Amanah truly seeks to be. This article is meant to be a reckoning of “why” Amanah is a “blessing”, in more ways than one.

Granted, the nation is undoubtedly witnessing its worst-ever episodes of socio-economic political implosion. To make matters worse for Amanah, the narrative of the Islamist movement or of the little-understood political Islam, has also been discomforting, post Arab Spring, both globally and nearer home.

Being the new kid on the block, Amanah doesn’t pretend to be capable of mounting a serious challenge as yet. The nation, however, is undoubtedly in dire need of a vibrant democracy that is underscored by intense contestation of ideas and policies by the opposition. But witnessing how quickly the coalition of Pakatan Rakyat was dismantled and buried, Amanah together with the other opposition parties, have promptly reinstated a coalition platform for the opposition fraternity, now rebranded as Pakatan Harapan.

With that in place, the image of a dented opposition in disarray has been erased. A semblance of a government-in-waiting is regaining its lost momentum and credence.

But while the citizenry or rakyat is bent on wanting change and debunking the old order of things, they are uncertain about putting the opposition in power. Why? Memories of acrimonious debates and endless debilitating bickering among the opposition component parties.

Would Amanah, very much an Islamist party as enshrined in its constitution, exude the same penchant for hudud and Islamic State, or a Daulah Islamiyah? What makes Amanah different from PAS?

These are some of the serious issues that need unambiguous answers. Amanah must not attempt to appease its broad constituencies in the hope of securing votes. A coherent and consistent policy response is what is required by all. It should not indulge in double speak and worse, remain obscure and survive on a strategy of ambiguity.

Let it be known to all and sundry that Amanah represents a new era or a beginning of sorts in political Islam in Malaysia. This is exactly what I meant by “a blessing in disguise”. The time has finally come for Amanah to unleash the potential that was shackled for years. Whatever little progress and reforms achieved thus far, were seen as rolled back after the defeat of the so-called G-18, the founders of Amanah, at PAS’ party election this year.

The new political Islam that Amanah advocates represents a generational shift of sorts, paraphrasing the Oxford Professor of Islamic Studies, Tariq Ramadzan, and the notion of “the second generation Islamist political parties” as coined by contemporary university-based Islamic intellectuals.

But what is the notion of the first-generation Islamist movement or political parties? A historical perspective is in order.

Decades under the yoke of European colonial rule have entrenched an enduring perception among Muslim-majority countries that the West is bent on replacing the Islamic identity and culture with Western norms and values.

Understandably, the first generation of Islamic political parties were able to galvanise the wave of post-colonial public frustration. The clarion call for Islam as the solution, envisioned through the implementation of shariah and the establishment of the Islamic State, gained traction.

Unfortunately, going forward, they are entrapped in an intellectual paralysis, unable to articulate a discourse of political Islam beyond the rubric of Islamic State and hudud. An honest appraisal of the conflict within Pakatan Rakyat and within the leadership in our former party illustrates it all.

Besides, their anti-Western and moralistic rhetoric and the narrow ideology-based politics, while appealing to the more pious Muslims, were generally exclusivist. It has invariably alienated the broader constituencies of moderate Muslims and non-Muslim minorities. This spells doom for a party (and her coalition) that espouses to assume leadership of the nation.

They indeed attracted distrust, opposition and then, rejection, from the broader constituencies. Earlier successes were met with failures. These parties have generally failed to deliver on good governance and socioeconomic development in accordance with the expectation of the masses.

Meanwhile, the Islamist political parties continue to be challenged by the new realities of modernity and the mutually exclusive demands and expectations of the demographics of their own countries. The parties have struggled for decades to find the appropriate balance between Islam and modernity.

The breadth of renewed interest in maqasid syariah provides a sure breakthrough in the political Islam of the second-generation Islamist political parties. They now seem to replace the 20th-century first-generation parties that have not evolved and remain disengaged and exclusive within their comfort zone — such as the Malay-Muslim constituencies, as currently is the case in Malaysia. The perceived movement to the right, and ostensibly being more comfortable with right-wing civil society organisations, is at best troubling.

But what about maqasid syariah and how does it become a game changer of sorts in ensuring Islam’s continued relevance with respect to the functioning of the state and society?

Briefly put, the maqasidic theory of al-Shatibi (died 1388) is a methodology that is based on an inductive reading of the Quran to identify the higher objectives, intents and purposes of the Quranic verses or the maqasid, or objectives, of the Syariah. It cautions the literal readings of sacred texts and gives priority to the spirit, intent and wisdom of the Quran and prophetic traditions.

The maqasid syariah is ultimately meant to preserve human and public interests (al-maslahah) and enhance the people’s well-being, namely the promotion of benefit and prevention of harm. It aims to truly achieve the position of Islam as a rahmatan lil ‘alamin or “a blessing unto all”.

The maqasid approach has indeed enabled the second generation of Islamist political parties to redefine the conception and application of Islam in the contemporary sociopolitical context. By so doing, it evades the polemical issues of the conservative framework of a legal reductionism that narrowly advocates the implementation of the Islamic penal code and the creation of the Islamic State as the be-all and end-all of the Islamist political struggle — erroneously termed as Islamism.

Amanah, like all second-generation Islamist political parties that include AKP of Turkey, PKS of Indonesia and an-Nahdah of Tunisia, will earnestly strive to draw on Islamic traditions and provide comprehensive policy advocacy and responses to new realities through a focus on Islam’s higher objectives — the maqasid syariah approach.

Imbued and propelled by the maqasid syariah, Parti Amanah Negara stipulates its vision statement as “striving to be the mainstream Islamic party that establishes a civil state that upholds the rule of law, good governance, just, trustworthy and a blessing (rahmah) unto All”.

Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad is strategy director of Parti Amanah Negara