Islam in Singapore : Where to from here ?

Syed Alwi

Singapore is an anomalous red dot in a green sea, being composed of mainly non-Muslim Chinese in a neighbourhood that is largely Malay-Muslim.

Within this already sensitive geopolitical setup is the Muslim community in Singapore, a minority within a society that is itself a minority.

In today’s post 9-11 world, Islam has become headline news everywhere – and not necessarily in a positive light. The escape of Mas Selamat Kastari, for example, has put the Singapore Muslim community under the microscope of many.

The wider context

These two forces have resulted in the desire to “integrate” Muslims into mainstream Singaporean society, and modernise the ideas in Islam. While there are good intentions involved, caution is called for. Singapore Muslims and Islam in Singapore are inextricable from the wider Islamic world, and Singapore must take its cues from the Middle East. Should Singapore’s Muslim leaders “go their own way”, Singapore would likely isolate herself, and the flock, bewildered, might seek an overseas shepherd. Remaining unchanged for eight hundred years, Islam will also not yield itself to change easily, and forcing the process would have severe consequences.

Islam as we know it today is not shaped by the powers-that-be in Singapore. What constitutes Islam is determined by regional influences – Malaysia and Indonesia – as well as the various Middle-East Islamic institutions like Al-Azhar and Medina. In the instance of Singapore’s Syariah laws, Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) cannot deviate from orthodoxy without precedence from the ulamas (Muslim scholars) in the rest of the Muslim world. For example, in the case of organ donation, it was only after many ulamas worldwide concurred on the virtue and permissibility of organ donation that MUIS was able to issue a fatwa (ruling) promoting organ donation among Muslims locally.

Consequently, Singapore cannot expect its Muslims to be “very different” from Muslims elsewhere – there are rules and principles by which Muslims must abide by when studying and interpreting the Quran and Hadith. These sayings and traditions of the Prophet (pbuh) cannot be arbitrarily interpreted. Given this, it would be foolish for Singapore to make any attempt at either diluting or modifying Islam in order to integrate its Muslim community with the other racial communities in Singapore. Any such attempt would discredit MUIS and its Malay leaders in the eyes of the Muslim world and community.

Treading carefully

We no longer live in isolation – the global village is quick to respond to excesses. Should Singapore decide to promote its own brand of Singaporean Islam, one which deviates from the accepted norms and practices within the Muslim world, I am certain that Singaporean Muslims will seek alternative Islamic guidance from elsewhere. Perhaps they will tune in to Islam-Online (a premier Muslim website based in Egypt) or follow the guidance of ulamas from Malaysia and Indonesia. But this is the optimistic side of the coin – it is possible that our local Muslims will seek Islamic guidance from terrorists, such as Abu Bakar Bashir. So in defining local Islam, Singapore has to tread carefully.

Therefore, while modern, cosmopolitan Singapore may pressure its Muslim community to subscribe to a “progressive Islam”, the million-dollar question remains: What constitutes “progressive Islam”? Is it a brand of Islam which does away with all the halal and haram of Syariah? Or is it a brand of Islam which no longer abides by the usual methods at arriving at a fatwa? Would local Muslims be able to accept such “progressive” ideas presented as Modern Islam?

The legacy of history

Islam, with its long history, is unlikely to evolve so rapidly. While we live in an era where science and rationality is prized – a direct result of technological and ideological change that led to the Reformation, the Enlightenment and subsequently the Age of Scepticism and Modernity today – Islam has had no such tradition. The zenith of Muslim science ended in the twelfth century during the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols. Since then the Muslim world has been static.

For eight hundred years, the Muslim world has thrived on the Islamic thought and interpretations of ulamas from between the tenth to the twelfth century. Naturally then, some opinions that modern society considers antiquated still persist today. But to alter such deeply-held opinions will require a long time and the involvement of the many outstanding ulamas from the various corners of the Muslim world. It cannot be changed by fiat or by decree without resulting in chaos.

The modern world, then, needs to understand that it may take another hundred years before the ulamas of the Muslim world arrive at an ijma (consensus) on modernising Islam. With its small Muslim community and geographical location, Singapore is not in the position to kickstart such a difficult process.

Singapore’s Muslim community has a lot to think about and so does MUIS. It is not easy to integrate a minority community into another minority within a larger context. Singapore may just have to wait for Malaysian and Indonesian Islam to arrive at a comfortable equilibrium first. It would be foolish to attempt reform otherwise.

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About the author:

Dr Alwi describes himself thus:

“I am a self-employed, married man with three children. My PhD is in Theoretical Physics and Physics is my life-long passion. I read and travel around the region a lot. I read mostly Philosophy, Physics and Religion. At the same time, I often participate in online forums in Malaysian cyberspace. My main socio-political focus is the Muslim community within the ASEAN region (including Singapore) and the advancement of their interests.”

Headline picture from New America Media.

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