Sunday, October 08, 2006

My own thoughts on the Dr Ameer Ali controversy

The following article was submitted to the op-ed editor of The Australian on Thursday 5 October 2006.

This entire matter has been a beat-up from start to finish. Notice how only The Oz was running with the issue. The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald refused to touch it. I don't think even the tabloids ran with it.

What does this show? It shows the entire issue was a beat-up. And people like Hilaly, Kara-Ali and others who reacted gave this obvious beat-up more legs than it deserved.


Once again, unelected and self-appointed Australian Muslim leaders are seeking attention by manufacturing a mountain of controversy from a theological mole hill. This time, the controversy concerns remarks by Dr Ameer Ali, the outgoing Chair of the Prime Minister’s unelected and handpicked Muslim Community Reference Group (MCRG).

The current MCRG is reaching the end of its term. As the Group’s chair, Dr Ali is among its more outspoken members. Often, he has been criticised for playing musical chairs, changing sides on issues depending on whichever direction he feels the communal or political winds appear to be blowing.

In more recent times, Dr Ali has taken and stuck to sensible opinions. His final comments on what should have been a ‘claytons’ controversy surrounding a recent papal speech – that Muslims should accept the Pope’s apology and move on – effectively killed the debate on this issue in Australia, with only a handful of tabloid columnists dragging the discussion further.

Dr Ali’s recent pronouncements are, by and large, fairly benign. Notwithstanding what the editorial authors of The Australian may claim, much of what Dr Ali said was neither new nor courageous. Further, to claim his kind of views “have already sparked widespread displays of anger and retaliatory violence around the world” is more than a slight exaggeration.

Dr Ali’s call – that Muslims should not read the Koran literally and should adapt their understanding to changing times - represents orthodox consensus among Muslims of all denominations. Indeed, literalism in interpreting the Koran is a sure sign of heterodoxy.

The Prophet Muhammad himself is known to have taught various methods of interpreting (and therefore, of re-interpreting) the Koran, and his example has been followed over 14 centuries. In this sense, certain strains of the Wahhabi school, who generally prefer literal meanings over traditional (often metaphorical) interpretation, represent a departure from orthodoxy.

However, in relation to his recent remarks on the status of the Prophet, Dr Ali has really hit a raw nerve. Yet it wasn’t so much his basic message that was the problem. Rather, it was the words he used.

Muslims regard all Prophets of God as being perfect human beings. The Koran rejects Biblical claims of Prophets such as Dawud (David) and Sulayman (Solomon) engaging in sexual and other vices. Muslims believe Prophets were ma’sum (free of sin).

The gist of Dr Ali’s message seems to be that the Prophet Muhammad was not perfect. But by what standard of perfection is he talking about? Muslims of all schools of thought and denominations agree that the Prophet was a perfect human (al-insan al-kaamil in Arabic). But then, the word for human (insan) itself means forgetful or negligent. Muslims agree that, as a human being, the Prophet was perfect. Yet there are places in the Koran where the Prophet has been corrected in his conduct.

So how is this Prophetic perfection to be worded? To what extent can he be praised? What are the limits of his human perfection? This is where the controversy among different Muslim denominations begins. It features prominently in sectarian polemical discussions across the Muslim world.

In the Indian sub-Continent, the dividing line is between followers of the Barelwi sect (who believe the Prophet was created from divine light or nur) and the Deobandi sect (who believe he was created from both nur as well as the stuff all humans are made from). And that’s only part of the controversy.

Some years back, I acted for a Fiji-Indian mosque located in the Sydney suburb of Green Valley . There, controversy raged about whether to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.

One might regard this as a trivial issue. However, among Indian Muslims (and their Diaspora communities in Fiji , South Africa and elsewhere), celebrating the Prophet’s birthday often involves the congregation standing up out of respect for the Prophet. This is based on the belief that the Prophet Muhammad can be in more than one place at a time (haadhir wa naadhir), and that he attends all celebrations of his birthday.

Fiji-Indian Muslims from the competing faction opposed the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday on the basis that it involved attributing a divine quality to the Prophet Muhammad. And while the elders of the congregation quarrelled over this issue, their children were deserting the mosque in droves.

The extent of reverence to be paid to the Prophet has been a controversial issue in recent times. In Lebanon and Syria , the al-Ahbash sect insists that the Prophet’s relics (such as his clothes) can be used to obtain blessings. The sect is known for what some Muslims deem its excessive praise of the Prophet.

In this sense, it is little wonder Reference Group youth representative Mustapha Kara-Ali is criticising Dr Ali. Mr Kara-Ali is known to have close ties with the al-Ahbash sect. Indeed, Mr Kara-Ali is managing a government funded project under the auspices of al-Amanah College , a Sydney independent school managed by members of the sect. Criticism of Dr Ali’s position is perhaps one of the few areas where the al-Ahbash sect agrees with Sheik Tajeddine Hilaly, a man they otherwise regard as an apostate.

By entering the dispute over the appropriate expression for Prophetic perfection, Dr Ali is in fact opening an irrelevant sectarian and cultural hornet’s nest of little relevance to young Muslims. Muslims seeking to openly discuss his well-intentioned questions might find themselves shouted down by sectarian zealots seeking attention by diverting young Muslims away from more pressing issues.

Far from helping the cause of developing an Australian Islam, Dr Ali might have just further entrenched sectarian irrelevance.

The author is a Sydney lawyer who has acted for various Muslim organisations and independent schools.

©Irfan Yusuf 2006

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