What a non-Muslim Sri Lankan should know about Islam and Sri Lankan Muslims

Continued from Saturday

Islam unlike the other Abrahamic religions does not have sacerdotal priesthood (no priests who act as mediators between God and the people)

1.1 Sharia (Also known as Shariah or Shari’a)

Literally meaning ‘The way’ is an Islamic religious law that governs not only religious rituals but also aspects of day-to-day life in Islam. There is extreme variation in how Sharia is interpreted and implemented among Muslim societies (traditionalist and reformist groups) today.

The aim of Sharia is to preserve the 5 essentials of human well-being- religion, life, intellect, offspring and property.

The Sharia has 4 sources. The two primary sources are the Quran and the Haddith (Teachings and normative examples from the life of Prophet Mohammed). Islamic jurisprudence also recognizes Qiyas (analytical reasoning) and Ijma (juridical consensus) as the other two sources. Traditional jurisprudence distinguishes two principal branches of law – Rituals (ibadat) and Social Relations (mu’amlat). The rulings based on Sharia are concerned with ethical standards as much as it is with legal norms and are categorized in to 5 categories – Mandatory (Fard or Wajib), Recommended (mandub or mustahabb), Neutral(mubah), Reprehensible(makruh) and Forbidden (Haram). It is a sin or crime to perform a forbidden action or not to perform a mandatory action. Avoiding reprehensible acts and performing recommended acts is held to be subject of reward in the afterlife, while neutral actional entail no judgement from God.

The mechanism of administering and implementing the Sharia (particularly in localities where Muslims live as minorities) is by private religious ‘scholars’ (who usually hold other jobs), largely through legal opinion (fatwas) issued by qualified jurists (muftis)

1.2 Halal (in relation to edible items - food)

The Halal in Arabic means lawful or permitted. The opposite to it is Haram – unlawful or prohibited. These two terms are universal terms that apply to all facets of life.

Since food is an important part of daily life, food laws carry special significance.

In reference to food, Halal is a dietary standard as prescribed in the Quran and Hadith. The term Halal is in relation to food products, meat products, cosmetics, personal care products, pharmaceuticals, food ingredients and food contact material. At the very basic level Halal food are those that are;

1. Free from any component that Muslims are prohibited from consuming according to Islamic law (Sharia)

2. Processed, made, produced, manufactured and/or stored using utensils, equipment and/or machinery that have been cleansed according to Islamic law.

1.3 Jihad

Is an Arabic word which means striving or struggling, especially with a praiseworthy aim.

In an Islamic context, it can refer to almost any effort to make personal and social life conform with God’s guidance, such as struggle against one’s evil inclinations or efforts towards the moral benefit of the Muslim community (Ummah).

Jihad is classified in to Inner (‘greater’) Jihad, which involves a struggle against one’s own basic impulses and External (‘lesser’) Jihad, which is further subdivided in to Jihad of the pen/tongue (debate and persuasion) and Jihad of the sword. Most Western writers consider External Jihad to have primacy over inner Jihad in Islamic tradition, while much of contemporary Muslim opinion favours the opposite view. This possibly is the basis that Jihad is most readily and commonly associated with the act of WAR.

In classical Islamic law, the term commonly referred to armed struggles against ‘non-believers’, while modernist Islamic scholars generally equate armed Jihad with self-defensive warfare. In the modern era, the notion of Jihad has lost its jurisprudential relevance and instead given rise to an ideological and political discourse. (While modernist Islamic scholars have emphasised defensive and non-military aspects of Jihad, some Islamists have advanced aggressive interpretations that go well beyond the classical theory)

2. The concept of Islam as a Political Ideology

Ideologies are powerful systems of widely shared ideas and patterned beliefs that are accepted as truth by a significant group in society. It serves as a political map that offer people a coherent picture of the world not only as it is, but also as it ought to be. In doing so, ideologies help organize the tremendous complexity of human experience into simple claims that serve as a guide and compass for social and political action. These claims are employed to legitimize certain political interests and to defend or challenge dominant power structures. Seeking to imbue society with their preferred norms and values, the codifiers of these ideologies (usually politicians and members of the clergy) speak to their audience in a narrative that persuades, praises, condemns, distinguishes ‘truths’ from ‘falsehoods’ and separate the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’. Thus, ideology connects theory and practice by orienting and organising human action in accordance with generalized claims and codes of conduct.

Throughout history, Islamic rectitude has tended to be defined in relation to practice rather than doctrine. Muslims who dissented from the majority on issues of leadership or theology were usually tolerated provided their social behaviour conformed to generally accepted standards. It is enforcing behavioural conformity (orthopraxy) rather than doctrinal conformity (orthodoxy) that Muslim radicals or political activists look towards using Political Islam to drive and achieve their agendas. The most visible and prominent example of orthopraxy in Sri Lanka is the enforcement (voluntary or otherwise) of an ‘Islamic Dress Code’ (as opposed to a traditional Sri Lankan Muslim dress code) by a fundamentalist driven Islamic clergy who’s patronage Sri Lankan Muslim based political parties and politicians of all hues seek.

Historically, Islamic societies have been governed by Islamic Law even when they are minorities. In societies where Muslims are a minority, they, while conforming to national laws have put in place institutional arrangements to follow an enforce Islamic Law to varying degrees either voluntarily or within accepted frameworks set up by state led entities (as in Sri Lanka). This scenario, (where Muslims are in a minority) has always led to gaps between the theoretical formulations of Islamic jurists and the de facto exercise of p their political power. In the Sri Lankan context Muslim School System (under the Ministry of Education), The Madrassa Education System (currently outside the preview of state regulation), The Muslim Marriages and Divorce Act of 1951(MMDA), The issuing of Halal Certificates are few among numerous examples of this gap between Islamic jurists and the exercise of their political power.

‘The Muslims of Sri Lanka had till very recently achieved complete political integration with majority community in the sense that the Muslims, had no Muslim political parties based on linguistic or religious issues, nominating their candidates for parliamentary seats through ‘national’ parties. Muslims are represented and have risen to pre-eminence in all the major political parties in the island. The situation changed recently as there has been an attempt to establish a separate Muslim political identity in Sri Lanka. The aspirations of a new generation of educated Muslims and the pressure of international currents of opinion were factors which contributed toward this claim. Another factor which heightened Muslim consciousness was the Sinhala-Tamil conflict that plagued the island’. (Lorna Dewaraja, The Muslim of Sri Lanka-One thousand years of ethnic harmony- 900 to 1915).

It is this type of segmented ethnoreligious based politics prevalent in Sri Lanka due to the proportional representation system of the electoral process which empowers and sustains religious based political parties. As of today, as per the Sri Lankan Constitution a political entity needs a mere 5% of the vote in a defined geographical area to obtain political representation in either local or national legislative Councils. This figure of 5% was originally 12% but due to political manoeuvring it was brought down to the current level of 5%. This Constitutional clause allows minority parties (particularly regional based religious minority parties) to obtain parliamentary representation and influence national polices from narrow ethnoreligious driven political agendas. This undermines the need for minority communities to engage in politics through national parties as their chances of electoral success are diminished by the existence of religious based parties.

To put the above in to democratic context (or is it ethnocratic context?), analysis of past national level voter patterns indicates that approximately 300,000 to 350,000 individual votes received by regional based religious – Muslim- political parties are a key deciding factor in formation of national governments. In other words, it is about 300 – 350,000 voters of regional based religious political parties who control the political destiny of Sri Lanka.

In the view of political Islam’s numerous critics, Muslims and non-Muslims, Islam as a religion should be distinguished from Islam as a political ideology. The greatest criticism of Islamic based political parties is that they actively aim to replace the sovereignty of the people with the sovereignty of God to further their own narrow political agendas.

To be continued 

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