Peace the Urgent Calling of Our Time: Professor Kamali

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Professor Kamali is Founding Chairman and CEO of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies, Malaysia (2007-continuing), and a world-renowned scholar in his field of specialization. He served as Professor of Islamic Law and Jurisprudence at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM, 1985-2004); and was Dean of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC, 2004-2006). Currently he is a Senior Fellow of the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan, and also Senior Fellow of the Royal Academy of Jordan. He serves on the International Advisory Board of thirteen academic journals published in Malaysia, USA, Canada, Kuwait, India, Australia and Pakistan. Professor Kamali has served as a member and sometime Chairman of the Constitution Review Commission of Afghanistan (2003); as a UN consultant on constitutional reforms in Afghanistan, the Maldives, Iraq and Somalia.

Professor Kamali is one of the thought leaders participating in Ideapod’s launch, promoting the “big idea” of world peace. Sign up for the waiting list at to share ideas with Professor Kamali.

Professor Kamali, the role of religion generally and Islam in particular in modern society has become a major issue in academic and public discussion. How do you explain this renewed interest in the public role of religion?

The rise of religion can broadly be attributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent developments in Eastern Europe and China, which have seen large numbers of nonreligious strata of the populations of these countries turning to religion.

Other factors include a certain search for meaning and purpose that took hold among people in the wake of indulgent materialism and secularist culture. But even before that, and for the Muslim world especially, disillusionment with the inequities of colonialism, and then also with the failed expectations and promises of European powers to bring constitutionalism, democracy and good governance to their former colonies.

More recently, Huntington’s thesis on the ‘clash of civilizations,’ the so-called ‘war on terror,’ and events in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir and elsewhere have widened the rift between Islam and West. The West targeted Islam as the main enemy and Muslims turned increasingly to their own resources to find indigenous answers to their problems and religion took an important role.

Another factor worth mentioning is globalization, which has become the target of criticism for failure to develop its promised benefits to weaker economies and became culturally counterproductive. People in the developing world, Muslims included, became increasingly inward looking and looked more and more toward religion. The often quoted Arab phrase ‘Islam is the solution’ (al-Islam huw’l hall) accentuated and widened the presence of Islam in politics.

The position adopted by the Modern West, in line with the Enlightenment project, is best described by reference to notions of secularity and the separation of church and state. From an Islamic perspective is such separation feasible or desirable?

The separation of religion and state suggests the separation of two institutional authorities. Yet separation of religion and state in Islam is not the same as in the West. Islam has no institutionalized religious authority to speak on its behalf. In a fundamental sense, Islam’s teaching on justice, fair dealing, moral virtue and so on does not preclude politics. Yet a functional separation of politics and religion may be acceptable within the rubric of a civilian state in Islam.

Islam does not propose a theocracy. The head of state is elected by the people and accountable to them. He has no religious authority either to change the basic values of religion, the halal and haram (what is permissible and what is forbidden), and rituals of worship (‘ibadat)beyond a certain managerial level of supervision.

Government in Islam is civilian in the sense that it has limited powers and it is government under the rule of law, the Shariah. Muslim jurists have thus drawn a distinction between religious obligation (wajib dini) and juridical obligation (wajib qada’i), and the courts of Shariah concern themselves only with the latter.

The administration of justice in Shariah courts is civilian in character and proceeds strictly on the basis of evidence and proof; a pious person and one of questionable piety stand on equal footing before the court. Additionally, in the renowned scale of five values of Shariah, (i.e., the obligatory, the recommended, the permissible, reprehensible, and forbidden – wajib, mandub, mubah, makruh, and haram respectively), only the first and the last can have legal and judicial implications. The other three, which occupy the much larger space, are optional and not of concern to law enforcement. The ruler is, furthermore, authorized to issue administrative decrees and statutory laws to realize and promote the public interest (maslahah).

Under the public law doctrine of siyasa shar’iyah(Shariah-oriented policy) government has discretionary powers over matters on which the Shariah is silent. Thus in matters relating, for instance, to economic development, science and technology, or appropriate responses to globalization, it is for the extra-Shariah and essentially civilian authority of the state to fill the space so long as the basic principles of Islam are not violated. But none of these, it should be said, amounts to a total “separation” as it were of religion and state.

The resurgence of Islam on the world stage is associated by many with the rise of radical Islam sometimes loosely equated with notions of Islamic fundamentalism. Do you think such characterizations are helpful? Is it possible to disentangle the religious and political elements of this contemporary phenomenon?

There is a line of division in the traditional classifications of Islamic disciplines between theology and governance but this division seems to have been less than effective in practice, especially since the onset of Islamic resurgence, fundamentalism, and political Islam in the latter part of twentieth century.

All of these are basically homegrown in Arab societies to begin with. The rise of fundamentalism relates to the failure of good governance and disenchantment with dictatorship in Arab societies. The Arab-Israeli war of 1967 and the ensuing defeat of Arabs added to popular discontent. Dictators persisted, however, in their old ways and remained unresponsive.

By the 1990s the view was gaining ground that the fundamentalist promises of reform, accountability and good governance had not materialized, and that it was time for the moderate voice to take over. The fundamentalists themselves were turning to the ballot box in much larger numbers and becoming less dogmatic and more service oriented in their practices.

Then came the unfortunate 9/11 episode and its aftermath that gave the religious radicals a new lease of life. Things have since gone from bad to worse with the widening scale of militarism and violence.

In all of this it is not really religion that is playing the field but politics. Issues of justice and fair play, Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are essentially not about religion although it comes into it at some stage. It is about territory, right to self-rule, poverty and marginalization. Despite some positive changes the overall picture is unfortunately disappointing.

What in your view has been the role of Islam in the unfolding events in North Africa and the Middle East, often loosely referred to as the ‘Arab Spring’? Are these generally positive developments, or is it too early to pass judgment?

The Arab Spring is still unfolding and the situation remains unclear. It is worth noting, however, that in the lead-up to the uprisings, Islam was relatively absent. In the Tunisian incident, an unemployed worker set himself on fire, and events in Tahrir Square in Egypt were spearheaded by the cry for democracy and good governance, the fight against dictatorship, official corruption, and unemployment. Religion was not a major part of all this. Most of the twentieth century popular movements in the Muslim world were typically spearheaded by Islamic parties and leaders. However, the Arab Spring was led by civil society, especially the youth, and it is more widely spread across all strata of the population, including non-Muslims (Copts in Egypt, for example), in their demand for accountability and good governance.

Then came elections, with the Islamic parties becoming more vocal in delivering their message that Islam stood for judicious, accountable and consultative governance. But subsequent events in Turkey and Egypt, and even in Tunisia, seem to be stressing the messages that prompted the Arab Spring in the first place. The long-standing dictators seem to be resisting the legitimate demands of their own people, propagators of Western democracy and their Islamic counterparts. A moderate Islamic model, such as the one advocated by the Nahdah movement in Tunisia, which seeks to combine consultative governance with electoral democracy and separation of powers, may appeal to the Arab masses, at least until recently. Turkey, Malaysia and Morocco which have made economic development a priority of their participatory systems of rule, may also prove to be influential. The Arab Spring was certainly seen initially as a positive development, but since then the mood has soured.  The heavy costs, loss of life and economic problems have led people to reflect more deeply over their initial aspirations

A number of commentators, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have recently argued that a democratic system of rule is acceptable to Islam. Would you describe this as a mainstream or marginal view within Islam? How do you think Islamic leaders and scholars can best contribute to participatory government, the rule of law and observance of human rights in their respective societies?

The view that Islam is compatible with democracy has gained ground in recent decades and can now be said to be mainstream. A democratic system of rule is on the whole compatible with Islam because democracy is about fundamental rights and liberties, the rule of law, a representative and participatory government, separation of powers, and equality before the law. Political parties are acceptable if they are deemed to be effective means of protecting people’s rights and interests against dictatorship.

Shura, or consultation, the basic authority in the Shariah for freedom of association, is the nearest Islamic equivalent of democracy, but in comparison the latter is individualist in orientation, whereas Shurais more community oriented. Shura permits individuals to advise, even criticize, another person, including a government leader. For centuries, however, the Qur’anic conceptions of Shura, justice and advocacy of service-oriented governance support for human rights and liberties were ignored by traditional Muslim scholars.

Since the latter part of the twentieth century support for human rights and democracy has widened among more moderate Islamic movements. Many Muslim countries have seen the emergence of pro-democracy Islamic parties and movements which have turned to the ballot box in increasing numbers and in some cases have come to power. The Arab Spring is clear testimony of this. In my view, in order to enhance social and political conditions in Muslim countries, political leaders, scholars and the ulamashould stand for good governance, the rule of law, democracy and constitutional limitations on the exercise of power. This surely resonates well with the basic impulses of Islam and energizes the growing support for democracy and human rights.

You have written extensively about the notion of the ‘middle ground’ and the Qur’ānic principle of ‘Wasaṭiyyah’, sometimes translated as moderation. What exactly does this principle refer to? What is its relevance to the functioning of Muslim societies and to inter-civilizational relations?

Wasatiyyah is an important but a much-neglected aspect of Islam that has wide-ranging ramifications in almost all areas of Islamic religious thought and civilization. It is more of an outlook and philosophy than a specific principle. It is closely aligned with justice, and means opting for a middle position between two extremes, often used interchangeably with ‘average’, or a median posture that recognizes and reconciles divergent interests and concerns. It is of relevance not only to personal conduct of individuals but also to the integrity and self-image of communities and nations. It helps to develop social harmony and equilibrium in society, in human relations, the use of resources and treatment of the natural environment.

In the Qur’anic verse (al-Baqarah, 2:143), wasatiyyah is portrayed as an attribute of the Muslim community, the ummah, in its relationships with other communities and nations. Hence the importance of moderation in inter-civilizational conversations and dialogues and in relations between Muslims and other faith communities.

One of the hallmarks of radicalist postures and fundamentalism is polarization and distancing from the mainstream. This has become the fastest route to catch media attention and what you have is rampant spread of misunderstanding and distrust among communities and nations. These are instances precisely of violation of Islam’s teachings on wasatiyyah.

I have written extensively on the applications of wasatiyyah to personal lifestyle and character, youth culture, women’s rights, crime and punishment, terrorism, globalization and climate change. My next book on this subject, The Middle Path of Moderation in Islam: the Qur’anic Principle of Wasatiyyah will soon be published worldwide. The need for wasatiyyah has acquired renewed significance in the pluralistic societies of our time, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Restoring a sense of balance and perspective to many of the disturbing acts of violence the world is witnessing within and outside the Muslim world has become a pressing task not only for Muslims but also for the whole of humanity.

One of the most worrying developments in recent years has been the sharpening of tensions between Sunni and Shia communities in the Middle East and elsewhere. No doubt external pressures have contributed to his development. How can a careful reading of the Quran and Sunnah assist the process of reconciliation?

Islam recognizes the validity in principle of reasoned disagreement (ikhtilaf), or pluralism of ideas and interpretations, in religious and intellectual matters – not only as an academic concept but one that opens the way for the tradition of diversity and recognition of different perspectives. There are, in fact, at least seven different schools of theology and jurisprudence across the Muslim world under the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiah.

The differences between Sunni and Shi’i Islam have to do not so much with theological doctrine as with political themes and issues of succession. The Sunnis subscribe to the elective principle in political leadership, whereas the Shi’i posit this within the household of the Prophet Muhammad and his recognized descendants, the Imams. The Shi’i schools differ as to who exactly these imams are. But this level of plurality in interpretation does not alter the fact that all of them are united under one religion and one Shariah. They all subscribe to the same six articles of the faith (iman) – and five pillars of the religion – prayer, fasting, the hajj and so forth.

The sharpening tensions between Sunni and Shiah communities in recent years reflect the false images of self-righteousness of the two sides and their rejection of one another, often leading to unnecessary conflict and horrendous violence, as we have seen in Iraq and Pakistan. This should give way to the spirit of moderation and dignified tolerance that would make for amicable relations and peace. One can only hope that that common sense will prevail and that all will realize that nothing can reliably gained through violence.

Professor Hashim Kamaliis interviewed by Professor Emeritus Joseph A. Camilleri OAM, La Trobe University

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