Malaysia: Nation's youngest mufti speaks out on apostasy

Newly-minted Perlis mufti Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin said Islamic leaders must squarely address the questions of apostates and other challenges, and not further damage the Muslim community by their own failure to live up to religious values.
Asked to comment on tensions raised by the issue of apostasy, Asri said religious leaders were culpable because they divert focus from the reasons that lead Muslims to apostasise. Instead, they issued threats of punitive measures against apostates and non-Muslim supporters.
Asri, a Universiti Sains Malaysia lecturer since 2003, was seconded to his new two-year post from Nov 1 to replace mufti Mat Jahya Hussin.

At 35, the Penang-born religious scholar is the youngest person in the country to hold the post. As mufti, Asri's role is to advise the Perlis sultan and the state government on all matters of Islamic law.

Religious authorities of the past stressed the need to answer the questions posed by apostates and to clarify any confusion they may have about Islam, he told malaysiakini.

“This becomes more necessary in these times when there are conscious efforts to distort the religion,” he added.

Addressing such questions as the roots of apostasy is the more relevant challenge Muslims and their religious leaders face, compared to calls for and debate on punishment for apostasy.

“The focus has been misdirected. If we work on addressing the reasons driving some Muslims to apostasise, the issue of punishing apostates become secondary,” he said.

Asri said Muslim leaders can no longer ignore such pertinent issues or sweep these under the carpet.

On the debate over the ‘relatively minimal’ number of official conversions from Islam against the ‘hundreds of thousands’ cited in rumours, Asri said he fears Muslims have fallen into a trap laid by people with an interest in inflating the numbers.

Burden of proof

Asri also cited the ordeal through which national mariner Azhar Mansor was recently subjected due to rumours that he had apostasised, saying Islam places the burden of proof on the accuser.

In this case, he said, the celebrated sportsman was forced to come out and declare his innocence - a reversal of the process of true justice accorded by Islam.

“It is not allowed by the religion to accuse anybody and then say, ‘Prove that you are not guilty’. The religion demands that the accuser has to prove the wrong was committed by such and such a person, and to bring the proof of guilt,” Asri noted.

“In this case, however, it is the accused who had to prove himself innocent. But because it is the religious leaders doing these things, it leads to a lot of confusion about Islam.”

The issue of apostasy has gripped the Muslim community, particularly after widely-spread mobile text messages earlier this month alleged that 600 Malays were to be baptised at a church in Ipoh, Perak.

The short-messaging-system (SMS) message warned of an ‘impending’ baptism ceremony on Nov 5 at the hands of Azhar.

It led to an angry crowd of about 300 Malays gathering in front of the church, demanding that the ceremony be stopped. Riot police were called in to prevent any untoward incident.

Azhar, who has declined to address rumours circulating since 1999 that he had become Christian, was forced last week to declare in a press conference at the sidelines of the Umno general assembly that he was still Muslim.

Fauwaz Abdul Aziz
22 November 2006