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  • Shahrany Hassan

Ask Me Anything: Islam

“I have answers, but you may not like it,” said Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, a Muslim inter-faith activist and one of the panelists at the Ask Me Anything (AMA) about Islam session on May 5.

Everyone in the hall at the National Museum laughed at his response but it was clear Imran was only half joking. The questions posed by the participants were not easy and while many, it seems, expected yes or no answers, the panelists could not honestly do so. The panel was the last segment of the day and it was also the most complex for participants to grapple with.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Islam as a faith is incredibly diverse and practised by more than a billion and a half people around the world, in different cultures and contexts, said the other panelist, Ustaz (religious teacher) Irwan Hadi.

Blanket black and white answers were simply not possible. There are “a spectrum of views” on any single issue, he added. The positions taken by the Muslims in Singapore can also differ from the region and the rest of the world.

On the question of hudud, or religious, laws for example, the stance taken by Singaporean Muslims are different from some Muslims in the Middle East.

A participant had earlier asked the panel how come certain punishments like the cutting off of hands and stoning existed in some Muslim majority countries and where such punishments had come from.

It “cannot be denied there are punishments in the Quran” but it must be understood in context said the Ustaz. Such punishments were meted out at that point of time in history, specific to the environment and context of that era.

“But there are other traditions (and interpretations of the verses) which are equally authoritative,” which do not see the need for such punishments in today’s day and age. Punishments like that do not apply anymore.

Imran added that a distinction must be made between religious positions and state laws. Just because a country claims to be a Muslim state does not mean its state laws are representative of what the Islamic faith teaches. He warned against “conflating” the two.

State laws are subjected to a political process which is not beholden to Islamic ethical norms and standards. Traditionally, except for the most basic of beliefs like believing in a monotheistic god, most religious issues do not have a single position that is codified like state laws are. Most times, there are contesting views.

The issue of apostasy is one such example where people tend to confuse state policies with the religious stance. A participant had raised the question of the death sentence on those who convert out of Islam in certain countries.

In the Quran it’s very clearly stated that there is “no compulsion in religion”, so forcing someone to convert goes against a core tenet of the faith, said Ustaz Irwan.

No one can be hurt, let alone killed, just because they wish to convert out of Islam, added Imran. And often there seems to be political motivations behind the policy on apostates that are given a veneer of religiosity so that the average person does not question it too much.

In 1983 for example, said Imran, the newly appointed Sudanese authorities at that point in time declared certain public figures in Sudan were apostates and called for their death sentences. Turns out the people branded as such were mostly from the opposition party in politics.

Beside conflating religious stances with political stands, many also tend to forget that there is much space for nuance and disagreement on what the religious position might be on any given issue.

This was illustrated through a hot topic another participant raised at the session: The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) issue.

Ustaz Irwan Hadi was very clear that Muslims should not “excommunicate or disparage” LGBT Muslims even as he acknowledged that the majority of Muslim religious scholars considered the sexual act - not the identity - as a sin.

Imran said the issue required more “nuance”.

When we say Muslims are against LGBT who exactly are we referring to? There are a small minority scholars who do not see an issue between being Muslim and LGBT.

It is however also true that majority of scholars do not condone LGBT. But what that means must be further “unpacked” and “not left to neat dichotomies of Islam on one side versus LGBT on the other side".

When we discuss about LGBT issues, are we talking about the biological sex, the gender, sexual orientation, or the act itself?

In terms of biological sex, Muslims do recognise the third sex (known as the mukhannath); and whether a behaviour is considered masculine or feminine varies in societies and their acceptance are a function of social norms.

As for sexual orientation, some scholars have argued that the sexual desire itself is not something a person can control but acting upon that desire is where the choice comes in. When it comes to matters of choice, such as acting on sexual desires, Islamic rulings come in to either allow or prohibit.

So even amongst the scholars who believe it’s wrong, most are clear that it is the act which is the issue, not the identity. In that sense discrimination on the basis of identity cannot be said to be right, especially since the act itself is the private matter of the individual.

While the final panel discussion was open to the floor to ask questions about how Muslims dealt with an increasingly challenging world, the first panel discussion of the day addressed some popular questions submitted by participants when they registered.

There were four panelists then: Ustaz Ashraf Anwar, Imran Taib and Ustazah Liyana Rosli Asmara from inter-faith body Harmony Centre, and social media influencer Aida Azlin.

The panel lasted about an hour, covering many fact-based questions like what halal means for example. But two interesting questions stood out. One of was aliens, and the other asked the female panelists about their view on the Hijab.

Aida, like Liyana, wears the hijab. She smiled when asked about it. Aida said there were many misconceptions. No, she was not forced into it as some might suggest. Also just because someone wears the hijab doesn’t mean she’s automatically pious and vice versa.

And although she believes wearing it is a religious practise, she vehemently disagreed against women being forced into it, especially the moral policing that she sees happening sometimes.

As for aliens - what was the Muslim view on it? “Unicorns, aliens, mermaids,” the Quran is “silent” on it, said Ustaz Ashraf, who was pleasantly amused by the question.

In between the panel sessions were the small group discussions which kept things personal.

The participants had earlier been divided into groups of seven to 10, with a diversity of religious representations. Facilitators had also set the tone that it was a safe space for everyone.

The discussions were rich as a result of the diversity and safe space. There were ex-Muslims, Buddhists, free-thinkers, Christians, and of course Muslims amongst other faiths.

An ex-Muslim shared about his difficulty with reconciling the idea of a just and merciful loving God with the passing of a close Muslim friend of his. The young man in his early 20s said that the “more faithful” he became, “the more lost” he got, especially regarding the “notion of fairness”.

A Catholic lady shared that like the young man, she too had personally struggled with reconciling her faith with both the good and bad that happened around her.

Another Muslim man in his late 20s said that although he believes in a god, he could not reconcile the problem of evil with a merciful god. In other words, if god is so loving, why does evil exist?

A young Muslim lady however said that for her personally, she was a “huge believer in struggle”, that it was an important part of faith. Struggle is humbling, and sincerity comes from a place of humility.

The personal sharing also touched on the topics of free will and choice - how to deal with parents who imposed their own view of faith? The general consensus was that parents should not force it on the children, faith is too personal and again, in Islam, there is “no compulsion in religion” as the Quran states.

Other points were raised as well, throughout the whole three hour long programme. But for one of the participants, Yanting, it was the sharing by a minority Muslim man at the end of the day that stuck with her.

The man identified as a Shi’ite Muslim. About 75 to 90 per cent of the Muslim world identifies itself as Sunni. While there are points of tension between the two communities, by and large majority of Muslim scholars agree that both sects are considered valid in Islam. The Amman1 message signed by Muslim clerics from around the world is one such example.

The diversity and open-ness changed Yanting’s opinion about Islam. The 25-year-old HR executive said she had no idea about the diversity within Islam before the AMA session. She also thought it was “great” that there is “no one answer” on various issues.

Yanting was also moved during the small group discussion. She referred to an ex-Muslim group member who shared earlier about his personal loss. “I can see it’s hard for him to

bring it up.” So “it’s very important” to have such a space because it allows participants to “open their heart (and share) openly,” she added.

The day ended with a closing circle, where all participants stood and formed one large circle. It was a space for affirmation, and support, especially for those who courageously opened up and made the honest discussions possible.

One participant affirmed the converts - they are often a minority and the challenges they face are unique. It took guts and a willingness to be vulnerable in sharing their inner lives with others.

Another participant thanked the interfaith panelist in particular. Wearing “two hats” is not easy she said. To practise one’s faith while also trying to “be a bridge” between different religious communities in an increasingly challenging world is tough. We need bridge-builders now more than ever, to build a more united community in an increasingly divisive world. Which is why Shahrany Hassan, co-founder of community development NGO, The WhiteHatters, organised the AMA series in the first place.

To that end, the AMA platform was started to “have that difficult conversation… to have a better understanding of each other’s faith instead of saying or doing things that will cause suspicion and distrust”, said Shahrany.

She added: “I’m a firm believer that little steps can make the world better”

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