a community of singaporeans

Islam in Singapore : Where to from here ?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 1, 2008

Syed Alwi

Singapore is an anomalous red dot in a green sea, being composed of mainly non-Muslim Chinese in a neighbourhood that is largely Malay-Muslim.

Within this already sensitive geopolitical setup is the Muslim community in Singapore, a minority within a society that is itself a minority.

In today’s post 9-11 world, Islam has become headline news everywhere – and not necessarily in a positive light. The escape of Mas Selamat Kastari, for example, has put the Singapore Muslim community under the microscope of many.

The wider context

These two forces have resulted in the desire to “integrate” Muslims into mainstream Singaporean society, and modernise the ideas in Islam. While there are good intentions involved, caution is called for. Singapore Muslims and Islam in Singapore are inextricable from the wider Islamic world, and Singapore must take its cues from the Middle East. Should Singapore’s Muslim leaders “go their own way”, Singapore would likely isolate herself, and the flock, bewildered, might seek an overseas shepherd. Remaining unchanged for eight hundred years, Islam will also not yield itself to change easily, and forcing the process would have severe consequences.

Islam as we know it today is not shaped by the powers-that-be in Singapore. What constitutes Islam is determined by regional influences – Malaysia and Indonesia – as well as the various Middle-East Islamic institutions like Al-Azhar and Medina. In the instance of Singapore’s Syariah laws, Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) cannot deviate from orthodoxy without precedence from the ulamas (Muslim scholars) in the rest of the Muslim world. For example, in the case of organ donation, it was only after many ulamas worldwide concurred on the virtue and permissibility of organ donation that MUIS was able to issue a fatwa (ruling) promoting organ donation among Muslims locally.

Consequently, Singapore cannot expect its Muslims to be “very different” from Muslims elsewhere – there are rules and principles by which Muslims must abide by when studying and interpreting the Quran and Hadith. These sayings and traditions of the Prophet (pbuh) cannot be arbitrarily interpreted. Given this, it would be foolish for Singapore to make any attempt at either diluting or modifying Islam in order to integrate its Muslim community with the other racial communities in Singapore. Any such attempt would discredit MUIS and its Malay leaders in the eyes of the Muslim world and community.

Treading carefully

We no longer live in isolation – the global village is quick to respond to excesses. Should Singapore decide to promote its own brand of Singaporean Islam, one which deviates from the accepted norms and practices within the Muslim world, I am certain that Singaporean Muslims will seek alternative Islamic guidance from elsewhere. Perhaps they will tune in to Islam-Online (a premier Muslim website based in Egypt) or follow the guidance of ulamas from Malaysia and Indonesia. But this is the optimistic side of the coin – it is possible that our local Muslims will seek Islamic guidance from terrorists, such as Abu Bakar Bashir. So in defining local Islam, Singapore has to tread carefully.

Therefore, while modern, cosmopolitan Singapore may pressure its Muslim community to subscribe to a “progressive Islam”, the million-dollar question remains: What constitutes “progressive Islam”? Is it a brand of Islam which does away with all the halal and haram of Syariah? Or is it a brand of Islam which no longer abides by the usual methods at arriving at a fatwa? Would local Muslims be able to accept such “progressive” ideas presented as Modern Islam?

The legacy of history

Islam, with its long history, is unlikely to evolve so rapidly. While we live in an era where science and rationality is prized – a direct result of technological and ideological change that led to the Reformation, the Enlightenment and subsequently the Age of Scepticism and Modernity today – Islam has had no such tradition. The zenith of Muslim science ended in the twelfth century during the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols. Since then the Muslim world has been static.

For eight hundred years, the Muslim world has thrived on the Islamic thought and interpretations of ulamas from between the tenth to the twelfth century. Naturally then, some opinions that modern society considers antiquated still persist today. But to alter such deeply-held opinions will require a long time and the involvement of the many outstanding ulamas from the various corners of the Muslim world. It cannot be changed by fiat or by decree without resulting in chaos.

The modern world, then, needs to understand that it may take another hundred years before the ulamas of the Muslim world arrive at an ijma (consensus) on modernising Islam. With its small Muslim community and geographical location, Singapore is not in the position to kickstart such a difficult process.

Singapore’s Muslim community has a lot to think about and so does MUIS. It is not easy to integrate a minority community into another minority within a larger context. Singapore may just have to wait for Malaysian and Indonesian Islam to arrive at a comfortable equilibrium first. It would be foolish to attempt reform otherwise.


About the author:

Dr Alwi describes himself thus:

“I am a self-employed, married man with three children. My PhD is in Theoretical Physics and Physics is my life-long passion. I read and travel around the region a lot. I read mostly Philosophy, Physics and Religion. At the same time, I often participate in online forums in Malaysian cyberspace. My main socio-political focus is the Muslim community within the ASEAN region (including Singapore) and the advancement of their interests.”

Headline picture from New America Media.



14 Responses to “Islam in Singapore : Where to from here ?”

  1. Aidil Omar said

    An interesting article. One may also look into NEWater whether it is accepted by ulamas. I have always viewed it with suspicion as to drink it or perform the ablution. Perhaps Dr Alwi can shed some light on this issue.

  2. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Dear Aidil,

    I support the MUIS view on NEWater.

    1) It has been purified free of “najis” (impurities)

    2) In a way – the situation is “dharurat” (unavoidable)

    3) There are precedents on this matter from the USA as well as the Middle East

  3. Aidil Omar said

    Thank you Dr Alwi for your insight.

  4. Ben said

    I struggle to understand the point of your article. Also, you talk about Islamic orthodoxy. Is there a Vatican equivalent? There is a constant reference to Islamic scholars – who are they? Is there a vote?

  5. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Dear Ben,

    No there is no Vatican equivalent. In Islam, the scholars are those who have studied Islamic knowledge to a high degree. Mostly those who have studied Islam up to a high level at premier Islamic institutions such as Al-Azhar etc. NOT Western institutions ! There are no votes etc. In Singapore the scholars can be found at MUIS and PERGAS.

    The point of the whole article is that – Singapore cannot arbitrarily define its own brand of Islam in order to integrate the Malay-Muslim community.

  6. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Dear Fellow Singaporeans,

    Below is a copy of a question and answer done by Islam Online in response to a question by a Muslim Singaporean. It does make one wonder ! You can find it at the Islam-Online website.

    Name of Questioner
    XXXXXX – Singapore

    Islam vs. Secularism


    How does Islam differ from secularism?


    Name of Counselor
    Shahul Hameed


    Salam, Ahmad.

    Thank you for your question.

    The English word ‘secularism’ originated from the Latin secularis, meaning worldly, temporal (opposed to eternal).

    Secularism can be defined as “the view according to which there exist no gods or purely spiritual entities. Sometimes the sense of the word is less strong, connoting something close to humanism, that is, that affairs of this world should be the most important concerns for ethics and human life.

    Thus, while atheism is a form of secularism, not every secularist is an atheist. In popular usage, secularism often has the same connotations of immoralism that are imputed more strongly to atheism.” (The Free On-Line Dictionary of Philosophy, Last accessed April 14, 2008)

    As the original meaning of the word ‘secular’ is “of this world”, it is often used as the opposite of ‘religious’: An American academic once stated: “I am a very secular American: I don’t believe in God”. Thus for instance people can distinguish between ‘religious education’ and ‘secular education’.

    For all practical purposes, secularism affords no place for God or His Guidance in the affairs of men. A person may be hailed as a secularist, if he confines his religion to his very personal life.

    Because secularism demands that all affairs of this world outside the bounds of one’s private life should be managed from the this-worldly point of view. In such affairs, no importance is to be given to the commandments of God or to the teachings of prophets.

    Indeed secularism originated in Europe as a reaction to the Christian theology, which had forged shackles for the freely enquiring minds of thinking humans. As science and technology developed, the opposition to religion grew and took on several philosophical forms which were secularist in spirit.

    And it is also noteworthy that in Christian circles, there developed the belief that one could be a secularist, while being a Christian. This is based on the interpretation of what Jesus is reported to have said:

    “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:15)

    It is interesting to note that many secularist Muslims quote this verse for authority. Therefore, we need to consider the context of this utterance, to get a good understanding of its meaning in the right perspective:

    “Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him (i.e. Jesus) in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

    But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.” (Matthew 22:15-22)

    By asking about the payment of taxes to the Romans, the Pharisees meant to trap him. Note that they came with Herodians, i.e. the agents of Herod the Roman governor.

    If Jesus said, ‘Yes, it is right to pay taxes to Caesar’, he would not be the Messiah — who according to the Jews was the expected Liberator who would come with the mission of freeing the Children of Israel from the Roman rulers — and they would stone him to death.

    If he said, ‘No, you should not pay taxes to Caesar’, he would be arrested by the Herodians.

    Though Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, he was not prepared for a battle; and so he could not openly tell the people to stop paying the taxes imposed by Caesar. The evil intent of the Pharisees was to get him arrested by the Herodians.

    But Jesus did not fall into that trap: he gave a deliberately vague answer to them: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

    The Christian interpretation is that Jesus through this statement was preaching secularism — that is, a separation of religion and politics — as the right policy for his followers. If this was what Jesus meant, Christians who follow religion cannot have any share in the governance or administration of a country.

    Rather they should leave the affairs of the state to the whims and fancies of any brutal dictator or unscrupulous politician who assumes power.

    In the matter of secularism, Islam’s stance is clear: Islam rejects the theory that religion is concerned only with the individual life of man, and that it has nothing to do with his social or political life.

    Islam teaches that God is not only the Creator, Sustainer and Owner of everything in the universe; but He is also the Law-Giver and Sovereign Ruler. Therefore, any suggestion that the Divine jurisdiction is restricted and confines to the private life of an individual is absurd and blasphemous.

    Man’s ignorant self-sufficiency and arrogance that prompt him to reject Divine authority in his collective life constitutes an open rebellion against God Who is his Creator, Master, and Sovereign.

    The secularist claim would mean that each person is individually the servant of God, while collectively as these individuals form a society, they cease to be servants of God, as they go after man-made laws.

    The renowned Islamic scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi writes:

    “Secularism is compatible with the Western concept of God which maintains that after God had created the world, He left it to look after itself. There is no wonder that such a God leaves people to look after their own affairs. How can He legislate for them when He is ignorant of their affairs? This concept is totally different from that of Muslims.

    We Muslims believe that Allah is the sole Creator and Sustainer of the Worlds. One Who *{…takes account of every single thing}* (Al-Jinn 72:28); that He is omnipotent and omniscient; that His mercy and bounties encompass everyone and suffice for all.

    In that capacity, Allah revealed His divine guidance to humanity, made certain things permissible and others prohibited, commanded people to observe His injunctions and to judge according to them. If they do not do so, then they commit disbelief, aggression, and transgression.

    There is no doubt that secularism contradicts Islam in every aspect. They are two different paths that never meet; choosing one means rejecting the other. Hence, whoever chooses Islam has to reject secularism.” (Al-Qaradawi, How Islam Views Secularism)

    I hope this answers your question. Please keep in touch.


  7. zainuddin said

    I really do not like this post.
    Too much bad assumptions to support arguments making it an uncomfortable read.

    And more importantly , why are we asking Dr Alwi questions pertaining to religion? Like can we drink New water? Who is he? and besides, this is not a ask a Uztad website and I hope it will never be.

    TOC Moderator: Zainuddin, Dr Alwi’s views are his own, just as all TOC writers write in their own personal capacities, unless otherwise stated.

  8. Ben said

    Ok. I think I got your point. However, I agree with Zainuddin. Interesting subject matters, but not worth discussing this article. TOC shouldn’t have let this through.

  9. patriot said

    Whilst I agree with the personal conservative assertion of Dr Syed Alwi, the World is proving otherwise physically.

    Being an atheist, naturally, I have atheist views. Though racially a Chinese and born in a Taoist family, me, like many others of different races, was made by my family and clans to follow their footsteps in religions. Somehow and naturally, I refused to accept the ‘teachings’ of my elders as far as ‘religions’ are concerned. But the ‘enforcements’ of faith into my being(as a human), did spur and instigate me to pay much attention to all things religious. It invokes a tireless and relentless looks into the various beliefs and faiths and me remains atheist.

    The Chinese Race has one of the longest history in civilization and the first many thousand years, the Chinese in China did not have a religion. After Bhuddism/Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and other religions believers visited China , most of the Chinese population got converted to those religions of the foreign travellers. I am not saying the Chinese then and now were/are foolish but I am amused.

    Before the introduction of religions into China, the Chinese then and before had already a very high literature culture and intellectual collections of wisdoms from their forefathers. They did worshipped their ancestors without giving a name to their rituals and practices, hence no known ‘Chinese’ Religion. Ancestor Worships were meant to remember ones’ familial forebears and to outstanding historical greats(not neccessarily of Chinese Race only). Foreign Great Forebears were also honoured. It is mankinds’ respects for fellow great men and have them in memories, so long as mankind exists. There was no superstition and worship of imageries, superbeings and make believes. Okay, this Paragraph is my personal take and rightly or wrongly, I will not discuss it further.

    The World is in constant change, we know that forty years ago, it was very different from today not to mention a thousand years back. We know mankind himself is not stable, how else we explain the evolution of religions in our immediate neighbour Indonesia. Indonesia had(has) Animistic Practices before Bhuddhism/Hinduism became widely practised when it was part of the Majapahit Empire only to be eclipsed by Christianity when the Europeans(specifically Dutch which colonised it) came. Later on, when the Arabs came to trade in Indonesia, they converted most Indonesians to Muslims. All those changes happened within few decades.

    As it is, politics are playing a bigger role than religions in the management of a nation and wealth creation is the criteria(or so it seems) and measure most political leaders gauge themselves. The lay citizens, in general worldwide, though less political(having much lesser power) are no less money-minded and materialistic than their leaders. Vices are widespread when pleasures become leisures when stomachs are full and a mean(profession) to get money for those in vice trades. Here, the weaknesses of mankind are not reduced by their beliefs as far as we can see.

    The Racial/Religious aspects of societies and politics will evolve and will not remain static/constant as conservatives wish and hope for. Allow me to make a prediction(or rather it has happened and is happening), the ancient(traditional) attires/costumes have gone the way of the Dodo, many of the rituals and beliefs will follow or change. One really cannot be too sure of a changing World. When a certain belief or wish hampers developments, new ways will evolve though it may takes sometime.


  10. Dr Syed Alwi said

    To Zainuddin,

    The question is – can you accept the implications of orthodox Islam on Singaporean ideas of what constitutes Islam ?

    As for Patriot – well – we just have to wait and see what happens to the Muslim world in this era of Islamic Resurgence !

    I am NOT a conservative – but the implications of what I write are clear for all to see……..

    TOC Moderator’s note: Dr Alwi, your comments are edited. Please lets have a civil discussion. Thanks.

  11. Dear everyone,

    Dr Alwi wrote this in his personal capacity, as do all TOC writers and guest writers.

    We publish this in the hope that it will create discussion on the subject. It is also our hope that this discussion be kept civil and respectful – on both sides. Otherwise, we will disable comments posting on this article.

    Zainuddin and Ben, thank you for your views and comments. We take your point. 🙂

    Andrew Loh

  12. Dr Syed Alwi said

    Dear Andrew Loh,

    Thanks for your moderation. It seems that its very difficult to discuss religion. That was why I was motivated to write the article.

    On the issue of expertise – one can always refer to Islam-Online experts or MUIS and PERGAS. I am sure that they are much more qualified to comment on such matters.

    Once again however – I thank TOC for the opportunity to write this article.

  13. Andrew Loh said

    Hi Doc,

    No problem. 🙂 I do enjoy reading your articles – it helps me understand and learn more about Islam, something which I have been wanting to do.

    I truly do hope that, though there may be disagreements, we can nonetheless have a good discussion about the issues. At the end of the day, if we all take something away from this discussion, then it is entirely fruitful.

    That, I hope, is what we will achieve. 🙂

    Andrew Loh

  14. Gary Teoh said

    Religion is a sensitive issue in this region,it is not wise to discuss openly.Let’s keep it to private.

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