Chandra Muzaffar on Islamic Reform & Liberation Theology

Chandra Muzaffar is Malaysia’s best-known public intellectual. He has written widely on questions related to Islam, inter-faith relations and liberation theology, issues that he discusses in this interview with Yoginder Sikand.
Q: Much of your writing focuses on a critique of capitalism and consumerism, or what you very aptly term as ‘moneytheism’, which you contrast with the monotheism of Islam. How do you see Muslim scholars dealing with these issues?
A: Unfortunately, what is in some circles called ‘Islamic Economics’ has not sufficiently critiqued capitalism and the consumerist ethos. In fact, many of those associated with the ‘Islamic Economics’ project have simply tried to apply a so-called ‘Islamic’ gloss on capitalism. If at all those associated with the ‘Islamic Economics’ project critique consumerism, which is such a deeply-rooted phenomenon globally, including in predominantly Muslim countries, it is only at a very general level, in the form of statements to the effect that it is incompatible with Islam, or appeals for balance, restraint and moderation. But this does not go along with any rigorous analysis of economic structures that generate consumerism in the first place. I don’t know of any well-known writers associated with the ‘Islamic Economics’ project who have done this in a sufficient manner. Rather, their focus tends to be more on the technical aspects, such as the ban on interest, interest-free banking and discussions about disallowing the production of things considered to be haraam.
I think one reason why these scholars have not sufficiently critiqued consumerism and capitalism is that they tend not to discuss issues that are not already written about in the fiqh tradition. Then, the references in the Quran that could be interpreted as condemning consumerism are of a general sort, and are not, in most cases, specific, and so these scholars have not gone beyond these generalities. Further, many of these scholars lack sufficient sensitivity to class issues, and so their project ultimately tends to work in favour of the powers that be, the ruling classes, their formulations being easily co-opted into the existing capitalist framework. A good instance of this is what are fashionably called ‘Islamic banks’.
Q: Another major concern in your writings relates to the concept of ijtihad, which you use to argue the case for reformulating traditional Muslim understandings on a host of issues. How do you envisage ijtihad in relation to vital issues of contemporary import, such as gender relations or relations between Muslims and others?
A: Generally, ijtihad, if at all it is discussed by Muslim scholars, is in the context of the nitty-gritty of fiqh formulations, but, personally, I think it should also apply to a whole range of other issues, including our world-views, the way we understand our religion and its relation to other faiths, inter-faith relations, issues of gender, and so on. Sadly, this project has not gone very far, although in the recent past people like Abul Kalam Azad and Iqbal in India, and Malik Bennabi in North Africa, did argue along these lines, even though they may not have termed this as ijtihad as such, perhaps because, given the traditionalist ulema’s understanding of what qualifies a person to be called a mujtahid, these people would have been automatically disqualified by them.

Q: A major issue that ‘progressive’ and ‘modernist’ Muslim scholars are today focusing on is the need to go beyond traditional fiqh formulations, and, indeed, the very tendency to understand every issue in terms of the fiqh tradition. How do you relate to this?
A: Personally, I feel that we need to emancipate ourselves from the traditional fiqh methodology. The moment you view something from the traditional fiqh point of view, or look at it as a ‘Muslim’ issue, rather than one of universal human significance, you limit your own understanding, transforming it into something narrowly communal, which, as a Muslim, I see as going against the fundamental universality of Islam. The fixation of many Muslims with fiqh, with the externalities of religion in terms of rituals or with Arabic linguistic terms and culture, completely negates what I regard as Islam’s inherent universality.
Frankly, I am increasingly despondent about the marked tendency to see and interpret things from a narrow ‘Muslim’ or so-called ‘Islamic’ point of view, and this applies to new fads such as ‘Islamic Economics’ or ‘Islamic food’ or whatever. If one is looking for solutions to problems through traditional understandings of religion—any religion for that matter—at the end of the day, if one’s mindset is not universal, the quest is utterly futile. I think one of the most basic tasks before us today is to evolve universal understandings of spirituality that go beyond, and transcend, religion and communal barriers, as traditionally conceived. Sadly, we are in a situation where religion, in the sense of labels, language, dogmas and rituals, seems to be of more practical importance than God. That is to say, even if we may not recognize it, we worship our own particular religions in place of God. This is precisely what many Muslims tend to do with their exclusivity, their narrow approach to fiqh, their obsession with rituals and laws which they imagine to be the shariah, and, indeed, what amounts to the very idolization of the shariah.
Q: You have been at the forefront of seeking to promote inter-religious dialogue between Muslims and others, in Malaysia as well as internationally. How do you reflect on your experiences in this regard?
A: In Malaysia we have tried to do this sort of thing, but the problems are daunting and we have not been very successful. We have also tried to promote intra-Muslim dialogue, between progressive Islamic scholars and the traditional, or ‘orthodox’, groups, but here, too, we have failed. One reason for this is that the latter are simply not open to dialogue with the former, whom they consider as having deviated from what they regard as true Islam. If at all they are interested in any sort of dialogue, it is simply in order to impose their own perspectives on others. This can hardly be called dialogue, in the true sense of the term. They are simply too-closed minded, whereas dialogue presupposes that dialogue partners should be open-minded and amenable to listening to other views. Otherwise, there is no point in even attempting to dialogue.
As for inter-faith dialogue, I, as a Muslim, believe that there is much that Muslims need to set in order before they can genuinely dialogue with people of other faiths. Certain deep-rooted, traditionally-held notions, shared by millions of Muslims, must be recognized as being gravely inimical to genuine inter-faith dialogue, such as common assumptions about terms such as kafir and jihad, the alleged ‘impurity’ of non-Muslims, the notion of Muslim supremacism and the belief that all non-Muslims are ‘enemies of God’ or are doomed to perdition in hell. We need to revise our understandings of these issues if we are at all to be able to proceed with the task of inter-religious dialogue and solidarity. Many of these understandings emerged after the demise of the Prophet, at a time of Muslim political expansionism. These were later reinforced in the face of Muslim political losses and traumas in the wake of the Mongol onslaught, the Crusades, and, then, European colonialism, and, now, Western, particularly American, imperialism. We need to re-evaluate our views on these matters, and bring them in line with proper Quranic understandings, which I believe to be just and egalitarian.
Chandra Muzaffar can be contacted on
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Social Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore



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10 responses to “Chandra Muzaffar on Islamic Reform & Liberation Theology

  1. simply61

    Very refreshing to read this ‘constructive introspection’ by a Muslim

  2. simply61

    Sorry, that shud have read Muslim Scholar/intellectual.

  3. bonobashi

    Sadly, we are in a situation where religion, in the sense of labels, language, dogmas and rituals, seems to be of more practical importance than God. That is to say, even if we may not recognize it, we worship our own particular religions in place of God.

    The wisest scholars put things in the simplest way.

    {Thinks:Who is simply61? Who posts and then immediately posts his corrections? Looks familiar! Hmmmmmm.}

  4. simply61

    Hmmm,truncated message corrected bonobashi..:)

  5. Mustafa Shaban

    Good interview! I liked what the scholar has said. Also I like the quote bonobashi has posted….I agree with the scholar completely on this point. Islam is only 1% spiritual worship and 99% practical…or it is supposed to be practiced that way. Ofcourse the spiritual is extremely important but without practicality is not much use.

  6. Mustafa Shaban

    any ideas where I can find out more about this scholar? any site?

  7. Gorki

    “Certain deep-rooted, traditionally-held notions…….must be recognized as being gravely inimical to genuine inter-faith dialogue, such as common assumptions about terms such as kafir and jihad, the alleged ‘impurity’ of non-Muslims, the notion of Muslim supremacism and the belief that all non-Muslims are ‘enemies of God’ or are doomed to perdition in hell. We need to revise our understandings of these issues if we are at all to be able to proceed with the task of inter-religious dialogue and solidarity”

    The above paragraph is a very honest and a bold appraisal that applies not only to the Muslims and Islam but to all other people who refuse to get past the dogmas imposed by their respective faiths.
    Some day when other people like Mr. Muzaffar are in a majority among peoples of all the faiths, mankind will finally learn to live in peace.

    Chandra Muzaffar comes across not so much as a Muslim scholar/intellectual as an intellectual and a scholar who happens to be a Muslim; however I understand Simply 61 sentiments and agree with them.

    @Mustapha: “I agree with the scholar completely on this point. Islam is only 1% spiritual worship and 99% practical…or it is supposed to be practiced that way”


    You may admire the quote but I am afraid you may have missed its point entirely. Try emailing the author, his email appears at the bottom of the article.


  8. bonobashi


    I tried, honest, I did; it was just water off a duck’s back. Sorry, that was my best shot!! You just have to suffer him.

  9. Tathagata Mukherjee

    I would like to see any work done by Chandra (a Sanskrit word) Muzaffar to protest the second lass treatment meted out to minorities of Malaysia, particularly the Hindus, in recent times.

  10. Arif

    The country is towards the dark abyss but why our prayers are going in vain? The following theme which was meant for
    Jaswant saga but the relevant blog is closed due to some realistic remarks that the press could not tolerate and that is why our country has remained blind for ever…………………..(this matter provides food for thought for the present blog)
    How Great a bundle of lies,falsehood,fiction,imagination and self produced convictions has been created by Jaswant Singh through the directions of some invisible sectarian hands, since the Free Masionaries have no better profession than to stir the dirty waters. The two vivid examples of his blatant lies are enough to understand for the sensible persons that what the unwanted mass would have been!!.
    It is well known that BJP, as an extrimist party, is unpopular among the Indian Muslims so to earn the vote bank of Muslims for BJP he has shamefully tried to distort the Historical Truth and give the misimpression that muslims in India are in more deplorable condition than those in Pkistan.Jaswant is from the Maratha Faction who have always been the enemies of muslims and also of Gandhijee who started Fatal Fasting to relieve 117 mosques occupied by hindus and clearance of the assets of 550 millions of Pakistan’s share which the Congressies were not willing to clear.This was the main reson that the Mahatma was assassinated by a Maratha Pig..So Jaswant is out with his old illness by diminishing the image of the Great Personality.The Indian youths are warned against such Black Sheep among them.By playing such the dejectable practice he has played the part of a TRAITOR.He must be kicked out from every field for ever.
    First,as regards the Indian muslims,we have hundreds of relatives and acquaintances there who are living as prestigeous citizens in the Rule of Law and Order.Mostly,they enjoy the full rights of respectable civilians in a bettetr way than we have experienced here .The present example of the discounted prices upto 40 to 60 percent of utility items for Muslims for the month of Ramzan,like on many other occassions in the past, is the explicit proof. Now, it is on the press record what is the tragic plight of people in Pakistan.Also, what is the rate of the deaths of the muslims that are going to be continuously killed here after partition which was the PLANNED GAME.
    Secondly, it is the undebatable historical truth that has now been accepted as the Universal Truth that the dignitary like Gandhijee is NOT and NEVER comparable with anyone however great in Asia, at least for the last three hundred years(probably after Aurangzeb Alamgir) and centuries will wait for such the Creation.This great man emerged through quite humble and conservative circumstances against highly modern, arrogantly luxurious and ruling forces whose concept was that all the black people were their slaves and only they were born to rule for ever.He was Gandhijee,the really great, that opened their eyes and shattered their whims for ever.How can any showman, proud to imitate such rulers can be ranked before the Mahatma?Also,he was not addicted to wine and pork dishes.He strictly practised what he preached.He never stupefied his people by only ideal and ambiguous table statements. India as the country and the nation is the great proof as to what Gandhijee was.His spirituality still prevails over the nation.
    It should also be noted that Gandhijee was NOT the multi-purpose man.He was only and only pure,sincere,true and devoted LEADER.He was not at a time Governor General,Party President,Public Leader,Constitution Assembly Head,Cabinet Head and so on & so forth..(let it go on so long as the Fools into Stupids are there…..) He had supernatural abilities to fight against any forces through his inborn Iron Will Power which was NOT AT ALL empowered by the backing of US-UK who were highly powerful and definite to divide India and create permanant enmity between the two parts (through KASHMIR saga) and bring into effect the partirion of their own choice and will where they may conspire and rule invisibly. The Time Truth which is the Divine Machine has automatically declassified all the facts through the syndrome in this country. The will-power of Gandhijee can be assessed by the fact that sometimes high level British officials had to sit on the floor carpets before Gandhijee who did not prefer elevated seats.He never worked with the assured backing of the conspiring powers to implement the policies of Divide and Rule. Gandhijee was not at all hypocrite to change colours according to the dictation from the western masters from behind the scene to become the Governor General,Founder of western planned nation and then all in all to install the civil and military bureaucracy from all the controversial sects (who have nothing to do with human values)with the blessings of the intriguing powers whose aim is to bring into power as the leaders and heads who must be liers,cheaters,hypocrites,blackmailers,drunkards,killers addicted to wine,pork-dishes,adultry etc. All these are the hidden evil hands who are in the way to stop the nation from all the moral,spiritual and ethical values which are the main pillars for peace, prosperity and security.
    After Gandhi’s death, Albert Einstein said of Gandhijee: “Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood.” He also once said,” I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men in our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit: not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil.”
    It is to be alert for the CUSTODIANS of International Historical parameters that those who distort the historical truth and facts are misguiding the generations who will be on the path of deterioration like Pakistanies.

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