From the desk of Ustaz Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail 1
“ISLAM AND THE WEST”
- REFLECTION ON ISLAM AND THE EAST-WEST DICHOTOMY.
Adapted from a talk by Ustaz Zhulkeflee delivered for
Darus-Salaam Mosque, Clementi, Singapore,
during their “Racial Harmony Day open house”,.
24th July 2005. (Sunday 18 Jumaada al-Thaany 1426 A.H.)
Initially the topic was only “Islam and the West”. I can understand the organizer’s choice
(preference) seeing that the media discourses as well as recent happenings in London has
inadvertently put Islam and Muslims further in a negative light. Although time and time people are
told to not place any blame on the religion of Islam, yet unconsciously, many cannot differentiate
Islam the religion, with actions of Muslims whether their actions be Islamic or un-Islamic.
Islam as a religion, in the present age, has been much misunderstood – especially so in the
West. It would seem that with many negative images of Islam, the West may assume the attitude
of confrontation towards it and may even alienate Islam’s message which every Muslim knows to
be universal for all mankind. Thus, the topic chosen was perhaps to cast some light upon these,
as many Muslims feel obliged to clarify possible misperceptions of the West about Islam (nay
even by every non-Muslim). Yet, I am not comfortable with just reacting, but would advise caution
by considering the possibility that certain response itself may perhaps accentuate further
misconception about Islam rather than clarify. Therefore, I have added to the topic with “a
reflection on Islam and the East-West dichotomy.”
One of the misconceptions, as can be gleaned from various intellectual and media discourses,
was to reduce and categorize Islam as though belonging to the East. By choosing the topic
“Islam and the West” only, we Muslims may unconsciously justify this misapplied categorization
towards Islam. As with every religion which promotes universal teachings and values, attempt at
localizing it would cause in some peoples’ mind, to unfairly disregard its relevance for possible
benefits in its message for themselves and mankind elsewhere, irrespective of where they may
be – East or West, North or South. Also, I suspect that in some Muslims, perhaps they are
unable to distinguish (especially the possible implication) of saying “Islam belongs to us” (which
sounds exclusivist) rather than with the correct message of saying “We belong to Islam.” For the
truth is that Islam belongs to Allah and His messenger and meant for all mankind. The former
From the desk of Ustaz Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail 2
statement (“Islam belongs to us”) can even lead to an unjustified “holier than thou attitude” where
Islam is used by some such Muslims to only judge others and not themselves, whereas even as
Muslims, we are to be judged even more so, by the teachings and pristine principles of Islam. To
want to defend Islam is noble but, we must ensure that the methods used to achieve this purpose
must firstly be in conformity with Islam. Arbitrarily applying the label “Islamic” by Muslims for
whatever their agenda without them conforming to Islam’s true teachings, is itself un-Islamic.
Non-Muslims too need to know the great distinction between “Islam” and “Muslim” and should not
naively assume that these two terms are synonymous. Unfortunately, many (be they intellectuals
and media) are obsessed with indiscriminate and careless affixing of such labels, thereby
inadvertently they are condoning or encouraging mayhem to be perpetuated in the name of the
Power of religious labels and symbols
Every religion has its own symbols and has every right to use it, albeit in legitimate ways when
truly representing its teachings. Yet, we are not unaware that religious symbols can be and have
been misused to sway or even fanned blind fanaticism amongst the general followers of any
religious faith. Agents’ provocateur exists on every side. We have seen these occurring in the
history of Judaism (amongst the various Zealots and Messianic cults) or the Christians
(crusaders and inquisitors) in early times; or even in modern times by cults claiming to represent
Christianity. In the sub-continent (India and Pakistan), religious symbols were used by
irresponsible groups to incite hatred that led to civil strife amongst Shiite-Sunni Muslims and in
the numerous Hindu-Muslim riots there. Even in our neighbouring country Indonesia, when local
social conflicts were allowed to be carelessly identified with religions and religious symbols, it
had caused tragic consequences in Ambon and Maluku. What have we learnt? If not the simple
fact that ordinary (laity) followers of any religion can loose their sense of rationality when
irresponsible elements hide their evil agenda in the garb of religion and religious symbols. This
becomes compounded when the knowledge amongst the lay followers of their own religion are
allowed to remain superficial and their understanding of religious and regional history, truncated.
We are already aware of the fallacy of using name of religion, any religion, for evil acts. The
persistence of media mislabelling mayhem and terror with “Islam” indiscriminately is indeed
assisting these elements that seek to confuse the masses. For the general Muslims, it can
become worst if they were to loose the knowledge and adab  to distinguish the true religious
leaders from the false; when traditional religious hierarchy of ulama’ (Islamic scholars) are
allowed to be undermined with such callous call for general Muslims to undertake ijtihad
(determining juristic rulings) themselves, when in Islam these are only for those qualified to
be faqih  and mujtahid . Although there is no priesthood in Islam, yet this does not imply an
egalitarian notion as though there is absence of authority in matters of dictating Islamic
teachings. Well-meaning intellectuals and journalists in their discourses must know their place
when commenting on Islam. They have a responsibility to ensure that what they comment about
Islam are from legitimate authoritative sources from amongst true Islamic scholars (ulama’) .
To present views of dissenters and pseudo-scholars (of past and present), is only encouraging a
form of ‘anarchy’ amongst general Muslim readers (audience of these discourses). If our remark
here invites the question “who are these ‘ulama’?”, then perhaps the priority is for (those who
asked from well-meaning intellectuals and scholars) themselves to be adequately informed of
this aspect first, before attempting to offer suggestions of “this Islam and that Islam” as though
From the desk of Ustaz Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail 3
there can be many types of Islam . To detect this perplexity when reminded that there is only
one Islam, even amongst many contemporary Muslims, is not surprising as the Prophet
Muhammad is reported to have prophesied: “Bada-ad-diin gharii-ba wa-sa-ya-‘uu-du-gha-rii-ba
kama bada-a….” meaning: “This religion (Al-Islam) began as something strange (rare or alien),
and it will return to become something strange (rare)…”
“La sharqiyyah, la gharbiyyah, wah-dah, wah-dah Islamiyyah”
The Arabic phrase above means: “Neither East, nor West, (there is only) One, (there is only)
One Islam” is also a call towards unity amongst Muslims in Islam – reflecting the basic principle
of Tawhid (Attestation to the Oneness of God). This would imply clearly the distinction between
“Islam” (the religion) which there is only One, from “Muslims” (its followers) which can be diverse.
The non-Muslims and Western tendency to view Islam as being from the East, on account of the
presence of its majority adherents happens to be found there, or that Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.
. appeared historically in Arabia which, geographically located in the Middle-east according to
current convention), is only incidental.
Directional orientation of East-West-North-South is relative, and the current convention used is
rather Eurocentric. Yet to Muslims’ worldview, Makkah is seen as the centre. And Islam came to
address all mankind, east-west-north-south. Thus the name for Morocco is “al-Maghribi” (which
has the meaning of ‘Western’) precisely because it was at that period the furthest known territory
west of Arabia. Yet, today it is regarded to be ‘Eastern’ whereas; geographically it is in the same
longitude with Western countries such as United Kingdom and Spain!
It is amazing that after knowing the earth to be a globe (sphere), the east-west perception
remains, perhaps because originally it was for geographical (cartographical) convenience and
can still be relevant. But now, the “East-West dichotomy” carries a non-geographical connotation
for distinction – more of reflecting culture and civilization rather than location. We should reflect:
“how did this ‘East-West divide’ come about?” It can perhaps be traced to its uncanny similarity
with the previous categorization of Colonial-imperialist expansionist worldview of the term
“Occidental vis-à-vis Oriental ” and therefore may now seemed inappropriate, especially after
post-colonial era as its use then reflected attempts by the European powers at demarcation of
the world for conquest and domination. But, with the change in terms from ‘Occident’ to ‘Western’
and ‘Orient’ for ‘Eastern’; and when many of these countries have gained their independence
from their colonial masters, would such ‘East-West’ identification removed the xenophobic effect
and resentment it once had amongst people? The old sentiments (confrontational attitude
between the colonialist and the colonized) may still exist as old baggage in many Asians and
Africans, as it may also exist in the psyche of some people of America and Europe. Citizens in
these newly independent countries may have shown willingness to bury past enmity towards
their former masters, or even live with them, but it may still lay latent in their subconscious.
From the desk of Ustaz Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail 4
Perhaps now, discourse in East-West dichotomy undertaken insensitively may have
unconsciously revived these negative feelings. Some people may begin to perceive, rightly or
wrongly, many foreign policies of the West directed towards Asia. Africa and Eastern Europe to
be unjust or even coined a term “neo-imperialists” agenda; or the careless use of terms of
“invasion”, warning of impending “clash” of civilizations, the problems or perception of
“discrimination” experienced by Asian immigrants in these countries etc. indeed may have
impeded process of transforming us all as global citizens of the world. To say: “we are not
against Islam” and then follow it up by demanding “either you are with us or against us!” is
sending a confused message. It has ignored the majority Muslims as well as amongst many
other peace loving people who do not wished to be embroiled in enmity between two contending
parties. Perhaps they are ignorant of the issue but they are already strongly committed to peace
and perhaps advocate peaceful resolutions. And amongst Muslims, the knowledge that Islam
advocates peace is a positive sign and should not be doubted. If their support is needed, than
issues must be clarified sincerely and truthfully, for a principle in Islam teaches:
“And pursue not something in which you have no knowledge in, for every act of hearing,
or seeing and (of feeling in the) heart, all these will be questioned (by Allah in the
(Qur’an: al-Isra’: 17:36).
To hanker after them may backfire as it can expose a sense of perception of being suspicious
towards them and their neutrality. To insist in using black and white argument can be regarded
as unfair, nay a provocation, to those who know that, reality acknowledges the existence of grey.
The world’s populations are now becoming diversely mixed, and old territoriality constituting
homogeneous race are decreasing with mobility and globalization. Unfortunately, we have yet a
long way to eradicate hatred in people when such xenophobic mind-sets are allowed to fester or
insensitively ignored or even inflamed.
Righteousness neither belongs to East nor West
What does Islam have to say about “East and West”? Below is a profound response in the
“It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces towards the East or the West; But it is
righteousness to believe in God and the Last Day,
And the Angels and the Book, and the Messengers;
To spend of your substance, out of love of Him (God) for your kin,
From the desk of Ustaz Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail 5
For orphans for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask,
And for the ransom of slaves;
To be steadfast in prayer, and the practice of regular charity;
To fulfill the contracts which ye have made;
And to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and in adversity,
And throughout all periods of panic.
Such are the people of Truth, the God fearing.”
(Qur’an: al-Baqarah: 2: 177)
Islam’s refusal to be dragged into this sort of categorization, that it is neither East nor West
should be reflected and appreciated. Religion and religious values, and call towards righteous
living by all religion and moral philosophy can be the panacea. What we need is a genuine
human consciousness that places universal values and brotherhood of man over concerns which
are exploitative towards one another that leads to enmity and hatred. Thus religious harmony
and cooperation towards instilling righteousness and morality, compassion and tolerance, which
can be found in all religions are potential towards human survival, and may be the only way out
of this man-made quagmire of hatred between fellowmen. The teachings are in all the world
religions and genuine moral philosophies, but the important question that each of us must
serious ask is: “how well has it been followed today?”
“Help ye one another in righteousness and piety,
But help ye not one another in sin and rancour (enmity and hatred):
Be conscious of God (and fear Him),
For God is strict in punishment.”
(Qur’an: al-Ma-idah: 5: 2)
Global consciousness must transcend East-West, North-South dichotomy
We recognized that we are entering into the era of globalization. But, what do we mean by being
“global”? It is only when man is able to mutually respect each other as fellow humans irrespective
of our diversity that we become truly global. Indeed this assertion is well-known in Islam through
God’s message for mankind, revealed 1400 years:
“O Mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and female.
And made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you
despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the
most righteous of you.
And God has full knowledge and is well-acquainted (with all things).
(Qur’an: al-Hujurat: 49: 13)
From the desk of Ustaz Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail 6
The message of one humanity as a global family is clear, despite the perceived external
differences we see in each other. Such differences are meant to spur us towards acquaintance
and friendship, respect and tolerance, and not to despise one another. Islam believes in the
inherent good nature in every man, and we must guard it from being corrupted. Do we really
know each other? If so, are we genuine in wanting to know one another? Tolerance can be
possible when there is mutual respect; and mutual respect requires perception of justice and the
upholding of the fundamental rights of every man. These are important elements to be
considered. Evil and hatred should not be allowed to come between us, for “we belong to God
and unto God we shall all be made to return to.”
God knows best!
And with God is the Success and Guidance.
And may Peace be unto all.
Ustaz Zhulkeflee Haji Ismail.
PERGAS (Association of Islamic Scholars & Religious Teachers Singapore)
24th July 2005. (Sunday 18 Jumaada al-Thaany 1426 A.H.)
 It is to be noted that this seems to be happening towards Islam and Muslims, and
rarely when mayhem were perpetrated by others – not that it should be similarly applied.
Perpetrator guilty of criminal act rightly deserves the label ‘criminals’ but do not link
whatever religion which he profess to belong.
 ‘Adab’ has in some instance been translated as ‘etiquette’ which is rather inaccurate
because it actually mean “knowledge of placing the right thing in its proper place” in
From the desk of Ustaz Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail 7
reflects sense of justice (‘adl) and therefore absence of it reflects injustice (zulm).
 Jurists with competencies to extrapolate from Islamic principles and pass decree on
Islamic law to guide the Muslim community, especially involving new or unprecedented
 Amongst Muslims, the term “’ulama’ mu’tabar” has been used to categorized views
from those Islamic scholars that is accepted and credible.
 There is only one Islam. Do not confuse “madzaahib” (schools of thought) with
denominations as in Christianity. Even these (madzaahib) too have been carefully
classified within the body of Islam as various forms of acceptable interpretations.
 s.a.w. (from “sal-lallaahu ‘alayhi wa-sal-lam” meaning “may God’s salutations
(blessings) and peace be upon him”) a respectful address when the name of the Prophet
of God is mentioned.
 These terms are now usually used academia.
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