Episode 1      18 min 33 sec
Islam Today

Professor Abdullah Saeed discusses contemporary Islam with Jacky Angus

Guest: Professor Abdullah Saeed, Sultan of Oman Chair of Arab and Islamic Studies and Director of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Islam

Topic: Islam Today

"If you live in Australia, yes, you have to be part of the broader society, broader community." - Professor Abdullah Saeed


Professor Abdullah Saeed
Professor Abdullah Saeed

Professor Abdullah Saeed, Sultan of Oman Chair of Arab and Islamic Studies and Director of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Islam at the University of Melbourne.


Host: Jacky Angus
Producers: Kelvin Param and Eric Van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Miles Brown
Theme Music performed by Sergio Ercole. Mr Ercole is represented by the Musicians' Agency, Faculty of Music
Voiceover: Paul Richiardi
Photography: Fred Kroh

Series Creators: Eric Van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

Melbourne University Up Close is brought to you by the Marketing and Communications Division in association with Asia Institute, and the Melbourne Research Office.


View Tags  click a tag to find other episodes associated with it.

Download file Download mp3 (17.8 MB)

Islam Today


Welcome to Melbourne University Up Close, a fortnightly podcast of research, personalities, and cultural offerings of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Up Close is available on the web at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. That!|s upclose.u-n-i-m-e-l-b.edu.au.

JACKY ANGUS Hello my name is Jacky Angus at the University of Melbourne. I!|m here to introduce the first of a series of podcasts coming to you from the University every fortnight. They cover a range of interesting topics, people and events and promise to keep you informed about what!|s happening on campus and how we connect with a wider world. In today!|s Up Close, we consider issues of interest that relate to contemporary Islam. So ask yourself: what do you know about Islam in Australia? What are the interests and concerns of Muslims Down Under? Have you ever wondered how free Muslims are to interpret their holy book, the Qur'an? What about the question of apostasy? What happens if you decide to leave the faith? Are you free to do this? And talking about freedom, where is that debate going on human rights and Islam? To discuss this and other interesting questions, my guest today is Professor Abdullah Saeed. Professor Saeed holds the Sultan of Oman Chair in Arabic and Islamic Studies in the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne. In 2003 he was appointed inaugural Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies where he oversees an extensive program of studies. He!|s also director of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Islam, which focuses on areas of importance and interest to the public as well as the scholarly community. His latest book !¢FDIslamic Thought, An Introduction!| is published by Routledge Press. You can check out these details on our website. Well, good morning Professor Saeed.


JACKY ANGUS Let!|s start with your program of study at the Asia Institute. What sorts of courses do you offer.

PROFESSOR SAEED At the Asia Institute there are several programs: Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian, Arabic and Islamic Studies, and I!|m in charge of the Arabic and Islamic Studies Program. In Arabic, we teach our Arabic Language from beginners to advanced levels. In Islamic Studies, we have a major in Islamic Studies in which one can study Islamic history. JACKY ANGUS Well now one of your interests I know is this new Centre that you!|ve been involved in setting up, the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Islam. Now, the emphasis being on 'Contemporary Islam' means that you!|re studying !V you!|re presenting information to !V to students and the public about Islam today. Can you tell us where you think that!|s going and what is the direction of the Centre?

PROFESSOR SAEED The Centre is a research centre. Our interest is very much to concentrate on several areas that are of interest to Muslims and also by the wider Australian community today. Issues such as Islam and human rights, Islam and women, Islam in Australia. One of the things we do is to have series of public programs, lectures, seminars, etc, to inform the public or about these issues.

JACKY ANGUS Certainly seems a good idea. We are part of the Asia Pacific and Islam is a very important area, isn!|t it?

PROFESSOR SAEED Of course Australia!|s closest neighbour is Indonesia, and Indonesia is the world!|s largest Muslim country, so we need to know something about Indonesia, Malaysia and the region.

JACKY ANGUS Well, in Australia how many Muslims are there? Must be growing now. What!|s the figure?

PROFESSOR SAEED According the 2001 Census, there were something like 300,000 Muslims. Probably there are 500,000 Muslims by now in 2006, and these Muslims come from roughly 70 different countries, and the largest number of Muslims in Australia are from Lebanese or Turkish background. JACKY ANGUS Can you tell me a bit more about the diverse groups of Muslims in Australia?

PROFESSOR SAEED As you would know, Muslims in Australia come from a large number of cultures, countries, communities and the diversity of Islam in the world is represented in Australia. If you look at a city like Melbourne, you will find Muslims from practically every single corner of the world, Muslims who have different theological understandings, interpretations, and on top of that Muslims who are interested in adapting to Australian culture as well as Muslims who are somewhat reluctant to adapt.

JACKY ANGUS And is each one of those groups, are they ethnically so different that they don!|t necessarily relate to each other?

PROFESSOR SAEED The ethnic difference is important but those differences sometimes do not matter, all these people are part of the religion Islam. But within Islam, of course, Muslims who are coming from different cultures have slightly different understandings of what it means to be Muslims sometimes.

JACKY ANGUS So there!|s not a sort of split between the Shiites and the !V and the Sunni Muslims here in Australia.

PROFESSOR SAEED No, the split is there; it is a historical split. The split exists even in Australia right now.

JACKY ANGUS Well now, what can you tell me a bit about, you know, the distinction between, for example, Muslims who feel themselves to !V they want to participate in the political arena, but some of them feel that they shouldn!|t because Islam is, in fact, not a political.

PROFESSOR SAEED If you live in Australia, yes you have to be part of the broader society, broader community. You should not be an isolationist, you should not be marginalizing yourself. Being a full member of Australian society is very important for me as a Muslim and I would encourage that, yes.

JACKY ANGUS Why do some Muslims have so many problems with adjusting to today!|s world and the role of women? That!|s changed radically from the 7th century, hasn!|t it.

PROFESSOR SAEED When the Qur'an was revealed in the 7th century, it saw the situation of women -- what was happening in Arabia -- and it commented on that and tried to improve the lot of women. But things have moved today. When you look at women, you will see that they are participating in the life of !V er in all aspects of life in the community: economic, political, legal, etc.

JACKY ANGUS You're listening to Mebourne University Up Close, and I!|m talking to Professor Abdullah Saeed from the Asia Institute. Professor Saeed, I!|ve heard this term, 'itjihad' as a tool of interpretation or of independent judgement used by a scholar when looking at the Sharia, but of course to most of us the word It sounds a bit like 'jihad', and I know it!|s quite different. Can you explain the difference for us?

PROFESSOR SAEED Both eshtehad and jihad come from the same root but they!|re different in meaning. Itjihad really means exerting effort to understand a legal text and arrive at a point of law. It is connected to law and rulings, ethical issues.

JACKY ANGUS So really in order to perform ijtihad as an institution of Islam you really have to be a lawyer, is that what you!|re saying? A lawyer in terms of Sharia law.

PROFESSOR SAEED Yes you need expertise in language, in jurisprudence, in tradition to really perform ijtihad.

JACKY ANGUS In the Christian tradition, there was a stage after the Reformation when it was declared that, well certainly by the Protestants, that anybody could read the Bible, and had a right to interpret it according to their conscience. This doesn!|t exist in Islam, am I right?

PROFESSOR SAEED In Islam, anyone can go to the Qur'an and read it and have some understanding of that, yes. At an individual level when we read the Qur'an and if we have the necessary language skills, we are also interpreting it. But in order to interpret the Qur'an properly, you need a higher level of expertise. So it!|s actually a question of level of expertise you have.

JACKY ANGUS Professor Saeed I wonder if you!|d tell me now !V you!|ve obviously got a range of interests, and a range of demands and I know you travel widely. I know you!|re just about to launch your latest book 'Islamic Thought', can you tell me a bit about that. It looks a !V it looks a splendid, I!|ve got it here in front of me. Lovely cover.

PROFESSOR SAEED My most recent book is 'Islamic Thought, An Introduction'. It is a book that looks at Islamic Thought from the 7th century right up to the 21st century in areas such as theological thought, political thought, mystical thought, legal thought, and coming to contemporary issues.

JACKY ANGUS Now you talked about pluralism and I!|m thinking of a country like Malaysia which I know you!|re interested in. You!|ve written a book on apostacy. Now Malaysia is meant to be pluralistic in a sense, and yet this question of apostasy has come to the fore. Can you tell us a bit more about apostasy and what are its implications in Islam, because you!|re not really allowed to be an apostate are you?

PROFESSOR SAEED The idea of apostacy is related to leaving your religion, in this case Islam to another religion. For Muslim jurists this could happen in many ways. One way it !V that it -- could happen is by declaring yourself to be a non-Muslim, or by doing something or saying something that would in a sense negate your Islam. For instance, saying that God doesn!|t exist, or for instance, Prophet Muhammad was not a prophet or similar things and that would make you an apostate. JACKY ANGUS And can you get into trouble for that?

PROFESSOR SAEED In classical Islamic Law, if you!|re an apostate the punishment for that is death. But in my book I am actually arguing that being Muslim or not Muslim is an individual matter; is up to !V it is up to the individual to !V to be Muslim or not Muslim. And it is up to God to deal with that particular person, not for the states, not to religious authorities. It is an individual matter. In the book I am arguing for religious freedom for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

JACKY ANGUS Why is freedom so important? I mean I!|ve noticed you have mentioned freedom with regard to scholarship and now you!|re talking about freedom for the individual. Does that mean you!|re seeing !V you!|re seeing religion as a private matter rather than a !V a public matter or a matter of community identification? !¢FDCause of course in Australia it!|s almost that, isn!|t it? But what about in Islam? Can Islam be a private matter?

PROFESSOR SAEED See at !V at a certain level Islam is a private matter, at another level it is also !V it has also public dimension. But I!|m not saying that religion is completely a private matter. But in order to -- for !V for anyone to profess a religion, that person has to have the freedom to do so. The person has to be convinced that the religion the person adopting is something he or she is interested in to start with and convinced that that is the path for him or her and that matter is something between him or her and God.

JACKY ANGUS Except if you!|re born into it, of course.

PROFESSOR SAEED Of course if you!|re born into it, then you are !V are if you!|re born into Muslim family, you!|re a Muslim.

JACKY ANGUS I!|m thinking of some people for example that might be born into a religion. Say you!|re in Malaysia and !V and you marry a Muslim and you!|re not a Muslim yourself and you convert to Islam and then you get divorced and you don!|t keep up your Muslim faith. Can you then get into trouble in some parts of Malaysia?

PROFESSOR SAEED If you convert to Islam and then convert again from Islam, yes, you could get into trouble in Malaysia. But in other Muslim countries, in some other Muslim countries it may not be an issue. But still Muslims in general up to today, hold the view that an apostate should be dealt with, punished. Some would argue that the classical punishment should be applied, but many others would argue that !V there has to be some form of punishment but not necessarily the classical juristic view that an apostate has to be punished by death.

JACKY ANGUS And what!|s your view?

PROFESSOR SAEED My view is that believing or not believing in a god, adopting a religion, or not adopting is an individual matter and a state or any authority should not be imposed at !V on any individual.

JACKY ANGUS You!|re listening to Melbourne University Up Close, and I!|m talking to Professor Abdullah Saeed. Now I notice that freedom is really quite a theme in you !V in your work and in !V in your talks. I gather that you think that !V that change in Islam, progressive Islam is really going to come from people who are free to exercise the right to think and the right to publish freely. In other words, scholarship is very important. In a free environment, it can only exist in a free environment. How does that play out in the world today?

PROFESSOR SAEED For Islam to move on, to progress, it needs thinkers, intellectuals. And these thinkers need an environment which is free. Without intellectual freedom they would not be able to look at critical issues, deal with critical issues, write about that, publish their work. Therefore, these thinkers !V it !V it!|s extremely important that these thinkers function in an intellectually free environment. In much of the Muslim world, we still have restrictions on intellectual freedom and there you cannot engage critical issues; issues the state considers to be problematic, you cannot engage in. But when it comes to Islam, say in the west, where there is intellectual freedom, there are plenty of Muslim scholars and thinkers who are contributing to the debate on a range of issues: theology, law, philosophy, mysticism, etc. And it is here I think one could contribute meaningfully to the future development of Islam.

JACKY ANGUS You have a particular interest in - in studying the Qur'an, can you tell me a bit about that? I understand there is a whole range of ways to interpret the Qur'an, there!|s a whole tradition of interpreting the Qur'an. Exegesis, I think it!|s tafsir in Arabic. Why is that so important and why is it a particular interest of yours?

PROFESSOR SAEED For any Muslim, the Qur'an is the foundational text. It provides the spiritual, moral, ethical, legal, guidance for one!|s state of their life.

JACKY ANGUS Some people might say of course that the Qur'an, being written in the 7th Century, is very distant from our problems of today.

PROFESSOR SAEED It is true the Qur'an came in the 7th century Arabia, but it is also true that the Qur'an has a lot to say on human nature, on ethics, moral guidance, etc and that !V those things are relevant to us just like they were relevant to the 7th century. Yes the Qur'an talks about lots of things which might or might not be relevant to us today, but even then when you look at the broader message of the Qur'an, you can see that there!|s so much there that we can make a connection to, that is between our needs today and what the Qur'an has to say. Certain things the Qur'an talked about that were specifically relevant to the 7th century Arabian society -- well they may not be relevant to us today and we just simply ignore them. Today, when we are struggling with a range of challenges, we go back to the Qur'an to seek guidance in it and unless we have an appropriate way to interpret the Qur'an -- which is a 7th century text -- in relation to contemporary concerns and realities, it will be very hard for us to get that guidance. For me, interpretation of the Qur'an is one way to make a connection between the 7th century text and our contemporary concerns and needs today.

JACKY ANGUS You sound optimistic.

PROFESSOR SAEED I am, and in fact there are a lot of creative work that is going on in relation to interpretation of the Qur'an today.

JACKY ANGUS Well, on that positive note, thank you very much Abdullah Saeed, who!¢FDs the Sultan of Oman, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne. Our next podcast will be in two weeks' time and we look forward to meeting you then. Melbourne University Up Close is brought to you by the Marketing and Communications Division in association with Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Our producers for this episode were Kelvin Param and Eric Van Bemmel. Audio engineering by Miles Brown, theme music performed by Sergio Ercole. Melbourne University Up Close is created by Eric Van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I!|m Jackie Angus. Till next time, thank you for joining us. Goodbye.


You!|ve been listening to Melbourne University Up Close, a fortnightly podcast of research, personalities and cultural offerings of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Up Close is available on the web at upclose.unimelb.edu.au, that!|s upclose.u-n-i-m-e-l-b.edu.au. Copyright 2006 University of Melbourne.

show transcript | print transcript | download pdf