A landmark shura council

CENTURIES back, tribes in Arabia were said to have each consulted a gathering of elders and community leaders for guidance in making decisions for the people. The use of such a council, called the “shura”, was meant to act as a congenial forum for decisions to be made in an air of mutual respect and responsibility. The shura formed one of the key characteristics of governance in the region during the early Islamic period, and even before the religion rose to prominence.

There was an interesting development in Penang last week when the Pakatan Rakyat state administration formed the first ever shura gathering for any government in the country.

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng launched the Penang Shura Council which brought together some 30 persons from Islamic agencies and NGOs, as well as syariah lawyers, before it convened its inaugural meeting at his office last Friday.

The occasion turned out to be a rather warm-hearted affair. Chaired by PKR’s state executive councillor Abdul Malek Abul Kassim, the council is meant to serve as an advisory platform for the state on various Islamic issues and to make recommendations when necessary.

The formation of a shura council in the only state in peninsular Malaysia with a non-Muslim majority population is a significant step for Lim and the ties that now bind secular DAP, Muslim PAS and multi-ethnic PKR.

For some time now, and to a large degree, Lim has managed to endear himself to the Muslim populace, as evinced by the ovations he received from Pakatan supporters during the by-election campaigns in Penanti and Permatang Pasir last year, and even before that, at the landmark Permatang Pauh parliamentary contest that ushered Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim back to Parliament in 2008.

And in the process, he has worked to break new ground by becoming closely bonded with Muslim groups and the masses. In fact, I have observed that there has been a concerted effort by Lim’s administration to undertake activities to present the state government as being highly supportive of Muslim affairs in Penang.

As it is, folks in villages and the Malay heartland still remember him getting jailed a decade back while trying to defend a Malay-Muslim girl in an alleged statutory rape case. Then, just days after he assumed power in March 2008, Lim raised eyebrows by attending the Maal Hijrah state-level festival, becoming the first non-Muslim government leader to attend the religious event.

In fact, Lim had during a visit by PAS president Hadi Awang in April 2008, proposed the formation of a Penang Religious Goodwill Council, a suggestion that was favourably received, only to be hit by critics from the other side of the political divide. And in his administration, he has consistently been referring to medieval Islamic leader and scholar Khalifah Umar Abdul Aziz as a model and inspiration; drawing praise from Muslims, including ulamaks.

Lim also initiated the conferring of monetary awards by the state for all Huffaz (people who have memorised the Quran by heart) in the state. He has stood on stage with the governor of Penang at the ceremonies where the Huffaz were given their awards.

And in the economic sphere, Lim has been a driving force, together with Malik, in establishing a halal hub in Penang; with land already allocated for the purpose, and investments now coming in.

There was, however, one particular issue that drew silent attention during the shura’s first meeting – the appointment of the new president of the Penang Islamic Religious Council (MAIPP), Elias Zakaria, as a member. The Pakatan Rakyat had wanted PAS state commissioner Salleh Man to assume the MAIPP’s head post after the term of the previous president, Shahbudin Yahaya of Umno, expired late last year. However, the Pakatan leadership had to acquiesce as the King stood by the royal decision to appoint Elias.

Elias was absent during the inaugural shura meeting, but there were other prominent personalities present to weigh in their support, including the state mufti, Datuk Hassan Ahmad, and Penang syariah court chief judge Yusof Musa.

Due mainly to political differences, the Pakatan state authorities had had a rather acerbic relationship with Shahbudin when he headed the MAIPP. In one of their most bitter confrontations, Shahbudin, the Umno assemblyman for Permatang Berangan, had objected to Lim employing the Arabic phrase “Amal maaruf nahi mungkar” (enjoining good, forbidding evil), a line derived from the Quran, arguing that it was not meant for a non-Muslim.

It is remarkable to note that even as Lim and Shahbudin clashed on the matter, the Muslim representatives in PR came out in support of Lim, praising him for taking heed of a noble Islamic tenet.

Now with the formation of the landmark shura council, Malek has insisted there would be a strong forum for the state to work more cohesively with MAIPP and the State Islamic Religious Department. It is, after all in that spirit of consultation and dialogue that the early civilisations of Arabia had evolved the concept of the shura. Above all, it will be most interesting to observe how the initiative for the shura develops, to further cement ties that have found new ground between Muslims and non-Muslims in PR and the civil societies in Penang.

The Sun

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