The Asian Muslim Action Network

Recovering the Social Message of Islam

According to Muhammad Abdus Sabur, Islam properly understood stands for equality and fraternity, not just within the mosque, but beyond the Muslim congregation as well. Yogi Sikand met up with the general-secretary of the Asian Muslim Action Network in Thailand and talked with him about the organisation's progressive vision of Islam

The Asian Muslim Action Network activists (photo: AMAN)
Progressive interpretation of the faith: in order to promote human dignity and social justice, the Asian Muslim Action Network seeks active collaboration with other communities of faith

​​ Shy but amiable and disarmingly down-to-earth, 55 year-old Muhammad Abdus Sabur is a man with a mission. He is the founder and general-secretary of a Bangkok-based network of Asian Muslim social activists struggling for social justice and inter-faith dialogue – the Asian Muslim Action Network, its acronym AMAN meaning 'peace' in Arabic and several languages influenced by it.

I met him at his modest office in a Bangkok suburb on a recent visit to Thailand, the meeting being one of the highpoints of my three-week stay in the country.

I pester Sabur (as he is known to his friends) with a flood of questions, and he gently obliges. What made him set up AMAN? What exactly is AMAN all about? What are its goals and what has it done so far?

Uniquely Asian religious values

Muhammad Abdus Sabur (photo: AMAN)
Muhammad Sabur: "Working with socially-involved Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, I realized that we Muslims, too, need to do practical work"

​​ Sabur tells me how it all started. Born in a village in what was then East Pakistan and now Bangladesh, Sabur began working with a Bangladeshi NGO in the aftermath of the deadly war that resulted in the creation of the new state. "I worked particularly with badly-affected Hindu families in Sylhet in northern Bangladesh, who had borne the wrath of the Pakistan army, who had burned down their houses and had killed many of them," he says.

This work brought him in contact with the Bangkok-based Asian Cultural Forum on Development, ACFD, a network of Asian scholar-activists from different religious traditions trying to work out uniquely Asian solutions for uniquely Asian problems, inspired by Asian religious values.

In 1979, Sabur was elected as a council member of the ACFD, the youngest on the panel. He shifted to Bangkok to work with the ACFD, and has been based there since then.

"During the course of my many years with the ACFD," Sabur reminiscences, "I was struck how Christian, Buddhist and Hindu activists, inspired by their religious beliefs, were working on numerous fronts in a very organized manner. They were struggling for inter-community solidarity and women's rights, and speaking out against various forms of discrimination and oppression, within nation-states and at the global level, and forcefully debating social issues and problems."

Stuck in a feudal groove

AMAN inter-religious meeting in Bangladesh (photo: AMAN)
Interfaith cooperation is one of AMAN's priority areas. Buddyagama Chandraratana, a Buddhist Monk from Sri Lanka, and Reverend Tan Chi Kiong from Hong Kong are seen in an AMAN Assembly in Bangladesh

​​ "At the same time," he goes on, "I noted, with dismay, how very behind Muslims were in this regard. They had their charities, providing money to madrasas and mosques, which, though important, was obviously not enough to grapple with a whole load of contemporary social concerns, problems, conflicts and struggles."

"I felt that our essentially charity-based approach was still stuck in a feudal groove – you give donations to the poor, but don't touch them, don't live with and learn from them, don't participate in their lives and in their struggles for justice. Obviously, our responses were wholly inadequate," he adds. "I knew of many Muslim organizations who did talk of social justice, but this was only in the form of publishing books or delivering lectures.

Working with socially-involved Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, I realized that we Muslims, too, need to do practical work, and not just talking and preaching, to translate these dreams of social justice into actual practice."

In 1990, Sabur began contacting progressive Muslim scholar-activists in different Asian countries to do precisely that. A small group of them, from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Thailand met at Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, in September that year, and AMAN was born. The noted Mumbai-based Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer was chosen as the convenor of the network, and Sabur was elected as its general-secretary.

The aim of the network? "Essentially, to transmit progressive Islamic ideas to Muslim youth," says Sabur.

"Islam, properly understood"

Various covers of various editions of the AMANA Magazine (photo: Yogi Sikand)
The AMANA multilingual magazine runs with a grant from the international anti-poverty agency Action Aid. The English version is available on the internet

​​ With limited funds at its disposal, however, it has not been an easy journey for AMAN. Involving the traditional ulema of the madrasas in its work, which Sabur sees as essential, given the influence that they enjoy among many Muslim communities, has yet to happen in a significant way. "Madrasas are important, I agree, but their students need to have a broader social vision and a deeper insight into a host of social issues of contemporary concern, which many of them lack," he comments.

"Islam, properly understood, teaches us all this as well. It stands for equality and fraternity, not just within the mosque, but in society outside too, but this is hardly how it is interpreted today. It stands for human rights, for all human beings, and not just for Muslims alone. It teaches us to respect diversity. The Quran states that God made people into different communities, so that they could understand one another, not so that they should fight and kill each other. We need to revise many of our traditional understandings, to recover what I believe to be the essential social message of Islam."

"Scholarship and activism must go together"

And that is where the need to reach out to and work with the traditional ulema comes into the picture, for many of them continue to miss the liberating message of the Quran, properly understood, particularly as it applies to women, the poor and the oppressed and to people of other faiths.

Asghar Ali Engineer (photo: AMAN)
Asghar Ali Engineer, Chairman of AMAN: The Islamic scholar was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 2004 for his commitment to promote values of tolerance

​​ "Research and action, scholarship and activism, must go together for them to be really effective," Sabur comments. And he excitedly tells me about AMAN's plans of shortly launching a Master's degree in peace studies in association with an Indonesian university.

Funding for AMAN's activities comes mainly from Western, mostly Christian, NGOs and a major Japanese Buddhist institution, and the AMANA magazine runs with a grant from Action Aid. Although Sabur has sought to diversify, to contact Muslim philanthropists and organizations who could possibly assist, he tells me that he has had little luck with them, and I am not surprised.

"Many of them will fund building mosques and madrasas or to promote their own particular sects and versions of Islam, but not this sort of activist work," he rues. "Perhaps it is because they are not aware of this sort of thing," he muses.

"Perhaps, I think, but I am not sure. I cannot imagine hardened Wahhabi Arab sheikhs funnelling petrodollars to sponsor initiatives activities that challenge Western imperialism, Muslim religious literalism and extremism or that champion women's rights and ecumenism and solidarity between Muslims and people of other faiths – which is precisely the sort of work that AMAN seems to be engaged in.

Genuine religiosity

Sabur's sage advice in the matter is: "We need to reach out to Muslim organizations, and to well-off Muslims, to make them aware of all these issues, to get them also involved in various ways in similar work. Perhaps some of them want to help out but don't know how. We need to speak out, against all forms of oppression, about poverty and illiteracy and discrimination in our own societies and globally, against terror and war, at all Muslim forums, at the national and international levels. Only then can our views and concerns be heard."

But, coming back to the question of funding, he says in the same breath, "We can't build relationships with money. What we need are simple, down-to-earth, simple and passionately dedicated people, inspired by the spirit of voluntarism and sacrifice, not doing work only if they are paid."

"That," he tells me as I get up to depart, "is precisely what genuine religiosity is all about."

Yogi Sikand

© 2008

Portrait Asghar Ali Engineer
Learning from India
Asghar Ali Engineer's aim is to make progressive thinking accessible to lay people and to bring it beyond the borders of a select group of intellectuals. A portrait of the Indian Muslim thinker by Fatma Sagir

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In terms of economic and political freedom, Laos still ranks among the most restricted countries in the world. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that the country’s Muslims enjoy considerable religious freedom. Yogi Sikand paid a visit to Southeast Asia’s smallest Muslim community


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