Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia).
He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia."
Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill.
This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.
Inspiration From The Koran: Command Good and Forbid Evil
Inspiration From The Koran: Command Good and Forbid Evil
M. Bakri Musa
[Presented at the South Valley Islamic Community Iftar, Morgan Hill, California, Sunday, June 12, 2016.]
Ramadan is the month of the Koran. Its first few verses were revealed to Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) during this month. Thus it is a tradition for Muslims to recite the Koran communally during this time.
A few years ago I was in a panel discussion where one of the panelists asked a group of students to think of the Koran from a different perspective. He challenged them to cite the one ayat (verse) in the Holy Book that meant the most to them, and why.
It was remarkable that no two individuals quoted the same verse. Each gave compelling arguments and heartfelt reasons for their choice. That reflected the vast richness of the Koran as a source of inspiration to Muslims.
For example, one student related his visit to the Grand Canyon, enraptured by its breathtaking sights. It recalled for him the Koranic verse on the beauty and grandeur of Allah’s creation. He was referring to Surah Al Ra’d, “He it is Who spread out the earth and placed therein firm mountains and streams ….” (13:3) That verse transformed for him what was a popular tourist destination to one filled with reverence. Indeed to Native Americans, the Grand Canyon is holy.
Before that, the verse affected him no differently than those other six thousand ones in the Koran. Through the spectacular sights and overwhelming silence of the Grand Canyon he felt the presence of Allah, manifested by that particular creation in all its infinite beauty and mystery.
Another recalled his first day in a New York City classroom. He was astounded that his fellow classmates came from literally all corners of the earth, spoke strange languages, wore bewildering colors and style of clothing, and ate exotic foods that they had brought from home. The cacophony of attires, faces and voices intimidated him.
Then he remembered the eloquent verse in the Koran which said, approximately translated, that Allah could have created mankind as clones of each other (Surah Al Maidah 5:48, among others). Instead He created us in our different tribes, cultures, languages, preferences, and yes, skin color so we could learn from each other. Then we would not only appreciate our differences but also embrace them, thereby enriching our lives. That was Allah’s grand design that he saw in his class that day.
The most touching was the inspiration of a student who was a recent refugee. She described her harrowing journey to escape the chaos and tyranny of her native land, of staying ahead of killer agents of the state, and of crossing treacherous seas.
Throughout it all what kept her sane and determined was Allah’s command, expressed in Surah Al Nisa, “. . . Was not God’s earth vast enough that you might have migrated therein? . . . ” (4:97) She was also inspired by the Prophet’s own hijra, of being driven away from his birthplace.
Three individuals from different parts of the world with totally different experiences and emotions, yet all drawing their inspirations and words of comfort from the Koran.
That simple exercise had me thinking. Which ayat in the Koran meant the most to me and why? That prompted me to re-read the Koran in a different light. My Arabic is rudimentary and the Koran is in classical Arabic. Even if I were to be fluent in Arabic I would no more understand the Koran than a native English speaker would the subtleties of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I would need guidance. We are blessed today to have many excellent translations of and commentaries on the Koran. My inspirational ayat is not a full one but a phrase incorporated in a handful of ayats. Amr bil Ma'ruf wa Nahy an al Munkar
( المنكر عن نهى و بالمعروف امر ) Simply and briefly but too far off translated as “Command good, forbid evil!” Amr means to make it a practice or let it be your norm, a part of you; ma’ruf, fair, just, right, decent or honorable; nahi, to distance yourself; and mungkar, bad, foul, evil, wrong, unjust, indecent, or dishonorable. To me that phrase is the essence of the Koran, its thesis sentence if you will. I draw the greatest inspiration from that phrase, its words to live by. That phrase also encapsulates for me the meaning of being a Muslim. It is Islam’s Golden Rule. Chronologically it first appeared in the Meccan Surah Luqman (31:17) relating the advice Prophet Luqman gave his son, “O my son! Perform the prayer, enjoin right and forbid wrong, and bear patiently whatever may befall you!” In the Koran that phrase first appeared in Surah Al’Imran (3:104): “Let there be among you a community calling to the good, enjoining the right, and forbidding wrong. It is they who shall prosper.” Relating this to the experience of the first student, knowing the Grand Canyon to be Allah’s creation, he would do much good by respecting it, as in not not polluting or defacing it. He would certainly do great harm if he were to bulldoze its majestic columns and imposing ridges, or through careless acts of littering and carving of graffiti. As for the second student, seeing human diversity as Allah’s grand design, he would do good by embracing it. He would certainly do great harm if he were to insist that others dress like him or share his belief. The third student best lived the command to do no evil. When evil is all around it is difficult to be on the straight path. We cannot always prevent evil or when in so doing we would endanger ourselves, but we can always distance ourselves from it, as she did by emigrating. An oft quoted hadith has it that when we see evil being perpetrated we should use our hands to prevent it, meaning, physically. If unable to do so or if in so doing we put ourselves in harm’s way, then we must voice our disapproval. Where even that could lead us to danger, as in Malaysia with its notorious Internal Security Act, then we should disapprove it in our hearts, though that is the least favored by Allah. How does the injunction “Command good and forbid evil” relate to the five pillars of our faith? There is nothing intrinsically good in the act of declaring the shahada, professing our faith in God and Prophet Muhammad as His Last Messenger. It is good only if in so doing we were to be reminded of His message and to follow it. The same could be said of praying. Shahada and prayers are but professions of intent. Unless translated into deeds, they would be nothing more than vibrations of our vocal cords, only slightly better than a recording being re-played. I remember an incident a few decades ago when Imam Anwar, the father of our present Imam Ilyas, was giving a sermon. There were kids running around interfering with his delivery. Imam Anwar quietly tucked away his prepared sermon and shifted to an impromptu lecture on mosque etiquette. It was good that kids came to mosques, he said, but they must learn the proper behavior. They were never too young to start learning. If they were to run around and disturb others praying, then their parents should interrupt their prayer to control their kids. That would do more good to more people than for their parents to continue praying while ignoring their misbehaving children. I just saw a video going viral of a woman collapsing while doing her Taraweeh prayer in a Malaysian mosque. It was caught on its closed-circuit camera. Not one of her fellow congregants stopped their prayer to help! They continued on as if nothing had happened. Eventually a lady from the rear rushed to help her. The Imam too was oblivious of the raucous back in the women’s section; he continued on. Once as a surgeon in Malaysia, I reprimanded a junior doctor for abandoning his patient in the emergency room while he was off for his Friday prayer. To that doctor, his personal salvation came ahead of his patient’s safety. In a similar fashion, what were they thinking when they yelled “Allah hu Akhbar” (God is Great!) and then slit their victim’s throat or go on rampages? Those actions mock our great faith! As for fasting, the only intrinsic good to the act is the reduced caloric intake that would be good to our health and longevity. If during Ramadan we were to go further and reflect on the Koran and translate its messages into deeds, then we would be on to something good beyond ourselves. As for Hajj, its inherent good is akin to a tourist contributing to the travel industry, with jobs and economic activities created therefrom. If in performing it you pollute the holy city, elbowed your way to the Kaaba, and on returning you are back to your old wily ways, then you mock the sanctity of your pilgrimage; likewise if you were to finance your Hajj with illicit funds. The one pillar of our faith whose execution is intrinsically good is zakat, the giving of tithe. The goodness of the act is obvious to its recipients; less obvious are the many benefits to society. The Koran says that tithe purifies your wealth. Stagnant wealth, like water, is unhealthy. Economists talk of keeping money circulating, and measure the vigor of an economy by how fast money exchanges hands, its velocity. Enlightened policymakers advocate guaranteed minimum income for the same reason. Zakat does both; that is its inherent virtue. I am blessed that as a physician I could execute this Koranic injunction in the most personal way to serve my fellow humans. The same could be said of teachers and nurses. There is yet another reason for my choosing that ayat. When I translate it into my native Malay, it parallels the exquisite brevity of the original Arabic, in addition to its unabashed assertiveness and arresting alliteration: Biasakan yang baik, jauhi yang jahat. Make good your norm and distance yourself from evil. That remains my challenge as well as guidance.
[First presented at the South Valley Islamic Community’s Iftar, Morgan Hill, Ca, July 13, 2013. Reposted]
When giving religious talks during Ramadan, it is customary to quote the Koran and hadith generously. In deference to those whose tajweed is exquisite and those who are far more knowledgeable on hadith, I will depart from tradition. I do not wish to strain their patience!
Instead I will share my perspective on Ramadan drawing on three sources: one, my earlier experience as a surgeon in an Oregon lumber town; two, the findings from a landmark experiment in social psychology; and three, comparing Ramadan in Malaysia to that in America.
I will also depart from tradition in that being a physician, I will not enumerate the numerous and obvious health benefits to reduced caloric intake, a consequence of fasting.
Surgeon in Oregon
As a young surgeon in Oregon, I treated many workers with severe injuries from the huge local sawmill. To better understand the mechanisms of their injuries, the manager took me on a tour of his factory.
Those massive logs were effortlessly thrown by giant cranes onto steel conveyors with the ease of your tossing away used chopsticks. The logs were then spun around by rollers with studs to be de-barked, much like a housewife peeling carrots. High-speed circular saws would slice the logs back and forth, reducing them to pieces of lumber. If not for the bone-shaking floor vibrations, the high-pitched sound reminded me of a plugged-up vacuum cleaner.
Those pieces were then mechanically sorted and forced through yet more spinning saws to be cut into specified lengths. Then as they rolled to the finishing line they were subjected to the human touch and scrutiny, with pieces that were broken, uneven, or otherwise blemished shunted aside. The final products were then stacked in a special room to be “cured.”
This curing room was quiet and cool, its humidity, temperature and airflow strictly controlled. The lack of noise and vibrations was instantly felt; it was a tranquil oasis in marked contrast to the rest of the mill. On the factory floor we shouted and hand-gestured; in the curing room we whispered and cupped our mouths. Even the rhythm of our walk changed, from brisk noisy strides to soft silent steps, as in a mosque. We feared disturbing the sanctity of the room.
The manager told me that after the stresses of being cut, pushed, spun and thrown around in the mill, the lumber needed “rest time” so they could withstand the inevitable subsequent stresses at the construction sites or furniture factories. Without this curing, the lumber would readily bend, splinter or even break, soiling the factory’s brand.
Now if an inanimate object – wood – has to be “cured” before it faces its next phase of stress, imagine how much more humans would need this time and space. This is what Ramadan means to me; a “time out” so we could pause and reflect after having been through the mill in our regular daily lives!
Plants and trees too need this equivalent change of pace. The forced dormancy of the long cold weather ensures a full bloom come spring, and with that a bountiful harvest. Winter is the plants’ Ramadan.
Children and their Marshmallows
My second thought comes from reading about the Stanford marshmallow study on preschool children. They were each given a marshmallow, with instructions that should they refrain from eating it for 15 minutes, they would be rewarded with an extra one. As expected, some devoured theirs right away, others took longer. Nonetheless there were those who successfully restrained themselves and were thus duly rewarded. The study reveals that marked individual differences towards instant gratification could be discerned at a very early age.
If that was the only conclusion, the study would not be regarded as “one of the most successful behavioral experiments.”
Years later when those kids were of college age, the lead experimenter, prompted by anecdotal accounts, did a follow-up study. It turned out those “impulse controlled” children (those who successfully deferred devouring their treats) did better academically as well as disciplinary-wise in school. Indeed, the ability to delay eating marshmallows was a better predictor of scholastic achievement than IQ tests or parent’s educational level! This insight is leveraged by enlightened educators. The largest operator of charter schools in America, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), emphasized character building as well as a rigorous curriculum. Part of that character building is teaching children the equivalent of not eating their marshmallows right away, to defer their gratifications. The school has been remarkably successful despite its students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This marshmallow study has other and wider implications. If a culture is predisposed to immediate gratification, its members would not likely to save their earnings. The consequent low capital formation (from lack of savings) leads to economic stagnation, the bane of many Third World societies.
The marshmallow study also helps explain why those who acquire wealth through inheritance, lottery, or preferential treatment rarely keep it while those who acquire it through hard work do. The latter have self-discipline – key to their success – and more importantly, to maintaining that success.
If the ability to delay devouring marshmallows for fifteen minutes among preschoolers is strongly associated with later academic and other successes, imagine the good if we could delay it for the entire daylight hours! That is the value and significance of Ramadan; to instill self-discipline and acquire the habit of delayed gratification.
That this trait could be detected as early as the preschool age suggests that it is more “nature” than “nurture,” or stated differently, more genetic than environmental. This is reinforced by an earlier study (substituting candies for marshmallows) comparing Black and Indian (subcontinent) children in Jamaica. As a group, the Black children had difficulty restraining themselves. Another significant variable was the absence of a father in the house. Surprisingly, socio-economic status was not a factor. In Jamaica there are significant differences in the economic, educational and other achievements between those two ethnic groups.
In a recent twist to this classic study, the children were first “primed,” and using crayons instead of marshmallows. They were randomly assigned into a “reliable” or “unreliable” group. In both, the children were each given a bag of crayons with instructions that if they were not to open it until the supervisor returned, they would be given, in addition, a bigger and newer set.
For the “reliable” group, the supervisor would duly return, and as promised the successful children were rewarded. For the “unreliable” group however, the adult would return but apologize profusely for not being able to bring the promised bigger and newer bag to those who had been successful.
This crayon experiment was then repeated, this time using stickers. This done, the two groups were tested as per the original marshmallow study.
Nine of the 14 children in the “reliable” group successfully delayed eating their marshmallows, as compared to only one in the “unreliable” group. Children in the “reliable” group also waited longer (four times more) than those in the “unreliable” group before eating their treats.
This suggests that we can train our young to delay their gratification; meaning, we can effectively instill self-discipline at a very young age. This tilts the balance towards “nurture” over “nature,” contrary to the Jamaican data. For this training to be effective however, you must first establish an atmosphere of trust. The children must first have faith in the adults of their lives.
Relating to Ramadan, when we encourage our young to fast, we are training them to delay their gratification; we are instilling self-discipline.
There is yet another insight to the marshmallow study, and it comes not from the quantitative data rather from directly observing those children. The “impulse controlled” kids were busy actively distracting themselves as with singing, sitting on their hands (lest they be tempted to grab the marshmallow), closing their eyes, or kneading their skirts, analogous to mythical Greek sailors stuffing their ears with bee’s wax and Ulysses tying himself to the mast to restrain themselves from the call of the Siren song.
Relating this to Ramadan, it is easier to fast if we are working or otherwise occupied. Indeed, the Koran and hadith exhort us not to sleep or idle ourselves when fasting. That would be makhruh (non-meritorious). Instead we are to continue on with our daily routine.
Fasting in a Muslim Versus Secular Society
Last, I draw from my experience of Ramadan in a religiously-obsessed society, Malaysia, versus in a secular Western one, America.
In Malaysia, the moral squads are out in full force during Ramadan. If you are caught not fasting, you will be paraded around town in a hearse (to remind you of death), quite apart from being fined, jailed or even whipped. Never mind that you may be a diabetic or had just stepped off a trans-Pacific flight. This cruel punitive streak, alas far too common, is the antithesis of the Ramadan spirit.
Malaysians must fast; it is the law and not as it should be, a matter of faith and personal conviction. Consequently, the spiritual value is often missed, or worse, corrupted as manifested by culinary extravaganzas and ostentatious piety. Malaysians simply rearrange their gluttony from daytime to nighttime. Ramadan’s spirit of restraint is conspicuous by its absence, and its replacement with exuberant excesses.
Fasting in America poses its own challenges. Your co-workers having their usual lunches and the ubiquitous tantalizing food commercials aside, there is the matter of the seasons. When in Canada and Ramadan was in midsummer (nearly 24 hours of daylight), I wrote my father of my theological dilemma. He gently reminded me that fasting is not Allah’s torture test and that if it is too stressful then I should follow Malaysian time. My late father grasped intuitively the essence of Ramadan. May Allah bless his soul for that wise and practical counsel!
Obsessed with the rituals, Malaysians have reduced fasting to a series of acts to accumulate religious Brownie points. Fasting is more than a ritual; it is a process. As important as fasting is, the greater import is where it would take us. It should take us to heightened faith and greater compassion. It should take us deeper into the revelation of the Koran, for it was during this holy month that our Prophet Mohammad, s.a.w., first received his revelation from Allah.
Fasting is good not because the Koran says so, rather fasting is good and that is why the Koran exhorts us to observe Ramadan.
Emory University's Professor Andullahi An-Naim was recently in Malaysia and commented on the current hudud controversy triggered by PAS leader Abdul Hadi's private member's bill in Parliament. I re-post my earlier book review of An-Naim's "The Myth of the Islamic State" that appeared in 2009.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
The Myth of The Islamic State
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)
Book Review: Islam And The Secular State: Negotiating The Future of Shari’a, by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
324 pp, Indexed, US $35.00, 2008.
Every so often I would read a book that would profoundly affect me. I have yet however, to get two such books written by the same author, that is, until now.
In 1990 I came across a paperback, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law, by Abdullahi A. An-Naim. I do not remember what prompted me to browse through let alone buy the book. Its cover design was nondescript, and neither its author nor publisher (University of Syracuse Press) was exactly well known. But bought the book I did, after scanning only a few pages.
Despite being only 255 pages, it took me awhile to finish it. I have read it over many times since. It is not that An-Naim’s prose is dense (far from it!) rather that the ideas he expounds are breathtakingly refreshing. They also appeal to my intellectual understanding of my faith.
That book resurrected my faith in Islam. Brought up under the traditional teachings of my village Imam, I had difficulty reconciling that with the worldview inculcated in me through my Western liberal education. The certitudes that had comforted me as a youngster were becoming increasingly less so as an adult.
I knew however, a religion that gave my parents and grandparents (as well as millions of others) their anchoring stability despite the terrible turbulences in their life must have something substantive to offer. I took that as a matter of faith. It was just that I was not getting the message, until I read An-Naim’s book.
I discovered that many of the issues I had wrestled with were shared with and have been dissected by many great minds in Islam of the past. This realization reassured me. Far from weakening my faith, those doubts ironically strengthened it.
Shari’a: A Human Endeavor
In that earlier book, An-Naim developed further the thesis of his mentor, Sudanese reformer Mahmoud Mohamad Taha, that while the Shari’a was based on the Quran and the Sunnah (sayings and practices of the prophet), nonetheless it remains the works of mortals. As such the Shari’a suffers from all the limitations inherent in such endeavors. It is time to revisit it using the same rigorous intellectual tools used by our earlier scholars, while cognizant of today’s universally accepted norms of constitutionalism, gender equality, and human rights, among others.
That is exactly what An-Naim has been doing with his “The Future of Shari’a Project” at Emory University, Atlanta, where he is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law. Islam And The Secular State: Negotiating The Future of Shari’a is the culmination of his scholarly effort.
Like that earlier book, this one is also a slow read despite being written in highly readable prose. The book is packed with substantive and innovative ideas that require some digesting and much contemplation. An-Naim’s writing is also precise and concise; he conveys in one sentence what others would take two or three, or even a paragraph.
An-Naim is a solid scholar but the book is written for a general audience, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. He uses Arabic phrases sparingly, and there are adequate references in English, Arabic, and other traditionally native Islamic languages including Bahasa (Indonesia).
An-Naim asserts, “The historical reality is that there has never been an Islamic state, from the state of Abu Bakr, the first caliph in Medina, to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and any other state that claims to be Islamic today. This obvious reality is due to the incoherence of the idea itself and the practical impossibility of realizing it, not simply to bad experiments that can be rectified in the future.”
The immediate rebuttal by many Muslims is that there is historical precedent – and a very excellent one – of an Islamic state, that of the first Muslim community in Medinah. Muslims rightly hold that as the ideal, but it cannot possibly be replicated, led as it was by Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w. He was both spiritual and political leader. To have a similar state today would require us to be endowed with another prophet, a blasphemous assumption in Islam.
Not only is an Islamic state not achievable, it is also not desirable. The very idea of an Islamic state, according to An-Naim, is based on later European concept of the nation-state and the law, not on Shari’a or Islamic tradition.
Throughout Islamic (indeed, world) history, there has always been tension between ulamas (and religious establishment generally) versus the state and its rulers, with each trying to use the other to further their own ends. Caliphs and sultans have co-opted ulamas to justify their (rulers’) power, while ulamas are not shy in maximizing the bounty they get from the state from such collaborations.
In Malaysia for example, they vie with ministers and mandarins for government-issued worldly trinkets as the plushest bungalows, sleekest sedans, and most exalted royal titles.
A few ulamas have been known to leave their mimbar (pulpit) for political office. Some like Kelantan’s Nik Aziz do not even bother to separate their roles. Islam is actively being subjugated by political rulers while religious functionaries eagerly prostituted themselves to the state.
“As a Muslim, I need a secular state in order to live in accordance with Shari’a out of my own genuine conviction and free choice,” An-Naim declares, “… which is the only valid and legitimate way of being a Muslim. Belief in Islam, or any other religion, logically requires the possibility of disbelief, because belief has no value if it is coerced.”
He goes on, “Maintaining institutional separation between Islam and the state while regulating the permanent connection of Islam and politics is a necessary condition for achieving the positive role of the Shari’a now and in the future.”
Caution here, before hurling the epithets! An-Naim’s “secular” state does not mean the atheistic communist regime of the Soviet Empire where religion is completely vanished from public sphere, rather one where the state is “morally neutral” with respect to religion.
America proudly cites its “strict” separation of state and church. The reality is far different. Prayers are regularly offered at opening sessions of Congress, and as the current presidential campaign demonstrates, religion is never far from voters’ considerations.
Muslims yearn for an Islamic state without having the foggiest idea of what that would entail, except for some vague mumbling about it being based on the Quran, Sunnah, and Shari’a. The reason for the longing is obvious; most so-called Muslim states today fail miserably in the basic task of governing. Worse, they regularly trample with impunity on the basic rights of their citizens.
Perversely, this obsession with the Islamic state detracts these leaders from their basic task of governing, and citizens from taking their leaders to task for this elemental failure. Such fundamental and pressing needs as providing heath care, housing, education, development, and a modicum of freedom are best handled less by fussing over the Shari’a or the Islamic state and more with acquiring the skills of modern management. Today’s Islamists would get closer to achieving their vision of an Islamic state if they would first learn how to build effective and enduring institutions of governance.
Negotiations, Not Religious Fiat
While An-Naim advocates the separation of Islam and Shari’a on one hand from the politics and the state on the other, nonetheless he actively encourages nurturing the relationship between the two, including the state’s regulating the public role of Islam.
This would first involve reexamining the Shari’a. “For Muslims, Shari’a should be known and experienced as a source of liberation and self realization,” writes An-Naim, “not a heavy burden of oppressive restriction and harsh punishment. No action or omission is valid from a Shari’a perspective unless it is completely voluntary, and there is no religious merit in coercive compliance.” The emphasis is mine, and I would have it in huge fonts framed in every JAKIM office!
In its time the Shari’a represented a quantum leap in intellectual as well as juridical achievements. It emancipated women. Whereas before, women were part of her husband’s inheritance, to be disposed off like the rest of his estate; under the Shari’a they were entitled to their own rightful shares.
As that other law professor, Harvard’s Noah Feldman, wrote in his Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, “ … for most of its history, Islamic law offered the most liberal and humane legal principles available anywhere in the world.”
Feldman notes further that with Shari’a the scholars provided the crucial and fundamental checks and balances on the powers of the rulers. This is exactly what is glaringly absent in many Muslim countries today. Consequently, self-professed Islamic states like Iran and Saudi Arabia have more in common with fascist Germany and totalitarian Russia, both in the traits of the regimes as well as the tendencies of their leaders.
It was the genius of those early scholars to be able to reconcile the apparent contradictions in the Quran and Sunnah by resorting to “abrogation,” where certain verses of the Quran “override” earlier ones. With that they formulated a coherent body of laws that had served the community well for centuries. They successfully reconciled the earlier Meccan verses that there be no compulsion in matters of faith to the latter Medinah ones relating to apostasy. Likewise, the latter verses relating to the differential treatment of inheritance between sons and daughters to the earlier verses that declare everyone is equal in the eyes of Allah.
Abrogation was the tool devised by the ancient scholars; it was not a divine mandate. Today’s scholars should likewise use their insights and intellectual prowess to formulate a new Shari’a which should also be based on the Quran and the Sunnah. This is the only basis to make it acceptable to Muslims and not violate our basic beliefs and traditions. Such an exercise must be inclusive, with engagement of the entire community, utilizing the insights from various disciplines.
If we were to incorporate the Shari’a into the laws of our country, the objective of advocates of an Islamic state, such “negotiations,” as An-Naim puts it, must necessarily also include non-Muslims, especially for a plural society like Malaysia. The consequence of this is that the Shari’a formulated for Malaysia would necessarily be different from those for homogenously Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, just like there are significant variations in the Shari’a in the various fighs (jurisprudence) in Islam.
In short, An-Naim separates the concept versus content of Shari’a. The concept is readily apparent: a body of just laws applicable to all based on divine revelations (Quran) and the sunnahs. All Muslims agree to that, while most non-Muslims could be readily persuaded to the viewpoint of “just laws applicable to all.” The content however, must necessarily vary with time, place, and culture. That is An-Naim’s central message.
The central enduring values of the concept of the Shari’a are regularly missed and often confused by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In the West, as Feldman noted, the Shari’a is caricatured by such odious hudud laws as stoning to death for adultery while ignoring the Shari’a stringent standards for conviction. Contrast that to the gross perversion of justice in many capital convictions in America today, as revealed by the Innocence Project.
The central premise of the Shari’a is that all – ruler and ruled alike – are subject to its rule. That is the rule of law at its most fundamental level. That is a novel concept in the West for most of its history (the prince being above law) as well as in today’s self-professed Islamic states. Malaysia amended its constitution removing the sultans’ immunity with respect to their personal conduct only in 1993.
An-Naim has advanced and elevated the debate on the Shari’a and the Islamic state by a quantum leap. His is a much-needed intellectual antidote to those who would mindlessly exhort “Islam is the answer!” to every political problem, as well as those who delude themselves that the myriad problems facing Muslims today would magically disappear once we establish an Islamic state or a caliphate.
This book will be widely read in the West. I hope it will also reach a wide audience in the Islamic world. Muslims – especially leaders – would do well to expend the necessary intellectual diligence to ponder the totality of the ideas and concepts presented in this book. We should not dismiss them because they challenge our comfortable assumptions.
Learning Islam From Muslims, and Muslims Learning Islam
Learning Islam From Muslims, and Muslims Learning Islam
A Review of Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam. The Importance of Being Islamic
Second of Two Parts
In the first part of my essay I recalled Shahab Ahmed’s elegant albeit oxymoronic phrase “coherent contradictions” to describe the dizzying diversity and puzzling perplexities that are the norms in Islam, then and now.
As for “reforming” Islam, the current fetish among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Ahmed did not have much praise or hope for these reformers, ancient or modern. This was not out of any Islam-does-not-need-reforming sentiment, rather that those reformers limited themselves to reading only the Text (Koran) and then were consumed with their arcane legalistic and hermeneutical interpretations. They ignored the “Pre-Text” and “Con-Text,” or more crucially, how Islam is believed, practiced, and contributed to by Muslims past and present, scholars and ordinary believers alike.
Or in Shahab Ahmed’s words, “how Islam makes Muslims as Muslims make Islam.” Much can be learned about Islam, and about Muslims, from just that.
We can only learn if we do not let ourselves be trapped by the limitations of language but instead continually explore the greater, wider, and deeper meanings of those words, imageries and metaphors. This applies not only to learning the Koran but also other Revelations, and indeed any readings.
This exploration would necessitate the constant questioning and reappraising of the presently accepted. As per Sa’adi’s Gulistan, only three things have no durability without their concomitants: wealth without trade, knowledge without debate, and rulers without justice.
The rapid expansion of the knowledge of Islam and of the faith itself during its first few centuries was attributable in part to the robust and often none-too-peaceful debates among its adherents. Consider the battles between the literalist Kharijites and the rationalist Mu’tazilites that still rage to this day, or the theological argument whether the Koran was created or eternal. As for the prophet, even he was challenged, and often, to demonstrate the legitimacy of his mission and prophethood.
Followers of the various sects and fiqhs harbor profound and irreconcilable differences, yet they all profess to read and learn from the same Koran and abide by the teachings of the same Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims today look longingly to the glorious days of early Islam with the effervescence of its intellectual and other activities. We would do well to examine what was with the environment then that made those early Muslims so productively prolific and creative. Instead we are content with endlessly praising the prophet and those early Muslims while failing to emulate their sterling examples.
For one, those ancient Muslim scholars did not shy away from learning even from the atheistic Greek philosophers. To those early Muslims, knowledge is knowledge, and thus worth pursuing. They did not differentiate between secular and religious knowledge or the equally futile current pursuit of its “Islamization,” a particular fad of contemporary Muslim scholars especially those from the Third World, as exemplified by the late Syed Naquib Al Attas.
Today we shy away from learning from the so-called kafir West. Instead we are content to denigrating its evident shortcomings instead of emulating its spectacular successes.
As for dealing with our differences, Muslims have failed to learn from our own Prophet Muhammad. Legend has it he had instructed his followers who were on a journey to meet at a certain place for their Asar prayers. One group was delayed, and arguments arose within whether they should stop for their prayers or rush on so they could pray together with the prophet at their agreed-upon destination. When they later brought up their disagreement to Prophet Muhammad, his answer was simple. Both interpretations were correct. His central message was that they should stay together and not endanger themselves by separating from each other. This simple wisdom, that there could be more than one valid interpretation, still baffles many.
As per the Koran, Allah will not let his ummah go astray. Meaning, listen to the ummah. This was what Shahab Ahmed did; and we are the beneficiaries of his worthy endeavor.
When there are differences, we must first ascertain that they are real and not apparent. When you say that an object is blue and I say it is green, the difference may be with the lenses we are wearing or the light under which we view the object instead of its intrinsic color. Even where the differences are real, they may be of the blind-men-and-the-elephant fable variety, meaning only the details vary but the underlying beast or principle is the same.
The mission then should be not to denigrate or belittle our differences, or allow them be sources of strife, rather to let them be the stimulus or inspiration for us to explore and deduce the underlying unifying principle.
Consider the universal law of gravity, as demonstrated by the simplistic Newton’s apple falling to the ground observation. Expressed thus, it is readily comprehensible by the masses.
However if one were to be on a Ferris wheel and at a sufficiently high speed where the centrifugal force exceeds gravitational pull, and then let the apple fly out of our hands while at the top of the ride, the apple would “fall” towards the sky, at least for a brief moment. This is the same principle used to train astronauts where they would be momentarily weightless as the plane makes a sharp arc dive towards the ground.
The apple “falling” up to the sky contradicts Newton’s observation, but if we were to understand the underlying principle of gravitational pull expressed elegantly by the formula F=G x M1M2/r2 (where F is the force, M the masses, r the distance between the two bodies, and G a constant), then the two observations of the apple falling to the ground and to the sky are not contradictory but illustrative of the same underlying principle.
Contradictions in Islam are often of this nature, as well as that of the blind-men-and-the-elephant variety. We must continue exploring the meaning of the Koran. We may never discover the ultimate truth, for in the words of the Koran, Allahu alam (only Allah knows), but the search itself can be very enlightening.
We may not be able to discern or extrapolate exactly the shape of the elephant from the various contradictory accounts, but if we could just appreciate the fact that they are all manifestations of the same beast, then we are already far ahead.
Going back to my Minanagkabau tradition of inheritance going only to daughters, this contradicting of the Koran may be illusory and that at the core my culture and the Koran are expressing the same sentiment. That is, inheritance should go to those who would look after their ageing parents, or be in a position to do so. In Bedouin culture, as per the “Pre-Text” of the Koran, that would be the sons. With my matriarchal Minangkabau culture where sons are traditionally engaged in merantau (wanderlust) and with more than a few expected not to return, that responsibility of parental care would fall on the daughters.
As for ancestor worship, again here we are trapped by words. There is a definite difference between respecting and honoring our past heroes and luminaries by building mausoleums and monuments in their honor, versus ancestor worship. However it is also not difficult to imagine the former degenerating into the latter, again demonstrating Ahmed’s spectrum and axis of values.
Similar controversy rages among Muslims with respect to observing Maulud Nabi, the prophet’s birthday. Are Muslims “celebrating” it in the manner of Christians with their Christmas or are we “honoring” the prophet by recalling his wisdom and exemplary qualities on the occasion of his birthday?
As has been tragically demonstrated far too often, words, like sticks and stones, can really hurt you, especially words of the Revelation.
Shahab Ahmed’s greatest contribution to Muslims with this book is his message for us to continue exploring the varied meanings of the words, imageries, metaphors and other elements of language used in the Koran before those words hurt us, and others. At the pragmatic level, by learning and familiarizing ourselves with the various manifestations of Islam we would be able to get a better understanding of this great faith.
For non-Muslims, this book will enlighten them as to the vast and infinite manifestations of Islam. This appreciation will help them understand that when a Muslim undertakes an action in the name of Islam, that’s only his particular vision of the faith. The whole Muslim ummah thus should not be condemned, praised, or in any way be held responsible.
Though modestly priced and readily readable, this book is unlikely to get wide readership especially among Muslims in the Third World. There the reading culture is at best rudimentary and the oral tradition is still strong. Witness the mega crowds at sermons and religious lectures. If that is not already a severe obstacle and burden, then there is the penchant of Muslim leaders to ban books carrying views at variance to those accepted by the authorities.
The ideas presented in this book could albeit with great difficulty be compressed into an hour’s lecture and then distributed in the social media. If some enterprising soul were to do that, Shahab Ahmed’s ideas and illuminating perspectives would get a wider audience. Granted an oral presentation would not have the same impact or retentive power as a book. For that, it would be far more productive if there were to be a Readers’ Digest version of this volume, translated in the various languages used by Muslims. This book could be considerably abridged and made much thinner by dispensing with the detailed documentations and lengthy quotes. Having it in paperback edition would also make it more affordable in the greater Muslim world.
Spreading Shahab Ahmed’s ideas far and wide would be a splendid way to honor this brilliant young thinker, quite apart from disseminating a much more enlightened view of our great faith.
Review of Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam. The Importance of Being Islamic
M. Bakri Musa
First of Two Parts
While holidaying on an island in the Indonesian Riau Province I came upon a communal graveyard. I was surprised that while the graves had markers, there were no individual identifications, no names or even dates of death. On enquiring, the villagers told me that this was to discourage ancestor worship. In Islam we worship Allah, and only Him. Any deviation would be shirk, a blasphemy.
Yet only a few islands away on Pulau Penyengat, there is an elaborate mausoleum to honor the great poet Raja Ali Haji of Gurindam XII fame. On religious days and special occasions, villagers throng the site; at other times they come to pray for their children’s success at school.
The inhabitants on both islands are devout Muslims. While we could readily comprehend and accept variations in Islam (or any faith for that matter) in different geographic areas and with different cultures, the people on both islands are all Malays. What gives?
On a more substantive level, with my Minangkabau clan, inheritance goes exclusively to daughters, a direct and apparent defiance of the Koranic injunction that daughters get only half as much as sons. Yes, we Minangkabaus are also Malays and devout Muslims.
If there are such glaring contradictions in the practice of Islam within a small homogenous society, imagine the situation across cultures and continents. The ummah (community) as a whole has failed or refuses to recognize this central and obvious reality.
Much of the schisms ravaging the Muslim world today and in the past are rooted in this fundamental failure to accept much less embrace such differences. Every Muslim feels that his or her particular version of the faith is the only true one, the rest are but bida’a (adulterations), or worse. The consequence to this thinking is that every Muslim feels a messianic urge and rage to correct those “misled.”
On the flip side, when some Muslim Nigerians and Afghanis behave like brutal savages, the entire global Islamic community gets blamed. To non-Muslims we are but a monolithic homogenous mass with the same ideals and aspirations.
Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam. The Importance of Being Islamic addresses the reality of such conspicuous contradictions, dizzying diversity, and perplexing plurality within Islam. He focused on the vast arc of Muslim land from the Balkans to Bengal to illustrate his point that such diversity, plurality and outright contradictions are very much the norm in Islam, now and then. His somewhat oxymoronic but elegant phrase “coherent contradictions” does not in any way diminish that reality.
Ahmed had a Southeast Asian connection. Born in Singapore of Pakistani ancestry, he graduated in law from the International Islamic University, Kuala Lumpur, and later blossomed in America. A Princeton PhD, he was on the faculty at Harvard where he completed his tome. He died recently in his forties.
Scholars like Shahab Ahmed, trained in modern scholarship with its emphasis on critical thinking and rigorous analyses, shine new light on our faith. The Islam that we discover from such works is much more beautiful and relevant to our present ever increasingly diverse and interconnected world. That Islam is also a refreshing departure from the one projected by our traditional scholars, obsessed as they are with their dazzling quotations of the Koran, hadith, and the layers upon layers of ancient commentaries, or the “ideal” and “true” version as projected by reformers, ancient and contemporary, mesmerized as they are by their “enlightened” hermeneutics of our holy texts.
Shahab Ahmed sought the meaning of Islam “in a manner that expresses the historical and human phenomenon . . . in its plenitude and complexity.” The book is an endeavor “to locate the logic of difference and contradiction as coherent with and internal to Islam.” Ahmed did not presume to tell readers how Islam should be practiced to ensure one’s personal salvation. As to who would end up in Heaven, well, that is, as Muslims put it, Allahu alam (only God knows!).
This book is an account of what Islam means to its followers then and now, in the Balkans as well as Bengal, not what the ulamas and legal scholars think it ought to be. It is the Islam lived by its followers, not the prescriptive and proscriptive variety, or the halal versus haram version. The book however, is not a sociological treatise either in content or style. There are no surveys, graphs or statistical analyses, and the prose is highly readable. Technical terms and strange-sounding Arabic words are kept at a minimum.
Shahab Ahmed began by posing six questions. What is Islamic about Islamic philosophy, considering that more than a few of its practitioners were non-Muslims; likewise with Islamic art? The next three questions pertain to some esoteric theological beliefs and practices of the Sufis that would rile up the Wahhabis and other conservatives.
The sixth and most striking is the issue of imbibing wine. Every Muslim knows or thinks he knows that wine is haram. Yet wine drinking was common at one time in much of the Balkans-to-Bengal arc. Rumi’s canonical Divan makes frequent celebratory references to it. There were even wine decanters inscribed with Koranic verses, and used at state functions during the heyday of the Islamic empire.
What is Islam gets great reviews. As a parenthetical aside, the snippets of glowing reviews reprinted on the book cover are from scholars whom the author had mentioned favorably in his book!
The book is over 600 pages, with drawn-out but not dense sentences, paragraphs that often extend well beyond the page, and chapters (there are only five) of mini-book length. Beyond that, the ideas and revelations presented require much contemplation to ponder and absorb. Nonetheless the reader is well rewarded in the end and could appreciate why the book is getting all those accolades. They are well deserved!
The Koran asserts that Islam is “for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time.” Our holy book also says that Allah in His infinite wisdom had created mankind in all its diversity. As such, Islam must of necessity be a very big tent. We should not be surprised then that those on the western or sun-setting side would dress and behave differently from those on the eastern cooler part, or those on the northern side would view the world differently and speak a different language, with words, imageries, and metaphors carrying entirely different meanings.
Consider language. The Koran was revealed in a language understood by the Bedouins. Its words, metaphors and imageries did not arise in a vacuum rather they were the ones frequently used and well understood by those early Arabs. The denotations and connotations however, may have changed over time and place. They may well be at variance with the original usage.
Take the word ‘poetry.’ During the prophet’s time, poets were hired to assassinate characters or ridicule them. Poets were literary whores; their words may be poetic and stir emotions, but they were whores nonetheless. Today we hold poets in high esteem. Same word but vastly different if not diametrically opposed meaning.
Likewise imagery; consider Hell as depicted in the Koran, an eternal inferno. What would be the imagery had Almighty Allah chosen not an Arab but an Eskimo to be His Last Messenger?
That brings me to the story of the priest sent to the frigid North to preach among the natives there. On his very first fire-and-brimstone midnight sermon he warned his flock of the severe punishment of Hell awaiting those who transgressed God’s laws. Imagine his horror when the very next morning his parishioners were all gleefully indulging themselves! When asked they responded, “But Father, we want to go to that place where the big fire burns all the time!”
Same imagery, but evoking vastly different emotions and meaning!
To understand the Text (Koran), we would first have to comprehend the pre-revelation language, or what Ahmed referred to as the “Pre-Text,” as with the meaning of poets. Then we would have to appreciate the “Con-Text,” as with the imagery of Hell.
Much of the discussions on Islam today, in the West and in the Muslim world, involve languages and expressions of the dominant West, as with secular versus religious. Such dichotomy, with its constricting either/or proposition, while appropriate in the West with its history of heavy Church involvement in the affairs of state, is irrelevant in Islam or alien in its history or culture. If anything in Islam, as Noah Feldman noted in his The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, ulamas and scholars served as bulwarks against the excesses of the state and sultans.
At least that was the traditional roles of scholars and ulamas. Today as exemplified in Malaysia and elsewhere, they have been co-opted by the state to be its instruments for control and repression. Recall the wisdom of Sa’adi Shirazi’s Gulistan: Hell is full of scholars who were close to rulers; heaven with rulers who befriended ulamas.
Islam is more than a religion, our imams remind us often. It is all encompassing. An either/or dichotomy is inadequate. More relevant would be a spectrum or “axis of values,” not between religious or secular but along such lines as public and private, or state and personal. Spectrum means that boundaries are fuzzy, and would vary with circumstances. Instead of having to make a dichotomous choice, we have instead a hierarchy of values that is fluid, malleable, and changeable.
Thus what is haram or unacceptable in the public arena is very much tolerated if not embraced (pardon the pun) in the privacy of one’s bedroom. Consider this legend attributed to Caliph Omar, may Allah be pleased with him.
On one of his famous “walk-about” management routines, he came upon an unmarried couple engaged in what Malaysians would call khalwat, in the privacy of their quarters. The Caliph barged in and pronounced them guilty of adultery, and handed them the ultimate punishment, stoning to death (at least for the woman), as prescribed in the Koran.
After the Caliph had finished his ranting, the man calmly admitted that yes he and his partner had indeed committed a sin against God, as per the Koran, but the Caliph on the other hand had wronged the couple by invading their privacy, also haram as per the Koran. The great Caliph, recognizing his error, apologized and recanted his verdict.
The central point here is that in Islam, the latter – wronging your fellow man – is the far more serious offence than transgressing God’s laws. A Generous and All-Forgiving Allah may forgive you, not so your fellow man whom you have wronged.
The other and far more relevant point is the primacy of personal privacy. Even the great Caliph had to respect that. In Malaysia today we are obsessed with khalwat raids in hotels while the swindling of public funds done openly by our leaders is condoned if not considered praiseworthy. With the former you transgress God’s laws; the latter, you wronged the rakyats by robbing them of their due.
Caliph Omar recognized this hierarchy and spectrum of values implicit in Islam. No wonder he is universally held as the greatest Commander of our Faith.
Next: Second of Two Parts: Learning Islam From Muslims, and Muslims Learning Islam
Burden of Malay Stereotypes in Academia and Business
Burden of Malay Stereotypes in Academia and Business
M. Bakri Musa
This burden of self-affirmation and stereotype threat can crop up well beyond our formative years and at the most unexpected venues.
At one Alif Ba Ta Conference a few years ago, organized by the UMNO Club of New York and New Jersey in which I discussed self-affirmation and stereotype threat, a group of students confided to me their experiences in the special matriculation class preparing them for American universities. Midway through that class they were given a test. Those who excelled were sent abroad earlier.
Even though the class was filled predominantly with Malays, for the group selected to leave earlier, non-Malays were over represented. How do I explain that, the students inquired? I immediately sensed their burden of stereotype threat - Malay ineptitude in academics.
So I asked them what they had done between their school examination in November the preceding year until they were enrolled in that special class the following July. To a person they all replied "Nothing!" Yes, nothing!
Then I also asked them whether they had discussed with their successful and predominantly non-Malay classmates how they managed to do so well, specifically what were they doing from January till July when they started their matriculation classes together. The Malay students could not answer me. Obviously they never thought to ask or were too embarrassed to discuss that sensitive topic with their non-Malay classmates, or their teachers. For their part, their matriculation teachers, unlike my Mr. Peter Norton at Malay College in the 1960s during my Sixth Form years there, merely accepted the fact as it was.
Whenever I meet Malaysians at elite American campuses I always try to discern through casual conversation what schools they attended (in particular their matriculation classes) in Malaysia and what made them choose America and pick that particular university. Invariably those students (even Malays) came from other than our national schools, reflecting the quality of such schools. Further and far more crucial, they had spent the six-or seven-month hiatus following their November SPM examination enrolled in private pre-university classes.
So when they were selected into the government's special matrikulasi class, they were already six months ahead as compared to their Malay classmates who did "nothing." That is a significant advantage in what would typically be a two-year course at most.
Malay College recently (July 2011) started its International Baccalaureate (IB) program after over a decade in planning. Again, the students were those who did well in their SPM the previous November. Apart from its radically different learning and teaching philosophy, IB is all English. Meanwhile those students had spent the previous 11 years in Malay medium. I suggested to those in charge that they should enroll the students earlier (as in January) so they could have six months of "pre-IB" where they could improve their English and other skills.
The response? No funds lah! I hope the first batch of students had done well. Should they fail or even just not excel, then expect those ugly stereotypes to be resurrected. The burden would fall not only on them but also on those following and on Malays generally. They will certainly not blame the teachers or the organizers of the program!
The government had already spent hundreds of millions of ringgit to set up the IB program, yet it could not secure extra funds to ensure that it would succeed.
Meanwhile in the business sphere, when Bank Bumiputra collapsed in the 1990s, ugly stereotypes on Malay aptitude for and competence in commerce were again resurrected, and not just by non-Malays. That too was very ugly, and the public behaviors of the key players merely reinforced those stereotypes. Conveniently forgotten was that the bank failed not because it was run by Malays, but because of corruption, incompetence and political patronage, the very same afflictions that burdened GLCs in China (CITIC), India (Air India), and America (Freddie Mac).
Today a generation later, the same tragic story is being repeated with 1MDB, another GLC, this time at a much greater cost and with the nation's highest leader involved. Again here the main players are Malays. Just in case the point is missed, they brought in a non-Malay to resolve the mess. Never mind that he was no more successful than his predecessor.
The 1MDB scandal again resurrected yet another stereotype, this time on the Chinese. One of the players, the few except of course for Najib who came out like bandits literally, was a Malaysian Chinese character close to Najib's family. Here we have the all-too-familiar story of a scheming Chinese taking advantage of a dumb Malay leader. Well, that dumb Malay leader part of the stereotype is true. At least Malaysians should be comforted by that fact. Imagine if we had a Malay leader who was smart as well as corrupt. The damage he would inflict could be horrendous! Count your blessings, Malaysians!
Linked to stereotype threat is the maintenance of the integrity of self-affirmation. When we see something that threatens our self-image, for example, Malays not doing well academically, we shift the focus elsewhere. Thus we say we do not care for "secular knowledge;" we are more into "spiritual" and "real" knowledge, the kind that would get us into Heaven. In that way we protect ourselves as non-Muslims would certainly not be competing with us in that field. If Muslim Chinese and Indians were to later beat us and excel in the same field, then we would have to spin yet another fanciful narrative.
When I see Malays focused on religion and the Hereafter and neglect their worldly obligations, I see that as nothing more than a manifestation of this threat to their self-affirmation rather than a genuine love for religious knowledge or concerns with personal salvation.
A similar phenomenon is seen in children. When kids run a playground race, those who are left behind would rationalize that they are not really "racing" or competing. Or, it's only a "practice." Likewise when I am sailing; I am always racing, that is, when I am overtaking the other sailboats. When I am being overtaken, well, I am out just for a leisurely afternoon cruise!
Both stereotypes and self-affirmation threats can be remedied. We do not have to be resigned to being their victims. To do that however, we first have to free up our minds from those cluttered and unproductive mental patterns. We have to create new or modify existing narratives to be more reflective of reality, one that would also be more useful and productive.
We can learn much from the insights of modern neuroscience on how to do that. In the next few essays I will review some of those exciting studies and how they could be applied to better understand and appreciate our current particular dilemmas.
Excerpted from the author's book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released recently in January 2016.
The Heavy Burden of Self-Affirmation and Stereotype Threat
The Heavy Burden of Self-Affirmation and Stereotype Threat
M. Bakri Musa
Our mind’s narrative of the world includes the perception we have of ourselves, and what we believe others have of us. The first is self-affirmation; the second, stereotype. Each of us is a member of some groups or other (race, profession, culture); thus we cannot escape from being stereotyped.
As for self-perception, like all other of our mental patterns this one too grew out of our experiences. Should we encounter something that does not conform to that mental picture we have of ourselves, we react like the patient with Cabgras delusion; we alter or ‘edit’ that information to make it conform to our pre-set pattern.
Our “self” narrative includes the stereotype others have of us, as with the colonialists’ “lazy native.” Not surprisingly, we often perform to those expectations, further reinforcing the stereotype. This vicious cycle continues, each cycle reinforcing earlier ones.
You have to work doubly hard and perform beyond well just to dispel the stereotype. Then even if you do succeed, there is no guarantee of escaping the stereotyping. It is a heavy burden to bear.
Consider girls and mathematics; there are many associated negative stereotypes. Should a girl were to stumble at her first test in college, not an uncommon experience especially at an elite college where all your classmates are top students while in high school, she would risk being a victim of negative stereotype when there could be other and more valid reasons, as with poor study habits or wrong choice of course. This stereotype burden would be worse if she were also to be a member of a visible disadvantaged minority.
Something similar happened to my daughter. She excelled in mathematics in school but she aspired to be a lawyer. Her undergraduate college required all students to take a math (as well as a science) course, the choice of which to be based upon the college’s own placement test. She was assigned one and found the going rough. She had to devote more than her usual effort just to stay abreast. She confided to us her problem, and as concerned parents we suggested that she meet with her counselor.
To the horror of her counselor, my daughter was assigned to a class for honors mathematics and engineering majors! Presumably she aced her placement test and was thus assigned the “appropriate” course. It may be appropriate based on her test scores but not for her career aspirations. Fortunately it was early in the academic year for her to switch course. Also luckily for her she had sufficient self-confidence and was not burdened by any possible negative stereotype. Imagine a Malay girl having a similar problem at the University of Singapore or even the University of Malaya.
This stereotype threat is the rationale for having single-sex schools and colleges. This phenomenon is also seen in non-academic settings like sports, as with, “White men can’t jump!”
Claude Steele, the Stanford psychologist who had studied stereotypes and self-affirmation threats extensively, shared his insights in his book, Whistling Vivaldi. And Other Clues on How Stereotypes Affect Us.
The title itself is intriguing; he had the idea from his fellow African-American student at the University of Chicago. Like at other elite campuses, African-Americans were noticeable for their rarity at such places, then and now. This friend sensed that his fellow students felt uncomfortable by his presence and would purposely avoid him. He overcame this prejudice by whistling Vivaldi (a classical composer, thus indicating a “high brow” taste in the finer things of life) to smooth the way. I can just imagine the horror on the staid white campus had he tried rap music!
There are many negative stereotypes burdening Malays, like our supposed lack of aptitude for mathematics specifically and academics generally. Unfortunately the statistics reinforce this. Consider that when the results of the SPM and other public examinations are announced, the consistent feature would be Malay under-representation among the top scorers.
The tempting conclusion, and not just by non-Malays, would be to believe these ugly stereotypes about Malays. However, consider this. The Sixth Form science class at Malay College I joined in 1961 had been threatened with closure because there were too few students from the college who had passed the entrance examination. And the college supposedly took in only the brightest Malays! That only fed the prevailing ugly stereotype.
It took the initiative of its chemistry teacher, Mr. Peter Norton, a non-Malaysian, to identify the problem and then push to solve it. Malay College boys did poorly in science not because they were Malays rather they were insufficiently prepared. So in 1961 the college vastly expanded it science laboratories and instituted for the first time a pure science stream at the fourth form. For perspective, my old school in Kuala Pilah had been doing this for years. No surprise then that my old school outperformed Malay College in science.
That first batch of “pure science” students at Malay College excelled, as did others following. They are now among the nation’s eminent doctors, scientists and professors, as represented by Ariffin Aton, a University of Leeds PhD in Chemical Engineering, now head of MyIPO, the body concerned with intellectual properties.
Then there was my calculus class experience at Malay College. At Lower Six we had a Canadian “Peace Corp” volunteer as our teacher. Being new to the country he did not harbor any negative stereotypes of or preconceived ideas on Malays, except perhaps that we lived in trees. On finding out that we did not, he proceeded to treat us like his Canadian students.
Mr. Allen Brown began his class with us without any fuss; no dire preamble about how “tough” calculus would be and that we had to “buckle up.” He treated it like any other subject; he assumed we could handle it.
I remember well his first day in class. He began by drawing a series of arcs of from the same center point, each with a longer radius. Then he asked us to comment on the shape. It was obvious; as the radius got longer, the curve became flatter. No mystery there. Then he asked us to imagine an arc with a radius of infinity. That would be very flat, we responded. Then he beamed and exclaimed, “Yes! A straight line is nothing but a curve with a radius of infinity!”
“Now imagine the opposite,” he continued. “Consider two points on a curve that are infinitely close to each other.” Then he began taking a small arc and magnified it serially, and with each magnification the curve became flatter. “As you can see, if I were to magnify a wee tiny part of this curve a zillion times,” as he pretended doing it on the board, “the two points on it would essentially be on a straight line.”
Then he swung around and exclaimed, “There you have it! A curve is nothing but a series of infinitely short straight lines with variable slopes!” He went on to explain that what we had learned about the properties of a straight line would be equally applicable to a curve, or at least an infinitely small part of it.
Thus was the mystery of variable change and calculus revealed, at least to me. I had taken calculus the year before in fifth form and had aced it. Yet I did not fully grasp its concepts. All I did was memorize the formula and then plug in the numbers. The surprise was that I did well just with that.
We had an even greater surprise the following February when the national examination results were announced. The entire class but two had aced it. The two who did not nonetheless scored high “credit” (B plus). It was a record not just for the school but also the country. As we were whooping it up back at the dorm, Mr. Brown came upon us and wondered what it was we were celebrating. To him, it was not a surprise at all; after all he had seen our performances on the many regular tests he had given us during the year. The surprise for him was that we were surprised.
Decades later, I saw the movie “Stand and Deliver” about a teacher, Jamie Escalante, in a predominantly Hispanic Los Angeles inner-city school. He did such an incredible job with his AP (Advanced Placement, college-level) class that the College Board (the examining body) thought his students were cheating and forced them to re-sit the test! They still aced it!
Escalante quickly became a celebrity. Not revealed in that movie were the many monumental as well as petty obstacles placed in Escalante’s path by his principal and others. For example, his principal was against Escalante using the gym to accommodate the large size of his class, and the teachers’ union was against his exceeding the class-size limit. Tellingly, the program collapsed when Escalante left in frustration.
Talk to any dedicated teacher in Malaysia and she would readily identify with Escalante.
I too can testify to that culture. Many years ago I visited an elite residential school in Malaysia. I wanted to donate a video microscope for its biology lab. As I also wanted to know of its other needs, I made an appointment to see the headmaster. On three occasions he canceled our meeting at the last minute as he had “other commitments.” Needless to say, that video microscope was my only gift to that school.
As for the headmaster’s “other commitments,” one was the meeting of the local Koran reading contest committee, the other, planning the reception for a ministerial visit.
Judging from the many social media postings by parents today, things have only gotten worse in our national schools, further reinforcing the burden of self affirmation and stereotype threats among their students who today happened to be mostly if not exclusively Malays.
Excerpted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released recently in January 2016.