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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

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.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Breaking Down Mental Barriers

Breaking Down Mental Barriers

The King recently called upon Muslims to open up their minds to knowledge. As head of the faith, the King should impress this first on our ulama and religious scholars. Their demand that discourses in Islam should only be among and by them reflects their closed minds. This intellectual arrogance is also far from the image of humility and piety we expect of them.

These scholars have learned little from their illustrious predecessors. Ancient Muslim luminaries did not hesitate seeking knowledge from the Greeks, Romans and Hindus; they were not at all perturbed at learning from the infidels. Those scholars acknowledged that all knowledge begins with Allah. That He had chosen to dispense the wisdom of the concept of zero to a Hindu, the secret of the atom to a Jew, and the universality of gravity to a Christian, is not for us to question. Suffice to know that such insights are for the benefit of all mankind.

Having mastered the then known body of knowledge, those scholars went on to make their own seminal contributions that enlightened the world. They did not distinguish between “secular” and “religious” knowledge. Ibn Sinna and others made significant contributions to the sciences as well as theology.

Like the Berlin Wall, the massive mental wall today’s Islamic scholars erect around themselves will eventually crumble. Until then they are trapped, entangled in the infinite variations of the contents while missing their underlying universal concepts. While we look upon our differences and diversities as a sign of God’s Grace, these ulama would seek to impose “purity,” as they see it.

Etiquette of Disagreement

Many believe that if only we would go back to the original text and have the “right” interpretations, then all the differences and divisions amongst us would magically disappear. Such naivety! As long as we are humans, there will be differences.
Instead of bemoaning such differences and letting them divide us, we should learn to live with them. It would then be much easier for us to get along not only with each other but also with those outside our faith.

We should learn the etiquette of disagreement. Disagreements are a sign of God’s beauty, but only if they lead us to better understand ourselves, and those who disagree with us. Disagreements are God’s blessings, only if they help expand our horizon and appreciate other perspectives. This assumes a certain degree of humility on our part; we are not always right, and those whom we disagree with are not always wrong. If we let those disagreements divide us, then they would be ugly and a curse.

It is well to remember that disagreements occurred even during the prophet’s time. Once the prophet instructed his traveling parties to meet and pray Asar at a certain place. On the way, one of the parties was delayed, and disagreements immediately arose on whether they should continue and pray when the reached their destination as the per the prophet’s earlier instruction, or stop and pray right there and then as per Quranic dictates. One party decided to do this, while the other proceeded on. Later when they met the prophet s.a.w. at their final destination, they asked him which party was right. The prophet s.a.w. replied that both were!

There were also profound disagreements soon after the prophet’s death over who should lead the community. Again the companions did not let that disagreement came between them; they agreed to a satisfactory formula after discussions (shura).

Breaking Down the Mental Berlin Wall

Just as ancient scholars made no distinction between secular and religious knowledge, likewise today’s scholars are breaking down artificial barriers separating the various disciplines. My own specialized area of surgery is benefiting immensely by contributions from such fields as engineering and space research.

With Islamic studies, we are fortunate that there are emerging today scholars who have been exposed to the traditional system and then benefited from the superior Western liberal education and rigorous scholarship. In the West and freed from the censorship that had stifled them back in their homeland, their contributions are a refreshing breadth of fresh air. They are slowly but surely peeling away the layers of accretions that have fossilized Islam since the tenth century.

Theirs is still work in progress, but they have already demonstrated the universality of the principles of this great faith, giving substance to the Quranic refrain that Islam is indeed a “perfect religion for all mankind and at all times.”
In their native lands these scholars would be branded as adulterators of their faith (bida’a) or worse, apostates. In the freedom of the West, and with a supportive and nurturing intellectual environment, their scholarships blossomed.

The dean of such scholars, the late Fazlur Rahman, suggested that we should deduce from the particularities of the Quran and hadith their underlying principles, and then apply them to the challenges of today. Obviously modern society is very different from that of the prophet’s time, but the moral imperatives remain the same. Such an exercise would demand considerable intellectual effort, much more than the mindless parroting of some ancient texts.

All faiths subscribe to the golden rule, or variations thereof. No argument over the concept; at issue are the contents. A barbed wire fence can be a reassuring protective barrier to some; an intimidating intrusive barricade to others, even when viewed from the same side. A hijab may be oppressive to a Western feminist but liberating to a Muslim housewife. Exposing one’s midriff may be emancipating to a Westerner but degrading to an Easterner.

If we focus on the contents, the twain shall never meet; concentrate on the concept – personal freedom – then we are likely to find common ground.

An injured Christian in Beirut does not feel awkward in a Red Crescent ambulance, any more than a Muslim patient in Boston has qualms receiving blood from the Red Cross. If we associate the Red Cross with the Crusaders and the Red Crescent, the Saracens, and not on the universality of their mission to serve the sick and displaced, then there will be no end to the conflict.

Our ulama should seek out and welcome contributions from outside their field. If they have an appreciation of the social and physical sciences, that would only enhance their understanding of our great faith. Their fatwas (decrees) then would have far greater influence and impact. Learning from non-ulama would not in any way diminish their piety. Rest assured that when we need someone to solemnize our marriages, lead our prayers, or bless births in the family, we would still go to our trusted ulama.

Our religious scholars should heed well these words of the Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein, “The end will begin when seekers of knowledge become satisfied with their own achievement.”


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