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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #16

Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past


Allah will not change the conditions of a people until they themselves change.
—The Holy Qur’an (Surah Al R’ad—Thunder) 13:11


In the immediately preceding chapter I surveyed the various factors that bear on the development of human societies. I now turn to evaluate the influence of those factors on earlier societies. I choose three examples: the early Muslims of the 7th -10th Centuries; the European Reformation of the 16th Century; and closer to Malaysia in time and place, Japan’s Meiji Restoration of the 19th Century.

The transformations of the Arabs and Europeans were in response to internal challenges. With the Muslims it was the increasing inequities of the ancient Arab society; with the Reformation, the egregious abuses and overreaching of the Catholic Church of Medieval Europe. In both, the power of ideas effected the ensuing radical changes for the better. The Japanese too were crumbling, with the unraveling and corruption of their existing order. Unlike the Arabs and Europeans, the Japanese were additionally challenged by outside forces beyond their control with the arrival of Westerners upon their shores. In all three instances, the resulting changes reverberated far beyond, both in time and geography.


The Experience of Early Muslims

Many Muslims today romanticize the history of early Islam. They simplistically reduce the early course of this great religion thus: Allah chose Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) to be His Messenger, and he in turn spread the divine revelations to his fellow tribesman and voila, the words of Allah were wholeheartedly accepted. Arabia was transformed, and the faith spread beyond.

Even the most cursory review of the early history of Islam reveals otherwise. Muslims rightly refer to the pre-Islamic period as the Age of Jahiliyah (Ignorance), with the essential social organization based on tribalism. It was a society plagued with gross social inequities and injustices, with slavery and other abhorrent cultural traits like female infanticide the norm. The prevailing system of justice was an eye for an eye, and the established ethics was one of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The ethos was one of might being right.

Muhammad’s receiving the divine revelations did not alter the situation overnight. He may be preaching the message of Allah, but that did not impress his fellow tribesmen. He may be divinely guided but that did not spare him and his companions from making grievous errors and serious misjudgments. There were miscalculations along the way, together with treachery, greed, jealousy, and all the other ugly emotions known to man. Colossal mistakes were made, the consequences of which present-day Muslims are still paying the price. One reflection of this turmoil is that two of the first four caliphs (“The Rightly Guided”) were assassinated.

I have read many biographies of our prophet (pbuh), ranging from the most embellished hagiographies written by well-meaning followers of our faith to the most cynical versions viewed through the jaundiced eye of the Orientalists. With each reading I learn a little bit more about our holy prophet (pbuh) that further increases my already immense admiration for this great servant of God.

Ironically, my greatest appreciation of our prophet comes from reading accounts where he is being portrayed as an ordinary mortal, sans his miracles. The prophet was of course no ordinary being. Allah in His wisdom did not choose His Last Messenger capriciously. Long before he received his revelation, Muhammad’s sterling character had already been evident. By this I do not mean the miracles that are attributed to him in some of the hallowed hagiographies. For example, it is said that as an infant his mother had extreme difficulty finding a wet nurse for him. As his father had died before his birth, would-be wet nurses rightly felt that they would not be compensated. When one woman, Haleemah binte Abu Thu’aib, finally picked Muhammad (pbuh), it was because she had no other choice. Her reluctance was subsequently amply rewarded, for when she brought the baby to her bosom for the first time, her previously nonproductive breasts suddenly became engorged, with enough nourishing milk not only for Muhammad but also her own infant.

Another miracle had it that while the prophet was a child, Angel Gabriel seized him, ripped open his chest, took his heart out and washed it with iced water in a golden basin, before putting the newly cleansed heart back into Muhammad’s chest. The angel also threw out a black clot, no doubt casting away everything evil.

Such accounts of divine interventions are of course heavy on symbolism. The heart represents the very essence of man, the seat of his soul and very character. Besides, this was no ordinary cleansing; it was in a golden vase, and using iced water no less, both scarce commodities in a hot desert. I consider such accounts interesting if not mildly hilarious, but being miracles they defy rational analysis.

Even dispensing with such celebrated accounts, there were indeed many contemporary records of the prophet’s exemplary life long before Allah selected him. As a young man he already had a reputation for being serious, contemplative, and honest. He was meticulous with money and trustworthy, invaluable traits in a trader. Indeed Muhammad (pbuh) later became an extremely successful trader for a rich widower who subsequently became his wife. He was referred to as Al-Ameen – trustworthy and honest.

On one occasion when the Arabs were rebuilding the Ka’aba after it was damaged from an earlier flood, there was much rivalry and jealousy among the various participants as to who would have the honor of putting the final touch. As usual such a trivial competition quickly escalated and they were ready to come to blows. Finally, calmer heads prevailed and they agreed to ask the first passerby to arbitrate their disagreement. Lo and behold, Muhammad (pbuh) was the first visitor, and they asked him to mediate. Muhammad in his wisdom immediately sensed the gravity of the situation. He was fully aware of the disastrous consequences should he make a mistake.

He quickly devised a brilliant and equitable scheme of sharing the honor. He asked them to spread out a carpet and he then placed the Black Stone, the central object of reverence, in the center of it. He then had a representative from each tribe to lift the edge of the carpet and thus carried the stone to its final resting position. Muhammad then carefully lifted the stone to its final spot. Everyone was satisfied, as they had all participated in the final effort, with no one tribe hogging the honor. It was shared equally and the Arabs were most pleased that he had successfully converted a highly lethal and explosive rivalry into an amicable and cooperative endeavor.

Muhammad (pbuh) intuitively knew the wisdom that honor is not diluted by being shared; on the contrary, it is enhanced. Similarly, rivalries can, with ingenuity, be converted to meaningful teamwork, and destructive competition to fruitful cooperation.

Despite his excellent reputation, Muhammad still encountered enormous difficulties in preaching the Words of Allah. His message of belief in a Supreme Being, social justice, and equality of man threatened the existing social order. His ideas were radical and potentially destabilizing. The ancient Arabs were perfectly content with their current existence, enriched by their profitable trade. Life was good and they saw no need for any change, much less a sweeping one.

His message of social equality was particularly threatening. This was after all a society where slaves were kept, together with indentured labor. Women were kept properties. The birth of a daughter was a calamity, and female infanticide rampant. The norms of the day were treachery, double dealing, and unscrupulous behaviors. Gambling, drinking, and fornication were not regarded as vices, rather rewards after a hard day of trading. Their belief was in idols and superstitions, not of an Almighty God. For generations they had worshipped their ancestors, and here was their Muhammad (pbuh) telling them that this practice was blasphemy!

The Quraishis, who were responsible for the holy shrine, the Ka’aba, considered themselves the chosen people, with special privileges to exact tributes from the pagan pilgrims who came to Mecca. Those pilgrims had to buy food and clothing only from the Quraishis; they could not bring their own supplies. The Quraishis had essentially cornered the market on pilgrims, perhaps the first known trade monopoly.

There were a few who found such injustices shocking. Long before Muhammad’s time, there were individuals who abhorred these decadent and unjust ways. Among the reformers were Abdullah ibn Jahsh and Zaid ibn Amr. When Muhammad started his mission, Abdullah readily accepted Islam, only to convert later to Christianity, as he was unable to face the social heat. Zaid began his own reform before Muhammad, and was murdered for his efforts. It is noteworthy that his son, Saeed, was one of the first to accept the message of Islam.


Next: Spreading the Word of God

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