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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.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #18

Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past

The Relevant Lessons of Early Islam

Much can be learned from the travails of the early Muslims. It helps considerably of course if God is on your side. That aside, there is much that we can emulate from the experiences and wisdom of the early Muslims.

First is the character of the prophet (pbuh) himself. Forgetting for a moment that he was Allah’s chosen Rasul (messenger), there are many attributes of the man that are noteworthy. His style of leadership was one of personal example. Long before Allah chose him, he already had a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness, as attested by his title Al-Ameen. Further, he had significant worldly achievements before he became Allah’s messenger. He was a successful trader, bringing bountiful profits to his employer. So impressed was her with his performance that she took the most unusual step of asking him to marry her. In a society where a woman’s status is only slightly higher than that of a camel, this was an unusual gesture on Khatijah’s part. Even more significant, Muhammad (pbuh) was not threatened by her audacity, a reflection of his conviction that women shared equal standing with men: a revolutionary concept at the time. He married her and she later became his most ardent and important supporter.

Unlike our prophet, all too often today’s Malaysian leaders have not demonstrated excellence in any endeavor. They may have dabbled in many fields but have left no significant mark; they are busy padding their resumes rather than achieving anything of significance. We have plenty of lawyers in Mahathir’s cabinet but I would not trust any of them to handle my traffic ticket. A few are former executives, but the companies they ran were monopolies; no particular managerial talent is required to run such enterprises. As for the academics in the cabinet, their scholarly achievements are such that they would have a tough time gaining tenure elsewhere.

The second point is that Muhammad (pbuh), in the hip-hop language of today, not only “talk the talk but also walk the walk.” His commitment to equality was not mere lip service; he demonstrated it in the most dramatic ways. He abhorred slavery; and demonstrated this by freeing those slaves who became Muslims. Indeed some of his trusted companions and brilliant lieutenants were former slaves. He not only preached tolerance, but also personified forbearance and charity. Thus when his daughters married non-Muslims he did not disown them nor did he chastise their husbands or proclaim that they and their children would rot in hell. Yet today many supposedly devout Muslims willingly disown their own kin for much lesser sins.

Muhammad (pbuh) was no autocratic leader. In battles he consulted his lieutenants liberally; he did not embark on a course of action unless he could carry his followers with him. He knew that once his followers were committed, there would be no limit to their achievements. The near disaster they experienced at Uhud was in part attributable to the fact that many of the Muslims were fighting for the wrong reason – the spoils of war rather than for the cause.

We see this same phenomenon in UMNO today. Because it is the ruling party with many “goodies” in the form of public contracts and patronages to dispense, UMNO attracts many for the wrong reasons. Many members and leaders are fighting not for the party but for the bounties afforded by the party. The lowliest positions are keenly contested not because of the opportunity to advance the cause but for the accompanying government contracts and largess they would bring. The opposition Islamic Party PAS on the other hand, with no comparable rewards to distribute, attracts only the most committed. The crucial test for PAS is when it gains control of a few more jurisdictions, and then the fight will surely begin.

Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in the second volume of his memoir, related similar experiences with his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). As it has been in power for a long time, it attracted political climbers and opportunists rather than true believers.

To his credit, Lee recognized this very early and took immediate drastic measures. He stepped up recruitments from other than the usual sources instead of merely waiting passively for new members. Today, Singapore’s second tier of leaders includes some of its best and brightest who has been successfully recruited laterally, instead of depending exclusively on the rank and file.

In striking contrast, Malaysia’s young leaders are an uninspiring bunch. Indeed Prime Minister Mahathir lamented that he is trapped in his position. If he were to retire now (2002), there would be a mad and unseemly struggle for power.

One aspect of our prophet’s leadership deserves emphasis. Even though he was painfully aware of his burden of spreading Allah’s message and thus the righteousness of his mission, yet he demonstrated remarkable restrain. Thus he was willing to delay his pilgrimage, dear to all Muslims, for a year if that would avoid an unnecessary war. He was keen to heal, not create new or open old wounds. Contrast that to today’s Malaysian leaders, Muslims and non-Muslims, who are so consumed with the righteousness of their cause that they are prepared to create havoc, sacrifice lives, and even destroy the nation if that is what it takes for them to gain power.

PAS leaders in their zeal for spreading the truth as they see it are oblivious of the dangerous polarization of the ummah (community) that they cause. They brazenly declare that those who vote against PAS are surely punching their ticket to hell. Such righteousness! Such certitude! That their listeners believe in such nonsense is reflective of the stupidity of both leaders and followers. Such crude preaching perverts the true message of Islam. To PAS and UMNO leaders, it matters not that their actions would create permanent deep fissures among Malays as long as they could capture votes. They are political animals to the core rather than true leaders who will lead the nation to greater heights.

Malaysian leaders would do well to emulate our prophet (pbuh). It was not simply that he was preaching the message of Allah that accounted for Islam’s phenomenal success; it was also the sheer power of his personality and sense of leadership that attracted many committed followers.

To his great tribute, Muhammad (pbuh) strongly discouraged a personality cult built around him. Imagine had he done so or in any way aggrandized himself. Muslims today would be busy adoring and worshipping the man instead of his message. Muslim homes would be decorated with ornately framed portraits of the prophet, his family and companions. Mosques and monuments would be named after him. Muslim babies would be carrying amulets and other artifacts of him for good luck charms and symbols. Young Muslim radicals would be waving little green books and chanting “The Thoughts of Chairman Muhammad.”

In his wisdom the prophet (pbuh) clearly distinguished between the divine revelations he received, and his own preaching. With the former he made sure that they were immediately and accurately memorized and transcribed by his followers. But he specifically forbade them from recording his own words lest later Muslims would confuse the two messages. Because the prophet did not focus on himself but on Allah’s message, the faith remains true to its original divine mission.

I look askance at today’s leaders, especially in the Muslim world, where every home is adorned with portraits of the “beloved” leader. Every room and street in Baghdad is plastered with pictures of Saddam Hussein in various forms: farmer, soldier (highly decorated of course), and preacher. Iranians can hardly escape the scowling stare of Ayotallah Khomeini from every public wall.

Because he attracted such capable and distinguished personalities as his companions, Muhammad (pbuh) did not see fit to arrange for a formal succession mechanism. Rightly so, after all he was chosen by Allah to be His Last Messenger, and thus by definition, there cannot be a successor. Nevertheless in the ordinary workings of mortals, there must be a system for an orderly transition of leadership and smooth transfer of power.

Fortunately his closest companions were men of integrity and honor. They learned well the lessons of Islam. Between them they were able to agree on a caliph, the successor to lead the faithful. The first was Abu Bakar, followed by Omar, Uthman, and lastly, Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law. Their leadership was exemplary. Abu Bakar created a much-needed sense of stability and continuity. Uthman collated the revelations into the Holy Koran, a complete message for mankind for all ages and at all times. Omar was a legendary administrator known for his fabled walkabout brand of management where he would disguise himself as an ordinary citizen and wander the streets to determine how his subjects were actually doing, instead of relying on reports from his subordinates. His kind-heartedness and concern for the ordinary citizens were the stuff of legends. Such achievements notwithstanding, three of the four Caliphs ended being assassinated by fellow Muslims. There are reports that Abu Bakar’s brief tenure was because he was poisoned.

Muhammad (pbuh) was the personification of tolerance. Muslims today do not quite grasp this unique and enduring quality of our prophet. Much of the split in the Muslim world today is the result of differences in interpretations and not on matters of basic principles. The schism between the two major sects, Sunni and Shi’i, is over who should succeed the prophet, that is, differences over personnel, not principle.

One of the disheartening aspects of public discourse in Malaysia today is precisely this lack of tolerance of divergent opinions. Those who dare disagree are quickly labeled deviant, subversive, or worse, infidels destined for hell. Malaysians emphasize differences rather than commonalities.

Muslims are urged to emulate the ways of the holy prophet (pbuh). We cannot hope to aspire for his qualities of miracles; those are properly the exclusive gift of Almighty Allah. But we can emulate his other human attributes.

Earlier I alluded to his legendary tolerance. When his uncle Abu Talib died without embracing Islam, the prophet did not forsake him or condemn him to eternal hell. His uncle may not have been a Muslim but he was still worthy of Muhammad’s love and respect.

When one sees the deep schism among Muslims today, it is easy to forget that the essence of the faith is rather simple and agreed to by all. Islam’s tenets are its five pillars: belief in Allah and Mohammad as his Last Messenger, and in the Day of Judgment; praying five times a day; fasting during Ramadan; giving tithe; and if conditions permit, a pilgrimage to Mecca. Everything else are frills, ornaments that will vary with times and cultures. If we can tolerate these variations then we would be able to get along better with our fellow Muslims, and in turn, with non-Muslims.

Just as in a building, these pillars may be displayed differently. A functional builder shows the structural pillars boldly to glorify their massive strengths and advertise their supporting functions, as we see in modern warehouse-like offices. A more esthetic architect may want them camouflaged as Grecian or Roman columns. A post-modernist designer would hide or blend them into the walls.

So it is with Islam. Some Muslims display their faith exuberantly, others more subdued but no less pious. Living in America, I am blessed with the opportunity to learn from fellow Muslims from all over the world. From the conservative Wahabis I value the anchoring stability of traditions and rituals; from the liberal Ismailis, pragmatic accommodation. They both enrich my understanding of the faith.

Our prophet (pbuh) implicitly recognized this diversity when he declared, “Differences of opinion within my community is a sign of the bounty of Allah.” It pains me immensely to see Muslims polarized and divided over mere interpretations. We should have a Jeffersonian generosity: every difference in opinion is not a difference of principle.

Islam spreads because people recognize implicitly the value and truth of this divine message. Ancient Malays readily accepted Islam despite its foreign origin because of its evident truth. Yet today we frequently hear the refrain that globalization and free enterprise are not suited for Malaysia because they originated with the Anglo Saxons and thus alien to our ways. If the ideas work, embrace them; if not, discard. The world readily accepted the Arabic numeral system without caring who invented it.

I find this insular attitude among Muslim leaders and scholars of denigrating and dismissing the works and contributions of non-Muslims dangerous and a major obstacle to the modernization of Islam. Islam is too important to be left to the religious scholars alone. We would be abrogating our responsibility as Muslims if we suspend our critical judgment and blindly accept the pronouncements of our ulama. A passage in the Qur’an reminds us that on the Day of Judgment we will be judged by our own deeds. We cannot excuse ourselves by saying that we followed the teachings of this alim (singular for ulama) or that scholar.

It is instructive that one of the significant advances in medical education in the 20th century was started not by educators or even doctors, but an insurance salesman, Abraham Flexner. Prior to 1911 medical education in America was a haphazard affair. A medical college was less a place to train doctors but more a moneymaking enterprise. And the product showed. In 1911 Flexner, appalled at how future doctors were being trained, produced his famous report that later became the basis for revamping medial education in America. Today American medical schools are unanimously regarded as the best. Had the medical establishment simply dismissed Flexner because of his lack of medical or educational training, American medical schools would have remained third rate.

In the final analysis it is the merit of the idea that matters, not where or from whom it originated.

Next: The European Reformation


Blogger Gamal said...

REIT would be a sensible option.

10:03 AM  

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