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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.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #72

Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

Authoritative Versus Authoritarian Ulamas and Scholars

Then there are such irrelevant issues as who can and cannot partake in these debates. There are those ulamas and scholars who feel that only they are qualified enough to partake in such heavy issues. There rest need merely follow their dictates. They are not so much authoritative as much as authoritarian, to use Khalid El Fadl’s words.

It reminds me of the bad old days of imperious doctors who behave like Gods; their utterances and decisions cannot be challenged, least of all by the laity. Thank God, those days are gone. Today physicians fully engage their patients and the y in turn participate fully in decisions affecting themselves. The seeking of second and alternate opinions is now standard practice.

Take the issue of Islamic scholars, another very contentious one. Much of the confusion and the ensuing controversies revolve around the different meanings of basic terms. I can best illustrate this by using the example of surgical scholars. In the academic department I was once associated with, among my colleagues were a veterinary doctor, a biochemist, and an engineer. In standing, pay and prestige, these professors of surgery were no different from the other “operating” professors of surgery, the clinician surgeons. They taught medical students and would-be surgeons, and published in surgical journals. But if one were to have appendicitis, one would not ask these “non-operating” professors to operate. If someone were stupid enough to do so, he or she would be politely if not embarrassedly referred to the “real” surgeons in the department.

Similarly there are Islamic scholars and there are ulama. One can learn a lot about Islam – both the discipline as well as the faith – from Islamic scholars; but in performing funeral rites or reciting the Surah Yaseeen (requiem), one needs the ulama. In medicine there are strict rules as to who can treat patients. Apart from specific training, he or she has to be properly licensed. Anyone not so licensed, no matter how competent, could be charged with fraud and criminal assault were they to practice as physicians. This is to protect the public.

No such statutory delineations occur in the practice of Islam, and rightly so. Islam, unlike other religions, lacks a proscribed clergy class. In Islam it is we mortals and Allah, there being no need for an intermediary. There are no priests, bishops, or pope in Islam. Sure we have an imam, but to paraphrase an ancient saying, he is imam because we, the flock, call him so. His power and prestige are derived from and not imposed upon the congregation.

The present heavily bureaucratized Islam, with ulama placed on salary schemes and acquiring all the other accouterments of the civil service, is purely a Malaysian phenomenon. No surprise then that these modern day ulama behave like their petty counterparts in the civil service – very conscious of their turf. Thus, instead of engaging in a scholarly fashion with those who disagree with them, these ulama treat new ideas as potential threats. Hence the ugly specter of the president of the Muslim Scholars Association filing a police report against writers he disagreed with, instead of publishing his own scholarly rebuttal!

This is not a surprise considering the training these ulama had undergone. They are not so much being educated as being indoctrinated. The quality of their scholarship, certainly when viewed from the vantage point of Western scholarship adept at critical thinking and “deconstruction,” is severely wanting. Their training is akin to that of students of classical music. Classical musicians are trained not to interpret but simply to follow the path of their masters before them. Improvisations or novel interpretations are not expected or welcomed. If you do, you may end up playing for the local jazz band instead. Only when you have become a Glenn Gould could you establish your own style. Until then, no fancy incidental notes or flourishes in phrasing. Follow the score as it is written.

Likewise the ulama; they are not expected to put forth any new thought or to question. Indeed such critical thinking and novel interpretations are viewed suspiciously as the devil’s machinations. Occasionally one may get an alim, who, having mastered the existing state of knowledge, goes on to make his own seminal contributions. There were many such outstanding individuals in the history of Islam. Some were successful in blazing new trails in the understanding of our faith, but most ended up being marginalized or worse, labeled as apostate –and treated accordingly.

What is threatening the world of the traditional ulama today is not the “orientalist” secular Islamic scholars like Patricia Martinez and Farish Noor, rather the emergence of ulama trained in the traditional madrasah system who then went on to be exposed to the rigors of Western scholarship. In the past such scholar-ulama were denigrated back in their native lands, but with the heightened interest in Islam in the West, these individuals are now eagerly sought after by leading Western universities. From their vantage point there, with its superior supporting structures and generous funding, this new breed of scholar-ulama are spreading their views onto the wider Islamic world. With their madrasah credentials, they are as erudite and exquisite in their tajweed (rendition of the Qur’an) as the best of Al Azhar.

The Islamic faith is invigorated with this new breed of scholar-ulama like UCLA’s Khaled Abou El Fadl and Duke University’s Ebrahim Moosa. These distinguished scholars, steeped in the traditional as well as Western scholarship and well versed in Arabic (the language of Islam) as well as English (the language of technology), will take Islam to greater heights. El Fadl is also remarkable in that he has a personal library of over 6,500 Islamic texts and manuscripts, some dating as far back as the 13th Century. More importantly, these enlightened scholars present a refreshing face of Islam to the modern world, a view more in consonant with the ideals of the faith as revealed to our prophet (pbuh) – a much-needed antidote to the rabble rousing and fatwa-issuing likes of Osama bin Ladin. These modern scholars spread the word of Islam not by issuing endless edicts but by the power of their intellect and the logic of their arguments. As the Iranian scholar Abdoolkarim Soroosh noted, the Qur’an is divine; its interpretation is human. The text of the scripture is silent; it is up to us to make it speak. These enlightened scholars have given a fresh voice to the Qur’an.

Much of the present understanding of Islam comes from the works of dedicated scholars, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. All Muslims should value their contributions. They complement our ulama. Confusion arises only when scholars try to assume the trappings of an alim, or when ulama take on the pretensions of a scholar.

For Malays, Islam is the central element of our culture; it also defines Malayness. Legally, a Malay is someone who regularly practices the Malay culture and professes Islam. Malays belong to the mainstream Sunni sect. But what is more important at the daily level is that Islam in Malaysia is what the government bureaucrats deem it to be. Anyone straying from this “straight path,” as defined by the government’s ulama, risks being branded as a subversive or “deviationist,” and will suffer the worldly consequences (like being incarcerated under the ISA).

Islam arrived in the Malay world in the 15th Century by way of Muslim traders. It did not land on a cultural vacuum as Malays then were already steeped in Hindu beliefs and animist traditions. Many Malays today would want to deny this aspect of our past, to wipe the slate clean. This tendency to overlook what present-day Islamists view as less-than-pristine “unIslamic” past is not an affliction peculiar only to Malays. The Japanese have yet to come to terms with their role in World War II. Thus the preoccupation of Malays today in trying to “cleanse” and “purify” the faith, while misguided, is understandable. The difference between the Talibans blasting to smithereens the ancient Buddhist monuments and Malaysian Islamists desecrating Hindu temples is only a matter of degree.

Sadly, much of the world today view Osama bin Ladin and his band of the Talibans as representing the essence of Islam. Unfortunately many Islamic leaders and scholars implicitly encourage this misconception by not condemning unequivocally the criminal activities of these extremist Muslims. As the late Sudanese reformist Mohamad Taha observed, religious fanaticism is inalienable from religious ignorance. It is out of ignorance of the basic tenets of Islam that these fanatics view this world as hostile, and not as God’s wonderful gift to mankind. The challenge is to enlighten Muslims especially those in Malaysia to the pristine message of Islam.


Next: Shari’a in a Plural Society

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