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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.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization # 75

July 25th, 2011

Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

Reform in Islam

Confusing Examples For Principles


My main criticism of the traditional ulama is that in their meticulous and detailed studies of the individual verses of the Qur’an and sunnah, they completely miss out on the underlying theme – missing the proverbial forest for the tress.

To Taha, Muslims’ preoccupation between secular and Islamic state is arbitrary and useless. The values of supposedly secular Western societies like gender equality, commitment to basic human rights, abhorrence of cruel and inhumane punishment, the brotherhood of mankind, and participatory democracy are also Islamic values and ideals. That the West has absorbed and claimed these virtues to be its core is no reason why Muslims should not also subscribe to them. If we follow Taha’s message and make the Shari’a compatible with modern values and aspirations, which as we have seen are also Islamic, then the question of secular versus Islamic would not arise.

The Syrian reformist Muhammad Syahrur argues along similar lines. In his book, al-Kitab wa al Qutan: Qira’a Mucasira (The Book and the Qur’an: A Contemporary Interpretation), he challenges Muslims to imagine: Had Allah revealed the Qur’an today, how would it be written? Apart from being an intellectually stimulating exercise, it would certainly help us understand the Holy Book better. Such an endeavor however, requires considerable mental effort, much more demanding intellectually than simply parroting the lessons of the past.

In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I posed a similar question. Had Allah chosen an Eskimo to be His Last Messenger instead of an Arab, would the imagery of Hell be a place of eternal fire or a cold frozen dungeon?

The Qur’an and sunnah teach through parables and anecdotes, but we should not confuse these examples with the underlying principles. Let me illustrate this principle with, well, an example.

If I were to explain the universal theory of gravity by stating that gravitational pull is directly proportional to the mass and inversely to the square of the distance, or more precisely and elegantly stated by the simple formula g=km/d2, only math jocks would get excited. Others would fall asleep. But if I were to illustrate this with the example of an apple falling to the ground, then the concept is readily grasped. But if one confuses this example with the underlying principle, then one’s faith would be severely shattered on seeing an apple floating when in a spaceship. Indeed if you drop an apple while on one of those gut-wrenching roller coaster rides, it “falls” to the sky. If we truly understand the principle of gravity, then these apparent aberrations, far from shaking our faith, reaffirm it.

Much of the disagreements over the interpretations of the Qur’an and the sunnah are attributable to this confusing of examples over principles. We interpret the Qur’an literally, often completely missing its essence.

I am reminded of the Catholic priest who was sent to preach among the Eskimos. On his first sermon he was in his usual fire and brimstone form, exhorting the natives not to plunder, lie, or fornicate lest they would be sent to burning Hell. Imagine his horror the very next day to find his congregation enthusiastically doing all those damnable deeds. To his angry admonition, they jovially countered, “But Father, we want to go to that place where the fire burns all the time!” Confusing example with principle!

It is instructive that many of the fresh insights into Islam are the result of the intellectual efforts of lay Muslim scholars rather than traditional ulama. Equally significant is that these scholars often are the product of Western liberal education, imbued with the capacity for critical thinking. Taha and Syahrur were professional engineers. Abdullahi An-Naim has a law degree from Cambridge and a doctorate from Edinburgh. As noted by Fazlur Rahman, himself an Oxford PhD, the level of scholarship of the traditional ulama is severely challenged. Their training is narrow, lacks scholarly rigor, and is singularly devoid of original thought. The state of the traditional Islamic educational institutions is no better. Al-Azhar University, Islam’s Harvard, did not have disciplines outside the traditional theological field until the late 1960s. Thus its scholars did not have the opportunity for intellectual cross-fertilization with those in other fields. They remained insular intellectually and socially.

The best hope for the future will be the new breed of scholars coming out of Western universities. It is gratifying that many leading American campuses now have chairs in Islamic Studies. These future scholars, trained under the liberal, broad-based education that is the hallmark of the American system, will lead Islam into its renaissance. According to Osman Bakar, the Malaysian Chair of the Institute of Islamic and Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, America will be the second Mecca. Islam flourishes only in an atmosphere of freedom. America amply provides that.

Traditional ulama are dismissive of Western-trained scholars. To them you are not a “real” Islamic scholar if you do not have the overflowing robe (preferably green, the color of the prophet), oversized turban, and scruffy beard. The spiritual leader of PAS, Tok Guru Nik Aziz, in a Friday sermon contemptuously dismissed Western-trained scholars as having been brainwashed by “orientalists” out to ridicule Islam. When you cannot challenge the message, simply attack the messenger – an age-old trick, and a very cheap and ineffective one at that.

Next: The Quest For Answers

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