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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, February 24, 2013

Suaris Interview: The Future of Malays #5


Suaris Interview:  The Future of Malays #5:  It appears that you are cynical towards things labeled “Islam.” Many feel that you do not subscribe to conservative Islam as practiced by the vast majority of Muslims rather the basic teachings of our faith. What is your comment?

[The original was posted on suaris.wordpress.com on Feb 13, 2013.]

MBM:  I am a Muslim, by birth and through practice. I believe in God and Muhammad, s.a.w, as His Last Messenger, as well as the five pillars of our faith. That of course is the belief of all Muslims.

            What is the essence of the teachings of our Holy Koran and Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w.? Command good and forbid evil! That is repeated many times in our Koran and hadith. That too is agreed upon by all Muslims.
           
            That is the “golden rule” of our faith. I am less interested in labels, those can be easily printed. Content is something else. If a state does not subscribe to the creed of doing good and forbidding evil, then I do not consider it to be Islamic regardless of the label. It is easy to carve the names “Allah” and “Muhammad” on arches and buildings; likewise for leaders to don overflowing robes and huge turbans.

            The question is whether corruption, bribery, and abuse of power are deemed “avoidance of evil.” Likewise, if leaders ignore the sufferings and deprivations of their citizens, could that be considered “doing good?” When I make judgment on whether a state is Islamic, those are the crucial factors, not how often the leaders have been to Mecca or how exquisite their recitation of the Koran.

            A Singaporean once asserted that his country is more Islamic than neighboring Indonesia. In Singapore there is no corruption or abuse of power by its leaders. Citizens too are well taken care of and not poverty stricken. Poverty invites impiety, goes an ancient wisdom, and impiety in turn leads to infidelity to our faith. Visit nearby Riau and the wisdom of that observation would be readily self evident. The abject poverty there assaults your sensibilities. We cannot blame those poor Indonesians. The Chinese too were like that when they were plagued with poverty in their not-too-distant past.

            Based on the foundation of our faith – command good and forbid evil – it is hard to dispute the view of the Singaporean.

            I do not quite understand the meaning of conservative versus liberal as applied to Islam. While I understand the meaning of those two words in their original English, in Malay those terms have acquired diametrically opposite meanings. That is why I refrain from using either.
           
            It would be more meaningful if I were to give an example of an Islamic society and leader I hold in high regards and compare both with another I would be very hesitant in emulating. It is not my place to say which one is more Islamic and would enter Paradise. Only Allah knows that, and He is not telling me or anyone else.

            There are fewer than 15 million Ismailis in the world, about the same number as Malays in Malaysia. Those Ismailis do not even have a country of their own, but their power, influence and contributions to the world generally and Muslim community specifically far exceed their number.

            Ismailis emphasize the giving of zakat (tithe), and with that money they build schools and universities, as well as invest in companies that among other things manufacture pharmaceuticals. The Aga Khan University Hospital in Pakistan was built only in 1985 but it is already a well known center. The Ismailis could not care less whether their women don their hijab; they are more concerned that their women be trained as doctors, teachers and engineers so they could contribute to society, to be makhlok soleh (exemplary beings).

            Compare them to the Talibans in Afghanistan. Taliban means students, but those students are busy burning schools and splashing acids on young girls wanting to go to school. Taliban youths are busy leaning how to use C4 explosives and high-powered AK47 rifles; young Ismailis are busy solving problems in science and calculus.

            A society reflects its leaders. The leader of the Ismailis is the Aga Khan. Yes, he is wealthy, raises thoroughbreds, and his father was once married to Rita Hayward, the famed American actress. The current Aga Khan however, graduated from Harvard; he leveraged his networking with American intellectuals to entice them to teach at the universities he built in Asia.

            The leader held in high regards by the Taliban was Osama. He too was wealthy and qualified as an engineer from a Saudi university, but he expended his wealth and skills to destroy buildings and kill people.
           
            Who better “command good and forbid evil,” Aga Khan or Osama? I let readers determine whether Malay society today is closer to the Ismailis or the Taliban. Again, I leave it to readers to decide whether the Ismailis or Taliban we should emulate.

            We are obsessed with hudud and hijab while drug abuse and abandoned babies are rampant in our community. Why should we emphasize hudud and not zakat? We should be mandating zakat on every Muslim including the sultans. It is one of the five pillars of our faith; hudud is not.

            If everyone (save the poor) pay their zakat (2.5 percent of their assets), and then we employ the smartest economists and investment bankers to manage those funds, there would be no end to the good those would bring. That is exactly what the Ismailis are doing, building schools and hospitals with their zakat. What are the benefits of the Taliban’s zakat? If we emphasize hudud, many would end up with their hands chopped off. Who will feed them and their families?
           
            We best demonstrate our Islamic values by not tolerating the corrupt and incompetent, as well as those who have abused our trust in them. Our Koran commands thus.
           
            Yes, we have to accept Islam in its totality; we do not have the privilege of picking and choosing only those parts that please us. The crucial question is why should we emphasize hijab and the chopping of hands but tolerate rotten education and gross corruption? What should be our priority? That reflects our values.
           
            Consider education. Hamka once said that God gave us two Korans; one, the Koran we are all familiar with; two, the universe outside and within us. For the first, Allah had given us a prophet in the person of Muhammad, s.a.w., to guide us in studying it. For the second, God had blessed us with an intellect so we could reason and distinguish between good from evil, truth from falsehood. We have an obligation to study both Korans.

            Scientists elucidating the secrets of the polio virus could be viewed as studying this second Koran. The result was the discovery of a vaccine that had spared millions from the devastating disease. That is “doing good.” The Taliban however, view the vaccine as a poison perpetrated by the infidels. Consequently polio still afflicts many in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Again based on the golden rule of our faith, is that “doing good?”

            In the early centuries of our faith, our ulama did not differentiate between worldly and religious knowledge. Both ultimately originate from God. Those ancient ulama were also proficient scientists, competent physicians, and skilled mathematicians. They were as diligent in studying this second Koran as the first. Today’s ulama however, totally ignore this second Koran. To them it is not worthy of study. The ummah takes their cue from the ulama; consequently, Muslims have not contributed our share for the betterment of mankind.

            We should be concerned with such critical issues as how to educate our young so they could make their rightful contributions to society. Do good in this world and God will look kindly upon you on the Day of Judgment. He is after all Most Just!
           
            Consider this ahadith (approximately translated):  A prostitute was admitted into heaven because she once saved a dog dying of thirst by giving it water. Do you think such women wear hijabs? Another ahadith has it that a man was admitted to Heaven because he once removed a thorn from a road. If that deed was worthy of admission to Paradise, imagine the rewards for someone who actually built the road, meaning, the engineers!
           
            Again, we best demonstrate our Islamic values by building safe roads and bridges. There is no point carving “Allah” and verses of the Holy Koran on such structures if our architects and engineers are incompetent, and the roofs they designed and build would collapse in the first storm and injure many, or if their bridges have more water flowing above than below!

            A few years ago there was a public debate between Datuk Asri Zainal Abidin and Astora Jabat on tajdid (reform in Islam). I admire both individuals; they are among the most thoughtful. However, in that three-hour debate, they argued on the minutiae of hudud, on whether a woman’s hair is considered aurat and thus must be covered. Only towards the end did a brave soul ask why we should be bothered with hijab when our nation is crippled with rampant corruption. His query was never addressed. We must reform Islam so we could address pressing social problems that now blight our society. Don’t be obsessed with hijab.

            The typical religious discourse on radio and television or at our mosques and universities is unidirectional, from speaker to listeners. The bulk of the time would be consumed with excessive salutations and endless quotations of Koran and hadith. When both are cited, discussions would have effectively been shut down. The Koran and hadith should be the beginning, not the ending of a discussion.

            Consider the ahadith that says the community would be divided into 73 sects, only one of which is true and genuine. The remainder 72 would presumably be headed for Hell. How we interpret that hadith has consequences. If every ulama feels that his is the only true sect, then he would have a messianic zeal to correct the rest, with the rationale of helping them enter Heaven! That’s what motivates those Taliban to splash acid on schoolgirls.

            Statistically speaking, you have only one chance in 73 to be correct, less than 1.5 percent! That probability should humble and motivate us to learn from the others in the hope that one of them is the one true faith!

            I am blessed to live in America with its freedom. I can read Shia and Ahmaddiyah literature without being harassed by religious officials. There are none in America! In Malaysia, I would be jailed without trial, treated just like the communists of yore. Would such a stand conducive to peace and understanding or breed suspicion and enmity among Muslims?

            Like Astora Jabat, I do not subscribe to any figh (sect). I do not as yet know which of the 73 sects is genuine. What I do know is that piety, justness and wisdom are not restricted to any community. I can still learn from the Shias, Ismailis, Salafis and Wahabis, among others, on the truth and beauty of our faith.
           
            On the Day of Judgment, we would be held accountable for our deeds on this earth. We could not give the excuse that we were merely following the teachings of this ulama or that. Our faith is blessed not to have a defined clergy class. We have to think for ourselves. We decide whether to follow the ulama who command us to hate non-Muslims and consider those Muslims whose politics we disagree with as infidels.
           
            Back to the beginning, my understanding of Islam is simple and straightforward:  Command good and forbid evil. The rest are but examples and illustrations.


Cont’d:  Suaris Interview The Future of Malays #6:  Continuing on, what is your view on PAS and its leaders? Will their policies and activities usher Malays forward?

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