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.
Learning Islam From Muslims, and Muslims Learning Islam
Learning Islam From Muslims, and Muslims Learning Islam
A Review of Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam. The Importance of Being Islamic
Second of Two Parts
In the first part of my essay I recalled Shahab Ahmed’s elegant albeit oxymoronic phrase “coherent contradictions” to describe the dizzying diversity and puzzling perplexities that are the norms in Islam, then and now.
As for “reforming” Islam, the current fetish among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Ahmed did not have much praise or hope for these reformers, ancient or modern. This was not out of any Islam-does-not-need-reforming sentiment, rather that those reformers limited themselves to reading only the Text (Koran) and then were consumed with their arcane legalistic and hermeneutical interpretations. They ignored the “Pre-Text” and “Con-Text,” or more crucially, how Islam is believed, practiced, and contributed to by Muslims past and present, scholars and ordinary believers alike.
Or in Shahab Ahmed’s words, “how Islam makes Muslims as Muslims make Islam.” Much can be learned about Islam, and about Muslims, from just that.
We can only learn if we do not let ourselves be trapped by the limitations of language but instead continually explore the greater, wider, and deeper meanings of those words, imageries and metaphors. This applies not only to learning the Koran but also other Revelations, and indeed any readings.
This exploration would necessitate the constant questioning and reappraising of the presently accepted. As per Sa’adi’s Gulistan, only three things have no durability without their concomitants: wealth without trade, knowledge without debate, and rulers without justice.
The rapid expansion of the knowledge of Islam and of the faith itself during its first few centuries was attributable in part to the robust and often none-too-peaceful debates among its adherents. Consider the battles between the literalist Kharijites and the rationalist Mu’tazilites that still rage to this day, or the theological argument whether the Koran was created or eternal. As for the prophet, even he was challenged, and often, to demonstrate the legitimacy of his mission and prophethood.
Followers of the various sects and fiqhs harbor profound and irreconcilable differences, yet they all profess to read and learn from the same Koran and abide by the teachings of the same Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims today look longingly to the glorious days of early Islam with the effervescence of its intellectual and other activities. We would do well to examine what was with the environment then that made those early Muslims so productively prolific and creative. Instead we are content with endlessly praising the prophet and those early Muslims while failing to emulate their sterling examples.
For one, those ancient Muslim scholars did not shy away from learning even from the atheistic Greek philosophers. To those early Muslims, knowledge is knowledge, and thus worth pursuing. They did not differentiate between secular and religious knowledge or the equally futile current pursuit of its “Islamization,” a particular fad of contemporary Muslim scholars especially those from the Third World, as exemplified by the late Syed Naquib Al Attas.
Today we shy away from learning from the so-called kafir West. Instead we are content to denigrating its evident shortcomings instead of emulating its spectacular successes.
As for dealing with our differences, Muslims have failed to learn from our own Prophet Muhammad. Legend has it he had instructed his followers who were on a journey to meet at a certain place for their Asar prayers. One group was delayed, and arguments arose within whether they should stop for their prayers or rush on so they could pray together with the prophet at their agreed-upon destination. When they later brought up their disagreement to Prophet Muhammad, his answer was simple. Both interpretations were correct. His central message was that they should stay together and not endanger themselves by separating from each other. This simple wisdom, that there could be more than one valid interpretation, still baffles many.
As per the Koran, Allah will not let his ummah go astray. Meaning, listen to the ummah. This was what Shahab Ahmed did; and we are the beneficiaries of his worthy endeavor.
When there are differences, we must first ascertain that they are real and not apparent. When you say that an object is blue and I say it is green, the difference may be with the lenses we are wearing or the light under which we view the object instead of its intrinsic color. Even where the differences are real, they may be of the blind-men-and-the-elephant fable variety, meaning only the details vary but the underlying beast or principle is the same.
The mission then should be not to denigrate or belittle our differences, or allow them be sources of strife, rather to let them be the stimulus or inspiration for us to explore and deduce the underlying unifying principle.
Consider the universal law of gravity, as demonstrated by the simplistic Newton’s apple falling to the ground observation. Expressed thus, it is readily comprehensible by the masses.
However if one were to be on a Ferris wheel and at a sufficiently high speed where the centrifugal force exceeds gravitational pull, and then let the apple fly out of our hands while at the top of the ride, the apple would “fall” towards the sky, at least for a brief moment. This is the same principle used to train astronauts where they would be momentarily weightless as the plane makes a sharp arc dive towards the ground.
The apple “falling” up to the sky contradicts Newton’s observation, but if we were to understand the underlying principle of gravitational pull expressed elegantly by the formula F=G x M1M2/r2 (where F is the force, M the masses, r the distance between the two bodies, and G a constant), then the two observations of the apple falling to the ground and to the sky are not contradictory but illustrative of the same underlying principle.
Contradictions in Islam are often of this nature, as well as that of the blind-men-and-the-elephant variety. We must continue exploring the meaning of the Koran. We may never discover the ultimate truth, for in the words of the Koran, Allahu alam (only Allah knows), but the search itself can be very enlightening.
We may not be able to discern or extrapolate exactly the shape of the elephant from the various contradictory accounts, but if we could just appreciate the fact that they are all manifestations of the same beast, then we are already far ahead.
Going back to my Minanagkabau tradition of inheritance going only to daughters, this contradicting of the Koran may be illusory and that at the core my culture and the Koran are expressing the same sentiment. That is, inheritance should go to those who would look after their ageing parents, or be in a position to do so. In Bedouin culture, as per the “Pre-Text” of the Koran, that would be the sons. With my matriarchal Minangkabau culture where sons are traditionally engaged in merantau (wanderlust) and with more than a few expected not to return, that responsibility of parental care would fall on the daughters.
As for ancestor worship, again here we are trapped by words. There is a definite difference between respecting and honoring our past heroes and luminaries by building mausoleums and monuments in their honor, versus ancestor worship. However it is also not difficult to imagine the former degenerating into the latter, again demonstrating Ahmed’s spectrum and axis of values.
Similar controversy rages among Muslims with respect to observing Maulud Nabi, the prophet’s birthday. Are Muslims “celebrating” it in the manner of Christians with their Christmas or are we “honoring” the prophet by recalling his wisdom and exemplary qualities on the occasion of his birthday?
As has been tragically demonstrated far too often, words, like sticks and stones, can really hurt you, especially words of the Revelation.
Shahab Ahmed’s greatest contribution to Muslims with this book is his message for us to continue exploring the varied meanings of the words, imageries, metaphors and other elements of language used in the Koran before those words hurt us, and others. At the pragmatic level, by learning and familiarizing ourselves with the various manifestations of Islam we would be able to get a better understanding of this great faith.
For non-Muslims, this book will enlighten them as to the vast and infinite manifestations of Islam. This appreciation will help them understand that when a Muslim undertakes an action in the name of Islam, that’s only his particular vision of the faith. The whole Muslim ummah thus should not be condemned, praised, or in any way be held responsible.
Though modestly priced and readily readable, this book is unlikely to get wide readership especially among Muslims in the Third World. There the reading culture is at best rudimentary and the oral tradition is still strong. Witness the mega crowds at sermons and religious lectures. If that is not already a severe obstacle and burden, then there is the penchant of Muslim leaders to ban books carrying views at variance to those accepted by the authorities.
The ideas presented in this book could albeit with great difficulty be compressed into an hour’s lecture and then distributed in the social media. If some enterprising soul were to do that, Shahab Ahmed’s ideas and illuminating perspectives would get a wider audience. Granted an oral presentation would not have the same impact or retentive power as a book. For that, it would be far more productive if there were to be a Readers’ Digest version of this volume, translated in the various languages used by Muslims. This book could be considerably abridged and made much thinner by dispensing with the detailed documentations and lengthy quotes. Having it in paperback edition would also make it more affordable in the greater Muslim world.
Spreading Shahab Ahmed’s ideas far and wide would be a splendid way to honor this brilliant young thinker, quite apart from disseminating a much more enlightened view of our great faith.
Review of Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam. The Importance of Being Islamic
M. Bakri Musa
First of Two Parts
While holidaying on an island in the Indonesian Riau Province I came upon a communal graveyard. I was surprised that while the graves had markers, there were no individual identifications, no names or even dates of death. On enquiring, the villagers told me that this was to discourage ancestor worship. In Islam we worship Allah, and only Him. Any deviation would be shirk, a blasphemy.
Yet only a few islands away on Pulau Penyengat, there is an elaborate mausoleum to honor the great poet Raja Ali Haji of Gurindam XII fame. On religious days and special occasions, villagers throng the site; at other times they come to pray for their children’s success at school.
The inhabitants on both islands are devout Muslims. While we could readily comprehend and accept variations in Islam (or any faith for that matter) in different geographic areas and with different cultures, the people on both islands are all Malays. What gives?
On a more substantive level, with my Minangkabau clan, inheritance goes exclusively to daughters, a direct and apparent defiance of the Koranic injunction that daughters get only half as much as sons. Yes, we Minangkabaus are also Malays and devout Muslims.
If there are such glaring contradictions in the practice of Islam within a small homogenous society, imagine the situation across cultures and continents. The ummah (community) as a whole has failed or refuses to recognize this central and obvious reality.
Much of the schisms ravaging the Muslim world today and in the past are rooted in this fundamental failure to accept much less embrace such differences. Every Muslim feels that his or her particular version of the faith is the only true one, the rest are but bida’a (adulterations), or worse. The consequence to this thinking is that every Muslim feels a messianic urge and rage to correct those “misled.”
On the flip side, when some Muslim Nigerians and Afghanis behave like brutal savages, the entire global Islamic community gets blamed. To non-Muslims we are but a monolithic homogenous mass with the same ideals and aspirations.
Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam. The Importance of Being Islamic addresses the reality of such conspicuous contradictions, dizzying diversity, and perplexing plurality within Islam. He focused on the vast arc of Muslim land from the Balkans to Bengal to illustrate his point that such diversity, plurality and outright contradictions are very much the norm in Islam, now and then. His somewhat oxymoronic but elegant phrase “coherent contradictions” does not in any way diminish that reality.
Ahmed had a Southeast Asian connection. Born in Singapore of Pakistani ancestry, he graduated in law from the International Islamic University, Kuala Lumpur, and later blossomed in America. A Princeton PhD, he was on the faculty at Harvard where he completed his tome. He died recently in his forties.
Scholars like Shahab Ahmed, trained in modern scholarship with its emphasis on critical thinking and rigorous analyses, shine new light on our faith. The Islam that we discover from such works is much more beautiful and relevant to our present ever increasingly diverse and interconnected world. That Islam is also a refreshing departure from the one projected by our traditional scholars, obsessed as they are with their dazzling quotations of the Koran, hadith, and the layers upon layers of ancient commentaries, or the “ideal” and “true” version as projected by reformers, ancient and contemporary, mesmerized as they are by their “enlightened” hermeneutics of our holy texts.
Shahab Ahmed sought the meaning of Islam “in a manner that expresses the historical and human phenomenon . . . in its plenitude and complexity.” The book is an endeavor “to locate the logic of difference and contradiction as coherent with and internal to Islam.” Ahmed did not presume to tell readers how Islam should be practiced to ensure one’s personal salvation. As to who would end up in Heaven, well, that is, as Muslims put it, Allahu alam (only God knows!).
This book is an account of what Islam means to its followers then and now, in the Balkans as well as Bengal, not what the ulamas and legal scholars think it ought to be. It is the Islam lived by its followers, not the prescriptive and proscriptive variety, or the halal versus haram version. The book however, is not a sociological treatise either in content or style. There are no surveys, graphs or statistical analyses, and the prose is highly readable. Technical terms and strange-sounding Arabic words are kept at a minimum.
Shahab Ahmed began by posing six questions. What is Islamic about Islamic philosophy, considering that more than a few of its practitioners were non-Muslims; likewise with Islamic art? The next three questions pertain to some esoteric theological beliefs and practices of the Sufis that would rile up the Wahhabis and other conservatives.
The sixth and most striking is the issue of imbibing wine. Every Muslim knows or thinks he knows that wine is haram. Yet wine drinking was common at one time in much of the Balkans-to-Bengal arc. Rumi’s canonical Divan makes frequent celebratory references to it. There were even wine decanters inscribed with Koranic verses, and used at state functions during the heyday of the Islamic empire.
What is Islam gets great reviews. As a parenthetical aside, the snippets of glowing reviews reprinted on the book cover are from scholars whom the author had mentioned favorably in his book!
The book is over 600 pages, with drawn-out but not dense sentences, paragraphs that often extend well beyond the page, and chapters (there are only five) of mini-book length. Beyond that, the ideas and revelations presented require much contemplation to ponder and absorb. Nonetheless the reader is well rewarded in the end and could appreciate why the book is getting all those accolades. They are well deserved!
The Koran asserts that Islam is “for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time.” Our holy book also says that Allah in His infinite wisdom had created mankind in all its diversity. As such, Islam must of necessity be a very big tent. We should not be surprised then that those on the western or sun-setting side would dress and behave differently from those on the eastern cooler part, or those on the northern side would view the world differently and speak a different language, with words, imageries, and metaphors carrying entirely different meanings.
Consider language. The Koran was revealed in a language understood by the Bedouins. Its words, metaphors and imageries did not arise in a vacuum rather they were the ones frequently used and well understood by those early Arabs. The denotations and connotations however, may have changed over time and place. They may well be at variance with the original usage.
Take the word ‘poetry.’ During the prophet’s time, poets were hired to assassinate characters or ridicule them. Poets were literary whores; their words may be poetic and stir emotions, but they were whores nonetheless. Today we hold poets in high esteem. Same word but vastly different if not diametrically opposed meaning.
Likewise imagery; consider Hell as depicted in the Koran, an eternal inferno. What would be the imagery had Almighty Allah chosen not an Arab but an Eskimo to be His Last Messenger?
That brings me to the story of the priest sent to the frigid North to preach among the natives there. On his very first fire-and-brimstone midnight sermon he warned his flock of the severe punishment of Hell awaiting those who transgressed God’s laws. Imagine his horror when the very next morning his parishioners were all gleefully indulging themselves! When asked they responded, “But Father, we want to go to that place where the big fire burns all the time!”
Same imagery, but evoking vastly different emotions and meaning!
To understand the Text (Koran), we would first have to comprehend the pre-revelation language, or what Ahmed referred to as the “Pre-Text,” as with the meaning of poets. Then we would have to appreciate the “Con-Text,” as with the imagery of Hell.
Much of the discussions on Islam today, in the West and in the Muslim world, involve languages and expressions of the dominant West, as with secular versus religious. Such dichotomy, with its constricting either/or proposition, while appropriate in the West with its history of heavy Church involvement in the affairs of state, is irrelevant in Islam or alien in its history or culture. If anything in Islam, as Noah Feldman noted in his The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, ulamas and scholars served as bulwarks against the excesses of the state and sultans.
At least that was the traditional roles of scholars and ulamas. Today as exemplified in Malaysia and elsewhere, they have been co-opted by the state to be its instruments for control and repression. Recall the wisdom of Sa’adi Shirazi’s Gulistan: Hell is full of scholars who were close to rulers; heaven with rulers who befriended ulamas.
Islam is more than a religion, our imams remind us often. It is all encompassing. An either/or dichotomy is inadequate. More relevant would be a spectrum or “axis of values,” not between religious or secular but along such lines as public and private, or state and personal. Spectrum means that boundaries are fuzzy, and would vary with circumstances. Instead of having to make a dichotomous choice, we have instead a hierarchy of values that is fluid, malleable, and changeable.
Thus what is haram or unacceptable in the public arena is very much tolerated if not embraced (pardon the pun) in the privacy of one’s bedroom. Consider this legend attributed to Caliph Omar, may Allah be pleased with him.
On one of his famous “walk-about” management routines, he came upon an unmarried couple engaged in what Malaysians would call khalwat, in the privacy of their quarters. The Caliph barged in and pronounced them guilty of adultery, and handed them the ultimate punishment, stoning to death (at least for the woman), as prescribed in the Koran.
After the Caliph had finished his ranting, the man calmly admitted that yes he and his partner had indeed committed a sin against God, as per the Koran, but the Caliph on the other hand had wronged the couple by invading their privacy, also haram as per the Koran. The great Caliph, recognizing his error, apologized and recanted his verdict.
The central point here is that in Islam, the latter – wronging your fellow man – is the far more serious offence than transgressing God’s laws. A Generous and All-Forgiving Allah may forgive you, not so your fellow man whom you have wronged.
The other and far more relevant point is the primacy of personal privacy. Even the great Caliph had to respect that. In Malaysia today we are obsessed with khalwat raids in hotels while the swindling of public funds done openly by our leaders is condoned if not considered praiseworthy. With the former you transgress God’s laws; the latter, you wronged the rakyats by robbing them of their due.
Caliph Omar recognized this hierarchy and spectrum of values implicit in Islam. No wonder he is universally held as the greatest Commander of our Faith.
Next: Second of Two Parts: Learning Islam From Muslims, and Muslims Learning Islam
Burden of Malay Stereotypes in Academia and Business
Burden of Malay Stereotypes in Academia and Business
M. Bakri Musa
This burden of self-affirmation and stereotype threat can crop up well beyond our formative years and at the most unexpected venues.
At one Alif Ba Ta Conference a few years ago, organized by the UMNO Club of New York and New Jersey in which I discussed self-affirmation and stereotype threat, a group of students confided to me their experiences in the special matriculation class preparing them for American universities. Midway through that class they were given a test. Those who excelled were sent abroad earlier.
Even though the class was filled predominantly with Malays, for the group selected to leave earlier, non-Malays were over represented. How do I explain that, the students inquired? I immediately sensed their burden of stereotype threat - Malay ineptitude in academics.
So I asked them what they had done between their school examination in November the preceding year until they were enrolled in that special class the following July. To a person they all replied "Nothing!" Yes, nothing!
Then I also asked them whether they had discussed with their successful and predominantly non-Malay classmates how they managed to do so well, specifically what were they doing from January till July when they started their matriculation classes together. The Malay students could not answer me. Obviously they never thought to ask or were too embarrassed to discuss that sensitive topic with their non-Malay classmates, or their teachers. For their part, their matriculation teachers, unlike my Mr. Peter Norton at Malay College in the 1960s during my Sixth Form years there, merely accepted the fact as it was.
Whenever I meet Malaysians at elite American campuses I always try to discern through casual conversation what schools they attended (in particular their matriculation classes) in Malaysia and what made them choose America and pick that particular university. Invariably those students (even Malays) came from other than our national schools, reflecting the quality of such schools. Further and far more crucial, they had spent the six-or seven-month hiatus following their November SPM examination enrolled in private pre-university classes.
So when they were selected into the government's special matrikulasi class, they were already six months ahead as compared to their Malay classmates who did "nothing." That is a significant advantage in what would typically be a two-year course at most.
Malay College recently (July 2011) started its International Baccalaureate (IB) program after over a decade in planning. Again, the students were those who did well in their SPM the previous November. Apart from its radically different learning and teaching philosophy, IB is all English. Meanwhile those students had spent the previous 11 years in Malay medium. I suggested to those in charge that they should enroll the students earlier (as in January) so they could have six months of "pre-IB" where they could improve their English and other skills.
The response? No funds lah! I hope the first batch of students had done well. Should they fail or even just not excel, then expect those ugly stereotypes to be resurrected. The burden would fall not only on them but also on those following and on Malays generally. They will certainly not blame the teachers or the organizers of the program!
The government had already spent hundreds of millions of ringgit to set up the IB program, yet it could not secure extra funds to ensure that it would succeed.
Meanwhile in the business sphere, when Bank Bumiputra collapsed in the 1990s, ugly stereotypes on Malay aptitude for and competence in commerce were again resurrected, and not just by non-Malays. That too was very ugly, and the public behaviors of the key players merely reinforced those stereotypes. Conveniently forgotten was that the bank failed not because it was run by Malays, but because of corruption, incompetence and political patronage, the very same afflictions that burdened GLCs in China (CITIC), India (Air India), and America (Freddie Mac).
Today a generation later, the same tragic story is being repeated with 1MDB, another GLC, this time at a much greater cost and with the nation's highest leader involved. Again here the main players are Malays. Just in case the point is missed, they brought in a non-Malay to resolve the mess. Never mind that he was no more successful than his predecessor.
The 1MDB scandal again resurrected yet another stereotype, this time on the Chinese. One of the players, the few except of course for Najib who came out like bandits literally, was a Malaysian Chinese character close to Najib's family. Here we have the all-too-familiar story of a scheming Chinese taking advantage of a dumb Malay leader. Well, that dumb Malay leader part of the stereotype is true. At least Malaysians should be comforted by that fact. Imagine if we had a Malay leader who was smart as well as corrupt. The damage he would inflict could be horrendous! Count your blessings, Malaysians!
Linked to stereotype threat is the maintenance of the integrity of self-affirmation. When we see something that threatens our self-image, for example, Malays not doing well academically, we shift the focus elsewhere. Thus we say we do not care for "secular knowledge;" we are more into "spiritual" and "real" knowledge, the kind that would get us into Heaven. In that way we protect ourselves as non-Muslims would certainly not be competing with us in that field. If Muslim Chinese and Indians were to later beat us and excel in the same field, then we would have to spin yet another fanciful narrative.
When I see Malays focused on religion and the Hereafter and neglect their worldly obligations, I see that as nothing more than a manifestation of this threat to their self-affirmation rather than a genuine love for religious knowledge or concerns with personal salvation.
A similar phenomenon is seen in children. When kids run a playground race, those who are left behind would rationalize that they are not really "racing" or competing. Or, it's only a "practice." Likewise when I am sailing; I am always racing, that is, when I am overtaking the other sailboats. When I am being overtaken, well, I am out just for a leisurely afternoon cruise!
Both stereotypes and self-affirmation threats can be remedied. We do not have to be resigned to being their victims. To do that however, we first have to free up our minds from those cluttered and unproductive mental patterns. We have to create new or modify existing narratives to be more reflective of reality, one that would also be more useful and productive.
We can learn much from the insights of modern neuroscience on how to do that. In the next few essays I will review some of those exciting studies and how they could be applied to better understand and appreciate our current particular dilemmas.
Excerpted from the author's book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released recently in January 2016.