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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, May 22, 2022

Caste From The Herd Excerpt #32: Stunted Medical Career

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa


Excerpt #32:  Stunted Musical Career


With war imminent, the British instituted a volunteer army made up of teachers and civil servants. My father’s unit was The Federated Malay States Volunteer Force, Third Battalion. A “volunteer army” may be oxymoronic more so in times of war, but my father did not unwillingly join it. One reason was that many of his colleagues did; for another, he was in the band unit. He saw it as an opportunity for continuing his musical career as the bandleader was also his former music lecturer back at his teachers’ college. 


My father spoke often and with great fondness of his British music teachers. Here he was, unable to speak a word of English, yet they were able to impart in him the love for music. Up till then his only exposure was the simple nursery rhymes and the popular songs during his youth, while musical notes were but scribbled dots and lines. Under their tutelage he was able to read music, play the violin, and be exposed to the great composers. The language of music was indeed universal; his lecturers had ignited a hidden passion in him. 


My father’s abiding admiration for the British was not tarnished by their subsequent hasty and ignominious surrender to the Japanese, or the many lapses in their personal behaviors. Once I accompanied my parents to the state Malay schools’ sports jamboree in Seremban. On the way our bus was to pick up the colonial local school superintendent and his wife at the Sungai Ujong Club, the exclusive colonial watering hole in the Seremban Lake Garden area. 


When we arrived we were stunned to see the pair emerging from the clubhouse, flushed and wild-eyed, staggering and groping each other all the while giggling and making obscene gestures. Their boisterous primal behavior continued on the bus, much to everyone’s (including my parents) embarrassment. Everyone on the bus except for the pair was silent, fearful that they might just go berserk. What repelled me most was not their crude loud acts rather their smell. I did not know what it was then. Now of course I do; the stink of alcohol. Later at home my father explained that the British couple was possessed by hantu botol, (lit. evil of the bottle). They were drunk.


Following that strange episode of the English couple, my father suddenly quit his smoking, just like that, cold turkey. One afternoon he gathered all his un-smoked cigarettes and buried them, together with the butts lying around in the crevices of the house. Then he removed his bedspread and all the curtains in the house to wash them. The house never smelled cleaner. He never touched a cigarette after that. Up till that time he was a chain smoker, forever inhaling his Rough Rider. His fingers, lips, and teeth were permanently stained. His clothes and indeed the whole house reeked of cigarette smoke odor. Perhaps my father saw his own boorish behavior in smoking reflected in that drunken British episode.


            I once saw a picture of my father with his military band. There he was seated right in the front row in the center beside the colonial bandleader. My father looked spiffy in his crisp military uniform. I asked him why he had not kept any of his military memorabilia. He did not wish to be reminded of his army days, was his sharp dismissive reply. Besides, his unit did not see any military action as it was disbanded in the haste of the British retreat. Then what about those wonderful expensive musical instruments? 


When the British retreated in haste, my father was left in charge. He, not surprisingly, did not wish to have any reminders of his association with the British for the Japanese to discover. So he had those instruments buried in the jungle outside his base. 


After the war he tried to retrieve them, but he could not remember where he had buried them. In only four years the lush jungle had taken over and totally altered the landscape, obliterating familiar landmarks. To this day, somewhere in the Kuala Pilah jungle, a whole orchestra of valuable musical instruments lay buried. 


My father did not impart his musical skills and passion to his pupils as the school environment did not provide for such creative curricula. He did however to a generation of kampung youths, outside of school hours. There was a popular band in my village. One day after its performance, a young man in the audience came up to the bandmaster to inquire about learning music. 


“If you are really serious,” the bandmaster said, “then you should go to this boy’s father,” as he pointed to me. 


Prior to that I did not know that my father could even play an instrument, let alone teach others as he did not share his passion with us, his children. Later as a teenager when I tried to play my Uncle Nasir’s saxophone, my father discouraged me. Like any kid, the more he did, the more I believed I had talent. 


One day I belted out a few barely-recognizable tunes. The sound must have grated on my father’s ears for he rushed and grabbed the instrument away from me and proceeded to let go a melodious stream. I pleaded to him to teach me. He did.


He first made me practice some scales, then full, half and quarter notes. When I tried to impress him by naming those notes, he cut me short. It did not matter what those scribbles were called as long as you knew what they meant with respect to finger formation and for how long to hold the note. After about thirty minutes of this intense drill which I thoroughly enjoyed, he put up a new score and asked me to play it. After a few bars I recognized the song; I was playing “God Save the Queen.” With that, my father impressed upon me not to play by ear but to read the score.


My father’s demonstration intrigued my uncle Nasir. He begged him to improve his playing. After hesitating, my father agreed, provided that my uncle complied with some basic routine and discipline. Eager to learn, my uncle agreed. He made my uncle leave his saxophone and we all went out of the house. He threw a small rock at a steel telephone pole and asked my uncle what note was the clanking noise. He replied, “Middle C.” 


“Good,” my father complimented him, and threw another rock higher up and at the thinner part of the pole. Another pinging sound! 


“E flat?” my uncle replied, more as a question and with minimal confidence. 


“You have a good ear,” my father complimented him. Thus began his tutoring. The whole week we would be serenaded by my uncle; he sure sounded much better. 


Meanwhile my father ignored me. Sensing my disappointment, he later admitted that he did so on purpose. He did not want me to be distracted from my studies as he was in college. He related how he would sneak out of his dorm in the middle of the night to practice his violin. He was so consumed with his music that he nearly flunked his regular studies and was threatened with expulsion but for the intervention of his music lecturers. He advised me instead to concentrate on my ‘regular’ studies and that once I had a successful career then I could afford the best music teachers. 


Later in life I had tried many times to take up music. Despite my best efforts I just could not get it. I cannot claim to lack digital dexterity for in my profession that is a given. My father’s talent must have skipped a generation for my daughter is quite musical. 


Next:  Episode # 33   During War, Those Armed Set The Law

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Cast Fro The Herd: Excert #31: The Japanese Occupation

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #31:  The Japanese Occupation


My father reminded me often that I was born on the second anniversary of the Japanese invasion, and at about the same time of the night. Because of that I would always correct those who said that the Pearl Harbor bombing was on December 7th


Only much later after appreciating the International Date Line and time zone differences could I reconcile between what my father told me and what I had read in the history books. He had indeed heard on the clandestine Malaysian radio that the Japanese had landed on the northeast coast near Kota Baru on December 8th, just minutes past midnight. A few hours later came the news of the devastating Pearl Harbor bombing. In Hawaii it was of course still the 7th.


I have no recollection of that terrible period. What I knew came from the many stories of horror and sufferings my parents often told me. To them those repeated reminders were not redundant but important. 


It would be a great understatement to say that it was not the best time to come into the world, at least the Malaysian one. There was not enough food, and a newborn baby also meant that there must be a young father nearby, a potential conscript for the Japanese Army. You did not want to advertise that fact with those soldiers around. 


As a result my birth, like those of many others, was not registered until after the Japanese had surrendered on September 2nd, 1945. Thanks to my father’s memory of the second anniversary of the invasion, the date (December 8, 1943) shown on my birth certificate is correct. 


That was not the case for many. Often their parents had only a vague memory of the day of their child’s birth, sometime in reference to events like the first Ramadan, second harvest, or the last monsoon of the Japanese Occupation. Even when they could be more specific, as for example, during the full moon of the first Ramadan, the clerks at the registration office were too lazy to convert that into the Gregorian calendar. It was easier to ask the parents to just guess their child’s birth date. No surprise then that many of my classmates in primary school sported generous moustaches and other signs of ‘premature’ puberty. 


Alas only the date on my birth certificate was correct. There must have been a backlog for babies to be registered right after the war, and with an understaffed registry office, my name on the birth certificate was mangled. It bore not even the remotest resemblance to what my parents had given me. The error was noticed only much later, as when I applied for my passport to come to Canada. Or perhaps my parents were superstitious about correcting my name earlier as that could have altered my fate. 


You could not be issued a new certificate as the date and serial number would then be out of sequence; one could only make amendments, and then only on the back. If they were to be on a separate sheet, it could become unclipped. So the front page of my birth certificate has my old erroneous name written by the harried clerk, while the correction appears on the reverse side. 


My father could register me for school with a name different from that on my birth certificate because this carelessness with names is very much part of Malay culture. The eminent architect Ruslan Khalid recalled in his memoir A Quest for Architectural Excellence that his name too was bungled. He was born in 1933, long before the war during colonial rule. Even today we have Annuar spelled variously as Anuar or Anwar. Beyond that, Malays are not proud of their birth names opting instead to be called by their titles like Hajj and Atuk, or honorifics like Datuk and Tan Sri.


As a youngster I once asked my mother about the hole behind our chicken coop in our kampung house backyard. I thought it was an incomplete outhouse pit. It was dug during the Japanese Occupation, she revealed with great reluctance, to hide me when I cried or when the Japanese were making their rounds. My mother would huddle with me in the hole and pull the rotting plywood over it. Thirty years later the Viet Cong would use the same trick, or minor variations thereof, to hide from the Americans. 


The location was also strategic. The chickens would start cackling should a stranger approach, signaling to my mother to smother me even tighter. If I were to cry, that too would startle the chickens and their cackling would muffle my sound. I owe a lot to those birds. What did I do in return? Ate them! 


That hole in the ground was my savior. Later as a young boy I tried to ‘renovate’ it into my underground bunker as a tribute to it saving my life. That upset my mother very much. Thinking that I had stirred up some ugly memories, I filled it up. Who knows, someone might tripped in the dark and be hurt.

 

The Japanese Occupation was a tough period, my parents always reminded me. My saving grace was that I tolerated solids early. That was not a reflection of my precocious alimentary development rather of physiologic adjustments. When a mother is deprived of calories, her milk production would be curtailed. The one food I loved (still do) was bananas, and we had plenty of them even during the Occupation. She must have learned umpteen ways to prepare the fruit – fresh, fried, baked or mashed – they mattered not –  I liked them all. 


My mother was worried that I would hate the darn fruit as an adult. She should not have worried; I still love it; so too my grandchildren Zain and Devin. They must have inherited my love for bananas through the epigenes I had acquired during that terrible period. 


The scars of war were everywhere. For years we had in the backyard of my village home the rusted remains of a Japanese armored truck, together with some steel helmets. I asked my father how the truck ended up there. When the Japanese surrendered, they abandoned everything to rush back to camp. That truck must have had some mechanical problem, so they left it on the road in front of our house. To avoid it (and us) being the target of British bombers, the villagers pushed it to the back of the house underneath a tree. 


So I could say with great pride and unvarnished truth that, the deprivations of the period notwithstanding, I had as a child a real army truck and soldier’s steel helmets to play with, instead of the make-believe “Made-in-Japan” (or now, China) plastic ones! 


Next Excerpt #32:  The Boorish British

Sunday, May 08, 2022

Cast From the Herd Excerpt #30: Tales of My Village

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #30:  Tales of My Village


The road to Kuala Pilah crosses the Sri Menanti River at Tanjong Ipoh, a few miles downstream from my village. One January morning our school bus, together with a convoy of other vehicles, was stranded by the flooded bridge. Then a truck decided to brave the churning water. Seizing the opportunity to capitalize on the shallowness of the truck’s wake, our driver decided to be a hero, egged on by the girls. 


He was a young man, perhaps a recent hire upon his discharge from the army. Courage and recklessness go with being a soldier; caution and wisdom, less so, more so in the presence of girls. 


All went well for a while. After our bus crossed the bridge, the truck ahead began sliding sideways ever so slowly, like in a dream or silent movie. Then it flipped over, pushed by the torrent. A sudden gasp, followed by loud shrieks as the girls in our bus went hysterical. 


Our driver jammed into lower gear, gunned his motor, and swerved hard to avoid the side-turned truck, sending the girls (and me too) into shrieks. Steam hissed from the engine and the water swirled around the windows. Heavy sweat trickled down our driver’s brow, incongruous in the cool of the morning. 


His swift turn blunted the broadsided ferocity of the current. Our bus crawled through the flood with an additional soaked passenger, the driver of the flipped truck, hanging by the side. That driver would have to wait for days before he could retrieve his vehicle, if it had not been cemented into the muddy earth dried by the subsequent sun. 


With the girls now cooing, our driver was back to his usual swagger. He had been through worse in the army, I was sure. There is however, a world of difference between driving a bus full of schoolchildren versus a truckload of soldiers. 


Between the two extremes of ravaging floods and dry-season meandering stream, the river looked benign enough for me to laze the hot afternoon on its banks under the shade of the expansive tamarind tree. I would throw a leaf and watch it drift downstream, like a graceful sloop out on a Sunday sail in the bay. I fantasized the idyllic scenes as the leaf floated to the river mouth and then out to open sea. 


At Muar, if the leaf were to arrive at ebb time it would flow northwest towards the Andaman Sea and then the Indian Ocean. At flood time, the current would take it southeast past Singapore and then into the South China Sea and on to the vast Pacific. 


I had never ventured downstream from my village. I had trekked upstream to the headwaters of both the Sri Menanti and Terachi (another tributary of the Muar), the former at Gunung Pasir during that December holiday after I discovered the daunting obstacle that was the sixth-form entrance examination, the latter a few years earlier with our Geographic Society. 


For the Terachi trip, we went by bus to the foothills at Bukit Putus, the ridge separating Kuala Pilah from the capital, Seremban, to the west. The terrain was steeper and the current much swifter than at Gunung Pasir. The trees were also much taller and more majestic. The whole area was a forest reserve; there were no villages or signs of human activity. It was old virgin jungle with the ground free of underbrush, unlike at Gunung Pasir. 


Our teachers had split the time such that the first two thirds would be for going upstream and the last for the return trip. That was sensible as going upstream would be slower. However, the reality of the downward journey did not cooperate with the logic of our teachers’ planning. The steep slope over slippery rocks was hazardous, slowing our trek. By the time we reached our starting point, it was already dark. Twilight in the tropical jungle is precipitous, like somebody had pulled the blinds down. We arrived back in town late and were met by very anxious but not angry parents. It was not the thing to be angry with your children’s teachers. Our parents were just relieved.


That following Monday morning at school assembly, our headmaster announced that field trips would henceforth be canceled for the rest of the school year. I was certain that none of the parents had complained. I was also sure that the teachers were cautious and fully aware of our safety. Dr. Rawcliffe, our headmaster, may be a colonialist but he took his job seriously, and that included the safety of those under his charge. 


As portrayed in Conrad’s many Malay novels, rivers and the waterfronts play a central role in Malay culture. Up until the turn of the twentieth century, rivers were also the main pathways for travel; riverfront properties were thus premium. 


In my matriarchal culture the oldest daughter has the privilege of first choice in inheritance. So my oldest auntie’s house faced and was closest to the river. By the time my grandparents built the house for my mother, the British had built a road. Her house, while furthest from the river, now faced the road. With it now the preferred path for travel, my mother ended up with the choicest lot! 


Again as per Conrad’s novels, as in our lore, the edges of waters are associated with evil, intrigue, and death. Those are sinister places as the hantu darat (land spirits) and hantu laut (sea spirits) battle it out for supremacy. At twilight there would be the additional struggle between hantu malam (night spirits) and hantu senja (twilight spirits). We were well advised to keep out of their way.


It was not by chance that the greatest disaster that befell Malaysia, the Japanese Occupation, came in from the water’s edge, and at night. 


Next:  Excerpt #31: The Japanese Occupation

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Quran, Hadith, and Hikayat: Exercises In Critical Thinking

Qur’an, Hadith, and Hikayat:  Exercises in Critical Thinking

M. Bakri Musa

 

 

 

 

ISBN-13: ‏ :  979-8463116093

pp 342; October 2021

Paperback US$14.95; e-book US$2.99

Available on Amazon.com (as well as Amazon elsewhere and other major on-line outlets)

 

 

Qur’an, Hadith, and Hikayat:  Exercises in Critical Thinking uses examples familiar to Muslims, Malays in particular, as exercises in critical thinking. From the Holy Qur’an, the writer examines its central injunction “Command good and forbid evil” to explore the meaning of “good” versus “evil” as well as “commanding” versus “forbidding.”

 

He discusses whether “good” and “evil” are polar opposites, and as such mutually exclusive (an either-or proposition), or on a continuum. If the latter, whether circumstances matter as to where on that spectrum a particular deed would fall. Consider Aristotle’s virtues, where excess in any one is to be avoided, in consonant with our prophet’s admonition:  In everything, moderation.

 

Could “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice no virtue” be justified? Can we remain passive or neutral in the face of appalling poverty, tyrannous oppression, gross injustice, or egregious corruption?

 

In an exercise with Malay undergraduates in America, they were asked to pick the one Qur’anic ayatthat is most meaningful or inspiring to them, and why. It reflected the richness of the Qur’an that no two students chose the same verse. The exercise made them think, a marked contrast to the usual mindless recitations or endless quoting of ancient luminaries typical in much of contemporary Islamic discourses.

 

From hadith, the writer explores three oft-quoted ones:  Tie one’s camel securely and only then pray to Allah that it does not escape; going to China to seek knowledge; and the prediction that the ummah(community) would be split into 73 sects, with all but one being “misled.” The discussions depart from the traditional discourse where the obsession is on an ahadith’s presumed authenticity (or lack thereof) and its chain of narrators. Instead, it focuses on extracting the underlying message and wisdom. That after all is the purpose of studying or recalling hadith.

 

Take the ahadith on the predicted split of the ummah. Most Muslims arrogantly assume that their sect to be the only “right” one, with the others hopelessly “misguided” and thus hell-bound. The consequence to that mindset is the messianic mission to “correct” the others. With that comes the associated intolerance and rigidity. The reality is that any one sect has only 1 in 73 probability of being correct while a 72 in 73 (over 98.6 percent) of being in error. The latter is a certainty in modern statistics. That is humbling! If we were to adopt this more realistic assessment, we become humble and eager to learn from the others in the belief that one of them would be the correct one. Our mindset changes for the better.

 

Muslims’ uncritical equating of ribaa with lending interest has resulted in much of the Muslim world being bypassed by modern economic development. It also makes Islamic financial products more expensive. More consequential, it discourages Muslims from partaking in modern finance and commercial enterprises. This mistaken ribaa equivalence also prevents Muslims from leveraging zakat (tithe) funds. It also traps inheritance assets and inhibits Muslims from developing and enhancing such potentially powerful estate-planning instruments as waqaf (trusts, including family trusts) and takaful (insurance).

 

The writer takes a critical look at the “Islamization of Knowledge” fad, a particular obsession of today’s Muslim intellectuals. Their mistaken conviction that there is a uniquely Islamic version of the truth and knowledge is a significant obstacle to Muslims addressing the major challenges facing the ummah as it prevents Muslims from learning important lessons from contemporary successful societies.

 

From classical Malay literature, the writer chose Hikayat Malim Deman (The Legend of Malim Deman) to discern the difference between a leader’s lofty aspiration versus delirious fantasy, the current blight of Malay leaders. They are consumed in the pursuit of power and position. Having achieved that, it would be the end, akin to the eponymous character Malim Deman. After securing his dream bride, he lost interest in her. She was but a trophy to be acquired; likewise with Malay leaders and their political positions. The assumption of power should be the beginning, not the end of their endeavor.

 

Likewise, if rulers were to kill the bright stars among their subjects as the sultan did in Hikayat Singapura di Langgar Todak (Singapore Invaded By Swordfish), you would end up with a society of dumbbells. Likewise, if the corrupt and hoodlums were to be honored, do not be surprised with the consequences.

 

From Shahnon Ahmad’s celebrated novel, Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (Obstacles All The Way) Bakri Musa revisits the perennial challenge of rural Malay poverty. It is still very much a tragic reality today, three quarters of a century after merdeka and despite the massive infusion of funds as well as the ever generous special privileges. That work of fiction rivals in insight and wisdom with the most well-researched socioeconomic treatises. From there the author explores the thoughts and commentaries of Malay luminaries:  Za’aba, Ungku Aziz, Munshi Abdullah, and Ahmad Farouk Musa. Their critical analyses give us a refreshing contrapuntal reading (to quote Edward Said) to the current accepted wisdom and assumptions.

 

The book concludes with examining the two major issues facing today’s Malaysia. One internal, the preferential policies of Malay Special Privileges enshrined in the constitution which have now degenerated into a cesspool of unbridled corruption and influence peddling benefitting only the powerful, principally the sultans and ruling politicians. The other, external, is the fast escalating conflict in the South China Sea pitting the two great super powers – China and America – with Malaysia trapped in the middle. Malays consumed with protecting our parochial special privileges are distracted from recognizing and thus addressing this second far more existential threat.

 

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Living Surah Al Fatihah: Last of Eight Parts: Those Who Have Incurred His Wrath

 Living Surah Al Fatihah During Ramadan 

 

M. Bakri Musa

 

April 21, 2022:  Last of Eight Parts:  Those Who Have Incurred His Wrath

 

Al Fatihah’s last ayat exhorts us to avoid the path of those who have earned His wrath. That may be obvious but remember even demons like Pol Pot had their admirers and wannabes. Prime Minister Najib Razak stole billions from the rakyat. Despite that, he still has many loyal, exuberant “Malu Apa Boss Ku” (What’s there to be ashamed of my boss?) followers.

 

I make no apologies for mentioning Najib in the same paragraph with Pol Pot. The difference between him and that Cambodian cretin is one of magnitude, not kind. The gruesome killing of the innocent Pakistani banker and Mongolian model may not be on the same scale as Pol Pot’s genocide, but then think of the thousands of Malaysians who succumbed to Covid-19. Had the billions not been siphoned from 1MDB, and Malaysia not been burdened by its subsequent humongous debt, the nation would have had more than ample funds to secure an adequate supply of Covid-19 vaccines early on. As for the banker and model victims, the Qur’an reminds us (5:32) that if you kill one person, it is as if you have killed all mankind.

 

            Leaders have an extra special and heavy burden. They must go beyond doing good; they must also prevent evil. Najib failed at both. Worse, he perverted the pristine values of our faith, as with his financing Hajj pilgrimages from his pilfered funds. He mocked the sanctity of our hallowed rituals with his cynical attempt at “sanitizing” his loot. He degraded our faith.

 

Najib hoodwinked Malaysians by claiming that the billions secretly deposited into his account were but gifts from a Saudi prince. Najib exploited the religious sentiments of Malays. To us, anything from the land of the Arabs is halal, rezki (bounty) from Heaven. Even Meccan flies are halal!

 

It may be harsh to condemn Najib during Ramadan, a season to be forgiving. However, he has yet to admit his wrongdoings. On the contrary, to Najib he did something exemplary, worthy of praise not censure.

 

Najib should be condemned lest he be emulated by others. When society honors its corrupt, then it has a serious problem. The most obscene picture I have come across this Ramadan is of Najib Razak, a convicted criminal, being invited to the palace iftar. That speaks volumes not of Najib but the man who invited him, the Agung.

 

More offensive, however difficult that would be to imagine, Najib posted that picture, as well as one of him with the Agung, both gleefully grinning, on social media. The only thing more jarring at that royal iftar would be if the Chief Justice were also to be there, what with Najib’s final appeal coming up.

 

Back to Al Fatihah, if that surah is the essence of the Qur’an, could there be a comparable ayat that is the Qur’an’s kernel? That question was posed to Malaysian undergraduates at a meeting organized by the UMNO Club of New York and New Jersey in 2011. Their responses touched and taught me much about our Glorious Qur’an.

 

One student recalled his fajar prayer at the Grand Canyon National Park one late summer. Engulfed in the cool, high desert morning air, he could just glimpse the northern rim through the soft ray of the emerging sunshine. Deep below was the shimmering ribbon of water flowing at its leisure, guarded by sheer magnificent cliffs on both sides. Those contain many secrets of the past, while the river supports the multitude of life forms all the way to the Gulf of California. Above, the vast expanse of the cloudless sky with no pillars supporting it. It was as if Allah had revealed to this student “All His Splendor,” as per Surah Al Qaf (50:6).

 

Visitors to the Grand Canyon cannot but be struck by the spirituality of the place. Even if one were not religious, one would be constrained from blemishing it. To scratch graffiti or litter with your plastic bottles would be blasphemous. Indeed to Native Americans, the Grand Canyon is sacred; it should also be to every visitor.

 

Another student recalled her experience at a New York City event. She was struck by the diversity of the attendees, their stark differences in skin color, facial features, languages spoken, and of course their food and attire. It brought to life for her Surah Al Hujurat (49:13):  Allah could have made us all of one tribe but chose not to so we could learn from each other.

 

Yet another recalled her classmate’s ordeal fleeing her native land. What made that classmate endure it all was recalling the Prophet’s own migration to Medinah. While she was hounded by other than her own kind, and thus understandable though not excusable, the Prophet, s.a.w., fled from his kin and fellow tribesmen. The pain must have been exponentially more unbearable. She found comfort in Surah An Nisa (4:97) that admonished those who partake in sin in their homeland using the excuse of local conditions. Is Allah’s earth not vast enough for one to escape (migrate), that ayat rhetorically asked.

 

That exercise prompted me to ponder the Qur’anic ayat most meaningful to me. Earlier I discussed Surah Al Fatihah’s fifth ayat, “Keep us along the straight path.” Parallel to and carrying the same pristine principle would be:  

 

                        الأمر بالمَعْرُوف والنَهي عن المُنْكَر

(al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf; wa-n-nahy ʿani-l-munkar)

 

Command good, and forbid evil. Stunning in its brevity, clarity, and verity. That phrase is repeated in a few other places. To me that is the Qur’an’s essence, its golden rule; the rest are but commentaries. The Qur’an gives many ready examples of “doing good” (be kind to orphans and wayfarers for example) as well of the meaning of evil deeds (killing, adultery, etc.). If you rob, kill, or destroy then it matters not how many times you pray or go for Hajj. If you build your community, keep your rivers clean, and nurture the environment, then whether you don a hijab or how exhilarating your zikir is trivial by comparison.

 

As for contemporary discussions on Surah Al Fatihah, I find the arrogant certitude of some preachers intolerable. They remind me of the all-knowing imperious physicians of yore, their utterances and prescriptions unchallenged. They were, well, God-like. I am glad not to be of that generation or persuasion.

 

We also trivialize this great surah if we were to reduce it to a Genie-in-a-bottle. Rub or recite it, and miracles would magically happen. Likewise, we would not be expressing our syukor, the al hamdu of the beginning of Al Fatihah, if we dismiss Allah’s most precious gift to us – our life and this wonderful world – as being but a mere mirage and that our “real” existence and universe await us in the Hereafter.

 

The American scholar Ebraheem Moosa, then at Stanford, summed it best for me during a talk he gave to our small Muslim community here in Morgan Hill one Ramadan many years ago. The day you think you have fully understood the Qur’an is the day you die. Ameen to that!

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Living Surah Al Fatihah: Part 7 of 8: Those Whom Allah Favors

 Living Surah Al Fatihah During Ramadan 

 

M. Bakri Musa

 

April 17, 2022:  Seventh of Eight Parts:  Those Whom Allah Favors 

 

Guide us along the path of those whom You have favored, we pray to Allah as we recite the sixth ayat of Al Fatihah.  As Allah does not let us know whom He favors, this and the last ayat (“Not those who have incurred Your wrath”) serve more as a Rorschach test of sorts. That notwithstanding, the Qur’an does hint of certain individuals whom He favors.

 

For Muslims, topping the list would be Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., together with all earlier prophets. Sunni Muslims would include the four Rightly Guided Caliphs – Abu Bakar, Omar, Uthman, and Ali, the last being the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Shiite Muslims have a more exclusive list; they have much less favorable views (putting it mildly) of Abu Bakar, Omar, and Uthman.

 

Next those Heaven-bound as per the Qur’an would be the shayids (martyrs), those who died in Allah’s cause. That word today has a radically different meaning, thanks to 9-11, the Talibans, and other Islamic extremists. As is evident, whom society deems worthy of being syahid reflects more on it than of the individual.

 

Beyond that, characterizations of those whom Allah favors come from hadith, sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w. One has it that a prostitute was admitted to Paradise because she once brought water to a dog dying of thirst; likewise a man for picking up a thorn on a pathway thus preventing others from injuring themselves. In terms of professions held in high esteem by Allah, we can assume that the lady’s would not be on His list. As for dogs, they are not the favorite animals of Muslims. Yet Allah in His wisdom deemed her worthy of that exalted place for her single good deed.

 

Imagine then the rewards awaiting veterinarians! Yet Malays were in an uproar over pictures of vet students petting their dog-patients. As for the man who removed the thorn, if that were to be the reward for such a simple good deed, how much greater would it be for the engineer who built the road or bridge so villagers could bring their produce to market or their sick ones to the hospital?

 

That assumes the bridge to be safe. If through corruption or negligence the bridge were to collapse in a rainstorm, then it would be but a dangerous trap, an attractive nuisance in the language of American tort lawyers. Its builders would then be liable for punitive damages.

 

Another group of syahids, relevant today, would be victims of pandemics. Funeral rites could be dispensed for them as those would be redundant; they already have reserved slots in Heaven. That makes sense for among the major factors spreading a pandemic would be contagion through funeral rites. China controlled its devastating Manchurian plague of 1910-11 when the Emperor decreed that all bodies be burned in mass graves. Traditional Chinese funeral rites are even more elaborate than Muslim ones, perfect portal for spreading lethal communicable diseases. Heed the prophet’s message. When there is a plague, do not go there; if you are already there, do not leave – the essence of quarantine.

 

As for prophets and their reserved slots in Heaven, was that because of their prophethood or great deeds? Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., emancipated the ancient Bedouins, making them give up their tribalism, spousal abuses, eye-for-an-eye sense of justice, and their odious practice of female infanticide. Would leaders who perform comparable good deeds deserve similar rewards even if they had not been specially dispensed with Allah’s prophethood? Or the reverse, someone selected as a prophet but failed to live up to God’s high expectations. Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., expressed his own lack of confidence in executing Allah’s command when given his first revelation high in the cave above Mecca.

 

China’s Deng Xiaoping, a communist and thus an atheist, uplifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, a feat unmatched in history. The closest would be medieval Western Europe with the introduction of capitalism. That took centuries and impacted a much smaller fraction of the then global population. With his monumental accomplishment, would Deng merit a slot in Heaven? If he did not because of his presumed Godlessness, at least hundreds of millions of Chinese today enjoy their heaven on earth, compared to the hell their parents and grandparents endured during Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution, or under earlier Emperors with their “Mandate from Heaven.”

 

Along the same line, would the developers of polio vaccines deserve to be in Heaven, or is it only for Muslims?

 

I once posed this question in a religious class. I went further and asked them to name individuals whom they know personally who should be in Heaven. I was touched by their responses. One offered his favorite teacher, another our Imam Ilyas, and a third, her mother. When her classmates dismissed her choice, belittling her mother’s efforts as being obligatory maternal duty, she defended it by saying that her mother did it well and with love, in contrast (presumably) to the burgher flippers who do it as a job.

 

To me it would not be Heaven without Sudirman, P. Ramlee, and Saloma there. They had brought joy to and uplifted the hearts of millions with their melodious voices. As for the promised 72 virgins that would await me should I end up there, what would be the comparable rewards awaiting my loving wife? After all it would not be Heaven for me if I were to be deprived of her company. Thus the difficulties when we confuse imageries and metaphors with concepts and ideas. 

 

Next:  Last of Eight Parts:  Those Who Have Incurred His Wrath

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Living Surah Al Fatihah: Guide Us Along the Staright Path

 Living Surah Al Fatihah During Ramadan 

 

M. Bakri Musa

 

April 14, 2022: Sixth of Eight Parts:  Guide Us Along The Straight Path

 

“Guide us along the straight path,” exhorts Al Fatihah’s fifth ayat. In geometry, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. As life’s many lessons have taught and continue to teach us, the shortest path is often not the best or even quickest. So we cannot take the literal meaning of the Qur’anic straight path.

 

            This ayat is the core of Al Fatihah. One interpretation would have it be a path of moderation, of not swaying to or be distracted by either side. The imagery often used is a path lined on either side with hidden alleyways with syaitan(Satan) enticing you to enter and be distracted. That at least implies some effort or willful decision on one’s part to stray. As per our physics lessons, momentum alone would have us maintain our straight path. Keeping on a straight line is our natural tendency, our fitra. As in physics, it takes force to alter our velocity (direction and or speed).

 

Life is far from a smooth passive and steady flow downstream that would carry us at our leisure to our destination. Far from it! Instead it requires constant conscious effort on our part to go upstream where the water is pure and cool. Anything less and we would end up stuck in the muddy delta and be flooded by the effluents of those upstream. That imagery reflects reality better.

 

            Another would have the straight path be not breaching the boundaries on either side, as per our prophet’s counsel:  In everything, moderation; the striving for balance, echoing Aristotle’s “golden mean.” Consider courage, one of Aristotle’s twelve virtues. Too much of it and you become reckless, endangering yourself and others; too little and you would subject yourself to be preyed upon. The straight path would be Goldilock’s baby bear’s porridge of being just right, not too hot and not too cold.

 

            Counterbalance that to Barry Goldwater’s (the 1964 US Presidential candidate thrashed by Lyndon Johnson) infamous “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice, no virtue.” A direct assault on Aristotle’s golden mean. Intellectual comparisons of the two aside, there are other issues with Goldwater’s brash assertion. Little purpose in pursuing that.

 

The two Qur’anic extremes could refer to pursuits in this temporal world versus the Hereafter. Allah would not like us to be praying all the time or endlessly praising Him. He does not need our praises. Instead as per the Qur’an, He wants us to go out into the world and do good. Maintain the straight path and the destination will take care of itself.

 

I find Muslims’ obsession, heightened during Ramadan, with the garnering of religious “brownie points” to be cashed in at the Pearly Gates distracting. Do “good” on a certain night and that would be as if you had done it for a thousand nights. That sounds so, well, accountant-like. It trivializes the scripture. Besides, why only during Ramadan? Ill fortune could strike your fellow beings at any time.

 

            As for limits, the word Qur’an shares the same root as qariah, boundary, as with the qariah of a masjid, the district served by it. Limits and boundaries bring up the imagery of the raheem (womb) mentioned earlier. While the Qur’an glorifies freedom, it does impose limits. Your freedom stops when it intrudes on mine, a harsh reality demonstrated during this Covid-19 pandemic. Your personal choice not to wear a mask stops when you threaten my health. To quote the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, freedom of speech does not extend to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Freedom without boundaries is anarchy.

 

            Muhammad Shahrour in his The Quran, Morality and Critical Reason introduces the concepts of limits. To his interpretation, Allah through the Qur’an sets only the extreme limits and it is for the community collectively to decide where within that broad range to draw the line. To Shahrour, the Qur’anic cutting of the hand as punishment for thievery is the extreme limit; it does not mean that it should be the punishment for thievery. To Shahrour it would be more important and beneficial to society if we were to “cut off” or remove thieves from society, as with incarcerating them.

 

            Yet another interpretation would have that fourth ayat mean not a straight path but an uphill one. That implies some effort, akin to going upstream in a river. Unless you maintain your effort, gravity would pull you down, gravity being the metaphor for life’s constant, universal temptations and distractions.

 

            Another rich interpretation emphasizes the suratul, taking its root word in sirat and sarata, meaning to swallow and be part of something bigger, as the tiny rain drop falling to the ocean and being made part of or swallowed by it. The ocean is a common metaphor to describe Allah’s powers. Imam Ghazzali used it frequently in his encyclopedic contributions. Just as the power, secrets, and benevolence of the ocean are infinitely manifested at its shores, waves, and deep below, so too Allah’s. “Guide us along the straight path” is rightly considered the pearl of the Qur’an, with us pleading to Allah to make us, a small tiny drop of humanity, be part of His vast ocean.

 

Mustaqeen is translated as to arise, to actualize one’s potential, as a seed would with soil, water, sunlight, and other nurturing elements grow into a vigorous plant, blossoming with beautiful flowers and producing bountiful fruits. Meaning, strive for constant improvement and self-corrections to reach our goal as a productive human being capable of contributing to society, as Allah wants us to be. That is the straight path. As for pleasing God, He is in no need of our praises. Follow His dictates to make us better human beings. That is a worthy pursuit.

 

Some differentiate between those who have the knowledge and despite that still pursue other than the straight path, versus those who choose it because “they know not what they are doing.” A heavier burden falls on the former. Operationally however, the consequences would be the same. Likewise the differences on quantity (magnitude) versus quality (nature). As per Surah Al Ma’ida (5:32), whoever kills a person . . . it shall be as if he has killed all mankind. Surah An Najm’s (53:32) differentiation between major and minor sins notwithstanding, the consequences are far more important than the act itself. Running a red light or being drunk may be a minor sin (a misdemeanor if you like) but not if through it you cause an accidental death of a family’s breadwinner.

 

As per the wisdom of Ata Allah al-Iskandari in his Hikam al-Attaiya, “Your obedience does not benefit Him and your disobedience does not harm Him. He has only ordered you to do this and prohibited you from doing that for your own gain.” (Aphorism No: 211)

 

Next:  Seventh of Eight Parts:  Those Whom Allah Favors