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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Islamic Discourse Should be Open to All

Discourse in Islam Should be Open to All
M. Bakri Musa

[Reprinted from Malaysia-Today.net August 4, 2005]

Contemporary ulama and Islamic scholars would like us to believe that discourses in Islam are their exclusive preserve. The rest of the ummah (community) need not partake; suffice that we meekly follow whatever they dispense. This is a flawed and shortsighted assumption.

These ulama and scholars contend that Islam, like any other body of knowledge, is highly specialized and has voluminous scholarship. Thus, only experts – themselves – can responsibly discuss the issues. They compare Islam to medicine, where laypersons presumably should not discuss with their physicians details of their malady and treatment. Likewise, the laity should not engage the ulama on matters Islamic.

This particular viewpoint was reiterated recently by the President of the Malaysian Muslim Medical Association, Dr. Musa Nordin. He cited the example of a sick newborn, where only a super specialist like a neonatologist is needed. No ordinary physician, much less a layperson, should have an input.

Learning the Wrong Lesson from Medicine

I humbly admit that my knowledge of Islam is meager, but I do know a bit more about medicine. The ulama’s perception of today’s medicine is clearly erroneous. True, there was a time when the prevailing culture was encapsulated in the saying, “Trust me, I am a doctor!” Thankfully, those days are long gone. Such an attitude is still prevalent in many Third World societies as exemplified by Dr. Musa Nordin’s statement.

Today, patients engage their physicians on details of their therapy. I welcome and indeed encourage such discussions with my patients. A well-informed patient is an important resource. With so much medical information readily available, patients are remarkably well informed.

When patients consult me, I go over all the treatment options, including non-surgical ones, discussing the benefits as well as possible side effects of each. I consider each patient encounter an opportunity to educate my patients and to learn from them. In the end, it is the patient’s decision as to what modality to choose. This is part of the informed consent.

There is no one “best” treatment, only the best treatment for a particular patient under a specific circumstance. Consequently, physicians must respect the patients’ needs and wishes. I have modified therapies based on the patient’s personal wishes, as with a young woman concerned with cosmetic appearance, or Jehovah Witness patients whose religious belief precludes their receiving blood products.

In the intensive care unit of my modern hospital, physicians gratefully acknowledge the valuable contributions of others in the care of our patients, from the social workers and priests to the nurses and respiratory therapists. We physicians do not have a monopoly on the clinical wisdom.

Medicine as a discipline also has been receptive to and benefits from ideas in other disciplines. Research in military aviation resulted in the G-suit for pilots, which gave rise to the “mast suit” used to stabilize patients in shock. A further spin off is the compression stockings used in preventing blood clots in the extremities. From space research, we get the elemental diet used in treating intestinal disorders. Advances in instrumentations come from the seemingly unrelated field of engineering.

If physicians were to adopt the insularity of the ulama and refuse to engage experts in other fields, medicine would not have made such spectacular advances.

Advances also come from the lay public. The American Cancer Society, a lay organization, educates the public and is responsible for the increasingly early detection of cancer. Locally, Marina Mahathir and her AIDS Foundation have done more than the medical profession in raising public and official awareness of AIDS.

If I can engage my patients in complicated medical concepts without being condescending, then surely the ulama could do likewise with their flock. If I can understand quantum physics, then surely I can comprehend the intricacies of Islamic theology.

The voluminous literature and legend of scholars in Islam are a blessing, not a curse. I have learned from the great scholars regardless of their sectarian allegiance or whether they are non-Muslims. I certainly do not need a Muslim Pope wannabe to filter what I can and cannot read. God gives me akal (intellect), and entrusts me to use it wisely and responsibly.

Liberal Education for Future Ulama

I am flattered that our ulama are learning from medicine. Unfortunately, they are emulating a profession of a century ago, not today’s modern medicine. Consequently, they are learning all the wrong lessons.

The ulama could adopt one item from my profession, at least as practiced in America. The education of future ulama, like that of physicians, should be broad based. They should study the humanities as well as the social and natural sciences before embarking on religious studies. That would rid them of their intellectual insularity quite apart from enhancing their understanding of the Holy Book.

If we expose our future ulama to modern economics before they pursue their Islamic Studies, they would then appreciate modern financial instruments like taxes, and be able to discuss their differences and similarities with the Muslim tithe. If they were exposed to the behavioral sciences like psychology, they would be better able to manage the problems of their ummah. Currently, the responses of our ulama to the many problems of modern living have been to recite simplistically the holy texts.

I am a better physician for having had a liberal education before studying medicine. In the same vein, our ulama would be much better informed, more intellectually curious, and most importantly, have greater humility if they were exposed to subjects and disciplines outside of the narrow and traditional confines of Islamic Studies. They would also be better ulama if not human beings if in they were exposed to the wider society during their formative years of intellectual and social development.

In their intellectual and social isolation, these ulama never hesitate to make pronouncements and issue fatwas on subjects they absolutely have no clue. Nor do they have the humility to seek advice from others more knowledgeable.

Polio is back in many Muslim countries simply because some ignorant ulama decreed that the vaccine is made from porcine material, or that it is invented by Western specifically Jewish bent on maiming Muslims. Such idiocies put our children in great jeopardy. These ulama are curiously silent on the serious problems such as AIDS, drug addiction, and corruption facing our society.

Our ulama and scholars would have far greater influence on the ummah by the power and strength of their reasoning and scholarship, not on how tightly they can control our thoughts and thinking.


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