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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.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Dealng With Our Differences: Reflections on Mauludul Nabi

Dealing with Our Differences: Reflections on Mauludul Nabi

The third Muslim month of Rabi al-Awwal holds special significance; Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. was born on its twelfth day. While Muslims universally agree on its significance, there is little agreement on how the day should be observed.

In many Muslim societies, Mauludul Nabi is celebrated with all the exuberance of a major festival, with elaborate celebrations and joyous activities. Malaysia has public parades with believers singing praises of the prophet s.a.w. and glittering ceremonies honoring exemplary citizens. It is also a public holiday. In the Middle East, festivities of Mauludul Nabi rival that of Eid.

There are those who believe that as Muslims we should always be mindful of the prophet’s teachings and exemplary ways every single day of our life; his birthday should therefore be no different from any other day. Celebrations or expressions of joy were frowned upon if not condemned as aping the Christians with their Christmas. That Holy Day has today degenerated into another highly commercialized holiday, its religious foundation all but forgotten.

In my small California community, for Mauldul Nabi we had a potluck dinner with our imam giving a short lecture recalling the sterling exemplary qualities of our prophet s.a.w. We did not “celebrate” as much as honor the day. With that we were able to accommodate the differing views among our congregants.

Attitude towards the prophet’s birthday is not the only issue that divides our ummah. There are also profound juristic differences (ikhtilaf). In Pakistan, the Ismailis were once declared as heretics; today the Shiites are branded as kafir (infidel) – a particularly derogatory term. Meanwhile in Malaysia, you are considered less a Muslim if not an outright kafir if you are not attired in a particular fashion.

In this season of Mauludal Nabi, we would do well to recall how the prophet s.a.w. and those closest to him dealt with differences among them.

He was able to establish a viable community in Medinah by creatively managing the differences not only among Muslims (between the immigrant Meccans and native Medinans) but also between Muslims and non-Muslims. For the Muslims, he emphasized the commonalities among them, while with non-Muslims he accepted those differences and accommodated them.

Degree of Differences

Before we could creatively manage our differences we need to first understand them, their bases and dynamics. At one extreme are those differences that arise through ignorance. The solution is as obvious as it is simple: better education. At one time the Christians were wrecked with divisions between those who believed the earth was flat versus those who thought it was round. With better knowledge, that issue is settled. Today the earth is flat only metaphorically, as per Thomas Friedman.

Caliph Omar once asserted that the prophet said to him that the dead would bear the burden of those who wailed at his or her funeral. The prophet’s wife Aishah rebutted by referring to the Quranic verse that says (approximately translated) no soul should bear the burden of another.

This incident highlights a number of relevant points. One, we should not hesitate correcting our leaders if we feel they have erred. This reminder is more for leaders. Two, hadiths are not what the prophet s.a.w had uttered, rather what the chain of narrators (isnad) claimed to be the sayings of the prophet. (Exceptions would be hadith qudzi documented in the Quran.) This difference is subtle yet profound. It led to the labeling of those who critically analyzed the hadith as “anti-hadith” and thus “us-Islamic.” Last, we are blessed in Islam to have an ultimate point of reference not in an authority figure as the Pope, rather a set of documents that was set down at and had remained unchanged since the prophet’s time, and which we believe to be God’s word. Our fatwas, practices, and hadiths must be validated against the Quran.

In enlightening someone, it is just as important to provide the correct knowledge as in delivering it. A story is related that the prophet’s grandsons Hussain and Hassan once observed an older man performing ablution incorrectly. They wanted to correct him but were afraid lest he would be offended. They devised a plan to have the man judge them as to who was better at performing ablution. As the two proceeded to perform their ablution, the old man suddenly discovered that he had been performing his incorrectly. The lesson was effectively imparted.

Often in our self-righteousness and zeal to correct others, we may inadvertently turn them off.

Living With Our Differences

At the other extreme is where the differences are so profound as to be irreconcilable, as one being a believer and the other, an atheist. No amount of education or debate could change that. In the language of social science, that is an “indivisible conflict.” It is much more dangerous precisely because it cannot be reconciled. Religious and civil wars are vicious and difficult to resolve because they are based on indivisible conflicts.

Atheists and believers may have profound differences in their personal beliefs, nonetheless that should not stop them from affording each other the common courtesies as fellow human beings. The goodwill generated through such social interactions would transcend their profound differences in beliefs, or make those differences irrelevant. As to who would end up in Heaven, that is the prerogative of God, and only His. Meanwhile they get to enjoy peace on earth.

When the prophet found that the divine revelations he received were irreconcilable with the existing beliefs of his fellow tribesmen, and he was unable to convert them, he chose (or instructed to by God) to move away rather than risk fratricide. Thus began the Hijrah.

Between these two extremes of irreconcilable differences and one based on ignorance lie the bulk of the disagreements that divide us. One is of the old half-full versus half-empty glass variety. The reality is the same, only our perceptions differ. We bring different beliefs, cultures, and experiences to bear on our perceptions. The solution here would be to learn and appreciate the perspective of others.

A related source of difference is illustrated thus. There is a place in Alaska where the qiblat could either be southeast, if we go by the usual Mercator projection of wall maps, or northwest over the pole if we use Google Earth.

The solution in this instance would be to go with the majority and pray that Allah accepts your prayers. There would be chaos if one half of the congregation were to face one way and the other half, the opposite. Heed the wisdom of the Quran: Allah will not allow His community be in error. Go with the consensus.

The recurring dispute over whether Ramadan and Eid should be based on moon sighting or calculations falls into this category.

A comparable disagreement arose during the prophet’s time. In a widely quoted narration, the prophet instructed his followers on a journey to pray Asar at Bani Quraizah. The party however was delayed and Asar time came while they were enroute. Disagreement arose as to whether they should stop and pray or wait till they reach their destination. Half stopped to pray and the other half did not. At the end of their journey they sought the prophet’s advice and was told that both were correct.

These days hardly a gathering goes by without someone lamenting on the lack of Muslim unity. If only we were united and not divided into the various sects, our problems would go away. On the contrary, as in the biological world, the success of Islam is precisely because of our diversity. It is this that makes Islam universal, adaptable to the nomadic Bedouin tribesmen, the tropical Malaysian fishermen, and dwellers of Mongolian steppes.

We should view differences amongst us as a sign of Allah’s Grace, as eloquently stated in the Quran. We should go beyond mere tolerating to embracing it. We should expand our horizon and view our differences in generous terms. As with America, our diversity is our strength, not our weakness. Muslim unity does not mean and should not lead to Muslim unanimity.


Blogger bakaq a.k.a ~penarik beca said...


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Memohon pertolongan

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Tolong sebar sama kepada bloggers yang lain.


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