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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, December 21, 2008

Islam and the Malay Mindset: What Went Wrong?

Happy Holidays and Season's Greetings!
(Please note there will be no fresh posting until January 4th, 2009.)

This was the topic for a small group discussion at a recent seminar organized by Kelab UMNO New York/New Jersey. I was a passive participant at this dialogue, at least initially.

In the ensuing discussions, the students duly reaffirmed the greatness of Islam, citing many ready examples. Islam emancipated the ancient Bedouins out of their Age of Jahilliyah (Ignorance), and did it all within a generation. Islam then spread as far westward as Andalusia and eastward right up to China. In the process Islam inspired and created great civilizations and empires that lasted till at least the early part of the last century.

After over 1400 years however, Islam (at least the physical empire, though not the faith) was done in by European colonialism. With colonialism’s ending, there was a quick resurgence of Islam. Today it is the faith of a quarter of the world’s population, and fast growing.

Islam has been part of the Malay world for well over half a millennium. It is very much an integral part of our “Malayness” such that the statutory definition of a Malay is tied to the faith. Our embrace of Islam remains firm if not enhanced, despite being under complete Western (specifically British) colonial domination for a good portion of the time.

With the resurgence of Islam, Malays like Muslims everywhere yearn for the return of those earlier glorious days. Thus far that is all there is to it – just a yearning; much of the Muslim world remains tragically mired in poverty, with its citizens deprived of their basic human dignity and rights.

In Malaysia, the achievement gaps between Malays and non-Malays continue to widen despite the political leadership and public institutions being dominated by Malays. This glaring disparity remains a continuous source of communal angst, triggering more than just a few occasions of mass “acting out” behaviors as keris wielding and shrill calls for Ketuanan Melayu.

Why is Islam unable to emancipate Malays as it did the ancient Bedouins? What went wrong? Being true believers, the students rightly asserted that there is nothing wrong with this great faith, rather with our understanding – and thus practice – of it.

We are obsessed with rituals at the expense of appreciating the essence of Islam, the students observed. The universal message of Islam is lost with the associated Arabism, they continued. We are consumed in being Arabs, or at least aping them in the belief that it is the same thing as being Islamic or pious.

In teaching our young we are too preoccupied with being punitive and not enough with being positive. When they are naughty or grab a toy from another child, we would admonish them by saying that God would punish them by burning them in hell. Such concepts are beyond the comprehension of young minds, except to imprint on them horror-filled images of suffering and torture.

A more understandable and thus effective way would be to teach those children to imagine how they would feel if someone were to steal their toys. Such an approach would also be an excellent way to impart upon them the Golden Rule, to do unto others what you want done to you, a basic precept in all faiths.

We make our young recite and even memorize the Quran at a very early age without expending commensurate time and effort in teaching them the meaning or significance of those verses in our every day lives. We have reduced this great religion to a series of rituals instead of being a guide to a “total way of life” that is righteous, pleases Allah, and leads to a harmonious society. We pray, fast, pay our tithe, and undertake the pilgrimage but then go right ahead and accept bribes, neglect our jobs, and ignore our families and society.

We go to great lengths avoiding pork and improperly slaughtered chicken and cows, rightly considering them haram, but we have no compulsion in accepting bribes or neglecting our duties.

The students did a credible job of societal self-introspection. As they were summarizing their conclusions to present to the larger group, I enquired how we as a society have strayed from the central message of Islam. More relevantly, how could we rediscover the essence of Islam so that it too would do for us what it did for the ancient Arabs?

Taqlid, Bidaa, and Tajdid

Taqlid and bidaa are two central concepts in the learning and transmission of Islam. Taqlid refers to following the teachings of those more learned and pious than and before us. Specifically, it refers to adhering to the practices of one of the established schools of jurisprudence or mahdhab.

The Arabic root of the word means to place a collar around the neck, as we would to guide an animal. The operative word there is “guide,” to lead us along the straight path.

Malay villagers however, do not put a collar around our kerbau (buffalo) rather a ring through its nose. It serves the same purpose, and more. For in addition to leading the animal we also effectively control it.

Therein lies the problem. Does taqlid mean letting us be guided or be controlled? Is taqlid a collar slung loosely around our neck to nudge us to the left or right as a rein to a horse, or a ring pierced through our nose as with our kerbau? There is a vast difference between paying deference to precedents (as lawyers and judges do) versus being held captive by them. If it were the latter, slavery would still be legal in America.

Likewise with bidaa; with every khutba the Imam would duly warn the flock of the awesome Hellfire that awaits those who would dare engage in bidaa. Invariably the word is translated as “innovation.” “Innovation” means more than just change; it implies change for the better, and thus something commendable and to strive for. Bidaa obviously does not mean innovation; it is closer to corruption or adulteration, hence the dire warning against partaking in it!

My point here was to sensitize the students to the potential treacherous trap in interpreting the meaning of words especially where translations were involved. Such dangers exist even without translations, as words can change their meanings and connotations over time. During the prophet’s time for example, poets were held in low regard, as clearly stated in some Quranic verses, as they used their talent to mock the prophet.

Thus when a religious scholar quotes a verse from the Quran or hadith and then confidently assert with such certitude, “And the verse means … ,” that belies an arrogant mindset, impervious to reasons and intolerant of differing interpretations. A more humble and also accurate way would be to add the proviso, “When approximately translated.” Translations are at best approximate and provisional.

Our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., anticipated this erosion and corruption of the faith, as had happened to earlier revelations to other prophets before him. Hence the Quranic references to the appearance of a “prophet amongst us every hundred years” to renew the faith by getting rid of the inevitable accretions of extraneous practices and beliefs that would inevitably develop over time. “Prophet” here of course means “leader,” as to Muslims Muhammad, s.a.w, was the Last Prophet.

This concept of renewal or tajdid is a long established tradition in Islam. However, we cannot have renewal if we remain a slave to precedents, or if we consider every change a bidaa or an affront to taqlid. Islam has never been short of reformers, right from the first rightly-guided caliphs to the rationalists Mutazilites and many modern-day reformers. Like reformers in other faith, some have paid dearly for their attempts.

America with its freedom provides fertile ground for the renewal of Islam. America is also fortunate in having many brilliant Islamic scholars who have been driven away from their native land for their innovative ideas. To their folks back home, these reformers are engaging in bidaa, a mortal sin.

We are also fortunate in America to have the freedom to explore the rich and varied traditions of our faith. In Malaysia you could be detained under the ISA for reading Shiite literature! To put that in perspective, that is the same punishment if you were to engage in subversive or communist activities. Add to that the favorite past time of our leaders: banning books and restricting speakers! That ring through our noses can be very restricting!

What went Right

To end the students’ discussion on a positive note, I asked them to consider the flip side of their query, to ponder what went right. I nudged them to imagine what would have happened had Islam not landed on our shores.

One student reacted with horror at that prospect as we would then still have our animist ways and Hindu beliefs. At which point I enquired whether the Balinese (who are racially Malays) are somehow inferior to us because they are not Muslims. Or for that matter the Protestant Bataks in Sumatra.

As that seemed to dampen the discussion, I volunteered that there are many things that went right with Islam and Malays. Seeing it strictly from my professional perspective, I am glad that Malays are Muslims. When I was a surgeon in Malaysia, I never saw a single case of alcohol-related injuries among Malays. Before America had its strict drunk driving laws, a large part of my work as a surgeon was to repair the horrible damages wrecked by drunks. In the Philippines, alcohol-related crimes and injuries are rampant.

I wish our Quran would have similar explicit prohibitions against drugs and corruption as it does against alcohol!

On a higher level, Islam introduced the written word to our world. Once a society adopted a written culture, there is a quantum lap in its intellectual development. Yes, before the arrival of Arabic Malays had Sanskrit, but that was a dead language. Many of the ancient Malay literature are adaptations of stories from the Middle East, and our language borrows heavily from Arabic.

On that positive note we ended the discussion. What went wrong is not with Islam rather how we have missed the essence of this great faith in our obsession with its peripherals.


Anonymous Sean said...

Hello Bakri Musa,

Not sure if you're "living" in Malaysia now or still in sunny "Cali" but I've been here now for seven years. I can spot two distinct "problems" with Malaysians and Islam.

One is this concept of being "born" Muslim. In one facet it's complete rubbish, however from the Quranic stance it's actually "spot on". All creatures which are birthed into this world are in fact "Muslims". Animals do their "salah" naturally. Human beings however have "free will" and as such, whence they reach a mature enough mind-set must "decide" to take Shahada. Only then do they actually become "Muslims". I was born in Amerika, so following Malaysian logic that would automagically make me Xtian (rubbish). I never chose a religion until I was in the US Army, stationed in Germany, and learned from Turkish folks there that Muhammad (SAWS) was just a prophet (unlike Esa in Xtianity).

Secondly, the idea that one can't "change" religions is absurd (apostasy). There has been a lot of hoopla about this recently and I find it not only Islamicly incorrect but very ignorant and harmful to the would be "new-comers" to Islam. What do we tell the new-comer? Once you've chosen Islam there is NO other way period? Non-sense, and this can be proven by the Quran/Hadith's etc but I'm not going to get into that here. Just wanted to mention it briefly.

Essentially, Malaysia right now is slowly turning towards a more aggressive style of Islam (Wahabi's & Salafi's) due to the relationship of Saudi Arabi :( . I just pray that during GE13 the opposition wins as they seem to be much more connected to the "present" (i.e. 21st Century). Thanks for letting me comment. Cheers!

Kuala Lumpur

9:46 PM  

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