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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, August 15, 2010

For The Love of Allah, And Only That - Rabi'a al-Adawiyya

For The Love of Allah, And Only for That!
Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya
M. Bakri Musa

During this Ramadan, like all previous ones, mosques will be full of worshipers and the treasuries of Muslim charities will be flooded with generous donations. This is true of my little Muslim community here in the southern tip of Silicon Valley, California, as well as in the heart of Islam, Mecca.

In my community, praise be to Allah, we have no difficulty finding sponsors for our weekly community iftar (breaking of the fast). We have also conveniently made our annual fundraising event, “Feeding of the Soul,” during Ramadan. As my folks back in the old kampong would say, we are mengambil kesempatan durian runtuh (taking advantage of the durian season).

However, as my young Imam Ilyas observed in his Friday sermon, this heightened spirituality and generosity during Ramadan, while certainly praiseworthy, would be more so if we could extend them throughout the year.

Ramadan holds a special reverence for Muslims. It is the month in which the Quran was first revealed to our Prophet Muhammad, May the Blessings of Allah be upon Him. That should be reason enough to hold the month in high esteem.

We are also told that prayers and other spiritual deeds offered during Ramadan would carry “forty times more reward” than at any other time. And on the special “Night of Power (Lailatul Qadar), said to be one of the odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadan, those deeds are “better than that of a thousand months!”

Muslims presumably need this further assurance for the month’s special place!

I have difficulty when religious deeds, or indeed any good deeds for that matter, are reduced to the simplistic accumulation of “brownie points.” In this case, the collecting of merit points, Boy Scout style, to be later redeemed presumably at the Gates of Heaven.

I am reminded of this eloquent prayer of the eighth century Muslim hazrat (saint), Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya:

O God! If I worship Thee for fear of Hell, then burn me in Hell
And if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, then exclude me from there.
But if I worship Thee for Thine own sake,
Then grudge me not Your Everlasting Beauty!

Her prayer brought back fond memories of my late grandfather, Haji Salam bin Tachik. Yes, his name – Salam – was a reflection of him, a man at peace with himself. Whenever he was offered an odd job by a neighbor, he would promise to give his best, and then sealed it with a handshake uttering, “Kerana Allah” (because of Allah).

And he did his best and gave all he had. I would often criticize him for expending so much effort that was way out of proportion to what he would be paid. He was not at all perturbed by my carping. Instead he would reply, “Grandson, I did it not to please the man in the hope that he would give more work or better pay in the future, but because I had made a promise to Allah.”

Kerana Allah, he would repeatedly remind me. He did not say that he was worried of “sinning” and fearing God’s wrath if he were to cheat his employer by doing a less-than-satisfactory job. His love of Allah was enough for him to give his best and to avoid deeds that would earn His wrath. That was what kept him on the “straight path.”

I remind myself of my grandfather’s simple lesson and Rabi’a’s moving prayer this Ramadan whenever I am called to tend upon yet another indigent patient. What with the present trying economic times, there are plenty of such patients. And as per my Imam’s advice, I have tried to live through my grandfather’s creed throughout the year.

There are plenty of generous deeds being done in Malaysia and elsewhere during Ramadan. Many are high profile events like elaborate iftars in fancy restaurants and generous donations to the disadvantaged. Let us hope that those are done for the sake of Allah, and only for His sake, in the spirit of Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya, and be continued outside of Ramadan, as per my Imam’s sermon.

Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya

Rabi’a was the fourth (hence her name) daughter of a poor family. They were robbed while traveling in a caravan and she ended up being sold as a slave to a cruel master.

She spent her evenings praying after her chores were done. One night her master was awakened by the sound of her prayer lamenting the fact that she was unable to carry out His command as she was enslaved. Her prayer so affected her owner that he felt ashamed and sacrilegious in keeping a slave, and offered instead to be her slave and her be the mistress of the manor.

She instead opted for her freedom, which she spent meditating and learning. And learn she did, and in her own unique way. She was not all impressed with the superficialities of the faith or the mindless rituals of its followers. Despite being a woman and single, her fame spread.

It was said that when she undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Ka’aba was so enthralled with her pending arrival that it moved halfway to meet her! Now to have the Ka’aba come to you and not the other way around is highly symbolic in the Islamic scheme of things. It is of course a less lofty version of the hadith theme that if Muhammad (pbuh) would not come to the mountain, then it would come to him!

Rabi’a however was not in the least impressed or enthralled by the gesture, and was reported to have retorted, “It is the Lord of the house whom I need; what have I to do with the house? I need to meet with Him Who said, ‘Who approaches Me by a span’s length, I will approach him by the length of a cubit.’ The Ka’aba which I see has no power over me; what joy does the beauty of the Ka’aba bring to me?”

She rightly separated and was not confused by the object of veneration from the subject. Some would say that hers was the height of arrogance; to me, putting things in perspective! It is not the Ka’aba that Muslims should be praying to, rather Allah.

In misogynist medieval Arabic culture, Rabi’a stood out as a shining light and an exemplary teacher. Teachers would do well to heed her maxim: “You call yourself a teacher; therefore learn!” She also stood out in many other ways. In a faith and culture that frankly abhor celibacy and non-marriage, Rabia’ remained single and celibate. She was, in the tradition of nuns, already ‘married’ to God. Meaning, fully and exclusively devoted to Allah!

Legend has it that she was found one day running on the streets of Basra carrying a torch in one hand and a pail of water in the other. When asked what she was doing, she replied, “I want to put out the fires of Hell and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to God. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of God.” Hence her famous prayer!

Unfortunately today religion, in particular Islam of the official Malaysian variety, is simplistically reduced to a series of dos and don’ts, as well as the accompanying mindset of garnering reward and avoiding punishment. The intrinsic value and satisfaction of doing good, and the avoidance of evil for its own (meaning, Allah’s) sake, are lost.

Rabi’a’s concept of “Divine love” (For the love of God), also found in other faiths, was her guiding principle. God should be loved for His own sake, not out of fear of Hell or the promise of Heaven, as beautifully encapsulated in her prayer. Indeed such primordial emotions as fear and sublime ones like hope can be like a veil, hindrance to the full vision of Allah.

This Ramadan as we fast, pray, give zakat, and do all the meritorious deeds Allah has commanded us to do, let us do so not in the promise of the reward of Heaven, or the fear that we would end up in Hell should we fail to do them, but for the love of Allah, and only for that. Nor should we do good merely for public recognition and rewards, rather for its own sake – kerana Allah.

For me, this Ramadan is also a time to remember and relive the lesson my grandfather taught me so well some 50 years ago. May the soul of Haji Salam bin Tachik rest in peace!


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