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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.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 13 of 14)

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 13 of 14

[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]

Q&A (Cont’d): Islamic State and Leaders

Q9: Would you prefer a Muslim leader who is corrupt and incompetent over a non-Muslim who is both honest and competent?

One of the speakers commented earlier that this is a difficult question. To me the choice is glaringly clear. Go for competence and honesty.

Let me go further. I want my leader to share my values and aspirations for my country. If a leader no matter how honest, brilliant and competent were to lead my country towards totalitarianism, I will be the first to express my opposition against her.

I also believe that there are leaders who do not share my faith but subscribe to my values and aspirations. They may believe in or pray to another God, but that does not make any difference to me. It is after all the same God, isn’t it?

Your question gives a false choice; it implies that we lack honest and competent Muslim leaders. Yes, looking at the world today one cannot be faulted for drawing such a conclusion. For Malaysia, may I remind you that there was a time when we do not lack for Malay leaders who were both competent and honest!

The follow up questions should be: Why are Muslim specifically Malay leaders today so corrupt and incompetent? The other, how can we groom future honest leaders who are honest and competent? I hope the panel discussions we had helped answer that.

Q10: You criticized (former) Minister of Education Hishammuddin for making Malay school children read the entire Koran by end of their primary school. Do you not believe that there is merit in reading the Holy Book and that the exercise itself has educational value?

Yes, there is great merit in reciting the Koran. The Koran is a guidebook from Allah to lead us along the Straight Path. When the Koran is recited properly giving due diligence to its exquisite tajweed, it brings tears to listeners. There is innate poetry and music to the verses of the Koran, quite apart from the spiritual values. However, far too often the Koran is recited merely as a ritual, with the overriding objective of getting it over as quickly as possible so food could then be served, or the sermon be over with and we can then leave.

I fail to see the educational value of having our kids recite the entire Koran in class. I would rather have them be taught a few short verses, especially the early Meccan ones, and to learn from those the beauty of the cadence, imagery and language, among others. Read the various translations of those verses and try to appreciate the differences.

The messages of the Koran were delivered to Prophet Muhammad at a time when the Arabs were still steeped in the oral tradition; the culture had not yet transited into the written word; thus the style. To read the Koran as you would a book (as Hishammuddin is advocating in our schools) would be as boring and as to hear somebody giving a speech reading from a text. Add a soporific voice and it would beat Ambien hands down in putting you to sleep.

What I prefer would be to have the Koran taught in the best oral tradition, in the Socratic manner of open discussions and questionings. You are more likely to elucidate the truth of the message than with the current ritualistic and mindless recitations.

Earlier Dr. Waleed asked you to cite a verse of the Koran that was most meaningful to you and why. An excellent exercise! I was touched by some of the remarks. That simple exercise conveys the richness of the Koran and its messages. It also made you think and communicate your ideas! So why not give our school children similar exercises, like giving their personal examples of what is meant to be gracious and merciful – the Arr Rahman and Arr Rahim of the al Fatihah, the opening and most recited verse.

Let me share a contrasting experience. I took an upper level year-long (two semesters) course on Shakespeare during my undergraduate days. Despite a full year-long course, we covered only about 15 percent of his works. Out of that we discussed in class only about a third, while the rest in the form of term papers and other out-of-class assignments. Meaning, at best we covered in class only 5 percent of Shakespeare’s corpus.

However, by studying intensively only that 5 percent we could then on our own pursue the rest at our leisure. I favor that approach to studying the Koran in school.

Q11: Is Malaysia an Islamic state, and if it is not, should it be one?

I have no clue what an Islamic state is. Those who vociferously advocate for one, whether from UMNO or PAS, have yet to clarify what they mean. What do they hold as the model Islamic state, Iran? Pakistan? Saudi Arabia? I shudder to think that we would aspire to be anywhere close to any of those states.

Tun Mahathir had at various times asserted that Malaysia is already an Islamic state. If that is so, then I would suggest that the further away we are from an Islamic state, the better. I want to be as far away as possible from where corruption is accepted and rampant, and where our basic human rights are being trampled daily as with the ISA and other brute laws. That is where Malaysia is today.

To Emory University’s Abdullah An Naim, there is no such thing as an Islamic State; there never was. The concept of a state as a political entity is fairly recent. Up till the Middle Ages the world was essentially a collection of fiefdoms and villages headed by the various dukes and other hereditary rulers. So were the Arabs at the time of the Prophet, s.a.w.

Those advocates of an Islamic state look longingly to the leadership of Prophet Mohammad, s.a.w., who was not only a spiritual but also a political leader. His was a special circumstance, although many Muslim leaders today delude themselves into thinking that they are the modern re-incarnations of the prophet.

If those currently advocating for an Islamic state, however nebulous that concept may be, would instead focus on achieving the ideals of Islam in the administration of the state, then they would be much further ahead. By that I mean a state and leaders that, among others, respect the sanctity of our basic human rights and value us as individuals beyond our race or ethnicity. If that is what they mean by an Islamic state, then all Muslims would agree and few non-Muslims would disagree.

Instead what most advocates of an Islamic state are consumed with are such inanities as whether Muslim women should shake hands with men and non-Muslims, and whether the Azzan should be blasted in the early morning hours.

Get rid of corruption, eradicate poverty, respect your citizens’ rights; those are the true path towards an Islamic state, or a state that cherishes Islamic values.

Q12: Why are we arguing about an Islamic state or doubt the ability of Islamic laws to carry our country forward? The answers to all our problems are right there in the Koran. Why not look there?

As a Muslim, I believe the Koran carries the “message for all mankind, at all times, and until the end of time.” That is a matter of faith for me as for all Muslims. Again, like all Muslims I regard the Holy Book and its message with deep reverence.

To treat it like a Merck Manual, where you would look up the index and then flip to the appropriate page to seek the remedy for what ails you, would be disrespectful if not downright blasphemous, quite apart from insulting the intelligence of Muslims.

The late Fazlur Rahman, the distinguished University of Chicago scholar, suggested an enlightened approach to understanding the Koran. The Koran teaches through parables, anecdotes, and concrete examples taken from the ordinary lives of those Arabs during the Prophet’s time. That was the only and effective way to take the message to the people.

Obviously we Malays are very different from those ancient Bedouins, so too our culture, aspirations and environment. We live in a humid not dry climate, in lush jungles not sparse desert. We use water buffaloes not humped camels.

Fazlur suggested that we should deduce from the particularities of the Koran its underlying guiding principles. To do so intelligently would require us to understand the totality of the message, and to discern the texts and the contexts, to use the language of social scientists. Once we have established those underlying principles, then we should apply them to the particular problems we face today. Both exercises demand considerable intellectual exertion, not to mention humility.

Let me illustrate this point. If I were to explain gravity to the simple kampong folks, I would relate to them the apple (I would of course substitute coconut!) falling to the ground, as per Newton’s original observation. Now if I were to take those folks on a Ferris wheel ride with an apple in their hands and then asked them to release it when they are at the top, the apple would fall skywards (assuming that the velocity was sufficiently high so the centrifugal force would exceed the gravitational pull). You all being engineers would readily comprehend what I am saying. To the village folks, however, the coconut falling towards the sky would seem to defy the laws of gravity. Thus we have to explain to them the more general and universal underlying principle to explain the apparent contradiction.

Now if I were to explain gravity right away as g=md2, where “g” is gravitational force, “m” the mass; and “d” the distance between the two masses, the elegant simplicity of the formula would enthrall only math geeks; those village folks would have their eyes glazed over.

Likewise in reading the Koran; we should go beyond the literal and simplistic apple falling to the ground and instead try to seek the underlying universal principles. The easiest and intellectually lazy way out would simply be to quote selected passages to support whatever viewpoint you advocate. Yes, the Koran says stoning to death for adultery. However, to have the necessary four eyewitnesses for conviction as specified in the Koran, you would have to be fornicating in the open park, and during broad daylight!

Far too often in our zeal with our newfound favorite verse to support our conviction, we forget the numerous other messages extolling the greater virtues of mercy and forgiveness.

I always have difficulty when I hear an Imam or scholar recite the Koran and then confidently if not arrogantly assert, “And it means ….” Imagine! All translations are at best interpretations, yet that does not in any way disabuse these folks of their ingrained certitude. I have made it my practice whenever quoting the Koran to add the proviso, “approximate translation.”

We carry that same certitude and arrogance in our understanding of hadith and sharia. There is a hadith to the effect that the ummah will be divided into 73 sects, and all but one will be doomed to Hellfire.

To many Muslims that hadith implies that his or her sect is the only right one, and the others wrong or misled. What is the consequence to that thinking? A messianic urge to “correct” the others; in the process we also become intolerant of their beliefs.

You are all engineers, comfortable with probabilities and quantitative valuations. If you were being told that you have a 1 in 73 chance (less than one and a half percent) of being right, what do you conclude? If I were to tell my patient that she has only a 1 in 73 chance of surviving an operation, no one except those with a secret death wish would submit to my operation.

So why not accept the quantitative risk expressed by the Prophet and assume that your sect is one of those 72 that have been misled. After all there is an over 98.5 percent chance of that being so. The immediate effect of such a posture would be that you become humble and tolerant of other sects and possible interpretations of our faith. Because you believe that your interpretation has a high probability of being wrong, you would want to learn about the other sects. You would have the urge or inspiration to learn from others, or at least be inquisitive of their interpretations. You would become more receptive and forgiving of those who disagree with you. And if you are a leader you would not likely condemn or arrest members of the other 72 sects lest you risk arresting those destined for Paradise and thus incur God’s wrath.

As is evident, your whole attitude and mindset change towards being more healthy and positive. Remember this when someone quote you a Koranic verse or hadith and then confidently assert his translation is the only true one.

Back to the second part of your question about all the answers being in the Koran, Hamka once said that Allah in his wisdom and generosity had given us two Korans. One he revealed to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., which Caliph Othman, r.a., had codified in a written form. That is the Koran familiar to all Muslims.

The other Koran is the vast universe that Allah had bequeathed upon us. As His vice-regents, we have an obligation to also study this Koran. Just as Allah has provided us with Prophet Muhammad to guide us to the first Koran, He (Allah) too has provided us with the necessary tool to understand this second Koran: He has endowed us with an intellect, a gift unique only to humans. To me, cosmonauts exploring the outer reaches of the universe are studying this second Koran, just as the scientists slicing the genes are studying our inner living universe.

Likewise on Monday when you go back to the lab to discover the properties of a material or try a new circuitry, you too will be studying this second Koran. Yes the answers are all there in the Koran, the book as well as the universe, but we have to exert intellectually to find the answers. The answer will not come merely by looking at the index and then flipping the pages. Come to think of it, no one has indexed the Koran, and wisely so.

Next: Q&A (Cont’d) Contemporary Leaders


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