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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, November 11, 2018

Mahathir Should Scour The Field For His Ibn Jabal

Mahathir Should Scour The Field For His Ibn Jabal
M. Bakri Musa

The current favorite political speculation is on Mahathir’s choice of a successor. At 93, Providence may not give Mahathir the luxury of an unhurried pace, and Malaysia can ill afford a leadership chaos now.

Mahathir can learn much from our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w. One narration has the prophet sounding out his young companion, one Mu’adh Ibn Jabal, for the governorship of Yemen, a pivotal appointment. It goes something like this (approximate rendition):

            Prophet:  “How would you govern?”
            Ibn Jabal:  “According to the Book of Allah!”
            “What if you do not find it there?”
            “Then in yoursunnah(traditions and pratices of the prophet).”
            “What if you do not find it there either?”
            To which Ibn Jabar replied, “Then I will strive for my own judgement.”
            The prophet was most pleased by that response.

            Everytime I hear this hadith cited, regardless of the speaker, audience, or venue, the discourse would be long on Ibn Jabal’s vast knowledge of the Koran and his ability to discern halal from haram, together with embellished accounts of the prophet’s love and praises for the man. Many of the accounts, if we can believe the narrators, bordered on the homoerotic.

Then there would be the recitations of the various versions with their excruciating details, as if the prophet’s utterence of over 14 centuries ago had been recorded verbatim.

            Rarely would one hear of the hadith’s wisdom, or how it could be applied to contemporary challenges. The fetish, then and now, is in displaying one’s Arabic fluency and memorization prowess.

            Tradition has it that the prophet had earlier sought out other candidates. When Abu Bakar volunteered, the prophet remained silent. Then Omar Khattab offered himself. Again the prophet fell silent. When Ibn Jabal responded, the prophet was most pleased.

A measure of Abu Bakar and Omar Khattab is that both would later succeed the prophet. Yet he bypassed them. You could say that the prophet practiced meritocracy and fast-tracked Ibn Jabal. This insight of the hadith is rarely recognized or recounted.

Note, the prophet did not inquire whether Ibn Jabal had paid his zakat or gone to Hajj. The prophet was interested only in that one quality most crucial in a leader–his judgement. That insight too is often missed.

Had Mahathir heeded this in his first go as Prime Minister, Malaysia would have been spared much grief. So would he. Now in his second time around I hope that he would be more diligent. Scour the field wide for his Ibn Jabal and bypass his Abu Bakars and Omar Khattabs if need be. Mahathir’s potential Ibn Jabal may not even be in the cabinet now.

Ponder that hadith again. Imagine, the prophet reminding Ibn Jabal that he may not find the answers in the Koran orseerah! Tell that to those whose rote response to today’s complex problems is to endlessly chant, “The Koran (or seerah) has all the answers!”

We degrade the Koran when we reduce it to a how-to manual; worse, a talisman or a Muslim’s lucky rabbit foot. Soak a verse of Surah Yaseenin your tea and that would protect you from illness. Chant this Ayat72 times and your debt would magically dissipate, or there would be no need to be vaccinated. Plaster a verse on your dashboard and that would protect you even if you were to text while driving. That simple!

They chose to ignore the other prophetic tradition:  First tie your camel securely, only then pray it does not escape.

Martin Luther observed that a Christian cobbler would best demonstrate his piety not by making shoes decorated with fancy crucifexes but by making them cheap and durable so the poor could afford them. Likewise, a Muslim engineer would best demonstrate his imannot by carving Koranic verses onto fancy arches but by being diligent in his calculations and meticulous in his construction so the bridge would not collapse with the first rainstorm.

Today the Koran and hadith are being exploited to end a discussion rather than illuminate it. “The Koran (or hadith as narrated by Bukhari, Muslim, Termidhi, etc.,) says . . . ,” the ulama would assert with arrogant certitude, as if his interpretation is the only valid one. Koran and hadith should stimulate discussions, not close them.

Then there are those who would dispense entirely with hadith. To them, Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., was but a human fax machine, a robotic intermediary mouthing whatever God had placed in his vocal cords. Once you received your message, the fax machine is superflous.

Hadith scholar Jonathan Brown put it best. When we read the Koran, we implicitly put on the lens of the holy prophet. Like lens, hadith enhances and clarifies the Koran as well as helps us focus. We could only achieve that if we are not preoccupied with and distracted by the chain of narrators, or argue endlessly on the authenticity of what was uttered a millennium-and-a-half ago.

If the prophet had to remind Ibn Jabal that the answer may not always be in the Koran or hadith, we too would be wise to follow that precept.


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