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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, September 19, 2021

The Continued Unbridled Corruption of Malay Ulama

 The Continued Unbridled Corruption of Malay Ulama


M. Bakri Musa


[Excerpt from my memoir Cast From the Herd:  Memories From Matriarchal Malaysia will resume next week.]


Malaysia’s premier public intellectual and academic architect, Tajuddin Rasdi, lamented in a recent column that in his 40 years of listening to local sermons, not once did he hear the khatib address much less condemn the egregious corruption among Malay leaders.


That is what happens when the state has co-opted the ulama. Religion then becomes yet another sinister state apparatus and the ulama, handmaidens of the powerful.


            This ulama-ruler complex has not always been the case, in Malaysia or the greater Islamic world. In the preface to the recent re-release of Elijah Gordon’s The Real Cry of Syed Shayk al-Hadi, Ahmad Farouk Musa, another public intellectual and academic cardiac surgeon, writes, “To Al-Hadi, the lifestyle of the ruling elite was morally corrupt, decadent, and unjust. They, aided by the teachings of conservative ulama, have led the ummah to our current abysmal state.”


            I would delete the restrictive “morally” as Malay leaders are corrupt and decadent in every way.


            Shayk al-Hadi was of the reformist Kaum Muda of the early 20th Century. “Do not be deceived by the titles and accolades of your dignitaries for they are the source of all the miseries that have befallen upon you. They . . . oppressed and . . . continue oppressing you,” Ahmad Farouk quotes Al-Hadi.


Harvard’s Noah Feldman in his The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State noted that throughout history, the ulama class remained the only effective bulwark against the excesses of rulers. When rulers stray from God’s laws, as with being corrupt, then the ummah would no longer be bound by their rulers’ edicts, those ancient ulama asserted. Nay, the ummah must go beyond; they were duty-bound to get rid of those errant rulers.


The delusional detachment from reality noted by Tajuddin Rasdi is today the hallmark of local sermons and religious discourses. Listen to the ceramahs of “celebrity” ulama on Youtube. The pompous Dr. Maza (he does not need his full name; his acronym is enough, like Za’aba) would at the slightest provocation overwhelm his listeners with his long Arabic quotes. No one had ever “fact checked” his claims as his listeners could not understand Arabic. His is not to enlighten but to dazzle. Once in a panel discussion in front of an urbane audience, Dr. Maza left in a huff, demonstrating yet another ugly trait of Malay ulama – their inability to handle criticisms or challenges.


Another is Azhar Idrus. This character has not quite figured out his real calling, whether to be an Imam or a stand-up comedian. His folksy delivery in his distinct Kelantanese slang, plus some trite jokes, enthrall his listeners. He forgets that the dialect alone elicits prolonged laughter in sophisticated company.


That these ulama have large loyal followings reveals much of themselves as well as the Malay ummah.


Contrast these ulama with my Imam Ilyas here in California. In a recent Friday sermon before Labor Day holiday, he reminded us to honor and respect workers. He quoted the Prophet that we should pay them before their “sweat dries up.” They, whether cleaning the parks or taking care of the elderly are providing much-needed community services. They are doing God’s work as much as if not more so than those cloistered in houses of worship endlessly reciting their holy texts.


Those who abuse and cheat their workers deserve the wrath of Almighty, Imam Ilyas added. Today, thousands of Malaysian workers have had their paychecks delayed or withheld. Few treat their workers with respect. When I was in Malaysia in 1976, I was stunned to see a prominent Islamic scholar treating his maid as a slave. As for my pay, I did not get my first check till three months later, and then not in full. And my employer was a self-proclaimed Islamic government!


When Pope John Paul II died, Imam Ilyas paid tribute to this great religious leader, recalling his early condemnation of apartheid and the Gulf War, as well as his historic visit to the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, a former Byzantine-era church, where he respectfully removed his shoes and kissed the Qur’an.


In that sermon Imam Ilyas reminded us that Allah has the final prerogative on who would enter Heaven, an indirect dig at those who proclaim that their faith is exclusively privileged, an arrogant claim made not just by Muslims.


Malaysian ulama schooled at prestigious foreign institutions are no different. Afifi Al-Akiti, the current darling of Malays being that he is the first Malay to be appointed Fellow at one of Oxford’s colleges, is an example. When asked during a seminar in Kelantan (attended by no less than the sultan) on the current state of corruption and breaches of faith by Malay leaders, he demurred, using the excuse that he had been away from the country. A cop out!


One could excuse local ulama as they are on government payroll. Al-Akiti is paid by British taxpayers. He is free from the constraints of his Malaysian counterparts. The man is capable of eloquent protest as when he condemned Islamic terrorists in his Defending The Transgressed By Censuring the Reckless Against The Killing of Civilians. That received widespread praise. I wish he had have been as brave and unequivocal in condemning corruption among Malay leaders.


Mousy Al-Akiti is no Tariq Ramadan, his fellow Oxford don. During a visit to Malaysia, Ramadan condemned corruption among Muslim leaders. In the finest prophetic tradition, while Ramadan could not stop corruption in Malaysia with his hands, he used the next best thing, his tongue, by lashing out. Al-Akiti dared not even do that. Only Allah knows whether he condemned Malay corruption in his heart.


Therein lies the problem, and tragedy. Until Malay ulama assume the mantle of their ancient brothers by being the bulwark against errant leaders, the ummah will not change.


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