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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, April 24, 2022

Quran, Hadith, and Hikayat: Exercises In Critical Thinking

Qur’an, Hadith, and Hikayat:  Exercises in Critical Thinking

M. Bakri Musa





ISBN-13: ‏ :  979-8463116093

pp 342; October 2021

Paperback US$14.95; e-book US$2.99

Available on Amazon.com (as well as Amazon elsewhere and other major on-line outlets)



Qur’an, Hadith, and Hikayat:  Exercises in Critical Thinking uses examples familiar to Muslims, Malays in particular, as exercises in critical thinking. From the Holy Qur’an, the writer examines its central injunction “Command good and forbid evil” to explore the meaning of “good” versus “evil” as well as “commanding” versus “forbidding.”


He discusses whether “good” and “evil” are polar opposites, and as such mutually exclusive (an either-or proposition), or on a continuum. If the latter, whether circumstances matter as to where on that spectrum a particular deed would fall. Consider Aristotle’s virtues, where excess in any one is to be avoided, in consonant with our prophet’s admonition:  In everything, moderation.


Could “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice no virtue” be justified? Can we remain passive or neutral in the face of appalling poverty, tyrannous oppression, gross injustice, or egregious corruption?


In an exercise with Malay undergraduates in America, they were asked to pick the one Qur’anic ayatthat is most meaningful or inspiring to them, and why. It reflected the richness of the Qur’an that no two students chose the same verse. The exercise made them think, a marked contrast to the usual mindless recitations or endless quoting of ancient luminaries typical in much of contemporary Islamic discourses.


From hadith, the writer explores three oft-quoted ones:  Tie one’s camel securely and only then pray to Allah that it does not escape; going to China to seek knowledge; and the prediction that the ummah(community) would be split into 73 sects, with all but one being “misled.” The discussions depart from the traditional discourse where the obsession is on an ahadith’s presumed authenticity (or lack thereof) and its chain of narrators. Instead, it focuses on extracting the underlying message and wisdom. That after all is the purpose of studying or recalling hadith.


Take the ahadith on the predicted split of the ummah. Most Muslims arrogantly assume that their sect to be the only “right” one, with the others hopelessly “misguided” and thus hell-bound. The consequence to that mindset is the messianic mission to “correct” the others. With that comes the associated intolerance and rigidity. The reality is that any one sect has only 1 in 73 probability of being correct while a 72 in 73 (over 98.6 percent) of being in error. The latter is a certainty in modern statistics. That is humbling! If we were to adopt this more realistic assessment, we become humble and eager to learn from the others in the belief that one of them would be the correct one. Our mindset changes for the better.


Muslims’ uncritical equating of ribaa with lending interest has resulted in much of the Muslim world being bypassed by modern economic development. It also makes Islamic financial products more expensive. More consequential, it discourages Muslims from partaking in modern finance and commercial enterprises. This mistaken ribaa equivalence also prevents Muslims from leveraging zakat (tithe) funds. It also traps inheritance assets and inhibits Muslims from developing and enhancing such potentially powerful estate-planning instruments as waqaf (trusts, including family trusts) and takaful (insurance).


The writer takes a critical look at the “Islamization of Knowledge” fad, a particular obsession of today’s Muslim intellectuals. Their mistaken conviction that there is a uniquely Islamic version of the truth and knowledge is a significant obstacle to Muslims addressing the major challenges facing the ummah as it prevents Muslims from learning important lessons from contemporary successful societies.


From classical Malay literature, the writer chose Hikayat Malim Deman (The Legend of Malim Deman) to discern the difference between a leader’s lofty aspiration versus delirious fantasy, the current blight of Malay leaders. They are consumed in the pursuit of power and position. Having achieved that, it would be the end, akin to the eponymous character Malim Deman. After securing his dream bride, he lost interest in her. She was but a trophy to be acquired; likewise with Malay leaders and their political positions. The assumption of power should be the beginning, not the end of their endeavor.


Likewise, if rulers were to kill the bright stars among their subjects as the sultan did in Hikayat Singapura di Langgar Todak (Singapore Invaded By Swordfish), you would end up with a society of dumbbells. Likewise, if the corrupt and hoodlums were to be honored, do not be surprised with the consequences.


From Shahnon Ahmad’s celebrated novel, Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (Obstacles All The Way) Bakri Musa revisits the perennial challenge of rural Malay poverty. It is still very much a tragic reality today, three quarters of a century after merdeka and despite the massive infusion of funds as well as the ever generous special privileges. That work of fiction rivals in insight and wisdom with the most well-researched socioeconomic treatises. From there the author explores the thoughts and commentaries of Malay luminaries:  Za’aba, Ungku Aziz, Munshi Abdullah, and Ahmad Farouk Musa. Their critical analyses give us a refreshing contrapuntal reading (to quote Edward Said) to the current accepted wisdom and assumptions.


The book concludes with examining the two major issues facing today’s Malaysia. One internal, the preferential policies of Malay Special Privileges enshrined in the constitution which have now degenerated into a cesspool of unbridled corruption and influence peddling benefitting only the powerful, principally the sultans and ruling politicians. The other, external, is the fast escalating conflict in the South China Sea pitting the two great super powers – China and America – with Malaysia trapped in the middle. Malays consumed with protecting our parochial special privileges are distracted from recognizing and thus addressing this second far more existential threat.


Thursday, April 21, 2022

Living Surah Al Fatihah: Last of Eight Parts: Those Who Have Incurred His Wrath

 Living Surah Al Fatihah During Ramadan 


M. Bakri Musa


April 21, 2022:  Last of Eight Parts:  Those Who Have Incurred His Wrath


Al Fatihah’s last ayat exhorts us to avoid the path of those who have earned His wrath. That may be obvious but remember even demons like Pol Pot had their admirers and wannabes. Prime Minister Najib Razak stole billions from the rakyat. Despite that, he still has many loyal, exuberant “Malu Apa Boss Ku” (What’s there to be ashamed of my boss?) followers.


I make no apologies for mentioning Najib in the same paragraph with Pol Pot. The difference between him and that Cambodian cretin is one of magnitude, not kind. The gruesome killing of the innocent Pakistani banker and Mongolian model may not be on the same scale as Pol Pot’s genocide, but then think of the thousands of Malaysians who succumbed to Covid-19. Had the billions not been siphoned from 1MDB, and Malaysia not been burdened by its subsequent humongous debt, the nation would have had more than ample funds to secure an adequate supply of Covid-19 vaccines early on. As for the banker and model victims, the Qur’an reminds us (5:32) that if you kill one person, it is as if you have killed all mankind.


            Leaders have an extra special and heavy burden. They must go beyond doing good; they must also prevent evil. Najib failed at both. Worse, he perverted the pristine values of our faith, as with his financing Hajj pilgrimages from his pilfered funds. He mocked the sanctity of our hallowed rituals with his cynical attempt at “sanitizing” his loot. He degraded our faith.


Najib hoodwinked Malaysians by claiming that the billions secretly deposited into his account were but gifts from a Saudi prince. Najib exploited the religious sentiments of Malays. To us, anything from the land of the Arabs is halal, rezki (bounty) from Heaven. Even Meccan flies are halal!


It may be harsh to condemn Najib during Ramadan, a season to be forgiving. However, he has yet to admit his wrongdoings. On the contrary, to Najib he did something exemplary, worthy of praise not censure.


Najib should be condemned lest he be emulated by others. When society honors its corrupt, then it has a serious problem. The most obscene picture I have come across this Ramadan is of Najib Razak, a convicted criminal, being invited to the palace iftar. That speaks volumes not of Najib but the man who invited him, the Agung.


More offensive, however difficult that would be to imagine, Najib posted that picture, as well as one of him with the Agung, both gleefully grinning, on social media. The only thing more jarring at that royal iftar would be if the Chief Justice were also to be there, what with Najib’s final appeal coming up.


Back to Al Fatihah, if that surah is the essence of the Qur’an, could there be a comparable ayat that is the Qur’an’s kernel? That question was posed to Malaysian undergraduates at a meeting organized by the UMNO Club of New York and New Jersey in 2011. Their responses touched and taught me much about our Glorious Qur’an.


One student recalled his fajar prayer at the Grand Canyon National Park one late summer. Engulfed in the cool, high desert morning air, he could just glimpse the northern rim through the soft ray of the emerging sunshine. Deep below was the shimmering ribbon of water flowing at its leisure, guarded by sheer magnificent cliffs on both sides. Those contain many secrets of the past, while the river supports the multitude of life forms all the way to the Gulf of California. Above, the vast expanse of the cloudless sky with no pillars supporting it. It was as if Allah had revealed to this student “All His Splendor,” as per Surah Al Qaf (50:6).


Visitors to the Grand Canyon cannot but be struck by the spirituality of the place. Even if one were not religious, one would be constrained from blemishing it. To scratch graffiti or litter with your plastic bottles would be blasphemous. Indeed to Native Americans, the Grand Canyon is sacred; it should also be to every visitor.


Another student recalled her experience at a New York City event. She was struck by the diversity of the attendees, their stark differences in skin color, facial features, languages spoken, and of course their food and attire. It brought to life for her Surah Al Hujurat (49:13):  Allah could have made us all of one tribe but chose not to so we could learn from each other.


Yet another recalled her classmate’s ordeal fleeing her native land. What made that classmate endure it all was recalling the Prophet’s own migration to Medinah. While she was hounded by other than her own kind, and thus understandable though not excusable, the Prophet, s.a.w., fled from his kin and fellow tribesmen. The pain must have been exponentially more unbearable. She found comfort in Surah An Nisa (4:97) that admonished those who partake in sin in their homeland using the excuse of local conditions. Is Allah’s earth not vast enough for one to escape (migrate), that ayat rhetorically asked.


That exercise prompted me to ponder the Qur’anic ayat most meaningful to me. Earlier I discussed Surah Al Fatihah’s fifth ayat, “Keep us along the straight path.” Parallel to and carrying the same pristine principle would be:  


                        الأمر بالمَعْرُوف والنَهي عن المُنْكَر

(al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf; wa-n-nahy ʿani-l-munkar)


Command good, and forbid evil. Stunning in its brevity, clarity, and verity. That phrase is repeated in a few other places. To me that is the Qur’an’s essence, its golden rule; the rest are but commentaries. The Qur’an gives many ready examples of “doing good” (be kind to orphans and wayfarers for example) as well of the meaning of evil deeds (killing, adultery, etc.). If you rob, kill, or destroy then it matters not how many times you pray or go for Hajj. If you build your community, keep your rivers clean, and nurture the environment, then whether you don a hijab or how exhilarating your zikir is trivial by comparison.


As for contemporary discussions on Surah Al Fatihah, I find the arrogant certitude of some preachers intolerable. They remind me of the all-knowing imperious physicians of yore, their utterances and prescriptions unchallenged. They were, well, God-like. I am glad not to be of that generation or persuasion.


We also trivialize this great surah if we were to reduce it to a Genie-in-a-bottle. Rub or recite it, and miracles would magically happen. Likewise, we would not be expressing our syukor, the al hamdu of the beginning of Al Fatihah, if we dismiss Allah’s most precious gift to us – our life and this wonderful world – as being but a mere mirage and that our “real” existence and universe await us in the Hereafter.


The American scholar Ebraheem Moosa, then at Stanford, summed it best for me during a talk he gave to our small Muslim community here in Morgan Hill one Ramadan many years ago. The day you think you have fully understood the Qur’an is the day you die. Ameen to that!

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Living Surah Al Fatihah: Part 7 of 8: Those Whom Allah Favors

 Living Surah Al Fatihah During Ramadan 


M. Bakri Musa


April 17, 2022:  Seventh of Eight Parts:  Those Whom Allah Favors 


Guide us along the path of those whom You have favored, we pray to Allah as we recite the sixth ayat of Al Fatihah.  As Allah does not let us know whom He favors, this and the last ayat (“Not those who have incurred Your wrath”) serve more as a Rorschach test of sorts. That notwithstanding, the Qur’an does hint of certain individuals whom He favors.


For Muslims, topping the list would be Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., together with all earlier prophets. Sunni Muslims would include the four Rightly Guided Caliphs – Abu Bakar, Omar, Uthman, and Ali, the last being the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Shiite Muslims have a more exclusive list; they have much less favorable views (putting it mildly) of Abu Bakar, Omar, and Uthman.


Next those Heaven-bound as per the Qur’an would be the shayids (martyrs), those who died in Allah’s cause. That word today has a radically different meaning, thanks to 9-11, the Talibans, and other Islamic extremists. As is evident, whom society deems worthy of being syahid reflects more on it than of the individual.


Beyond that, characterizations of those whom Allah favors come from hadith, sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w. One has it that a prostitute was admitted to Paradise because she once brought water to a dog dying of thirst; likewise a man for picking up a thorn on a pathway thus preventing others from injuring themselves. In terms of professions held in high esteem by Allah, we can assume that the lady’s would not be on His list. As for dogs, they are not the favorite animals of Muslims. Yet Allah in His wisdom deemed her worthy of that exalted place for her single good deed.


Imagine then the rewards awaiting veterinarians! Yet Malays were in an uproar over pictures of vet students petting their dog-patients. As for the man who removed the thorn, if that were to be the reward for such a simple good deed, how much greater would it be for the engineer who built the road or bridge so villagers could bring their produce to market or their sick ones to the hospital?


That assumes the bridge to be safe. If through corruption or negligence the bridge were to collapse in a rainstorm, then it would be but a dangerous trap, an attractive nuisance in the language of American tort lawyers. Its builders would then be liable for punitive damages.


Another group of syahids, relevant today, would be victims of pandemics. Funeral rites could be dispensed for them as those would be redundant; they already have reserved slots in Heaven. That makes sense for among the major factors spreading a pandemic would be contagion through funeral rites. China controlled its devastating Manchurian plague of 1910-11 when the Emperor decreed that all bodies be burned in mass graves. Traditional Chinese funeral rites are even more elaborate than Muslim ones, perfect portal for spreading lethal communicable diseases. Heed the prophet’s message. When there is a plague, do not go there; if you are already there, do not leave – the essence of quarantine.


As for prophets and their reserved slots in Heaven, was that because of their prophethood or great deeds? Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., emancipated the ancient Bedouins, making them give up their tribalism, spousal abuses, eye-for-an-eye sense of justice, and their odious practice of female infanticide. Would leaders who perform comparable good deeds deserve similar rewards even if they had not been specially dispensed with Allah’s prophethood? Or the reverse, someone selected as a prophet but failed to live up to God’s high expectations. Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., expressed his own lack of confidence in executing Allah’s command when given his first revelation high in the cave above Mecca.


China’s Deng Xiaoping, a communist and thus an atheist, uplifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, a feat unmatched in history. The closest would be medieval Western Europe with the introduction of capitalism. That took centuries and impacted a much smaller fraction of the then global population. With his monumental accomplishment, would Deng merit a slot in Heaven? If he did not because of his presumed Godlessness, at least hundreds of millions of Chinese today enjoy their heaven on earth, compared to the hell their parents and grandparents endured during Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution, or under earlier Emperors with their “Mandate from Heaven.”


Along the same line, would the developers of polio vaccines deserve to be in Heaven, or is it only for Muslims?


I once posed this question in a religious class. I went further and asked them to name individuals whom they know personally who should be in Heaven. I was touched by their responses. One offered his favorite teacher, another our Imam Ilyas, and a third, her mother. When her classmates dismissed her choice, belittling her mother’s efforts as being obligatory maternal duty, she defended it by saying that her mother did it well and with love, in contrast (presumably) to the burgher flippers who do it as a job.


To me it would not be Heaven without Sudirman, P. Ramlee, and Saloma there. They had brought joy to and uplifted the hearts of millions with their melodious voices. As for the promised 72 virgins that would await me should I end up there, what would be the comparable rewards awaiting my loving wife? After all it would not be Heaven for me if I were to be deprived of her company. Thus the difficulties when we confuse imageries and metaphors with concepts and ideas. 


Next:  Last of Eight Parts:  Those Who Have Incurred His Wrath

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Living Surah Al Fatihah: Guide Us Along the Staright Path

 Living Surah Al Fatihah During Ramadan 


M. Bakri Musa


April 14, 2022: Sixth of Eight Parts:  Guide Us Along The Straight Path


“Guide us along the straight path,” exhorts Al Fatihah’s fifth ayat. In geometry, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. As life’s many lessons have taught and continue to teach us, the shortest path is often not the best or even quickest. So we cannot take the literal meaning of the Qur’anic straight path.


            This ayat is the core of Al Fatihah. One interpretation would have it be a path of moderation, of not swaying to or be distracted by either side. The imagery often used is a path lined on either side with hidden alleyways with syaitan(Satan) enticing you to enter and be distracted. That at least implies some effort or willful decision on one’s part to stray. As per our physics lessons, momentum alone would have us maintain our straight path. Keeping on a straight line is our natural tendency, our fitra. As in physics, it takes force to alter our velocity (direction and or speed).


Life is far from a smooth passive and steady flow downstream that would carry us at our leisure to our destination. Far from it! Instead it requires constant conscious effort on our part to go upstream where the water is pure and cool. Anything less and we would end up stuck in the muddy delta and be flooded by the effluents of those upstream. That imagery reflects reality better.


            Another would have the straight path be not breaching the boundaries on either side, as per our prophet’s counsel:  In everything, moderation; the striving for balance, echoing Aristotle’s “golden mean.” Consider courage, one of Aristotle’s twelve virtues. Too much of it and you become reckless, endangering yourself and others; too little and you would subject yourself to be preyed upon. The straight path would be Goldilock’s baby bear’s porridge of being just right, not too hot and not too cold.


            Counterbalance that to Barry Goldwater’s (the 1964 US Presidential candidate thrashed by Lyndon Johnson) infamous “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice, no virtue.” A direct assault on Aristotle’s golden mean. Intellectual comparisons of the two aside, there are other issues with Goldwater’s brash assertion. Little purpose in pursuing that.


The two Qur’anic extremes could refer to pursuits in this temporal world versus the Hereafter. Allah would not like us to be praying all the time or endlessly praising Him. He does not need our praises. Instead as per the Qur’an, He wants us to go out into the world and do good. Maintain the straight path and the destination will take care of itself.


I find Muslims’ obsession, heightened during Ramadan, with the garnering of religious “brownie points” to be cashed in at the Pearly Gates distracting. Do “good” on a certain night and that would be as if you had done it for a thousand nights. That sounds so, well, accountant-like. It trivializes the scripture. Besides, why only during Ramadan? Ill fortune could strike your fellow beings at any time.


            As for limits, the word Qur’an shares the same root as qariah, boundary, as with the qariah of a masjid, the district served by it. Limits and boundaries bring up the imagery of the raheem (womb) mentioned earlier. While the Qur’an glorifies freedom, it does impose limits. Your freedom stops when it intrudes on mine, a harsh reality demonstrated during this Covid-19 pandemic. Your personal choice not to wear a mask stops when you threaten my health. To quote the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, freedom of speech does not extend to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Freedom without boundaries is anarchy.


            Muhammad Shahrour in his The Quran, Morality and Critical Reason introduces the concepts of limits. To his interpretation, Allah through the Qur’an sets only the extreme limits and it is for the community collectively to decide where within that broad range to draw the line. To Shahrour, the Qur’anic cutting of the hand as punishment for thievery is the extreme limit; it does not mean that it should be the punishment for thievery. To Shahrour it would be more important and beneficial to society if we were to “cut off” or remove thieves from society, as with incarcerating them.


            Yet another interpretation would have that fourth ayat mean not a straight path but an uphill one. That implies some effort, akin to going upstream in a river. Unless you maintain your effort, gravity would pull you down, gravity being the metaphor for life’s constant, universal temptations and distractions.


            Another rich interpretation emphasizes the suratul, taking its root word in sirat and sarata, meaning to swallow and be part of something bigger, as the tiny rain drop falling to the ocean and being made part of or swallowed by it. The ocean is a common metaphor to describe Allah’s powers. Imam Ghazzali used it frequently in his encyclopedic contributions. Just as the power, secrets, and benevolence of the ocean are infinitely manifested at its shores, waves, and deep below, so too Allah’s. “Guide us along the straight path” is rightly considered the pearl of the Qur’an, with us pleading to Allah to make us, a small tiny drop of humanity, be part of His vast ocean.


Mustaqeen is translated as to arise, to actualize one’s potential, as a seed would with soil, water, sunlight, and other nurturing elements grow into a vigorous plant, blossoming with beautiful flowers and producing bountiful fruits. Meaning, strive for constant improvement and self-corrections to reach our goal as a productive human being capable of contributing to society, as Allah wants us to be. That is the straight path. As for pleasing God, He is in no need of our praises. Follow His dictates to make us better human beings. That is a worthy pursuit.


Some differentiate between those who have the knowledge and despite that still pursue other than the straight path, versus those who choose it because “they know not what they are doing.” A heavier burden falls on the former. Operationally however, the consequences would be the same. Likewise the differences on quantity (magnitude) versus quality (nature). As per Surah Al Ma’ida (5:32), whoever kills a person . . . it shall be as if he has killed all mankind. Surah An Najm’s (53:32) differentiation between major and minor sins notwithstanding, the consequences are far more important than the act itself. Running a red light or being drunk may be a minor sin (a misdemeanor if you like) but not if through it you cause an accidental death of a family’s breadwinner.


As per the wisdom of Ata Allah al-Iskandari in his Hikam al-Attaiya, “Your obedience does not benefit Him and your disobedience does not harm Him. He has only ordered you to do this and prohibited you from doing that for your own gain.” (Aphorism No: 211)


Next:  Seventh of Eight Parts:  Those Whom Allah Favors

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Living Surah Al Fatihah: Lord of the Day of Judgement

 Living Surah Al Fatihah During Ramadan

M. Bakri Musa


April 10, 2022:  Fourth of Eight Parts:  Lord of The Day of Judgement 


Approximately translated, the fourth ayat of Al Fatihah, Maaliki yaumid deen, means “Master of the Day of Judgment.”


Two problems with interpreting maaliki as master or king. First, that imagery does not reinforce the gentleness and femininity of ar rahman and ar raheem as implied by their root word meaning womb. King or master is always male, and brutal. Second, servants have no choice – obey or else. With Islam, as per Surah Baqarah (2:256), there is no compulsion. To the Sudan-born American scholar Abdullah An Naim, a faith coerced is no faith.


            Another interpretation of maliki would shorten the ma to maa, meaning owner, a difference without meaning as kings were “owners” of their subjects in those days.


            As for yaumid deen (Day of Judgement), ad deen means faith, Islam, together with the associated rituals, prayers, and observances. Extracting from the use of the word elsewhere in the Qur’an, a much broader meaning to ad deen could be deduced, as with norms, established order, or staying within the boundaries laid by Allah in all His scriptures.


            Your Day of Judgement would come when you breach Allah’s boundaries. You do not have to wait for some faraway universal moment when we and all mortals before and after us would be awakened up from our graves and gathered in front of Him to answer for our worldly deeds and misdeeds, a la the mass assemblies of our school days, with God as the powerful headmaster ready to cane in public our errand fellow humans. That would also attribute human qualities to Allah – shirk – the most grievous sin in Islam.


More useful to view the Day of Judgement as a concept. That is, we will be held accountable for our actions. As a student, if you are diligent your day of judgement could come as soon as at the end of the year, as reflected in your excellent test scores and with that, a coveted scholarship. Now that would be heavenly to any student. Not to trivialize Paradise, it was to me decades ago.


            Conversely, if you are promiscuous or engage in risky behaviors as with abusing drugs, then your day of judgement too could come much sooner. Likewise if you are corrupt, as Najib and his fellow UMNO crooks are now enduring.


            As for one’s fate on the Day of Judgement, scriptural-wise, Allah in His Beneficence would tip His hand and give some worldly hints or preview. As per the 14th Century Sufi scholar Ibn Ata Allah al-Iskandari in his Hikam al-Attaiya(The Book of Wisdom), “If you want to know your standing with Him, look at the state He has put you in now.” (Aphorism No: 73.)


            Two centuries later John Calvin echoed Ata Allah, and with that he (Calvin) reformed Christianity giving rise to its fame Protestant work ethics. Western Europe was transformed into a modern capitalistic society that elevated by a quantum leap its citizens’ wellbeing. Like Muslims, Calvin also believed in predestination – your fate is “written in the book” – but he developed that concept further. That is, God in His wisdom would give signs upon those whom He would favor in the Hereafter. With that everyone worked hard to be successful and thus be seen as His “elect,” the chosen ones.


            Same scripture, read differently. I wish Muslims today would heed Ata Allah’s wisdom, to wit, our conditions today would hint of our fate in the Hereafter. It is a perversity defying rational explanation that Muslims would dismiss worldly success; “real” success to these misguided souls would be in the Hereafter. Meanwhile their endure their own hell right here on earth.


            The Australian Imam Tawhidi said it best. If those suicide bombers think that the “other place” would be so much more sublime and that they would be guaranteed a slot, why do their instructors not blow themselves up first? Allah’s most precious gift to us is our life. Belittling that would not be showing syukur (the al hamdu) to Him. The best expression of our gratitude would be to lead a life that would please Him, that is, be of service to our community and fellow mankind, Allah’s insan solehan.


            Former Prime Minister Najib does not have to wait for his qiamat (Day of Judgement). He is enduring hell right now with the public shame and humiliation, as well as knowing that he could spent the rest of his life in a slammer. His bravado cannot conceal his shame and inner turmoil. His days of hell are far from over. Najib had breached Allah’s womb; he is now an aborted fetus.


            The Day of Reckoning is real and could be sooner than we expect it. That should be incentive enough to keep one on the straight path.


Next:  Fifth of Eight Parts:  We Worship Thee Only And Thine Aid We Seek

Thursday, April 07, 2022

Living Surah Al Fatihah: On Being Grateful

 Living Surah Al Fatihah During Ramadan

M. Bakri Musa


[Excerpts from my memoir, Cast From The Herd, will resume after Ramadan]


April 7, 2022:  Third of Eight Parts:  On Being Grateful


Al-Fatihah’s first ayat is approximately translated as, “In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious (Ar Rahman) and Most Beneficent (Ar Raheem).” “Approximately translated” is a necessary caveat; certitude is not my forte.


Invoke means to cite or appeal to a higher authority. For Muslims, that highest authority is Allah. Secularists invoke the constitution; royalists, king. With the former you would need lawyers to argue your case; with kings, their courtiers. Islam, unlike other faiths, puts no intermediaries between you and Allah. Further, with judges and kings you would see the tangible consequences of their interventions. Not so with Allah. Believe in Him and His power is a matter of faith.


Ar rahman and ar raheem have the same root as rahim (womb), a powerful feminine imagery. That notwithstanding, Allah is always referred to in the masculine. I have yet to find an explanation for this anomaly and tradition.


Rahim carries a womb/fetus relationship between God and mortals, of nourisher, sustainer, and protector. It also implies essentiality – an embryo requires a womb to develop, artificial wombs notwithstanding. That imagery also hints at limits or boundaries; likewise with mortals and Allah. Once we transgress that boundary, our relationship to Him changes and ends, as an aborted fetus to its mother. That is the central message of all scriptures.


The second ayat begins with Al hamdu and ends with raab bil alameen before going to the third which repeats the two frequently attributes of Allah, ar rahman and ar raheemAl hamdu is often translated as praise. It implies more – thankfulness, satisfaction, and most of all gratitude. The phrase is uttered after a good meal, a lucky break, or on receiving good news. Syukur, gratitude, expresses similar meaning.


Imagine, Al hamdu, just a short but heartfelt praise for Allah. Contrast that to the long, embellished tributes we heap  upon our sultans and other mortals! As for syukur, just to be able to wake up and recite Al hamdu in our fajarprayers is gratitude enough. Think of those who could not. Life is precious! Al Fatihah reminds us of our good fortune and to not take it for granted.


            The traditional translation of raab bil aalameen is “Lord of the Universe.” The Malay word for God is Tuhan, only one letter longer than Tuan (master). Ever wonder why Malay sultans and Tuans are aloof and imperial, a deferential slave-master, non-questioning relationship to those under them? Malays go beyond. We sembah our sultans and other leaders, treating them like Gods. I have no problem with that as long as they act as our saviors. More often they are but plunderers, deserving not our sembah but sumpah (curse).



There are other words similar to rabb, as with maliki, the start of the third ayatTarbiyah (to nurture or develop one’s full potential) has the same root as rabb; hence Tarbiyah Schools. In this context rabb means less a lord, more a nurturer as a teacher to her pupils.


            As for aalameen, the Malay word alam (universe) derives from this; hence the accepted translation, Lord of the Universe. Alam also has the same root as ilm, knowledge; hence the Malay word ilmu. That phrase could thus be translated as “God who has equipped us with the tools to gain knowledge.” That tool is our God-given senses and faculties including akal (intellect). Scientists peering into outer space or biologists exploring the inner secrets of viruses are exercising the full meaning of aalameen.


            The ancient Muslims did just that; hence the flowering of knowledge during the Golden Age of Islam. They were not at all perturbed nor shied away learning from the atheistic Greeks or hedonistic Romans. To those early Muslims, knowledge is knowledge; it all ultimately originates from Allah.


            When Muslims expound on any topic, they always end with the humble expression Allah hu alam, only Allah knows best. Implied there is that their interpretations or findings are but tentative, until someone else could give a more meaningful one. That makes the arrogant certitudes of many Malaysian ulama jarring if not “un-Islamic!”


Today’s “Islamization of Knowledge” fad, and the refusal to learn from or even acknowledge the contributions of the secular West, is an arrogant assumption that there is a uniquely Islamic version of knowledge and wisdom. All knowledge ultimately emanates from Him. That He chose to dispense the insight on the concept of zero to a Hindu, the secret of gravity to an Englishman, or the structure of the polio virus to a Jew is not for us to question but to learn, use, and add to that wisdom.


Of the 99 attributes of Allah, ar rahman and ar raheem are the most often paired. Some interpret rahman as a noun, an attribute, while raheem, actions. Others would have the former apply to all His creations; raheem only to believers. That later interpretation would not square with His attribute of justness.


Ar-rahman always precedes ar raheem. The beginning and end of a sentence are two pivotal positions; the middle, less so. The first for emphasis; the end, what you remember most. That implies ar raheem meriting a higher status than ar rahman. However ar rahman has an entire surah (55) named after it. Ar raheem does not merit that honor.


Why not other pairings, as with Al Adil (The Just One) and Al Ahad (The One), or Al Badi (The Incomparable) and Al Baaqi? (The Everlasting)? Both pairings have comparable arresting alliterations; the second also rhymes! As per the Syrian engineer-turned-Qur’an-commentator Muhamad Shahrour, Allah was precise in his choice and sequence of words in revealing the Qur’an. Hence there must be a reason for this particular pairing and sequence. It is up to us to discover that.



If ar rahman and ar raheem sequence is for poetic reason, to rhyme with the rest of Surah Al Fatihah, that would only add to the cynicism expressed by the prophet’s early detractors who dismissed him as but a “mere” poet, and the Qur’an, poetry. 


            As is evident, despite my having uttered Bismillah . . . a zillion times, I am still seeking answers as to why it is ar rahman ar raheem, and not the other way around.


Next:  Fourth of Eight Parts:  Lord of The Day of Judgement 

Sunday, April 03, 2022

Exploring Surah Al Fatihah

 Living Surah Al Fatihah During Ramadan 


M. Bakri Musa


[Excerpts from my memoir, Cast From The Herd, will resume after Ramadan]


Second of Eight Parts: Exploring Surah Al Fatihah


The tradition during Ramadan is to partake in a communal recitation of the Qur’an, completing it (qatam) at lailatul qadar, the “Night of Power,” believed to be one of the odd nights of the last ten days, the 27th being most favored. This Ramadan I have a more modest goal. I strive to search for and live the full meaning of the very short Al-Fatihah, the Qur’an’s opening surah. With only seven easily memorized ayats (verses), Al Fatihah is recited in all prayers.


            My choice of this versus attempting the entire Qur’an was a tacit acknowledgment of my own limitations, as well as in deference to the wisdom of putting quality over quantity. A Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris study showed that over 90 percent of Malay students do not understand Surah Al Fatihah despite the heavy emphasis on Islam in their curriculum.


            Surah Al Fatihah is divine revelation. That is a matter of faith. Little merit to or benefit gained from debating that. One does not have to be fluent in Arabic to sense its inner rhythm and exquisite beauty. Nor does one have to be a Muslim to appreciate its aural splendor and absorb its transcendent wisdom.


Just as a English-born speaker needs help to appreciate Shakespeare, so too Muslims (Arabs as well as non-Arabs) with the Qur’an. Understanding a text blends its capacity to stimulate ideas and imagination together with what the reader brings to it, as per Elizabeth Rosenblatt. We should not be surprised that the Qur’an would be read and understood differently by a Bedouin desert dweller of the 7th Century versus a Muslim diaspora in 21st Century urban West. The Qur’an is “for all mankind till the end of time.” As such, it must be contemporary and cannot be detached from current knowledge or accepted wisdom. 


The late Tunisian philosopher Mohammad Talbi brought his insights on French Literature to reading the Qur’an, giving us yet another dimension. The pesantran-tutored and Harvard-educated Ulil Abdalla noted that Eastern reading of the Qur’an is ritualistic and formulaic; Western, analytical and practical. Much of religious learning in the Islamic world is consumed with recitations but little actions, per Talbi’s “illness of speech.” He would rather have us “not parroting what had been discovered . . . rather searching for what constitutes the essence  . . . ” of Islam. Malaysians have a laconic acronym echoing Talbi’s lament:  NATO – No action; talk (or recite) only!


Jaundiced orientalists dismissed the seeming literary jumble of the Qur’an as incoherent, the astronomically-challenged looking into the star-lit night sky and seeing only blinking lights. To me, Al Fatihah is less recitation, more comprehension; less gourmet recipe, more profound aphorisms; less night stars, more my northern star. Like the rest of the Qur’an, Al Fatihah guides me for this world. As for the Hereafter, Allah hu alam! (Only He knows!)


Current discourses on Islam are long and loud on sound but alas dim and short on enlightenment, with the obsession on the Hereafter. The intellectual traffic is also all one way. Hours would be spent glorifying the various names of the surah, as if putting different labels explains things. Al Fatihah is already beautiful and exquisite; heaping more superlatives adds little. As per Ayu Utami in his novel Saman, “Apakah keindahan itu perlu dinamai?” (Must a thing of beauty always have a name?)


One popular mufti, Dr. MAZA (he goes by his acronym!) promiscuously inserts long incomprehensible Arabic at the slightest provocation; more to impress, less to address his audience. Another triviality is to engage in endless controversies, as whether the surah has six or seven ayats, revealed in Mecca or Medinah, or should it be recited in silence during congregational prayers. Such puerile disputes are not without their consequences. The earliest and most momentous was whether the Qur’an was created or eternal. Heed its message instead; that should be the principal pursuit.


The American Nouman Ali Khan on a visit to Malaysia spent over three hours expounding on Surah Al Fatihah, mesmerizing his audience with his exquisite tajweed (recitations) and waxing lyrical on its beauty. At the end of his marathon session he claimed with unconcealed audacity that he could go on for many more hours! He must have thought himself very effective as there were no questions following his long monologue. Such preachers do not respect their audiences’ time. They also insult their listeners’ intelligence with frequent infantile rhetorical questions. Theirs is, to quote Khaled El Fadl, more authoritarian than authoritative.


Those ancient scholars have made their prodigious contributions and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. However, their world was very different from ours, and so too were their challenges. Much of contemporary Islamic discourses are as irrelevant as lectures on mental health where the speakers would expound endlessly on Freud and Jung but silent on anti-depressants and neurotransmitters.


In embellishing the supposed miraculous powers of Al Fatihah, our ulama could be imparting a misguided message. When you are sick, you should seek expert medical care, or in a pandemic as with the current Covid-19, get vaccinated and practice social distancing. Only then recite Surah Ash Shifa. Malaysians do not need to be reminded that the first and largest outbreak of Covid 19 followed a Tabligh gathering in February 2020.


There are exceptions to this sorry state of religious discourse, and thanks to social media, they are getting wider exposure. One is Garasi TV, the brainchild of award-winning journalist, Zainal Rashid Ahmad. Its recent (March 30, 2022) program, “Puasa Atau Dusta” (Fast or Farce – https://youtu.be/iOAKhoQCGhI) was refreshing, insightful, and free of gratuitous Arabic incantations. I laud his and his team’s bravery but even there they never venture on such contemporary topics as the errand behaviors and corruption of sultans and political leaders.


            Al Fatihah is Umm Al Qur’an (Mother of the Qur’an). In contemporary parlance and practice, that would be the “book blurb.” Apart from telling potential readers something about the book, it also serves as a “hook” to grab would-be readers.


My purpose here is more to explore Al Fatihah so it can continue to guide me, less to quote ancient tomes. To paraphrase Robert Frost, I begin my journey with much delight and hope to end with some wisdom. 


Next:  Third of Eight Parts – On Being Grateful