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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, 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


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