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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.

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


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