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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, January 29, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #64: An Epileptic Friend

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #64:  An Epileptic Friend 

Back to our village neighbor Haji Sulaiman, as befitted a man of considerable means, he also acquired an additional wife. With Adat Perpatih, when a man marries, he moves into his wife’s family. Meaning, Haji Sulaiman would have to leave his first wife (and her considerable real estate) to move into his second wife’s home. The sly Sulaiman however, had the system gamed! He married a young lady from outside of Adat Perpatih. Now she moved in with him on a house he had built for her on, yes, his first wife’s property! That went beyond chutzpah. 

            Haji Sulaiman had two sons with his first wife; the younger Lias was my frequent badminton partner. Village tradition would have the two sons, in particular the older, defend the tribal honor. Meaning, they would not have allowed their father to build the new house on their mother’s land upon his second marriage. The older son, Hassan, a teacher and already married, was wise. Torn between the demands of tradition versus filial loyalty, he opted for the latter and let the matter slide. 

            Lias on the other hand, was hot-blooded. It was said that he was born at high noon, hence his temper. He saw his mother being jilted. Besides, when his father brought the gorgeous young lady home, Lias fancied that she was for him. Soon Lias was seen prowling around his father’s new home like a young male lion trying to establish his alpha status in a pride that already had one, albeit ageing. 

            One afternoon I heard a woman screaming from the direction of Haji Sulaiman’s new house, and saw his young wife bent over a sprawled body on the ground. My God, an ugly father-son altercation! I rushed to the scene only to see her struggling to keep Lias on the ground. 

            “Let me go!” he screamed, shoving her aside. 

            He was too strong for her. Soon he was up, dazed, unsteady and walking in circles, his mouth frothing and the crotch of his pants wet. He saw me and blurted, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” 

            “He has been struck by sawan babi!” (the swine spirit) she cried. “Be calm Lias! Recite the al Fatihah,” (the opening and frequently-recited verse of the Qur’an) she pleaded while tugging at his messy shirt. 

            “I am fine!” as he shoved her off and then yelled to me, “Let’s go play badminton!” 

            That was the first time I saw the new Mrs. Haji Sulaiman. Far from being the nubile adulteress that I had imagined her to be, she was a kind lady concerned about her rebellious post-adolescent stepson. 

            By the time we reached the court Lias was already back to his normal jovial self, enough that I was emboldened to ask what had happened. He did not know what I was referring to and so I told him. He shrugged, “I don’t know.” 

            I too did not know then. Now as a physician, I do. He had had a grand mal seizure where something triggered his brain cells to fire en mass and erratically. He would have many more such episodes. We would always be scared stiff when he had one, reduced to being but gawking bystanders. I was always terrified that he would crush his head against a rock or road pavement and blood would spurt out of his head.

            Nature was kind; it endowed Lias with a fine sense of humor and innate wisdom. Once we had the town champion join us in a badminton game. He was all dressed up in his white shirt and shorts. His equally white socks were fashionably midway up his calves and matched his clinical-white canvas shoes. If you were to look at only his side of the court you would think this was a run up to the Thomas Cup tournament. On the opposite court was Lias in his tattered T-shirt and dirty brown pants, barefooted. The brown was from the dirt; it would be hard to guess the original color. 

            It did not take long for the town champion to take the lead. He displayed his usual confidence, smacking his lips with every point scored as if to reaffirm his earlier assumption that his opponent was but a mere village amateur. Meanwhile Lias was sweating. Then just as I thought his defeat was inevitable as he was once again unable to return a volley, Lias let out that he might just have a seizure if he were to continue with his erratic play. 

            That rattled his opponent such that he began making mistakes, enabling Lias to gain control of and ultimately win the game, much to the chagrin of his opponent. 

            I always believed that it takes more than just superb skills to be a champion. Mohammad Ali and Joe Frazier both had that. What made Ali prevail in the ultimate title fight was that he had the psychological edge. He psyched out Frazier before they entered the ring. On this day at my village badminton court, Lias was Ali. 

Next:  Excerpt # 65:  Potential Problem With A Neighbor Averted

Monday, January 23, 2023

Cast From The Herd: Excerpt #63: My Negri Sembilan Clan

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #63:  My Negri Sembilan Clan (Suku)

There are about a dozen sukus (clans) of the Minangkabau tribe in my village. Mine is Tanah Datar (flat land), contracted to Tadata. I presume that relates to the topography of my ancestral homeland back in Sumatra. Minangkabau custom prohibits marriages within sukus, and as children assume their mother’s clan, marriages among maternal cousins are thus not allowed. Our Islamic code on the other hand prohibits marriages only among paternal cousins. Thus we Minangs are spared the blight of inbreeding as we subscribe to both codes.

            Many commentators had noted that Negri Sembilan Malays have contributed more than their share of Malaysia’s intellectual output. In Indonesia too, the Minang people there have excelled in academia as well as in trade. To what extent this prohibition on consanguineous marriages is a contributing factor, I know not. 

            The royal families in Negri Sembilan, as expected, are spared that stricture. As such inbreeding is still rampant among the royal families of not just Negri Sembilan. The first Agung, Tuanku Abdul Rahman who was also the Ruler of Negri Sembilan, had four wives. All except the first were related to him, with the last two being his first cousins. Ever wonder why royal families in Malaysia have more than their share of dysfunctional members?

            I am very much aware of my suku. There was immediate bonding whenever I met a stranger and discovered that he or she was of my suku. Today, few especially the young are even aware of their clan. 

            If I were to trace back the ancestral tree far enough, everyone in my village would be related through blood or marriage. My ancestors came from West Sumatra in the 15th century, or even earlier. It would be a stretch to call them “immigrants” as the whole Southeast Asia or Nusantara was one geographic entity. Only later did the colonials carve up the region and divided us into different nationalities. 

            Our neighbor across the road, Haji Sulaiman, was of substantial means, being a former Customs official. He also married into wealth. His wife, being the only daughter, had the family’s entire inheritance, as per our matriarchal Adat Perpatih. This aspect of our tradition is at variance with the Qur’an where sons are valued twice as much as daughters with respect to inheritance. 

            Our ancestors were very much aware of this anomaly when Islam entered the Malay world. However, in the crisp observation of the Indonesian sociologist Taufik Abdullah, the genius of the Minangkabaus is to “synthesize contradictions harmoniously.” As babies we were fed bland white rice with hot red chili early, to symbolize as well as learn this celebrating of contradictions and synthesizing of opposites. 

            My parents extended this theme, at least with respect to inheritance. They distributed their modest estate before they died, with the ancestral village home my mother inherited going to my sister Hamidah (oldest daughter, as per tradition), while the properties they acquired during their marriage (harta sepencarian) were distributed equally, after factoring in the value of the ancestral home. That satisfied my parents’ modern belief in the equality of sons and daughters. Only that small portion of their estate that was not distributed ante mortem was inherited as per the Qur’an. To my parents, their earlier distributions were not inheritance but parental gifts, thus not subjected to Qur’anic injunctions (faraid) or traditional requirements (hibah). That was their way of synthesizing contradictions (not two but three!) harmoniously. 

            Today, disputes over inheritance wreck many Malay families especially when multiple wives are involved. I thank my parents for their foresight and wisdom. As an aside and fast forward a couple decades later when they died, even that remaining modest estate of theirs went through quite a long hoop. A requirement of the religious bureaucrats was that all the waris (beneficiaries) would have to be present at the hearings. With no disrespect to my parents, I told my brothers and sisters to do or say anything to get me out of that hearing in order to expedite the process even if they were to say that I had “disowned” the family. So when the judge, always a male, asked his usual and necessary query, “Are all the entitled beneficiaries here?” my siblings could in truth reply, “Yes! Your honor!” Thus was the probate settled.

            Today literally billions (at last count over RM70 billion) of precious assets are trapped under probate. Those trapped assets are underutilized. A major impediment to the development of urban Malay land, Kuala Lumpur’s Kampung Baru being the most glaring example, is precisely because of unclear and clouded titles, the consequence of unresolved probates. There is precious little sense of urgency on the part of the religious bureaucracy as it gets free use of those assets (especially with cash and other liquid assets) as interest payment is haram.

Excerpt #64:  Next:  An Epileptic Friend 



Sunday, January 15, 2023

Cast From The Herd: Excerrpt #62: Rite of Passage


Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 62:  Rite Of Passage 

Khatam (the formal completion of reading the Qur’an) is one of the two rites-of-passage for a Muslim boy, the other being circumcision. My parents had planned for my older brother Sharif and cousin Alias to have theirs done one December holiday. At the last minute and at my insistence, I was included even though I was only eight years old, a bit young. I had also not yet achieved khatam

So that December morning all three of us were up early and given areca nuts wrapped in herbal sireh (betel) leaf lined with lime to chew. Off we trotted to sit in the cold stream for about 30 minutes. Then wrapped in our sarongs we were back at the house where on the verandah the mubin was ready. The first up was Sharif; he went through without a whimper. Then it was Alias’s; he let out only a brief “Ouch!” When it came to my turn, seeing that the two did not cry, I strutted across cracking silly jokes along the way about not cutting too much! That areca nut herb I was given earlier had much to do with my swagger. 

After I sat on the stool with my thighs apart, the mubin asked me to recite the opening verse of the Qur’an, which I did with no difficulty. Then he said what all surgeons, ancient and modern, would utter in such circumstances, “This won’t hurt!” 

The moment the mubin applied the wooden clamp across my apparatus, I let out a loud shriek. It was horrible! My mother rushed out and gestured to me to remain quiet but I continued screaming. They had to restrain me while continually reassuring me that it was “nearly over.” After an agonizing eternity it finally was really over. I looked down and there was this huge bandage and I was still in unbearable pain. 

The other two recovered within days and could wear their pants while I was still stuck with my loose sarong, waddling with that huge thing in between my thighs. The size referred to the dressing; everything else had shriveled up, I was certain, from the pain. A week later my father took me to the dispensary at Sri Menanti. My wound had become infected. It was hellish during dressing changes. 

Now as a surgeon I know why mine was so painful. I had phimosis–the foreskin stuck to the underlying glans and not readily retractable. Much of the pain was with the peeling, not the cutting. Phimosis is the only clinical indication for circumcision (for hygienic reasons). I always advise general anesthesia in such cases. 

Years later when I was a surgeon in Malaysia, my cousin Alias brought his son to me for circumcision. Unfortunately he had a serious bleeding disorder, one of the many contraindications to the procedure. Contrary to widespread belief, circumcision is not mandatory in Islam. 

I am fortunate to reside in America. Had I stayed in Malaysia I am certain that I would have strayed far from my faith, at least the version propagated there. Through the freedom afforded me here in America, I am able to explore without fear the vast richness of Islam. Here I can read Shiite kitab and Ahmaddiyah literature without the risk of being interrogated by the religious functionaries, or be sent to a religious “re-education” camp.

In America I am not forced to fast; I do it because I want to and for the sake of Allah, and only for His sake. On trying days when I could not, I do not have to worry about being apprehended by the moral squad and be paraded around town in a hearse. Here in my adopted land, the poor and the aged are well taken care of; they receive generous government support and are not humiliated before getting it, just as the Qur’an says they should. 

Although my parents did not let on at the time, they were very disappointed when I had to leave that religious school after the squabble with the princesses. They were sure that I had lost my faith in Islam, and that my performing the rituals was merely perfunctory, to please them. 

They could not have been more wrong. Like a child who had burned his finger, instead of having a phobia for fire I became far more respectful of it. I appreciated that the same mighty force that hurt me could, harnessed properly, also keep me warm in winter or grill my juicy steaks. 

Imam Feisal Rauf writes in his What’s Right With Islam Is What’s Right With America. A New Vision for Muslims and the West that America is the most Sharia-compliant state. Living in America strengthened my faith; in Malaysia I had to fend my belief against relentless assault from the state. Living in America made me a Muslim in my father’s mold, that is, more conviction, less ritual. Most of all in America I learn the broader and deeper meaning of the Qur’anic imperative:  Al-amr bi ‘l-ma’ruf, wa’n-nahy ‘ani ‘l-munkar! (Command good, and forbid evil!) 

Next:  Excerpt #63:  An Epileptic Friend

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Cast From The Herd: Excerpt #61: The Islam My Parents Taught Me

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 61:  The Islam My Parents Taught Me

Taking me out of religious school did not abrogate my father’s responsibilities in teaching me about Islam. He was however, less enamored with the rituals of our faith, more that we follow its central command–Amar ma’ruf, Nahi mungkar (Enjoining what is right and forbidding all that is evil). The Qur’an was what kept him on the straight path during the desperate war years when evil was everywhere and virtue a rarity. 

As for his reverence for our Prophet Mohammad (May Allah bless his soul), my father was less into singing endless praises for the man, more in emulating his sterling qualities. My father would always remind me of the Prophet’s habit of washing his mouth (at least five times a day, before prayers) and using grass blades to brush his teeth. Those were hygienic practices, my father emphasized. On a more substantive level, my father had no qualms on having bank accounts despite the widespread belief by Muslims that interest earnings were haram. He saw the many tangible benefits to savings. To him, interest payments were inducements to save, and thus beneficial and good, for individuals as well as society. 

My father distinguished between borrowings for frivolous spending, as for extravagant weddings, versus investing, as with buying his rubber plantation. He reminded everyone that the borrowings during the Prophet’s time were for basic emergency necessities as with the poor needing money for food and medicine. It would be unconscionable to charge any interest in those instances, let alone at usurious rates. It would be best to give an outright gift; failing that, to not charge any interest at all. Further, during the Prophet’s time if you did not make good on your debts with their extortionate interest rates, then you and your family risked enslavement or indentured servitude for generations. That is unjust, and if it is that, then it cannot be Islamic. 

Later in college I would learn the wisdom of my father’s intuitive thinking–the critical difference between productive and consumptive loans, as well as the stifling effect of high interest rates on economic activities. Economic development is dependent on capital formation, which in turn is tied to savings rates. My father was never exposed to modern economics but he gained his insights from the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (May Allah bless his soul). 

In the same vein, to my father’s understanding it would be wrong to borrow money or sell your land to pay for your Hajj, his stand earlier on my grandfather’s plan on financing his pilgrimage. My father always cautioned me about having blind faith and undue reverence for religious authorities. The bigger the turban and more flowing the robe, the more we should be aware, he warned me. Once during Ramadan a religious figure (or at least he looked like one) came to our house seeking the mandatory zakat (tithe). My father readily disposed him off by saying that he had already given his. 

During my youth (and still today) this proliferation of instant imams was particularly prevalent during Ramadan. There was little or no accountability to what they did with the funds they collected. Today, zakat is collected by the state religious authorities with all the efficiency of the Internal Revenue Service, but the lack of accountability and transparency in the spending remains true. 

On another level, when many of the villagers were reluctant to send their children to English schools because the English were kafir (non-believers), my father would refer to a saying attributed to the Prophet (hadith):  Venture to China if you have to in the pursuit of knowledge (approximate translation). During the Prophet’s time, China was considered to be at the end of the known world. To do that, my father reminded everyone, you first would have to learn Chinese. If the Prophet had encouraged us to learn Chinese in the pursuit of knowledge, then he would also approve of us learning English for the same purpose. My siblings and I were the beneficiaries of my father’s wisdom in interpreting that hadith in his own unique way. That was the Islam my father taught me; that is the Islam that stays with me and the one I teach my children. 

In his old age my father, like most retired Malays, spent plenty of time at his local surau (prayer house). Once when I declined his invitation to join him, he asked whether I was still a believer. 

“Of course!” I asserted, stunned by his query. 

Then I told him why I did not like praying at local mosques. I was uncomfortable with the ever-increasing shrill and frankly offensive race-baiting sermons. I related the one Hari Raya (Eid celebration) sermon I heard at the International Islamic University mosque at Petaling Jaya on February 21, 1996. That Hari Raya was special as it was the rare occasion when it coincided with Chinese New Year, a once in a three-decade phenomenon. Malaysians seized upon that unique opportunity to celebrate the unity theme of kongsi raya. Prime Minister Mahathir however, advised the King to delay Hari Raya for a day to avoid the coincidence. Cynics saw that as a sneaky maneuver to get an extra day of holiday!

At that sermon the university imam lashed out at those who dared equate Hari Raya with Chinese New Year. “At our Holy Day,” he bellowed, “we gather at mosques to pray; on theirs, they patronize casinos to gamble.” 

His relentless tirade in a house of worship, and on a day that calls for generosity and forgiveness, was jarring if not obscene. My father agreed and added that the same theme was delivered at his mosque. I then related the more mundane reasons why I did not like going to Malaysian mosques. I was fed up with the rudeness; it was as if everyone was in a rush to grab their religious brownie points rather than reflecting on the spirituality of the moment. Then there were those haphazardly-parked cars blocking traffic and inconveniencing other road users. Imagine if an ambulance had to pass through! Then I told my father of my nephew Eddy’s reminder not to wear nice shoes to mosque as they would surely be stolen. 

My father nodded while my mother remained quiet to my continued ranting. When I stopped, I sensed that I had not convinced them. I continued with my attempt at reassuring them. “My imam’s sermons in America are concerned with daily life. I can understand and relate to them. Yes they are in English, but I’m certain Allah understands that as He is All-Knowing.” 

That elicited some laughter from my mother. When I finished, there was a noticeable embarrassing silence. My father broke in, “Truthfully, I don’t believe the stuff they spout at our mosques either. It’s all propaganda! That’s all we have.” 

“But you still have to listen,” interrupted my mother. “It’s our duty.” 

As we continued, my parents became more sympathetic to my view. I did not know whether I had reassured them but they never again queried me along those lines. My mother reminded me how as a youngster I could recite the Qur’an with ease. “You were just a few jus (surah) away from khatam (completion),” she sighed. 

Next:  Excerpt #  62:  Rites Of Passage

Monday, January 02, 2023

Cast From The Herd: Excerpt # 60: Unresolved Conflicts With My Faith

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 60:  Unresolved Conflicts With My Faith

I had many issues with my religion during my youth. Once we had a Chinese Muslim man staying on our property. He was a tenant rubber tapper for my grandfather. His wife was a Malay from Palembang, Sumatra. That city hosted one of the earliest and biggest Chinese colonies in Southeast Asia. Many who came to Palembang were already Muslims. Thus our man was not a convert as was then typical in Malaysia. Many Chinese in Malaysia became Muslims especially during the war to gain the benevolence of the villagers. No surprise then that they were derisively called mualaf (convert). 

One day during a kenduri at our house the discussion drifted to religion, a usual development. Someone asked this Chinese-Muslim his views on something. As expected those were at variance with the local belief. When he finished, one of the Hajis present dismissed those views as that of a mualaf and thus should be ignored. He then went ahead and tried to enlighten the man and everyone else present at the kenduri

The Chinese-Muslim’s face became flushed and he banged his fist on the floor, yelling that his ancestors became Muslims while Malays were still in the jungle eating wild pigs. He had never been insulted about his faith before, he added. With that, he stomped out. 

That reference to pigs was particularly harsh. Everyone was shocked. My father too was livid at the insulting Haji. Of course kampung style, my father kept it to himself and only revealed it to us later, after all the guests had left. 

The next day, despite repeated pleas and many apologies from my parents and grandparents, the couple left. They were not persuaded. The snub was too painful. 

I too was angry at the Haji. I thought with his visible piety symbolized by his prominent Hajj title and huge turban accentuated by his overflowing white robes, he would have been more tactful and forgiving, certainly not be rude especially to guests. I wondered what he had learned in Mecca. 

Thus my father saw my disciplinary problems at that religious school as reflecting my inner turmoil. He had entertained taking me out of that school much earlier but being in the village, he feared the severe social repercussions. Now with the princess episode, his dilemma was resolved. To every crisis, an opportunity! 

That brewing internal conflict notwithstanding, and contrary to my parents’ worst fears, I never doubted my faith. I saw how it had sustained them and my grandparents during those trying times of the war. I had seen my father being angry in the afternoon, and then after his magrib prayers and in time for dinner, he would be his calm self again. I too felt this calmness after I prayed. 

Instead I blamed my religious teachers who I felt were ill-informed, and my own failure to  better understand my faith. Taking me out of religious school solved the first problem. As for the second, I reasoned that when I know enough Arabic I could learn more about Islam on my own and then would benefit more from this great faith. 

As it turned out, I was only half right. My Arabic did not improve but thanks to my living in the West, I have access to the vast and expanding literature in English on Islam. I recall my joy and relief on reading Abdullah Naim’s Toward An Islamic Reformation. Many of the doubts I had harbored earlier were shared by many leading scholars of Islam, ancient and modern. That reassured me. 

While I never doubted my faith, I did harbor some reservations, at least on the variant of Islam heaped upon me by my village religious teachers. Unable to resolve them, I kept those doubts to myself, except when I could not. 

Once, my non-Muslim teacher at school quoted a verse from the Qur’an that purportedly said that Muslims should not befriend non-believers. He asked me whether I agreed with that. When I replied no, he was shocked. “You don’t believe the Qur’an then?” he chided me. 

Later in the day I was called to be in another one of his classes. Amidst the cold disbelieving stares of his students, he again quoted the same verse and directed his earlier question to me. When I again replied in the negative; the class was aghast. “You see,” he crowed, “there is a Muslim who doesn’t believe in the Qur’an.” 

“I didn’t say that I did not believe the Qur’an,” I shot back to cover my embarrassment, “I just don’t believe your interpretation.” 

Since neither he nor I knew Arabic, we were at a Mexican standoff. Realizing his predicament, he quickly excused me. I was not sure who was more embarrassed. 

That is still my retort today to someone who tries to embarrass me by selectively quoting verses of the Qur’an to justify his or her particular prejudices about Islam. If I were to be in a particularly sour mood, I would add, “Can you enlighten me on the context of that verse?” That tends to shut them up! 

Today when those who are Arabic-illiterate expound on the Qur’an, I would pay as much attention to them as I would an English-illiterate trying to explain the subtleties of Shakespeare’s plots or characters. 

Next: Excerpt #61:  The Islam My Parents Taught Me