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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, 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


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