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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.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Humility, Discursive Islam, And A Culture of Ambiguity

 Humility, Discursive Islam, And A Culture of Ambiguity

M. Bakri Musa

October 31, 2023


In his Friday khutba (sermon) during Maulud Nabi (observance of the Prophet’s birthday) last month, our young guest Imam Hassan referred to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., as the personification of the Qur’an. As such Muslims are to emulate him.


            Our Imam then went on, as is traditional in a khutba, to recite the relevant Qur’anic verse. His mellifluous voice together with his exquisite tajweed made for a poignant recitation that captivated the congregation, reducing even the children to silence in wonderment and acoustic pleasure. Exquisite wonderment because it was a rare display of the unique intrinsic aural beauty of our Qur’an.


            He then proceeded with his sermon in English with his crisp American-born accent, “Approximately translated, that verse means . . . .”


            Such humility! Rarely heard in religious presentations. After all, translations are at best approximations and we must be reminded of this, always. Nonetheless to have someone openly acknowledge it was refreshing, more so as it was a rare departure from the norm.


            Listen to the glut of Malaysian sermons and Islamic discourses on radio and television as well as on social media. The smug certitude of the speakers is matched only by their intellectual arrogance. “And it means this . . . ,” they bellow after reciting a particular hadith or Qur’anic verse. No room for discussion or to even consider alternate interpretations.


            That has not always been the case. Back in the old village of my youth, when the Imam expounded on matters religious he would invariably end it with, “Wa Allahhu A‘alam!” Only Allah knows the truth. Any exposition is at best an approximation.


            That Arabic phrase underpins much more. Expression of humility aside, it implies that we must continue seeking knowledge so we could do better the next time. I am reminded of a comparable advice early in my brief research career. “A good piece of research,” my supervisor counselled me, “is when you have uncovered more questions than what you have attempted to answer!”


            Khaled el Fadl of the Los Angeles-based Usuli Institute distinguishes between the authoritative versus authoritarian Islamic discourses. Much of what goes on today is of the latter variety. Notre Dame University’ Ebrahim Moosa, echoing Talal Asad earlier, calls for a more discursive Islam.


            Difference of opinion is mercy for my community, our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., reminded us. It is unfortunate and a great missed opportunity that much discussions on hadith today relate to their authenticity, or lack of it. An impossible task considering those were utterances of over 1400 years ago. More productive would be to relate a particular hadith to the Qur’an, and from there extrapolate its relevance to and lessons for contemporary challenges.


            Hadith are sayings attributed to the Prophet, s.a.w. That is worth emphasizing. There is a world of difference between what someone (prophet or otherwise) said and what others said he said. The late Kassim Ahmad in his book Hadis:  Satu Penilian Semula (Hadith: A Re-Evaluation) related the classic freshman-psychology class exercise of a whisper being transmitted orally that would end up far radically different in words, tone as well as meaning by the time the last student heard it.


            Ancient scholars dealt with what euphemistically called “problematic” hadith by avoiding labelling them as outright false. Remember, Wa Allahhu A‘alam! Rather, they used such terms as sahih (sound), hasan(good), or da’if (weak). Similarly with the chain of narrators, as with mutawatir (continuous chain), mashur (famous), and ahad (isolated).


            How wise of them to avoid such divisive and polarizing terms as right and wrong, or true and false! This is what the German scholar Thomas Bauer referred to as the culture of ambiguity of early Islam. Now that is worthy of our emulation.


            I once viewed a panel discussion between Mu’nim Sirry, the Indonesian scholar at Notre Dame, and the local Dr. MAZA where the latter rudely walked out over some disagreement with what the former had said. Both Dr. MAZA (he goes only by his initials, aping our esteemed Pendita Za’ba,) and Mu’nim were traditionally trained until they went for their doctorates; Mu’nim to the intellectually rigorous University of Chicago, MAZA to a provincial British one. The former is comfortable and thrives in a culture of ambiguity; the latter demands and seeks certitude, as he sees it.


            It is a sad commentary that the likes of Dr. MAZA are the norm in Malaysia today. As Islam is an integral part of Malay culture, that is also the blight of our culture. With today’s state imprimatur on Islam, that is also a curse on the nation as well as our faith. Friday sermons in Malaysia today are not the independent thoughts of the imams in the hundreds if not thousands of masjids attempting to address the particular issues of their ummah (community), rather the diktat from a central bureaucracy. Reminiscent of a communist regime.


            This culture of ambiguity goes beyond mere tolerance of differences to embracing them. It was this that led to the vigorous expansion of Islam and the bountiful blossoming of its Golden Age. Today this freedom, and with that the flourishing of the faith, is seen only in the West.


            As for my young visiting Imam Hassan, I am pleased to note that he was a student of our regular Imam llyas. Our community’s tradition of humility, wisdom, and excellence continues.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 101: Threatening Clouds

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt # 101:  Threatening Clouds

After the unexpected difficulties I had with my otherwise fine students, I followed my cousin (and fellow teacher) Baharuddin’s suggestion. I began talking of my immediate future, of leaving for Canada and studying to be a doctor. With that I regained some measure of authority, but I felt uncomfortable. It felt like I was bragging. While the thought of my scholarship being withdrawn never occurred to me, those students must have been perceptive enough to detect some unease on my part. There were indeed some dark clouds hanging that could derail my future. The daily headlines blared of konfrontasi, a bastardized English word that meant not what those literate in English would think – confrontation, a minor misunderstanding – but war. 

            The authorities had already initiated the national registration of young men. I thought nothing of it; my mind was already in Canada. My father who had been through war before saw things differently. To him, this was how things would always begin, with a benign gesture of only ‘registering.’ Before you knew it young men would be sent to the front to be killed. He was worried that such a fate awaited me. His anxiety must have cast its shadow over me, and that was what those students saw in me that made them conclude that my scholarship had been withdrawn. 

            To my late father there was no such thing as a ‘just war,’ only skillful home propaganda machinery. He just wished, to quote Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum est” (It is sweet and right): 

            My friend, you would not tell with such zest / To children ardent for some glory / 

            The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori. (25-28)

            My father had seen too many horrors of war to believe the old lie that there is no greater glory than to die for one’s country. After all he had been in the British Volunteer Army. The very name itself testified to the power of propaganda. My father never volunteered. With war, they wanted to turn him into a killing machine. Only his inner steely resolve and faith saved him from becoming one. 

            I did not realize the depth of my father’s pacifist conviction until one episode during my secondary school. My teacher had nominated me for a military scholarship to go abroad. Anytime a young boy is selected by his teachers, even if it were to go to hell, to the youngster that would be a special moment. So it was for me. 

            I brought home the good news; I was expecting an enthusiastic response. My father’s lack of any startled me. Later he told me that it was good that I was thinking of my future. He acknowledged that we were not well off and thus my concern about funding my education was commendable. However, he believed in Almighty Allah that something would turn up for me and that as a family we need not sacrifice our values to achieve our goals. The next day I returned the nomination form to my teacher, unfilled. 

            The threat of war was real. Indonesia’s egomaniacal Sukarno was threatening to ganjang (lynch) Malaysia. Our equally grandiose Prime Minister Tengku Abdul Rahman, egged on by the British, showed no inclination at finding a peaceful resolution. The two young struggling nations were headed towards an inevitable collision, with no restraining elements anywhere. 

            Finally, I announced my departure to my students. They were stunned. My earlier reassurances had not been convincing enough. This time I grabbed their attention; they listened to my every word. I told them that I would be teaching right up till the day before my departure, and that I expected to have all their homework corrected and returned by that day. That triggered some snickering. 

            Then I continued on how much I had enjoyed teaching them and what a wonderful group they were. I must have gone on and on for soon the class joker interrupted me. “Heck, when he gets on that big jet with all those pretty stewardesses, he’ll forget us.” 

            The class roared with laughter. I knew then that they had once again warmed up to me. A young boy confirmed it when he asked, “Once you are a doctor, would you still treat us even though we are poor?” 

            “Of course!” I replied. There were crackles of rejoinders and banters to that one. At that point I knew they had accepted my leaving. 

            The last few weeks went smooth; I was able to make up for some lost time. Emotion-wise however, I was ripped apart. I could not look at them without thinking that their whole future was uncertain. They were entering uncharted waters on a jury-rigged craft, and without a competent skipper. 

            I impressed upon them the importance of English despite their being in the Malay stream. I did not have to do much selling; they saw how my English education had opened up the world for me. I was headed for Canada. The most for them would be going to Indonesia, and with konfrontasi even that was now closed. 

            On my last day I said my goodbyes as if it was just another day before the long holidays except that I skipped the “We’ll see you in the new term” bit. They burst into applause. I was glad that I had discussed my departure earlier; now I could leave, satisfied that I had done my job. 

            Years later I was visiting my village when a smart-looking young man came up to me. “Do you remember me?” he asked in crisp American English as he gave me a firm handshake very unlike the usual native palm sliding. 

            I tried hard to recall the face from my English-speaking universe, but could not.

            “I was your student at Sekolah Idris.” His English sans accent made me not think of my brief teaching career. “You always advised us to learn English,” he continued. 

            He did exactly that, through private classes. With his enhanced English skills he was able to secure a job with an American company and was now doing very well. He wanted to express his appreciation for that singular useful advice. It is such instances that warm a teacher’s (even a temporary one) heart! He did not mention anything about the math and science I had taught him. 

Next:  Excerpt #102:  A Thanksgiving Kenduri

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Persembahan Anies Baswedan

 Persembahan Calun Presiden Indoneisa Anies Baswedan Mengakumkan!

M. Bakri Musa


26 Oktober 2023


Persembahan Anies Rasyid Baswedan pada 11 Oktober 2023 di International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization/World Professorial Lectures (ISTAC/WPL) amat mengagumkan. Dia ialah bekas Gabenor Jakarta dan juga calon Presiden Indonesia pada pilihan raya pada Februari 2024.


            Baswaden melambangkan warisan cemerlang Presiden Indonesia Jokowi. Jokowi berjaya membawa ramai bakat muda yang cerdik ke dalam pentadbirannya. Berasaskan atas ucapan Baswaden di ISTAC/WPL, pemilihan Baswedan sebagai Presiden Indonesia akan meyakinkan serta mempercepatkan lagi kemajuan negeri itu yang kini sudah pun mengagumkan. Itu akan memberi akibat yang baik bukan sahaja untuk Indonesia tetapi juga Malaysia dan negara serantau.


            Melalui keajaiban teknologi digital saya kini boleh mendengar serta kadangkala mengambil bahagian sekurang-kurangnya secara maya dalam seminar dan pembentangan tersebut di seluruh dunia. Di Malaysia, satu siri yang menarik perhatian saya ialah Kuliah Profesor Sedunia Institut Pemikiran dan Tamadun Islam Antarabangsa (ISTAC/WPL, dalam rengkasan Bahasa Inggeris). Tetapi pujian saya terbatas. Setakat ini saya merakamkan hanya dua dan tiga kuliah sahaja. Yang lain itu boleh lah dilupakan saje.


            Antara ceramah pilihan saya ialah diberikan oleh Aria Nakissa pada 3 Julai 2022. Seorang lulusan University of Pennsylvania, beliau memperolehi Sarjana Pengajian Islam dari Universiti Islam Antarabangsa Malaysia (UIAM) dan kemudiannya mendapat ijazah JD (undang undang) dan PhD dari Harvard. Beliau membentangkan penyelidikannya dalam Pengajian Islam menggunakan sains kognitif, "data besar," dan sumber yang bukan tradisional. Satu lagi graduan UIAM terkenal ialah mendiang anak Pakistan kelahiran Singapura, Shahab Ahmad. Seorang PhD dari Princeton dan pensyarah di Harvard, dia pengarang What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Apa Itu Islam? Kepentingan Menjadi Islam), satu buku yang di puji seluroh dunia akademik.


            Satu pemerhatian dan kegusaran saya pada persembahan tempatan. Pertama ialah kilang kabut teknikal pada permulaan program. Itu amat remeh dan memalukan serta membuang masa. Mengapa kakitangan tidak melakukan percubaan sebelumnya dan memastikan agar semua alat seperti mikrofon tidak ada kesilapan?


            Seterusnya, “slides” yang di gunakan mestilah mempunyai apa yang dikatakan oleh Edward Tufte nisbah data/dakwat atau data/byte yang tinggi. Kalau banyak butir yang tidak mustahak, itu akan menggelamkan inti mesej. Umpamanya katakan sahaja, "Para hadirin, makanan kini dihidangkan!" Ringkas, lima perkataan sahaja. Tetapi biasanya tidak begitu. Acara dimulakan dengan kata aluan serta meminta maaf atas persembahan "rendah hati," mengucapkan terima kasih yang tidak terhingga kepada tetamu kerana "menghormati" majlis itu, dan tukang masak untuk keajaiban masakannya. Itu akan di tambah pula dengan salam hormat yang berpanjangan serta membaca doa yang meleret. Sementara itu, nasi dan lauk sudah sejuk dan mungkin basi.


            Tajuk acara ialah, "Masa Depan Tamadun Dunia Melayu Dan Sumbangannya Kepada Wacana Global Mengenai Pembangunan Lestari." Ia berlangsung hampir 130 minit! Bagaimanapun, Baswedan tidak mula bercakap sehingga kira-kira 49 minit ke dalam acara itu, selepas kata aluan dan perkenalan yang meleret panjang, termasuk seorang pengagum yang pada satu ketika terpancar kagum dan kemudiannya menangis atas sebab yang sama. Lebih satu pertiga masa terbuang! Orang ramai datang untuk mendengar penceramah jemputan, bukan hos, juruacara atau perkenalan.


            Ucapan pendahuluan yang panjang hanya mencerebeh sahaja dan membuang masa. Tidak ada sesiapa pun menyebut mengapa pencalonan Baswedan untuk menjadi Presiden Indonesia mendapat perhatian ramai. Jika dia sendiri tidak menyebut dalam ucapannya bahawa sebagai Gabenor Jakarta dia telah berjaya menangani jalan raya yang sesak di bandar itu dengan menambah sistem pengangkutan awamnya, saya pun juga tidak mengetahui pencapaian yang luar biasa itu. Beliau menyebutkannya bukan untuk bermegah atas kebolehannya sebagai seorang pentadbir, sebaliknya sebagai contoh cara menyelesaikan masalah menggunakan alat budaya kita seperti bermesyuarah dan berunding serta bergotong royong atau bekerjasama.


            “Slides” yang ditampirkan oleh beliau juga bebas daripada apa yang disebut oleh Edward Tufte sebagai "chartjunk." Bermakna, kesemuanya mempunyai nisbah data/bait yang tinggi. Menyegarkan dan bermaklumat!


            Mencerminkan latihannya mendapat PhD Amerika, Baswaden mengambil hanya 27 minit untuk persembahannya. Dia dengan sengaja memberi masa yang panjang untuk sesi soal jawab. Soalan dari pelajar pun tajam dan bernas. Seorang bertanya sama ada Alam Melayu yang di sifatkan oleh Baswaden itu berdasarkan ilmu alam, bahasa, budaya, atau genetik. Dia mengaku tidak bertahu tentang genetik. Seorang lagi, penuntut perusahaan, bertanya apa mungkin kesannya pembinaan Terusan Kra yang dicadangkan.


            Jawapan Baswaden ringkas. "Perubahan tidak dapat dielakkan, oleh itu kita mesti bersedia untuknya." Dia tidak menjelaskan secara terperinci apa persediaan untuk menghadapi perubahan. Tetapi saya selepas mendengar Baswaden boleh menasihatkan penuntut itu. Contohi Baswaden! Cari latihan terbaik, pelajari bahasa Inggeris (kini bahasa antarabangsa), dan terus mencari ilmu. Manfaatkan tradisi budaya kita, yakni, bermesyuarah dan bergotong royong untuk menyelesaikan masalah masyarakat.


            Seorang ahli fakulti kanan juga menyertai sesi soal jawab bukan untuk memberi soalan tetapi berbangga dengan kertas kerjanya mengenai datuk Biswaden yang terkenal. Jika tidak didorongi oleh moderator, Biswaden mungkin tidak memberi komen apa apa.


            Tajuk persembahan Biswaden menarik minat saya kerana saya baru sahaja menyiapkan draf pertama buku saya yang akan datang, “Malay Cultural Encounters: From Pre-Islam Through Colonization And The Digital Revolution.”(Pertemuan Luar Tamadun Melayu:  Dari Pra Islam Melalui Penjajahan Dan Terus Ke alam Digital). Saya mengucapkan tahniah kepada ISTAC/WPL kerana menjemput beliau. Perdana Menteri Anwar sepatutnya meminta beliau berucap di kabinet Malaysia. Jika Biswaden dapat menyelesaikan kekacauan lalu lintas Jakarta yang mengerikan, membentuk kabinet Anwar mungkin satu kerja yang mudah. Dalam masa yang sama, Anwar patutlah menimbangkan siapa kah yang bakal jadi Anis Baswedan beliau