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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.

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.


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