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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, March 17, 2024

A Would-Be Caliph's (As Well As Ummah's) Double Challenges

 A Would-Be Caliph’s (As Well As The Ummah’s) Double Challenges

M. Bakri Musa


In his last Friday sermon before Ramadan, our Imam Ilyas facetiously challenged any aspiring Caliph to solve two perennial problems facing the ummah. One, the endless conundrum of moon sighting versus scientific calculations for determining Ramadan and Eid. Two, have congregants arrange their shoes neatly. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was once seen stumbling over some shoes as he emerged from a mosque. I wonder how many hips have been broken from tripping over shoes.


            Malaysian mosques have another problem. Wear nice shoes and they would be swiped as surely as soon as the Imam utters his “Ameen!”


            We handled the messy shoe problem by having someone stand at the entrance. That solved it only partially as when the service begins that individual would have to come in. Despite seeing all those other shoes already neatly lined up, late comers would invariably ignore that in their rush.


            Once during his sermon, our Imam saw an expensive sedan blocking the driveway. He interrupted his service to ask that the owner to please leave immediately and remove his car. Our Imam reminded us that removing the danger imposed by the car blocking the driveway far outweighs any potential pahala (religious merits) the owner would gain from praying. In Malaysia during Friday prayers, neighborhood streets would be blocked by haphazardly parked cars. Imagine if an ambulance had to pass through.


            Cars and shoes are not the only problem. While it is gratifying to see kids attending mosques, that vanishes if they were to misbehave. Once during his sermon, the children began running around disturbing the service. Our Imam quietly folded his prepared text and asked the parents to take care of their children. That was far more important than to pray. Eminently sensible! You do not have to quote hadith or Qur’anic verse to justify that. Besides, it is never too early to teach your children mosque etiquette. Likewise when I was a surgeon in Kuala Lumpur back in the 1970s, I once had to reprimand my medical officer for abandoning his patient while he was off for his Friday prayers. His promised future salvation came ahead of his patient’s current welfare.


            During this Ramadan I am seeing videos of another disturbing trend of people grabbing food and gorging themselves at iftar. The spirit of generosity and plain good manners are conspicuously absent.


            Back to moonsighting, our community had long ago resolved that issue. We used to book a facility for two consecutive days in case the moon would not be sighted the first time. Then someone pointed out the wastage. The money could have been better spent on the poor.


            We still pay deference to the sunnah of moon sightings. However, instead of mindlessly going through the ritual, we have turned it into an educational experience. We have someone explain the movements of celestial bodies and the various factors determining visibility.


            Ancient Muslims saw no incompatibility between scientific observations versus revealed knowledge. It was this wisdom that ushered them into their Golden Era of Islam. Another of their wonderful traits worthy of our emulation was their openness to new ideas. They had no hesitation learning from others, even those who did not believe in God, as with the ancient Greeks.


            Back to moonsighting, imagine the headache and waste of resources if one were to be in charge of flight schedules or even simple mail delivery!


            A Malay lady professor once suggested that we should quit “aping” the West and instead start our new day at sunset. Starting the day at sunset is an Arabic tradition, not a Muslim one. We can appreciate knowing their climate. Their day begins only after the hot blistering sun is gone and life becomes bearable. 


            The “Western” choice of midnight makes practical sense as most of us would be asleep at that time. Thus variations of a few minutes or even hours as between summer and winter would not matter. Consider midwinter in the Tundra. Your new “day” could last for weeks. Adopting that professor’s suggestion would unnecessarily add another layer of complexity, for in addition to the time changes with the Meridien we would now have to add latitude. Bangkok which today has the same time as Kuala Lumpur would now be different as it is further north, if the professor were to have her way.


            What she considered as aping the West reflects more her ignorance combined with arrogance–a particularly destructive pairing. The Chinese also go by the lunar calendar yet they have no qualms adopting an alien “Western” system. The West also had no hesitation in dumping their cumbersome Latin letters for the much superior Arabic numerals. This conceit of “Ours being best” and the associated destructive mindset of unwillingness to learn from others is a severe handicap.


            As for the challenges of our would-be Caliph, I would prefer that he focus on important issues such as how to get along with our fellow human beings, especially those who do not share our beliefs, and how together we could make this world a better place. Believers or non-believers, we are all hamba Allah (God’s creations) and have to share this world together.


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