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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, April 14, 2024

Book Review: Mohamad Jebara's "Muhammad, The World Changer. An Intimate Portrait

 Book Review:  Mohamad Jebara’s Muhammad, The World-Changer. An Intimate Portrait. 

M. Bakri Musa


St. Martin’s Publishing, NY, 2021. 350 pp; indexed. US$26.34


I have attempted to read dozens of biographies of Prophet Muhammad. “Attempted” because I finished only a few. For most, I found it difficult to go beyond the first few chapters after reading yet another miracle or felicitous sign. Mohamad Jebara’s Muhammad, The World-Changer. An Intimate Portrait is a refreshing departure. He does not challenge readers’ credulity nor insult their intelligence.


            In the epilogue the author recalled what prompted him to write the book. A Canadian-born Muslim and multi-linguist (Classical Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew), he grew up in the secular West “where principles of freedom, accountability, equality, and merit were core parts of the culture.” Also a hafiz (one who has memorized the Qur’an), he wanted to learn more about his namesake.


            To that end he undertook a Hajj in 2002 at age 21. The experience shocked him. I need not quote the specifics but they reminded me of my parent’s own pilgrimage back in the 1960s. They too were shocked. The remnants of pagan rituals aside, they did not buy into the prevailing belief that Meccan flies were halal, more so when my mother nearly died of food poisoning. Nor did the conviction that those who died during their Hajj would end up in Heaven give solace to my father.


            Have things changed? I asked a colleague who recently went for Hajj what he would do if he had to go the bathroom during one of those prolonged rituals. His eyes rolled!


            Jebara’s book follows the Prophet’s life, except that there are no accounts of the moon splitting or angels singing, heralding his birth. Only his widowed mother’s wish that the infant would live up to its name ‘Mohammad,’ given by his grandfather Abul-Mutallib. It was then an unheard of name.


            “Mahamadim” appeared in the Song of Songs (5:16), and “M’hamudeha” in the Book of Lamentations (1:7), Jebara noted. Abdul-Muttalib chose that name not to honor but challenge his grandson. Mohammad means “Be great to help others be great!” Abdul-Mutallib also wanted to acknowledge the Prophet’s mother’s Jewish heritage. That may surprise many!


            As for Aminah, her last words when she died when Muhammad was just six were, “Ya Muhammadu kun rajula!” (Oh Mohammad, be a world-changer!)


            Muhammad’s first revelation came in 610 CE when he was not yet forty. Muslims are familiar with that singular event. He had been in despair at the appalling poverty and inequities of Mecca, together with his impotence in coming up with solutions. His wife Khatijah suggested that he sequester himself in that cool cave above Mecca, the equivalent of my wife suggesting a few days at the beach or in the redwood forests when I am struggling with my writing.


            Jebari’s rendition of that first revelation departs from the usual accounts. His version resonates with me.


            “. . . [A]t an initial sliver of refracted sunlight . . . [i]n anguish Muhammad finally opened his        mouth. ‘Ma aqra!’ he exclaimed in confusion. (‘I do not know how to blossom forth!’). [He] repeated it twice, . . . . [Then] as if in an answer [he, Mohammad] heard five short          sentences echoing through his entire being.”


            Those are Surah Al Alaq (96:1-5), familiar to all Muslims. What is novel, apart from no angels singing or stuffing the verses into Muhammad’s ears, was Jebara’s translation. Iqra’ is traditionally rendered as “Read!” That has always puzzled me as Arab society then was largely illiterate. Jebara translates iqra’ as “a moment a bud unfurls and opens to the world around it.” Powerful floral imagery!


            This, and other novel renditions of well-known incidents, makes the book refreshing and engaging. Consider Jebara’s account of the famous Battle of Hudaibiyyah where the Prophet, s.a.w, was said to have been forced into a humiliating surrender. Instead, that battle turned out to be pivotal that later led to the defeat of Mecca and the end of its Jahilliyah (Ignorance). Today’s commanders would term the Prophet’s retreat during that battle as “strategic withdrawal!”


            The Prophet used metaphors and imageries from nature, as with the blossoming forth of iqra’. Likewise his leadership style on overcoming obstacles:  a stream flowing around a rock. Another, direct your deepest channels to your most productive areas. Water could make the dry and apparently sterile desert bloom. It is of interest that the Arab word for water channel is rasulRasul Allah is the Prophet of Allah. Note the parallel imagery!


            The Prophet’s central message and the respect he placed on it is that each individual has certain unalienable rights endowed by his Creator, not to be trifled with or abridged by mere mortals no matter how powerful. Leaders should instead nurture them, hence the Prophet emancipating slaves.


            As for his immediate legacy, three of his four companion successors were assassinated. That of the third, Uthman, was particularly brutal. He was stabbed, with the gush of blood smearing the pages of the first copy of the Qur’an that he was then compiling.


            The succeeding (661-750 CE) Damascus-based Umayyad dynasty “managed to institutionalize Islam as a dogmatic religion. What had begun as a liberating philosophy based on universal monotheistic concepts, the empire recast it as a formal faith in contrast to Judaism and Christianity . . . [and] delineated a divide between Muslim and non-Muslims–a far cry from the constitution of Medina or the spirit of hajj.”


            That is Jebari’s most powerful and startling passage, thus far receiving minimal attention. In his subsequent The Life of the Qur’an:  From Eternal Roots To Enduring Legacy (2024), Jebari ‘credited’ state-sponsored scholars of the Umayyad Dynasty for falsifying thousands of hadith in order to solidify the regime’s Islamic credentials and legitimacy. Thus the cautionary hadith:  Heaven is full of rulers who befriended scholars; Hell, scholars with rulers! True or manufactured, that encapsulates great wisdom.


            Of interest is that the first syahadah (declaration of faith) states only “There is no God but Allah.” Only much later following the prophet’s death was the editorial enhancement, “And Mohammad His Last Messenger.” Not to be outdone, the Shiites later appended, “With Ali his Rightful Successor.” Ali, the fourth and last of the ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs,’ was Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law.


            The succeeding Abbasid dynasty (750-1517 CE) brought the Golden Era of Islam. Today nearly a quarter of the world’s population are Muslims. Less laudatory is that we are overrepresented among the dysfunctional and desperate. One hopes that the momentum of history would again turn in our favor. By elucidating afresh the Prophet’s life and key moments, this book adds to that thrust.


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