Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life
Reform in Islam
The Quest For Answers
Present-day Muslims look askance at the sorry state in which the vast majority of our ummah live. Muslim nations, even those well endowed by Allah with abundant rich natural resources, live in abject poverty. Human rights abuses are the norm in many Islamic countries. As painfully noted by Abdullahi An-Naim, the vast majority of Muslims live at a superficial level of both Islam and modern civilization. Although we claim adherence to Islam and exhibit apparent commitment to its ritualistic formalities, we fail to appreciate and live up to its moral and spiritual essence. Likewise most Muslims benefit from modern civilization but have little appreciation of the values and ways of thinking that underlie and sustain those technologies and institutions. Further, many Muslims’ understanding of Western civilization is often reduced to the gaudy simplistic images propagated by Hollywood, and the seamier aspects highlighted by Muslim fundamentalists eager to denigrate the West.
Muslim leaders are no better. They smugly and gleefully gloat over the ills of the West without once pausing to look over the inadequacies of their own society. Meanwhile the West progresses while Islamic societies stagnate. Envy and jealousy are common human faults. As a result today there is considerable rage against the West among Muslims. The 9-11 Al Qaeda’s attacks on America are only the latest and most vicious manifestation of this ugly emotion. I suggest that Muslims emulate, not hate the West. The energies of Muslim leaders and scholars should instead be directed to picking the best out of the West for emulation. Condemning (or destroying) does not take any talent.
Bernard Lewis’s critique of Islamic societies in What Went Wrong, suggests that contemporary Muslims in pondering their fate should stop asking the question, “Who did this to us?” and more usefully substitute, “What did we do wrong?” and, “How do we right it?” That Lewis is not a Muslim does not in any way diminish the wisdom of his observation.
Muslims can begin to answer the “What we did wrong?” by first critically reexamining the sunnah and Shari’a. Foremost we must remember that both are the creations of man and have qualities inherent in all such endeavors, including the possibility of errors and imperfections.
Only the Koran is perfect. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the sunnah is not the practices and sayings of the prophet, rather what some scholars interpret to be so. It is instructive that the collection of ahadith (plural for hadith) considered most authoritative is that of Imam Bukhari. But he was not even born until nearly two hundred years after the prophet’s death. It is equally instructive that he rejected thousands of purported sayings of the prophet (pbuh). The essential criterion he used was the lineage of the oral propagation (isnah), relying heavily on the piety and reputation of the transmitters. The assumption is that the pious would not willingly fabricate or embellish. May be not willingly or consciously, but our memory does play fools on us, regardless of our piety or wisdom. Being a mere mortal, we can expect errors on Bukhari’s part both in including the less-than-truthful ahadith as well as excluding some legitimate ones. Remember, only Allah is perfect.
Had Imam Bukhari and the early scholars not put as much effort on evaluating the theological pedigree of the transmitters and instead concentrated their intellectual energies on reconciling the purported sayings and practices of the prophet (pbuh) with the message of the Koran, their ensuing treatises might have been considerably different. Or perhaps Bukhari, knowing full well how entrenched some of the beliefs in the purported sayings and ways of the prophet (pbuh) were in the minds and culture of the Muslims then, dared not personally challenge the perceived wisdom. He knew only too well the fate that befell “deviationists.” Thus he ingeniously devised the “science” of hadith by using his considerable intellect and prodigious memory to tracing the lineage and transmission of each hadith. With this “science” he found a neutral or objective way of dispensing with the more outrageous and embellished sunnah and ahadith. Were he to simply dismiss them through his own independent research and critical thinking, he would have been lynched. As it was, he had his share of denigration and banishment for daring to dispense with some of the more popularly accepted but obviously preposterous ahadith.
Today over a millennium later, there is no possible way of independently ascertaining the veracity of the lineage and pedigree of the sunnah. In the interpretation of the Koran, modern scholars pay as much attention to the “occasion of the revelation” as to the text, thus giving us a much richer and more perceptive reading. We should likewise do the same in interpreting the various ahadith, that is, examine the occasion of the purported sayings as well as analyzing their historical and sociological contexts.
Many scholars, past and present, have cautioned Muslims on attributing infallibility to the sunnah and Shari’a. We should reserve that only for the Koran. Kassim Ahmad has suggested doing away completely with hadith. For that audacious position, his book was banned in Malaysia and he was branded an apostasy. So much for Muslim tolerance in Malaysia! I disagree with Kassim, but I find his views refreshing even though his analyses and reasoning are less than rigorous. We must have an open mind and treat the hadith and sunnah as historical and sociological vignettes in order to understand the Koran better.
To me the current debate on whether Malaysia should adopt the Shari’a and whether it is an Islamic state is futile, nonproductive, and highly divisive. Such controversies are nothing more than wayang kulit (shadow play) or sandiwara (staged theater) between UMNO and PAS out to display their religious aroma. At least wayang kulit and sandiwara are entertaining and help bring people together. The bigger question that has yet to be addressed and is being shunted aside in the preoccupation with trivia, is how to make the present laws and institutions conform to the ideals of the Koran.
Next: Islamization of Education