Exchanges With Din Merican
I had the pleasure of chatting with Imam Feisal Rauf at the Blog House in Bukit Damansara last Sunday (September 9, 2007) after he led our Maghrib prayers. The occasion was the special interfaith Doa Selamat prayers seeking Allah’s Blessings for Tun Mahathir’s speedy recovery from his second bypass operation on Tuesday September 4th. As you know, The Tun had his first on January of 1989.
Apart from being the former Prime Minister and an outstanding leader, Tun Mahathir was also my mentor and hero. Thus the multi-faith congregational prayers Imam Feisal led had a special significance for me.
The Imam’s greater effort is in trying to bridge the divide between the West and Islam. I thoroughly enjoyed his recent book and understood his theme: the commonality of our faiths with their universal message of love, charity, and goodwill.
Until I met him, I did not know that he had studied at a local school in Kuala Lumpur. That explained his impeccable Malay and special affection for Malaysia!
I was also delighted to learn that he is the son of the distinguished and yet very humble Egyptian scholar-teacher, the late Tan Sri Professor Dr. Muhammad Rauf of Al-Azhar University, Cairo. I must say that Imam Feisal also inherited his father’s handsome features!
The late Professor – I knew him as Dr. Rauf – was my professor at the University of Malaya when I did Islamic Studies in my first year (1960). He (Al-Fatihah) taught Islamic History, the Quran, and the Hadith. He had a huge influence on my thinking about and my attitude towards our religion. Prior to that, my exposure to our Holy Book, like you I presume, was through the lessons taught by my simple kampong ustaz.
Hence the special bonding I felt for Imam Feisal, as reflected in my affectionate hug after the Maghrib prayer that Sunday. I had to hold back my tears. I felt deep within my heart that he reminded me very much of my earlier special Professor of Islam. Yet it did not occur to me to ask him whether he knew Professor Rauf! Imam Feisal’s manner of speaking, appearance, and views on Islam were very much of my enlightened intellectual Professor Rauf, Imam Feisal’s father.
I am happy to have met the Imam and to know that he inherited much of his father’s legacy. Dr. Rauf was the first teacher who said to me that there is no compulsion in Islam. He was always composed, rational, and very analytical in his discourses on Islam, the Quran and The Prophet, pbuh.
I still have Yusof Ali’s Translation of the Quran, which I acquired on his recommendation 47 years ago, as well as Professor Hitti’s History of the Arabs. Both are very old and tattered volumes now.
I saw Professor Rauf some years ago when he was the Rector of the International Islamic University. I was very touched and honored that after so many years he still remembered me as “you are that student who came knocking at my office door” to seek clarifications on certain verses of the Quran which he had quoted during his lectures. Once he cleared my doubts, he eased my mind. He made me appreciate our religion and its theological and philosophical underpinnings.
Strange as it may seem to some people, our teachers and professors do have a profound influence on our lives. I am reminded of Surah Al-Luqman (Surah 31), which was first introduced to me by the Late Professor. Luqman the Wise, for whom the Surah is named, counseled his son, among other things, to keep up his prayers, command what is right and forbid what is wrong, and to bear anything that happens to you steadfastly. The late Professor Dr. Rauf was an Al-Luqman to me. What a small world for me over 40 years later to meet his son, Imam Feisal.
Imam Feisal and I met almost by chance. What brought us together at Blog House that Sunday was our genuine concern for the health and well being of Tun Mahathir whom we both admire for his many achievements as Prime Minister and a Muslim Leader par excellence.
Salam and Selamat Berpuasa,
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Unlike you, I have not as yet had the privilege of meeting Imam Feisal. I have viewed his lectures and interviews on television, and read a few of his books, including his latest, What’s Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West and What’s Right with Islam: is What’s Right with America. The most memorable phrase I take from both books is that America is “the most Sharia-compliant” state today. Food for thought for those ardent advocates of an Islamic state!
Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal and the Aga Khan (who was also in Malaysia recently to officiate the famed architectural prize in his name) provide a much-needed counterpoint to the likes of the deluded Osama bin Ladin and the ever-growling Ayatollah.
Imam Feisal and the Aga Khan capture best for me the central Quranic message: Command good and forbid evil. From that central theme flow other subsidiary ones, like treating others as you wish to be treated. That in essence is Allah’s message to all His prophets, and thus the major themes of all faiths. If only our leaders – religious and secular – could emphasize this commonality instead of being obsessed with our differences!
That interfaith Doa Selamat prayer for the Tun is a superb example of this endeavor of using religion to bring people together and not to divide them. I tip my songkok to Marina Mahathir for initiating this. It gave an opportunity for all Malaysians to express their love and prayers for the Tun, besides bringing us together. Marina is experienced at arranging these ecumenical gatherings when she headed the AIDS Council.
Of course there will always be the bigots who fear that such mixing of religions would “adulterate” our faith.
Such small mindedness is not confined to the uninformed or uneducated. In 1998 when Hari Raya and Chinese New Year coincided, the government wisely seized upon the rare and unique opportunity to remind Malaysians of the virtues of generosity and tolerance by capitalizing on the dual joyous occasions. Petronas came out with an imaginative and a memorably uplifting advertising jingle.
However at the Hari Raya prayers I attended at a mosque on the campus of University Islam, I heard very little of that spirit expressed in the sermon. Instead, the Imam venomously lashed out at those who dared elevate non-Islamic festivities to the exalted status of Hari Raya, a direct assault on the government’s noble intention.
Long soporific sermons have their sleepy effect on me rather quickly, but the ferocious intensity of the Imam’s fulminating tirade kept me awake. Words like “heathens,” “blasphemy,” and “sacrilege” were liberally sprinkled in his sermon, irreverently incongruous in a place of worship and at a traditionally forgiving season.
I am pleased that The Star will be publishing a regular column by Imam Feisal during this Ramadan. The works of Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal and the Aga Khan capture best for me the meaning of dakwa (teaching) and zakat (charity). Imam Feisal with his Cordoba Initiative and the Aga Khan with his string of universities and health centers give us a more enlightened meaning of the two important concepts in Islam.
I have another observation on Imam Feisal. Unlike his father, the Imam is a product of America’s modern liberal education, having graduated in physics from Columbia, an Ivy League university. Like the other religious leader I admire, Asghar Ali Engineer, Imam Feisal’s background in the physical science and his quantitative skills give precision to his thought. In physics and engineering, you cannot simply agak agak (guesswork) or the bridge you designed would collapse.
Imam Feisal illustrates my point, elaborated in my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, of the need to revamp our religious stream. Our future ulamas and religious scholars must be exposed to the widest field of study before embarking on their religious career.
Sallam and Selamat Berpuasa,