Learning Islam by Writing About It
[A slightly shorter version appeared in the Sun , Weekend edition, November 18, 2005]
Writing on Islam is one way for me to learn about my faith. When I do, I can count on receiving many responses, some passionate and a few, extreme, to the point of crudity.
I am deeply appreciative of those who are supportive of my views. Often they lament that they are unable to express their own thoughts and feelings in Malaysia because of fear and other reasons. This further reinforces my gratitude to Allah for this freedom I enjoy living in the West. It also reminds me of the awesome responsibilities that go along with that freedom.
This freedom enables me to explore the rich heritage of my faith. To my delight, many of the spiritual and theological issues I have been struggling with have engaged the greatest minds in Islam, past and present. Far from undermining my faith, such exposures have strengthened it. Back in Malaysia, they would jail or at the very least, brand me a “deviationists” for daring to “stray.”
To the Malaysian Islamic establishment, and others, we would solve all that ails Muslims if only we could go back to the original “pure” Islam, as defined by them of course.
Categories of Critics
Those who disagree with me fall roughly into three categories. First are those who are sincerely concerned with my personal salvation. The second are the ulama and others with impeccable Islamic credentials who disdainfully dismiss me for daring to comment on matters they claim to be their exclusive preserve. The third smugly proclaim that their ulama, gurus or scholars are “smarter” and more learned than mine, and that I have been “misled.”
Repent, the first group would earnestly plead to me, before it is too late! They would even pray for my salvation should I do so. While I am touched by their concerns about my entering Heaven, nonetheless I cannot believe something that does not make sense to me. After all, God gave me akal (reason), and I value that divine gift by fully using it.
The overriding and recurring message of the Quran is to command good and forbid evil. This is further reinforced by the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, may peace and the blessings of Allah be upon his soul. When an alim, no matter how pious and impeccably credentialed, exhorts me to “kill the infidels” while heavily quoting the Quran or Hadith, the message does not resonate with me. Tak masuk akal (It does not make sense), as we say back in my kampong. That does not mean that I do not believe in the Quran or Hadith, rather only that alim’s interpretation.
On the Day of Judgment, the Good Lord will judge me solely on my own actions and niat (intentions). I cannot excuse them, says the Quran, by saying that I am following the teachings of that great alim or this eminent scholar. There is no “Being a Good German” defense in Islam, that is, no excuse for merely following orders.
Those in the second group would chide me for even daring to write about Islam. How presumptuous of me dwelling in the land of the infidels and who could recite but a few short verses of the Quran to enter into a discourse with a hafiz (someone who has memorized the entire Quran) and who had spent decades with the great ulama at Al-Azhar. Such insolence and cheekiness on my part!
Let me answer them by resorting to the teaching manner of our great prophet Muhammad s.a.w., that is, by an anecdote. May Allah forgive me if I sound pretentious!
Imagine if a simple kampong woman were to consult me for a cancerous lump in her breast. I recommended surgery. She demurred, preferring instead to seek herbal treatment and the advice of a bomoh. She had heard of terrible complications from surgery; even death!
Should I then berate her for her temerity to challenge the diagnosis and advice of an experienced surgeon with years of training and multiple degrees to boot? Can’t she tell that from all those fancy-framed diplomas on my wall? Should I then contemptuously dismiss her? After all, what does she know about oncology, pharmacology, immunology, and all the other “-logies.” She does not even know the meaning of the word “cell,” much less a cancerous one!
Or, should I address her concerns? Yes, people do die and have bad complications from their surgery. Fortunately today, with well-trained surgeons and anesthesiologists, as well as wonderful drugs, modern surgery is safe. Yes, the occasional unfortunate few have complications and indeed die. Perfection after all is only with Allah.
With the first approach, I am effectively denigrating her, treating her as inferior to me. That is ‘unIslamic.’ We are all equal. I may be better at performing surgery than she is at carving her chicken, but then she could stir up a mean rendang better that I could. By treating her with respect, that is, as an equal, she may even change her mind and opt for the life-saving surgery. Even if she does not, at least she would have a better understanding of modern medicine. She would be better for it, and I would have the satisfaction of having contributed something towards her enlightenment. In contrast, with the first approach, she would definitely be turned off by modern medicine and doctors.
No doubt, some conservative Muslims would take exception to this example. To them, I as a male have no business examining women’s breasts. Yes, my examining of breasts may seem like fondling to a layperson, but my niat or intention, is different. I am trying to save her life, a meritorious act by any standard or Holy Book, not gratifying my erotic senses.
I have little to add for the third group. It is not productive to engage them; it would just be a spitting contest (or pissing contest, in the colorful language of local cowboys). They simply would dismiss me as being under the spell of the “orientalists” and “deviationists.”
The surprise is that this attitude is also prevalent among Muslim intellectuals and scholars. Obviously they have not learned from their illustrious predecessors who eagerly learned from the Greeks, Romans and Hindus, and then went on to make their own seminal contributions. The likes of Ibn Sini were not at all bothered that they were learning from the infidels.
Another argument these modern ulama frequently advance is that their interpretations and translations are the only true and valid ones. All others are simply adulterations (bida’a) of our great faith. Their certitude merely betrays their arrogance, not to mention their intellectual shallowness.
They forget that all translations are at best approximate; they all involve some interpreting and editorializing.
Dealing with Rude Responses
I do get my share of rude and crude comments. I always respond courteously – initially. Invariably they reply with apologies. The old adage, goodwill begets more goodwill, works. There are exceptions, however. For those relatively few, the powerful click of the mighty mouse – delete – does wonders to my sanity and psyche!
Some of the most obnoxious and vulgar e-mails I get are from otherwise upright citizens, respected commentators, and seemingly pious ulama. Regardless, the mighty mouse does not care. They do not in any way detract me from continually striving to learn about my faith; hence this essay.