Suaris Interview: The Future of Malays #5

Suaris Interview:  The Future of Malays #5:  It appears that you are cynical towards things labeled “Islam.” Many feel that you do not subscribe to conservative Islam as practiced by the vast majority of Muslims rather the basic teachings of our faith. What is your comment?

 [The original was posted on on Feb 13, 2013.]

MBM:  I am a Muslim, by birth and through practice. I believe in God and Muhammad, s.a.w, as His Last Messenger, as well as the five pillars of our faith. That of course is the belief of all Muslims.

What is the essence of the teachings of our Holy Koran and Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w.? Command good and forbid evil! That is repeated many times in our Koran and hadith. That too is agreed upon by all Muslims.

That is the “golden rule” of our faith. I am less interested in labels, those can be easily printed. Content is something else. If a state does not subscribe to the creed of doing good and forbidding evil, then I do not consider it to be Islamic regardless of the label. It is easy to carve the names “Allah” and “Muhammad” on arches and buildings; likewise for leaders to don overflowing robes and huge turbans.

The question is whether corruption, bribery, and abuse of power are deemed “avoidance of evil.” Likewise, if leaders ignore the sufferings and deprivations of their citizens, could that be considered “doing good?” When I make judgment on whether a state is Islamic, those are the crucial factors, not how often the leaders have been to Mecca or how exquisite their recitation of the Koran.

A Singaporean once asserted that his country is more Islamic than neighboring Indonesia. In Singapore there is no corruption or abuse of power by its leaders. Citizens too are well taken care of and not poverty stricken. Poverty invites impiety, goes an ancient wisdom, and impiety in turn leads to infidelity to our faith. Visit nearby Riau and the wisdom of that observation would be readily self evident. The abject poverty there assaults your sensibilities. We cannot blame those poor Indonesians. The Chinese too were like that when they were plagued with poverty in their not-too-distant past.

Based on the foundation of our faith – command good and forbid evil – it is hard to dispute the view of the Singaporean.

I do not quite understand the meaning of conservative versus liberal as applied to Islam. While I understand the meaning of those two words in their original English, in Malay those terms have acquired diametrically opposite meanings. That is why I refrain from using either.

It would be more meaningful if I were to give an example of an Islamic society and leader I hold in high regards and compare both with another I would be very hesitant in emulating. It is not my place to say which one is more Islamic and would enter Paradise. Only Allah knows that, and He is not telling me or anyone else.


There are fewer than 15 million Ismailis in the world, about the same number as Malays in Malaysia. Those Ismailis do not even have a country of their own, but their power, influence and contributions to the world generally and Muslim community specifically far exceed their number.


Ismailis emphasize the giving of zakat (tithe), and with that money they build schools and universities, as well as invest in companies that among other things manufacture pharmaceuticals. The Aga Khan University Hospital in Pakistan was built only in 1985 but it is already a well known center. The Ismailis could not care less whether their women don their hijab; they are more concerned that their women be trained as doctors, teachers and engineers so they could contribute to society, to be makhlok soleh (exemplary beings).

Compare them to the Talibans in Afghanistan. Taliban means students, but those students are busy burning schools and splashing acids on young girls wanting to go to school. Taliban youths are busy leaning how to use C4 explosives and high-powered AK47 rifles; young Ismailis are busy solving problems in science and calculus.

A society reflects its leaders. The leader of the Ismailis is the Aga Khan. Yes, he is wealthy, raises thoroughbreds, and his father was once married to Rita Hayward, the famed American actress. The current Aga Khan however, graduated from Harvard; he leveraged his networking with American intellectuals to entice them to teach at the universities he built in Asia.

The leader held in high regards by the Taliban was Osama. He too was wealthy and qualified as an engineer from a Saudi university, but he expended his wealth and skills to destroy buildings and kill people.

Who better “command good and forbid evil,” Aga Khan or Osama? I let readers determine whether Malay society today is closer to the Ismailis or the Taliban. Again, I leave it to readers to decide whether the Ismailis or Taliban we should emulate.

We are obsessed with hudud and hijab while drug abuse and abandoned babies are rampant in our community. Why should we emphasize hudud and not zakat? We should be mandating zakat on every Muslim including the sultans. It is one of the five pillars of our faith; hudud is not.

If everyone (save the poor) pay their zakat (2.5 percent of their assets), and then we employ the smartest economists and investment bankers to manage those funds, there would be no end to the good those would bring. That is exactly what the Ismailis are doing, building schools and hospitals with their zakat. What are the benefits of the Taliban’s zakat? If we emphasize hudud, many would end up with their hands chopped off. Who will feed them and their families?

We best demonstrate our Islamic values by not tolerating the corrupt and incompetent, as well as those who have abused our trust in them. Our Koran commands thus.

Yes, we have to accept Islam in its totality; we do not have the privilege of picking and choosing only those parts that please us. The crucial question is why should we emphasize hijab and the chopping of hands but tolerate rotten education and gross corruption? What should be our priority? That reflects our values.

Consider education. Hamka once said that God gave us two Korans; one, the Koran we are all familiar with; two, the universe outside and within us. For the first, Allah had given us a prophet in the person of Muhammad, s.a.w., to guide us in studying it. For the second, God had blessed us with an intellect so we could reason and distinguish between good from evil, truth from falsehood. We have an obligation to study both Korans.

Scientists elucidating the secrets of the polio virus could be viewed as studying this second Koran. The result was the discovery of a vaccine that had spared millions from the devastating disease. That is “doing good.” The Taliban however, view the vaccine as a poison perpetrated by the infidels. Consequently polio still afflicts many in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Again based on the golden rule of our faith, is that “doing good?”

In the early centuries of our faith, our ulama did not differentiate between worldly and religious knowledge. Both ultimately originate from God. Those ancient ulama were also proficient scientists, competent physicians, and skilled mathematicians. They were as diligent in studying this second Koran as the first. Today’s ulama however, totally ignore this second Koran. To them it is not worthy of study. The ummah takes their cue from the ulama; consequently, Muslims have not contributed our share for the betterment of mankind.

We should be concerned with such critical issues as how to educate our young so they could make their rightful contributions to society. Do good in this world and God will look kindly upon you on the Day of Judgment. He is after all Most Just!

Consider this ahadith (approximately translated):  A prostitute was admitted into heaven because she once saved a dog dying of thirst by giving it water. Do you think such women wear hijabs? Another ahadith has it that a man was admitted to Heaven because he once removed a thorn from a road. If that deed was worthy of admission to Paradise, imagine the rewards for someone who actually built the road, meaning, the engineers!

Again, we best demonstrate our Islamic values by building safe roads and bridges. There is no point carving “Allah” and verses of the Holy Koran on such structures if our architects and engineers are incompetent, and the roofs they designed and build would collapse in the first storm and injure many, or if their bridges have more water flowing above than below!

A few years ago there was a public debate between Datuk Asri Zainal Abidin and Astora Jabat on tajdid (reform in Islam). I admire both individuals; they are among the most thoughtful. However, in that three-hour debate, they argued on the minutiae of hudud, on whether a woman’s hair is considered aurat and thus must be covered. Only towards the end did a brave soul ask why we should be bothered with hijab when our nation is crippled with rampant corruption. His query was never addressed. We must reform Islam so we could address pressing social problems that now blight our society. Don’t be obsessed with hijab.

The typical religious discourse on radio and television or at our mosques and universities is unidirectional, from speaker to listeners. The bulk of the time would be consumed with excessive salutations and endless quotations of Koran and hadith. When both are cited, discussions would have effectively been shut down. The Koran and hadith should be the beginning, not the ending of a discussion.

Consider the ahadith that says the community would be divided into 73 sects, only one of which is true and genuine. The remainder 72 would presumably be headed for Hell. How we interpret that hadith has consequences. If every ulama feels that his is the only true sect, then he would have a messianic zeal to correct the rest, with the rationale of helping them enter Heaven! That’s what motivates those Taliban to splash acid on schoolgirls.

Statistically speaking, you have only one chance in 73 to be correct, less than 1.5 percent! That probability should humble and motivate us to learn from the others in the hope that one of them is the one true faith!

I am blessed to live in America with its freedom. I can read Shia and Ahmaddiyah literature without being harassed by religious officials. There are none in America! In Malaysia, I would be jailed without trial, treated just like the communists of yore. Would such a stand conducive to peace and understanding or breed suspicion and enmity among Muslims?

Like Astora Jabat, I do not subscribe to any figh (sect). I do not as yet know which of the 73 sects is genuine. What I do know is that piety, justness and wisdom are not restricted to any community. I can still learn from the Shias, Ismailis, Salafis and Wahabis, among others, on the truth and beauty of our faith.

On the Day of Judgment, we would be held accountable for our deeds on this earth. We could not give the excuse that we were merely following the teachings of this ulama or that. Our faith is blessed not to have a defined clergy class. We have to think for ourselves. We decide whether to follow the ulama who command us to hate non-Muslims and consider those Muslims whose politics we disagree with as infidels.

Back to the beginning, my understanding of Islam is simple and straightforward:  Command good and forbid evil. The rest are but examples and illustrations.


Cont’d:  Suaris Interview The Future of Malays #6:  Continuing on, what is your view on PAS and its leaders? Will their policies and activities usher Malays forward?

5 Responses to “Suaris Interview: The Future of Malays #5”

  1. K Das says:

    Education widens, deepens and sharpens one’s mind and helps one to see faith and its application in proper context. I enjoyed reading your critical but thoughtful piece.

    I get a sense as though Islam is an overly guarded religion entrapped within a garrison or fortress with a single front gate through which one can only come in and not go out and if you do so you risk facing awesome penalty (death sentence) in some countries and lesser so in others. For mind and matter to function freely in spiritual domain, any artificially erected walls have to come down.

    For any Muslim (by birth or conversion) who embraces his faith and its teachings over time and who stands by it out of pure conviction and strong belief, the wall would naturally become redundant. Will things change in 50 years’ time?

    My basic understanding of Islam (in Malaysian context) is very limited. I don’t think any other faith makes it obligatory, by writ, for all to give a fixed portion of their regular income (to be distributed) to the poor and underprivileged in such a manner and scale as Islam does. There is also the requirement to pray 5 times a day – practice, which can only make one, more pious and thus consciously become just and fair and helpful to fellow men. To supplement this, there is also the obligation for mellowed men to undertake Haj to Mecca to purify themselves and come back to lead a pious and exemplary life for others to emulate and follow.

    Some Muftis are plain mercenary. They distort and misinterpret things and pass fatwas favouring their pay masters. They are not aloof from politics. On the contrary they are deep embroiled in politics for convenience and self-interest. They are leeches. Let them not soil the beauty of Islam.

    I have one other point. Why should the word “Allah” be banned from being used in the Malay version of the Bible? One of the reasons adduced was that Muslims, presumably those weak in their faith, may be confused. Where is the justification? You cannot just invent imaginary reasons to back your claim. The Malay Bible is read only by non-Muslims, mainly the Christians that too mainly in controlled settings. And the Christians are very careful and scrupulously avoid propagating their faith to Muslims, given the sensitivity and the position of Islam as the official religion of the country. Taking the argument to its logical conclusion, would it be all right for “Allah” to be used by non-Muslims, if and when all Muslims become strong in their faith?

    For all intents and purpose “Allah” is a Malay translation for God – the universal God. If the Malay Bible cannot use it, what will the replacement word for it be? God? But it is an English term. How do you “Malayanise” God other than by the word “Allah”?

  2. naz says:

    Salam, Mr.Bakri, I’ve always admired your thoughtful writings and this one particularly hit it home for me. There’s a lot that our nation could learn and yes we seem to have overlooked the important matters in favour of the superficial ones. As for Mr. K Das, i
    I believe that the Malay translation for the word God is ‘Tuhan’. Allah is an arabic word whereas early Christians and the original Bible was in Aramaic. Even then God is referred to as Yahweh, so using the word ‘Allah’ does seem a bit irrelevant, doesn’t it? Also as any student of language would know, a word is rarely neutral, it has connotations. Allah means The One and Only God whereas Christians believe in the Trinity. The neutral word for god or deity in Arabic, if Christians still prefer to use an Arabic word, is ‘ilah’. Then perhaps there’ll be less controversy.

  3. K Das says:

    Further to my last paragraph, will “Tuan Allah” for “Allah” be accepted by all parties as a compromise?

  4. K Das says:

    Inche naz, Thanks for your input. You too are trying to give a solution as a possible way out, which should be appreciated

    A contoversy that never was, for ages and more so in recent past, has become one recently, ignited by power-crazy politicians through their side-kicks.

    Everything has a dimension and nothing can be cast in stone and hope it to remain so forever. “ilah” is too close to “Allah” and some may not welcome it for this reason alone. There is no telling that “ilah” may also become controversial in time to come as “Allah” has now. But this is only speculative. It may not come to pass and even, if it does, we can always confront it when we pass the bridge.

    Perhaps concerned parties can consider your suggestion.

  5. Joanna Moran. says:

    ‘Command good and forbid evil’. It seems to me that all this nitpicking over how God is addressed by different religions neither
    commands good nor forbids evil. It is nothing more than nitpicking. A waste of time and intelligence. A Muslim meeting a Christian might say ‘Salaam aleikum’ and be answered ‘God bless you, my friend’, without incurring, in an intelligent, blessed society, an arrest by the religious police.
    I always thought ‘Tuhan’ meant ‘Lord’. The Ten Commandments starts ‘I am the Lord thy God’. Should it be changed to ‘I am Yahweh thy Ilah’? As for ‘Allah’, that name for God has been used by non-Muslims in the Arab countries for centuries. It simply means God, used with reverence and love. Only morons would start riots over that, as has happened in Malaysia. What a laughing stock we have made of ourselves.
    Your mosques are built with taxpayers’ (non-Muslims as well) money. Should the mosques be considered unholy because non-Muslims’ money was used? Non-Muslims had no say how their taxes are used. But as long as they had a hand in raising your mosques, wouldn’t it be a little show of gratitude to stop referring to us as ‘infidels’, with no right to use the name of ‘Allah’? I am sure Allah/Yahweh/Tuhan/God would accept any of His names as long as it is said with reverence and love. Does not religion teach love?

Leave a Reply