Sunday, 15 September 2013

Goals, Humility & Respect

Reposting here what was originally a two-part note on my facebook timeline on 9 and 10 September 2013.

After reading my facebook update last Friday, a few of my fb friends asked, ‘what was it about the khutbah (sermon) that brought me to tears?’ Did the khatib mention something that reminded me of my late wife Aishah?’ No, that was not the case, but let me explain.  

First-of-all, I have to admit, I didn’t really know who the khatib, Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan, was before last week. I did view one of his talks on youtube some time ago. That talk was ok but it didn’t impress me that much for me to search for more. Last Friday however, at the IIUM masjid, he gave a khutbah I honestly believe to be one of the best I’ve ever heard.

The khutbah was essentially a call to reflect, ‘why am I a Muslim?’ A rather common topic really but the questions he posed and the analogies he gave really struck a chord with me for they are exactly the issues I have been grappling with lately.

Ustadh Nouman began by asking ‘what is your ideal?’ For some, it’s about having a nice house and a nice car. For others, it’s about respect and recognition, while for some others, it could well be all about fame, money and glory.

My ideal or goal in life has always been to help and to serve. Ideally, I would want to do something where I am able to personally and directly help others. During my brief stint at UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), I started as programme assistant. I worked mainly in the office perusing documents and drafting project proposals; something that bored the life out of me.

Later, as a TP (temporary protection) screener, I was asked to interview people applying for refugee status. I had to talk to them and listen to their personal stories. I was a TP screener for only two months, but those two months remain among the best and most satisfying times in my entire working life.  

Someone asked me recently, what would I want my son to be when he grows up? “A nurse”, that was the answer that came instantly to my mind. This was around the time when my late neighbour was first hospitalised. At first, he was at the main ward but when his condition worsened, he was transferred to intensive care.
All the nurses I saw at the hospital were women. I know that is not something to be surprised about. What surprised me though is a sudden realisation that there is a serious need for every hospital to have male nurses; for several reasons.

For instance, I observed at both the ward and ICU, there were more male patients than there were females. Some of these patients were really ill. They needed help for almost everything. Some of them however, physically were quite big and tall, whereas the female nurses were physically smaller and of shorter height.

Don’t get me wrong, those nurses I saw, despite their physical disadvantage, were indeed very skilful and professional but I just wondered whether being cared for by a male nurse would perhaps make those male patients feel more comfortable?

Being a nurse is not easy. The job requires one to be patient, compassionate and firmly grounded; qualities commonly stereotyped with women. A man however, have those qualities too, hence, should not have a problem performing the role of a nurse.

I certainly will not be pressuring my son to become a nurse. That itself is not my goal. My goal is to raise him in such a way that he shall never consider the idea of becoming a nurse something repugnant. Indeed I would love it for him to consider it desirable for the unique opportunities it will give him to personally serve and help others.

And this was essentially the point Ustadh Nouman tried to put across. The ideal or goal for every Muslim is not cars, fame and money. The goal is to serve Allah and to serve others in this world. There is nothing wrong about wanting to be rich and famous. But to be rich by itself is not the goal. It is a means to attain a higher goal.

Ustadh Nouman said many great things last Friday, but there was one I find particularly mind-boggling. He said, “the ultimate reminder to those who would serve Allah's din (is), don't think highly of yourself; (and) don't think you are better than the people you are trying to serve."

I grew-up during the time when self-improvement books were extremely popular. Early in my youth, I read numerous books by various motivation ‘gurus’ like Anthony Robbins, Stephen Covey, Zig Ziglair and Dale Carnegie. Indeed there is a lot to be gained from their books and it would be stupid of me to deny the positive effects they’ve had in the lives of many.

I have this feeling however, that reading too much into them may lead to a few unintended negative consequences. These consequences include an exaggerated sense of self-worth, delusions of grandeur, arrogance, and a lack of respect for the abilities of others.

While conventional approaches to motivation are driven by self-centred concepts like self-worth and self-esteem, motivation in Islam, as indicated by Ustadh Nouman; embraces a rather different philosophy. It starts from a clear understanding on the purpose of our creation and the responsibility it entails; and the need to carry out those responsibilities with sincerity and humility.

Sincerity and humility however, are values that are difficult to define and impossible to measure. We may claim that we are sincere and humble but how do we know really that we have those attributes?

I am blessed by Allah with great memory; episodic memory especially. I observe more, and talk and mingle less. Throughout my life, I have seen how people change. I have seen how a two-letter-prefix can change a person’s attitude and personality. I have seen too how a piece of metal on a ribbon can heighten a person’s sense of importance and sense of entitlement.

It’s hard however, to be too critical of all this because they are part of the reality of today’s society; a society where you need to promote and push yourself to the limelight in order to succeed. The challenge then is to know how to remain, on one hand, sincere and humble, and on the other, ambitious and determined.

Continuous self-reflection is what we all need. We need to do something too that helps keep our feet firmly on the ground, and ensure our children are nurtured to do so as well. However, as much as I try now as a parent to mould my children’s character and instil certain values into them, there will be a point in their lives where my influence on them will weaken and disappear. From thereon, they will have to make their own choices. The only thing I can do is to ensure they have the necessary spiritual and analytical tools to make the right choices.

Hence, Ustadh Nouman’s advice to not think highly of ourselves is most apt. It correlates with another of his advice that as Muslims, we should not be easily satisfied. That Malaysia is a country currently blessed with economic success and a peaceful society is not an excuse for us to rest on our laurels. We should always think about what we can do more.

We have responsibilities both to ourselves and to the society. As Ustadh Nouman explains, if you are aware of injustices, corruption and other wrongdoings in the society, it is your duty as a Muslim to speak-up and do something about it. It is not enough to say ‘somebody will do it’. Instead, ask yourself, ‘why is that somebody not you?’

Ustadh Nouman closes his khutbah with a beautiful reminder on the importance of respect; another issue I've been struggling with. I’ve been trying to teach my children never to use words like Keling, Bangla, Indon, Awang Hitam and other derogatory terms when referring to others; a monumental task really in the face of overwhelming usage and indifference in the society. But I will keep on trying.

Ustadh Nouman explains that a Muslim should show respect and never assume he is better than a non-Muslim. If indeed you think you are better than your non-Muslim friend, think about what would happen if tomorrow that friend embraces Islam. He will have his slate wiped clean and would instantly be, in the eyes of Allah, a better person than you.

I believe the key towards genuine respect is a genuine sense of humility. Humility is the shield that protects us from spiritual diseases of ujub (vanity) and kibr (sense of superiority). A person who is conscious of his humble existence would be mindful about not wanting to hurt the feelings of others. And he will show respect to all regardless of gender, status, race, creed and nationality.


Monday, 15 July 2013

Muslim first...(Part II): Islamization and '1Malaysia'

The Malaysian society I grew up in was certainly different from what it is today. I started primary school in 1984 at the time when the effects of the Islamization wave, which began in the 1970's was yet to be seen. I went to a primary school in Kelana Jaya, a then young housing area in the fringes of Petaling Jaya. The local society was truly multiracial and this was reflected by the multiracial composition of my classmates in school.

Looking back at my class photos, I can see that when I was in Standard 1 (Tahun 1 Limau, 1984, Sekolah Rendah Kebangsaan Taman Seaport), out of 45 students in that class, only twelve of them were Malays. I had 20 Chinese classmates, eight Indians while the rest (perhaps) were Kadazan-Dusun, Ceylonese and Eurasians. And my Standard 2 class (Tahun 2 Durian, 1985) was the same. There were 44 students in the class, 15 of them Malays, 21 Chinese and five Indians.

Those numbers sum-up quite nicely my childhood environment. My friends and I, we were truly '1Malaysia'. In fact, my best mate in primary school was a Chinese boy named Oliver, and in my first three years of secondary school in Kelana Jaya, my closest friend was Sri Thanaraj.

I was conscious about my race and religion, and I'm sure all my friends in school were conscious of theirs too. That however, did not stop us from playing and studying together. We knew we had different cultural-religious beliefs and practices. We talked about them at times and from these conversations we learned to respect one another.

Occasionally, there were misunderstandings. I remember, for example, when we were all tired and thirsty after playing football, badminton, 'chopping' and others, some of my Chinese friends refused to drink water from the same bottle with me, not because they thought my bottle was dirty or anything but because; as what they said "aku makan babi" (I eat pork)". They were genuinely concerned that if their lips touched the bottle, the bottle would instantly become haram (forbidden) for me to drink from. 

I can see from those old class photos too that back then, all of us Malay boys wore shorts to school while the Malay girls all wore pinafores. One or two Malay girls started wearing baju kurung in Standard 4 while the boys started wearing long pants in Standard 5. Even in Standard 6, there were still more Malay girls in pinafores and skirts (prefect attire). Now, all Malay boys in primary schools right from Standard 1, wear long pants to school, and all the Malay girls wear baju kurung; about half of them would be wearing tudung or headscarves as well.

The Malay-Muslim society in Malaysia has certainly become more Islamic over the last three decades. The influx of Islamic television programmes in recent years is a stark reminder of that too. Back in the early 1980's, the only regular religious programme was Muqaddam, a basic Quran reading programme hosted by Ustaz Hassan Azhari, aired on RTM1 every afternoon. Friday sermons were not even shown live on national television. There were recorded and aired after the evening news at 8.30 pm on Fridays. I remember this still because what came immediately after was Tayangan Minggu Ini, a programme which aired old Malay movies by P. Ramlee and his contemporaries.  

The ‘Islamic Malaysia’ that we live in today is a country were 'Islamic' content penetrates into all spheres of life; in education, entertainment, television, medicine, finance, insurance, fashion and others. A Muslim, like me, certainly has no problems with this for Islam is my religion. But for non-Muslims?

I can understand their concerns. More so if I imagine myself in a reversed situation, i.e. a Muslim minority living in a non-Muslim majority society. If, for example that I live in the UK, and the British people suddenly become more religious that all public schools suddenly revert to routines and practices of mission schools in the past; with prayers read and hymns sang in student assemblies, the BBC begin to air more religious programmes; live coverage of mass on Sundays, Christian talent shows etc, and the British Prime Minister announcing a national policy of insertion of Christian values in public service, as a Muslim living in the UK, I would definitely be very concerned.      

Coming back to the reality here in Malaysia, I disagree with the common assumption that the person chiefly responsible for the Islamization of the society was former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir. Yes, he was indeed the man who introduced a national policy of insertion of Islamic values (dasar penerapan nilai-nilai Islam) in the 1980's, and the Islamization wave that hit the country coincides nicely with his premiership. But really, that was pretty much what it was, a coincidence. Anyone who became prime minister at that time would have introduced some form of Islamization or another.

Not to say that Dr. Mahathir was insincere. He was indeed the country's first practising Muslim prime minister. And I do believe he is genuinely religious in his own way. But more than anything, Dr. Mahathir was a cunning observer of political trends. He recognised and understood the Islamization wave that hit, not only the Muslims here but Muslims all over the world. He knew that if UMNO did not try to 'Islamize' itself, it might lose its position to PAS as the major political vehicle for the Malays. So he went on executing a deliberate political strategy’ to Islamize’ the government and his party. And getting the then ABIM president, Anwar Ibrahim, to join UMNO was undoubtedly part of that strategy.     

As far as winning the hearts and minds of the Muslims is concern, the strategy worked wonders. Except for the last one in 1999, UMNO and Barisan Nasional garnered the majority of Malay votes in every general election held during Dr. Mahathir’s tenure. But when it comes to race relations and national integration, that strategy has caused great consternation.

Many non-Malays now refer to national schools as 'Malay schools' precisely because almost all the students there are Malays. There are hardly any non-Malays. The situation is particularly acute in urban areas. I live in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur and the local national primary school here has not had a single Chinese student enrolled for five consecutive years.          

Non-Muslim parents, especially Chinese, have overwhelmingly refused to send their children to national primary schools. This has been going on for almost two decades now, hence as a result, we have an entire generation of Malaysians growing up in a more-or-less homogeneous environment; growing up interacting only with those of the same race with very little interaction with others.

When you don’t interact with others, what would be the most likely result? Tolerance and acceptance, or prejudice and discrimination? You don't need a PhD in social psychology or sociology to know the answer to that.

The situation today certainly does not look good. The dream for a ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ and ‘1Malaysia’ looks increasingly more like a pipe dream. But I believe there are still ways to salvage that dream. It requires commitment and sacrifices from all; Muslims and non-Muslims, Malays and non-Malays. For the sake of genuine peace and harmony, each of us needs to accept some changes and let go some of our long-held opinions.

For example...

Monday, 17 June 2013

Muslim first...

In the two weeks that my three children and I recently stayed in Lanzhou (hometown of my late Chinese wife), my four-year-old daughter took bath only twice - on the day we arrived, and on the morning before we left. That, for most people in China, is quite normal. Not so for people here in Malaysia. We take a bath at least twice a day. Hence, to not do so for more than a week is quite unthinkable.

I've been to 12 foreign countries so far. Not that many really, but in most of these visits, I stayed together with the locals; stayed in their homes, ate their food and followed their routines. Two weeks in Islamabad, I wore salwar kameez and ate chapati almost everyday. 15 months in Finland, I ate boiled potatoes every day and ate rice only once or twice a week. Wherever I was, as much as possible, I've tried to follow the culture of my host.

I can't say however that I was successful all the time. When I visited Lanzhou the first time, a week after Aishah and I were married, my late father-in-law (may Allah bless his soul) asked me what I would like to eat. I told him I will eat whatever he eats. Having noodles and green tea everyday was not a problem, but try as I did, there were a few things my stomach just could not take.

For example, what my father-in-law often had for breakfast was a bowl of tea, a special kind of tea which when added with milk, it turns pink. He would then add some salt and put small pieces of bread into it. The pink tea therefore is like a soup and he would drink the whole bowl clean. I tried doing the same a few times but was never able to finish the whole bowl.

Beyond food, certain things can be quite challenging, I certainly needed some getting-used-to using toilet paper in many countries, and till today I only use public toilets in China if I really, really have to.

But when it comes to observing my duties as a Muslim, performing my daily prayers and all, I've learned and managed to adjust. For example, it's not easy to find a surau or a musolla in many Western countries. But as the Prophet (peace be upon him) once said, the whole earth is a masjid. A prayer or solat can be performed anywhere where the ground is clean. And I have done so, in secluded corners of airports and train stations, in lecture halls, libraries and supermarkets, and once, in a guest room in a church.  

When it comes to adjusting to variances in the practices among Muslims from different mazahib, I've managed that rather well too. For, if I had insisted being a Shafi'i while praying in a Hanafi congregation like in a Turkish masjid in Berlin or in masajid all over China, I would be causing others some unnecessary discomfort. Just imagine for example, if I insisted following the Shafi'i way reciting 'ameen' loudly; when others don't, right after the imam recited Surat Al-Fatihah ? I will only be disturbing others in their prayers.

Not everyone agrees though with such adjustments. To some, you should remain loyal to your cultural practices no matter where you are, and whether you do so or not depends on how you deal with your own social identity complexities.

Each one of us has multiple social identities. There are based on among others our religious, ethnic and national affiliations. In that order, I am for example a Muslim, a Malay, and a Malaysian. Each of these identities is important in different circumstances. But overall, when it comes to general principles in life, the guide is provided by a specific social identity that a person considers dearest and most important.

And to that, my thoughts are clear. I am, have been and will always be a Muslim first. Because of that, I've had no problem eating anything as long as it is halal. Because of that too, I have never compelled my wife (Allahyarham) and daughters to wear a telekung when they perform solat. I have never too, ingrained in the minds of my children that Malay food or Malay culture in general is superior to others.

I love Malay food, of course. I still believe gulai tempoyak ikan patin is the best dish in the world but as I once told an aunt in Lanzhou who asked me "which food is better, Chinese food or Malay food?"; I said, "in China, Chinese food is better, in Malaysia, Malay food is better." :)

A decade ago, when I received the scholarship offer to study in Joensuu, Finland, the first thing I inquired was whether there was a Muslim community in the town. It never crossed my mind to ask whether there were any Malaysians there. As it turned out, there weren't any Malaysians living there but I wasn't perturbed. The Muslim community of Joensuu, which comprised of about only 200 people, became my friends, and the 20 or so brothers who were regular attendees to the small local masjid became my family members.

Obviously, the common understanding amongst many Malay Muslims in Malaysia is that since a Malay is defined by the country's constitution as a Muslim, whether a person defines himself either a Malay or a Muslim first does not really matter. That, I respectfully disagree.

How we define ourselves has its implications not only on the way we conduct our personal lives, but also on our views and attitudes on cross-cultural relations and politics. And that is a thesis that I wish to discuss and explore more in my book insha Allah. :)