Sunday, 24 August 2008

Reformasi Revisited

All eyes are focussed on Permatang Pauh. In less than 48 hours, the people of this small district in Penang will participate in an election process that carries a significance greater than any other previous by-election in this country's history. Never before has there been a more genuine talk of change of government. Some welcome the change, while some others are worried.

I've just stumbled across something I wrote ten years ago. What I wrote was within the context of the political scenario at the time but the situation today is certainly not that different. Although I may no longer speak and write with the same sense of idealism (and syntax errors), my thoughts and views in general remains constant.


What does reformation aims for…

The Islamic term for reformation is Islah, which literally means change towards the better. This is the overall general principle. The ultimate aim is to create a society par excellence based upon the concept of Pax Islamica (al Faruqi, 1992).

A true Islamic society is an ideological society. It is a society which upholds the Islamic ideology transcending race, territory and socio-economic background (Maududi, 1983). In this society, Allah’s will is the primary source of law. Human reasoning and logical thinking are confined only to matters that are not explicitly stated in the Quran and the Sunnah (al-Qaradawi, 1995). Hence, Allah is the ultimate legislator, judge and prosecutor, not some long-serving heads of government, megalomaniac politicians or whomsoever. Therefore, it is incumbent that reformation shall promote the Syariah as the law of the nation.

A Muslim society should be a group of Atqakum, or God-fearing citizens.

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge, and is well acquainted (with all things). (Al-Hujurat[49]:13)

Atqakum is derived from the word taqwa, which is “the fear of Allah which springs from the heart and expresses itself in righteous deeds” (Musleduddin, 1988). Fear in this sense is out of love and reverence for Allah. By acquiring this feeling, one shall protect him or herself from wrongful deeds and ill-will. Such is due to one’s awareness that one is accountable for his or her actions. Simultaneously, one shall remain at all times empathetic of others. When a society is saturated with such individuals, even ‘peace and harmony’ may sound like an understated description. But this is what Islam promotes and promises, hence this is what reformation hopes to achieve.

Unfortunately, what we have now is something to the contrary. Instead of fearing Allah, we fear man-made threats and draconian laws above everything else. Worldly fears are completely unfounded and unacceptable. Reformation is inevitable and only Allah can sanction against it.

Say: “Shall I seek for (my) Cherisher other than Allah, when He is the Cherisher of all things (that exist)? (Al-An’am[6]:164)

Another important agenda is freedom. Islam does not impose any shackles except for those stated in the divine guidance. The Islamic Syariah or concept of life is based upon the law of duties where man is encourage to exercise his human rights thus contributing to the maintenance of a civic society. Islam believes that “all humans are entitled to know the truth…to inquire, to search, to learn and to teach one another…and to provide to the ruler advice as well as correction where needed (al Faruqi & al Faruqi, 1986).

Abu Said reported that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him) said: “The best jihad is that a person speaks the truth before the tyrant ruler” (Abu Dawud) (qtd in Siddique, 1983). It is clear then that Islam does not completely prohibit dissent. Dissenting comments are encouraged but should be forwarded in a polite manner through proper channels. Thus, proper channels should exist, not ceased to exist. Reformation is adamant in providing that.

India’s Mahatma Gandhi once said, “the world is enough for everyone’s need, but it is not enough for everyone’s greed”. Man’s greed is a universal disease effecting almost all societies. Greed has inspired people to corrupt, to fabricate lies, to organise deceit, to destroy the career of a political rival, and many other heinous crimes. Reformation aims to put to an end to all of this once and for all, for these are endeavours that should not be tolerated absolutely. They are against both Islamic and moral ethical values, and results to nothing but destruction, if not in this world in the hereafter.

To stifle the growth of greed, the country’s wealth should be fairly distributed. No preferential decisions favouring family members, cronies or any selected few should be allowed to take place. The country belongs to the people, not to the ruling elites, the royal families or any other groups whatsoever.

Give full measure when ye measure, and weigh with a balance that is straight: That is the most fitting and the most advantageous in the final determination. (Al-Isra’[17]:35)

Reformation should not hope to succeed without first overcoming some major obstacles. To enjoin good is to face extreme struggle. Imam Razi describes it as “the most arduous duty”, while for Ibn Taymiyyah, it is “the test of one’s faith” (qtd in Ansar, 1990). At this age, the emergence of dictators, oppressors and Firaun’s soul-survivors seem to provide the biggest threat. True, they are the most dangerous and cruelest of all people. But still, in a democratic country, the power to rule is vested on the people. Changes can be pursued peacefully through the ballot box. And this is where reformation ought to take place.

Malaysia is a multi-racial country. Somehow, this fact is seen detrimental to reformation. The current ratio of 59% Muslims and 41% non-Muslims seems to add support to this claim (Crystal, 1995). However, since Islam is the official religion and Muslims are the majority, even though the majority is considerably small, Islamization must be allowed to prevail. Reformation is inevitable since it is a direct command from Allah.

O ye who believe! Guard your own souls: If ye follow (right) guidance, no hurt can come to you from those who stray. The goal of you all is to Allah: it is He that will show you the truth of all that ye do. (Al-Maidah[5]:105)

Nonetheless, the Islamic way is to act with wisdom. Thus, changes should take place gradually. The needs and feelings of the non-Muslims should always be taken into consideration. Speedy radical changes will create unrest and provoke unnecessary violence. Therefore, one of the best approaches would be in accordance with fiqh al-awlawiyyat, the understanding of priorities. Coincidentally, the prime advocator of this approach in Malaysia was former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim. In his book The Asian Renaissance, Anwar wrote:

"Muslims need to address urgent social and economic issues such as the eradication of poverty and illiteracy, the provision of employment, decent housing and other social amenities. These are preconditions before certain specific Shariah injunctions can be translated into legislation." (p.118)

Only recently, this very same person has led the call for reformation. To support or not to support, that seems to be the question. And that is something only we ourselves can decide. Whether his call is pure and sincere, Allahu'alam, only Allah knows best.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Save UiTM?

As an alumnus of ITM (Pusat Pendidikan Persediaan/ITM, 1995-97), I am greatly saddened by the irrational response of UiTM students to the mere suggestion by the current Selangor Chief Minister to open-up a meagre 10 percent of its students admission to non-Bumiputera and foreign students. Below are views which echo exactly my thoughts on the issue.

Har Wai Mun: The MB's reasoning for his suggestion is to allow UiTM students to gain more exposure and be friendlier to people of other races. If anyone thinks his reason is not correct, the logical counter-point would be along the lines of either ‘the suggestion would not allow students to gain more exposure and be friendlier to other races,' or ‘allowing students to gain more exposure and be friendlier to people of other races is not beneficial'. Hopefully, the MB's suggestion will be viewed constructively and is not obscured by communal sentiment. Non-bumis will be an asset to UiTM. Quoting a declaration on various placards on parade at the demonstration, the MB's suggestion might not only ‘Selamatkan UiTM' (Save UiTM), but might propel UiTM to be a world-class university that makes all Malaysians very proud!

Anti Double-Standard: It is unfortunate that the MB of Selangor's view about UiTM made him become a racial and political scapegoat when all he was trying to do was foster greater racial harmony in the country and encourage better quality bumiputeras to go through an open university system. After all, he was only proposing a 10% allocation for non-bumiputeras and foreign students. In fact, allocating a small percentage of places for non-bumiputera students has already been practised by the present BN government in fully residential schools (sekolah berasrama penuh). (may I also add; at the International Islamic University Malaysia where almost 10 percent of its current students are Malaysian non-Muslim students) This has happened even though these schools were originally meant for bumiputera students coming from low-income families. Thus, Khalid Ibrahim's proposal concurs with the present government's line of practice - only that he is trying to extend it into the universities. If UiTM remains die-hard on its decision to keep the university as an all-bumiputera institution of learning, then why does it have a programme of study known as 'UiTM International' and why is it scouting for foreign students from abroad to study there? I know that UiTM has even participated in an international exhibition on higher education in China as late as last year in order to enroll students from China to study at UiTM. What has UiTM to say on this matter? We would like to hear from the vice-chancellor on this question.


A final note, just to add a quick respond to this spectacular statement made by a student who took part in the demonstration: “Mula-mula diminta kemasukan 10 peratus tetapi lama-kelamaan kadar itu dipertingkatkan. Akhirnya golongan bumiputera lenyap dan tertindas di universiti sendiri.” (Initially they will ask for 10 percent of the students intake, and later the rate will be increased. In the end, the bumiputera will disappear and be oppressed in their own university). I have studied and worked in local universities. Empirical evidence will show that students 'disappear' because of their own truancies and when they are dismissed for either extremely poor academic performance or serious behavioural misconduct. Disappearance because of the emergence of minority students? That I need Fox Mulder to explain!

Monday, 11 August 2008

The West and The Muslim World Post 911

Last Friday, the university hosted a forum entitled “The US and The Muslim World: Between Cooperation and Confrontation”. The guest speaker was the internationally respected American scholar on Islam, Professor John L. Esposito. Professor Esposito is a no stranger to IIUM having visited the university on many occasions in the 1990’s. However, just like many other international scholars both in the West and the Muslim World, prior to this year's visit he has not set foot on Malaysia since the tumultuous political events of the late 1990’s.

The focus of Professor Esposito’s presentation is the findings from the global attitude survey reported in his latest book ‘Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think?’, and the forthcoming 'The Future of Islam'. The survey covered a total of more than 40 countries with more than 50,000 respondents who were all interviewed one-on-one in their own respective native language. Respondents include both Muslims and non-Muslims who were asked a series of questions about their attitude on Islam and Muslim communities, and the values of the people in the West.

Without going to specifics, my personal view is the result of the survey has confirmed the opinion shared by many of us who have lived in both worlds, that between the people in the West and the Muslim World, there is a great degree of mutual misunderstanding. On one hand we have the people in the West who believe that Islam is a global threat to their freedom and values; while on the other the Muslims who believe that there is a global war and conspiracy against Islam. Both views are in fact illusive and hallucinative.

After the events of 9-11, the intensity of inter-civilisational dialogues between Islam and the West has indeed increased. Many Muslims have never quite understood the strong reactions of the Americans to the events (just like how most Americans have never understood why Muslims are so angry about America's continuous support to Israel). For the Americans, 9-11 was the very first time their country was attacked in its own soil. And this, according to Professor Esposito “created a hysteria on terrorism”, and since President Bush had singled out Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda as the Americans greatest enemy, Muslims and the religion of Islam became the focus of attention.

Professor Esposito has always maintained a positive view on Islam and an optimistic attitude towards Muslims. Hence, when discussion and debates on Islam and the Muslims began to flourish in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, he took centre-stage and appeared in various media programmes and events to defend those views. In one memorable programme aired on the BBC World Channel, Professor Esposito, in the course of defending Islam went to the extent of almost ridiculing some aspect of Christian values. A fellow Christian panellist had made a cheeky attempt to paint Islam as a religion of violence by saying that Islam does not have anything similar to the Christian teaching of “turn the other cheek”. To that, Professor Esposito nonchalantly suggested that the Muslim panellist hit the Christian man on one side of his face and see how he would react!

While I do agree that negative spins from the Western media have contributed to the prevailing negative attitudes toward Islam and the Muslims, I would like to emphasise that such negativity is also the result of genuine naturalistic observations. Except for those who have travelled extensively to various Muslim countries, or those who befriended closely individual Muslims, the only direct information the people in the West have about Muslims are based on their observations of Muslim immigrant societies in their midst. And if this is the yardstick that they base their judgment and attitudes on Muslims with, the negativity would not be entirely shocking, in fact could be considered almost expected. I do not know for sure the situation in America, but in Western Europe, the lifestyles and progress of Muslim immigrant societies certainly have much to be desired.

In Finland (in fact in all the Scandinavian nations), the people are proud of their welfare system where among others there is free education, free housing and generous allowances for unemployed persons. Unfortunately, instead of taking advantage of the system to improve their educational and social standings, many Muslim immigrants choose to remain unemployed and live with the free allowances given. In Germany and the Netherlands, where Turkish and Morroccan communities are established for three generations, their youth are more often associated with drugs and gangsterism rather than academic and entrepreneurial achievements. These are not exclusively the views of Western media or propaganda, but crucially the findings of various academic studies conducted by both Muslim and non-Muslim researchers.

The way forward is for Muslims to assume centre-stage and speak up for Islam and our respective communities. And we need to learn to do so first-of-all, by using the ideological language of the West (the language of human rights and democracy), and to live up according to those principles and ideals. Calling ourselves Islamic is one thing, but living an Islamic way of life is quite another.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Al-Ghazali: Skepticism and Denial of All Knowledge

Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali was born in Tus, Persia in 450 H (1058 AD). During his lifetime, he acquired one of the most distinguished positions in the academic world as the Principal of the famed Nizamiyya Madrasah in Baghdad. He was appointed to the position at the age of 34 and was widely revered for his extensive knowledge and eloquent presentations.

At the age of forty, al-Ghazali encountered a crisis; internal in nature and spiritual in essence. He came to feel that the one thing that mattered was avoidance of hell and attainment of paradise. He perceived as if his present way of life was too worldly that he had lost any hope of achieving eternal reward. This severe internal struggle eventually prompted al-Ghazali to take the life of a wandering ascetic, roaming around various landmark destinations across the Muslim world.

One of the most important sources that explain vividly al-Ghazali’s struggle against his own thoughts is the book al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal or 'The Deliverance from Error'. This book outlines in detail al-Ghazali’s refutations on the validity and reliability of all knowledge.

Al-Ghazali contented that for knowledge to be certain, it must always remain free of doubts, illusion and possibilities of error. To him, “knowledge that is not infallible is not certain knowledge.” He evaluated the various branches of knowledge available during his time. From the analysis, al-Ghazali embraced the view that all knowledge are to be denied. His reasons are based on the following two issues: reliance on sense-perception, and reliance on intellectual truths. These two, representing the philosophy of empiricism and rationalism respectively, are the two major schools of thought in discussions on epistemology.

Since al-Ghazali had acclaimed that for knowledge to be certain, it has to be free from doubt, he launched a series of analysis to see whether he could make himself doubt either or both sense-perception and intellectual truths. The outcome extinguished whatever reliance he had on both.

To demonstrate the falsity of sense-perception, al-Ghazali used our sense of sight as an example. Al-Ghazali claimed that sight is the most powerful sense. But yet, when it looks at the shadow of a stick, it sees it standing still, and judges that the shadow has no movement. However, if one were to observe the situation after an hour, one would know that the shadow is moving. It moves gradually and steadily but infinitely in small distances in such a way that it is never in a state of rest. Therefore, what we had observed through our sense of sight is proven to be wrong, thus should not be relied upon.

In another demonstration, this time to falsify intellectual truths, al-Ghazali began asking some profound questions to himself pertaining to his previous reliance on intellectual truths. He finally came to the assumption that perhaps behind all intellectual comprehension, there is another judge who, if he manifests himself, will show the falsity of intellect in passing any judgments. Even if this meta-physical comprehension has not manifested, that does not prove it is impossible.

A clearer explanation can be obtained from al-Ghazali’s narration on the relationship between dreaming and wakefulness. One has to be asleep if one were to dream. Therefore, he is either in an unconscious or sub-conscious state. But yet, the images he had in his dreams are so vivid and graphic that everything seemed to be real. However, when the person wakes up, he immediately knows that everything he had imagined were false, therefore unreal. In other words, we know that our beliefs, once we are awake, automatically nullify whatever beliefs we had while we were dreaming. So, the question now is, wouldn’t it be possible that there could be another higher state, beyond consciousness that can nullify whatever beliefs we have in this conscious state, just as how our beliefs during wakefulness had nullify our beliefs in our dreams? To support his opinion, al-Ghazali quoted a hadith in which the Prophet SAW said, “the people are dreaming, (but) when they die, they become awake.”

The state beyond wakefulness that al-Ghazali proposed, is often referred to as what the Sufis claim as a special ‘state’, mystic union or ecstasy, which occur when they have withdrawn into themselves and are absent from their senses. In his writings, al-Ghazali often claimed that the Sufi path is the only way to seek knowledge. He denounced all other classes of knowledge seekers; the theologians, proponents of batiniyyah, and the philosophers. Al-Ghazali had labeled them as either anti-religious or ultra-religious, whose view on epistemology therefore cannot be accepted.

Al-Ghazali’s viewpoints on this issue are interesting amid somewhat controversial. His conclusion to accept only and only the Sufis as the true seeker of knowledge is even more intriguing once devoured upon entirely. Dare I ask, in our pursuit of knowledge today, have we indeed been on the right path?

(Note: This essay was originally written as a class assignment in November 1999. It was later adapted for publication in a student magazine. The article is reproduced here for the benefit of students of History & Philosophy of Psychology. Jazakumullahu khayr.)