Saturday, 31 January 2009

When Rumi Met Tabrizi...

Professor Amir Zekrgoo of ISTAC, in his first of a series of lectures on ‘Jalalluddin Rumi and His Mathnavi’ presented last Friday, shared an interesting narration of the first meeting between Rumi and his spiritual companion Shamsuddin Tabrizi.

Rumi, who was already at the time a respected scholar and spiritual figure, was reading a book; immersed in deep concentration, when he was abruptly asked by the wandering dervish, "what are you doing?" Rumi replied, "something you cannot understand", to which Shams reacted by taking the book off Rumi’s hand and throw it to water! Rumi picked it up and was surprised to find none of the pages of the book was wet. He then asked Shams, "what are you doing?", and Shams replied, "something YOU cannot understand!"

Thus began one of the most intense spiritual relationships between two spiritual beings the world has ever known. And as Professor Zekrgoo asserts, Rumi’s association with Shams turned him "from an ‘alim (scholar) to an ‘arif (mystic)... and made a poet out of a preacher".

To Rumi, this was the life-changing and humbling experience which paved the way for his self-actualisation. The spiritual bond he had with Shams was the 'sparkle' that gave him the inspiration and spiritual zeal to express his creative ideas.

Many of us are still in search of that elusive 'sparkle' that we hope will change our lives forever and allow us to realise all our potentials. But how and where does one find that 'sparkle?' Or, should we not search for it and instead let the 'sparkle' finds us?

"Don’t search for water, search for thirst..." Hence the lesson; taught to me by Professor Fareed Ahmad on humility vis-รก -vis knowledge: "the more you know, the more you know you don’t know". Or, as beautifully described by the Malay proverb: "ikut resmi padi, makin tunduk makin berisi"; the more knowledge one acquires, the more humble one should be.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Is Chinese New Year a Cultural or Religious Festival?

Tomorrow, Chinese communities all over the world will celebrate the coming of a new year; the year of the ox, an animal which symbolises hard work and perseverance.

Here in Malaysia, Chinese New Year is considered by many as a cultural festival. Hence, anyone who identifies his/her ethnic background as Chinese, regardless of his/her religious beliefs, would and should celebrate Chinese New Year. For this reason, non-Muslim Chinese who convert to Islam would still celebrate Chinese New Year because the festival is considered part of their cultural tradition and celebrating it is not considered against their Islamic faith.

However, is Chinese New Year really only an ethnic-cultural festival?

If we look at the rituals and practices in conjunction with its celebration, traditionally, preparations begin at the start of la-yue, the twelfth and last month of the Chinese lunar year. La-ba-zhou (eighth-day porridge) is celebrated on the eighth day of this month with the making of delicious porridge, a practice originated from Buddhists in China in memory of the enlightenment of Buddha. Dong-zhi (Winter Solstice) which falls on the 22nd of the month is celebrated with the eating of Chinese dumpling, a practice based on a Chinese custom which symbolises that a person is now one year older.

Then, a few days before the eve of Chinese New Year, every family has to send their home-god (jia-shen) to the heaven (through the observation of a variety of religious rituals such as the burning of incense and yellow-paper money) to report their deeds for the entire year while at same time to bring them more luck, wealth and prosperity for the coming new year. For the people in northern China, they pray to the god of the kitchen (zao-shen), to the people in the south especially among fishermen, to the god of the sea (hai-shen), while among merchants and businessmen they pray to the god of wealth (cai-shen).

So, New Year’s Eve is a very important time not only for family reunion; where all members in a family should return home to pray to the spirit of their ancestors to ask them to protect and bring the family more prosperity, it is also an important time to warmly welcome the return of the home-god who will come back to bring them luck and blessings for the new year. For this very reason, all members in the family would traditionally stay-up the whole night (shou-sui) at the family home on New Year’s Eve. In relation to that, at the stroke of midnight, which marks the start of the New Year, family members will burn firecrackers to drive away ghosts, evil spirits and bad luck to ensure the home god’s smooth return from heaven.

On the first and second day of Chinese New Year, members in the family are not allowed to go out of the house, not even to visit neighbours and friends; to avoid the flowing out of good luck, and to prevent bad luck from coming in to the family. Sweeping the floor inside the house is not allowed on the first two days of the new year to prevent good luck from being swept out from the house. Only on the third day till the fifteenth day of the new year, people may celebrate new year with their friends and neighbours.

Of course, not all of these practices and rituals are observed by Chinese communities today. Nevertheless, the points above clearly support the motion that Chinese New Year is in fact a religious festival. One has to understand that the traditional religion of the majority of Chinese is an amalgamation of teachings in Buddhism, the ethical philosophy of Confucianism and the metaphysics of Taoism, sprinkled with doses from Chinese myths and legends. The influences of these different sources of inspiration in the rituals and practices observed during Chinese New Year celebrations are indeed very clear and apparent.

It is for this very reason that ethnic Chinese Muslim communities in China do not celebrate Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year to them is a non-Muslim religious festival, and as Muslims, and because of their knowledge of the background of the various non-Islamic religious rituals and practices, they believe they should not participate in its celebration. Some of the elders in Chinese Muslim communities have in fact emphasised to their families to eat the most basic of food on New Year’s Eve, to clearly emphasise that the festival is not part of their family culture.

Since Chinese New Year is in fact a religious festival, should Chinese converts to Islam refrain totally from its celebration? Religious beliefs do not abrogate family obligations. As such, a Chinese-Muslim convert should attend the family reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year as part of his/her family obligation. But the person should not participate in any of the religious rituals associated with the festival.

Celebrating Chinese New Year should not be seen as a mandatory Chinese-ethnic-identity-confirming behaviour which defines one’s Chinese cultural identity and origin. There are at least 50 million Chinese Muslims in China who do not and have never celebrated Chinese New Year. The fact that they don't celebrate it does not make them less Chinese than others who do. They respect it as an occasion celebrated by their non-Muslim neighbours and friends but they do not participate in its celebration. As Muslims, their festive occasions are the Eid celebrations, which are celebrated twice-a-year by all Muslims all over the world.

(This post was co-authored by my wife who is a Hui Chinese Muslim from Gansu, China)

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

President Obama: Lowered Expectations

Today, the world will witness the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America, President Barack Hussein Obama, the first African-American president in the history of the country; the first African in fact to serve as head of government of a country beyond the African continent!

That the event today will be one of the most memorable in history is of no doubt. And its significance from the perspective of race and ethnic relations in America and in other parts of the world can never be underestimated. But to expect President Obama to be the financial guru to solve the US sub-prime mortgage crisis, the mastermind of a new international economic architecture, the mediator of all conflicts in the world; in short the man with the solutions to all the problems in America and beyond, such expectations are made in dreams, never in touch with reality.

I never quite understood how George W. Bush got elected (twice!) as the US President. To me, it was very obvious that both Al Gore and John Kerry were the more qualified candidates. Both men were clearly more intelligent, and looked by far the more capable. President Bush on the other hand, was the sheriff-like figure with a plain-speaking style, who bulldozed his way through debates and discussions, stuck to his conviction and ignored what others had to say. In that sense, he was quick and effective, not complicated.

Thus, one thing we can safely expect from President Obama is a change of leadership style. Obama is quite clearly a high-complexity individual. Studies in personality psychology have shown that high-complexity individuals encourage a wide range of information from various sources, are more interested in receiving negative feedback and are more likely to incorporate them in the decision making process.

President Obama has repeatedly stressed that he does not want a group of blind-followers as members of his cabinet. What he wants is a 'Team of Rivals' to ensure that every decision is made after thorough discussions, that the merits and demerits are considered for every situation, that there will be no stones left unturned. More significantly perhaps, Obama has decided to keep his BlackBerry to ensure that he gets direct personal feedback from people outside of his administration.

As a Muslim, I don’t expect President Obama to be able to solve all the problems in the world. Nor do I have the audacity to hope that he will revert to the faith of his father and champion the cause of the religion. But I am at least reassured that he is willing to listen and consider a diverse range of propositions. And for him to select Dr. Ingrid Mattson to say a prayer during the inauguration I think is a wonderful gesture.

Monday, 12 January 2009

End the Paranoia

In his book Fratricide in the Holy Land – A Psychoanalytic View of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Avner Falk, an Israeli psychoanalyst wrote:

"...we Israelis are a paranoid nation because we see ourselves as the victims of this world, with the whole world as our enemies. We live in constant fear of annihilation and as a group have no empathy for the suffering of our antagonists."

Similarly, in an emotional essay; "How Can Children of the Holocaust Do Such Things: A Jewish Plea", written in the aftermath of Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006, Sara Roy, a Jewish scholar on Middle-Eastern Studies at Harvard wrote:

"There are among Israelis real feelings of vulnerability and fear, never resolved but used, intensified. Seeing one's child injured or killed is the most horrible vision -- Israelis are vulnerable, far more than other Jews. Yet, we as a people have become a force of extremism, of chaos and disorder, trying to plough an unruly sea-addicted to death and cruelty, intoxicated, with one ambition: to mock the pauper."

The tenacity and courage of the Jewish people today are often credited to the many trials and tribulations faced by Jewish communities throughout history. Jews were persecuted by the ancient Egyptians, the Romans, Babylonians, early Christians and the Nazi Germans. From the tyranny of the Pharaoh to the lunacy of Hitler, the tremendous suffering endured by the Jews left indelible marks in their history which has now become a permanent feature of their psyche.

Many Jews believe they are victims of hate, not just any kind of hate but hatred that comes naturally from the hearts of many. This anti-Semitism to them, is the reason why the Jews were persecuted throughout history and the very reason why some people still continue to threaten the existence of the state of Israel today.

The Jews are the direct descendants of Abraham. Conscious of this fact, many Jews see themselves as a special group of people. It is by the will of God that Abraham was chosen as His messenger. And if indeed Abraham was chosen because of certain qualities, his descendants by right should also inherit some, if not all of these qualities. God favoured Abraham over the rest of His creations, thus his descendants should also continue to be favoured.

God, to the Jews is a patriarch God. And the patriarch God made a covenant with the Jews that they would be "as uncountable as the stars and through (them) would the nations of the world be blessed." This covenant is part of the Jewish natural existence, which is the unique characteristic that distinguishes them from the rest of mankind. God therefore, is contracted to provide more than equal treatment to the Jews in accordance with their position as the chosen people.

A chosen group of people may well have certain special rights, and they ought to have some special responsibilities too. But do these special rights make the life of a Jewish person more worthy than a life of a gentile (a non-Jewish person)?

In the last six months that Hamas has fired rockets to southern Israel and since the Israeli assault in Gaza began two weeks ago, the total number of Israeli casualties stands at 13. In contrast, the number of Palestinian casualties has risen to more than 850. The Israeli authorities have of course emphasised they are targeting Hamas militants, not civilians; and they had no choice but to attack in response to Hamas’ provocation and the need to ensure the safety of the people of southern Israel.

If indeed the Israelis are only targeting militants, why are they using white phosphorous munitions in densely populated areas? Unless of course, due to my ignorance on weapons technology, these bombs are smart bombs, so smart they injure only militants not civilians. And on their claim that they had absolutely no choice but to attack, did the Israeli authorities ever tried to talk to certain factions in Hamas who in the last few months have indicated their willingness to accept a two-state solution?

One would expect those among the chosen ones, and ones with ample history of sufferings, would conduct their actions in such a way that the innocents are protected and to ensure others do not have to suffer as they had suffered. Instead, they are inflicting suffering upon others as if to ensure others experience what they had experienced.

The Palestinians today most certainly have so much hatred against the Jews in Israel. But from where does all this hate comes from? Is it the case that all Palestinians by nature carry a certain unique DNA that makes them hate all Jews?

When the entire living memory of two generations of Palestinian refugees consists of destitute living conditions and constant scuffles with the Jewish-Israeli army, what other emotions can they have about the Jews other than hate? People don’t hate the Jews because they are Jews, and neither does this hatred comes from envious feelings against the special status of the Jewish people. People hate the Jews because of their unilateral actions and perceived arrogance in dealing with the Palestinians.

This specially chosen group of people should cease with the paranoia that they are perennial victims of the entire history of human civilisation. As much as they have suffered, others have suffered and are suffering too. Since they are now the side with considerable strength and power over the enemy, they should use their position to stop the war and enforce negotiations for peace. Special people should carry out this special responsibility.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

War In Gaza: When Grown-Ups Behave Like Children...

My four year old twins quarrel quite often, mostly on petty issues and when I or my wife intervenes after one of them hits the first blow (with a slap, pinch etc), both would scream the same line of defence "HE/SHE STARTED IT!"

Hearing from both warring sides in the ongoing war in Gaza, one would hear the same childish arguments. The Israelis argue they have to attack Gaza because Hamas had broken the ceasefire agreement by firing rockets to southern Israel. But Hamas says it was the Israeli who first broke the ceasefire by organising military raids inside Gaza. Hamas also says they fired the rockets in response to Israeli’s blockade which has severely affected the transportation of essential goods to Gaza. To that, the Israeli says the blockade was necessary to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza and the entry of terrorists into Israeli territory. And Hamas says they have the right to acquire weapons to defend themselves from Israeli military raids. Israel also claims they have the right the expand their military capabilities (with the generous help of the Americans of course) to defend themselves from their hostile Arab neighbours. Military raids, according to Israel are conducted against militant groups and terrorists in Gaza. Hamas says as long as there is Jewish occupation of Palestinian lands, militants have valid reasons to target Israelis. And the Jews argue that Israel is the land of their ancestors hence it belongs to them. The Palestinians obviously disagree and cry out that the land, which is now part of the state of Israel, less than a century ago was their homeland which they were forced to abandon because of the Jewish occupation. To the Jews in Israel, it is not an occupation but merely the return of lands which are rightly theirs as promised by God as proclaimed in the Torah and the Bible. And so it goes, on and on... (read more on the Palestinian case and the Israeli case)

Of course, the points above barely touch the surface of what is in fact a highly complex conflict situation. Nonetheless, one can clearly see that both parties blame the other as the source and instigator of the problem. Hence, neither will concede that it was their fault that the crisis has now fully escalated because both claim they are the victims, and as victims they have the right to defend themselves and retaliate against the enemy by killing them, and killing them all; civilians and combatants, men and women, adult and children.

Do any of these people seriously want peace? As far as I’m concern, all the hotheads in Hamas and the Israeli government should be blamed for this crisis. Time and time again we hear from both sides the argument that they are the victims and they had no choice but to attack. Is that really true?

The real victims are peace-loving civilians from both sides. And the true heroes here are the handful of dedicated and selfless humanitarian workers risking their lives helping the sufferring people.

To the hotheads and violent extremists on both sides, grow up! Kiss and make-up.