Saturday, 28 February 2009

Story of the Reed

"The cry of the flute is indeed fire, not air; He who lacks fire, may he die in despair.

It's a blaze of love that sets the reed on fire; It's the yearning of love that wine boils in desire.

Only the sense-less can the hold the sense so dear; Where can ever the tongue find a better fan than ear."

These are excerpts from Professor Amir Zekrgroo's own translation of the Preface of Rumi’s Mathnawi, the "Ney-Nameh", or the "Story of the Reed" presented yesterday in the second of his series of lectures on ‘Rumi and his Mathnawi’. (Click here to access the original Persian and various English translation of the Ney-Nameh)

The story of the reed begins as a story of pain, the pain of separation from one's habitat and nature; a mythical way of expressing a lover's infinite longing for The Beloved. This represents the deep spirituality of the Sufis, who yearn for none other than God’s love and blessings.

For centuries, people have cut bamboo reeds to make flutes and pens for writing; the former emits the beautiful sound of the wind, and the latter the splendid art of beautiful writings. One is amazed then, how a thin and bland stick could be so useful and soothing.

Professor Zekrgoo contends, the reed symbolises the perfect man, who is hollow of ego and worldly desires. As Muhammad Iqbal once exclaimed: "the ego is partly free, partly determined, and reaches fuller freedom by approaching the Individual who is most free: God."

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Against Post-Conventional Morality

In his theory of morality development, Lawrence Kohlberg proposed that the highest stage of moral reasoning is the post-conventional stage. At this stage, right-or-wrong is decided either through social contract orientation (the will of the majority), or through a universal ethical principles orientation. The latter is an internalised standard where one’s personal conviction, derived from one’s active reasoning; is held supreme regardless of conformity with social mores.

People who I have debated with on the issue of homosexuality would often apply their own personal conviction to argue for its permissibility. In tandem with modern principles of human rights, they would argue that since homosexuals do not cause any harm to their own personal lives or create disorder or anarchy in the society, homosexuals should be allowed to practice their preferred sexual orientation.

The human rational mind is no doubt capable of complex processes and meticulous reasoning but to committed adherents of religions, is still subjected to morality by divinity. We believe in submission to a divine code of law derived from the scriptures and teachings of our religious teachers.

For Muslims, the shari'ah (divine law derived from the Quran and Prophetic traditions) is supreme and its authority is not subjected to personal whims and fancies. As Professor Muhammad Hashim Kamali once wrote:

"In matters which pertain to the dogma of Islam, or those which are regulated by the direct authority of the Quran or Sunnah, criticism, either from Muslims or non-Muslims will not be entertained, as personal or public opinion does not command authority in such matters. Islam is basically a religion of authority, and the values of good and evil, or rights or duties are not determined by reference to public opinion, or popular vote, although these too have a certain role to play in the determination of the ahkam (religious rulings)." (Kamali, M.H., Freedom of Expression in Islam, p.107).

To stand against homosexuality is to follow directly the authority of the Quran. Therefore, to all Muslims, including Muslim clinical psychologists who have been trained to refer to DSM IV (in which homosexuality is not classified as an abnormal behaviour), homosexuality must be prohibited, and for those who have ignorantly acquired such orientation, they must be corrected.

For proponents of liberal ideologies, submission to religious principles is a sign of weakness as the human mind is deemed capable enough to come to its own conclusion on what is right and what is wrong. And the underlying philosophy remains, that unless a behavioural practice is proven to cause harm to other individuals in the society, the practice should be considered legal and permissible no matter how much others may dislike it.

To that, I would invite people to stretch their imagination and apply the same philosophy to another type of sexual behaviour: incestuous relations. If a man decides to have sex with either his mother or his own daughter in the privacy of his own residence, shouldn’t we consider it legal and permissible too since it does not harm other individuals in the society?

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Lessons from Puyi

A few weeks ago, my eyes were glued to the television for two hours watching the History Channel special programme on 'Puyi: The Last Emperor of China'. Aisin-Gioro Puyi, who was forced to abdicate in 1912, was the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty which ruled China for more than 200 years. The Chinese emperor institution however had existed for much longer, since 221 BC with the unification of Chinese territories under the ancient Qin Dynasty.

In my younger more radical years, I used to imagine turning Malaysia into a republic. This is a country where we have not one, but nine kings ruling over the nine Malay royal states in the Federation of Malaysia. My disdain then was based on what I perceived to be a waste of economic resources to maintain the institution and what I observed to be neurotic submissiveness to rulers who have at best mythical claims to their inborn positions. These sentiments were so strong in me that for a number of years I adopted the pen name Megat Seri Rama when writing to various newspapers and magazines.

Now, having read more on Malaysia’s political history, and after internalising a more moderate and accommodating political philosophy, I believe it is important for us to maintain the monarchy as an institution that provides check-and-balance to the executive, especially, upon hearing the words of wisdom from some of the present day monarchs, some of whom have impeccable academic and professional qualifications; on their deep sense of realism on the need to earn the respect of the people.

The current crisis in Perak however has compelled me to reconsider that opinion and revisit my previous radicalism. As a Malay, I respect the role of the Malay Rulers and trust them to always act in the best interest of the people. But when an honourable state government leader is forced to resign due to the works of devious characters and political chameleons, I feel the seething anger of the people and understand why many have now turned against the Ruler. Anyone who reads the messages left on His Royal Highness Sultan of Perak’s official guestbook would realise the explosive magnitude of public anger (the guestbook has now been deactivated).

From the perspective of Malay tradition, these angry reactions are acts of betrayal and blatant shows of disrespect to the Ruler. After all, the Malay Rulers, as did Puyi, are perceived as Rulers with a divine mandate, who must be accorded with respect and reverence of the highest order. The Malay Rulers are descendants of Sang Si Perba; a descendant of Iskandar Zulkarnain, to whom on behalf of the Malay people, Demang Lebar Daun made a sacred oath of loyalty, an oath which bounded the Malays forever as loyal servants of the King. This is the story told in the 'Malay Annals' that justifies the divine mandate of the Malay Rulers.

Let us be honest. This is a myth! Just as the Ummayyah and Abbasid families never had any divine right to kingship, neither do any of our Malay Rulers. Nor do the Al-Saud family is Saudi Arabia, the Al-Sabah family in Kuwait, the Al-Maktoum family in Dubai, and all other monarchs in the world for that matter.

However, we respect and preserve the monarchy tradition to safeguard the interest of the people and to maintain social order. But when the interest of the people is not safeguarded, the role and existence of the Malay royal institution are bound to be questioned.

Millions of Chinese wept when Puyi was forced to abdicate and leave the Forbidden City. Millions of Russians did too when the last Tsar and members of his family were killed by the Bolsheviks. But all these tears for the lost of a historical-cultural institution were powerless to withstand the uprising of the masses.

Let there be no doubt that I do not want to see an uprising against the Malay Rulers. The institution must be preserved as a symbol of Malay-Muslim leadership accorded with the appropriate level of respect. But if the crisis in Perak is not resolved in a fair and just manner, the institution will continue to be ridiculed and questioned. And the consequent tragedy may well alter the social order of the Malaysian society forever.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Politics, Accountability and The Crisis in Perak

One of the common principles in all the great world religions is the principle of accountability. In cyclical religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, the nature of your next life will be determined by your deeds in this current life. In linear religions like Islam and Christianity, all your deeds; known and unknown to others in this world, will be accounted for in judgment day during which according to the Islamic tradition, our limbs and sense organs will testify for all our actions.

With my limited knowledge of Malaysia's constitutional law, it is beyond me to make sense of the legality of the collapse of the Perak state government today. But as a social scientist, I should try to make sense of why and how three members of the Pakatan Rakyat state government made the switch of allegiance to Barisan Nasional. Try as I might, understand I do not.

Some have alleged 'Godfather-like' scenarios where offers that can't be refused were made. These are extrinsic factors that I have no doubt occurred to some extent but without any direct knowledge, I dare not add any details and speculate. But surely, these three PR chaps; who all held executive positions in the PR state government, are adult enough to have reached Piaget's formal operations and Kohlberg's post-conventional stages to comprehend between what is right and wrong, ethical and non-ethical behaviours, and understand the sacred meanings of the words honesty, trust and justice.

It is beyond me to understand how these poor souls can look at themselves in the mirror, and how can they possibly defend their honour and dignity in front of their family members, party supporters and friends. Do they not understand shame, or have they become incapable of shame?

The two PKR state assemblymen or political clowns par excellence, who were previously too ill to come to work and to return home to their families, and had to seek 'specialist treatment' in Pekan, Pahang, were seen smiling from ear-to-ear during the press conference yesterday announcing their defection. And why were they smiling? Could it be that they were proud of their frog-like political stunt, or have they become lunatics who smile for no apparent reasons?

Surely they must know what they've done is wrong. They have betrayed their party leaders and members, colleagues in the state government and legislature, members of their constituents, and more importantly their own conscience (whatever that is left of it). But such is the dual nature of human beings that we are able to, not only perform physical gymnastics but also mental and moral gymnastics.

Defecting is by itself wrong but perhaps to this two clowns it is right when done for a noble cause (for example, to preserve Malay-Muslim dominance on state governance, or to ensure a life-long financial security). To betray your colleagues and voters is obviously wrong too but these sins can surely be extinguished by going for umrah and hajj every year. After all, a prayer performed in masjid-ul haram is equal to 100,000 rewards. Staying for a week in Mecca and performing all the five daily prayers at the sacred mosque will bring a massive total of 3.5 million rewards. Surely that must be enough to 'pay back' for this one tiny act of betrayal. And so they may think. Allahu’alam.

What happened today will forever remain a black mark in Malaysia's political history. Never will we forget, never will we forgive, and never will we want it to happen again. And that goes to you too Brother Anwar Ibrahim. Admit and bear some responsibility for what happened today to salvage your own dignity and credibility.

Those who were wronged today, most notably the honourable and respectable YAB Dato’ Seri Ir. Muhammad Nizar Jamaluddin, will someday have their vengeance and justice served, if not in this world, in the hereafter!