Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Myth of Eid Al-Adha

Every year as Eid Al-Adha approaches, we are constantly reminded of our obligation to help orphans, the needy and the poor in our community. Some well-to-do Muslims fulfill this obligation by sacrificing whole cattle and distributing some of the meat to those who need it the most. Others who cannot quite afford whole cattle chip in RM300 in groups of sevens so that together they can achieve the same objective. Those who cannot even fork out RM300 dwell in the thought that the least that they can do is remember and sympathize with the poor in the spirit of Eid Al-Adha, hoping that God will still reward them for their sincere thought.

As our community grows more prosperous and self-reliant, we decide to reach out to other impoverished communities in the local district, the state, the whole country and eventually the world. It appeases our consciences to know that all over the world, people living in poverty finally have access to the most fundamental human right: the need to satisfy their hunger. Each year on the eve of Eid Al-Adha, we feast with our family and friends, thinking that all the problems of the poor, like Aminah and her three children, are solved once and for all.

As time goes by, Aminah and her children have all but consumed all the meat donated to them. Abandoned by her former husband who left for a younger woman, Aminah lives another day weaving ketupat to make ends meet. The income she earns is hardly sufficient to buy a cup of rice and some dried fish to feed her and her three kids. Like any other parent, Aminah needs to buy new clothes and support her two children through school, not to mention fixing the leaking roof and the torturous nights spent soaking in the rain. Until the next zakat or qurban donation arrives, she has no money for such "luxury". Lacking any other recourse, she decides to borrow some money from the local moneylender, or ah long.

As the global oil prices are on the rise, other basic consumer goods soon follow the same trend. Soon after, the inflation rises in tandem. Aminah, who has only heard of gasoline-sucking automobiles from her neighbors who have been to the city, is hard-pressed because she has to buy ketupat leaves at a higher price. The following week, when the ah long comes knocking at the door to collect the next installment, she has absolutely no money to give him. When the zakat donation arrives three weeks later, Aminah finally manages to settle her first installment, but only after losing two of her fingers and her dignity to the sexually-deprived ah long.

The fictional story presented above merely represents the tip of the iceberg of the suffering experienced by millions of impoverished families all over the world. Despite billions of dollars in aid donations awarded throughout the years, 1.1 billion people are still living on less than one dollar (USD) a day. While poverty has somewhat improved in some parts of the world, the situation has actually become worse for people in Sub-Saharan Africa, many of which are Muslims. Civil wars, droughts, natural disasters, widespread corruption and killer diseases only exacerbate their already grave conditions. This is happening amidst the backdrop of all the wonderful technologies enjoyed by people in more developed countries. This is happening despite millions of economists trained in elegant economic theories every year to help humanity grow and prosper. This is happening despite billions of dollars in oil revenues pumped out from oil fields in wealthy Middle East kingdoms each year.

While the status quo only serves to empower and enrich the wealthy, the destitute are forsaken and left far behind. Occasionally, in the name of charity and religion, a minuscule portion of the generated wealth is channeled to numerous international aid programs. Unfortunately, these are often nothing but a front for government contractors to siphon the resources away from those who need them the most. This so-called development breeds a new species of "bloodthirsty" capitalists whose primary goal is to maximize their profits with very little regard to their original goal of combating poverty. They subject the destitute to oppressive job schemes and extremely marginal distribution deals that create unnecessary dependencies on the wealthy elite. While the poor may benefit indirectly from the infrastructure building, training programs and financial aids, their standard of living has actually become worse.

All this goes to show our constant failure in eradicating poverty on a global scale. We have to get back to the drawing board and ponder on the shortcomings of the current economic system that only serve to make "the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer". We have to revise and upgrade our approach to charity, be it in the form of alms (zakat), cattle sacrifice (qurban) or voluntary charity (sadaqa). Think about how the donations received by families like Aminah's can possibly provide them with a sustainable and decent living. Think about how the meat and RM500 they receive for qurban and zakat each year are going to help them survive in the coming weeks and months. While the donations may provide them with a financial cushion on a short term basis, they may continue to starve once they eventually run out of food and aid money. Most of the time, they cannot afford to wait until the next round of donations to buy some rice and dried fish.

Charity, in its traditional form of feeding the hungry and giving money to the penniless, might have been relevant centuries ago. Nowadays with the introduction of welfare programs and orphanages, orphans are now able to lead decent lives. Sure, they may long for the love and affection of their deceased parents, but at the very least they are well fed, sheltered, dressed, schooled and surrounded by many friends and teachers. Instead, on special occasions like Eid and aqiqa, we keep inviting them to our house to feed them sumptuous meals and shower them with material gifts. On the other hand, the hardcore poor are only awarded a temporary reprieve by the marginal monetary aids and some food coupons distributed by the aid agencies. But will they live another day once the money is spent on settling debts, fixing the leaking roof and buying raw materials at ever increasing costs?

The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Muhammad Yunus, has the following to say about charity:

"When we want to help the poor, we usually offer them charity. Most often we use charity to avoid recognizing the problem and finding a solution for it. Charity becomes a way to shrug off our responsibility. But charity is no solution to poverty. Charity only perpetuates poverty by taking the initiative away from the poor. Charity allows us to go ahead with our own lives without worrying about the lives of the poor. Charity appeases our consciences."

All this calls for a new model upon which our economy should be based. One such model is the one introduced by the Grameen Bank founded by Muhammad Yunus in his native Bangladesh. In this social-capitalist model, the poor are empowered by giving them collateral-free micro-credit loans with very flexible and forgiving repayment schemes. While the loan amounts (ranging from as little as five dollars to as much as 5,000 dollars) may seem negligible to many of us, they actually mean the world to the poor and desperate borrowers. Often enough these people are starving simply for the lack of five dollars to buy some chickens or cheap raw materials to make ornaments or scarves. These loans, while small, literally provide them with a new lease of life.

Such model, while unconventional and counter intuitive to many, brings many benefits to the destitute. Among others, these include:
  1. The flexible repayment schemes are far from being burdensome to the borrowers. Each loan is spread over the course of a year, and borrowers are required to make weekly repayments including a very small amount of interest to cover administrative costs. Should a borrower default her installments, she is usually forgiven while the bank is willing to negotiate a more flexible repayment scheme spread over a longer period of time. Not just that, but the bank also provides free consultation to the borrowers in order to help them overcome their financial problems and regain their confidence in repaying their loans.
  2. Since the bank is 93% owned by the borrowers, the issue of usurious practices do not arise, since the interests paid to the bank essentially end up in the hands of the borrowers themselves. Furthermore, the interests charged are very nominal and utilized to help maintain its workforce and extend more loans to even more poor people in other impoverished parts of Bangladesh. The bank has so far managed to stay true to its primary goal, which is to eradicate poverty first and perhaps make some profits along the way. Compare this to the so-called Islamic banks that are nothing but a front for the conventional greed-based banking framework that systematically deceives customers behind the veil of bastardized sharia principles.
  3. It builds a culture of self-reliance among the borrowers as an alternative to perpetually relying on government subsidies and financial aids. Being able to make weekly repayments regularly gives the borrowers a sense of self-worth and discipline. It builds up their self esteem and confidence in their capabilities and skills, something they never thought existed before.
  4. Having access to micro-credit loans provides them with a sustainable income in the long run. If previously they were perpetually stuck in a vicious cycle of starvation and mounting debts, now they are much more in control of their cash flow. With a more stable cash flow comes the confidence to expand their micro businesses on a larger scale. The children are no longer malnourished, the leaking roof is finally fixed and they can now cut out the middlemen and earn substantially more from their hard work.
  5. Perhaps the single most impressive achievement brought about by Grameen Bank's social-capitalist evolution is the immense empowerment of women. These women, most of them hard-pressed single mothers, wives who were subjugated by their husbands and oppressed by the overly strict interpretation of the sharia, were suddenly brought back to life. They are finally able to sustain a small but meaningful living for her and the children. Even more astonishing is the fact that over 95% of all borrowers are women who not only hold a much higher social status, but also participate actively in local and national elections.
Thanks to such financial institution that is genuinely fighting for the rights of the destitute and disenfranchised, over 50 millions hardcore poor families all over the world now have access to not just income-generation loans, but also insurance, housing, education and personal loans. Being forsaken by conventional and the so-called Islamic financial institutions for a large part of history, these hardcore poor people are now able to lead decent and dignified lives. With near perfect repayment rates (98-100%) throughout all of its branches, Grameen Bank has proven time and again that the poor are in fact the best at repaying their loans. Compare this to the dismal records consistently shown by conventional and Islamic banks that are still struggling with large amounts of non-performing loans (NPL) given mostly to the wealthy elite. It simply cannot get more ironic than that.

While this social-capitalism concept may seem foreign to someone coming from a capitalist background, it should be quite familiar to all Muslims. Contrary to capitalism's primary goal of maximizing profit above all else, sharia principles place great importance on the empowerment of the poor through the prohibition of usury (riba') and oppressive repayment schemes. On the other extreme, while Marxism imposes strict distribution of wealth without leaving any room for competition and free market, sharia actually promotes a free market and profit-seeking as long as they do not run counter to the primary goal of helping the poor. If anything, social-capitalism is essentially based on true sharia principles adopted by great Islamic civilizations throughout history.

Debunking the myth of Eid Al-Adha whose central theme is the notion that cattle sacrificing (qurban) significantly improves the lives of the poor falls on our shoulders. While qurban may help alleviate the travails of the poor on a temporary basis, much more needs to be done. Perhaps we should broaden the definition of alms, qurban and sadaqa to include providing the destitute with micro-credit loans that have been proven to provide them with a sustainable income in the long run. As the poor grow more and more self-reliant, much less will be spent on charity and aid programs, the proceeds of which may be channeled to other development programs. As the poor prosper, the economy as a whole will undoubtedly benefit directly from it.

Just like the old Chinese saying, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."

Eid mubarak.

This article is inspired by the book entitled "Banker to the Poor" written by Nobel laureate, Muhammad Yunus.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Of Violence and Magicians

It is funny how Pope Benedict XVI did not mention the atrocities masterminded by his 11th century predecessor (Pope Urban II during the First Crusade) when giving a speech about how Islam was spread by the sword. It is even funnier to witness the ever so predictable reactions Muslims worldwide have given since the controversial remarks took place. All in all, it all adds up to yet another continuation in the vicious cycle of conflict involving the two most influential religions on earth, a conflict that has persisted for over a millennium primarily due to misunderstanding and ignorance.

Amidst this conflict lies the fact that all monotheistic and scriptural religions were, at the time of their revelation, pure and unadulterated. Over time, there were bound to be innovations and corrupt practices incorporated into them. The original teachings were supplanted by misguided ones, their original message altered and the true essence buried forever. While we Muslims believe that Judaism and Christianity have suffered that fate long ago, many of us do not realize that Islam is gradually sinking into the same abyss of corruption. Part of the problem stems from our misunderstanding of other religions and lack of knowledge about their history. If we were to avoid the same fate, it only makes sense for us to learn more about these religions and the factors that brought about their degradation. One such religion from which much can be learned is Zoroastrianism.

Background and History

Contrary to popular beliefs, Zoroastrianism, or is better known as Majusi in the Muslim world, is not a fire-worshipping pagan religion. In fact, it is considered to be the first monotheistic religion that predates the three Abrahamaic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). It arose from the teachings of Prophet Zoroaster, the Persian prophet who lived around 1500BC.

Like Muslims, Christians and Jews, Zoroastrians believe in one unbegotten God (Ahura Mazda) from which everything in the universe originates. They believe in Creation, Judgment Day, heaven and hell, the soul's afterlife and the appearance of a savior before the end of time, just like we Muslims do. And unlike what we have learned from traditional Islamic sources, Zoroastrians are not fire worshippers. Rather, fire is simply a symbol of Ahura Mazda, much as the cross is the symbol of Christianity. Therefore, claiming that Zoroastrians worship fire is as absurd as saying that Christians worship the cross.

However, it is important to note that fire did not become part of Zoroastrianism until the arrival of Jesus 1500 years later, the details of which will be explained later in this article.

Cyrus the Great and the Spread of Zoroastrianism

Another common misconception that Muslims have is regarding the real identity of Zulkarnain. More and more Islamic scholars have come to the conclusion that Alexander the Great is not the Zulkarnain mentioned in the Quran. Of all the conquerors who reigned before the advent of the Quran, there is no one to whom the attributes of Zulkarnain are most fitting other than the Persian Emperor, Cyrus the Great.

Cyrus the Great was the one responsible for the spread of Zoroastrianism through out his empire until its emergence as the de facto religion of the Kingdom of Persia. Being a fervent believer in the oneness of God (tauhid), not only did he rule Persia justly but he also freed the Israelites who were living in captivity in Babylon and ordered the rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem so that God could once more be worshipped in place of pagan gods. His success as the uniter of the kingdoms of Persia and Media afforded him the title the "two-horned one", or Zulkarnain.

People of the Book

While orthodox Muslims (with the exception of Malays due to reasons beyond yours truly) believe that Jews, Christians and Sabians constitute the People of the Book, some Muslim scholars argue that Zoroastrians should also be included. This argument stems from Surah Al-Hajj verse 17, in which Allah says:

Those who believe (in the Qur-an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians, Christians, Magians, and Polytheists, Allah will judge between them on the Day of Judgment: for Allah is witness of all things.

The Magians (or Majusi), during the advent of Islam, were in fact followers of Zoroastrianism. Even Imam Malik himself had argued that since the Magians are specifically mentioned alongside the Jews and Christians, they are in fact among the People of the Book. Although the holy scripture of Zoroastrianism, Avesta, is not among Islam's four holy books, the fact that Zoroastrianism is the monotheistic precursor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam certainly earns it our reconsideration.

Magians and the Fire Temple

The Magians were an ancient Persian tribe who prior to Cyrus the Great's era, were the people responsible for religious and funerary practices. The word "Magi" is the origin of the English word "magic", which explains why some people in the English speaking world refer to the Magians as sorcerers and wizards. After the formation of the united Kingdom of Persia by Cyrus the Great and the eventual eminence of Zoroastrianism, the Magians were driven into obscurity due to their pagan beliefs and practices. Even though they would eventually embrace Zoroastrianism later on, they did not do so without altering its original teachings, as described in one of Marco Polo's writings:

"He [the infant Jesus] presented to them [the Magi] a closed box, desiring them not to open it till their return home. After having traveled a number of days, however, they were curious to see what was in the box, and opened it, when they found only a stone, which was meant to express that they should remain firm in the faith which they had received. They did not understand this meaning, and, despising the gift, threw it into a well, when immediately a great fire came down from heaven, and began to burn brightly. When they saw this wonder, they were quite astonished, and repented that they had thrown away the stone. They, however, took a portion of the fire, carried it to their country, and placed it in their church, where they kept it continually burning. They revere it as a god, and use it for burning all their sacrifices; and when at any time it goes out, they repair to that well, where the fire is never extinguished, and from it bring a fresh supply. This is what all the people of that country tell, and Messer Marco was assured of it by those of the castle, and therefore it is truth."
- Marco Polo, Travels

The text above clearly explains how the Magians, much like their Jewish and Christian counterparts, went astray from their original religion by incorporating a paganistic element into it. Although fire was regarded as a mere manifestation of God, there were bound to be misguided followers who would soon return to their pagan roots and mistake fire as the son of God.


Whether it is Saint Paul's idea of the divinity of Jesus, Emperor Constantine I's introduction of the paganistic concept of Holy Trinity, or the triumph of the Talmuds over Torah and Psalms, much can be learned from our Abrahamaic and Zoroastrian counterparts in the hope that we Muslims can avoid the same pitfall. This is especially relevant in this day and age where Islam has become synonymous with barbarism and violence, while more and more false practices have become more or less part of its new fabric.

And in our overzealous denunciation of other religions, much more can be studied about them so that we do not make unwarranted and uninformed statements. Not only will this further solidify our faith in Islam but it will also help us live in harmony along side Christians and Jews, much like our Muslim ancestors did during the times of Saladin and the great Ottoman Empire.

And do not dispute with the followers of the Book except by what is best, except those of them who act unjustly, and say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our God and your God is One, and to Him do we submit.
- Al-'Ankabut, verse 46

Monday, September 11, 2006

The West's Whipping Boys

Amidst the backdrop of the fifth anniversary of September 11 and the recent developments surrounding Iran and Iraq, I decided to conduct a research on the Iran-Iraq War in the hopes of finding a parallelism between the current events and those of two decades ago. Interestingly enough, I came across some startling facts which for some strange reason had previously eluded me.

Fact 1
While it is no secret that the United States and Israel were the main arm suppliers to Iran during Reza Pahlavi's era, what struck me as extremely odd was the fact that the two "love birds" managed to maintain a similar relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. In spite of its open "marriage" with Iraq, the United States and its sidekick (read: Israel) secretly kept a mistress (read: Iran) while supplying her with jet fighters, ammunitions and air-to-air missiles just to name a few.

Imagine Batman (and Robin) being in a relationship with Batwoman, who is feuding with Catwoman, who in turn is having a secret affair with Batman. While the two femme fatale neighbors are too busy being in a catfight, Batman and Robin break into their houses, steal their belongings, escape undetected and finally laugh their collective butt off. Now if you think that would make a stupid Batman installment, think again.

Fact 2
Iran and Iraq cumulatively spent an estimated US$1.2 trillion during the whole course of the war. And what was the return on invesment (ROI) you may ask? Close to two million people dead, thousands of war survivors suffering from the "Gulf War Syndrome" caused by the widespread use of chemical weapons, extremely devastated economies and totally indescribable mutually assured destruction, either infrastructurally, psychologically or physiologically. Oh, did I mention that at the same time, the West had an extra US$1.2 trillion bonanza to add to their already bulging coffers?

Now imagine what both nations could have achieved with US$1.2 trillion if they were to work with each other. For starters, they could have launched the Muslim version of the War on Terror against the ultimate terrorist state, Israel. Or they could have bought all the gold bars in the world and start exclusively trading in it, effectively kicking the American dollar and economy in the butt once and for all. Or they could have flooded Hollywood with countless movies depicting the atrocities committed by Christian, Jewish and godless infidels alike in which Muslims were the victims (read: the Crusade, the Bosnian War and some made up massacre horrifying enough to rival the Holocaust).

So much could have been achieved with US$1.2 trillion, but instead they chose to kill each other, in their own backyard nonetheless.

Fact 3
Interestingly enough, three of Israel's most high ranking Israeli officials are of Persian descent. They are Moshe Katsav (the current President of Israel), Shaul Mofaz (the current Deputy Prime Minister of Israel) and Dan Halutz (the current Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff). While their origin may have just been a pure coincidence (Persia is one of the Diasporas), it is still an interesting fact to note, especially since they have a lot in common. All of them were born into Iranian-Jewish families in Iran. All of them emigrated to Israel in the 1950's. All are directly involved in the Middle East conflict, either through the military or the government.

Now bring on the conspiracy theories.

Fact 4
Although not directly related to the Iran-Iraq War, this last fact concerns all of us Muslims. As if we have not learned from the stupidity of the Iraqis and Iranians, we Muslims are still carrying on their fine tradition of stupidity up to this day. In Malaysia, PAS and UMNO are still bent on each other's destruction with no end in sight. In Pakistan and Iraq, Sunnis are still slaughtering Shiites for breakfast. While in Sudan, Arab Janjaweed are still slaughtering black Muslims for lunch, dinner and supper.

If there is one thing I have learned from the Iran-Iraq War, it is this; if we Muslims really want to stop being the whipping boys of the West, we should start by putting an end to all the infightings that are beleaguring the Muslim world once and for all. Imagine the amount of money and time we can save, the number of innocent lives we can spare and the amount of progress we can achieve, if only we all try to get along with each other.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Turban in Islam Redux

From my discussions with a few readers and responses that I have received (in this forum and elsewhere), it is apparent to me that many of you fail to get the bigger picture of what I try to convey in my previous article. Perhaps I should have not beat around the bush and just cut to the chase.

Like I have specifically mentioned in the first installment, there is no denying that wearing turban is part of the Sunnah. What is called into question is its significance in comparison to other more important aspects of Islam that are often neglected. The collection of Sahih Ahadith does contain a number of accounts describing how Muhammad (P.B.U.H) did wear turban regularly, but that is about it.

Unfortunately, we often forget that Islam also promotes many other things, things that are much bigger than turbans, beard, robes and endless tahlils.

Islam teaches us to treat our neighbors well, help the poor and needy and befriend people of all races and religions. It teaches us to be good drivers and give way to pedestrians, not to drive like maniacs beating traffic lights and cutting queues. It preaches about the importance of being a perpetual student constantly on the look out for a plethora of knowledge in science, philosophy, psychology, mathematics and politics. It encourages us to study Allah's real miracles, miracles that are found in the sublime "design" of nature, not in a piece of wood with Allah's name "magically" carved in it. It also reminds all Muslims, Shiites or Sunnis, turban-wearing or jeans-donning alike, to always be united against all odds, not to be divisive and argue over petty issues and small differences.

Despite all this, what most of us tend to focus on is the externals, the mere appearance of Islam, the one eye of Dajjal. The underlying substance is disregarded, cast aside as if it is shallow and unimportant.

We often tell our children to recite the Quran, but we seldom ask them to study what it means. We always tell our kids to perform daily prayers, but we never expect them to know their significance. We never forget to make sure that our children never miss a single day of fasting in Ramadhan, but we seldom invite them to ponder about the science and rationale behind fasting. We talk to our children about good and evil, but we never remind them that ghosts and goblins are pure superstitions. We tell our children the do's and dont's in Islam, but we never entice them to study why Allah has put them in place. We teach a lot of things about Islam to our children, but we always forget to make them thought provoking and interesting enough so that they will be enticed into learning more about it.

In essence, we teach our children to follow and listen, not to think and question.

Some of you may think that I am not qualified enough to talk about Islam, considering the fact that I do not have a college degree in Islamic Studies and the like. But I do know one thing, and that is I do not even need a PhD to figure out that the Muslim world is in a very deep and serious crisis. From Malaysia to Lebanon, Palestine and the Americas, Muslims all over the world are being slaughtered and massacred by rocket launchers and Apaches, while the more fortunate ones harassed and assaulted on the streets. Islamic values are being trampled and morality nullified. Islamic countries are among the poorest in the world, with their people starving to death and struggling with a multitude of diseases like AIDS and ebola. Muslim economies are at the mercy of the Western economic powerhouses, where a tiny increase in the oil prices or currencies will trigger monumental effects on our foreign reserves and consumer price index.

All these are beleaguring us and yet we are absolutely powerless and helpless to do anything. The most that we can do is convene an emergency OIC meeting to pass a resolution to condemn Israel's continuing atrocities in Lebanon and beyond.

All these are beleaguring us and yet we still argue about petty things that only serve to divide us further into deterioration. Instead, we should start asking ourselves what is actually wrong with Muslims nowadays?

Take for example the Lina Joy apostasy case. In a show of solidarity and unity, tens of thousands of Muslims gathered in Masjid Wilayah to urge the judiciary and government to rule against Lina Joy with the future of Islam and the Syariah Court at stake. Instead of crying foul and citing countless international conspiracies, why not ask ourselves why Lina Joy and 100,000 other Muslims are leaving Islam in droves? What exactly is the root cause of this worrying trend? Is it the education system or the negative image portrayed by Muslims in general? Have we gotten our Islamic fundamentals all wrong? If the Federal Court rules against Lina Joy, what are the real implications? Sure, such ruling will defend the sanctity and relevance of Islamic law in our country, but it will do very little to convince Lina Joy and her 100,000 compatriots to return to Islam and recover their faith in the religion.

We should begin taking a more proactive approach to such problem instead of being reactive when it is all too little too late. We should also start to recognize the humongous elephant sitting in front of our eyes, instead of zooming in on a microscopic ant across the Pacific.

These are the questions of utmost importance that we Muslims should ask ourselves, not whether Nordiana is dating someone else in the aftermath of her break up with Mawi, or how frustrated our boss is upon hearing that Siti Nurhaliza is getting married to a datuk.

I have said it before, and I will say it again. Islam is a religion of reason that encourages science and technology. There are hundreds of verses in the Quran that invite us to think and reason, not about wearing turbans and robes. With all due respect to Muhammad (P.B.U.H) and the rest of the turban-wearing Muslims, all the turbans in the world will not help us defend against Israel and its allies when they finally take over the world and lead us into oblivion. Only in a solid understanding in original Islam, a wealth of knowledge and wisdom and an army of quality Muslims will we find solace in the current disarray. We are at war, so let us start anew.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Turban in Islam

Please refer to the following news article:

Islam is not about turban and beard

From my research, discussions and debates with people of various backgrounds, I agree with many of you in that the real issue in this controversial case is whether the right of individuals to wear headgear is at stake. On top of that, the question of whether this type of lawsuit falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Court is also one of the major talking points.

However, I am not really interested in the aforementioned issues nor the political or legal ramifications surrounding them, which in my opinion only serve as a moot point. What I am more interested in is whether wearing turban is an Islamic practice in the first place.

Before I begin, it is important to note that my intention is not to question or lambaste the age-old Islamic practices and belief. Rather I am honestly trying to engage ourselves in a healthy intellectual discourse that has nothing to do with politics. That said, I invite you to make corrections on any erroneous or inaccurate claims that I am about to make. I am here to learn, and I strongly believe that many of you readers are wise men who possess a wealth of invaluable knowledge to offer.

If we study the "science" and history behind turban beyond what most of us already know, it seems obvious that wearing turban is far from being exclusively Islamic, let alone Arab. People of diverse cultures, particularly in the Middle East, Africa, Central and South Asia all regard turbans as part of their custom. Conventional wisdom suggests that the reasons for wearing turban vary greatly. Many Africans wear it to keep desert sand out of their faces and the more nomadic members of African tribes use turbans to disguise themselves from their enemies. Indian gentlemen wear turbans as a symbol of their wealth, caste and profession, while Turks also don them for similar reasons. If Sikh men wear turbans for purely religious purposes, Arab, Afghan and Persian gentlemen use them for a mixture of religious, cultural and geographical reasons.

If historical, sociological and anthropological knowledge were any indication, wearing turban can safely be ruled out as an Islamic practice. However, we have so far overlooked the Quran and Hadith in determining whether it is indeed Islamic. While the Quran makes absolutely no mention about turbans, the authentic Ahadith (Sahih Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud and Malik) hardly indicate any significance that turban has in Islam beyond the fact that Muslims are not allowed to wear it while in the state of Ihram. Unfortunately, what we often hear and choose to believe is a collection of weak Ahadith glorifying turbans and quoted as if they were authentic.

While there is no question about whether wearing turban is part of the Sunnah, the real issue remains whether it holds special significance in Islam. Even though it is true that some parts of the Sunnah are more significant than others, wearing turban does not appear to me as being one of them. Some of you may hate me for saying this, but I personally agree with the judge for commenting that not everything that Muhammad did has to be followed. The Prophet did countless things during the course of his life, and it is simply impossible for us to emulate each and every one of them, especially since we live in a totally different era that renders many of his deeds impractical.

In my humble opinion, excessive obsession with and blindly emulating Muhammad border on idolatry, which is a grave sin in Islam. I see Muhammad as my reference, not an idol. The sole object of my devotion is Allah, while Muhammad was merely one of His many messengers. Muslims often forget that Muhammad did not establish Islam, he merely completed it. Therefore it is no surprise that many Muslims all over the world were united in blind rage when the infamous caricatures of Muhammad were made public recently, while writings and other forms of mockery on Abraham, David, Solomon and Jesus were utterly disregarded.

What appeared initially as a mere question of religious attire leads to a bigger and more important question: have we been looking at the mere appearance of Islam while neglecting its underlying form? Many modern Muslims scholars believe that Dajjal or the Antichrist is an allegory (not a creature or some scary monster as Muslims widely believe) which is essentially an embodiment of evil and ignorance prevalent during the End of Days. In many versions of the Ahadith, the Antichrist is described as being one-eyed, which is a metaphor for mankind's obsession with physical appearances (materialism) while neglecting the underlying form (substance).

There is plenty of evidence to support the above prophecy, and we really do not need to look that far and deep in order to verify it. Mankind in general makes the pursuit of materialism its ultimate goal above morality and kindness. More and more Muslims are placing greater importance on physical appearance and false religious rituals above Aqidah, Tawhid and Akhlaq. We perform all obligatory religious rituals that are expected of us without understanding what they entail. As if we have not learned from the fallacy that confuses the Arab culture with Islam, Malays equate conversion to Islam with being Malay or "masuk Melayu". On each Friday (which is Islam's holiest day, not Malay's), male and female Muslims don baju melayu and baju kurung thinking that they have something to do with Islam. When we need to perform daily prayers, the elders tell us to put on kain pelikat as if wearing a clean and sterile pair of Dockers long pants does not quite cut it. And when we do not wear songkok to prayers, some imams call us fasiq.

To make matters worse, when a group of enlightened and educated Muslims (Salafis, Qutbi and Wahhabis) attempt to abolish many false practices (bid'a) that have become synonymous with Islam, we call them deviant and kafir just because they are trying to purify and restore original Islam.

Perhaps it would be fitting for me to sum up my whole point with a personal tale. I personally know a few Muslim fellows (Americans, Malaysians, Sudanese, etc) who are considered "pious" and never fail to don their favorite headgear. One of them used to tell me once, "Every time before I go drinking and nightclubbing, I will never miss reciting surah Al-Yasin after Isha' prayers."


Monday, January 30, 2006

Miracles and Superstitions

IMHO, many people tend to misunderstand my point due to their predisposition to conservatism and the traditional way of thinking.

It is certainly not my prerogative to invalidate or debunk true miracles. After all, who am I to deny the divine prerogative of the Master of the Universe?

Miracles do happen. However, it is important to differentiate between a miracle and a bizarre occurence.

A miracle happens when something occurs without any plausible explanation, or cause. For instance, when a shadow is observed without being cast by any source of light, then it can be called a miracle, since it is categorically an effect without a cause. The laws of physics cannot dictate that God must create light before there can be any shadow, since physics is but a manifestation of His infinite power. Physics is totally at His disposal, therefore He is certainly not bound by it.

On the other hand, there are phenomena that are considered bizarre, like hallucinations and tornados for instance. All scientists admit that they understand very little about these phenomena, but that does not in any way mean that they are devoid of any plausible scientific cause. Rather, it may simply mean that the answers have eluded scientists thus far due to the sheer difficulty of putting them "under the microscope" or lack of funding. Rest assured that these are phenomena that God has created in order for us to study and ponder about His infinite wisdom and power, and subsequently strengthen our faith in Him.

The bottom line is that we may see and hear things that are not there, but that does not necessarily mean that they are paranormal and should be attributed to ghosts and evil spirits. Ironically, we keep saying how superstitious Chinese and Indians are, without realizing that we
Malays are actually no better than them. There is no place for superstitions in Islam, and we all should know better.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Miracles Debunked - Follow Up

Just to clarify a couple of things in the article that I wrote:

1. By "evolution", I am not referring to the aspects of the theory of evolution that have to do with natural selection and random mutation. Rather, I am referring to the macro-evolutionary transformation and variation of non-human species. After all, this universe is far too complex for it to be attributed to some "random number generator" or "fully-autonomous nature" of some sort. Even Einstein used to say once that "God does not play dice with the universe", and Isaac Newton was once quoted as saying that "God periodically intervened to keep the universe going on track".

2. I do not deny the possibility of miracles occuring. After all, if God could create this extremely complex universe, it would be extremely trivial for Him to create miracles out of nothing. Rather, all I am saying is that we should stop labelling everything unfathomable as a miracle. Instead of merely being awestruck by a strange phenomenon, why not try to study it, ask questions and discuss it scientifically. The moment we stop thinking and asking questions is the moment we all become useless.