These are worrying times.

When I was growing up, we had compulsory religious classes to attend in the afternoon after school. I grew up in Kelantan, which at the time called these classes Kelas Agama dan Fardhu Ain (KAFA). There were similar versions elsewhere in the country. We were taught the basic concepts of Islam and learnt how to read Arabic and the Quran, as well as some Seerah (Islamic history). It was very didactic as I recall it, and no one really asked inquisitive questions. Partly because we were 10 year old boys and just wanted to go out and do PE, but also because that wasn’t high on the teacher’s priority list. There was a great emphasis on rituals and not a lot of reflection on the essence of the religion.

Following 6 years of these lessons in primary school, we all went our separate ways to secondary school and our understanding of Islam had pretty much been shaped by then. I was one of the lucky few as I had more exposure at home and had the luxury of a private Islamic education as well in my early years which gave me a different perspective on things. My parents were also not your typical suburban Malay folk in the sense that they encouraged “the difficult questions” at home. Again, I was fortunate to spend my secondary school in a boarding school and was exposed to different thought processes at an early age.

The events and furore in the last week in Malaysia surrounding the porcine DNA found in Cadbury chocolates that were certified as “halal” by JAKIM has made me realise that the way Islam is taught in Malaysia needs to change in order that we gain a better understanding. The beauty of Islam is that there are certain sets of rules that are absolute, but there is so much that is open to interpretation while maintaing the basic principles, as God in all His Wisdom knew that the 21st century world will pose different challenges to the Muslims compared to 7th century Arabia. It is then fitting that the first ever verse revealed in the Quran is “Read! In the name of your Lord who created!” and not “Pray” or “Fast”. This reflects the great emphasis on knowledge and evidence in the Islamic religion; in a way it is a very scientific religion. Narration of hadeeth for instance, is another display of evidence-base at work that was suitable for its time.

I feel that the days where you are entirely spoon fed religious knowledge is gone. Children need to be taught not only the matters concerning acts of worship, but also what the overarching aim of Islam is. They need to be able to see the bigger picture and understand the essence of Islam and the maqasid (purpose) rather than just the rituals. “Difficult questions” should be encouraged in class and discussed in an intellectual and supervised manner. The old adage of “we can’t teach the people things that are too complex as it will confuse them” just does not make sense anymore as even without that, it seems they are more confused by the day and information is freely available.

I fear that if this is not addressed soon, there will be a growing chasm between the educated/enlightened and the less enlightened on Islam. And history has reminded us time and time again that whenever that happens, it is never good..

28 May 2014

29 Rejab 1435 Hijrah