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

Manchester

What’s next for Malaysia? Policies or politics?

As the first rays of the morning sun on the 6th of May 2013 bathed the hallowed grounds of Putrajaya, it was clear that there was no new government. The status quo was preserved. Barisan Nasional (BN) remained in power, albeit with a slightly lower majority compared to 2008. Pakatan Rakyat on the other hand, must feel aggrieved at the very least, considering this was seen by many as their best chance of coming to power.

To say that Malaysia’s 13th General Election was without its usual dramas and suspense would be an insult to the local political landscape. Cries of foul play and alleged incidences of ‘blackouts’ are rife, Pakatan Rakyat claiming this as the major reason why they lost. The allegations have yet to be proven, and the opposition party machinery is hard at work as we speak, trying to build a case of election fraud against EC and BN. The ultimate goal would be to discredit the results in some areas and hopefully give them victory.

BN on the other hand have started a process of ‘national reconciliation’, a term coined by PM Datuk Seri Najib Razak which was undermined to a large extent by the usual Utusan Malaysia headlines with racial undertones. Allegations of election fraud have yet to be proven, but either way it must worry the PM that despite all the spending by Barisan Nasional for this election campaign they still suffered a reduction in majority. The good news is Kedah has fallen to BN (largely due to PAS’ incompetence in that state) and Perak has also not fallen into the opposition’s grasp.

Trapped helplessly in this political quagmire are the rakyat. You, me, your parents, my parents, and that chap who sells your newspapers by the roadside. It is worrying that over the last week or so, a disproportionately small amount of attention has been given by the media to the people who matter the most and how this election result will affect them in the next 5 years. Headlines have been pretty much about political parties’ continuous squabble over power rather than the people who voted for them. I feel politics at times should not matter so much, it’s the policies that count. It’s the policies that make the difference. A perfect example would be the Liberal Democrats in the UK who have now gone down the pecking order (read: UKIP!) after the people called their bluff and actually realized they were just a political party who were not willing to stand by their policies and were more interested in getting into power at all costs. Of course it doesn’t help that they are sleeping in the same bed with the Tories, but this further emphasizes my point that it’s the policies that matter, not the party.

Malaysian politics however is not cut from the same cloth (had to use this expression this week in light of David Moyes taking over at Old Trafford) as other places, nor should it be, as politics are merely reflections of a nation’s history, struggles and culture. We have a unique situation where two of the nation’s biggest parties are largely sentiment-based and not founded on strong traditions of policy-making. The policies tend to come later, once the parties are able to persuade the rakyat that they share the same sentiments. Whether this is largely their fault or not it is hard to say, but I do feel it is largely due to the rakyat’s political maturity, or lack of. The rakyat need to engage with the political issues, and not just trying to benefit from the politicians’ desperation for votes. This lack of political maturity  and conscience is a topic for another day.

Sure enough, after the results were announced Facebook was inundated with various status updates from supporters of both sides, each claiming whatever’s left of bragging rights. I am going to stick my neck out and say that the outcome was actually the best that could have happened to the nation. Yes, Datuk Seri Anwar will not be happy, neither will the PM to a certain extent but on hindsight this is the best result for neutrals and patriots. Despite what the opposition will claim, they are not ready to govern at federal level. Kedah is a perfect example. Even PAS in Kelantan, have actually not done a great deal for the last 20 odd years they are in power, I know because my family are Kelantanese. They are still in power because as I mentioned earlier, Malaysian politics is very sentiment-based.

Pakatan have lots of outstanding individuals, but they lack the structure that makes BN such a well-oiled machine. BN on the other hand have the structure and know-how but have so many incompetent individuals that it is embarrassing. We are not yet robust or mature enough as a society to manage an acute change. Change is greatly needed but needs to come slowly. This result will give the much needed kick up the arse that BN needs, while at the same time allow Pakatan to learn the ropes and mature. End result will be the same i.e. the rakyat will benefit.

Which is the main point really of all of this hullaballoo. The big question for a society is how do you create an ecosystem that continuously benefits the rakyat, makes the nation better and progress? There is no point of having your favourite person in power, if he is absolutely useless in the grand scheme of things.