Malay-Muslims and the ‘Perfect Religion Syndrome’

September 17, 2010

by Prof Dr Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasi (September 16, 2010)

COMMENT The main purpose of this essay is to explain what I term as the ‘arrogance’ of many Malay-Muslims in reacting to certain religious issues that have plagued the existence of Malaysia since her independence half a century ago.

Muslim Malays are suffering from what I term as the “perfect religion syndrome”. This means that Muslims, especially Malays, feel that their religion is the best and that other people of many faiths are “wrong”, always out to convert the Muslims and trying to politically and militarily dominate Muslims, wherever they are.

In other words, non-Muslims are kafir and therefore the sworn enemies of Islam. Malays also feel that it is their jihad, or solemn responsibility, to protect Islam at all costs.

Everyone who is not Muslim is suspect and especially so if they are non-Malays. I think this sums up pretty much how Malays generally feel in this country.

The Malays have been brought up by the national school curriculum, the ceramah or lectures of the ustaz or religious teachers, religious television shows and of course the religious scholar-politicians of PAS and UMNO. The Malays do not “read” about Islam, for reading seems to be synonymous with people who are “astray”.

Islam as part of history of civilisation

Of all the major religions of the world, Islam is the youngest. Muslims celebrate this fact by stating it is therefore the most up-to-date religion and that others are just “old hat”. For those unschooled in the religion’s history, Islam is, according to Muslim historians, part of the Semitic religion, with its parent religions in Judaism and Christianity.

Islam is tied to Judaism and Christianity by the line of the Prophet Ismail or Ishmael, the son of the famed Prophet Abraham or Ibrahim. So Islam is tied to the two great religions since Isa or Jesus also came from the long line of the prophets from the lineage of Ishak down to his mother Mary or Maryam or Miriam.

Both the Quran and the Bible narrate the story of Mary and her miraculous birth, again both attesting to this undisputed fact. The Jews of course deny the divinity of Jesus by modern Christians and the Prophethood of Isa by Muslims.

As one can see, the stories of the Quran, the Bible and the Torah are like three rival siblings, telling three slightly different versions of stories concerning one simple issue or incident. The three siblings choose to quarrel about slight differences whilst forgetting they all came from the same father, Abraham.

What then of Islam’s relationship to other religions? What is Islam’s position vis-a-vis say, Buddhism?

Messengers from God

Muslims unanimously agree that there have been two different kinds of messengers from God. One is the rasul, who number around 300, and the other is the nabi, who number in the hundreds of thousands.

The main difference between a nabi and a rasul is that the rasul is supposed to spread the revelations from God to all human societies and engage directly in the socio-political scene of each age.

The nabi, on the other hand, is given revelation but not required to engage in the spreading of the message. They are there probably to give aid to the rasul or to act as intermediate carriers of the message between the periods of prophethood or rasullullah.

The eminent scholar Prof Dr Hamka of Indonesia, in his Tafsir al Azhar, made a commentary that perhaps Buddha was one of the nabi, as he spent his whole life seeking enlightenment but never involved himself directly in politics and nation-building.

The Prophet Muhammad, Isa and Moses confronted the establishment and engaged in political discourses and Muhammad even went on many military campaigns against tribes as well as the empires of Rome and Byzantine.

What is important to discern here is not the different versions of history but the fact that Muslims must understand that Islam sits on the timeline of a historical, theological, social and philosophical discourse and not separated in limbo.

The mufassirun of old or those who provide commentaries on the Quran found that they had to refer to the old Judaic texts to place many of the historical verses of the Quran within a proper historical context. So, Muslims cannot be “perfect” or perfectly suspended without any historical, philosophical and spiritual context in the knowledge of human civilisation.

The sufi ‘imperfection’ attitude

Muslims think that they are “perfect” because they think the Quran says so. We all know that if someone were to say that he or she is “perfect”, then we know that that person should not be made a friend.

This is because “perfect” people have no way to develop. Why? Because they are perfect. How do you live with a friend, a spouse, a parent a co-worker or anyone who says everyone else is wrong except he or she who is “perfect”?

To err is human, to forgive, divine. If you are human, then you can never say that you are perfect. Even in religion, the sufis teach that one must always think that one’s sin is a lot even if it seems few and that one’s good deeds are few, even if it seems a lot.

If one feels that one’s deeds are “enough” or adequate, then one is in a state of spiritual crisis. Even the Prophet Muhammad was not “perfect”.

He made the mistake of turning away from the blind man who came to ask to be taught while the prophet was engaging with the leaders of Mecca. Allah “reprimanded” the prophet in the Surah Abasa. The prophet was asked about his military decision in the Badr battle and when it was shown that it was not a sound strategy, he opted to accept another person’s suggestion.

In Sufi teaching, you must remain in the state of “imperfection” of hoping for Allah’s mercy till your dying day and then you will achieve peace with ridha, or pure acceptance.

I have read about Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela Mother Theresa, St Thomas of Aquinas, Dalai Lama, accounts of the Buddha, Christian literature, Hindu philosophies and I have come out a better Muslim because all of these readings affirm in different forms or narration what I have to struggle to understand from the writings of religious scholars like Al-Ghazali, Ibu Arabi, Al-Shafie and many others.

The art of changing the soul into one of a higher humanity is difficult if only one source is considered. As an academic searching for knowledge, you must access all sources available and a clearer scenario would open up with these numerous sources and the path to true knowledge begins.

Candidates for heaven or hell

Muslims think that they are all destined to heaven by a mere professing of the Kalimah Shahadah. Some have even told me even if they were punished for a period in hell, everyone eventually ends up in heaven!

It’s really funny to hear what Muslims think in this way because the Quran contains verses where Allah reprimanded the Jews for saying the very same thing! The Jews were arrogant, according to the Quran, for thinking since they are the “chosen people” and loved by God, and that they will not suffer any punishment in hell.

Allah challenged them through the prophet’s statement by asking the Jews to pray to Allah to make them die at that very moment so that they can fly to heaven!

Obviously, none of the Jews dared to do so. The business of going to hell or heaven resides with Allah alone. Mortals, whether Muslims or from other religions, should feel funny in debating such issues.

Once, Christianity was said to be selling places in heaven by forgiving sins in exchange for cash. Certainly, Christianity is not at fault here but the greed of men, even if they call themselves cardinals, bishops or ulamak.

The Prophet Muhammad once said to his daughter, Fatimah, that even he does not know her fate in the akhirat or hereafter.

Once, when the prophet heard a few of his companions remarking about so and so who would go to heaven, and that so and so would go to hell, he said that a person may be doing acts that seem to be destined for him to go to heaven but there is a hand’s span between him and heaven, he does a deed that puts him into hell. Similarly a person may be engaged in deeds that may destine him to hell but there is a hand’s span between him and hell, he does a deed that places him into heaven.

Bottom line? No one should dwell on this matter.

Going astray

The Quran lists people who are greedy and deep in self-interest at the cost of others and even at the cost of selling the religion.From my readings, these people who are astray come from all religions whether Muslims, Christians, Jews and many others. Look at Indians. Once they were not Muslims, as were the Malays.

Now Indian Muslims number much, much more than Malay Muslims and the best scholars seem to be from that race.I am indebted to the writings of Abul A’la Maududi, who opened my eyes to Islam. He was an Indian. Once I asked my brother-in-law if he would trust a Jew should he or she embrace Islam.

He said the Quran has laknat or cursed all Jews and Christians and thus we must never make friends or believe in these sworn enemies of Islam.

What about Muhammad Assad? He is a Jew who converted and wrote the influential book, ‘The Road to Mecca’, and also wrote the commentary of the Quran, ‘The Message’, which I found an invaluable academic source of reference.

Should we condemn Muhammad Assad just because he is a Jew? Then again, why did Allah permit Muslim men to marry believing Christians and Jews? How can we marry them if the Quran has cursed all Jews and Christians?

No, that verse referring to cursing the Jews and Christians refers to people who have their vested interest and greed in mind and so made things difficult for the prophets of old.

Thus, we Muslims should refrain from making judgments whether the Christian King Najashi, who helped the first migration of Muslims to Abyssinia, or Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Theresa, as those who incurred the wrath of Allah for not becoming Muslims.

There was a movie, The Blind Side, about a white Christian family who cared for a homeless African boy and made him a family member until he grew to become a successful football player.

Will such kindness be repaid with the fires of hell just because they were Christians and had not converted to Islam? I believe in Allah’s Mercy and Divine Providence.

Tomorrow: To live with many races

PROF DR MOHAMAD TAJUDDIN MOHAMAD RASDI is a 23-year veteran academician and teaches architecture at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. He specialises in mosque and Islamic architecture, particularly that which relates to Malaysia using a hadith-based and socio-cultural approach in order to create the total idea of built environment suited for a whole social structure. .