NOTE: This article originally appeared in the 11th November, 2000 issue of
The Other Malaysia:
Ya Rahman! Ya Raheem!
By Farish A. Noor.
Regular readers of Malaysiakini.com will no doubt be familiar with the
contentious debate that raged for a while over the ‘Bollywood’ concert that
took place in Malaysia not so long ago.
During the final weeks before the staging of the concert, a heated and open
debate took place both on the campuses of the country and in cyberspace, when
those who were both in favour and against the staging of the event were allowed
to come to the fore and express their opinion. A number of student organisations
took the stand that such a performance would corrupt the morals of society. Many
of those who opposed the concert came from the Islamist camp who took the view
that such entertainment was essentially immoral and un-Islamic. This author was
one of those who took the stand that the concert should be allowed to take
place- despite the fact that he still doesn’t know who Shah Rukh Khan is.
In the event, the concert was staged- despite the brouhaha that surrounded it-
and those who wanted the ‘bra-clad’ dancers of India to be kept out of the
country were foiled in their attempt to have the performance cancelled. What was
interesting for me, however, was the tide of hate emails that I received during
this period for my defence of the concert itself: nearly 40 in the space of one
week - a record by my own humble standards.
My intention here is not to belittle or abuse those who have taken the time and
trouble to put finger to keyboard to abuse me. This is one of the occupational
hazards of anyone who wants to establish a presence in cyberspace and who wants
to push his own socio-political agenda- something which I do not apologise for.
Nor would I simply dismiss the criticisms of those who argued against the
position that I and several others took at the time. Those who disagree with our
stand are perfectly entitled to do so, provided that they are open-minded enough
to have room for the contrary thoughts and views of others. This has to be one
of the cardinal rules of any working, open, tolerant democratic system that
accommodates pluralism and difference.
What did strike me, however, was the tone of the hate mail sent to me during
that period. Going through the letters again and again, I could not resist the
trap of ‘applied philosophy’ and in the end I found myself systematically
dividing and categorising the mail I received. This was, for me, philosophy at
work and I was attempting nothing short of a discourse analysis of the abusive
mail sent to me.
The findings of this short, though far from pointless, exercise were quite
interesting. Of the mail I received and the ones that were posted on various
websites, I found that the criticisms could be broken into three main
There were those that basically said: ‘You are secular in orientation and
because you do not come from a traditional Islamist educational background you
should not speak or write about Islam’.
The second category of insults had a more sinister tone to it, and they could be
summarised as ‘You are condemning the Islamist position, and so you are in
league with the enemies of Islam.’ From this a chain of equivalences was quickly
formed which put me in the camp of the evil, satanic government of Malaysia,
Western secular powers, the debauched media moghuls of Bollywood and so on.
The third, and by far the largest category, however was the one which basically
stated that I was offending their Islamist values and as such I was bound to go
to hell forever. There were at least three emails that gave lengthy descriptions
of the torments that awaited me in Neraka in excruciating detail. The hairs of
the back of my neck stood on end reading this stuff- not for fear of what might
happen to me later on, but more out of concern for what is presently happening
in the minds of some of the more zealous defenders of the faith in this country.
The point that needs to be stressed is this: That after fifteen centuries of
Islamic civilisational development, we Muslims it seems are still unable to
think of a benevolent God that is forgiving and merciful. We cannot help but
imagine our God to be a violent, almost malevolent entity that routinely throws
his subjects into the boiling pits of hell so that they can be tortured for
infinity. How ironic that is, when we consider that practically every important
thing that Muslims do in their daily lives begins with the formula: ‘In the name
of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful’.
Has Islam always been like this? The answer is simply no.
And this is not a statement of preferences or wishful thinking either.
Historical evidence shows quite clearly that there was a time in the history of
Islam where the Muslims’ understanding of faith and God were quite different
from what it is today. We need not go very far in search of such evidence. We
can find it right here, in the soil of the Malay archipelago itself.
Another Face of Islam.
Lest it be forgotten, the coming of Islam to the Malay archipelago has to be one
of the greatest civilisational developments in the Muslim world. Unlike the
spread of Islam in other parts of the world, Islam’s entry into the Malay world
was passive and gentle. Yet this penetration pacifique brought with it
socio-cultural, political and ideological changes that were monumental in their
consequence and import. Islam had effectively broken the monopoly of the ancien
regime of the Kerajaan, ruled as it was by the Rajas and Dewarajas who were
literally Gods on earth. In time, Islam introduced notions and values of
individualism, humanism and rational agency to a society that was stultified and
static. It gave new life to a people who had till then come to accept their
political situation as final and given.
The secret of Islam’s success then lay mainly in the way that it was taught and
spread among the people- and the agents who were responsible for its
dissemination. These were the Sufi mystics who had come from the Indian
subcontinent as well as the local Sufi scholars and preachers who had adapted
Islam to the immediate needs of the social terrain they found themselves in.
They realised that the Malay peoples, who had lived so long under the paralysing
tyrannical yoke of their Rajas and Dewarajas, were ready and yearning for
change. The Sufis also understood that such an oppressed people would never
leave their way of life for another that was equally if not more oppressive than
the one before. And so the Sufis adapted, and adopted their teachings for the
audience they had before them.
Islam, during the 13th to 14th century, was very much a personal creed of love,
humanism and individualism for the Malays. Sufi mystics like Sheikh Hamzah
al-Fansuri, Sheikh Albul Rauf al-Fansuri and Sheikh Syamsuddin as-Sumatrani were
at the forefront of propagating this new faith which radically challenged the
political and social status quo, but in a gradualist manner. There was never the
option of preaching by the sword and their God was one who the ordinary Muslim
could relate to in an intimate way. They taught that love was the way to God and
that denial of the world was the key to salvation. There was no talk of worldly
power, of domination or conquest, or the obliteration of one’s enemies.
In Sheikh Hamzah Fansuri’s ‘Kitab Fi Bayanil Qulub’ for instance, the Sufi
mystic elaborates upon the intimate relationship between the believer and the
God she/he seeks. It is clear that this relationship is one based on love,
renunciation of the egoistic self and the desire to know the absolute Other:
Bagi kau pandang kapas dan kain,
Keduanya wahid asma’nya lain.
Wahidkan hendak zahir dan batin,
Itulah ilmu kesudahan main.
Jika kau kenal dirimu bagi,
Elokmu itu tiada berbagi.
Hamba dan Tuhan daim berdamai,
Memandang diri jangan kau lalai.
Kenal dirimu hai anak dagang,
Menafikan diri jangan kau sayang.
Seolah istbat bagi pasang,
Supaya mudah engkau datang.
For Sheikh Hamzah, it was clear that the path to God was a lonely one that the
individual had to tread alone. Yet the path remained open, and the motivation to
go on that journey of discovery was based on love, not fear.
Love No More?
How different is the situation for us today in Malaysia. The rise of the sacred
intelligentsia known as the Ulama has led not only to the emergence of a social
hierarchy within Islam, but also the inexorable ossification of the Muslim mind.
Today the Ulama stand before (or rather above) us as the defenders of the faith
whose authority cannot be denied or questioned. And even when it has become
patently clear that some of these esteemed and venerable ‘men of learning’ are
mere mortals with very human failings and tendencies- ranging from their thirst
for power to their inability to control their sexual urges- we still cling on to
every word they say as if these were pearls of wisdom from heaven itself.
Thanks to the Ulama, we now live in a country where the development of Islam has
become uneven and erratic. The functionaries of the religious bureaucracy
continue to come up with new laws and restrictions that invade the most private
spaces of Muslims lives- while telling us that theirs is an open and tolerant
religion. Islamist activists continue to call for separate, exclusive spaces in
society, while preaching the idea that Islam encourages interaction and
engagement in society. And the defenders of the Islamist project talk about
their open-mindedness, while sending out warnings to those who do not follow
their line that they will be condemned forever in hell, as victims of a
vengeful, unforgiving God.
Yet this need not be the way for Islam to thrive and prosper in Malaysia. The
forgotten legacy of the Sufis and early missionaries, who spoke of the need for
a different form of Islam that was open, tolerant and premised on the salvation
of the individual can still be made to work in this society if it is allowed to
come out into the open. The task of reviving this other tradition of Islamic
learning falls on the shoulders of those progressive Muslims liberals and lay
intellectuals who remain outside the constricting walls of official orthodoxy
and religious dogma. They can help to remind us that there is another way of
looking at Islam, and another way of understanding our role in society vis-a-vis
non-Muslims as well as ourselves. And we can still believe in a God of love and
mercy- Ya Rahman! Ya Raheem!