Of Half-Past Six Muslims

The following is an edited reproduction of a posting that I made on Lawyerstalk, an online forum comprising of lawyers only in both East and West Malaysia with a membership of 8000+, in reply to a remark by a lawyer in his posting in reply to someone else. It is edited to allow it to be more coherently reproduced here. His remark was this: “Who are we, half past six Muslims who are so uneducated in Islam that we have to refer to translations rather than original works, to question eminent jurists like Al-Shafi’ie or Abu Hanifah?”

I confess that sometimes I am puzzled why some Muslims have no faith in their own intellectual and spiritual abilities and not trouble themselves to question, to ask, to seek answers more deeply. The impression I am forced upon me here is that to apply one’s critical faculties to matters of our faith is improper or worse, wrong. That a Muslim that has to get on with the daily rigours and vicissitudes of life will always be inferior in learning and spirituality to a Muslim who is able to devote themselves entirely to and steeped themselves in such matters. And that devotion in terms of attention and hours spent is sufficient proof of their learnedness and wisdom. And that we as the “casual” Muslims are always incompetent to bring our own life experiences to our own respective interpretations. I find this opinion thoroughly unacceptable. Verse 2:269 (Al-Baqarah) reads as follows:

He granteth wisdom
To whom He pleaseth;
And he to whom wisdom
Is granted receiveth
Indeed a benefit overflowing;
But none will grasp the Message
But men of understanding.

So wisdom is only our province when bestowed by Allah. We can study, learn and read all the books in the world but that does not guarantee wisdom or even common sense. And which then is better? Attempting to grasp the Message ourselves or simply accepting another’s interpretation of it? If we merely listen to others in the hope of understanding Allah’s message, how can we be said to be men of understanding? Those to me are followers of other men’s understanding. There is a word in Arabic for people who just follow blindly – orang taqlid buta (meaning “to follow”) which usually has every possibility and a unique propensity to lead to i.e. fanaticism. Some Muslims like yourself seem to suggest that taqlid is a good thing. That we, as you have more colourfully remarked, are “half past six”, which implies that we are all inferior Muslims compared to a fuqaha’ (a Muslim scholar).

This is what I mean. Who are you to say I or any of our brothers and sisters in Islam are “half past six”? You are not Allah. Far from it. You are, like me, a mere human being. So we cannot escape entropy, corruption, mistake and imperfection, though we certainly can avoid it for the most part. So both of us are just like the approximately 20 million Chinese Muslims in China, or the estimated 154 million Indian Muslims in India, and the approximately 402 million African Muslims (all statistics obtained from Wikipedia).

You see how far your judgment extends? Do you see how many others by implication you end up judging? You see how when you sit in judgment of one of us on our spirituality, you will end up judging the other 1 billion Muslims? And in a way you have also passed judgment on the other 5 billion and holders of other faiths, because if half-past six Muslims are not worthy enough than what more non-Muslims. So really, when you judge a person’s spirituality you by necessity will have to judge the spirituality of every person on this planet. The quality of judgment this necessitates surpasses any human being or organization on this planet because that judgment is reserved for Allah. That is why it is my opinion that it is not for us to judge each other’s authenticity of faith, Muslim or non-Muslim. The reason for this is accepted by Muslims and found in verse 2:29 (unless somebody has claimed this verse has been “abrogated”):

It is He Who hath created for
All things are on earth;
Then He turned to the heaven
And mad them into seven
And of all things
He hath perfect knowledge.

That is the difference. You and every other human being, Muslim or not, are not competent to sit in judgment even over one person’s spirituality or to evaluate our relationship with Allah, because we do not have perfect knowledge. Yes, we can at best guess their religiosity by counting their prayers, their fast, their books, etc. but it is ultimately a guess. It is flawed, skewed, incomplete knowledge. And lest we forget, if the Devil can mimic all these rituals, then so can the thieves, hypocrites, liars, etc. In fact, in Surah Al-Baqarah, hypocrisy in Islam is addressed as early as verses 8 and 9:

Of the people there are some
who say:
“We believe in Allah and the Last
But they do not (really) believe.

Fain would they deceive
Allah and those who believe,
But they only deceive themselves,
And realize (it) not!

So clearly from this verse, the lesson is we should not be so taken in by one’s outward appearance and declarations. What can be drawn from this also is this – that the hypocrites of Islam sometimes do not realize their own hypocrisy, because they are so deluded by their own deception i.e. that they are adil Muslims. The implication from this is that those who are fooled by their own deception and taken in by their own hypocrisy tend not to question themselves, or their faith or seek further for answers. The lack of any need to question suggests either a fear or a perfection of one’s self image. But as human beings we deserve neither fear nor perfection. Ours is of always striving to be better, to improve, to relinquish as much of our bad habits. Now let’s consider verse 10:

In their hearts is a disease;
And Allah has increased their
And grievous is the penalty they
Because they are false (to themselves).

Allah speaks of our hearts when He speaks of trueness and faithful adherence to Him. That is why the niat (intention to submit to Allah) is all-important and recited at the very beginning of our prayer. That is how important it is. And the authenticity of that niat can never be known by any of us because we cannot peer into each other’s heart and soul. Only Allah will know whether that person who looks as if he is praying is really praying. Human beings cannot.

If the niat is not present, what is the point of praying? If we persist are we only satisfying our own self-delusion. And there is much self-delusion from some of those that come from those “born in Islam”. Some of those sort tend to think themselves better than converts. I know this because my mother is a Chinese convert. I need not recite how through my entire life I saw how some Muslim women, both family and acquaintances, disparage, pass remarks (menyindir), question her loyalty and faith to her adopted faith, or are rude enough to ask whether the restaurant she is suggesting is halal. As if because she converted to marry my father out of love she is less of a Muslim. And all those came from Muslims who looked the part, could recite verses at the drop of a hat and knew all about the rituals and infinite do’s and don’ts to be the perfect Muslim.

They of course do not know how hurtful it is to her or absolutely disgusting and despicable to me, especially with the knowledge of Nabi Muhammad’s companions – how the lot of them were converts. Or how some Malays here think that because that person is not Malay but yet a Muslim they also sit lower on the religion food chain, nevermind that there are more Muslims, more prestigious Islamic heritages in China, India, Africa, etc. than Malaysia and as I have pointed out they have more Muslims than us as well. But more importantly, what sort of attitude is operating when a Muslim disparages against or looks down upon another Muslim simply because of how they entered the religion or the colour of their skin? These to me are symptoms of a a diseased heart.

And now let’s very quickly consider the biological and technological perspective. The brain bequeathed to us is pretty much the same as all those scholars from the early years of Islam (and those are the same with our emergence as Homo Sapiens a few hundred thousand years ago). Those early scholars had to work from less references. Their mental training and technique imbued to them in general at their early ages is nothing compared to what we receive now. In terms of upbringing, development of thought, technology and sheer amount of references available, we should be far superior in terms of capabilities, individual and cultural, compared to those times.

Observe the children that have been born over the last decade and benchmark them against our own development. You will find that their capabilities are far superior than our own. There is a greater consciousness, awareness and skill at younger and younger ages. Now children have rudimentary writing and reading ability as early as 3 to 4. They are stimulated by far more sophisticated stories, literature and life experiences. They are more discerning. I don’t know how old you are but I think, for example, a 30-year old today would be in general comparatively more advanced, more educated, more exposed, more sophisticated constituted person to the average 30-year old in the early days of Islam.

So to say that we should just abandon our own minds and rely and trust entirely to scholars in those times which only exist in memory is to abandon our own responsibility to ourselves and then at some point, Allah.

Surely, it is not enough to say that I believe this because Al-Shafi’ie says so. We believe and follow something because our heart guides us there. Al-Shafi’ie and the scholars are only useful when I cannot understand some verses in the Quran and it makes no sense to me. But if I admit that then surely I’m contradicting Allah’s own opinion of the Quran – that it is easy to understand and remember. And let me ask this – in whose interests is it to say that the Quran is so complicated and difficult to comprehend that you should only seek an expert on it? The scholars. But the Quran was not meant for scholars, it was meant for every man, child and woman who can read and wants to read it. It was meant for you and me. It was not meant for the intellect with a library of books. Nabi Muhammad p.b.h had no such library or a battalion of scholars. Allah chose a trader, not a king, not a prince, not a scholar, not even the richest man in town, in short, He chose a commoner.

It is also these same scholars that came up with these principles of interpretation that by my reading when you put it all together tends to limit the infinite applicability of the Quran – abrogation (so parts of the Quran are “outdated”), the insistence on the use of the Arab language to read and understand the Quran (so the Quran is not for everybody, just Arab-speaking folk), the closing of the gates of ijtihad (thereby stopping and denying admission to any other useful interpretations of the Quran), proscribing death for an apostate (when there is no such punishment demanded in the Quran, and thus giving the impression that Islam is a merciless and not a compassionate religion).

And really, if we have to read every scholar, every opinion and know all the techniques of usul fiqh before we approach the Quran, I honestly I think I would die of old age before I even open the Quran. To me, it is the other way round. We read the Quran first then read everything else. Surely this must be the case since there is no Islam without the Quran. It is in the interest of the scholar to arrogate authority and monopoly of knowledge to themselves. Their failure to do so would render them irrelevant and so useless. And surely if a scholar tells us that the Quran is so complicated we need all their help and opinions before we get matters of faith right, I detect a conflict of interest and a presence of self-interest in that assertion. I shall elaborate a little further on this further down.

What is more those opinions existed during those times long before internet, jet planes, automobiles, computers, oil, and basically everything we have today. Those opinions existed in a time when the cultural trends, the psychological perspectives, the societal undercurrents are very, very different. Slavery no longer exists. Muslims for the most part aren’t nomads roaming the desert any more. There are now massive Muslim governments. Muslims do not raid caravans for loot and plunder anymore. Almost the entire context for those opinions have faded away and yet we still seek to analogize from those times. What is the equivalent of an airplane or a air-craft jet carrier in the Hadith? What is the equivalent in Islam to the internet or email? Is there anything in the Hadith or Quran on whether a cyborg (part machine, part man) is halal or haram? Can we really come up with a set of Islamic injunctions for space travel when this was not even conceived of during Nabi Muhammad’s time? What is overlooked is that the device of analogy is required because nothing exists for that area on which an opinion is required.

And there is so much talk about halal-ness about food, finance, behaviour, premises, etc. but strangely the halal that we seem so concerned with are only to physical and material things – not spiritual. And locally we seem to be obsessed with the issues of pigs, dogs and women. There is virtually no talk about matters halal in the intellectual, emotional or attitudinal sense. Is it halal to sembahyang hajat for someone to succeed or fail? Is it haram to wish failure upon someone in the hope that we can take advantage of that opportunity? Is it halal to think lesser of converts to the religion? Is it halal to pray before once commits a crime or soon after it in the hope of escaping? The external actions must be linked with the internal considerations. If not you will get some characters I have come across that can nail every external or ritualistic requirement of Islam the religion and yet still ask for women, money and power when they are in a position to do so.

What I don’t seem to understand here is why are those religious authorities not concerned with matters that actually affect the nation and the Muslim society – i.e. corrupt politicians that have siphoned of millions if not billions of dollars. Why are these people not doing raids on UMNO general meetings when in the past the Presidents have admitted to being unable to stop the tide of corruption in UMNO? Why are they not concerning themselves more with orphanages and mentally-handicapped children to check and see whether the children there are being abused? Why do these religious authorities not appreciate that it is a serious offence in Islam to betray public trust? Why aren’t they pushing for a law on this? And when they go to visit all these UMNO politicians houses during events, do they not wonder how they amass such wealth? Do they ask whether the function was made with halal money as opposed to the fruits of corruption?

I should think the more powerful corruption lies in the hands of these politicians who have betrayed us than the young 18-year old girl out on a night of fun with her friends, or the woman that has just had her baby taken from her by her abusive husband who has just converted to Islam. This is a reason why I have great difficulty taking any of these religious authorities seriously – they are so fixated on the dress code and sexual affairs of Muslims instead of the real crimes against society and Allah.

And in how our religion is practised here, we need to go through an intermediary – someone authoritative – the scholar, the imam, etc. That a Muslim who is not steeped in constant Islamic study has no right to speak on such matters. They are unworthy to even render an opinion on such matters. But I would refer to verses 17, 22, 32 and 40 of Al Qamar (Surah 54) and verse 101 of Al Ma’idah (Surah 5). All the wordings in those verses I referred to are almost the same except for verse 22 which begins with “But”. Verse 17 reads as follows (all translations by Yusuf Ali):

And We have indeed made the Quran easy to understand and remember: Then is there any that will receive admonition.

Allah s.a.w has declared that the Quran is easy to understand and remember. Since this verse is addressed to each and all Muslims, that to me is a clear invitation to all Muslims to actually pick up, read and understand the Quran (in whatever language they find it, and I shall address this point a little later) and make up our own minds. The fact that the verse is essentially repeated 5 times must certainly count for something by whatever principle of interpretation. I am not aware of any verse that instructs us to only understand the Quran through someone else. Actually reading, understanding and making up our minds as to how it would apply to ourselves as a unique individual with our own respective peculiarities, circumstance, condition and goals in life is what I think to be a natural consequence of this verse. There is also Al-Nisa (Surah 5) verses 81 and 82:

81. They have “Obedience” on their lips; but when they leave thee, a section of them Meditate all night on things very different from what thou tellest them.But Allah records their nightly (plots): So keep clear of them, and put thy trust in Allah, and enough is Allah as a disposer of affairs.

82. Do they not consider the Qur’an (with care)? Had it been from other Than Allah, they would surely have found therein Much discrepancy.

I’m not quite sure how many more invitations we need from Him. If there are contrary interpretations exhorting us that the Quran is complicated, require the aid of centuries of scholars, or even not to read the Quran, I confess I am not aware of it. I am happy to stand corrected on the translation and actual meaning.

Much has been made about the fact that the Quran is in Arabic and we cannot truly understand it and so we who do not speak Arabic should not even pretend an attempt. The acceptance of this proposition seems to limit the glory and reach of Allah. If the Quran was prescribed for mankind, is eternal and the Truth, then surely the message of Allah should ring through no matter what translation it goes through. The Quran is said to apply eternally. Strange then that it can transcend the confines of time but not the barriers of language. And strange then that there is also this concept of “abrogation” which [Kamilah – who posted a reply on this in Lawyerstalk] has explained in greater detail. There is a way to overcome the language barrier and that is to collate as many translations of that verse and choose the one that resonates most with our heart and fibre of being. But to accept these two assumptions (and the others I listed earlier) certainly limit the infinite-ness of the Quran. Again, I ask in whose interest is this?

To accept this assumption (if we don’t understand Arabic), would seem to imply that anyone who is not a master of all the fine nuances of Arabic are somehow lesser Muslims. I understand that there is the view amongst some Arabs that think we are less Muslim because we are not Arabs or from the Arab peninsular on top of not being able to speak Arab. The implication of this is that their birthright is to be the most superior of all Muslims since they are born there and speak the language. This suggests an authenticity-to-Islam hierarchy amongst Muslims all over the world, with the Arabs at the top of the pile. I am of course generalizing about Arabs and there will always be those wonderful minority (the question is how sizeable) who prove the exception.

This seems to contradict the egalitarian nature of Islam. Nabi Muhammad p.b.h did not raise barriers, he tore them down. And lest we forget, all the original Muslims were converts. They were not born Muslims. All they have to do is recite the kalimiah syahadah and of course, thoroughly mean it. But really that is a merely formality. It is for others to see. Our faith reaches us first in the quietness of our hearts and only once it has so possessed it does it announce itself. Faith does not come through our lips nor by ignorance. Furthermore, Nabi Muhammad p.b.h was only visited from Archangel Gabriel when he was about 40. The Quran as we know it only emerged then. So Nabi Muhammad p.b.h was chosen and destined to be the leading Muslim example for Islam, but even he was not born a Muslim. For myself, each and every Muslim should affirm their faith at the age of 18 because there is no such thing as a “natural” Muslim. Each of us must make that pledge before we are properly admitted to Islam.

Finally, much is made in Islam about the requirement for a Muslim to be baligh i.e. of age or adult. Why is this so important? I think it’s because that is when we are generally accepted to be old enough to understand, decide and think for ourselves. And surely if we need all these things to accept Islam, we need them all the more to continue our journey upon entry instead of abandoning by the wayside.

So in reply to your question.

We are Muslims who have been exhorted to read the Quran. By virtue of this, we have every right to disagree with the opinions of Al-Shafi’ie or Abu Hanifah where we find its application does not suit us. After all, there is nothing in the Quran to say that there is a Sunni or Shi’a faction, or there there are only 4 recognized mazhabs in Sunni and we must only follow them or even a verse that Al-Shafi’ie or Abu Hanifah are correct. And even the 4 paragons of Islamic scholarship, Imam Malik, Imam Shafie, Imam Hanbali and Imam Abu Hanifah all declined their opinions to be the definitive treatise of Islam. Clearly none of them were so foolish or bold to make such claims. To do so would be to usurp the Quran.

I would invert the question you posed, if those 4 Imams treated their highly learned opinions as just that instead of law, whom are we to now look upon their opinions as the prescriptions or the very intentions of Allah?

Finally, though I have written all this, I do not hope to persuade you, but merely to let you see where I and others who think like me are coming from. I am fully aware that in matters concerning faith, we are persuaded more by heart and experience than cold, logical argument.

What I do hope is that in time you cease to be too hard on yourself and do not think yourself so unworthy of opinion in the religion you hold so close to your heart. I believe in matters of faith we are all entitled to our own opinion, but we should leave its correctness to Allah and history.

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Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it for him. He has little taste in writing about himself in third person. He feels weird doing it. But the part he finds most tedious is having to pad up the lack of his accomplishments, or share some interesting facts about his rather uneventful life, as if there were some who found that oh-so-interesting; as if he were some famous person, like Michael Jackson. When he writes these biographies, the thought, 'Wei, Jangan Perasaan- ah!' lights up in his head. So he usually just lists what he got involved with, positions he held and blah, blah. But this time. Right here. Right this very moment. Uhuh. This one. This one right here. He's finally telling it like it is.

Posted on 30 July 2009. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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