This article was originally published on The Malaysian Insider.
Dear Lord Bobo, I understand that in Malaysia, the Sultans are the heads of Islam in their respective States. Is this in line with the teachings of Islam? Also, what kind of things do the Sultans do as part of this role? (Throne Sitter, via email)
Malaysia has nine Sultans, who are also the head of Islam in their respective states. The Agong serves as the head of Islam for states without a Sultan such as Penang, Melaka, Sabah, and Sarawak.
This means there is effectively a total of ten heads of Islam. Ten! That’s one more than a nine-headed hydra of Greek mythology. Or two more than the mythical eight-headed Japanese serpent. It’s three more than the seven-headed beast in Revelations. Heck, it’s four more than the six-headed wild ram in Sumerian mythology. Even for those who like head, that’s a whole lotta head (of Islam) for such a small country. We can appreciate two heads are better than one; but we’re not sure whether ten heads are better than two.
To address your question whether this is in line with the teachings of Islam, we think it appropriate to quote the following as being the first part of our answer. Regarding Islam’s egalitarian nature, Bernard Lewis, a respected Islamic historian (yes, contrary to the views of some Malaysians, it is indeed possible for a Westerner to be an authority on Islam) argues: “There is much truth in this assertion… The Islamic dispensation does indeed bring a message of equality. Not only does Islam not endorse such systems of social differentiation (racism, caste system etc.), it explicitly and resolutely rejects them. The action and utterances of the Prophet, the honoured precedents of the early rulers of Islam as preserved by tradition, are overwhelmingly against privilege by decent, by birth, by status, by wealth, or even by piety and merit in Islam. (What Went Wrong, 2002)” – Quoted from page 179, Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism, and Slavery (Editor: M.A. Khan) 2009, Chapter on The Arab-Islamic Imperialism.
So there you have it. In Islam, everyone is of equal standing. There is no such thing as inherent superiority or privilege of one over another. It therefore does seem strange that the ones assigned as heads of Islam in Malaysia do not conform to the egalitarian principle in Islam. How that happened was down to how events unfolded in history.
The growth and spread of Islam in the region had a close and deep relationship with the Rulers, to the point they were finally intertwined as enshrined in the Federal and State Constitutions. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) may have started as a trader and finished as a leader but he never claimed to be king. On the contrary, he emphasised his humanness on several occasions. It is disappointing to note how little in the way of local research is done to explore the notion of royalty vis-a-vis the tenets and principles of Islam.
As to your second question — what the Sultans do as part of their role of heads of Islam — to be quite honest, we’re not very sure. We do know that their Highnesses have a Council of Rulers that make important national decisions, attend charity functions, attend golf invitationals, give out titles and awards, and grace other formal, governmental functions. Lord Bobo assumes that this obviously is no different from royalty elsewhere around the world. Their Highnesses are encouraged to keep busy, and Lord Bobo is certain that their days are filled with doing matters of utmost national importance. Although we cannot be certain what exactly they do (these things do have to be kept confidential, you know) we are fairly certain that Malaysia would probably implode without their constant and invaluable sacrifices.
Specifically in relation to their role as heads of Islam, we suppose that they approach every situation with the question: “What would Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) do?” This approach would ensure that they would stay clear of things which would very obviously be inappropriate for a “head of Islam” — for example, we cannot imagine that they would live a flash, jet-setting lifestyle, go on lavish shopping sprees, amass a collection of limited edition Rolls Royce or Bentleys, be a loyal patron of the Hard Rock Cafe, make a profit from dodgy land deals or by selling honorific titles, own extremely valuable blocks of shares in various large companies, use sports equipment as deadly weapons, rub shoulders and other body parts with supermodels and famous actresses, or get “jiggy” with girls young enough to be their daughters.
Although Lord Bobo already knows your question before you even knew you had a question, as a practical display of your true desire to have your query answered, His Supreme Eminenceness has graciously allowed you to communicate your questions by either emailing [email protected] or tweeting your question, mentioning @LoyarBurok and using the hashtag #AskLordBobo. Now, what the hell are you waiting for? Hear This and Tremblingly Obey (although trembling is optional if you are somewhere very warm)!