Wednesday, June 22, 2016

I am a Muslim

JUNE 20 — The month of Ramadan and the abstinence from food does put you in a more self-reflective mood than other months. Of course, self-reflection should be a routine exercise as it spring cleans the mind and the heart.
I am a Muslim or, more accurately, I try to be as good a Muslim as I possibly can. It is both easy and difficult as all contest between good and evil is.
Though genealogically, I am supposed to be a seventh generation “born Muslim”, if there is such a thing. I like to think that I am a Muslim by my own choice from the age of 30 when I finally “came” to the Quran.  How God judges me is His prerogative.
I had a typical Malay upbringing where you are sent to Quran reading classes by the time you are five years old. By the time you are 10, you already know how to read the Quran, pray and fast. You know the basic five pillars of Islam.
However, when I was 12 years old, for an unknown reason, the question of God’s existence bothered me. I became increasingly bored with the sermons of hellfire in our neighbourhood mosque. 
Instead of frightening me into submission, it started to disgust me. The ustad around me also could not answer many of my teen questions and often I was scolded for asking blasphemous queries. But the yearning to know God was very strong in me and almost unstoppable.
This yearning led me to study various scriptures and even go into the church to learn the Bible, talk to Hindu priests about the Bhagavad Gita, and study some sudras of Buddhism. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time reading, debating and thinking about God and religion. I read and debated about atheism too.
I met as many priests, ulamak, swamis and atheists who would want to discuss and debate with me. It was not enough for me to just accept a religion or a scripture. Having come from Penang, I now recall Penang as a liberal and open-minded society, where such discussions are generally allowed or at least no one condemns you to immediate hellfire for enquiring.
That was my journey as a teenager throughout adulthood. I made a conscious decision to be a Muslim from my own evaluation of the Quran, Hadith and scholarly views. I am convinced that the Quran is the most reliable source of revealed scripture but I will not insist that anyone else must believe so too.
I am only too happy if someone wants to discuss the Quran with me because I want to share the wisdom and mercy of Allah with anyone who wants to. 
If someone disagrees with me, I am humble enough to know that my interpretation and understanding is not absolute. Furthermore, I have no wish to usurp the jurisdiction of Allah when it comes to guidance. I simply refuse to play the role of a demi god on earth though I know that many religious “leaders” and experts have absolutely no compunctions behaving so.
When I came to the Quran, I realise that the prophet Abraham also took the road of enquiry and seeking. His own father excommunicated him merely for enquiring. There are many instances of prophets reflecting and meditating to understand the world.
I am happy that today there are more and more Muslims beginning to make an effort to understand the Quran instead of merely reciting it. However, it saddens me too that there is also an increasing trend towards coercion by a minority but dominant and loud groups.
This religious coercion takes various forms from extremist statements, extremist and fascist behaviours and to even legalising certain “religious laws” on the sly. I say on the sly because these laws are enacted without my actual consent. Thus, being legally a Muslim, I am compelled to be subjected to it. 
However, those that impose those laws will not be present before Allah with me to defend me if they are wrong.
Does not this compulsion, to accept the views of others regardless of how learned they claim to be, an oppression? 
Muslims may, sooner or later, ask how do they reconcile the Quran’s clear principle that no one else is responsible for our actions and belief except ourselves with the insistence on forcibly accepting so called learned views?
Feelings of guilt or deluded sense of piety does not help to resolve the conflict between compulsion and personal responsibility in matters of faith. I may be wrong but the problem could very well be in the fact that being a Muslim, which is a journey, had been turned into a set of behaviours which is forced upon you even if you are not spiritually ready. 
In other words, in the interest of uniformity, you are compelled to be a hypocrite to avoid worldly punishments. Administrative and political expediency seems to override the individual’s right to have a personal relationship with his Creator.
Muslims attend prayers at Masjid Wilayah in Kuala Lumpur. The writer says compulsion to accept the views of others could be regarded as oppression. — Picture by Azneal IshakMuslims attend prayers at Masjid Wilayah in Kuala Lumpur. The writer says compulsion to accept the views of others could be regarded as oppression. — Picture by Azneal IshakI also note that politics cannot seem to keep away from the religion of any majority in any country. In India, for example, Hinduism seems to creep in and in Malaysia, Islam. The Christian world had already undergone its share in political history. This is actually a malady because politics being what it is, may very well interfere with the free practise of one’s faith as he deems fit.
This interference becomes effective with the cooperation of some of the religious class who likes the power that comes with cooperating with politicians.
As a Muslim, I believe that so long as there are mere humans who insist on monopolising the interpretation of Allah’s words, there will be strife, tension, disunity and oppression in the name of Islam. 
I pray that the Muslim spirit is allowed to be developed as enjoined in the Quran through beautiful preaching and polite discussions and not by coercion or force. Happy Ramadan.
* Jahaberdeen is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement that encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Ramadan a month of self reflection

June 6 — The Ramadan month is here again as it does every year. Every Sunni Muslim knows that fasting is required during the month of Ramadan, it is one of the five pillars of his faith. He knows how to fast, when to break fast and what to do during the fasting month so that his fast fulfils the requirements of the fast.
This is the time when Muslims undergo disciplinary training of abstinence from food, drinks, lust and management of emotions for the love of Allah. The month is also filled with nightly ritual prayer of terawih, a special prayer which is much longer than the normal five times per day prayers.
Correctly practised, Ramadan is capable of being a month that transforms the caterpillar into a butterfly, change of bad habits into good ones. It can cause the hijrah or migration of  a person from a lower state into a higher state, a poor character into an exemplary one.
Whether Ramadan serves the purpose of transforming a person into a better human being or it only serves as a mere religious ritual depends on many factors, primarily how the individual Muslim sees it. It will be a sad state if good character emerges only for one month to be replaced by poor character for the next 11 months.
One of the significance of the Ramadan month is that Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed during this month. The first verse revealed was said to be the following in Surah Al Alaq: Read (O Muhammad!) in the name of your Lord who created (96.1). He created man from a clot (96.2). 
“Read, and your Lord is the Most Honorable (96.3) who taught with the pen, (96.4) taught man what he did not know.’’
Hence, the month of Ramadan is also a month of learning and relearning. In line with the first verse of the Quran, Muslims can use this month to revisit the contents of the Quran and to reach out to its messages. To read in the name of the Lord who teaches humans what they know not. This will be the best opportunity to evaluate how far we may have moved away from the teachings in the Quran and accepted other teachings of men as divine.
To the believer, there are many pearls of wisdom in the Quran and guidance for mankind in many areas of our life, particularly how to be a human being useful to His creations and to ourselves. The most basic and fundamental teachings of Islam comes from the Quran.
If a Muslim takes the trouble to allocate a mere one hour a day in the month of Ramadan to study the Quran, he may emerge more knowledgeable about Islam as contained in the Quran at the end of the Ramadan month.
Reading sincerely leads to self-reflection and hopefully, leads us nearer to Allah in our actions and we become useful human beings on earth so that those who do have the benefit of the Quran can see its mercy through our actions of kindness and industry. 
Reading the Quran will make us aware that there are many approaches of peace that Allah has taught us when we are faced with potentially hostile situations.
Reading the Quran also teaches us to preempt potentially aggressive or hostile situations in our dealings with other fellow human beings. As I mentioned earlier, reading the Quran will lead to self-reflection which is very important in life, like spring- cleaning our house or our cupboard. There could have been many mental cobwebs and dirt that may need to be dusted in our minds and our hearts.
Allah has clearly stated in the Quran that he will not change our state until we change what is within us. In other words, He requires those who want to improve to take stock of themselves — their diligence level, their mindsets, their thirst and quest for knowledge and so on.
I would invite my Muslim brothers and sisters to look inwards at ourselves during this Ramadan and see whether we are responsible for the state and condition that we are in. I find that too often we are busy blaming everyone from the Jews to anyone else who does not sound like us for our woes.
The story of Prophet Yunus in the Quran is an excellent example to critically evaluate myself when things go wrong. More likely than not, I must have erred in some way for me to receive “negative” response from the world.
“And remember Zun-nun (Yunus), when he departed in wrath: He imagined that We had no power over him! But he cried through the depths of darkness. There is no God but You: glory to You: I was indeed wrong! 021.088. So We listened to him: and delivered him from distress: and thus do We deliver those who have faith.” (Al Anbiya 87 – 88).
Salam Ramadan to all and may you each be blessed with what you sow.

*Jahaberdeen is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement that encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Malay Mail Online.
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Hadi’s Private Member’s Bill and its implications

Private Member’s Bill sought to be passed by PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, which the government graciously allowed to jump queue in the list of matters to be debated in Parliament.
First is the political dimension where PAS is clearly trying to achieve a political score with the Malay voters.  It has been widely publicising it is willing to work with anyone to achieve its “Islamic goal”.  In this case, if the Bill succeeds, PAS will have the “glory” in political history as the party which was responsible for “enhancing the status of Shariah courts” and for paving the way for further implementation of  Islamic criminal law.
If it does not succeed in passing the Bill, Umno MPs will be accused of being insincere and “opposed to Islamic laws”.  Clearly, in this game, PAS gets the credit either way with the general Malay voters.
Politically, Umno therefore is “snookered” unless it can bring the issue up to another completely different intellectual and political level which I am afraid Umno is incapable of due to misconceived fear and other reasons.
Secondly, the Constitutional dimension.  As a matter of parliamentary courtesy, it is admirable the government has given way to a Private Member’s Bill from the Opposition to be heard before government business, which always takes precedence. I believe this is the first time and as the Parliament speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin repeatedly tried to educate the opposing members from the Opposition, this is a precedent.
I respect and admire Pandikar’s patience in educating the opposition members on the clear provisions of the Standing Orders. It really baffled me the opposition members are opposing their own Private Member’s Bills being heard first. Painfully amusing.
Constitutionally, any Act can be amended or even repealed by Parliament in accordance with the law and the Constitution. Hadi’s Bill ostensibly seeks to amend the Shariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 in relation to enhancing their punishment provisions.
Currently, under section 2 of the aforesaid Act, Shariah courts can only impose punishment with imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or with any fine not exceeding five thousand ringgit or with whipping not exceeding six strokes or with any combination thereof. This is the so-called “356” punishments which Hadi’s Bill hopes to enhance. Obviously Hadi wants to enhance the penal powers of the Shariah courts to be able to implement Kelantan’s Shariah Criminal Enactment Code of 1993, through which they hope to impose hudud punishments. 
Hence, we are back to PAS’s version of hudud which they want to compel Muslims to follow by force of law. Put it another way, PAS’s “noble aim” of “serving Islam” is to ensure Muslims are subjected to greater punishments and despite what is provided for under the civil law system.
The long-term effect of enhancing the penal punishments will be to allow more criminal offences perceived to be offences against the “precepts of Islam” and within List II of the State List of the Ninth Schedule to the Federal Constitution to be passed. Hence, we will see a situation where there will be two sets of criminal laws for Muslims — the Shariah and the civil law system. Obviously, this will give rise to various complex constitutional issues such as equality before the law and so on. I believe even a challenge under Article 11(1) of the Federal Constitution may be mounted by a Muslim who does not want to be subjected to it though this would require a court which would decide without “fear or favour”.
I do not know why the government has never thought of evaluating whether the existing criminal laws under the federal laws are already consistent with the Quran and authentic Sunnah and hence “Islamic” or not. Surely, the federal government is not taking the position the existing criminal laws under the civil justice system do not achieve “justice” as enjoined by Islam and therefore, un-Islamic?
It truly baffles me why as a nation we are keen on creating two parallel legal systems in the country. Apart from the injustice which may ensue, aren’t the policy makers concerned this would lead to disunity and enmity between the Muslims and non-Muslims? I hope I am just being over worried about the fate of my country.
Thirdly, the faith and theological dimension.  Muslims, especially those who with knowledge and take their faith seriously, will not like imposition on their faith and servitude to Allah. There have been tremendous debate and differences of views, even among scholars, on what constitutes “hudud” and “takzeer”.  Despite the fact most scholars agree the term “hudud laws” refer to only those offences for which punishments are clearly prescribed for in the Quran, some other scholars and politicians insist on including various other offences as hudud offences even though they are not mentioned in the Quran. Furthermore the word “hudud” in the Quran does not even refer to any penal offences. It simply means “limit” and the relevant verses refer mostly to matrimonial matters.
Many notable scholars, including the renowned Prof Dr Hashim Kamali, are of the view for every punishment, the Quran also provides for forgiveness to the offender. However, this provision of forgiveness is absent in PAS’s version of hudud. There are many theological debates and issues concerning “hudud laws” that are still unsettled to this very day. I fear imposing such laws on Muslims, which are very tied to their faith and servitude to Allah, may give rise to disunity among the Muslims.
I would like to repeat my call to the government to seriously study the possibility of a “fused” legal system to maintain only one legal system in the country which can cater to the peculiar needs of each religious community while ensuring general justice for all Malaysians.
* An error in the print version of this article has since been rectified here.
** Jahaberdeen is is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement that encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at
*** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.
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