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Personal Photography Society Travels

[2914] Madness in a holy shrine

I have an English translation of the Masnavi at home. It has been on my shelves for years but I have never read it full, much like my collection of Kafka’s, or writings of Robert Nozick and Bertrand Russell, or even the Koran.

The Masnavi feels like a reference material. You do not read it whole. You open the pages once in a while and read a verse or two or three now and then.

There is criticism that most established English translations have stripped the Islamic religion out of Rumi’s poems. That have made the Masnavi secular for a wider audience outside of the Muslim world; Rumi has been removed from his Islamic context. Meanings have been corrupted from its original intention.

My miseducation had misdirected my expectations when I was in Konya visiting Rumi’s tomb. He died here in the 13th century when this part of Turkey was ruled by the Seljuks. The tomb is officially called the Mevlana Museum. Rumi, or in full Jalal Ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, was a teacher, a master, a Maulana. But the tomb was no museum. It is a major shrine. And the population of Konya, I was told, is deeply religious but in a different way.

Growing up as a Muslim in Malaysia with religious education pummeled into me early on with questions discouraged, I had come to think of shrines as something absolutely unorthodox, bordering cultish. The religious authority in Malaysia strongly discourages worshipping at shrines fearing it could lead to effective apostasy at worst. In Keramat in Kuala Lumpur, a Muslim shrine was removed by the government to prevent the Malays from visiting it. By a long shot, Malaysia is not Saudi Arabia. But some aspects of it could be felt.

Rumi's tomb

And so it was a sight to see people coming in droves into the large shrine praying in front of Rumi’s large heavy sarcophagus.

The stone coffin, itself under a massive tall green dome, is lifted off the ground by a set of four legs. I, a person whose understanding of Rumi had been divorced from the Islamic context and understanding of Islam must have had approached puritanism from the perspective of these devotees in this shrine, was dumbstruck by the religiousness surrounding me. I did not expect to be in a pilgrimage, but I found myself stuck inside one.

It was all around me. Old women in black dressing covered from head to toes without a veil prayed toward Rumi’s remains while tearing up. There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger… and Rumi the teacher. It was as if Rumi was a prophet himself. The Masnawi after all was nicknamed the Persian Koran. I was unprepared for this. Their devotion was true.

Many were determined to make their way to the front, pushing those in the way out harshly. A majority of them were Turks, but I spotted some Iranians too and other foreigners by listening to the language they spoke. They must have seen me as a nuisance, a foreigner standing in the way, not praying as they did.

As I observed, I came to disapprove what I saw. It was not so much due to my religious education, but rather due to the situation at hand. I can understand how holy the experience could be, but in the believers’ eagerness to reach for the scared, they pushed and shoved others in their way with a greediness and disrespect that should have no place in a holy place. The madness was understandable but disagreeable. It felt too worldly to deserve a place in this tomb beside the maulana.

I frowned each time I was pushed aside.

I felt angry but relented. If I needed to be patient, perhaps here inside the tomb was a place to practice patience. After all, I came with a secularized understanding of Rumi. I had no rights to judge them.

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Politics & government Society

[2893] We are too eager fighting our culture war

There are hard positions in our society. It is the product of years of abuse and mistrust, and it will not go away anytime soon. One small issue that rekindles our prejudice in the smallest of ways would ignite a culture war sucking almost everybody in the most unproductive manner.

Some culture wars are worth the fight. Our society does need a can opener to open up its canned mind, especially so when too many of us are so coddled inside our small world to the point that wrongs go unchecked and eventually become a right. It has become so bad that many are beginning to be scared of doing the right thing, just because such action would hurt the feeling of immature persons on the internet armed with incomplete or even downright inaccurate information. Explicitly racist behavior should be called out. Some things just have to be done lest we slide to an equilibrium that is so unbearable that migration would be the only way out.

But a lot of the culture wars we are fighting today are unnecessary.

One example is the teaching of Malay calligraphy-Jawi in school. The Jawi controversy besetting us recently reveals what we have known for the longest time: we live in a sensitive society – sensitive is only a euphemism that would not take much to decipher. We do not need such controversy to tell us that. The whole episode came to surface through an oversight within the government. The course was set several years back. Too few people noticed it that it developed its own procedural momentum that in the end forced all of us into a situation where no one could paddle back, without incurring significant political cost.

This reminds me of a scene from the movie War Game where the artificial intelligence holding the trigger to a nuclear holocaust, after going through all simulations, concluded that the only way to win is not to play the game.

Too bad that we have no time machine to use, no restore point to return. To abuse slightly the meaning of the Malay idiom, terlajak perahu boleh diundur, terlajak kata buruk padahnya.

Another example is the conversion bill in Selangor. We know religion and child conversion are subjects our overall society unable to deal with coolly. So, we all should approach it with care. Yet, the Selangor state government thought pushing the controversial bill through was the wisest course of action. Not only that, once we were given the chance to pull the brake halting our vehicle resting dangerously close by the cliff, the state government instead insisted on playing the game that nobody would win. Has it got this bad that the game has to be played anyway?

Our society is damaged and this is not the most incisive observation of the day. The last election gives all of us a chance to repair it, and be better. This government is reforming our institutions that for so long abused have been for personal gains. The trust deficit is still there. That is a huge barrier to fight.

I truly believe for Malaysia to get to the next level of development, we need to improve our institutions. We do not need more big malls, more tall buildings.

And those institutions are not merely government institutions like the parliament, the police, the judiciary and anything of the like. It is also about our social capital, that is trust among ourselves.

Culture wars, especially the unnecessary and avoidable ones, do not build trust. Instead, it erodes it and makes bridge-building harder.

Yet, we all are too eager to fight it. And to one-up the others online (adversaries who we likely have never met in real life, or even human bots), we type the harshest words and switch on our scorched earth mode to burn everything that moves.

And god, there are so many other things to do. Yet, here we are with our culture. All heat, no light.

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Conflict & disaster Society

[2823] It is wrong to say ISIS has nothing to do with Islam

As an individualist, I do not condemn a whole community for wrongs of the few. I do not subscribe to collective blaming for individual crimes. Each person is responsible for his or her action. In the context of terror acts frequently committed by Islamic extremists these days, I would not ask a random Muslim to apologize for killings done by his coreligionists located thousands of miles away. To make such demand is just dumb.

It is dumb because Islam as practiced all over is diverse and its interpretation varies from group to group. The interpretations range from puritan to liberal, from medieval to modern, from mystical to logical. One interpretation can even be hostile to the other, making the act of blaming one side for the other’s violence as nonsensical.

The same diversity makes it wrong to claim ISIS and all of its terror acts done in the name of the Islamic god has nothing to do with the religion. As if there is one true Islam and only those Muslims subscribe to it. On the contrary, ISIS has everything to do with the religion.

There is no one Islam anymore. However strongly many Muslims would want to stress on the unity of the religion, the truth is that the successful proliferation of Islam beyond Arabia is due to its ability to absorb local beliefs, among other things. Its syncretic nature gives rise to its diversity.

All Muslims share several core tenets but that does not make all Islams as the same. The nature, the nuance, the outlook and the way of life of a Malaysian Muslim is very different from that living in the Middle East. Even within Malaysia, the general Islam experienced in Kuala Lumpur is very different from that in Kota Bahru.

War did advance Islam but war alone could not guarantee lasting belief. The religion had to be tolerant of some local practices to entice and keep people to its side. You could observe the result of the syncretism among the Malays in Malaysia. Traditional Malay wedding ceremony for instance has hints of Hindu influence. The Malays after all, were largely Hindus, Buddhists and animists before the arrival of Islam in the 1100s-1400s to Southeast Asia. Archipelagic Islam developed based on that old Malay (and others like the Javanese) foundation. Post-independence nation state context further influences the interpretation and practice of Islam in Malaysia and elsewhere in the region, that the state used religion to promote nationalism. Brunei is the other example where religion is a subservient tool of nationalism.

The idea that there is one Islam is not only untrue across geography. It is also untrue across time. Karen Armstrong in her book A History of God shows that early Muslims believed they were part of the Christian community. While mainstream Muslims today accept all of the Christian prophets, they do not consider themselves as Christians. Early Muslims did not share such a strong distinction. A separate Islamic identity developed only after the hijra. Indeed, before meeting the Medina Jews, Muhammad thought Christians and Jews were of the same belief and Islam was merely renewing the two religions that came from the same god. The conflation between Christianity and Judaism would not have been a mistake if Muhammad had lived centuries earlier when Jesus was preaching. Armstrong demonstrated that early Christians thought they were Jewish in religious terms and that they themselves thought they were renewing the religion of Moses.

Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms chronicling the old communities of the Middle East shows how minor religions like the Mandaenism sprung out of the Abrahamic beliefs by holding on to dogmas modern Judaism, Christianity and Islam now reject. Apart from the rejected beliefs, these minor religions are or were similar in so many ways to the major three faiths. These minorities are fossils from the days when the three world’s religions were rapidly evaluating their creeds and figuring out what worked and what did not. They are the living proofs that religion evolves over time, just as dinosaur fossils are proof that the Earth is older than 4,000 years.

All religions evolve and adapt to time, geography and culture and whatever other secular forces.

The one Islam may exist as a Platonic idealism but that model is irrelevant to the material world. The Islam that matters are the practical ones: the interpreted ones.

And so I do disagree with the claim that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. ISIS’s is a disagreeable brand of Islam but it is a brand of Islam nonetheless. It is a brutal brand as a reaction to the disastrous 2000s war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein.

There is a parallel to this. A harsh puritan form of Islam appeared after the massacre and the razing of Baghdad in the 1200s-1300s by the Mongols. That Islam sought to return the religion to the early Meccan and Medinan days, rejecting intellectual progress achieved in the previous 700 years that made Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus the great capitals of the world during its times.

There is a Muslim tradition that leads to ISIS. That post-Mongol puritan Islam as rationalized by Ibn Taymiyyah informed modern day wahabbism and the salafism, which in turned influenced ISIS.

We should go further and explain why ISIS’s interpretation is so problematic. Their interpretation is that theirs is the true form and everybody else’s is false. ISIS believes theirs is the one true Islam while rejecting the diversity that exists in the religion.

That similarity, between ISIS and those who claim ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, amuses me. Both sides build their argument that their version is the one true Islam.

That logic shared by the two parties is not merely a source of amusing coincidence unfortunately. There is something more sinister about it.

Because there is only one true interpretation, then there is only one way of doing things and everything else is wrong. The religious diversity is rejected altogether. The magic word here is puralism. The corrupt Malaysian state is also guilty of this by politicizing Islam to legitimize its increasingly undemocratic hold to power, that the state is the guardian of the supposedly Platonic Islam. To add to the sense that the religion is being manipulated, I should write, the guardian of Platonic Malaysian Islam.

From where I stand, I feel the difference between the two sides is only a matter of degrees of intolerance and coercive force. I would not be shocked if it really about the ability to exert coercion for a large minority in Malaysia. After all, did a survey last year not show 11% of Malaysian Muslims sympathize with ISIS?[1]

And this is a problem. When you want to fight ISIS yet you share the same intolerance however different the degree is, your fight is logically unconvincing and turns out into choosing the lesser of the two evils.

Sometimes, we can reject all evils.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — See In nations with significant Muslim populations, much disdain for ISIS. November 17 2015.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

p/s — Tolerance to diversity itself does not make ISIS okay. There are other values more important that blind diversity, like individual rights.

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Conflict & disaster Photography Society

[2806] Do not blame the innocent refugees

This was back in 2011 in Paris. I was there at the height of the Arab Spring and also interestingly, during the emergence of French far-right parties in mainstream politics.

20110129Paris

I do not have much or anything new to say. It is late here in Kuala Lumpur, six or seven hours ahead of Paris. Yet, I still want to express my opinion that we should not discriminate or blame the innocent refugees for the horrible acts committed today in Paris by a group of Islamist terrorists.

I am angry at the attack and I am sure a lot of others do, especially in Paris. The senseless killing is outrageous whatever the excuse. But I am also angry at the mistrust the attack is creating everywhere.

I am disgusted reading responses from right-wingers who somehow think the refugees from Syria and elsewhere from the Arab world as causing of the Paris attack. The right-wing xenophobic policy recommendation is to stop the refugees from coming in.

But as many have highlighted, these refugees are running away from the same barbaric Islamic State which attacked the civilians in Paris today. These refugees are civilians too and they are as much a victim as Parisians.

The right way is to direct the anger towards the Islamic State, and not at the innocents who just happen to share, nominally if I might add, the same religion at the attackers.

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Politics & government Society

[2740] Hudud for all is more honest

I am not a fan of Isma and their narrow worldview. I find them destructive to Malaysia but this time around, one of their views is useful. They want hudud to be applicable to all Malaysians regardless of beliefs. I think them pushing the idea is a great thing.

Please do not misunderstand me. I oppose hudud. What I am getting at is this: with the new slogan ”Hudud for All,” opposing hudud is becoming politically easier than before. Allow me to explain.

Sometime not too long ago, there was an argument that hudud would apply to Muslims only. The Christians, the Buddhists, the Hindus, the agnostics-atheists and the others need not worry about the harsh punishments associated with hudud. They could live their life as if nothing happened. PAS members use the argument from time to time in front of their non-Muslim audience to emolliate non-Muslims’ fears of hudud.

I have always been sceptical about that argument. Even if hudud were to be limited to Muslims only, I believe other Malaysians would not truly be free from it. They might be free from the actual punishments but not from the social changes that would definitely come along with hudud.

The implementation of hudud would change the make-up of Malaysia regardless of the exemptions made for non-Muslims. It is naïve to think that a great change in the majority population would not affect the religious minorities. When the majority suddenly turns religiously conservative, voluntarily or by force, no high walls and barb wire can protect the minority from the pressure to be more”¦ decent. How do you isolate yourself from social changes?

What effectively an Islamic state for the majority and a secular state for the minority would end with is only one outcome: the end of the secular state. Even with our current dual justice system — one for the Muslims and one for the others — conflicts are aplenty.

We fight for the guardianship of our children and we even fight for the burial rights of our dead. The implementation of hudud for Muslims will raise the level of conflict among us. If a Muslim is caught stealing from a non-Muslim, the thief would get his hand chopped off. If a non-Muslim is caught stealing from a Muslim, the thief would get away with his hand. How is that fair? What if a non-Muslim raped a Muslim and vice versa? Which standards of proof should be used? The looser one for the non-Muslims and the tighter one for the Muslims?

How would the unfairness affect relations between the communities?

I have written about this before and I am writing this again: the conflict would divide us further.

I would not want to live in that Malaysia.

And let us not kid ourselves. When there is a conflict between the two existing legal systems, the Muslim side has an advantage. Remember that case when the Muslim father took away his children from his Hindu wife? The Islamic court ruled in favour of the father and the civil court ruled in favour of the mother. The police did nothing.

Clearly, the current relatively mild setup already is affecting the non-Muslims. Why should hudud be any different? Why would a step towards Islamic state be any different?

But my scepticism is my own. It frustrates me to know some non-Muslims buy the argument that hudud will be applicable to Muslims only. They believe hudud is purely a Muslim matter, falsely believing they have no stake in the debate. And so, the non-Muslims would not discuss it critically and maybe, they would not demand a vote against any Islam-related matter in the Parliament.

Here is another way to look at it. Hudud promoters do not take non-Muslims’ democratic rights away. But they are encouraging non-Muslims to forfeit those rights. When the non-Muslims forfeit it, the proponents will find it easier to push hudud through.

After all, with the non-Muslims out of the way, when matters of Islam are pushed through, with the rhetoric of God’s rights soaring through the sky, which Muslim Members of Parliament would dare personally say no in the open? Dare they oppose the almighty God?

The Muslim MPs who oppose would be in the minority, sticking out like a sore thumb but no more than that.

Today, our Prime Minister Najib Razak’s position on the matter is as elusive as Anwar Ibrahim’s. Worse, Umno is working with PAS to study the hudud proposal. Things like this make me misses Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He has done a lot of damage to Malaysia, but he has also done a lot of good. And he is a staunch opponent of hudud. He stands his ground.

But now, well now hudud is for all. Maybe now those who think hudud is none of their business would wake up from their naïve dream.

Better yet, the respectable Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, an Islamic cleric and the former mufti of Perlis, has argued for the same. He is no Isma and he is no Ridhuan Tee. That suggests the idea of hudud for all is not exclusive to the realm of Muslim-Malay ring-wing groups. It can come from a typically reasonable Muslim too. That should scare the naïve you. The fact that Umno and PAS are working together should also scare you.

PAS is postponing its plan to table its hudud bills in the Parliament. That is good. But the debate is unlikely to go away anytime soon. That means you, whoever you are, can still use your democratic right to oppose hudud. The Muslims who oppose hudud need you to exercise your rights.

And after all, Malaysia is not a country belonging to the Muslims only. Malaysia belongs to all of us regardless of beliefs. Why should we surrender the future of Malaysia to the proponents of hudud? Why should you forfeit your rights to the proponents of hudud?

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malay Mail on May 16 2014.