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South-East Asia

Malaysian Muslims at the crossroads

Crescent International

A case of the blind men and the elephant

Social ills among the Malay Muslim youth has now reached to such a serious proportion that the Barisan government has to declare a national emergency to combat the problem. Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself revealed that Malays constituted the majority of those involved but was at a loss why Malay Muslim youth is more susceptible to these social ills compared to the youth of other ethnic communities in Malaysia.

Many have come up with diverse theories as to what has caused these social ills which are more widespread among the Malay youth. Parents, teachers, government, sudden explosion of wealth, environment, peer pressure, tv programmes, discos and nightclubs, all have been, individually or collectively, blamed for this sad state of affairs. Even religious instruction, that is Islamic religious instruction, now compulsory for the Muslim children, has not been able to turn the tide of these social ills. Like in the story of the blind men and the elephant, we are groping in the dark unable to see the whole picture.

There is no lack of suggestions to overcome the problem. They include making national service compulsory for youths, more Rakan Muda (the government’s ‘Youth Fraternity’ programme), mountain climbing, social gathering, introducing courses on parenting skills (always on the model of western experts, of course with few quotations from Qur’an and Hadith thrown in), a total revamp of the religious curriculum in the education system, etc. etc. The list goes on. But the most provocative suggestion comes from the opposition leader Lim Kit Siang. He suggests that radio and TV time be allocated to teach all religions, as it would suggest that Islam has failed the Malay youth and therefore other religions should now come to their rescue. He finds this a wonderful God-sent opportunity to see his life-wish of seeing the final dethronement of Islam from the Malaysian polity. By reducing Islam to one of the religions, - albeit the primary religion - the last obstacle would be removed towards the missionary agenda of making Malaysia a pancasila state - a veritable madhouse - as many ‘enlightened liberal’ Malaysians would like to see. This will be the final chapter of the Malays’ decline from ‘a nation to a community; this decline in status, in a sense, one of the greatest concessions that any indigenous people have made to non-indigenous communities in the entire history of humankind’(Chandra Muzaffar, Muslimedia International, April 16-30, 1994).

The root cause of the problem stems from the fact that UMNO as a secular party was content with giving Islam the dubious status of ‘state religion.’ Thus, as Dr. Husain Mutalib in his Islam and Ethnicity in Malay Politics points out, all the UMNO-led governments from the past to the present ‘have not treated Islam as a living, vital faith, but more as a legitimizing instrument. The annual National and International Qur’an recitation competitions, the maulud celebrations marking the birthday of the Prophet, the investitures of the Sultans, the building of mosques and suraus, and support for other Islamic symbols and rituals, may thus be seen in this context of securing legitimacy. In addition, the Islam that has been adopted by successive Malaysian governments has had, as its focus, an ethnic, insular dimension, an approach or orientation which has made it difficult for an Islamic social order to emerge. The overriding concern has been to protect and preserve the interests of the Malays in multi-racial Malaysia vis-á-vis other ethnic communities. The wider philosophical dimensions and principles of the Faith such as its universality, and modernity, and its emphasis on equity, justice, tolerance, acquisition of knowledge and the strife for excellence in life’s endeavours have been rarely brought forward, let alone encouraged to a significant level, by the government. The idea of Islam being part and parcel of the politics of the country have been viewed with much caution, if not suspicion, by the ruling regime.

This wariness of the explosive potential of Islamic populism on the one hand, and official support of the Faith on the other, again indicate the ‘contradiction’ (‘dialectic’ is perhaps more apt) that exists in the Malay-(read UMNO-)Islam relationship, and in the politics of Malay identity. In cases where the use of Islam by Muslims might create instability and loss of legitimacy from the multi-religious polity, the government demand that Islam not be mixed with politics. When, however, the occasion demands the government would go all the way to project its ‘Islamic’ image”.

Halal and Haram (the do’s and don’ts) were taught as one would learn traffic rules by the official ustads on the TV amidst much fun-fair and pomp and it did not instil any fear of God or final accountablity (taqwa’) in the minds of the listeners.

The youth looks up to people holding public office as their role models but what they see around them are hypocrisy, corruption, greed, conspicuous consumption, and total disregard for any moral principles among this top echelon of society. Advices are aplenty from the prime minister down to the level of a district officer. Their empty religiosity is just an adjunct to their ethnic identity and no more.

The Malay youth has no alternative but to turn to the basic Islamic fundamentals and practices with particular reference to the study of the Sirah. [In fact the Sirah has been ridiculed on many occasions in the media as something out of date or obsolete]. The Sirah (life) of the Prophet and his examples are the basic models that exemplify Islam’s method of personal reform and social transformation. ‘Islamic values’ cannot be taught independent of the wisdom and method of the Prophet. The spiritual, intellectual and physical qualities inherent in the wisdom are an integral part of the Sirah and the examples (Sunnah) of the Prophet. So far scholars of the Sirah and the Sunnah have concentrated their attention almost exclusively on the meticulous research and recording of all that the Prophet did, said, ordered to be done and approved of. This literature is extensive and unique. But the historical situation now facing Islam and Muslims demands that scholars should turn their attention to the formulation of the underlying principles and structural forms of the Prophet’s wisdom or method. This area of the Sirah represents the unopened treasure-chest of Islam and its revealed paradigm. The route to this treasure house of Islam lies through the development of a whole new range of literature that is based on the Sirah which should be used to teach Islam in schools and not in the style of ‘once upon a time there was Pharaoh’ without developing the children’s intellect to identify the present day Pharaohs.

What is being suggested here is that abstraction and conceptualisation are essential processes that may now be applied to the vast literature of the Sirah and the Sunnah that now exists as a storehouse of meticulously researched data. This requires a new type of scholarship that uses data from the Sirah and the Sunnah to generate theoretical formulation in areas of political, social and economic problems that Muslims, indeed all mankind, face now. The Sirah and the Sunnah must now be used to generate new disciplines of problem-solving knowledge and compatible behaviour patterns. This way the directive principles of the state can be derived from Islam as it is enshrined in the constitution as the “state religion”, [that is, if the phrase has any meaning at all] and not from looking to the east or west, nor instilling discipline through Malay silat or Japanese tea ceremony.

For Muslims, the solution is clear: the Qur’an exhorts the believers to enter Islam wholeheartedly.

O ye believe! Enter into Islam wholeheartedly, and follow not the footsteps of Satan, for he is to you an avowed enemy.’ (Qur’an 2:208].

Muslimedia - March 1-15, 1997

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 1

Shawwal 21, 14171997-03-01

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