Islam In Malaysia: Perceptions & Facts (Muhammad Asri Zainul Abidin, Matahari Books, 2010)
Tuesday, 2nd November, 2010 § 10 Comments
This is the English edition of Dr. Asri’s Mengemudi Bahtera Perubahan Minda, a compilation of his articles which originally appeared in Mingguan Malaysia. Dr. Asri sought, in those articles, to give a clear understanding of Islam and its practise in Malaysia which he argued has been hijacked by the forces of ignorance, superstition and blind adherence to religious leaders. Seeing as he wrote for a Malay broadsheet, at least half of the nation’s people never read his thoughts on this important subject. It is therefore a commendable effort by Matahari Books for publishing an English edition and U-En Ng who did a wonderful job translating and annotating it.
With 47 of his articles collected here there is much to digest for the Muslim and non-Muslim reader alike. It isn’t an academic tome but a straightforward, no BS book on the state of Islam in Malaysia. To put it succinctly, Dr. Asri believes Islam in Malaysia is in dire straits and needed to be rescued yesterday. Not necessarily rescued by political leaders or religious figures though as the good doctor argues that in many cases it is those authorities who are the most responsible for pulling Islam down to where it is now in Malaysia. No, everyone who considers him or herself a Muslim (regardless of social status) must take responsibility and practise Islam as it was practised by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In order to do that, Malaysian Muslims must totally shed the (mostly racial) prejudice, the superstitions many have associated with Islam and the attitude that the ustaz knows best and he must not be questioned.
Islam in Malaysia is, unfortunately, closely linked to the Malays. I say unfortunately because all the races have taken this as fact without question. Note that the Malaysian constitution states among other things that a person who practises Islam is a Malay. So much so that a Malaysian-Chinese who embraces Islam is seen by his/her Chinese brethren as ‘masuk Melayu‘ (becoming Malay). This is so wrong it’s not even funny. So what do we call the Malays who embrace Christianity? Masuk Orang Putih? or Keluar Melayu?
Some Malays also do not help the situation by upholding this racial theme. Dr. Asri relates in the book how some religious officials have refused to officiate a wedding of a non-Malay Muslim couple because the happy couple were not wearing a Malay style garb. Alamak! One wonders which school these officers graduated from and what did they actually learn while studying at that school.
There are two recurring themes in the doctor’s articles: Islam is easy and that envy should be eschewed. Islam is not a rigid belief system that forces its followers to toe a narrow line. A line must be toed, yes, but it is not narrow. Just follow the Quran and the Sunnah (the example of the Prophet) and you’re good to go. The opinions of the four major schools of thoughts in Islam can be followed but not at the expense of the Quran and Sunnah. Dr. Asri laments that the reverse is true in Malaysia. The Quran and Sunnah is frequently ignored or their teachings skewered to fit the individual’s preferences or that only one school of thought (in Malaysia, usually the Shafi’i school) is adhered to while the other schools are deemed incorrect or inferior. The result is that the Malay-Muslim community is fractured with everybody insisting that his way of practising Islam is correct and that the other guy is an apostate. It is not surprising then that non-Malays are indifferent towards Islam. A religion that, in their eyes, promotes discord is unworthy of attention.
But, Dr. Asri asks, what is there to be surprised about if non-Malays misunderstand Islam? Many low-income Malays visit churches instead of mosques for financial aid, food and shelter. Volunteers from Christian and Buddhist charities visit the sick in hospitals and help them with their daily needs regardless of the patient’s faith or lack thereof. Where are the Muslim volunteers? Isn’t giving charity and visiting the sick two of the most highly recommended practises in Islam? What do the Muslim charities do to help the orphans, for example? Usually these poor souls receive RM50 on Eid ul-Fitri and a visit from a local pop star who needs a PR boost.
There is even a widespread belief that meat from an animal slaughtered for sacrifice on Eid ul-Adha (Raya Haji) and meat for thanksgiving (akikah) is forbidden for non-Muslims. Islam however does not forbid non-Muslims from enjoying meat slaughtered for religious-linked feasts. Yet, the same Malays who prejudicially restrict non-Muslims from eating their meat have no problems sub-contracting their projects or selling their permits and licenses to non-Muslim towkays. Ouch.
It is clear from his writings that Dr. Asri gives the Malays a bashing (if he was a non-Malay he would probably have been arrested under the ISA years ago). But most of all he urges the Malay to question everything, for something that purports to be true should not be afraid to be questioned. Indeed Islam encourages inquiry. Misperceptions take root when no one stands up and says, “But what about…?“.
This book does what it says on the cover; it tells what Islam actually teaches and how Islam is actually practised in Malaysia today. Non-Malays should pick up this book and learn a little something about the most misunderstood religion on Earth. Heck, Malays should pick this up as well come to think of it.
(This book will probably be on sale in all good bookshops by December but you can get it now from publisher Amir Muhammad and you can download three chapters for free as well. Details here.)