Monday, March 14, 2011

The Rainbow Association: our version.

Since arriving at Pitt, I have taken courses focusing on the Middle East and Islam almost every semester: Islamic Civilization, Mediterranean World, and Islamism and Terrorism. Given, my History major concentration is in the Middle East, thus I am quite well acquainted with these topics. I have learned so much more about Islam in two years than I ever did for twenty years in Malaysia because back home, everything is treated as a propaganda, even (or especially?) our education system. So, it is impossible to be objective and learn beyond practice of those outside our own comfort zone.

It was over a year ago, nevertheless, I still remember clearly the thought that struck me when Professor Pinar talked about the four Islamic schools of thought. After introducing the Imams and their legacies that had lasted over centuries till present, she said something that goes roughly like this: “Even though the Muslim world follows different madhabs, each one of them is respected and regarded as equals to one another.” It was at that moment that I scoffed under my breath. Respected? Maybe they are acknowledged in Malaysia, but I have heard strict adherents to the Shafi school of thought simply dismissing all the rest. Why is that? All four of them were great Islamic scholars in their own right that just happened to have different interpretations of the Quran and Hadith. My point being they are humans, not prophets; just people who were very blessed with the ability to memorize, understand, and analyze the contexts of the Quran and Hadith in order to come up with rulings on fiqh that are highly agreed upon.

Another embarrassing moment was when we were discussing Wahhabism in class. Confidently, I raised my hand and gave my incorrect two cents and said that I did not think it was another sub-branch of Islam, just another set of beliefs some choose to follow. How ignorant was I. But the point is, did we even learn about Wahhabism in our eleven years at school (public everyday school, that is)? Even if we did, I bet it is to de-Islamize them. Why can't we introduce all the sects of Islam without condemning any one?

And that is what I’m getting at. Islam is a universal religion that could withstand the test of time and place. Precisely for that, Allah gave us the greatest gift of all – our mind (akal). He provides us with guidelines, but we are told to reason in order to implement them. God told us in the Quran, “Do you order righteousness of the people and forget yourselves while you recite the Scripture? Then will you not reason?” [2:44]. Although the practice of ijtihad is no longer allowed after scholars had come to a consensus centuries ago, who are we, mere humans who have sinned in the eyes of God, to call others heretics just because we hold certain biases? For example, I do not understand why is it that in Malaysia we acknowledge other religions (which is good and should be continued), but we do not allow Muslims who practice Shi'ism to be part of our community? Understandably, some are afraid those with few knowledge and weak understanding could easily be led astray. But who are we to call Shi'ites heretics? Aren’t they Muslims too? Don’t they believe in the same God and prophets? They may do certain things differently, and believe in a different history, but they are our brothers and sisters too.

Before coming to the States, I had a really good conversation about Islam with an aunt who I respect a lot because of her enthusiasm in reading and discovering Islam, which I find endearing as I love to do the same thing too. As laymen, we are not supposed to make ijtihads, except based on qiyas. Thus, there is no wrong in looking at a variety of sources to make judgments based on analogies. Anyway, as we were talking about a couple of hadiths that are less popular among those widely circulated in Malaysia, she reminded me to be sensitive of our elders, and I agree. Most of them are not well-read and tend to follow blindly the teachings of their ustaz and ustazah (which is not wrong, and is in fact encouraged to non-scholars). Then, about a month after coming to the States, I had another conversation with a person I highly respect over here. She told me how a cleric in the United States once mentioned that some things are better left unsaid because most elders – especially those in the Nusantara region – are incapable of handling different opinions. And I agree, again. This is just history repeating itself. Remember Kaum Tua of the early 20th century?

The conclusion I can make is that Muslims in Malaysia are lucky; sadly, because of that, they are ignorant of the existence of other Muslim communities around the world. I have heard a lot of sarcasm from Malaysians targeting other Muslims including, but not limited to, the other non-Shafi madhabs, Wahhabis, Sufis, Salafis, and Shi'ites, and I was never able to get it around my head. Before these people even begin considering criticizing the West for being insensitive to the plight of Muslims worldwide, why don’t they look into the mirror first. I am very glad that I have the opportunity to be where Muslims in an abaya, sari, with hands on their hearts, and some by their sides, can pray next to each other in harmony everyday. Islam is not rigid, but because Malaysia is a big upside-down tempurung, a lot fail to recognize its beauty.

Prophet Muhammad (saw) said that the Mujtahid will get two rewards if he is correct and one reward if he commits a mistake (Abu Dawood). Therefore, shouldn't we strife to use our reason in making deductions because it is, well, risk-free?


Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Concerts are my kryptonite. None is perfect, but we can strive to be, can’t we? Through my arrogance, I try to find the time to tweak my weaknesses. Pride is definitely further from the truth. Excuses shall not be sufficient, yet they are all I can offer in this state of shame. In my lowest form, I am humbled by the acknowledgment that I’ve wronged a lot of people. Everyone has their flaw, and the best I can do is to refrain from judging; for only speaking of it now, I apologize. If God is willing, then it shall be.

Funny how this train of thought occurred while I was at the Lady Gaga concert last weekend. She is the person who is my generation’s Michael Jackson, the Freak of all freaks, whom I was not supposed to pay a single dollar to see do none but prance around on stage – so the wisdom goes. But I’m weak. I’m a slave to good music, especially when it is put to life on stage. I do not go to parties. I do not go to clubs. I understand the profanity of a tudung-clad girl being in a dark and small room. But an arena is huge, and most of the people who paid the 20, 50, 100, 200, or 350 dollars to be there, I believe, are more concerned with enjoying the music than with anything else. Again, I apologize for the excuses, but this is it – this is me.

Lady Gaga is a true artist. Her passion is reflected in her art. Traces of her fingerprint are everywhere from her costume, to the props, to her script, and especially in her music. Her sincerity is proven in her humility when talking about the rough waves she had to paddle against to get to where she currently is. Unlike my father, I only see splashes of colors on a painting; unlike my mother, I only see columns and roofs on a monument; unlike my brother, I only see talking animals in an animation. Music is the only art I truly understand. Music, literature, and performance art.

So when Lady Gaga swore she had never lip-synched and never will, it resonates with me because I get it. The effort she must have put in to pin her performances is amazing. Thus, when some time in the middle of the show she stopped to scream, “If you’ve ever had someone ever tell you you’re not good enough, you can’t write well enough, you can’t sing well enough, you’ll never win a Grammy – this is for them!” I had none but pure respect for her, because I believe that all of us could relate as we have had at least one person doubting our abilities.

Lady Gaga is a main advocate of the LGBT movement, but does that mean I cannot appreciate her music? Before she ended the show she said something along the line of “If you support equality raise your hands!” True, she’s talking about sexual equality. But on the other hand, I felt like she was talking to me, too. No, I’m not that liberal – I’m talking about social and economic equality. My mind never wanders too far from my homework, I guess. Furthermore, being a minority in a foreign land really opens your eyes to the massive effect of openness and acceptance. For that, I feel that there is some good for Malays in Malaysia to listen to a little bit of Gaga in order to appreciate your legal status better. After all, she did sang "Believe capital H-I-M"...and I do.