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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Faith, Tradition or Confusion?

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One of the things that Walski tries to do on weekends is to catch up on his reading. While doing that today, he came across an article  in The Malaysian Insider written by Zan Azlee, well-known Malaysian documentary filmmaker, who writes a regular column for the online news site.

The article is entitled Let us be blasphemous!, and essentially talks about how anti-intellectualism is nurtured in young Muslims by their ustaz and ustazah. What makes the piece interesting is that it is one of the few times a Muslim in Malaysia writes about natural enquiry when it comes to religion. In particular, the religion we know today as Islam.

Going through the comments section of the article, one commenter left a link to the video you see below, via the very excellent TED site.

For iPad users who can’t view the video, download the free TED application here

Do give the video 17 minutes of your precious time. It raises the very interesting question: is Islam today more to do with faith, or tradition? 
(traditional faithful confusion, and more, in the full post)

The speaker in the video is Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol, deputy editor of the Turkey’s Daily News, better known as Hürriyet. By and large, Turkey is a secular nation, although Islam is the dominant religion. It is also about the only country in the region that was never colonized.

If you did watch the video, Walski, too, has many questions about how certain cultural particularities became part of “Islam”. For instance – and this was brought up in Zan Azlee’s article Walski mentioned earlier – the prohibition on touching dogs. Essentially, when it comes to dogs:

  • It's okay to touch a dry dog, but not a wet one
  • It’s not okay to get licked by a dog (and them canines are fond of doing this if they like you)
  • Angels won’t enter your home if you have dogs

The strange thing is, not a single one of the three appear anywhere in the Quran, considered by Muslims as the primary reference of their faith. More importantly, the Quran is considered by Sunni Muslims as the primary reference for jurisprudence.

But oddly enough, when it comes to Shariah Law, over 90% of it comes from extra-Quranic sources (source: It’s one thing if this is something Walski alone claims. Well, it’s not.

The Quran, in fact, does not prescribe any punishment for personal sins like consuming pork or alcohol, or even apostasy. One exception to this is adultery, but that is arguably not a personal sin per se, but more a social sin since it can give rise to a plethora of other problems. But even then, the prescribed punishment is NOT stoning, which is not mentioned in the Quran as a punishment at all for any sin.

And yet, when it comes to the Shariah, proponents will immediately state that it is “God’s Law”, and therefore must never be challenged or questioned. But if Shariah is “God’s Law”, then why is the bulk of it not contained in God’s User Manual?

We’re not going to debate this here, but this is a question that Walski knows is on the minds on many, Muslim or otherwise. It’s just that the mere act of asking such questions invites all kinds of condemnation. “It’s just the way it is, and therefore can never be questioned” is the kind of answer one would probably get.

In the video, Mustafa Akyol postulates that “Islam” as we know it today evolved and incorporated a number of things that have more to do with culture, and not necessarily divinely ordained.

The culture of suppressing enquiry is certainly not unique to Muslims in Malaysia. In one shape or form, it exists in just about every Muslim community across the globe. But here in our country, this mindset has creeped into things outside the realm of religious discourse.

Politics, for example, is rife with this – particularly in the ongoing argument that PAS should come back into the UMNO fold. All kinds of religious justifications are given – “unity of the ummah” being the most popularly quoted. But history tells us that “Muslims” have been fighting and killing each other – almost non-stop – since the demise of Prophet Muhammad. So, what “unity” are we talking about if not political unity?

Religion is a potent tool, and when used with political ends in mind, it becomes a formidable one. When religious reasons are given why certain things must be so, very few are willing to question such assertions, even though deep down inside there is doubt.

Of late, there have also been murmurings on the ‘Net about it being forbidden for Muslims to involve themselves with DAP, complete with “religious” justifications. What most people probably don’t realize is that it’s all politics. Nothing more, nothing less.

It's easy to use religion for political ends. Particularly on a populace that has been conditioned to not question things that are religious in nature. But that’s another subject for another day.

So, is there a definitive answer to the question that forms this post’s title? Probably not. There will be those who will defend their “Islam” as being God-ordained in its entirety, despite the glaring inconsistencies. There will also be those who go along with what’s socially acceptable, so as not to stick out like a sore thumb, despite having doubts and confusion in their hearts and minds.

And then there will be those – like Walski, Zan Azlee and Mustafa Akyol – whose paths take them to much further enquiry, rather than accepting things the way they are.

It’s a path less traveled, and definitely not a popular one. And sometimes, it can be a very lonely journey, too.