Friday 09 Jun 2023
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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on March 27, 2023 - April 2, 2023

Like many Muslims, I eagerly await the month of Ramadan. To me, the holy month is like an annual circuit breaker in life, where I take a pause and set aside time for spiritual reflection, to correct wrongs, be closer to Allah and ultimately strive to be a better Muslim throughout the years ahead.

Ramadan is not just about fasting — abstaining from eating food and drinking water from sunrise to sunset. It is a month when Muslims should practise self-restraint, be patient, be kind and generous to the poor, set a good example and be respectful to others, including non-Muslims.

It is a month when Muslims pray more, read and understand the Quran better, increase their ibadah and good deeds, and are expected to talk less. It is a month when Muslims are encouraged to keep away from nonsensical debates and arguments and certainly not spread lies that can cause disunity and political instability.

In a politically toxic Malaysia, where lies, misinformation and disinformation are rampant in the cyber world and if not controlled can harm racial harmony, Ramadan is a timely circuit breaker that is needed to cool things down. And maybe for Muslims to realise that in Islam, to lie, slander and cast aspersions on fellow human beings is a big sin, including postings in cyberspace, which is dominated by anonymous and suspicious characters.

The Quran says: “And, for what your tongues describe, do not utter the lie, (saying) This is lawful and this is unlawful, in order to forge a lie against Allah; surely those who forge the lie against Allah shall not prosper” (Surah 16 verse 116).

After proclaiming the syahadah — testifying that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad (peace be upon him) is his messenger and practising the five pillars of Islam and adhering to its six pillars of faith — being a good Muslim is mostly about caring for the family and society.

A prominent Arab columnist, Abdulateef Al-Mulhim, says, “Our prophet (peace be upon him) has defined a Muslim as a person from whose hands and tongue (come acts and words that make) other people remain safe. Simply put, a true Muslim is not supposed to harm any individual (Muslim or non-Muslim) either physically or verbally. Most of the Islamic teachings are concerned with an individual’s behaviour towards society, his parents, children, spouse, the environment and the needy. Ideally, being Muslim is all about being nice to others.”

In another narration, the prophet said, “Do not treat people but in the way you would love to be treated by them.”

Malaysians in general are tired of the racial and religious issues being played up in the political gallery. And what is worrying is that, in some social media and online platforms, these issues are gaining momentum, to the point where disinformation dominates.

In recent weeks, questions on racial and religious issues have been raised again by some Malays, including politicians, as if the Malays, who form the majority of the population and are in control of the government and the country’s administration, are under threat.

In a democracy, these issues can indeed be raised — but it should be done in the right manner through healthy discussions and not in an offensive mode, more so over social media, where hatred, basically, has overtaken any sense of rationality.

And these issues seem to never go away, and are continuously propagated by the same political parties, non-governmental organisations and personalities. Let’s take some of the issues highlighted in recent weeks, namely, the controversial movie Mentega Terbang and the accusation that Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh is spreading Christianity under the ministry’s Jom Ziarah programme.

The movie, which was first streamed in 2021 — when no action was taken — has content that goes against Islamic teachings. Many Hollywood and Bollywood movies have content that goes against Islamic teachings, too, but the issue of banning or removing them from streaming services does not arise. Mentega Terbang has come to be highlighted today because it is a religious issue that can be weaponised for the political gain of some.

Yes, it will be good for Malaysian movie makers, if they want to broach matters that they are not certain about or could be deemed offensive to Islam, to check with the regulators and Islamic departments first. But, for those involved in making the movie to be now threatened with death is unacceptable and against the sanctity of Islam, a religion that promotes peace.

Muslims’ first defence against such misunderstandings is to explain their side of the story according to their beliefs, why such issues would cause controversies, and not to resort to violence or threats.

For Yeoh, I suspect it will be a long political battle for her, but one that she can win eventually. As a state assemblywoman for Subang Jaya — where I am a resident — for many years, she had been a friendly figure to many mosques here. Many of us Muslims have accepted her as a responsible leader who cares about the residents and the mosque’s qariah (community) and their activities.

Now that a police report has been lodged and the matter is being investigated, let the case proceed accordingly. If the accuser — who now adds that there is a conspiracy by the police to cover up Yeoh’s alleged wrongdoings, as the investigation officers are Chinese — is found to be lying, and indirectly threatening national harmony, then he should be punished according to the law.

As we are facing six state elections that are due to be held in July or August, expect the flames of such religious issues to be continuously fanned by irresponsible people. I just hope that during Ramadan, the Hari Raya period and the Haj month in June, the rising temperature will be toned down somewhat.

This narrative that Islam is under threat in Malaysia, while it can be dismissed by some of us as frivolous, is an argument that, if not explained and countered well, will be believed by many Malays and Muslims in the long run.

But I just do not buy the argument that we Muslims can be easily influenced and could end up changing our faith. There are Muslims who are not pious or who do not religiously follow the rules set by Islam; nevertheless, Islam remains close to their hearts.

I always cite my family as an example. Before the Japanese conquered Malaya during World War II, my mother was schooled at Convent Kajang. My wife received her secondary education at Assunta. Both schools started as full-fledged missionary schools in this country. As a family, we have led a normal Muslim life.

Since the time that the Malays in the Malay archipelago embraced Islam, leaving behind Hinduism or animism, they have held steadfastly to their religion. Not even after 400 to 500 years of Portuguese, Dutch and English colonialism and the work of their Christian missionaries — and in the case of Southern Thailand, which is still under a Buddhist government today — have the Malays lost faith in Islam.

Now, in an independent Malaysia, the position of Islam is well entrenched and protected by the Constitution. As it is, the law here does not permit a Muslim to renounce Islam as his religion.

So, why, then, is the issue that Islam is supposedly under threat — after 66 years of independence — still being played up? The only logical answer that comes to mind is that it is alive because it is continuously being fanned by notably irresponsible politicians, their supporters and cyber-troopers — just to help them win votes to become the government of the day.

If Islam is under threat, then the biggest threat comes from corruption, which the religion really abhors and forbids. Islam is under threat by poverty and income inequality. Islam is under threat by the narrow and rigid interpretation of what the religion is all about. Islam is under threat by those who instil hatred towards others in a multiracial multi-religious Malaysia.

Islam has seen great and progressive civilisations in the past, producing empires such as the Ottoman, Umayyad, Abbasid and Spain’s Andalusia. From Damascus to Baghdad, Cordoba, Toledo, Cairo and Samarkand, they have built cities that were famed as centres of knowledge.

Mohammad Abdulkarim Al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League and president of the Organisation of Muslim Scholars said, “Tolerance: It is both a religious and moral duty, a sacred tenet of Islam. Without tolerance, we would face only endless misunderstandings, disharmony and strife.

“We must learn to accept one another. We must accept our differences and embrace and emphasise our commonalities. We must strive to defeat our common enemies — the extremists who seek to undermine the sacred Islamic principle of mercy, empathy and love. We must work together to spread goodness in this world.”

Ramadan is a time for reflection for many Muslims. Let us channel our energies, during this holy month, and the months afterwards, towards saying and doing fewer bad things and more good ones. As the wise Arab proverb reminds us: “Every war — between nations, family and friends — ­begins with words”.

Azam Aris is an editor emeritus at The Edge

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