Article by Ustaz Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail
PERGAS (Persatuan ‘Ulama’ dan Guru-guru Agama Islam Singapura)
or The Islamic Scholars & Religious Teachers Association Singapore
For NUSMS (National University of Singapore Muslim Society) Quarterly Journal “The Fount”
Many fanfares have been made about this new millenium. Although Muslims follow a different calendar system (the Hijri calendar), but because of historical as well as the reality of living in the ‘global village’ which uses the Gregorian calendar determination, the revelry in observing the change of time is also felt by us. But what is there to commemorate?
The sword of time
Shift in moments and time gives us opportunity for reflection and more importantly, it beckons us to reaffirm or even to re-orientate our own life journey for ultimately the crucial factor in this exercise (of ushering a new era) is to determine what we want to have for our future. There is an interesting saying in Arabic: “Al-waqtu ka-al-sayf, in-lam taq-ta’uu qa-ta-’ak” (Time is like the sword, if you do not [use it to] cut, it will cut you). This is a positive reminder of what time is, very much in accord with the Islamic notion, that man has been given the freewill to strive in life and striving to determine what his future should be. And the ‘sword’ conjures both the swiftness of its stroke as well as its twin positive-negative potential, i.e. either for or against us. We are not fatalists, i.e. to simply leave everything to fate. We have certain freewill to chart our lives. But what do we mean by ‘freewill’?
Freedom and freewill – what do they mean?
Lest some people may misconstrue this concept with the notion of “freedom” in the Western sense (thus we find some has mistakenly use the Arabic the term “hur-riyyah” for ‘freewill’), let us consider the Islamic perspective on this. The meaning of “hurriyyah” is connected more towards the freeing or removing oneself from something, which is constraining him against his will. For a Muslim, to agree to this Western concept without referring it (i.e. qualifying it) to the Islamic perspective would be naïve. The very fact that ‘Islam’ requires of us Muslims, our submission and obedience to a higher power (Allah and His Messenger), we (as Muslims) therefore have already agreed to be constrained by all its stipulated ideals. Therefore our agreement to this concept of freedom should not be like that of the non-Muslims. Were Muslims to blindly imitate this obsession for freedom (in the Western notion) it would imply agreeing to even freeing oneself from the loyalty to Islam itself. Such would be termed in Islam as rebelliousness (al-‘isw-yaan) and it tantamount to a Muslim renouncing his religion (irtidad i.e. becoming a murtad). Na-‘uudzubillaah!  Thus when we ponder deeply upon these two terms i.e. “freedom” and “Islam”, in the absence of any qualification, these would be incompatible terms. Perhaps what we need to clarify is that in Islam, we do recognize that within our nature, we do have freedom to make choices i.e. a free will. And with it man should assert this right responsibly. We, in Islam advocate “freedom” in the sense that by freewill here (referring to the potential in every human to make a choice according to his own will), it should be positively directed towards exercising the freedom only in what is good, not what is harmful and bad. Thus we are qualifying that “freedom” is not in the absolute sense, not as though it can be invoke to condone choices made irresponsibly. Therefore by ‘freewill’ we do not mean “hur-riyyah” (which presupposes something that is constraining one, from which one wants to free oneself from e.g. like freedom from colonial rule) but rather the appropriate term used in Islam is the term “ikhtiyar” (which also imply free volition or the right to choose but not absolute freedom).
According to Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas Founder Director of ISTAC and one of the most prominent Muslim thinkers today, the term “ikhtiyar”, which also include this innate volition to act according to our will, but it delimits the scope of our choice within things which is good or better and does not condone the choosing of what is harmful and wrong. Interestingly, he argues, the word ‘ikhtiyar’ has ‘khayr’ (good), – ‘akh-yaar’ (better or superior) as the root. Therefore by the exercise of our freewill in the Islamic perspective, it is the freedom for us towards choosing only what is ‘right and good’. Western notion of freedom implies that choice is also for the ‘right to’ doing of what is bad and wrong. Thus, for them, individual right and freedom are not delimited and somehow they are even trying to extend it to freedom to self-destruct! Islam does not agree to such notion of freedom. This confusion in their concept of ‘freedom’ perhaps may account for their ‘iconoclastic’ tendencies towards all traditional value system (ethico-religio), and the obsession of wanting to free themselves from whatever they perceive as constrains.
In Islam, our concept of freedom (i.e. the freewill termed as “ikhtiyar”) cannot allow for such anarchic license. It is not a matter of freedom (ikhtiyar) for man to be at liberty to indulge in what is ‘bad and wrong.’ Though man may direct this free volition even to indulge in evil and wrong, but to be indulging in these (bad and wrong) would be termed as “zulm” (i.e. meaning one has “committed injustice and oppression” to oneself) and not an act of ‘ikhtiyar’. And since the society is obliged to uphold justice (as a collective social responsibility) and prevent or disallow such things from being done, such restrictions is not at all against personal freedom. Surely, there must be a limit to what we mean by “freedom”. This distinction is important as more young Muslims now seemed to be attracted to the ‘liberal’ ideas of freedom (as expounded by modernist) and yet they are ignorant of the profound difference in perspective in the meaning of ‘freedom’. Is the ‘freedom’ to be understood in the absolute sense? Surely not! Without clarification on this point, many young Muslims may be led to misconstrue the teachings of Islam, or even agree to the criticism levelled by the Westerners upon it. In my discussion with Dr. Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud (ISTAC), he opines that what these Westerners may misperceive in Islamic society “as curtailment of individual freedom” is actually not acts intended to deprive the individuals of their rights, but rather as preventive action from his committing injustice to his ownself (and thus saving the individual as well as society from harm).
Are we helpless to shape our destiny?
Granted that in life there may be many factors outside man’s control, which may affect him, nevertheless it is imperative that within the areas of his capability, he is expected to exert utmost effort responsibly. Every one of us have a say (nay, a moral responsibility) regarding shaping our destiny. Just like when we are rafting in the white-water rapids, although the inertia to flow in the direction of the river is generally unavoidable, yet we can still steer ourselves safely in avoiding crashing into the rocks; or to even navigate our own course. To leave everything to chance or to be passive would be stupid and unnatural. Surely a man in a raft is unlike the lifeless flotsam and scum. So Muslims even if they are mere minorities, they should preserve their dignity and be positively assertive. In fact characteristics as Muslims are to be conspicuously manifested and not apologetically suppressed. Allah s.w.t. reminds us:
“(Say: Our life takes its) colour from Allah!
And who could give a better colour (to life) than Allah?
And it is He (alone) Whom we worship.
(Qur'an: Baqarah: 138)
If time is that big river, then in our entering the new millenium, just like being swept into the river, we cannot afford to be passive. And if you have tried ‘white-water rafting’ you will know that you cannot allow yourself to be distracted for even a moment but has to constantly struggle. Unfortunately, many young Muslims (perhaps because of their youth they think that they still have much time) are active in a misdirected manner, but sadly they may even be heedless of their own predicament. Their involvement in the revelry can only be described as participation in fun and of sensual pleasures, oblivious, unaware and devoid of wise contemplation as to the meaning of life as taught to them in Islam. It is not surprising that many even imitate the wayward immorality (as could be seen in these festivities) as if they are not Muslims. Such transgression is because of their own forgetfulness in God, leading to their own amnesia (about their identity as Muslims) and injustice (zulm) to themselves. Allah says:
“O You who believe! Remain conscious of Allah; and let every human look to what he sends ahead for the morrow! And [once again]: Remain conscious of Allah, for Allah is fully aware of all that you do;
And be not like those who are oblivious of Allah, and whom He therefore causes to be oblivious of [what is good for] their own selves: [for] it is they, they who are truly depraved.”
(Qur’an: Surah al-Hashr: 59: 18-19)
At the crossroad: Where do we go from here?
So we have entered the new millenium. What does it mean? We see that some people see this new millenium as full of challenges and also new opportunities. And from this they began to make plans and strategies for themselves as to the role that they would like to make. To do this, they would undertake many process of assessment including, most importantly, self-evaluation, or a process which we Muslims are familiar with, termed as “muhaa-sabah” – i.e. from the term ‘hisab’ meaning ‘to count’ therefore “taking account of ones own state.” The attitude in doing this requires sincere introspection of ones own weakness and shortcoming as well as strength. It is not an exercise at seeking justification or self-praise which (na’uu-zubillaah!) can lead to a dangerous spiritual malady of “ ‘ujb” (conceit). In view of this, the approach may even be very critical, biting and bitter. Even to the extent of sounding brash and condescending (to our ego), but it is only with such frankness that perhaps this exercise in ‘muhaa-sabah’ can be panacea against our self-deceiving nature, which has kept us from any real progress. Perhaps, we can wake ourselves up from the malaise of inaction. Sometimes we do suffer from ‘denial’ i.e. although we do acknowledge problems within us, we tend to be overly lenient to ourselves and gloss over these or even try to seek excuses for ourselves, i.e. justifying these shortcomings. This ‘denial’ is an obstacle. Whereas, it is said, “to acknowledge (and accept the existence of the) problem is already half the solution.” So ‘muhaa-sabah’ is not an exercise in futility. But, do we know or dare we to own up to our shortcomings?
In taking account of our status, before anything else, we should consider what is closest to us. We have to begin to look at our self; to consider our identity. The most glaring malady suffered by our present generation is crisis in identity. This is further accentuated by the obsession amongst our young to imitate others. And the media, with its obsession towards promoting fashion and lifestyle thrives in germinating sub-cultures and impose weird role models for the young, as though these are the norm to be followed. This compounds the problem. The young minds, so used to superficiality, are bedazzled by the ‘hip’ and the trendy, are ever so quick to embrace them but failed to firstly ponder about their own selves as Muslims. Do they not stop to think deeply and reflect? Alas, it has been admitted that the current ‘education’ system, although good at making our students to pass examinations, yet regrettably it has failed to make our students to think! Lacking the ability of profound discernment, they are constantly bombarded by the media blitzkrieg – a kind of mass hypnotism or brainwashing. But as Muslims, Islam expects us to always think and contemplate. Not just thinking superficially, but to be profound. So, do we profoundly know our identity? Some may easily respond by saying “We know, we are Muslim!” But have they pondered, “what do you mean by being ‘Muslims’ ”?
What’s in the label? A reflection
We have to admit that we, Muslims have taken many things for granted. We tend to justify and console ourselves when it comes to how much we have done. We do not fully realize that for us Muslims, there is already a model community whose standards and achievement we are supposed to measure ourselves with (not something Utopian, but a real community, which is historical – therefore achievable, not idealism). By standards here we are concern about the qualitative norm. In fact this term ‘Muslim’ was conferred by Allah s.w.t. and not a label manufactured by men. Although it is an Arabic term (proper noun or a name), it is also (adjective) descriptive for it means “one who submits and obey, surrender to the will of God” according to the right interpretation of the Qur’an and As-Sunnah. The early Muslims, our pious predecessors, wore it with gratitude and responsibility. They strove diligently to manifest all sublime qualities, which this term signifies and they were people approved by Allah. And while they were alive, they never rested on mere label of ‘Muslim’ but always considered what their actual states were. All of them regarded the term ‘Muslims’ as a title of honour to be proven in their lives. Being Muslims meant one who is committed to live a life of constant striving in submission to the Will of our Creator. Thus Muslims are reminded to always remain conscious (taqwa) and not heedless, as the state of Islam is in our being:
“O you who attained to faith! Be conscious of Allah with all the consciousness that is due to Him, and do not allow death to overtake you ere you have surrendered yourselves unto Him (muslimuun).”
(Qur’an: ali-‘Imran: 3:102)
Alas, today we take the label ‘Muslim’ for granted. Labels commonly used, or are attached to us, but without any real understanding on our part as to what it really means. When we say we are Muslims, we are in fact asserting a claim. But are we fully cognizant of this claim? What is being Muslim all about? Is it a heritage, which our forefathers have left to us, just as being Malay is? And we may even ask, “what is Malay?” Such self-searching questions are indeed an important start. Too much confusion has arisen nowadays in the use of these labels, without any real attempt at educating the masses regarding its true definitions, meanings and import. Not many are concern as to whether the common understanding of these terms amongst people are correct or have they become blurred and corrupted. Who is there to clarify and correct? Has the ambiguity (if any) been clarified? In the absence of this effort, the media can easily manipulate and create stereotypes leading to Islamaphobia. . What is even worst is that there are hybrids of terminology that are being coined by people nowadays and it only compounded the confusion. Any superficial responses to this only reflect our own superficiality. Being apologetic sometimes lead many Muslims into agreeing to the ‘strawman’ which non-Muslim tried to use against Islam. Example there are some who advocate that Muslim should follow “Moderate Islam” as though there can be many versions or forms of Islam in the various shades of extremity! The term, which the community of Muslims is recognised by the Qur’an is already defined as “balance and moderate” (ummatan wasotan) as clearly stated in al-Baqarah: 2:143. This clearly shows that Islam, as a religion, is one advocating justice, balance and moderation; in essence Islam is a moderate religion. To agree to the additional usage of the adjective ‘moderate’ to the word ‘Islam’ is denying this obvious inherent characteristic of Islam. The implication of wanting us to agree to this new label (i.e. Moderate Islam) is that with our acceptance of it, now they can demonise Islam and they (secularist) are clamouring for Muslims not to be too religious, but practice their religion ‘moderately’! But actually, if Islam is already a moderate religion, to be extremely religious is rather good and should be welcomed i.e. ultimately that Muslim is becoming extremely moderate!
With the above-mentioned reflection of the confusion, we Muslims can easily be distracted from what is supposed to be the priority. It even may have stifled and stagnated our understanding of Islam by our mere acceptance of such common misassumption to meanings of terms. Our conceit (thinking that our knowledge of Islam is adequate) causes us to disregard profound works of traditional Islamic scholars and this lead to leveling as though we are at par with them. This inevitably leads to mediocrity in what we (the current Muslims) can produce, since seldom do we try to adequately study their works. Whereas to produce quality Islamic scholars is a strategic need for the future of the community, yet it is left for individual to take the initiative. Our community seems hesitant to invest in future ulama’ (Islamic scholars) i.e. by sending them to study Islam in an inter-disciplinary manner in excellent Islamic institution of higher learning. In the absence of community support in this endeavor, some who pursue further studies in Islam (mostly through their own private initiative) tends to choose easy and less demanding institutions And when this becomes a common attitude in academia, the quality of future scholars will definitely be affected. When no attempt is made to review and reconsider our own understanding of Islam itself by first learning thoroughly from earlier sources i.e. works of our past authoritative traditional Islamic scholars, respectfully, it will actually compound a dangerous and pervasive malady – ‘confusion in knowledge.’ Orientalists and those who attempts to offer their ‘novel’ interpretation of Islam (although these people are not Muslim, or they may be people who even showed antagonism towards Islam) would mistakenly but eagerly acknowledged as learned and regarded as resource by some Muslims! Laa-haw-la walaa-quw-wataa il-laa bil-laah! This typifies ignorance (jahl) in our community. What is worse is that because of the mistaken feeling of being enlightened, especially when currently Muslims like to quote from these Western sources and yet they are completely oblivious to Islamic sources (i.e. the traditional Islamic scholars’ views), it becomes compound ignorance (jahil muraqqab), whereby any attempt to correct whatever misconception arising from such learning is vehemently opposed by them and conveniently labeled as ‘antiquated’ in our thoughts. Muslims then become easy prey to unnecessary dilemma, when these works (Orientalist writings, ideas and re-interpretations) highlight differences amongst Muslims and raising issues between the ‘progressive’ versus ‘orthodoxy’ and suggesting labels of ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme’ Islam/Muslims. In their pursuit of knowledge, this development may lead to a rise in false leadership amongst the new generation of Muslims, especially those who will be looked up as Islamic scholars and intellectuals. It becomes a norm nowadays for those hoping to attain academic titles, to be tutored by Orientalist professors and scholars, who insist that their student must prove themselves capable of demolishing works of classical and authoritative Islamic scholars. Even if these students may be required to read classical Islamic sources; it is to be done with a skeptical bias. This culture leads to subtle usurpation of the traditional scholars’ position through false redefinition and perpetuation of skepticism of the works of great classical Islamic scholars. Instead of giving us further illumination to ideas, some of these mediocre so-called newfound theses regarding Islam seem only capable of adding doubts and confusion. Whereas they are not even any where in the same league as these great Islamic scholars in terms of, not only erudition, profundity and scholarship, but also in their piety, religious devotion and sincere commitment to Islamic ideals. Yet they dare to display such arrogance by levelling the scholars down to their level or pretentiously elevating themselves to the ranks of these celebrated scholars! Some Western institutes do not hide their aims and agenda as a project at secularization of the Muslims. They use terms like ‘intellectualizing Islam’ as though Islam is devoid of such character. And the naïve Muslims who are somewhat bedazzled to anything Western (remnant of colonial mindset) are advocating that our young minds be sent to these Western institutions to learn Islam (even when their Islamic background has not as yet been adequately strengthen). Some may think that obtaining academic certificate from such centers is important since these centers are recognized by the world. Yet they overlook the possibility that our young minds sent there could be exposed to anti-Islamic programs and indoctrination. These students who finally may become the future leaders in their community, may inadvertently follow in the foot-steps of their non-Islamic mentors and continues further attempts at changing the Muslim minds through deconstruction and re-definition devoid of any constructive value (it is to be noted that this seems to be a trend of post-modernity). When such trained scholars assumed control in their community, the next phase could inevitably be attempts to remove or neutralize all Islamic religious institutions. Have any of these symptoms occurred? Should we allow this to happen?
We have to be grateful?
As Muslims, Muslims should use every occasion towards remembrance of Allah with gratefulness. Being aware of the Existence of Allah and His Oneness, we view every experience in life as favors from Him. Only those who acknowledge Allah s.w.t. as the ‘Robb’(Lord, Nourisher, Sustainer and Cherisher) would inevitably becomes conscious of his own place as the servant and slave of Allah. We know that being a ‘servant or slave’ of Allah is not mere labels. Though none may claim to be already perfect, yet it cannot be an excuse for not putting our best in fulfilling the true meaning of our becoming Muslims. As we witness the changing era, how shall we Muslims adapt without loosing his or her essential identity as people who bow to the will of Allah (al-Muslimoon)? Be ever grateful that we are already Muslims. And our being amongst non-Muslims is our challenge as witnesses as it provides us with opportunity to integrate with those who value rational and intellectual exchanges, yet we are to remain true to our Islamic vision of Truth, Reality and identity. Though as sure as time will either change us or we change with the time, yet we do have a choice (ikhtiyar) not to become losers:
Consider the flight of Time! Verily, man is bound to lose himself unless he be of those who attain to faith, and do righteous deeds, and enjoin upon one another the keeping to truth, and enjoin upon one another patience in adversity”
(Qur’an: al-Asr: 103:1-3)
Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail
“Verily, God does not change men’s condition unless they change their inner selves” (Qur’an: ar-Ra’ad:13:11)
 “It is He (Allah) Who has named you – in bygone times as well as in this [divine writ] – “al-Muslimiin” (those who have surrendered themselves to Allah), so that the Messenger might bear witness to the truth before you, and that you might bear witness to it before all mankind.” (al-Hajj:22:78)
 Example how can such term viz. ‘Muslim-terrorist’ be accepted? How can ‘one who submits to God’s will’ (Muslim) be at the same time ‘an agent of terror’ (terrorist)? In one symposium I have asserted that “if a crime is committed by any one, call him a criminal, but please do not attached his religious affiliation as this is, not only irrelevant, but unjust to the religion!” Yet, only the label ‘Muslims’ is being used in this manner by the media. We have not heard terms like ‘Christian-terrorists’ or ‘Hindu-terrorist’ or Buddhist terrorists’ etc.
 Other terms that needs our clarification as it may aggravate the confusion are:
[a] The common reference to “Malay-Muslim” – it may further entrench the misconception that Islam is exclusively a Malay religion. If one were to understand what ‘Malay’ is, there is already an implied affiliation to the religion of Islam. (refer my write-up on “Melayu Baru?” dated Dec 2000).
[b] “Melayu Baru” – as though there can be another sub-group of the Malay race. Actually, people with certain agenda are sowing seeds for the deconstruction of the long-held notion of “Melayu”. Historically, the emergence of the Malay race is the effect of Islamization, and is already ‘novel’ and ‘new’. By suggesting “Baru” (new) to the label “Melayu”, perhaps these postmodernist is advocating a change, offering sort of a licence for Malay to remain “Melayu” but without any attachment to Islam and to long-held traditional as well as Islamic values.