This is the first of a three-part social commentary on the religious practices of Muslims in Malaysia, deemed to be surprisingly superficial by the writer. In this opening act, the writer explores briefly the meaning of Ramadhan and some of the spiritual crimes that Muslims commit as a result of their detachment between scripture and reality.
We find ourselves now near the end of Holy Ramadhan. During these last 10 days, God-seeking Muslims embark on a spiritual hunt for the Night of Power, stated in the Qur’an to be “better than a thousand months”. In classical Arabic, such superlatives were used to show the sheer magnitude of a certain notion. The Holy Book and accompanying ahadeeth (narrations) of the Prophet Muhammad tell of how Lailatul Qadar (referred to hereafter as “Laila”) is the mother quest of pious quests each year, so much so that a whole chapter in the former (albeit short) is dedicated to it, with one verse elsewhere speaking of the night as when God metes His Will on his creation, determining their fate to come.
For all its splendour, though, no consensus been has reached regarding which of the last 10 nights Laila will fall upon. This reflects a concept of piety (iman) which runs throughout the gist of Islamic spiritualism: manifesting one’s faith not according to a single, objective point in time, but rather, as a stream of deeds, a perpetual arrangement of dots connected to each other by lines of spirituality. Indubitably, scattered throughout the corpus of the ahadeeth are detailings of how certain times in a day, a week, a month, or even a year are the best instances to pray, supplicate to God, or engage in other good deeds. But the well-known anonymous quote “live as if you were to live for a thousand years and pray as if you were to die tomorrow” captures the overall message of Islam best, in my opinion. It best conveys the notion of constancy and consistency in living the faith.
Live as if you were to live for a thousand years and pray as if you were to die tomorrow.
Laila is the ultimate symbol of esotericism, of submission to God and the yearning to be amongst those who receive His blessing. Tranquillity of the soul is achieved by engaging in numerous religious rituals carried out for the duration of the night. Prayer and supplication leave not the lips of the God-fearer. Movement succeeds movement and prostration threads through to prostration, the servant’s joints bending and straightening in serene unison, rotating only on command and otherwise staying still, as if it were they themselves in awe of the Supreme Entity.
Such is the proof of one’s faith – actual action and speech, as opposed to solitary residence of belief in the heart, for embers turn to ashes if left untended. Rituals of worship are not the be-all and end-all of piety in Islam, but they are reflective of the willingness of the doer to heed to divine commands which take them away from both the demands and comforts of worldly life. “‘Ibadah” are what they are termed as in Arabic, and this roots from “‘abd”, which literally means “slave” or “servant”. As such, they serve to remind the individual of life’s purpose: obedience to the Sustainer, the Giver of life, which is the reason they are to be carried out on a continual basis and are only amplified during Ramadhan.
Ramadhan is supposed to be the madrasah (school or institution) in which we rethink and recharge our faith. The underlying problem here is that we’re so used to defining religion in terms of ritual worship alone that we forget its quintessence: to produce good conduct through submission to God and the practice of morals and values that have been prescribed in His book and via His Prophet. Theoretically, the awareness of the presence of God at all times should be sufficient for a Muslim to act according to His decree (what is known as “ihsan”). We diligently engage in prayer, supplication, fasting, and the paying of zakat (the rough equivalent of tithe to the Christians). We embark on the hajj year after year, and the attire that society perceives holy men to wear is another matter altogether – sport a beard, a skullcap and a jubah (Arabic garb), and before you know it, the guy next to you in the mosque is addressing you as “ustaz”.
The fix that the Muslim populace (ummah) has found itself in, again, is that we obsess ourselves with outwardliness and with acts of worship (as we rightly should), but what they do to nurture the soul oftentimes doesn’t mirror the beauty of the acts themselves. We enjoy chanting supplications in unison, reading the Qur’an in groups, and attending talks at mosques, broadcasting them through speakers to the surrounding neighbourhoood (a practice which many well-meaning Muslims don’t agree with, actually). In fact, we love rituals so much that we sometimes supersede the practices of the early Muslims closest to Prophet Muhammad. But where Laila is supposed to be the zenith of one’s selflessness and spiritual surrender to God, I find that the dissociation between our rituals of worship and its sequelae to be rather reflective of selfishness.
Where would one begin if one were to speak of the soulless depravity in which we’ve found ourselves? To be Muslim is to have every little, infinitesimal action and deed in life parallel the spirit and mandate of the Qur’an and Sunnah (the Way of the Prophet). We’re only human and even the best of us forget this in moments of loss of self-control, but what we’ve got today is a mass-scale lack of comprehension of our scripture. This is no understatement; traditionally, Muslims learn to read the Qur’an in Arabic from young, but just go around and you’ll see that most of us leave it on our shelves once we’ve finished going through it once. We’ve neither an abundance of civic values nor “Islamic” ones to be proud of. And the bigger, even more saddening predicament is that a lot of us don’t realise that the all-encompassing nature of Islam comprises both. There is no separation between what we mistakenly recognise as values exclusive to the faith and those we deem to be universal.
This superficialism of religious observation brings about a disjointing effect that reverberates in areas of conduct that may escape our minds. Where the Qur’an tells us to not throw ourselves into destruction (2:195), we habitually throw caution to the wind when we are on the roads, running red lights and using emergency lanes unnecessarily (causing some fatalities in the process, too). We chain-smoke away to the detriment of ourselves and to others, and when smoking has been decreed to be forbidden (as if we weren’t already aware of it), we turn to vaping in pretense of tapering off our addiction, but actually desiring to look trendy and looking for another way to satisfy our fix. I can barely come across a Muslim here in Malaysia who hasn’t at least once lit a fag!
Where the Holy Book tells us to verify a piece of news from a less-than-credible source before spreading it (49:6), we readily send (mis)information over social media with all the fervor of those who suffer from lack of attention. This is the kind of toxic hate mentality we just love to take on. It’s the same mentality that we accord ourselves when we mete out vigilante justice on a wrongdoer (when in Islam, only the state should punish an individual for a crime). We don’t analyse situations enough before acting, we’re not forgiving enough and we just indulge in stamping on and lynching others’ character. Apparently, we either don’t ask God enough to instill mercy in our hearts when we pray, or we do, but we don’t actually mean it and don’t put in enough of our own effort to nurture ourselves after we’ve folded up the praying mat.
Where scripture tells us to speak in the best of manners (16:125), we often give in to impatience and disregard others’ feelings when we utter our words, which inevitably leads not-yet-Muslims to have the impression that Islam is a religion of specific rituals and not much in the way of servitude to humanity and altruism. I find it so vexing that there exist Muslims who involve themselves in gangsterism; can they not fill the void in their hearts by turning to the Qur’an and contributing to society in some way? I think it’s no coincidence, either, that race-based “Muslim” parties more often than not portray themselves (inadvertently or not) as brash and arrogant. Don’t they know that Muhammad spent 40 years building credibility through good conduct before his prophethood?
And these are just but a few of the ummah’s collective faults, and not even the worst of them yet.