KUALA LUMPUR: The year 2017 was eventful for Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, who heads the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), an organisation he formed eight years ago with the aim of empowering Muslims intellectually.
But it was a path full of thorns, especially when not many, especially within Malaysia’s Islamic bureaucracy, share his ideas on Islam.
His arguments in favour of liberal democracy, secularism, and human rights offer a completely refreshing view from what many have been accustomed to. Farouk believes that challenging long-held views thought as “Islamic” is most effective, and credible, by approaching it from the Islamic scholarly tradition.
That did not stop the government from taking action on him amid accusations that he was promoting “liberal Islam”.
Three of the books he edited and published have been banned. In addition, religious authorities have yet to say whether he would be charged for a local shariah offence of abetting Mustafa Akyol – the Turkish writer arrested in Malaysia last September – for “teaching Islam without credentials”.
With such controversies, many wonder if Farouk has had time at all for what he has been trained to do: a medical doctor who specialises in cardiothoracic surgery.
“I’m still very much a doctor, lecturer, and researcher, despite my other works,” he told FMT when met during a recent event at Monash University Malaysia, where he has been attached to for the last ten years.
The Australian university recently launched Monash Malaysia R&D. The centre will work together with the National Heart Institute (IJN) and research-based pharmaceutical giant Hovid, under a grant of RM200,000 awarded to Farouk to carry out research for two-and-a-half years.
Farouk is the first to receive funding under the new centre, which acts as Monash Malaysia’s research arm.
“I wanted to conduct this research on a notion of prevention is better than cure, but research materials are very costly and I have had the Ministry of Science, Innovation, and Technology turn me down in the past months,” he said.
His research is on preventing the occurrence of atrial fibrillation (AF) in post-CABG (coronary artery bypass grafting) surgery patients using Tocotrienol, a Vitamin E isomer derived from palm oil.
Translation? Well, it’s experimenting on the use of Vitamin E found in palm oil in preventing abnormal heart rhythm characterised by rapid and irregular beating after a heart bypass surgery.
“Since our country is rich with palm oil, why not leverage on the resources? But it is also because of Vitamin E isomer, tocopherol, derived mainly from soya in the West, did not prove consistent results as a prevention supplement for the post-CABG patients, hence my study using another more potent Vitamin E isomer, tocotrienol, which is derived from palm oil,” he said.
“My previous studies have shown that the incidence of AF was 28.7% among post-CABG patients in IJN, meaning slightly more than a quarter developed AF, with a two-fold increase in death and six-fold increase in stroke in post-CABG patients,” he explained, clearly showing that his passion in the medical field had not dimmed a bit despite his run-ins with authorities over his views.
“There was an increase in ventilation time, ICU-stay and overall hospital stay which meant an increase in economic burden to both the patients and the hospital.
“Therefore research to prevent or at least reduce the incidence of AF is justifiable” said Farouk, whose research has received the Ethics clearance from both IJN and Monash University Australia.
Between academia and activism
One thing for sure is Farouk is involved in something one could not have done in between court cases and forums.
This year alone, IRF organised 42 events including forums, seminars, and conferences, featuring Muslim scholars from around the world, including Akyol, the US-based Turkish scholar who was detained by the Federal Territory Islamic Department for speaking without credentials from the religious authorities.
So how does he divide his time doing medical research and tackling complicated Islamic intellectual topics that he is more known for?
“These two things are mutually exclusive. I wanted to prove that being an academic and a researcher does not prevent you from being an activist,” he said.
When asked how he managed his time, he quoted African-American civil rights champion Malcolm X: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole”.
But things have not always been upbeat.
Seven years ago, Farouk went through what was possibly the darkest period of his life.
It was in the early morning of Hari Raya Aidilfitri in September 2010, when he was rushed to the hospital unconscious after a bout of fever and intense headache. He was immediately warded, and things turned worse. Doctors diagnosed him with meningitis, which Farouk later believed he could have contracted during one of his medical field research trips among the Orang Asli in Johor.
He slipped into a coma, and for the next few weeks, he was on life support. When he came out of it, he was not the same Farouk. He was paralysed from waist down, and for the next one year was put on a strict physiotherapy regime.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” quipped the 54-year-old father of four, who said he was confident he would walk again.
Farouk, a Penang-born, obtained his Masters of Medicine in Surgery in 2000 and later served as a lecturer and surgeon at Universiti Sains Malaysia before sub-specialising in the field of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the National Heart Institute (IJN).
He then worked in the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Monash Medical Centre, Melbourne.
In 2007, he joined the Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at Monash University Malaysia, and remains a faculty member.
While many know him as a Muslim activist who takes on the authorities, the soft-spoken Farouk is clearly passionate about his medical profession, and now his research.
“The main thing that inspires me is that research is done for the betterment of patients and the contribution to science and medicine.
“This is something I feel I could contribute to humanity during my short stay on this earth and a way to repay God for His kindness,’ he said.
When asked if he would one day stop research work, Farouk said there was no such possibility.
“Research gives me motivation to live and to continue living,” he said.