The pursuit of knowledge is central to Islam. It has been an important feature of early Muslim societies.
As we battle Covid-19 and the social, political and economic destruction it leaves behind, one thing remains obvious, that Malaysians are not an informed society.
Surah Al-Alaq (96), containing the first verse revealed to the Prophet, begins with the word “read”.
The Quran, in Surah al-Mujadilah, states: “Allah will raise in rank those of you who believe, as well as those who are given knowledge” (Quran, 58:12).
The impetus to cultivate knowledge in Islam is manifest in our daily prayers, when we turn to the qiblah. From the very beginning of Islam, it was an obligation for Muslims to be knowledgeable of the direction of Mecca. It meant Muslims had to seriously study the interaction of religion and science.
As a result, the Muslims of Spain, Egypt and China advanced the scientific study of astronomy.
Ptolemy’s mathematical and astronomical treatise Almagest (written around the 2nd century) was studied by Muslim astronomers between the 8th and 14th centuries.
The mathematician Ibn Yunus of Egypt (950-1009) found mistakes in Ptolemy’s calculations about the movements of the planets. Due to the five daily requirements for prayers, these early Muslim scholars perfected trigonometric solutions to problems of timekeeping, from Greek and Indian sources.
It is clear that early Islam valued education and knowledge production.
Similarly, the history of Islam in the Malay world was synchronous with the spread of the Islamic intellectual tradition and Sufi orders in Southeast Asia.
The Sufi tradition, in particular, is very accommodating of the cultural diversity of our region, while remaining uncompromising on the fundamentals of Islam.
Imam Alawi Tahir al-Haddad (1884-1962) was a Hadhrami scholar. He was a Ba’alawi sufi who became the mufti of Johor from 1934 to 1961. He was the most well-known mufti Malaysia has ever produced. Imam Alawi studied and taught history, rhetoric, philosophy and tasawwuf. He travelled widely in Southeast Asia, and had profound intellectual exchanges with other Hadhrami scholars in the region, including Syed Abdullah Muhsin Alatas.
A crucial corpus of knowledge that al-Haddad accumulated concerned the Islamic teachings on compassion, balance and respect for religious differences.
In a chapter on social duties in his work, “The Book of Assistance, Support and Encouragement for Such Believers as Desire to Follow the Way of the Afterlife”, he wrote about how ruling elites should deal justly with those under their charge.
“You must treat them with justice and graciousness. Justice is to give them everything that God has made rightfully theirs in the way of expenditure, clothes, and living with them charitably”.
This has implications for our non-Muslim citizens in Malaysia today. They should be treated justly.
Towards the end of the enhanced movement control order, there has been a spike in media coverage about drink driving and fatal road accidents. Politicians are calling for harsher punishments against offenders.
Some leaders are calling for a ban on alcohol sales. They have turned this issue into a political weapon. The debate has exposed how ignorant we are of Islamic history, including the Prophet’s call for inter-communal acceptance and peaceful co-existence.
Traditional Islamic teachings uphold a non-Muslims’ rights to purchase and consume alcohol, provided they do so in moderate doses and responsibly. There are ample laws in Malaysia, to punish the abusers of alcohol who may threaten society at large.
There are similar laws that are applied to drug abusers as well. The problem arises when these laws are not enforced vigilantly or are applied haphazardly.
Why wait for a drunken tragedy to strike, when the law allows checks on bar-goers before they get into their cars? Schools can include in the syllabus, the topic of depression and alcohol consumption, so they are able to identify and report alcohol-related abuse at home, before it results in a death.
Prevention is better than cure. Similarly, employers in road transport and logistics companies should not be lackadaisical when it comes to regular checks on their employees.
Lastly, the police can step up their vigilance on the ground, to uphold the responsibility of the public, and win the trust of citizens.
In this way, justice is meted out, in a multi-religious society.
The key is to maintain traditional Islamic leadership practices that promote societal harmony and justice amidst religious pluralism.
Yet, our leaders are considering a ban on alcohol sales and consumption, while completely ignoring the Islamic values of moderation and collective responsibility.
Muslims do not consume alcohol. Also, nobody disputes the World Health Organization’s declaration that excessive alcohol consumption is a health hazard.
What is missing from the current debate about drink driving is the Islamic notion of justice, compassion and the need to co-exist among differences, while upholding the sanctity of the law.
The knowledge that Muslims are obliged to acquire must also be applied to our simple acts in daily life. This also means being kind to animals.
During the recent MCO, hundreds of household pets were abandoned, due to ignorance. Adult cats, kittens, puppies and dogs were dumped on the streets, in alleys, outside closed coffee shops, restaurants and shops.
Due to ignorance and irrational fear, it was thought that pets, too, were capable of transmitting Covid-19 to humans. This is despite global information to the contrary, which was made available right from the beginning.
During these MCO months, the public was horrified that leadership did not take this seriously.
One owner who had abandoned a young five-month old cat, attached a note to its collar. It read “ma’af zahir dan batin”. This particular Muslim owner decided to forsake the young pet during the month of Ramadan.
The plight of abandoned pets during the MCO period has been highlighted regularly by the public in social media. However, we have yet to hear stern warnings from our leaders.
Cruelty to animals is as good as rejecting fundamental Islamic values. It makes us hypocrites and unworthy of salvation.
The latest pandemic exposes how much we have forgotten the wisdom of past Muslim thinkers. The writings of intellectuals like Imam al-Haddad and others are irresponsibly neglected, despite their messages of compassion, balance and justice.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.
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