Tuesday, August 31, 2010

53 Years of Independece

Today, I'm expressing my feelings and sharing my thoughts openly through this blog, although I'm just a common man-on-the-street. I would never have this chance just a few years ago. This opportunity to share my views and inner thoughts with friends and all internet surfers, is perhaps one of the greatest aspects of modernization in Malaysia. We have joined the modern high-tech society where almost everyone has a mobile phone to communicate with his or her friends while the radio and television provide almost countless channels to select from for information and entertainment.

We celebrated the 53rd anniversary of our Independence yesterday, with a colorful indoor performance, salutation and display at the Stadium Putra, Bukit Jalil, unlike the usual parade and colorful ceremonial shows at Merdeka Square which some people are already tired of. Yes, they still love all the pomp and ceremonies. But held in a stadium which is some distance away from the heart of the city, the limited sitting capacity and the drive with all the traffic jams, could have made it quite uninviting. The call to display the Jalur Gemilang on cars and buildings from early August also did not receive a spiritted response for reasons which need to be explored. There is also no firework display and stage performance by popular artists to atract attention in the night.

The celebration themed " 1 Malaysia transforming the nation" seems much scaled-down compared to previous anniversaries. While some interpret that as indicative of some financial problems facing the country, others maintained that it's a good show of moderation and thrift in public expenditure. The fact that this national anniversary celebration had been out-shined in terms of glitz and expenditure by a tourism show called The Colors of Malaysia held some moths ago, doesn't seem to bother anyone. Similar celebrations were also held in some States including Penang and Kedah which are under the governance of Pakatan Rakyat. Selangor, however, did not hold any celebration as far as I know.

Whatever rating is given to the 53rd Anniversary celebration, it does not reduce the significance of the Merdeka Anniversary Message delivered by the Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Najib. It highlighted some of the achievements of the nation in its 53 years of independence, the new Transformation plan to make the country economically dynamic, socially integrated and politically stable, and the New Economic Model that is supposed to turn Malaysia into a high-income nation by the year 2020. Having stressed some of the hopes and promises which have already been oft-repeated in earlier speeches, the Prime Minister came down with the stern warning that what has been made could easily be unmade in a few moments of irresponsible action by some of the enemies of the nation.

Who are these enemies, was not defined. This could have been the most critical part of the Message for the people of Malaysia to ponder upon for there seemed to be many enemies in the midst of the current political scenario where some states have fallen into the hands of the opposition, including Selangor in which Kuala Lumpur was formerly situated until it was transformed into a Wilayah Persekutuan ( A Federal Territory). Opposition members in Parliament therefore cannot be called enemies anymore for they already rule in some of the states. This is a reality that the people of Malaysia seem to have accepted but the Barisan-led federal government may have not. A new form of cooperation between the Barisan Nasional and the Pakatan Keadilan must be worked out if the country is not to be torn apart by contradictory policies and priorities in the governing of the nation.

Did the Sate Government from the Party Keadilan Rakyat participate in the Merdeka Anniversary celebration at the Federal level? If not, that can explain a lot why the celebration this year had not received so much enthusiam. The Federal Government will just have to respect the need to consider all the Representatives of the People or Wakil Rakyat as the Peoples' Representative in any national function, refardless of their political affiliations. The concept of 1 Malaysia must not only bring the people together but also some kind of a bipartisan arrangement in the government, with a common loyalty to country and people. It's most urgent that this be worked out beside bringing about the big transformation that we dream of.
Otherwise the dream may not be realized at all.

Let's hope that this 53rd year of independence will bring a closer cooperation between the Federal and State Governments, especially those under Pakatan's control.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Different Ways of Celebrating Ramadhan...

After going halfway through Ramadhan, I asked myself if the bountious month should only be filled by solemn religious activitiesbeside the culinary extravaganza and gluttonous indulgence. That wading through the crowded stalls of Pasar Ramadhan to select your favorite delicatessnce for breakfasting can be fun, is acceptable enough. But must the tahlil, the prayer sessions and the quran recitals ( tradarus) be such solemn occasions that would turn the young away? Must all religious activitities be so solemn and boring?

I've attended the ramadhan rutuals in at least three mosques so far and found that the solemnity (or boredom) ratings differ.
The most boring is where breakfasting in the mosque itself is a rare occasion and activities begin with the Maghrib prayer. The quranic recitals in the prayer could be very long and tedious, delivered in a mumbly monotone. In another mosque the surahs selected were short but recited three times in one rak'at ( surah al-Ikhlas). The do'a was again preceeded by a seemingly endless repetition of certain surah or lines from a surah, that one really feels exhausted when the real do'a was read, again in a mumbly monotone.

The tarawih prayer is the heaviest obligation to fulfil. Some mosques perform 20+3 raka'ats, while some carry out just 8+3 raka'ats, each raka'at varying in length from a minute or less to 3-5 minutes. The length depends on the surah chosen to be recited in each raka'at. As important as the length of each raka'at is in determining its pleasantness or otherwise to the people praying, the delivery of the surah can make a lot of difference. A slow, monotonous and repetitious recital could literally wear a person out while a spirited, alternating high-octave and low-octave rendering can keep one's ears and eyes wide open.An imam with a wonderful reading style and eloquence can really make a difference in regard to whether you enjoy the tarawih or must just be resigned to follow the routine.

What to me makes the most difference is being able to follow the meaning of the recitals. Unless one is proficient in Arabic, to just be able to catch the drift and understand the subject each recital deals with would be good enough to keep ones ears focussed on the recital. To understand just some oft-repeated phrases or sentences would not be enough to give us a clue as to what the verses mean.

Where the Imam reads from the short Mecca verses that we normally recite in everyday prayers, understanding is quite easy but
holding our interest on the well-known subject gets difficult as we move along from rak'at to rak'at into the night. But where the Imam reads from the beginning of the al-Quran to the end like a book, the monotonous recital can really put on to sleep, unless one tries to grapple with the meaning of each verse by picking up some of the familiar terms and phrases. This requires one to read and understand the verses to be recited by the Imam well in advance. I've been doing this and i find the tawarih becomes a real reendorsement of the faith with the full meaning of the verses coming through the eloquent and melodious recital of the Imam. Subhanallah. But unfortunately, the Imam sometimes skipped some verses for some reasons and I also found that a new Imam started reading from a different surah, thus throwing me totally out of my readiness to hear and assimilate the meaning of the surah. On such occasions I could only check back on what he has recited as far as I can remember and understand what he has recited after the prayers. This takes a lot of time, which I needed to prepare for the next prayer assuming that the Imam will continue from where he had stopped the previous night.

I write all these details aware of the fact that few will read them because they have never really tried to follow the recitals of the al-Quran by the Imam during tarawih prayers. I've for many years in the passed just listened to the Imam without trying to understand the verses that he was reciting. All I can say now is that Ramadhan can mean a totally different thing if you can follow what the Imam recites from the al-Quran during the tarawih prayers. And to help the makmum (followers) to be able to so, Imams should (a) inform the followers what verses he will recite in the forthcoming prayers (b) do not skip chapter and verse as he feels appropriate and (c) try to talk about the verses he will recite to make the followers more ready for them. I just feel that making the makmum understand the al-quran is more important now than being able to recite the verses with all the right pronunciation and melody. Whether the Imam on duty gives this emphasis or not in the entirety of the Ramadhan month of celebration, will determine the way it is celebrated (or just obediently followed) by themukmin (followers) in the community.

The emphasis of prayers in ramadhan should be to understand the al-Quran, for with such understanding all the injuntions of Allah will be become clearer and more precise. The various interpretations of the al-Quran made by various Imams had made things rather hazy. Only listening to the original words of Allah, as recited by the angelic voice of a good Imam will bring back the thrill of revelation into the hearts of the Muslims.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

When you're Hungry and Thirsty...

Nine days into the fasting month. All Muslims who faithfully abide by the injunctions of Allah for the month or Ramadhan, would have by now acclimatized themselves to the new routine. Those who don't will have to continue pretending that they are or making excuses for their lapses. However they cover up the violations, Allah surely knows about them.

But the hunger and thirst in the fasting month is certainly not of the same order as that suffered by the poor and impoverished. The World Bank estimated in 2005 that some 1.02 billion people live in hunger and 16,000 children died of hunger everyday. 9 million children die before the age of 5 years, one third of that because of hunger and malnutrition. The World Food Program reported in 2003 that 38 million Africans lived under the threat of starvation. Even if conditions have now improved, we still see millions on TV suffering from famine and hunger everyday caused by political or tribal conflicts, crop failures and stark poverty

So, what is going hungry, with no food or drinks for a day, for the Muslims? And to prepare for that little test of endurance, they can feed themselves like a stuffed pillow until 5.30 am in Malaysia, to last them through till 7.25 pm or even earlier. Just about 13-14 hours of fasting in Malaysia while in UK and the US in summer Muslims might have to fast for 17 or 18 hours. Still, you can pile in as much food as you want when the 'azan' breaks the evening calmness.

Do we in Malaysia really appreciate the meaning of hunger and thirst? Fasting is supposed to help the Muslims to do so and, therefore, think of those who live in hunger all their life. It's supposed to make us step for a day into the shoes of those who must suffer the day without food, to feel the pang of hunger gnawing at our vitals, hear the stomach growling like a starving lion, and move us to do something to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. While appreciating Allah's bounty when we finally face a table loaded with food and drinks at the end of the day, we should also be thinking of the poor and starving who don't even have a place to go to break their fast, nor any food waiting for them at the place that they call home. They must go on rummaging for food day in a and day out like the stray cats and dogs that walk the streets.

It is most overwhelming to see some mosques and madrasahs holding fast-breaking receptions at their premises and allowing anyone at all to come and partake in the food and drinks that they offer. Some hold such receptions almost every night sponsored by people living in the vicinity of the madrasahs, a reception in the mosque being too expensive to be born by individual sponsors barring the rich and wealthy. Even then it could not be everyday of the month unlike the case of the small madrasah like in Taman Malawati where we take turn to sponsor the modest occasion. Only the well sponsored or government-funded Mosques can hold such occasions every evening, either offering a full feast or just some 'bubur lambuk' and other tidbits.

The poor and homeless Muslims who are fasting, are of course welcome to such receptions. There normally is plenty of food and drinks for all those who chose to break their fast in the mosques and madrasahs, although this could often be a sacrifice for they have much, much more food and delicacies waiting for them at home, goddies they and their family members have personally bought and accumulated since afternoon. We all know that Muslims really unleashed their purse strings during the fasting month, especially as we approached Aidil Fitri. You bet that food and delicacies are plentiful throughout the month of Ramadhan.

The big question is: ARE THE POOR AND STARVING REALLY WELCOME TO THE MOSQUES AND MADRASAHS DURING THE FAST-BREAKING OCCASIONS? Do we see them coming up in numbers or do we see just a very few who live in the vicinity and who are fasting? While there's a lot of food and drinks to be shared, most of it will be wasted at the end of the occasion. Even when the food is distributed to be taken home, who would really want the left overs? Certainly not those people who have loads of delicious stuff waiting for them at home! The waste that you see on every occasion and in some cases every night, if accumulated from the mosques and madrasahs all over the country, might be enough to be distributed to all the poor homes in the country or feed the poor and impoverished if they can be gathered at certain meeting points. One thing that is certain, the mosques and madrasahs all over the country at this point are not inviting the poor and impoverished to have a good feed for breaking their fast, either carried out as a religious obligation or forced by the miseries of life. The food festivals that we see in the nights of Ramadhan are more for the hungry well-to-do rather than for the really hungry and poor.

That being the case, can we say that the objectives of fasting in the month of Ramadhan had been fully achieved by all Muslims? We have only to ask ourselves for fasting is a fardu kifayah (individual responsibility) and we must strive out to satisfy our own ideals in the fulfillment of our religious obligations.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Enjoying the TARAWIH and TADARUS during Ramadhan

Three days into the month of Ramadhan, the initial challenge of fasting and performing additional prayers and reciting the al-Quran till late night, would already be over. But probably not for all. To some the challenge is getting even heavier. To others the
spiritual nectar of intensified prayers and subjugation to Allah's injunctions may be beginning to become more intoxicating. I begin to hear the Imams leading the prayers and the tahlil and zikir ( the chanting) breaking into a sob, indicating that they are becoming increasingly overwhelmed by 'khauf' ( fear of Allah) and 'ehsan' (feeling of Allah's presence).

How are we ordinary mortals reacting to the initial impact of Ramadhan, the month of extraordinary blessings and bounties as
promised by Allah SNWT and Prophet Muhammad SAW (pbuh)? If it's just the lethargy, hunger or thirst that dominates your concern throughout the day, then you are still grappling with the demand of your 'nafs' or your physical and biological needs. Those who begin to feel peaceful, unperturbed by the challenges of everyday routine, and contented with whatever life is dishing out to them, have already begun to conquer their 'nafs' and enter the realm of contentment (ridha) and gratitude for Allah's blessings.

Their inner senses and insights start to become more predominant than the effects and impacts of their worldly and material life.To them the fasting and prayers begin to acquire a new meaningfulness, bring a new nourishment to their life, and the nightly activities of Ramadhan especially the usual prayers, the TARAWIH and TADARUS begin to become more and more savory until their fasting does not feel complete without fulfilling those tasks.

As an average Muslim and a 'makmum' (follower) in fulfilling the obligations of Ramadhan, the three nights of prayers, TARAWIH and TADARUS ( I've yet to participate more fully in the third item) have already given me some new awareness which
were dormant before. Usually the TARAWIH also begins to take its toll on your enthusiasm and strength as Ramadhan advances, but not this time around. I'm becoming more aware of the reasons and perhaps others may benefit from my own personal awareness about it.

Firstly, the Madrasah's Working Committee has arranged for an special Imam to lead the prayers - a hafiz ( one who knows the al-Quran by heart) - whose recital of the holy book is very stimulating and awe-inspiring. Every word comes out clearly while the melody is enchanting. I must say that the Imam has a lot to do with making the TARAWIH a treat or a bore. While this Imam is reciting passages from the first surah ( chapter) of the al-Quran and will go on until the end which takes more time than reciting the shorter surahs only, you never feel any boredom or become drowsy with a monotonous mumbling.

Secongly, you've to be prepared to listen to what the Imam is going to recite for the coming night. That means you have to read and understand the meaning of the passages he might cover. Even if you already know more or less what the passages mean, you've to reread and pronounce the words aloud so that when the Imam renders the passage, it really hits home. You understand and can absorb its full meaning. No, this is not an easy task since not all the passages are easy to understand. In trying to do so through your reading, you'll realize how beautiful and concise the divine words are, some quite impossible to
unrevel in a few sentences. What irks me sometimes is that some ustaz give a long-winded explanation to the sentences whose meanings are obvious but eschew the heavily loaded ones.

Thirdly, this time around we've short 'tazkirah' ( reminders) thrown in between tahlil and prayers and between pauses in the 20
raka'at TARAWIH and 3 raka'at WITIR. These are useful reminders or revivers of old memories compared to the long khutbah on Fridays and other 'kuliahs' which tend to put people to sleep. I would think that some of the less important kuliahs should be changed to the teaching of the quranic language so that it can help one to understand the al-quran better.

In ending I should congratulate the Working Committee of our Madrasah At-Tarbiah for introducing the changes especially the Chairman Dato Amiruddin and the Head of the Dakwah Sub-Committee Uztaz Asyaari. Selamat Perpuasa dan Beramal Ibadah in this specially month of Ramadhan to all our Muslim brothers and sisters.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Ushering in Ramadhan

Ramadhan has come around again - the month of soul-cleansing and enrichment for the true believers, through an intensified month-long dedication to Allah's injunctions as prescribed in the al-Quran and Hadith. For some, even among the good Muslims, it's month of challenge to withstand the pain of hunger and thirst in the daytime, not to mention the fight against the urge to smoke and other minor sins in life. (What more if they have turned major!).

I don't want to preempt the rights of the ulamas and gurus to talk about the full meaning of Fasting and Ramadhan to the Muslims. I have been reading and listening to talks about them even before the birth of some of the young ustazs and imams, but that does not qualify me to talk about religion. I can only talk about Fasting and Ramadhan from a secular point of view since I don't wear a Jubah or a Turban and I haven't been to Jordon, Morocco, etc ( everyone can and in deed must go to Mecca to do the Haj at least once) to study the Islamic Syariah.

Many Muslim young men and women today, don't like to fast unless it is for dieting in order to get a beautiful figure. Fasting a whole day from dawn to dusk impairs their efficiency in doing their work, prevents them from carrying out their normal day-to-day chores, and stands in the way of doing many things that they usually do. They can quote endless reasons for not fasting or doing so intermittently. All I want to say to them is. try fasting with the five daily prayers, the 'tarawih' and the 'tadarus' with a feeling of complete submission to Allah. It will make you feel like a new man. closer to Him and the mystical power of this mundane world.

Eating and drinking after fasting a full day will make the food and drinks taste so heavenly wonderful, no eating house and restaurant can serve you such a meal. Abstaining from cigarette a whole day when successfully repeated for a few days will make kicking away the habit entirely much easier. More importantly, the clearness of breath and thoughts without the drowsy effect of narcotine, will become a new experience worth exploring further.

Hey, I just love fasting because it makes me feel different from those who don't. I remember being scolded by a teacher for not completing my homework before. When I said I was fasting, he piped down and went away. Later I discovered that he was not fasting that day. I learned later that he became a staunch adherent to the fasting rule of Ramadhan. In life we try to be different from other people in many expensive ways. Try fasting. Your special response to hunger and thirst makes you a very special person in the eye of onlookers. I know a friend who won a girl's heart because of his very special character- humble, thoughtful and considerate - during a Ramadhan month. It reveals the qualities that often remain hidden in a man.

I cannot of course leave off the subject without repeating the ulamas' reminder that Ramadhan is a very special month when everything you do if done in Allah's name will secure a lot of marks when you are evaluated for admission to Heaven or Hell
after death. If you don't care about those marks, that you just want to enjoy life on earth and let the hereafter take care of itself, then Ramadhan means nothing to you. There will be the Pasar Ramadhan to help you in your gluttony, When you join others to buy a lot of foodstuff, no one knows that you're not fasting. Except Allah.

Selamat Berpuasa to those who Believe.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Gaza Horror Again.

Tun Mahathir wrote a very moving article again in his blog about the horror in the Gaza where some 1400 Palestinians were killed (including 300 children and 13 Israelis which he didn't mention) and 20,000 homes were destroyed including 100 hospitals, schools and government buildings. International criticism stopped the carnage but Israel continued to restrict food and other relief items from going into the Gaza so much so that the Palestinians are starved. He ended his article entitled:

"This is a form of genocide. A whole people will have been made to disappear very much as if they have all been exterminated. The world will forget there even was a Palestine."

How do you think will the Israelis react to such a pronouncement. Would it soften any heartstring or moral fiber among the israelis (assuming that they still have some) to relent their oppression on the Gaza settlers?

Let's turn to what Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, a former European Union commisioner for external affairs and the chancellor of the University of Oxford says in regard to what he describes as the Gaza Horror:
"The world periodically wakes up to the horrors of life in the Gaza..We were awakened , for example, by the military assault of December 2008 and January last year, when more than 1.300 Palestinians including more than 100 children and 13 Israelis died. We noticed the long-running horror story again when when the Isrtaeli defence forces attacked the Turkish Freedom flotilla carrying relief supplies, in May, with nine civilian fatalities.
"We have to be careful with language when discussing Israeli actions. Those who argue that there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza should not compare the situation with Ethiopia or Sudan in the middle of a draught or a war. Conditions in Gaza are harsh and the population does suffer. Israel's government has denied that people are starving and has srelaxed its import restriction regime. But the siege was never intended to starve Gazans....the aim was 'to put Palestinians on a diet'
" The intention was collective punishment, imposed partly in response to Hamas' political control of Gaza..."

Note the diplomacy . and the conclusion is deliberately tactful:
"I want to see Israel, a free, democratic society, living up to its original values and at peace with its neighbours. It will not achieve this through the apalling Gaza policy. The world - starting with the United States administration and the European Union - shoud tell that to Israel. But don't hold your breath."
How tactful, indeed, is the forceful message put across that Israel should be told off about its apalling Gaza policy. Shouldn't we therefore, try to adopt this style, at least to induce the United States, the European Union and Israel to listen, read and consider our appeal, made with tact and diplomacy and not like rubbing sandpaper into their face? Or are we going to continue to be bold, daring and courageous, but achieving nothing and on the contrary inviting Israel to tighten its hold on Gaza and the Palestinians?

We all know that Tun has been and is still famous for his no-nonsense approach to problem solving. He's the man who calls a spade a spade and we are proud of his forceful words and character as our ex Prime Minister. But we have been harping at and cursing the injustices and brutality of Israel for years without any result. Even the international community has joined the critics and the victims of Israel's "apalling Gaza policy" without any substantive results.

So, shouldn't we try to be a little diplomatic or do we continue with the curse and vitriolic criticisms which we know will just be ignored and sneered at by the US and Israel.True the world community has now joined us in the chant against Israel's brutality but nothing much seems to happen and Tun Mahathir has predicted a very gloomy end to the Palestinian history. Do we have anything to loose to try a different approach? But as Chris Patten says, "don't hold your breath" expecting a miracle. There are so much that Hamas and the Palestinians themselves must do to save themselves from total disaster.