Questions after the ulama tsunami in PAS

Abdar Rahman Koya
The Malaysian Insider
6 June 2015

Abdar Rahman Koya works for The Malaysian Insider. He considers himself to have all the qualities of an ordinary Malaysian, a practising Muslim, and an incorrigible cynic.

The much anticipated battle between the so-called ulama and professional factions in PAS, symbolised by the showdown between the two Awangs, has ended.

As expected, the ulama have won. The professionals are defeated, turfed out of almost all leadership positions in the party, in what can be aptly described as the ulama tsunami.

But who are these factions, these so-called ulama and professionals? This is the question few – whether supporters or opponents of PAS – have bothered asking.

The ulama are so called not necessarily because they fulfil the criteria of knowledge and piety, but because they have claimed that title for themselves.

So what defines them? Is it just that they are the ones in robes and turbans whose last names mysteriously have the Arabic “al-“ prefix, even though their looks show no trace of non-Malay heritage?

And even if their birth certificates show nothing more than the standard “bin” required by our guardians of Malay-Muslim demography?

Or are these ulama those whose pictures adorn packs of raisins and other nutritional products, blessed by their special prayers and mantras so that the weak-brained masses will buy them to help pass school exams and supply energy in their daily Islamic rituals?

Perhaps these ulama are simply those who religiously pay their subscriptions to Dewan Ulama of PAS, or some other organisation whose name includes the word “ulama” — such as, ironically, the Ulama Association of Malaysia, once led by none other than Ahmad Awang who is now grouped in the non-ulama faction?

Or – radical though it may be to suggest it – are the ulama actually those who have gained a deep knowledge of religion, even though their formal qualifications are in some other fields?

Those who have thought about and critiqued society, proposed practical solutions to modern-day problems in the light of their religious learning, and earned the recognition and respect of the masses despite failing to ostentatiously clothe themselves in garb assumed to emulate those worn by Arabs in the desert sun?

Just as ill-defined are the professionals. No one yet has thought to set out the criteria for identifying some PAS members as belonging to that faction of the party. Is it simply that they wear suits and ties, and speak reasonably good English?

Or is it essential to have done a thesis on a topic which interests no one, and which has no impact on society or academia, but earns the writer the coveted prefix of “Dr” before their name?

Or perhaps it is sufficient to be university educated and work as a doctor, scientist, engineer or artist, while also taking an interest in Islamic politics?

These are questions of crucial self-definition that people inside and outside PAS must ask, before even debating whether the party fits in the coalition aiming to replace Barisan Nasional.

Contrary to what some have suggested, the ulama tsunami is not a victory of the truly Islamic over the fundamentally secular; or a defeat for the forces of modernisation at the hands of tradition-bound conservatism.

In fact, all the PAS muktamar confirmed was that it is a party now led by a set of self-appointed ulama, when in fact that is a title that should be earned and given by the masses.

Any leader who proclaims himself, even indirectly, as ulama, as we have repeatedly seen done by PAS leaders in this muktamar, is almost by definition disqualified from that status.

In doing so, through arrogance, ignorance and for political gain, he gives a bad name to people who in past Islamic history were recognised as men of knowledge and principles, who challenged tradition and wrought change; who were in short, the real ulama.

It takes more than theoretical knowledge of Islam and Arabic, or even theological qualifications to be an ulama.

If these were enough, many non-Muslims could be counted as ulama, such as John Esposito, the former White House adviser to President Clinton, whose knowledge of Islam is formidable, or many non-Muslim scholars of the Quran and experts in the Arabic language.

In Islam, an ulama is not only a person of knowledge, but also a person of taqwa, or the permanent, humble awareness of God; one who is not interested in worldly status or wealth yet committed to selfless involvement in worldly affairs; one who is not merely a dictaphone sprouting Arabic supplications for use after prayers and at official functions, but who is what the Quran calls “People who think”, those who are able to translate the divine verses for mankind of all ages, and not to those who quote them simply to fulfil their priestly roles and earn a living.

The ulama tsunami is a reflection of the state of Malaysian Muslims today, when Islam has come to be characterised by mechanical rituals and empty pieties, preferably given spurious legitimacy by coming from the mouths of Arabic-speaking pseudo-clerics.

We live, tragically and pathetically, in an environment where every ustaz, every skull-capped TV talk show host, and every graduate of an Islamic university, can claim the status of ulama.

In most other Muslim countries with richer Islamic history and greater Islamic heritage, the process of being recognised as ulama does not depend on one’s membership of an Islamic association.

In Iran, for example, a person who already is an authority of Islam with many degrees in theology, can go through rigorous academic training and decades of studies in such fields as comparative religion, mathematics, Greek philisophy and many other sciences, and still be no more than a “Hujjatulislam”, the lowest grade of ulama in Shia Islam, little more than a foot soldier of Islam.

As such, it is an insult to the term when some people compare the problem posed by the men in robes in PAS with the challenges faced by ulama in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

There, it was a question of a power struggle between the clergy who had inspired and mobilised the masses to overthrow one of the most brutal regimes in modern history, and the technocrats who claimed the know-how to steer a modern nation-state in the intricacies of global politics.

Here in Malaysia, the self-proclaimed ulama insist they be in charge even though they have little record or credibility when it comes to the tasks of championing the downtrodden in society, and exemplifying Islam’s commitment to humility and social justice.

These so-called ulama, whose every step contradicts the values of Islam and the principles of ordinary Muslims, now appear to be poised to inflict mortal damage on PAS, which remains, despite its many problems and failures, the last bastion of political Islam in Malaysia.

Little wonder, then, that it is now impossible for the average Malaysian, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, to think that these men in robes can lead Putrajaya and tackle, or even understand, any of the political, social and economic challenges facing us all. – June 6, 2015.

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