Thoughts At The End of Ramadan – On Being A Muslim

M. Bakri Musa

A Muslim is one who subscribes to the five pillars of our faith – attests to the oneness of Allah and Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., as His Last Messenger (shahadah); prays five times a day; fasts during Ramadan; gives zakat; and conditions permitting, undertakes the Hajj.

Significant for its absence is any explicit reference to the Koran, the complete and final guide from God “for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time.”

The essence of the Koran is Al-amr bi ‘l-ma’ruf wa ‘n-nahy ani ‘l-munkar. It is referred to many times in the text. The approximate translation is, “Command good and forbid evil;” or in Malay, “Biasakan yang baik, jauhi yang jahat.” Succinct and elegant in both languages as it is in the original classical Arabic!

As this central message is not one of the five pillars of our faith, no surprise then that it is frequently missed by the masses. It is also often lost in the thick tomes of religious scholars, erudite sermons of bedecked ulamas, and frenzied jingoisms of zealous jihadists.

Enlightened scholars of yore had suggested that the Koran’s essence be the sixth pillar, after and presumably below Hajj. That did not gain traction.

As my Imam Ilyas reminded us in his Eid khutbah last Friday, those five pillars of Islam demand the least from us. They are the easiest undertakings. Shahadah could be executed in a single breath even for those unfamiliar with the Arabic tongue, while the daily prayers consume a few minutes longer. For those who consider the month-long Ramadan a challenge, consider that millions do without their meals every day, and with no end in sight. As for zakat and Hajj, both have finite and quantifiable costs.

The greatest challenge for Muslims then is not those five imperatives rather to “command good and forbid evil.” That would demand the most from us. As such, it should be priority number one. For even if you were to diligently perform all those five traditional duties, but if you do not do good and refrain from evil, then all would be for naught.

There is no point in donating zakat if your wealth is acquired through corruption. Whatever religious “brownie points” you would garner from that seemingly generous gesture could not begin to compensate for the loss to the family whose child had died because the money meant for the local hospital had been siphoned into your pocket. Likewise, you mock the sanctity of the Hajj if on returning you resume condemning your fellow believers even before the cough from your desert-induced irritated throat had not yet cleared up.

A saying attributed to our prophet has it that a prostitute was admitted to Heaven because she once saved a dog dying of thirst by bringing it a bowl of water. Performing the rituals of the five pillars would not be a regular routine for someone like her. Yet an All-Forgiving and Generous Allah rewarded her for that single good deed.

If that simple act of kindness is so esteemed, imagine how much more generous Allah would be to a veterinarian! Yet many were outraged when Muslim veterinary students were handling their ‘patient’ pigs and dogs.

Philosophers through the ages, Muslims and non-Muslims, atheists and believers, have pondered the meaning of good and evil. Believers have also wrestled with the added issues of God’s will and individual responsibility.

Al-Asha’ari posed this theological dilemma. Imagine a child and an adult in Heaven. The child asked God why the man was given that privilege. The reply was that he had done much good in his lifetime. (Note again the emphasis on doing good!) The child then asked why God had taken him so soon thus preventing him from doing good later in his life. To which the reply was that God knew that the child would become a sinner and thus spared him the terrible fate. Thereupon cries arose from those condemned, “Oh Lord! Why didn’t you take us before we became sinners?”

While such ponderings make for vigorous class discussions, at the practical level the issue of good versus evil is clear and not at all complicated. Killing, stealing and cheating are all evil; improving the lot of your people, making sure that they have potable water, adequate shelter, good schools and competent healthcare, is good. Putting public funds into your bank account is evil. No equivocation there. Yet many go through contortions to make evil appear good. That in itself is evil.

Jonathan A C Brown in his book Misquoting Muhammad relates an episode when the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar was asked by the country’s powerful ruler about passages in the Koran and hadith to make his rule “Islamic.” Bring justice and prosperity to your people, the Grand Mufti replied, and I will find the appropriate verses to sanctify your policies as Islamic.

Yes, bring justice, improve citizens’ lot, obey the rule of law and respect citizens’ rights, those are the proven paths to an Islamic state; not grandiose mosques, bloated religious departments, or Azzan blasting on your radios.

As to whether going against a leader who is corrupt and abuses his power is good or evil, ponder the last line of Caliph Abu Bakar’s immortal inaugural speech. “Obey me so long as I obey Allah and His Messenger. And if I do not, then I have no right to your obedience.” (Approximate translation.)

Do good not only to others but also equally important, to ourselves. That means nurturing and being generous to ourselves, while distancing from those who would harm and abuse us.

“Others” refers both to the living as well as physical world around us. We can readily comprehend about being good to our fellow humans or other living creatures, but less appreciated is that we must also be good to our physical world. We are but trustees (vice-regents) of this universe, says the Koran.

Illegal logging is evil not only because it is stealing from the people but also because the activity degrades the environment, causing erosion, silting of rivers, and consequent flooding. You may accrue untold riches from illegal logging and be generous in your zakat but those do not compensate for the miseries you caused fishermen whose fishing grounds are destroyed or families made homeless from the resulting floods.

I prefer my own Malay translation of the golden rule. Its rhythmic alliteration aside, it is soft and subtle yet no less powerful, in tune with our culture. Biasakan yang baik, or make doing good your habit or norm. Meaning, not because you are commanded to do so, rather it’s in your nature or character.

Likewise with jauhi yang jahat, or distancing ourselves from evil. We may not always be able to forbid evil, or doing so would impose considerable risks, but we all can move away from evil.

Biasakan yang baik; jauhi yang jahat is truly a message for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time. Joyous Hari Raya is an appropriate occasion to be reminded of this.

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