Islam the religion vs. Islam the way of life

Raja Petra Kamarudin

Last Thursday, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak, said that moderate Muslims must speak out against the extremists. (Najib also ruled that Muslims of the opposite sex should not hug each other in public, much to his chagrin when International Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz hugged one-time Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in full public view a few days later on 31 August 2005).

Najib went on to explain that the extremists are ‘minorities’, probably meaning that the moderate Muslims form the majority. Najib did not, however, clarify what he meant by ‘extremist’ and what is a ‘moderate’ Muslim. Therefore, anyone who strictly observes his or her five times a day prayers could actually be an extremist — as these people are certainly in the minority — while those who miss their prayers absolutely, or do them only when it is convenient, could be considered moderates since they are in the majority.

What about those who take loans or own credit cards? It is the minority in Malaysia that would steer clear of debt to avoid paying usury or riba’ whereas the majority of Malaysians have some form of debt or another. Would those who refuse to go into debt be considered extremists, since there are so few of them, while those hocked up to their eyeballs in debt are in the moderate Muslim category?

Yes, the line between extremism and moderation is very fine indeed and certainly open to interpretation. One man’s ‘extremism’ could be another’s ‘commitment’ while one man’s ‘moderation’ could be another’s ‘deviation’. You say you are moderate and I say you are a deviant. You say you are committed and I say you are extreme.

See how it works?

Anyway, most Muslims, Malays included, would argue that Islam is not merely a religion but a complete or total way of life. This concept of Adeen, though not new by any means, was ‘popularised’ by Anwar Ibrahim during his ABIM/pre-Umno days of the 1970s.

What, you may ask, is the difference between ‘religion’ and ‘way of life’? Why go to great pains to impress upon all and sundry that Islam is not just a religion but a way of life? Well, ‘religion’ involves a set of rituals based, of course, on certain beliefs or akidah, which would be the foundation of the religion. A way of life, instead, would be broader and the rituals of the religion being just a small part of it.

Malays, being Muslims who profess Islam, understand this and would not dispute it. They would argue that Prophet Muhammad did not introduce a new religion but just perfected the old religions (or corrected the misconceptions and deviations through the ages of the old religions) of the ‘peoples of the Book’ — meaning Jews and Christians — and turned it into a way of life. But then, when it comes to practice, that is another thing altogether. Malays pay lip service to this whole concept of ‘way of life’.

It is said, if you want to find people who are ‘Islamic’ in their ways and manners then you would have to go to the Christian West, as you would not find them in the Islamic East. This, unfortunately, is very true.

Malays tend to confine Islam to a set of rituals, to be performed only at certain times. During these designated times — the couple of minutes, a couple of times a day — that the rituals are performed, the Malays would be very religious. Outside these times, however, Islam is pushed aside, to be picked up again at the next designated time.

Islam says that one must not inconvenience others, even when performing one’s religious obligation. If someone is sleeping we are not to disturb him or her by reciting verses of the Koran at the top of our voice, especially when that someone may be sick. But when we perform our Friday prayers we park our cars all over the place, creating massive traffic jams to the inconvenience of other road users as well as to the residents living around the mosque who cannot enter or exit their houses until the prayers are concluded.

We justify this by arguing that this is unavoidable because there are not enough parking spaces in the mosque car park. Why then build mosques in crowded residential areas where there is just not enough land to build car parks? The answer would be: the mosques are to serve the local residents who would have to drive long distances to pray if there are no mosques in their neighbourhood. If the mosques are to cater for local residents, can’t they then walk to the mosque? Why do they need to drive, knowing full well that there are not enough parking spaces? The answer to this is: because those who drive to the mosque are not local residents but those from somewhere else.

Does this not sound contradictory? If you need to drive to that mosque because you do not live there, then why go to that mosque? Why not drive to some other mosque which has ample parking spaces since you are going to drive anyway, and leave that mosque with no parking spaces for the local residents who can leave their cars at home and walk to the mosque? The answer to this is: because that mosque with no parking spaces is nearer and another mosque, though it has ample parking spaces, is farther away. It would be inconvenient for me to drive to another mosque and more convenient to drive to the mosque close by, though the indiscriminate parking would inconvenience others.

Many a time have I seen non-Muslims who made the unfortunate decision of parking their cars in Bangsar during lunchtime on Fridays come out from lunch to find their cars sandwiched. They had to sit in their cars and wait for the owners of the cars that had double-parked to complete their Friday prayers before they could move. And these Muslims, though they know they have inconvenienced others with their double-parking, take their own sweet time moving their cars and would not even apologise. When it is pointed out to them that their cars are parked illegally and are blocking the cars of those who had parked legally, they would reply that these people should have known better than to park around the mosque area on a Friday.

Do Muslims suddenly own the entire street on Fridays and non-Muslims should stay off the streets? The non-Muslims did, after all, park their cars properly and paid to park their cars. It is the Muslims who illegally double-parked without paying to park their cars. But on Fridays, at lunchtime, there is no such thing as illegal parking and anyone who parks in the vicinity of a mosque must suffer this inconvenience. If they do not want to find their cars sandwiched, then do not park anywhere near a mosque. In fact, do not even drive near the vicinity of a mosque as the triple or quadruple parking is going to jam the entire street for at least two or three hours.

See how selfish and unreasonable we can be? And we feel it is okay to be selfish and unreasonable because we are being so in the pursuit of our prayers. We are a good Muslim because we are performing our prayers. And we are not a bad Muslim though we are making life difficult for others when we perform our prayers. Is this the Islamic way of life?

Okay, forget about Friday prayers, as this occurs for only two or three hours, once a week, and is the exception rather than the norm. Let us look instead at how Muslims act on ‘normal’ days. Let us see how ‘good’ Muslims, some of them with tudung or white skull caps on their heads, drive on the streets.

I do not think I need to go into detail as to how Malaysians (Muslims and non-Muslims alike) drive. They do not hesitate to act un-Islamic when behind the steering wheel of their cars. They cut in and jump queues. They suddenly change lanes without warning and zig-zag. They turn into junctions without signalling. They would park their cars all over the place though they are obstructing traffic and are creating massive traffic jams. And if you were to honk them, they would react aggressively and challenge you to fisticuffs. They refuse to admit they are wrong and would instead beat you up if you dare take them to task for being so inconsiderate.

The first test of a civil society (‘masyarakat madani’ as propagated by Anwar Ibrahim) is the manner the people act in public and how they treat others. And it is not only drivers who act uncivilised. Have you ever had to go to a government department or bank and deal with the clerks behind that counter? Have you seen old folks and pregnant women having to stand in a bus or train because those who are younger, stronger and healthier refuse to vacate their seats in favour of those who need it more? Have you seen healthy people park their cars in parking spaces reserved for those in wheelchairs? Have you seen strong, young men rush into a bus or train, pushing aside women and children in front of them? Have you ever had to bump into others rushing into a lift as soon as the door opens and before you can step out of it? Have you seen parents smoking while driving in a car full of children? Have you seen parents smoking in a crowded place while carrying their babies in their arms?

And the list goes on. And we are talking about Muslims who profess Islam as a way of life.

Last Friday, Bernama reported that, between 2001 and 2004, the federal government collected more than RM7 billion in gaming taxes. Bernama was quoting Parliamentary Secretary to the Finance Ministry, Hilmi Yahaya, who told Parliament that RM1.83 billion was collected in 2001, RM1.78 billion in 2002, RM1.67 billion in 2003 and RM1.77 billion in 2004.

Yes, RM7 billion from gaming tax went into the government coffer over the four years of 2001 to 2004. Isn’t this the same coffer that pays the salaries of the civil servants, the majority who are Malays and therefore Muslims?

Maybe this is what Najib meant by the ‘majority moderate Muslims’. But this is nothing. It is a well-known fact that the most corrupt agencies are the government departments. And government departments are predominantly staffed by Malays, meaning Muslims. So I suppose earning your salary from gaming tax is small potatoes when the taking of bribes is acceptable.

Malays have a long way to go in understanding the concept of Islam as a way of life or Adeen. At the moment, Islam will have to remain as a religion, comprising a set of rituals to be performed a few minutes at certain times of the day.