In search of Islam

Raja Petra Kamarudin

I am 55 going on 56, so, understandably, much water has passed under the bridge in my journey through life (and much water have I retained around my belly as well…. sigh….). Both my parents died when they were 10 years younger than me today. For all intents and purposes, I have outlived my parents by ten years and I can be regarded as living on borrowed or subsidy time; or injury time as they would say in football.

I admit the first half of my life was spent in jahil (ignorant) mode (and according to some bloggers I am still jahil). This is the word Muslims use, jahil, for those ignorant about Islam. It was only half my lifetime ago that I ‘discovered’ Islam and became what you could probably call a ‘born again’ Muslim. Most Malays are born Muslims. I, you could probably say, ‘converted’. But half my lifetime ago, I reached the crossroad in my journey through life and was somehow moved to choose between continuing in a straight line to nowhere, take a left turn, or take a right turn. I chose to turn right.

I never chose to become a Muslim mind you. It is not really my fault, if you know what I mean. It was just by ‘accident’ or coincidence that I happen to have a Muslim father. It did not matter one bit to me if my father had been Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist or whatever. To me, being born a Muslim was not my choice and I was not going to allow it to dictate my life or restrict me in any way. I did not care what others thought of me and I never succumbed to peer-pressure. If I wanted to drink beer, I would do so. Okay, I did fast during the month of Ramadan — at least 90% of the time — but breaking fast with a glass of beer was not something I considered odd. You could say I did what my heart told me to do, and that was that. And, as you know, the heart is not always guided by the head.

I never considered myself as rejecting Islam. I accepted the fact that I was Muslim and had no problems with that. My only Islamic ‘value’ though was that religion is between God and me and no one else’s business. So I drank beer, so what? I still uttered ‘Bismillah’ when I put the glass to my lips and ‘Alhamdulillah’ when I burped. And I was not hypocritical, which to me was, and still is, very important. Whatever I did, I did openly. I did not hide my sins and act pious in front of others, while in private I was actually a devil. I was bad, but I was honest in my badness.

Living life in the fast lane was certainly exciting, especially when you are in your teens and early 20s. But by my mid- to late-20s I started to yearn to learn more about the religion I had been born into but hardly knew or practiced. My interaction with Muslims during the earlier part of my life did not spur me to get closer to Islam but in fact made me want to distance myself from them and the religion they profess.

My first boss, the man I worked for when I first left school in the early 1970s, went through a process of ‘discovering’ Islam. And what I witnessed frightened me. He would walk around with a brandy bottle in his hand, then, one day, he suddenly woke up and became ultra-religious. He carried his furniture, television set, and so on, into the garden and burnt them. His neighbour had to phone the police.

It seems chairs, tables, spoons, forks, TV sets, etc., are Western creations. Prophet Muhammad never used all these. He sat cross-legged on the floor and ate with his hands. So anything the Prophet did not do and which are creations of the Western kafir (infidel) are to be shunned. I suppose if the police had not come to take him away he probably would have burnt his car as well and gone out to buy a camel or a horse.

This ‘example’ frightened me to hell (well, probably my beer would take me there as well). I could not comprehend how I could be a proper Muslim if this is what was meant by being a ‘proper’ Muslim.

It is not that I did not attend religious classes when I was a growing kid in the early 1960s. My father, just like all good Muslim fathers, arranged for an ustaz to come over to the house three times a week to teach me how to read the Quran plus the rudiments of Islam. That was about the time the Americans and Russians sent their astronauts to outer space and later did the first moon landing.

Bullshit, said the ustaz. They never even left earth. All this is a camera trick done on a Hollywood movie set meant to fool the world. He then quoted some Arabic verses to prove that only Prophet Muhammad can travel to outer space. I found this most disturbing and it left me with a very poor impression of my religion. Either the ustaz is unschooled, narrow-minded, or there is something wrong with Islam.

Then ‘pious’ Muslims told me we must not dress like the kafir; if not then we would become kafir. Suits and western attire are the dressing of the kafir and for Muslims to dress in that manner would make them non-Muslims. We must wear robes and turbans. Only then would we become true Muslims.

Muslims dressed in green or black robes, in particular those from the Al Arqam movement, would look away when they passed in front of our house. They would not look at us because we are ‘Westerners’ and therefore not true Muslims. They would also not look a woman in her face but would look down at the ground when talking to a woman not related to them in any way. I wondered: if I too wanted to be a true Muslim, would I also have to act this way?

Some time around the early 1990s, some Al Arqam members paid me a visit and invited me to join their movement. I followed them around for awhile and even spent a night at their settlements in Perlis and Sungai Penchala. I found them most interesting, very resourceful and industrious, and not at all narrow-minded like how I first envisaged 20 years earlier. Maybe the movement transformed and became more liberal over time, I am not sure, but I found I could relate to the Al Arqam followers when I actually got to know them better. My association with Al Arqam ended when many of its leaders suffered arrest under the Internal Security Act and the government banned the movement — much to the relief of my wife because they were trying to convince me to take a second wife.

But there was something missing. I knew there was more to Islam but I could not quite place my finger on it. The Al Arqam chaps say they are right. The government says they are wrong. The PAS chaps say the Umno chaps are kafir. The Umno chaps say the PAS chaps are extremists. Jihad is a must in Islam and Muslims who do not perform jihad are not true Muslims. And so on and so forth. I sought advice from one of the Tok Guru. I wanted to find out which is the true Islam. There seems to be so many versions I just do not know any longer what is right and what is wrong.

Hijrah (migration) and jihad are certainly what Islam requires from us, replied the Tok Guru. Hijrah merely means you migrate from a state of ignorance. Hijrah also means you migrate from a life of sin. And jihad means you go into battle; you battle with yourself. It is an internal ‘war’. Basically, jihad is a war between you and temptation, your private fight against lust, greed, pride, vanity, and other ills of the mind, superiority complex included.

Hmm….get behind me devil. Islam sounds very much like Christianity, I remarked. Of course, replied the Tok Guru. Islam’s root is from Christianity as well as Judaism. All three are peoples of the book. Okay, I can understand that, but then why are we at war with the Jews and Christians? Because of ignorance, the Tok Guru enlightened me. And that is why we should seek knowledge, so that ignorance can be eliminated.

But aren’t those leading these wars between the different religions very learned people? They are certainly not ignorant about Islam. That is politics, not religion, came the reply. Politics is the aim but religion is the blame. It makes it easier to politic when done in the name of religion. It gives the ‘cause’ a noble image and no one would question your motives. But politics is about only one thing, the attainment of power. Sadly, in such a ‘cause’, there is only one ‘sacrifice’, religion. Religion is sacrificed for worldly gains, in this case for power. And that is why Islam warns us about false prophets, summed up the Tok Guru.

Then I met some Muslim leaders from the West — Arabs, mind you, but US citizens and leaders of US Islamic movements — and they opened my eyes even further. They ate beef burgers from McDonalds though the cow had not been slaughtered by Muslims. Malays do not normally do this, I told them. Yes, they replied, we know, we have lived in Malaysia before, but beef is halal so please enjoy your burger. Perfume or cologne is not najis (contaminated), they said, and can be used by Muslims though it has alcohol or spirit in it. Malays would not do this because alcohol is used to make liquor and liquor is haram, I reminded them. So what, they told me. Rice is used to make Sake, malt to make beer, and grapes to make wine. Does this mean rice, malt and grapes are haram?

Hush Puppies shoes made from pig skin are not haram (I thought they were) while leather seats made from pig skin are also not najis for Muslims to sit on. Not najis? But aren’t pigs haram? No, you can’t eat pork, but this does not mean you cannot sit on a pig skin chair or wear pig skin shoes. But Malays say otherwise, I told them. Yes, we know. But Malays are jahil, replied these people who are Arabs, have memorised the entire Quran, and know what every word means.

Wow! How confusing. So, what then is allowed and what is not? I am no longer sure. Malays say this cannot and that cannot. Then you learned people say all can, only pork and liquor cannot.

Islam, they replied, is a very simple religion. Islam does not want to burden its followers. But the practitioners of Islam make the religion complex and difficult. Malays will not pray unless they have ‘clean’ clothes and can find a ‘proper’ prayer hall or mosque. We pray anywhere as long as we cannot see or smell najis at the spot we are going to pray. The important thing is you must pray as soon as it is time to do so and not delay your prayers because you feel you do not have the right clothes or proper place to pray. Malays would rather miss their prayers if they cannot find a ‘proper’ prayer hall or they have reservations about their clothes.

The trouble with most Muslims, it was explained to me, is that they purposely put obstacles in their way and make it difficult to practice Islam. Islam is not like that at all. Those who misunderstand Islam make it so.

But then this is what I have learnt from the Malay ustaz, I explained. Ah, don’t learn from Malays, they said. Malays are not the best example of good Muslims. But Malays say that they are better Muslims than even the Arabs themselves, I tried explaining further. How can the Malays be better Muslims? They were clearly quite irritated by now at my persistence. Malays are Malays first and Muslims second, they argued. That is nationalism and nationalism is haram in Islam. Until Malays can stop being Malays and become just Muslims, they can never be proper Muslims. Just remember that, they told me.

Yes, I do still remember that. And I still see Ketuanan Melayu, Takkan Melayu hilang dari dunia, and Dasar Ekonomi Baru around till today. Yes, what these people told me years ago is still current. Malays are Malays, and not Muslims. Islam is a way of life, a deen. Malays don’t practice deen. They practice ketuanan, and Islam frowns upon this and rejects it as un-Islamic.

Look, they summed up — they probably realised I was beginning to become very confused — follow your heart. Of course, go and learn. Learn as much as you can. But God does not expect you to do more than what you are capable of or what you know. It is better that you know just 1% of Islam, but you fulfil 100% of what you know, rather than you are very learned and know everything but you fulfil only a small part of that knowledge.

Meaning, I asked. Meaning, those who will enter Hell first are those learned Muslims who fail to fulfil their Islamic obligations. You will still go to Hell of course, they laughed, but you will go last and your punishment is for not learning and acquiring knowledge which is mandatory in Islam.

Okay, I asked, what if I learn and what I learn contradicts what others say. Which teachings do I follow? You follow the path your heart guides you, they replied. If you are sincere, then God will open your heart. If you do things for appearances or just for public display, then you are a munafiq (hypocrite) and God will close your heart. You will certainly be led down the wrong path.

Look, they explained further, at the end of the day, when you die, you will have to answer to God. No one can save you in the hereafter. So you need to follow you heart and be sincere. That is what will save you, not what others tell you. Those others will be too busy saving their own necks they will have no time for you.

True, I replied, true. So how do we know which path is the right path then? The path that your conscience tells you is the correct path, came the reply. God gave you a brain right? And God meant for you to use this brain. God also gave you a heart. And He meant for you to use this as well. So acquire knowledge as much as you can. But your reasoning, conscience, sincerity, and all that, must be your guide.

Hmm, this is certainly going to be very difficult to do in Malaysia. The Malay version of Islam is very rigid. Well, I will just have to follow my heart and my conscience as what they said. But I am sure Malays are going to look at me funny.