Wednesday 3 December 2008
In God we trust
THINGS IN COMMON by Syed Akbar Ali (Syed Akbar Ali, 2008, 442 pages)
It was not a surprise to find, somewhere in the middle of this book, that Syed Akbar Ali is a fan of teh tarik. Reading this book is like sharing a long chat session (of the non-virtual kind) over many glasses of the frothy stuff.
The title doesn’t give much away, although the pictures of non-Muslims (in real and doctored photos) dressed in garb that we commonly associate as ‘Islamic’ immediately intrigues. The back cover is similarly non-committal, as it consists solely of the 43 chapter headings. The chapters have names like “Dogs & Lizards” and “Guidance from Village Intellects,” so you would not be wrong in thinking: Well, well, what have we here!
Initially, this book sets out to do something quite specific. The author would take examples of practices that are nowadays, especially in Malaysia, considered to be the epitome of Islamic conduct. Then he would show how this practice has no basis in the Quran.
It was quite a bracing read, and lends credence to his idea that the Quran is probably the ‘most chanted’ but ‘least read’ book in the world. Most Muslims would place the Quran in a high place but not refer to specific verses in their everyday lives. We have seemingly allowed intermediaries, some of whom have vested and even material interests, to interpret the book on our behalf. The results, as Syed Akbar wants to show, is a community that is much more backward, superstitious and plain wrong than it should be.
A specific example would be dogs. Most Malaysian Muslims consider them to be unclean beasts. But the Quran says no such thing. Dogs are mentioned only a few times in the holy book, but always positively. Syed Akbar then hilariously counterpoints the many good canine qualities against those of the relatively useless cats.
There are many more examples where this came from, since the book does have 43 chapters. Before reading this book, I did not know that the longest verse in the Quran deals with the importance of written contracts. Imagine that! The need to be honest and circumspect in business dealings has the honour of getting so much continuous space, while our own religious authorities seem rather more concerned about other matters such as women’s dressing and the type of physical activity that people (whether dressed or otherwise) choose to take part in.
His style is entertaining – especially when he is exasperated about something, which is often – and even eccentric, as seen in the rant about the service at Pizza Hut. Further proof of eccentricity is his decision to provide footnote definitions of certain words, although I interpret this as his sarcastic response to Malaysians’ reportedly declining standards of England, I mean English.
The later chapters lose some of the tight point-counterpoint strategy of the earlier ones, in favour of broader harangues about how Muslms have allowed themselves to become so uncompetitive. I particularly liked the way the NEP is characterised, by age and also demeanour, as the Middle-Aged Economic Policy.
Syed Akbar is a ‘fundamentalist’ in the sense that he wants people to return to the fundamentals. In this, he shares Dr. Mahathir’s ideals that Islam is not only compatible with progress, but that to be a true Muslim is to progress in all fields.
Unlike a politician, even a vocal one, he can be more forthright in pointing out where nations go wrong. The royal mess that Arab states have made of their rich resources, by keeping their populations poor and ignorant, is scary and sobering. Syed Akbar seems to have devoted more to this theme in his previous book Malaysia and the Club of Doom – The Collapse of the Islamic Countries. I have not read that but it’s somewhere near the top of my to-buy list now.
It may not be kosher as a scholarly text (there are far too many Wikipedia citations for that), but his anecdotal style is more valuable in waking people up. And this is by no means a book solely about Islam for Muslims. Its many examples and exhortations are instructive for anyone who wants to see how a community – any community – can allow itself to be dumbed down through the ages. Beware – but don’t abandon hope!
(Malay Mail, 3 December)