Let’s Eradicate Ramadan’s Religious Brownie-Point Mentality
Legend has it that the Eighth Century mystic Rabia al-Adiwayya was so upset with her fellow believers’ obsession with the Hereafter that one day she ranthrough the streets of Basra with a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other yelling, “I want to burn down Heaven and douse the flames of Hell!”
To her, this preoccupation with heaven and hell blocks our path to Allah. We should worship Him not out of fear of His punishment or for the promise of Paradise, but for His love. We earn that through serving mankind and respecting all His creations.
This fixation on the afterlife also trivializes our great faith, reducing us to boy scouts chasing religious “brownie points” to be cashed in at the Gates of Heaven.
This mentality makes us belittle this world and its achievements. “Real” success awaits us in the Hereafter. Ever wonder why Muslims are mired in abject poverty? We forget this wisdom of our forefathers – kemiskinan mendekati kefukuran(poverty invites impiety).
Then there are the promised 72 virgins in Heaven to seduce those young jihadists. As Imam Tawhidi observed with contemptuous cynicism, if that were true, don’t you think that those doing the advising would be the first to blow themselves up? Then there are those who think that they could plunder the nation and then cleanse their sins away by going to Mecca, or “photo-op” sessions of charity feeding for orphans.
Ramadan begins today and with that, heightened religious fervor. Mosques would be filled to overflowing and sermons loaded with endless reminders of the extra generosity of Allah during this blessed month. The portal to heaven remains wide open, we are told. Praying and other virtuous deeds done on the “Night of Power” (Lailatul qadar) would be magnified a thousand fold.
The consequence to this mindset is that if you travel during Ramadan in the Muslim world, be prepared for unexpected inconveniences and outright hassles. Eating establishments would be closed during the day. They assume that their customers are all Muslims, and fasting. There is little consideration for serving their non-Muslim and non-fasting clientele.
Not just restaurants. Try transacting business with government agencies! It’s like France in August. At least the French have the excuse of being in holiday mood. Come September they would return with renewed vigor. In Malaysia, the sluggishness remains.
Productivity suffers. With that, so too safety. A school bus plunged into a ravine when I was a kid. The driver was asleep at the wheel. He was fasting; at least that was his excuse. His personal salvation came ahead of his passengers’ safety.
As a surgeon in Malaysia, I once reprimanded a doctor during Ramadan for abandoning his patients while he was off for his Friday prayers. His salvation too came ahead of his patients. The fact that helping his patients would pave his own salvation escaped him.
Serve mankind and you serve Allah. That is the mantra of the Ahmaddiya and Ismaili Muslims; they understand and practice this essence of our faith. The Ahmaddiyas built hospitals in Africa and Latin America. They recently commissioned one in Guatemala. There are not many Muslims there. The Ismailis use their tithes to build schools and universities especially for girls. The Aga Khan University in Karachi, established only a few decades ago, has the country’s finest teaching hospital and medical school, eclipsing others much older.
The Islamicity Index, using criteria extracted from the Koran, measures how well nations serve their citizens. No Muslim nation is among the top twenty.
In his book Misquoting Muhammad, Jonathan Brown quotes the advice one Mufti of Al Azhar gave his country’s rulers. Bring peace, justice and prosperity to your people, and he (the Mufti) would find the hadith or Koranic verse to justify those policies. By definition those would be Syariah-compliant. Malaysian ulama have it backwards. They would be consumed first with whether those measures were “Islamic” even before they have been proven effective. To those ulama too, lies and stealing are Syariah-compliant if they would get a piece of the action, or their victims were non-Muslims.
We should have an equivalent personal Islamicity Index, based not on such things as how often we have undertaken the Hajj or how erudite we are in reciting hadith, rather on how well we serve our friends, families, and community.
Yet in Malaysia the screaming headlines are of corpses being snatched from grieving families (on the presumption that the deceased had converted to Islam on their deathbed), the surreptitious conversion of minors without both parents consenting (so the subsequent custody hearings could be in a Syariah rather than civil court), and most obscene of all, the contempt for personal privacy with officers of the religious department raiding hotels looking for khalwat(“close proximity”).
On a juvenile level, those caught not fasting would be paraded around town in a hearse. Meanwhile, drug abusers, abandoned babies, HIV sufferers, and other victims of our social dysfunction cry for attention. Ameliorate those problems and you effectively defend and protect the ummah, as well as the faith. Mass demonstrations yelling “Defend Islam!” or “God is Great!” would achieve nothing except snarl up traffic.
Allah’s greatest gift is our precious life. We have a one-in-five-billion (number of sperms in an ejaculate) chance of being here, essentially zero. Yet here we are. We should celebrate this miracle by making the most of it. I cringe when our ulama belittle our lives in this world in their obsession with the afterlife.
It would be more fruitful to regard the Day of Judgement as a concept, with heaven and hell, metaphors. Study hard in high school and your day of judgement would come soon enough, as at the end of the year when your test results come out and you could be rewarded with an overseas scholarship – a youth’s heaven!
Plunder the nation and your day of judgement too would come soon, as former Prime Minister Najib now finds out. Today he is going through hell, dragging along his family.
Heed the wisdom of Rabia al Adiwayya. Eradicate this distracting religious brownie-point mentality. Instead, enhance our Islamicity Index, the personal as well as the nation’s. At least you would have a legacy then. As to whether you would end up in Paradise, Allah hu Alam(only Allah knows), as my village elders of yore used to say.
The serialization of my memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, will resume next week.