Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mistaken identities.

Some of you might know that the Dutchman is visiting me in Singapore for two weeks. He wants to learn more about Islam and so we went to a centre in Singapore that specialises in providing information for non-Muslims, in English.

Sadly, we had a terrible experience. We were assigned a male, middle-aged Singaporean teacher of Pakistani background (according to his name), whom we'll call Mr. O. At this center, you can choose to take weekly classes but we chose the speedy version. In general, though one can convert at any moment, without even any knowledge of Islam, the centre recommends taking classes to know at least the history of Islam, the main principles (6 Articles of Faith and 5 Pillars of Islam), the details of taharah (keeping physically and ritually pure), how to pray, and the aspects of halal/haram (what is allowed or forbidden). 

The Dutchman has never had any formal or informal education in any religion, and is a self-confessed agnostic. But the teacher assumed that he (along with another white male classmate) is Christian, because all whites and Westerners must be Christians or Jews. So Mr. O sporadically made counter-arguments to Christian concepts - which no one actually asked for.

It's different, when a religious person (whether Christian, Hindu, Bahai, etc), agnostic or atheist is asking about Islam. In the first case, the person already believes in God and does certain practices, so it's a matter of arguing why there's one God, or that Prophet Muhammad is the last Messenger. In the second case, the person believes in something, but doesn't know what to call it, so one has to argue for God, and not a general, unnamed, unknown power. In the third case, the emphasis will have to first be on an omnipotent power.

Despite not asking anything about our cultural and religious backgrounds, relationship to each other, Mr. O went on to rant about former students who complained of their “corrupted spouses” and consequent inability to practise Islam properly. If he had bothered to ask, he could have avoided making all the following assumptions:
  1. He is being forced or pressured to convert.
  2. He thinks all Muslims are terrorists and commit jihad.
  3. He, as a 'Westerner', adores logic and rationality.
  4. He might want to join other religions instead. 
  5. That I am a Muslim by name and not in practice. So I don't know any Arabic terms, I don't pray, I can't read Arabic. (Heck, why did he even assume I was a Muslim at all? Because I look Malay?) 
1. He is being forced or pressured to convert.
Mr.O forcefully repeated several times that conversion should be done willingly, when there was no sign of force from either of us. Okay, we get it, and we never said it in the first place. 

2. He thinks all Muslims are terrorists and commit jihad.
He insistently made several defensive remarks about Muslims when there was no indication from any of us that we held such opinions. R’s question to him on Mr. O’s “feelings” as to what R should know about Islam was misunderstood. Mr. O went on about how “there are no feelings in Islam…when you start to have feelings is when people become terrorists and shout ‘jihad jihad’”.

3. He as a 'Westerner', adores logic and rationality.
After the whole terrorist-jihad tirade, Mr. O kept emphasising that Islam is "logical, rational, pragmatic, sensible". It seemed almost like he was trying to sell Islam in a way he thought Westerners might like.

4. He might want to join other religions instead. 
To pre-empt this, Mr. O commented on the other religions in Singapore. This is not a new discovery, but I've met some Muslims in Singapore who learn about other religions with the intention of countering their arguments as a form of da'wah (missionary work). He could have at least gotten it right - he said Zoroastrians "worship fire", when a simple glance at Wikipedia would have corrected that. 

He commented on  how Islam is not named on a person, while Christianity, Judaism, Baha'ism, Zoroastrianism and Confucianism (which by the way, is not a religion!) is - but I mean, so what? What's in a name? Is it necessary to disparage other religions in order to promote your own? Market your own product, don't bring down the competitors'.

5. That I am a Muslim by name and not in practice. 
I should have seen this one coming, actually. I didn't cover my hair for the class and so my morality is invisible (or you can argue that my immorality is quite visible!). He asked cheekily if I knew what taharah meant, if I prayed or not, and also challenged me to read a short chapter of the Qur'an in Arabic (in Malay no less, so the other two wouldn't know how rude he was acting). When explaining that there are 4 Books or Scriptures, he pointed me and said "But if you ask any Malay Muslim, they will tell you that there's only 1 Book!"

I suppose I could have looked quite immoral in my long pants, long Indian tunic and uncovered hair - but I was not the main focus of the class and he could have just ignored me or assumed better. I wouldn't have the gall to bring someone to learn about Islam if I didn't fully believe it myself.

He assumed that I didn't know anything about gender segregation. Since we initially thought the lesson would be personalised, I sat in to give him moral support. When Mr. O revealed that another male student would join us, he proposed that I leave the “male session”. Although I eventually didn't because the other student said he was not bothered by my presence (he's just a normal guy!), Mr. O pulled that guy's chair a metre away from me after he had sat down.

The funny thing was, I was sitting right next to the Dutchman - why didn't he separate us too? And for that matter, why did he stand so close in front of my chair and speak down to me while pointing a finger and looking straight at me? Where's all the supposed modesty? Not to mention that such a stance was intimidating.

Finally, he made arguments with the intention of us listening like empty vessels and showing awe instead of actually engaging in some interaction. When he asked me "Can you prove that God exists?", I offered the elements of Creation as signs of God as stated in the Qur’an in many places (for example 2:163-4, 3:190, 17:12, 36:33, 30:22). But he flatly said "No, wrong”. He added that reasoning God’s existence is “dangerous” because “the mind can go anywhere” – contradictory to the spirit of verses like 8:22 and 10:100 that tell us to use our God-given gifts of logic and reason. 

Instead, the circular argument he offers for God’s existence is Chapter 112, al-Ikhlas, where the first verse says "Say (O Muhammad) that God is One." He said “a document is better proof”, using the analogy of a passport to give proof of someone’s identity. But look at how the Ahmadiyyas claim that Mirza Gulam Ahmed was the Messiah, because he wrote some scripts saying that he was the Messiah.

To end off this long note, I think that as a teacher one should at least show a modicum of consistency if one is not going to admit inconsistency. Mr. O said that Islam is beautiful because it does not discriminate on the basis of age, sex, nationality or race. But the way he treated us betrays his assumptions that white people are reluctant converts from Christianity, and that women who don't cover their hair are not Muslims or don't know anything about Islam.


rafsie said...

Hmmm, my brother also had a bad experience with his Chinese girlfriend at their class. I think they din really want to go back after that.


Sya said...

If they still want to learn, check out the Beginner's Course to Islam (BCI) starting after Ramadhan by Ust Saifurrahman. I vouch for his easygoing and humorous style, approach to contemporary issues and knowledge. Good luck!

Munirah said...

hi, I'm wondering if you know of better classes in Singapore. my partner takes pride in being an intelligent person, and would not be receptive to being talked down to (like in your experience).

Sya said...

Hi Munirah, Ust Saifurrahman is a great teacher, and has taught many converts/reverts who are intelligent, critical young adults. I've attended his Beginner's Course to Islam (BCI) with the Dutchman and I think these are the best, because any question you ask will be taken seriously. Could you leave me your contact details? (See the 'Contact' tab) I can send you more information then :)


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