Sunday, March 13, 2016

"Go and pray again!"

This article was first published on Openseam.

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I was raised as a Muslim. For a long time, my understanding of Islam was more of accepting what people said, and not to ask too many questions about religious issues. I grew up in an environment where my mom brought me to different mosques to attend Islamic lectures by ustaz or ustazah (religious teachers). We would also attend maulud, the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, every year.

I was educated in a full-time madrasah (Islamic school) where the first language was either Arabic or English, depending on the subjects. For a decade, I was taught that Islam was a religion that is full of haram (forbidden) and halal (permissible), and we were highly discouraged from asking ‘too many’ questions -- whether about jurisprudence or theological matters.

As Muslims, we were told to believe in the Oneness of God, there is no doubt about it. We were taught not to discuss about God's zat (characteristics) in details as it is beyond human understanding.

Agreed.

But, deep in my heart, I did ask questions. It is my religion. If I simply follow it blindly, then what is the difference between me and others who embrace the faith of their forefathers without even understanding it? (2:170, 5:104)

In Singapore, the majority of Muslims are Sunnis who only follow the Shafie madzhab (school of thought). I face the huge problem of being viewed differently because I practise my religion differently from a conventional Sunni, Shafie follower.

One example is prayer. According to the Shafi’e school of thought, Muslim women are supposed to cover their whole body except the face and the palm during prayer. If you are found to be performing your prayer without your feet covered by socks, there will be ‘concerned’ individuals approaching you to say:

Ni salah ye adik, kita mazhab Shafi’e. Kena ikut betul-betul. Pergi solat balik!
(This is wrong, child. We are from the Shafie school of thought. We have to follow it properly. Go and pray again!)

Believe me, I’ve heard it too many times in my own country.

Doing my university education in an international Islamic university in Malaysia was such an eye-opener to me. It was a place where I strongly felt the world coming to me – Muslims from all over the world studied there, and I had the opportunity to observe the way they practiced their obligations as Muslims.

There, I never received any remarks from ‘deeply concerned’ Muslims about the way I or other Muslims from other parts of the world prayed. Perhaps because the environment was filled with people from all corners of the world, following different madzhab. They performed their acts of worship according to how their scholars have taught them for centuries. The differences in their details shows that Islam is flexible and is open to different circumstances.
Another common example is the touching of dogs. In Singapore, if you touch a dog, according to Shafie opinion, you have to wash your hands six times with water and once with earth. On the other hand, according to Maliki opinion, all you need to do is simply wash your hands.

After living and studying in such an international setting in Malaysia for about three and a half years, in an environment that celebrated the diversity of cultures and mazhab followers, I returned to Singapore embracing diversity. Instead, I find it harder to be Muslim in the way I am comfortable with – to say it simply, it seems that the broader Muslim society in Singapore is not accepting of non-Shafi’e followers.

I would not say that I am labelling myself as a Shafie, Maliki, Hanafi or Hanbali follower. I am a Muslim, and I have deep respect for all the learned scholars who took pains to help Muslims practice Islam in a flexible way. However, I feel that it is up to me to decide which school of jurisprudence to follow, as long it does not threaten my level of faith. In fact, God said in the Qur'an, giving the example of fasting, that God intends for us ease, not hardship (2:185).

The last couple of years, I have been working in Singapore to promote interfaith engagement among Muslims and non-Muslims, and to celebrate diversity across cultures and religions. This work made me more curious to out more about what Islam was exactly all about, and to shatter the myth of Islam consisting of only Sunni and Shafie.

At this job, I started to pick up invaluable knowledge, which my madrasah educational background did not teach me. I am slowly learning that Islam is in fact, a highly flexible religion because it allows Muslims to perform their obligations keeping in mind practicality, not rigidity.

It is wonderful that I am able to slowly understand why God makes it easy for us to fast or pray, in order to be grateful (2:185). Living as Muslims in Singapore, we may have neighbours who keep dogs as pets. Adhering strictly to one madzhab may result in difficulties when cleansing one’s self from the ritual impurity of touching a dog -- whether deliberately or purposefully.

In the course of my work, I also learnt that Shias are not a group that ‘deviated’ from sharia (as I had been previously taught to think). I grew to understand that the Shias alone are divided into a further 12 sects and that they too, have intra-faith issues amongst themselves, in ways in which only a Shia follower would understand.

In short, my undergraduate studies was an opening door to a better understanding of my own religion. My recent job working at the interfaith centre increased my knowledge, bit by bit, and drove me to realise that Islam is indeed a religion that emphasises practicality -- after the theological framework.

This certainly helps me to practice Islam the way the profound scholars of the past have laid it out for us – according to the ones that I am comfortable with, and regardless of time and space. At the end of the day, Islam is about acquiring knowledge and increasing one’s faith to the Creator.

With this aim, I am free to learn, ask questions and understand why Islam is known as a way of life.

By Ilham Fansuri

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