Islam and Nietzsche

Been there, done that. Good article:

The real test came, as it usually does on my own in the school environment, where many new ideas are thrown in to challenge my own, and it was through this initial confusion at the challenge, and then alarm that I began to examine my own position as a Muslim in a Western society and realization my ideology and beliefs weren’t susceptible to the same attacks and perversions that terrorized my Christian companions.

The reason for this intrigued me, and after much soul searching I realized that the underlying logic of Islam was based on a simple all-pervading belief in God and his Will; implying that one’s definition of Good was irrelevant in the face of the daily challenges that themselves defined and changed what it was to be human.

This idea made me keenly aware of my own moral self, and that the strict discipline and seemingly authoritarian regime I had felt subjected to as a child was in fact the basis of an intellectual immune system that would allow me to both absorb the good in other ideologies, while rejecting those principles that would lead to chaos and confusion.

Reminded me of this Tariq Ramadan interview  – supposedly a rare one which he focused almost exclusively on philosphy as a subject:

The point is that among these trends within the same tradition—the classical Islamic tradition throughout history—there is a struggle to say what the main principles are. And, in the end, you have schools coming from different views—some saying, “The main point is the oneness of God, and everything else is not so important,” and others saying, “if you look at anything to do with social affairs, there are six principles.” In my book Radical Reform, I say: “These six principles were enough in the Middle Ages. They are not enough today.” Why? Because we are dealing with so many different dimensions and the complexity of knowledge today means that we need to specify the objectives—meaning the applied ethics—in every single field. For example, the inner life: When we speak about stability and about well-being, the right response to the capitalist system’s assertions about well-being as GDP is to speak about well-being as something which reflects the inner dimension, your spiritual well-being. We have to come with this. This is what I mean by ethics.

So, I would say that the core of a tradition is never fully determined or finally decided. Even if you have, once again, a set of principles, priorities change depending on what you are talking about, and I think that this is something that is quite important for any tradition.

Now, where does faithfulness lie? This is why you have some principles—for example, in Islam I would identify the oneness of God, loving Him and being loved by Him, and then serving Him. And then there are principles that are the principles of worship; these are, in fact, the pillars. Now, we ask which principles allow us to deal with human societies, and which values are going to promote well-being. There are things that are immutable, constant, and permanent—when it comes to dignity, for example. We need this: the dignity of the human being, the dignity of man and woman, and the equal dignity of men and women. All these things are very important. As I said, depending on where you are, the dynamic between men and women could change, and we have to accept this. And the priorities could change, the level of urgency sometimes could change, depending on whether you are under a dictatorship and things like this. But I still think that tradition is complex. Faithfulness is not always easy to define, but we still have a set of principles that we can rely on to know where we are heading.

…I would say that to de-center yourself from this struggle, to come to the essence of who you are, and to have a projection, a vision for the future—all this could help you to decide for yourself what the true principles are. This is where and why you go towards transformation and adaptation.



Hamza Yusuf’s tribute to Martin Lings

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Martin Lings aka Abu Bakar Sirajuddin, the author of Muhammad: His Life Based on Earliest Sources, passed away some 7 years ago. Although the book is not free from criticisms, is arguably the best English-language biography on the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ out there today.

A good friend recently forwarded me an article, in which Hamza Yusuf pays tribute to Martin Lings.


I remember purchasing a small metaphysical treatise by an author with a foreign name way back in 1976 as I was browsing the shelves in a small spiritual bookstore located amidst a beautiful garden in Ojai, California. The title was The Book of Certainty: The Sufi Doctrine of Faith, Vision and Gnosis, and the author was Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din. At the time, I knew nothing of Islam, let alone who the author was, yet the title intrigued me. It was, in essence, what I was searching for – certainty. I read as much of the book as I could but recall not understanding very much. It quoted extensively from the Quran and offered highly esoteric commentaries in a language quite foreign to me. I set it aside, but my curiosity had been piqued that shortly thereafter, in a life-altering transaction, I purchased a Quran and began to read a very personal revelation that would compel me to convert to the religion of Islam.

After more than a decade abroad seeking sacred knowledge, I returned to the United States and was soon teaching courses on Islam. Not long after I was asked to teach a series of lectures based upon the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him. I agreed but needed a text in English for the students. I began looking for a sound biography of the Prophet that was written in an English style that did justice to the story. Surprisingly, for a man who the American historian Michael Hart ranked the single most influential human being who every lived, hardly anything serious biographical literature was available other than poorly written works published in far-off places or polemics and misrepresentations. I was somewhat despondent and then I discovered the finely produced Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources, by Dr Martin Lings. I knew who he was because I had been warned that I should be careful when reading his books. What I didn’t know at the time was that Dr. Martin Lings and Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din, the man whose book led me to the Quran, were one and the same person. Nevertheless, I decided to read the book and assess it for myself.

I was quickly immersed in a story told by a master storyteller whose English oft-times sang and always soared. The Prophet’s life was masterfully narrated through a series of short chapters in a prose as engaging and poetic as Lytton Strachey’s in Eminent Victorians, only the subject matter was not on an eminent Victorian but rather written by one who appeared to be. My father, a fine critic of English literature, remarked after reading it that unfortunately the prejudice Westerners have for the topic has prevented it from being recognised as one of the great biographies of the English language.

He also touched on the issue of orthodox and heterodox thoughts with regards to the Islamic tradition, in relation to some of Martin Lings’ controversial views. Worth the read.

Link to full article below, in PDF format.

Hamza Yusuf, “A Spiritual Giant in an Age of Dwarfed Terrestrial Aspirations,” Q-News, No. 363, June 2005/Jamad al-Ula 1426, 53-58.


The “Allah” Dilemma: A Linguist’s View

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While “Allah” issue in Malaysia (warning: Wiki link) has raised more than just eyebrows, I have stated in a previous post that while the usage is seemingly allowed according to Islamic canonical sources, bearing specificity to the Arabic language, those who are against it would assert that the contextualization of language (specifically Malaysian vis-a-vis Indonesian) would render that argument invalid.

Further readings I came across also inferred to the relatively contemporaneous usage of the word Allah by Christians in Malaysia. Previously, the word tuhan has been used as the translation for god. So why the recent recourse for the right over Allah?

Being frank, I must say that the jury is out until these speculations are cleared.

Adding to that, here’s NUS  linguistics lecturer Jyh Wee Sew’s enlightening article in the Malay daily recently (19 Jan), elucidating the exclusivity of religious terms.

‘Adakah satu perspektif transformatif diperlukan untuk menghadapi masalah perpaduan?’

Memang tidak wajar untuk menyamakan isu kemelut linguistik nama khas dengan sejarah yang berlaku 40 tahun lalu. Masalah dasar pada empat dekad lalu ialah kemiskinan atau lebih diakuri sebagai masalah ekonomi.

Masalah pada hari ini sebenarnya isu antiglobalis yang cuba disandung pada media cetak yang dianggap sebagai cabaran kepada agama Islam.

Terdapat banyak perkara yang perlu difikirkan dalam kemelut yang melanda keheningan masyarakat majmuk di Malaysia. Isu yang paling asas bukanlah isu perpaduan tetapi isu keharmonian.

Perpaduan antara kaum tidak akan mencapai konsep kawah lebur (melting pot), malahan ia tidak perlu menjadi begitu.

Kaum masing-masing telah pun sedia maklum dengan identiti sendiri seperti cara beramal ibadat, sistem bahasa, budaya makan, kepercayaan adat resam masing-masing.

Keunikan masyarakat majmuk yang begitu baik perlu dikekalkan dengan mantap. Setiap kaum harus bebas tetapi dengan peka menjalani kehidupan menurut tabii yang diwarisi.

Yang penting ialah keharmonian antara kaum dipelihara menerusi cara hidup yang bertatasusila.

Dengan mengakuri keistimewaan nama Tuhan agama sesuatu kaum yang lain tanpa menyamakannya secara globalis, keharmonian akan terpupuk.

Isu mutakhir yang menggugat keharmonian masyarakat majmuk berpunca daripada isu bahasa.

Keinginan menggunakan nama Tuhan secara merentas agama ternyata satu usaha yang tidak wajar kerana agama tidak lut globalisasi.

Reaksi dan suara daripada penganutnya bahawa keistimewaan nama keagamaan dipelihara sudah jelas dan ia harus dihormati serta dituruti oleh institusi perundangan serta sosial.

Konsep arbitrari bahasa iaitu rujukan bahasa bersifat wewenang ternyata tidak berlaku akibat peristiwa pembakaran gereja di Malaysia.

Konsep wewenang bahasa ini disalahtafsirkan daripada buku Ferdinand de Saussure yang disusun oleh pelajarnya selepas kematian beliau. Pembetulan masalah bacaan linguistik struktural ini boleh dibaca dalam buku From Interaction to Symbol oleh Piotr Sadowski (John Benjamins, 2009) yang antara lain diterangkan bahawa lambang bahasa merupakan hasil evolusi rujukan yang bertimbunan sejak zaman lampau.

Dengan ini lambang bahasa tidak mungkin bersifat wewenang tetapi merupakan himpunan makna yang mantap. Rujukan nama Tuhan dan rujukan nama khas yang lain sudah tidak mungkin disamakan dengan rujukan baru sesuka hati.

Faktor emosi tidak boleh diabai secara struktural. Sebagai contoh lain, usaha menghalalkan makanan Cina bernama Bak Kut Teh iaitu masakan sup tulang rusuk babi. Walaupun digantikan dengan daging ayam dan lembu, ia tetap dibantah oleh masyarakat Melayu kerana nama tersebut tidak halal didengar. Inilah yang dimaksudkan sebagai evolusi rujukan yang bersifat rujukan langsung atau isomorfik. Sebenarnya banyak rujukan isomorfik yang tersirat dan tersurat pada nama.

Bagi menjawab persoalan awal, perspektif yang transformatif tidak semesti pandangan yang bersifat radikal atau baru. Satu pemikiran yang mapan dapat dimanfaatkan daripada peribahasa Melayu ‘buat baik berpada-pada, buat jahat jangan sekali’.

Bagi perancang awam, pegangan wajib ialah tentukan nama hendaklah berpada-pada agar istilah agama kekal abadi. Jika pihak berkuasa lebih peka dengan sentimen ini, kemungkinan besar kerugian harta benda dan hakisan nama baik sebuah negara yang memang terkenal dengan keharmonian kaum tidak akan berlaku.



Avatar, “Allah”, and the Palestinian shawl

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What’s up with name association these days?

I try not to comment on such subjects; the internet and newspapers are already laden with views and arguments from more qualified experts. But then I received an email related to the movie “Avatar”, which said:

Before you get your children excited over “AVATAR” and keep saying the word again and again.

It continues:

An Avatar is in incarnation of a fragment of God on Earth. Avatars that are known of in the West include, Christ, Buddha, Rama, and Krishna; but there are many others as enumerated in the Bhagavata, the story of all the major Avatars.

To be frank, the first thing that came to my mind when I hear the word “avatar” was the small picture that is placed by a user in an internet forum, as a mean to identify himself. But that may be because I am partly internet-biased.

However, such associations of terminologies are nothing new, although it’s given its time in the media now. Especially, with the current debacle over the usage of the word “Allah” for Christians in Malaysia.

“Allah”: Is it for Muslims only?

To answer that, the easiest method will be to ascertain whether the word “Allah” was used in times before Islam. According to the editable Wikipedia (pinch of salt), the term “Allah” was already used in pre-Islamic times in the Middle East.

And to my humble knowledge, the term “Allah” is already being used in the Middle East today to refer to “God”, so much so that if you can get your hands on an Arabic-language bible, you can see clearly that the word “Allah” is used in it. (Sidenote: the debate over there must have been much more interesting, if there were any.)

Spot the word “Allah” (). Taken from the Old Testament, Exodus 1.

Taken from the New Testament, Luke 1.

Even the famous Muslim preacher Ahmad Deedat had been saying the word “Allah” does exist in the bible. At the same time, he also pleaded:

I had made some public statements regarding my discovery of the word “Alah” as alternatively spelled from the usual Christian spelling “Elah.” My plea to the Christians was this that spell the word as you like, with an “A” or an “E”, with a single “L” or double “LL’s”, but for goodness sake pronounce the word correctly, as we Muslims do.

…As much as the Englishman has the right to dictate to us as to how his language is to be sounded, surely we Muslims have as much right to demand a common courtesy when taking the name of God. We do not wish the word Allah to go into limbo like the “Yahuwa” of the ]ews. More than 6000 times the formula “YAHUWA ELAH,” or ya”HUWA ALAH,” or “HUWALLAH,” (He is Allah!) occur in the Hebrew manuscripts of the Jewish Bible, commonly called the “Old Testament,” by the Christians.


Differing views

However in this blog here, the author posited that the the word “Allah” is used exclusively by the Muslims, and the Christians were advised with caution when using such terms.

The ex-PM of Malaysia has also lent his voice to the issue, citing his disagreement over the permissibility of the usage of “Allah” for non-Muslim reference.

This puts him at loggerheads with his own daughter, who sees no wrong in the usage, and also, surprise surprise, the Islamic political party PAS, which allows the usage of “Allah”, with caution against abuse.

Let Islam/Muslims be the Trendsetter

Yet, it is very common for Muslims be on the opposite of the spectrum, i.e., apprehensive of non-Islamic terms being used in everyday communications, such as the word “idol”. Muslims, generally, are very aware of the etymology of the word “idol”, especially when American Idol variants first came to our shores.

Then there were the Muslims who warned me when an Ar-Raudhah mosque (Bukit Batok, Singapore) was built with no dome, and star polygons decorating it. They say that  if another religion were to take over the mosque, they don’t need to do any redecorating. Firstly, I think it’s unlikely that “another religion” will “take over” the premise, and secondly, I think they confused it with the Jewish Star of David.

Same as those who sees the designs in window frames as Christian crosses. Some people may even freak out at the uncapitalized sans bottom-stroke “t”.

Still, such mindsets come from those who are not keen on Muslims copying from other people, yet unknowingly they are hogging everything that’s un-Islamic. Then there are the multi-colored rubber wristbands (made popular by superman Lance Armstrong), the supposedly-beneficial magnetic bracelets, and many more trends which numerous Muslims bulldoze through to be a part of.

This is the Palestinian-popularized kuufiyyah. People usually know it as keffiyah. (Image credit)

Then sometime two years ago, American talk-show host Rachel Ray came under fire for wearing one of those Palestinian kuufiyyah in her commercial. Of course the ad got pulled off as idiocy auto-translates that into support for the Palestinian cause.

Personally, aside from the controversy, I think the kuufiyyah is one of those examples that Muslims can learn from; a Muslim-associated symbol that is being internationally accepted. While its current usage on fashion runways is not something that a Muslim should be proud of, it does aid in the much-needed awareness for the Palestinian cause.

How wonderful is it if we can have more beneficial teachings and ideas which originate from Islam and Muslims themselves. Such trends and positive influences had contributed to the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, through the generous Yemeni merchants (or some argue the Indian Muslim merchants came first). The spread of knowledge into Europe and the contribution the Islamic philosophers, scientists, religious scholars and many more in the time of “medieval” science and technology, Islamic architectures and designs being replicated and explained today through mathematics and many more, were all due to Islam and Muslims being the trendsetters of their time.

Come to think of it, it is hard to think of contemporary Islamic trendsetters nowadays.  Nobel (non-peace prize) laureates, brilliant inventors, and skilled orators (no entertainers please) are what we need badly to give a positive lift to our disdained image today. While consistently producing world-class trendsetters admittedly takes time, I think the Palestinian shawl is a good place to start.

So what now?

Back to the usage of the word “Allah”, while it is already being used in native Arabic-speaking countries, Deedat’s word does hold sound advice. However, in religiously-sensitive Malaysia, one has got to understand that the usage of the word may lead to more confusion than liberation.

While it is true that language, as well as fashion, evolves from one time to another, one has also got to weight the nuances of sentiments, and ramifications of judgment.

For instance, some restaurant owners display “Allah” openly to signify that they serve halal Muslim food. So maybe one day, the time will come when a customer got to ask whether that hanging “Allah” frame means they serve halal food or not; issues like this must be considered too before passing judgment.

As for me, I’m still waiting for the proper hijab is going to be an international fashion trend.


Further reading:

Beza Antara Merebut Nama Allah Dan Mempertahankan Akidah (The Difference Between Wrestling for Allah’s Name and Defending the Faith)

Related post:

The “Allah” Dilemma: A Linguist’s View

Beware of “Liberal Islamists”?

A friend forwarded me a very entertaining article regarding what is referred to by the author as “liberal Islamists”.

Basically, the article mentioned three types of entities:

(1) Classic Islamists; ultra-conservatives who are adamant on establishing an Islamic state.

(2) Liberal Islamists; those who share the same principles with “Classical Islamists”, yet choose to

collaborate with the ‘secular powers’ and even don the mask of progressiveness’ and speaks in the name of modernity, reform and universal values.

(3) And while the author didn’t elaborate in detail, there are also those he called Liberal Muslims, who are the target of especially the “Liberal Islamists”.

If you have the time, go through the piece (it’s a short 12 page article). If you don’t, I recommend reading the last 3-4 pages.

Considering the article is hosted by a site in Singapore, I would assume that the writer is writing in the context of local issues. In that light, just who exactly are the “liberal Islamists” that the author so intently cautions about?

Well, apparently these “liberal Islamists” are able to

convince the dominant secular groups that they (the liberal Islamists) are indeed the progressive ones that should be trusted and entrusted with authority to speak on and for ‘moderate’ Islam. Yet, when liberal Islamists are within fellow Muslim circles, they would maintain their classic authoritarian streak by obsessively differentiating the ‘true Muslims’ from the rest and identifying what is truly ‘Islamic’ and ‘unIslamic’.

Such a description depicts that “liberal Islamists” are those who have authority in religious circles – and thus likely to be trained in religion. Could they be individuals trained in secular institutions (“secular” here used liberally, no pun intended) yet are lecturing in religion, or is he referring to the traditionally-trained religious teachers aka the asatizah then?

And are there really such entities who are stealthily glide between “traditional” and “secular” circles, hiding behind a cloak of which is hidden underneath the intent of (supra?) national domination? Not only that, “liberal Islamists” also

are adamant on hunting down those whom they identified as proponents of “liberal Islam”…

The author’s assertion that “liberal Islamists” are “hunting down” “liberal Muslims” is an irony, as his final paragraph states that

present-day liberal Islamists pose a danger to the present social structure if they are allowed to roam unnoticed and to be given a wide-playing field in their bid for influence and power. Liberal Islamists are more opportunistic and subtle, less principled and able to disguise or camouflage their real intent (of creating an Islamic State). Their very adoption of dominant progressive and liberal discourses seems to make them able to stealth in-between many social and political institutions without raising alarm. Because of their ability to morph effortlessly, we ought to be worried.

Of course, there’s other parts to the article, like the “liberal Islamist’s” application of both Islamic and “Western” ideas. Who has the claim over such “ideas” and  “methodologies” anyway? Well perhaps we can discuss that another time.

Conclusion: I end up with more questions than answers (so apparent in this post). The article does seem to slant towards rather questionable xenophobic assumptions, IMHO. ;-)