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.

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Evolution and Belief in Allah

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We are living in a world where emphasis on science and technology has never been greater. Be it from parents who want their kids to do well in school, employers which are putting expensive efforts in R&D, or the governments which want the economy to but down on expenses through innovation, the focus on material science does benefit – more or less – man to do improve on life on Earth.

But to what extent? Based on conversations and observations, while anecdotal, I have a fear that the belief in God is being eroded by the very emphasis in science. Scientific advancements and discoveries aside, it is the fundamentalist belief “science can explain everything” that bothers me.

As Muslims, we are usually well-protected from such forms of influence, as the “arch-opponent” for our faith is usually deemed to be the Christians, who also believe in the existence of God. Coupled with layers of tough measures to prevent prosletyzation against Islam, conversion issues are usually tackled with eloquent approaches – academic arguments, scientific evidences, etc – on why being a Muslim makes sense (for one, Islam doesn’t say that Christians and Jews are totally wrong).

In fact, if one were to believe in a religion, I would argue that none is more complete that Islam, from the moment you wake up, to interaction with people, food you eat, economy, up till the moment you go to bed, and even when you are sleeping. There exists specific Islamic guidance on all aspects of life. It is a way of life. The most complete way of life, based on the belief of Allah and his prophets.

Nevertheless, such concerns usually may be summed up in the question “which religion?”, so the debate over the existence of God never came up.

But, in current times, the belief in The Creator itself is gradually being overshadowed by science and its atheistic rhetoric. Its spread into the minds of Muslims bypasses the protective system designed against apostasy; some scientific theories are being accepted in schools as “unfalsifiable”, thus regarded as the “truth”. And it may easily be ingrained in the young Muslims who are just discovering the world of science. Chief among it is evolution.

Questioning Evolution

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The discovery of Ardi (above) – the name given to a 4.4 million year-old human-like fossil – made news late last year. One can only know so much about the past, but the discovery has prompted revisions on the theory of evolution. Nothing drastic; mainstream science still states that modern men evolved from chimps of the past.

Her skeleton promises to fill in gaps about how we became human and evolved from apes. It has already reversed some common assumptions of evolution.

Rather than humans evolving from chimps, the new find provides evidence that chimps and humans evolved together from another common more ancient ancestor. (Source)

Yet despite that, the details of evolution is still being questioned by those who believe in Creationism, which I believe are usually led by the Christians. Muslims seems to be at loss when questioned on their religious views pertaining to such scientific theories. With the caveat of quoting Wikipedia, the theory of evolution and its compatibility with religion is a relatively new subject to Muslims.

A 2007 study of religious patterns found that only 8% of Egyptians, 11% of Malaysians, 14% of Pakistanis, 16% of Indonesians, and 22% of Turks agree that Darwin’s theory is probably or most certainly true, and a 2006 survey reported that about a quarter of Turkish adults agreed that human beings evolved from earlier animal species. (Source)

Furthermore,

An article in the latest issue of the journal, “Science,” suggests the evolution-creationist divide is about to emerge in the Muslim world. The article’s author, astronomer Salman Hameed, talks to “The World’s” Marco Werman about why the debate is heating up now, and implications for Muslims on both sides of the debate. The creation story in Islam is similar to the Biblical creation story, according to Professor Hammed: “But unlike the Book of Genesis, it is not laid out in a chronological order, nor is it in one single place. Secondly, it has this six-day creation, but the length of the days is less ambiguous.” (Source)

To highlight the seriousness of the issue, there are also calls for the school curriculum in Saudi to be revised to stem “foreign ideologies such as the Theory of Evolution.”

Evolution in Islam

Transcript:

It began in the sea, some three thousand million years ago. Complex chemical molecules began to clump together to form microscopic blobs: cells.

These were the seeds from which the tree of life developed.

They were able to split, replicating themselves – as bacteria do. And as time passed they diversified into different groups.

(Source)

How does Islam fare in the trolling against creationism? The advance of science, the proliferation of knowledge, and the smart-asses on the internet seemed to have given a new reason to scoff at beliefs which advocate creationism, i.e. all religions.

Some versions of Christian creationism theories believe the earth may be as young as 10,000 years of age, putting it on a collision course with scientists who place the earth at billions of years old.

Islam meanwhile doesn’t limit the theory of evolution to a time-frame; moreover the position of the theory of evolution is still somewhat vaguely established among Muslims.

Like many other issues which is not specifically stated in the Qur’an or hadith, it is open to many varying views. Some simply denounced evolution. Fataawa al-Lajnah al-Daa’imah lined out the Qur’anic evidences of the creation of man, while steering clear of any scientific arguments.

Some attempted to combine both scientific reasoning and for Muslims to ally with Christians and support Intelligent Design.

…Said Nursi, in the 1950s, foresaw an alliance between Islam and Christianity against materialism. He prophetically wrote, “A tyrannical current born of naturalist and materialist philosophy will gradually gain strength and spread at the end of time, reaching such a degree that it denies God. … Although defeated before the atheistic current while separate, Christianity and Islam will have the capability to defeat and rout it as a result of their alliance” (Nursi, Letters, s. 77-78).

…Intelligent Design (ID) is a term that implies creation. The universe and life are not products of blind forces of nature, ID holds, but show evidence that they were designed by an intelligence. The ID Movement has deliberately chosen not to specify the identity of the Designer. Through science you can demonstrate convincingly that there is a designer, but you can’t go further without invoking theology. (Source)

Some, such as Sheikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller went to great lengths to debunk evolution.

“Though their existence provides the basis for paleontology, fossils have always been something of an embarrassment to evolutionists. The problem is one of ‘missing links’: the fossil record is so littered with gaps that it takes a truly expert and imaginative eye to discern how one species could have evolved into another…. But now, for the first time, excavations at Kenya’s Lake Turkana have provided clear fossil evidence of evolution from one species to another. The rock strata there contain a series of fossils that show every small step of an evolutionary journey that seems to have proceeded in fits and starts” (Sharon Begley and John Carey, “Evolution: Change at a Snail’s Pace.” Newsweek, 7 December 1981).

Speaking for myself, I was convinced that the evolution of man was an unchallengeable “given” of modern knowledge until I read Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species“. The ninth chapter (The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Ed. J.W. Burrow. London: Penguin Books, 1979, 291-317) made it clear, from what Darwin modestly calls the “great imperfection of the geological record” that the theory was not in principle falsifiable, though the possibility that some kind of evidence or another should be able in principle to disprove a theory is a condition (if we can believe logicians like Karl Popper) for it to be considered scientific. By its nature, fossil evidence of intermediate forms that could prove or disprove the theory remained unfound and unfindable. When I read this, it was not clear to me how such an theory could be called “scientific”.

However, it seems clear that none of the Islamic views support that Prophet Adam evolved from an ape. So what does that make of the hours of evolution-of-man being hammered into young Muslims’ mind? How do we answer this, amidst all the differing  views and opinions? Do we even have a concrete answer?

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Answering with the Mind

Islam and science have also been supportive and complimentary. There are many many many verses recording scientific facts revealed some 1400 years ago, long before they were discovered by scientists. (Dr. Maurice Bucailles’ The Bible, the Qur’an and Science is a good start.)

The Qu’ran and sunnah revealed passages about the creation of earth and space which is compatible with the Big Bang and expansion of universe theories. For instance, as for the video above on the Tree of Life, which stated that everything started out in the sea, the Qur’an states (which also includes the Big Bang):

أَوَلَمْ يَرَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا أَنَّ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأرْضَ كَانَتَا رَتْقًا فَفَتَقْنَاهُمَا وَجَعَلْنَا مِنَ الْمَاءِ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ حَيٍّ أَفَلا يُؤْمِنُونَ

“Have not those who disbelieve known that the heavens and the earth were joined together as one united piece, then we parted them? And we have made from water every living thing, will they not then believe?” (al-Anbiyaa’:30)

وَاللَّهُ خَلَقَ كُلَّ دَابَّةٍ مِنْ مَاءٍ فَمِنْهُمْ مَنْ يَمْشِي عَلَى بَطْنِهِ وَمِنْهُمْ مَنْ يَمْشِي عَلَى رِجْلَيْنِ وَمِنْهُمْ مَنْ يَمْشِي عَلَى أَرْبَعٍ يَخْلُقُ اللَّهُ مَا يَشَاءُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ

“And Allah has created every animal from water: of them there are some that creep on their bellies; some that walk on two legs; and some that walk on four. Allah creates what He wills for verily Allah has power over all things.” (al-Nuur:45)

(Sidenote: In the same video, there is also an interesting point which is related in the Qur’an, regarding the extinction of dinosaurs and the appearance of the birds. At 4m 24s, it noted “…65 million years ago, a great disaster overtook the Earth. Whatever its cause, a great proportion of animal life was exterminated. All the dinosaurs disappeared – except for one branch, whose scales had become modified into feathers. They were the birds.” After Prophet Adam’s descent to Earth, which he is told to take sartorial cover from the feathers of the birds as in al-A’raaf, 26: “You Adam’s sons and daughters, We had descended on you a cover (that) conceals your shameful genital private parts, and feathers/riches/possessions, and the fear and obedience (of God’s) cover/dress, that (is) better.” The word for ‘feather/riches/possessions’ here is  ريشاً and usually translated as adornment, but in it’s original meaning, it is referred the feather of birds; the bird’s feather is its adornment. Obviously this is a relation which may require some stretch of imagination, so I’ll pause here. Furthermore, this doesn’t exactly assist my argument below.)

Answering from the Heart

Yet despite the great scientific revelations of the Qur’an, humans have a tendency to nitpick on one single scientific theory (evolution) which may not be explained by the Qur’an? Or perhaps it will be, in the far future, once Allah decides to reveal that particular detail to mankind. What is the possibility that we didn’t evolve from apes? Long ago, everyone on earth believed the world was flat, and that theory was history. How sure are we about evolution that it can’t be falsified and proven otherwise?

And perhaps the actual danger comes from the fact that most of the college and university-educated Muslims are simply trained have a systematic thought process; one before two, have money before kids,  etc. While it may be beneficial, it may also hinder the faith in Allah and the spirit of tawakkul when in dire circumstances, such as those who would thinks that a credit loan is the foremost solution to monetary problems instead of praying first to Allah. This also signals the loss of adab to The Creator, He is the utmost whom we seek refuge and help in any situation.

A pertinent question was asked by Ziauddin Sardar:

[The scientific-miracles apologia] opens the Quran to the counter argument of Popper’s criteria of refutation: would the Quran be proved false and written off, just as Bucaille writes off the Bible, if a particular scientific fact does not tally with it, or if a particular fact mentioned in the Quran is refuted by modern science? (Source)

How true, not everything can be scientifically explained. How would one scientifically explain heaven and hell, isra’ mi’raaj, and many more instances of mu’jizah gifted to our beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ? Scientific knowledge is still growing and ever-changing pending new findings and experiments. How would one explain the ruh (soul) to scientists? Even with the MacDougall Experiment in 1907, the loss of weight upon death was some 21 grams, which some argue is either the weight of breath inside the human body, or within the margin of error.

Attempting to justify everything with scientific knowledge may lead to bad science. One doesn’t need to be convinced of the scientific advantages behind Allah’s instruction. It could simply be a test for the heart and soul, to elevate the faith of the believer and condemn those who aren’t.

A friend once asked me why do Muslim women wear the hijab. I told her for reasons such as modesty and humility. She replied, “But you do not need reason to do that. If you believe in Allah, why do you need to question his command?”

Not every single thing can be proved by science. Instead in this “everything-can-be-explained-by-science” world, more emphasis should be placed on faith. Just because you believe in miracle, doesn’t mean you must or can explain it.

Even though the fitrah of the human is belief in The Creator, having ourselves tamed to do otherwise in years of secular institutions only serves to enhance our insecurity through the limited reasoning of the human mind. Often the teachings of Islam is sidelined to accommodate the peer-pressure rhetorics of society dominated by secular atheistic opinions.

For this reason, it’s not surprising that non-religious, college-educated adults fall back on purpose-seeking explanations. Many people have little understanding of evolution and instead view it as a cultural belief, thinking: “‘I’m a good secular liberal, I’m no yokel, I believe in Darwin,'” Bloom says. (Source)

And the gifted Sayyed Hossein Nasr recently pointed out:

The secularist paradigm which was created in the 17th century is itself a pseudo-religion in that it is a view of the nature of reality. There is no abstract knowledge; knowledge is always within the framework of a worldview, of a way of looking at the nature of reality.

We need to be reminded that secularism itself is not value-free. It is heavily influenced by the post-Christian movement, and the result is looking at everything from a completely atheistic point of view.

We always forget that Allah is the creator of this beautiful earth, suspended in space with the other planets religiously moving on a trajectory determined by Him. We always forget that Allah doesn’t need scientific reasoning to create, “kun fa yakuun” (“Be, and it becomes”), as was how we were created into beings. We always forget that we were created from nothing, and once we pass away, from nothing we will be recreated. Nothing is impossible, as Allah the Omnipotent Creator is unlike us, not bound by the laws of physics which He imposed on us mortals. If he decided to create Prophet Adam from dust, then he be. And he was.

…regarding the issue of natural “laws,” or more precisely, the issue of causality which is a prerequisite for the construction of natural laws. Scholars from Ash`ari school of theology, such as Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, denied the principle of causality, asserting that Allah is either acting directly or through the angels. This was done in order to uphold the omnipotence of God who, given a strict view of causality, would be subservient to the laws of nature, and, hence, would not constitute the ultimate reality. (Source)

Allah doesn’t need a cause. Kun, fa yakuun.

Even experts who delve deep in the knowledge of science find themselves berlieving in the existence of a Creator. For instance, the man who cracked the genome code said:

“When you make a breakthrough it is a moment of scientific exhilaration because you have been on this search and seem to have found it,” he said. “But it is also a moment where I at least feel closeness to the creator in the sense of having now perceived something that no human knew before but God knew all along.

“When you have for the first time in front of you this 3.1 billion-letter instruction book that conveys all kinds of information and all kinds of mystery about humankind, you can’t survey that going through page after page without a sense of awe. I can’t help but look at those pages and have a vague sense that this is giving me a glimpse of God’s mind.”

While from Einstein himself:

“There are people who say there is no God,” he told a friend. “But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.” And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. “What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos,” he explained.

In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. “The fanatical atheists,” he wrote in a letter, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who–in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’– cannot hear the music of the spheres.”

So, while the certain parts of the Qur’an may be supported by science, we must also remember that many other parts involve the ghaibiyyaat, the world of the unseen, not bound by the laws of science and physics that applies to Allah’s creations: the minerals, animals, elements, planets, and his creatures which we do not even know exist. Some people are more keen to credit unexplainable events to the “force of nature”, rather than Allah. Lest we forget, our very existence is bound by our purpose in life. Humans are no “accident” of “nature”. We will be questioned on our doings.

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Further Readings:

Evolution and Islam by Shaikh Nuh ha Mim Keller (recommended)

Evolution in the Light of Islam

Islam’s Darwin problem

Muslim academics and students are turning against Darwin’s theory

Academics fight rise of creationism at universities

Interpreting Dreams in Islam

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A colleague recently asked me about a particularly repetitive dream in which animals such as snakes and lions take turn playing the leading character.

Firstly, dream interpretation is allowed in Islam. I am by no stretch an interpreter of dreams, though I like to exploit the wonderful sources available on the mentioned topic. The authority on Islamic oneiromancy, the Interpretation of Dreams (Tafsiir al-aHlaam, تفسير الأحلام) credited to the great tabi’in Muhammad Ibn Sirin, does give an idea on the possible meanings of dreams. Although it must be noted that the book itself is actually written not by Ibn Sirin himself, but instead by his students, and apparently resembles a collection of what was relayed by Ibn Sirin.

Anyway, back to the dream. Looking at the available resources related to the topics of snakes and lions, not much data can be extracted. In short, basically entities which are regarded as hazards, such as the two wild animals above, mean probable danger of the dreamer. However reading on, it is not all that consistent and simply formulaic.

Firstly, different cultures regard different animals differently. For instance, the interpretation on lion says:

وربما دل على الموت والشدة، لأن الناظر إليه يصفر لونه ويضطرب جنانه ويغشى عليه

I.e. it could mean death and difficulty, because one who looks at the lion becomes cowardly and tremendously fearful. But what if the dreamer doesn’t feel scared of the lion in the dream? Or maybe a snake-lover who dreamt of snakes, whereas snakes are almost always defined as “the enemy”, understandably from the point-of-view of those living in sandy desert areas.

Secondly, the interpreter himself is key to the interpretation. Ibn Sirin was a man known for his tremendous piety, so he knew what he was talking about, and to whom. So just because a collection of his interpretations is available, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is there in black and white. Take the following example:

قد يرى اثنان نفس الرؤيا ويكون تفسيرها مختلفا باختلاف الحال، وقد ذكر عن ابن سيرين أنه جاءه رجل فقال له: رأيت أني أؤذن فقال له: ستحج إن شاء الله، وجاءه آخر فقال: رأيت أني أؤذن، فقال له: لعل في نيتك أن تسرق، فقيل له في ذلك، فقال: أما الأول فرأيت في وجهه نور الطاعة، فتذكرت قول الله تعالى: وَأَذِّنْ فِي النَّاسِ بِالْحَجِّ (الحج:27). وأما الآخر، فرأيت على وجهه سواد المعصية، فتذكرت قول الله تعالى: ثُمَّ أَذَّنَ مُؤَذِّنٌ أَيَّتُهَا الْعِيرُ إِنَّكُمْ لَسَارِقُونَ (يوسف:70) ـ

“Two may have seen the same vision and yet interpreted differently depending on the case. It was mentioned from Ibn Sirin that a man came and said to him: ‘I saw that I was performing the adhaan.’ So Ibn Sirin said to him: ‘You will perform the Hajj, Allah-willing.’ And another person came to him and said: ‘I saw that I was performing the adhaan.’ Ibn Sirin replied to him: ‘Perhaps you intend to steal.’ Ibn Sirin was then asked about this and said: “The first man, I saw on his face the nuur (light) of obedience; then I remembered the words of Allah: ‘And proclaim [وَأَذِّنْ] the Pilgrimage among men.’ (al-Hajj:27). The other man, I saw on his face the darkness of sin; then I remembered the words of Allah: ‘Then shouted out a crier [أَذَّنَ مُؤَذِّنٌ]: O ye (in) the caravan! behold! Ye are thieves, without doubt!’ [Yusuf: 70].

In short, it’s not for a topic for armchair experts. This is one for the clean heart and sound knowledge.

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Further reading:

http://muttaqun.com/dreams.html

The (Long) Road to Racial Understanding

Forget about racial/religious harmony. To reach that pinnacle of give-and-take, basic understanding must take place. This, one assume, is basically a given in Singapore; most people from other groups know that the void deck is being used by Malays to hold marriages, Chinese for funerals, and Indians to hold birthdays and other gatherings.

But we are in trouble if that is all we know, especially if we are part of the organizing personnels involved in multi-racial multi-religion events.

For instance, I’ve been to events which were supposed to provide lunch and dinner for the participants, of which include Muslims. The organizers know a bit about Muslim diet; we aren’t allowed to consume pork. So they prepared chicken wraps and salads. In such cases, the chicken is avoided, and the salads usually come to the rescue.

No Pork No Lard ≠ Halal

True, Muslims can’t eat pork, and it’s no rocket science that chicken isn’t pork. Unfortunately, another aspect of the Muslim diet which most people do not know is that all meats must be slaughtered in a specific manner, thus the term halal meat. Alcohol should also not be served, and that includes tiramisu.

The importance of details in planning such events are so vital that most attendees just assume that their needs are catered to. Here in Singapore, organizers are usually aware of the particularities of those involved, and just choose to conveniently cater from halal-certified providers, or go vegan.

By the look of things in Singapore, I would say most passed the food test, except for the tiramisu which I really suspect isn’t alcohol-free. But, they’ve still got a long way to go.

Firstly, the “no pork no lard” phrase has just gotta go. It may work well for someone who has allergy or adverse reaction to pork, but it is sometimes confusing for those who doesn’t understand that “no pork no lard” ≠ halal. Though one may not entirely fault the shopowners (usually bakeries which doesn’t use no pork/lard but uses non-halal sausages etc) as they are merely stating facts, the Muslim consumer should also be more aware of his decisions.

no pork no lard

“No pork no lard” ≠ halal! Religion is not to be dictated by the rumbling stomach. (Image credit)

Such diluted understanding is prevalent here in Singapore, but apparently in other countries. Take this biscuit produced in Korea, sold here in Singapore.

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The highlighted part actually translates into: Free from pork products and its derivatives. While this may put some hearts at rest, other may question does the E-4xx emulsifiers contain gelatin from non-halal beef? Here’s what the local religious body’s got to say on the matter.

Food claims such as ‘No Pork, No Lard’ do not necessarily imply that the food is truly Halal. Halal food must not contain and/or come into direct contact with non-Halal items. Examples of these include alcohol, pork and meat deriving from sheep which are not slaughtered in accordance with the Islamic Law.

Calendar and Events

Besides food, some religion also possesses their own calendar system. Nothing too hard to ignore, as major religious events are widely reported here, such as the Deepavali, Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, and Thaipusam. Event organizers should therefore take note of the dates, else the targeted crowd may not come.

This is a banner of what is supposed to be “Racial Harmony Sports Day”. At first glance, all seems to be okay; everyone from all races are invited to participate – a wonderful thought.

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The true test of endurance: Sports + fasting.

One little issue though, the date 13/09/2009 is the final week of the fasting month of Ramadan, prior to the Muslim Hari Raya celebration.

One may say that I’m being too picky by pointing these out, but in reality, a fasting person would do as much to conserve his energy as even a drop of water is not allowed. Furthermore, for the event organizers to call it “Racial Harmony” is unfortunately oxymoronic if it is not suited to the racial groups’ observances.

And here’s a reader’s letter from today’s paper on Deepavali. I share his thoughts on the issue.

Diwali is essentially known as the festival of lights, as it marks the return of King Rama to reclaim his throne after a 14-year exile in the forest, and his victory over Ravana, a legendary evil king who abducted his wife Sita, and lights were put up in celebration.

It is also celebrated by Sikhs, who commemorate the return of Guru Hargobind, who had been imprisoned with 52 other princes at Fort Gwalior by Emperor Jahangir.

It is a major symbolic festival, but the proper greeting should be simply ‘Happy Diwali’ or ‘Happy Deepavali’, and more good times ahead, not ‘Happy New Year’.

While I do appreciate the nice gesture from my non-Muslim friends when they send me greetings on Hari Raya, it slightly bugs me that most of them choose to greet by saying “Happy New Year”. Hari Raya is not a new year. It falls on the 10th month of the lunar calendar. That’s like wishing someone a happy new year in October.

<Given-Name> <Family-Name> <Father’s Name>

Each culture also has their own name structure convention. Chinese and Western names usually have a <given-name><family-name> convention (or vice-versa). Malay and Indian names (at least in Singapore) meanwhile doesn’t include family names, their names consist of <given-name> <father’s name>.

I had naively expected this to be common cultural knowledge, knowing that the word bin and binte in the Malay/Arabic naming convention correlates with the Indian s/o and d/o. Well, I thought wrong.

Here’s a passage from the local daily, which mentions a politician’s name. The politician, a Malay,  is Hawazi Daipi. According to the Malay naming convention, he should be called by his first name, and not his last name; his last name is actually his father’s name and not his family name.

Apparently the reporter doesn’t get it, and reported here:

…Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower Hawazi Daipi in Parliament on Monday afternoon.

Mr Daipi was responding to questions by MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC Baey Yam Keng who asked what help do bosses who can’t afford to pay the full medical bills of their maids get. He also asked if the Government would consider capping the maximum liability of bosses.

Mr Daipi said to reduce the burden of these large medical bills…

Sloppy, as a quick google would have produced his CV and given clues to his ‘surname’.

But this example is not a rarity. I have been many times, in situations when formality ensues, called by my ‘surname’; I don’t have one, so they were actually calling me by my father’s name. So much so that I got used to it.

In fact, my previous workplace requires the work email address to be a combination fo the first letter of my first name, and my last name in full. Which in this case will be x_FATHERSNAME@xxxxx.com. It truly was irritating. My request to have it changed wasn’t accepted. I do not mind if I actually do have a surname, but I simply don’t.

And it sounds really idiotic to have my email address based on my father’s name instead of my own. Just what can I do then?

Understanding, then Harmony

Until we have these issues being understood by everyone of different racial and religious background, the word “racial/religious harmony” will amost always be viewed like some propaganda horn blown by from the top. True, to an extent is does coerce a nervous and artificial form of tolerance, with the main objective of avoiding trouble and confrontations, while gulping down the occasional uneasiness.

But when one look closely, these trivial issues are not really so trivial, they form the very basis of harmony. How can a society truly achieve this “harmony” if it doesn’t even know what to call its neighbour? Or what to serve when hosting them? Or when to hold meet-ups or gatherings?

Culture is deeply rooted for generations. Religion is a way of life. They influence names and name structure, possesses their own calendar system, practices, and rituals.

In the end, one must remember that religion and culture is not just all about food.

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An Idiot’s Guide to Ramadan

Yes, Ramadan just passed, but this is still good.

Excerpts:

Ramadan, What does this mean?

Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar.  It’s when Muslims all over the world spend 30 days observing fast and bettering themselves in principles of faith.

Observing fast?  Is that something to do with running, then?

No.

Oh, what is it then?

Observing fast, or fasting, is when a person abstains (or keeps away) from eating and drinking.

Some people call it ‘Ramadam’, what’s that all about?

The month is correctly known as ‘Ramadhan’ or ‘Ramadan’, the latter being the more anglicised version.  ‘Ramadam’ is incorrect and is mistakenly used. ‘Ramadam-dam-dam’, as pronounced by Ali G, is also wrong but you probably guessed that already.

Full article on the BBC (link).

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Excerpt 1:

Ramadan Really Means…

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Ramadan comes and goes. The month in which able-bodied Muslims are obligated to fast from dawn till dusk has passed, but will reappear in the next (lunar) year, as has been the cycle for the past 1,428 years. Yes, it’s 1430 years after the Hijrah now, but Ramadan was first obligated 2 years after the Hijra (some say in the month of Sya’ban, 2H/622CE).

For most people, when you ask them whether fasting makes them better, they’ll almost always agree. They will say that abstaining from all types of food and drinks makes them a better, stronger person. For others, it made them shed a few pounds (only to bulk up again with the Eid festivities).

But some of these answers may be quite vague, and especially from an outsider’s point of view, it is difficult to see the so-called spiritual benefits. But trust me they’re there.

If you’ve been fasting fasting for years, or just starting to get used to fasting, or trying to understand how not eating can make you a better person, here’s my take on what people mean when they say Ramadan makes them “better”.

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1. “Ramadan makes me empathize with the less fortunate.”

Very true, also very obvious. With millions around the world having difficulty to finding food, and even more so freshwater, the fact that you are not allowed to drink a single drop of water in this hot, sunny climate makes you appreciate that even more seriously.

And after one full month of not consuming anything during the day, Muslims also must give a mandatory sum of money (zakat/tithe) to the poor.

Philosophy:

You feel their suffering (through fasting), now do something about it (through donation).

ramadan27Visually impaired Palestinian students read verses of the Koran, Islam’s holiest book, written in Braille. (Image credit)

2. “Ramadan helps me to focus.”

The line is not hard to draw for this one. Most likely than not, what is meant is the decreased focus on food (you can’t eat or drink during the day), makes for an exercise in objectivity; focus more on what you are doing, and not what you are feeling.

For those who say they can’t concentrate without food, or when they’re hungry, this is an observance especially catered to temper the physical body to such conditions. 14 hours without food is nothing extreme, but definitely gives you a slight boost especially when thinking of whiny people who can’t seem to stop munching.

Philosophy:

Mind over matter.

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3. “Ramadan makes me a better/stronger person.”

The most popular. Or a better phrase would be, “Ramadan shows me how much I can do, with less.”

I’m sure a lot of people actually lose weight during Ramadan (mine is around 5% this year, hooray!). And without any side-effects nor illness whatsoever, the loss of weight is a sheer example of how much we – as humans – are consuming on a daily basis.

Food: During Ramadan, the amazing body somehow manages to survive on 2 meals a day; one small one before dawn, and one during sunset.

Sleep: During Ramadan, just like many others, Muslims sleep lesser than normal. Even when going to sleep at the same every night, most Muslims wake up at about 5am to eat the pre-dawn meal (sahur) and perform the dawn (Subuh) prayers, then taking a 1-2 hour nap before going to work.  The sleep pattern is disrupted, yet the body copes with it.

Exercise & Discipline: Less food, less sleep, and every night, Muslims are encouraged to perform the tarawih prayers. It takes less then 30 minutes, done every night during Ramadan, and burns the extra calories too. Also during Ramadan, most would read roughly 20 pages of the Qur’an daily, so as the complete reading the holy book in that month.

In addition, Muslims are supposed to be at the peak of spiritual health in Ramadan. Meaning, controlling the eyes from gazing at that lady with a low-cut dress, the tongue from gossiping, the ears from listening to mindless songs and idle talk, etc. It’s about getting the soul to control the physical body, and not the other way round.

If you observe Ramadan, you’ll see that everything is jam-packed; you do more, you consume less. In the midst of all these, it is easy for one to realize how much of their daily lives is filled with non-essential entertainment and pleasure.

Fasting does indeed make you stronger. Stronger to get off the lazy bum and do something worthwhile, or help others, or read more. It resonates more when the Muslim sees himself as a consumer, to eat little (and not waste), to reduce consumption of not only food, but electricity, petrol, and the world’s resources.

Philosophy:

If something as essential as food and drink can be controlled, the non-essential desires can be reined in too.

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4. “I fast because my mom/dad told me to.”

If you see Muslim kids fasting, it teaches them not to be a wuss when they grow up.

The perfect character builder.

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