Malaysia’s Abrahamic moment

There is a famous anecdote in the Quran that tells of a man in search of his existential Master. He began his quest for answers by questioning his society’s traditional practices of idol worship.One evening, he looked up to the sky. Against a backdrop of pitch-blackness, a bright and shiny star stood out like a shimmering, ethereal beauty. He wondered: could this star be God? Yet he knew, bright as it was, the star would fade away at the end of the night. He then turned to the moon, round and magnificent, and asked the same question: could the moon be God?But, as with the star, the moon too would set and be replaced by an even brighter power – the sun. Could the sun then be God? However, when the sun too soon disappeared on the horizon, he realised that an omnipresent God could not be any of these symbolic objects.

Instead, God must surely be the power that gives form and order to these elements that make up our universe. And thus, he finally proclaimed:“O my people, indeed I am free from what you associate with Allah. Indeed, I have turned my face towards He who created the heavens and the earth, inclining towards truth, and I am not of those who associate others with Allah.”And such was the spiritual journey of the prophet Abraham in his search for God, as related in Surah Al-An’am, verses 74-79.

It does not take a theological expert to see how Abraham’s story illustrates a religion that is founded upon rational aspects that are able to withstand the test of logic. At the point when Abraham was faced with the greatest epistemological question in the history of human civilisation – the question of our very existence – there was curiously no attempt at divine intervention.

One might ask if it would not have been much easier for the Almighty to simply convince Abraham by divine means (such as sending an angel or perhaps even Ustaz Azhar Idrus)? Instead, God in His wisdom allowed Abraham to discover the truth through his own cognitive and empirical observations of the universe, and in so doing further strengthened his faith.

Indeed, this proves that Islam is meant to be much more than mere dogmatism. After all, God has bequeathed mankind with the magnum opus of creations – the human intellect.

Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates this gift of intellect. In Malaysia, for example, those in power deign to do what even God did not do to Abraham, which is to think and decide on behalf of others, especially in matters of personal faith.

And so it is that in this country, people are told what they can or cannot read, watch, say and believe. For example, not only have non-Muslims been disallowed from using certain “Islamic” words such as “Allah”, even Malay translations of the Bible have run afoul of the law. Meanwhile, Muslims are told what version of their religion is kosher, as if diversity did not exist in the wide world of Islam.


Worse, censorship is not limited to religious material. The 2003 superhero film Daredevil was also banned because it would apparently lead to devil-worshipping. Recently, a comic entitled Ultraman: The Ultra Power was also labelled illegal.

In fact, there are a total of 1,532 banned publications according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. And if that isn’t mind-boggling enough, the government has banned certain books only in the Malay language, while their English versions suffer no restrictions.

An example of this is the seminal thesis, The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. Walk into any respectable Malaysian bookstore or library and the book will be freely available. However, its Malay translation, Asal-usul Spesies, is listed as a banned book.

There are other books that suffer from the same fate, such as Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History. Its Malay translation, Sepintas Sejarah Islam, is banned while the original can be purchased at bookstores or borrowed in libraries.

The official response of the government, when asked to justify its banning of Darwin’s book, was to say that it constituted a “danger to public harmony”, besides contravening the teachings of the Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah (apparently the Jakim-approved interpretation of Islam).

However, such a response does not even begin to make sense. How can the same book be considered a public danger and against Islamic teachings in one language, but perfectly acceptable in another? Or rather, is it really the government’s way of saying that certain knowledge should not be accessible to those who are only Malay-literate, the majority of whom are Muslims? Are we seeing some kind of language apartheid going on here?

Despite being the most populous group and in control of essentially every public institution in the country, the Malay-Muslims of Malaysia are constantly warned to be fearful of threats of all kinds, ranging from the Chinese who wish to rob them of their wealth and power, the Christians who wish to convert them into heathens, and according to the prime minister, human rights activism, presumably because it would lead to people asking for more justice, equality and freedom – God forbid.

In truth, this narrative of fear and besiegement is nothing more than a systematic attempt to, on the one hand, divert attention from decades of state-sponsored abuse of human rights, corruption and economic mismanagement, and on the other hand, fortify the illusion of the ruling party as the sole protector of Malay-Muslim livelihood.

However, such oppressive power is simply unsustainable. Any kind of ideological power, be it political or religious, can only perpetuate itself insofar as it can be rationalised. Once an idea or narrative fails to make sense, it will begin to crumble into nothing more than mere myth as more and more people desert it.

History has shown that such a fate has befallen many regimes, religions and beliefs. In the end, what was true for Abraham will also be true for his descendants. As hard as the government tries to suppress the truth, it is only a matter of time before Malaysians realise that the grand symbol of power masquerading as the protector of our social order is in fact nothing more than a desperate regime clinging on to power by dividing society, plundering the country and abusing the rights of its citizens.

And when that day comes, Malaysians, like Abraham, shall be set free. – July 12, 2014.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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