Thursday, July 12, 2007

Making Ulama More Relevant

M. Bakri Musa

The Raja Muda of Perak speaks for many when he stated at the recent Ulama Conference that an alim (pl: ulama) “must first build a credible image of himself so that his advice and views are accepted and valued.”

Unfortunately, the sad reality is that ulama in many Muslim countries, Malaysia included, have prostituted themselves as instruments of a repressive state. They behave less as spiritual leaders and more to provide religious legitimacy to brutal and unjust governments.

In Malaysia, where the government has totally co-opted the Islamic establishment, Islam is now less a faith and more a bureaucracy, with ulama preaching government propaganda instead of doing God’s work. How many ulama have spoken out against official corruption and gross abuses of human rights?

Islam in Malaysia is what the government says it is; one deviates at one’s own earthly peril. Many have been jailed without trial courtesy of the Internal Security Act, or sent to “rehabilitation camps” by sham Syariah Courts for practicing “deviationist” Islam. This is not the wisdom of Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., but of Comrade Stalin.

On another level, today’s ulama remind me of physicians of yore. Then, physicians were put on a pedestal, their every pronouncement meekly accepted. Even the language to describe a physician’s advice was telling: “Doctor’s orders!”

This is still the prevailing ethos in the Third World. New doctors coming from there have difficulty accepting the fact that in America physicians are just professionals like others. Meaning, patients are your valued clients, not subservient customers. You have to explain your treatment plans, tests ordered, and medications prescribed. A request for a second opinion is not seen as a slight on your professional competence rather the expectation of an informed patient. And an informed patient is a better patient.

This transformation of American physicians did not occur magically. It is the consequence of three major factors: radical changes in medical education, the public becoming more informed in matters of health and diseases, and the fact that medical care is largely in the private sector. Doctors have to listen to their customers in order to survive economically.

Then there is the manner of training. Would-be doctors in America are well grounded in the humanities and social sciences (in addition to the prerequisite natural sciences) before entering medical school. Further, it is the rare medical student who lives in dorms; most live in the community. They are not cut off from the rest of society, as priests in monasteries, or ulama in their madrasahs. American patients are also better educated and well informed, with medical information readily available. These patients do not take kindly to a physician’s patronizing or “know it all” attitude.

Educating Ulama

Contrast that to the training of an alim. More than likely he (never she) had attended a religious school where the curriculum is severely constrained. His social circle is also similarly limited; having never encountered anyone from a different faith or of the opposite sex. This pattern is repeated at university. Would-be ulama thus dwell in a world totally alien from that of their parishioners. It is no surprise that their pronouncements have little relevance to the real world.

One ready solution would be to abolish religious schools. That however, would not be politically feasible. Besides, these schools are popular with Malays; the Islamic imprimatur sells. A better alternative would be to modernize the curriculum by broadening it to include more secular subjects. There is no reason why these religious schools cannot excel in secular subjects and thus produce their share of the nation’s future scientists and managers, just like religious schools in America. American Catholic schools provide such superior education that they attract many non-Catholics, including Muslim students.

At universities these future ulama should, like modern physicians (at least in America), have broad-based liberal education. An understanding of the humanities and the sciences (natural and social) would enhance their understanding of the Quran and Hadith. The contributions of ancient Muslim scholars were prodigious and monumental because their intellectual interests were broad. They did not differentiate between religious and secular knowledge. Contrast that to the insularity of today’s ulama and religious scholars.

If our ulama are well versed with and have insights from the social sciences, they would be in a better position to relate to and counsel their ummah. They would then be less likely to be simplistic when addressing serious problems of their congregation.

All too often when ulama are confronted with major social problems, be they AIDS, drug abuse, or out-of-wedlock childbirths, their responses have been nothing but the uttering of platitudes and mindless quotations of the Quran and Hadith. Similarly, when they issue fatwas (decrees), they do so without much thought. They simply give their declarations without any explanation or references to existing body of knowledge. No surprise then that their fatwas are often far detached from reality; and frequently ignored.

If only they would use the occasion of issuing the fatwa as an opportunity to educate the masses by engaging them, then these ulama would be doing themselves and their followers a great service. When judges render decisions, they have pages and pages of reasoning, citing relevant precedents. Our ulama should do no less with their fatwas.

Similarly, just as judges seek testimonies from experts before deciding on a case, ulama too must not hesitate to consult specialists in the relevant fields before issuing fatwas. I would go further and suggest that these ulama have public hearings on important issues before delivering their edicts.

I am appalled that ulama and religious scholars would issue fatwas on such complex matters as modern financial instruments like bonds or public health issues such as AIDS without first understanding them. These are new and daunting problems that earlier Muslims never had to face. Endlessly quoting ancient texts would shed little light except to illustrate general principles. It would be more useful to understand these modern issues by learning from practitioners of other disciplines, and then discern what aspects are or are not in compliance with the principles of Islam.

Quite apart from broadening the curriculum, the current education of the ulama must also be revamped. What passes for “education” in a religious class is nothing but indoctrination. The communication is strictly one way, from instructor to students.

I once attended what was supposed to be a graduate-level class in Islamic Studies. I was appalled at the lack of any intellectual discussion. When I tried to ask a question, I was patronisingly told that I could not even contemplate asking any when I was just beginning the course. I would have to wait at least until I have understood the whole material. Whereupon I retorted that if I had understood everything, then there is no need for my asking any question, or even taking the course!

The instructor’s mindset was telling, and is typical of many Islamic scholars and ulama. Even more revealing was the attitude of the students. These were adults, many professionals in their own right, yet they passively sat through the lecture.

Changing Ulama/Ummah Dynamics

Just as the physician/patient relationship is changing with the public being better informed on health matters, so too must the ulama/ummah dynamics, with average Muslims now more knowledgeable on matters of their faith. The days when the clergy class had exclusive access to religious knowledge went away with the advent of the printing press. The Internet further breached what little remains of that exclusivity.

If ulama persist in their role as gatekeepers to religious knowledge, then they risk becoming irrelevant. Through the Internet I can listen to khutbas and lectures given at leading Islamic centers. There is no need to subject myself to the boring reading of canned sermons prepared by the state. I can read it myself twice as fast, and without putting me to sleep.

On the other hand, if ulama were to assume the role of spiritual advisers, then they would have plenty to do in filling the large void in our modern lives, with problems of alienation and dislocations brought on by rapid urbanization and globalisation. To effectively fill in this new role however, they would have to have knowledge and skills beyond the religious, just as a physician needs other skills beyond his narrow profession in order to succeed.

Today’s ulama need to be well versed in counseling skills, child development, family dynamics, and social work to meet the needs of their modern ummah. Muslims today would not be satisfied with someone only reciting the Quran; they could turn on the CD and listen to the most exquisite voices of the best qaris and qariyahs. Nor would today’s Muslims be satisfied with someone endlessly quoting the Hadith. What we desperately need is someone who can relate the wisdom of the Quran and Hadith to the problems we face day to day. That would demand a totally different set of skills from the ulama.

Ulama have to disengage themselves from the state. They should be the custodians of the ideals of the community; they should guide the ummah along the straight path. Most of all, our ulama should be our bulwark against the tyranny of the state, and not be its accomplice.

If we change how and what we teach our Islamic Studies students, we may get ulama who have a “credible image of himself so that his advice and views are accepted and valued.” That would be good for the ulama, the ummah, Malaysia, and Islam.

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