By : Syed Ahmad Israa’ Syed Ibrahim
Penang Chief Minister, Mr Lim Guan Eng, took a contentious step when he made a statement about the usage of the word ‘Allah’ for non-Muslim in Malaysia. It created sparks of academic and political debates amongst Muslim academicians and political figures. Of course, this demand did not come from him directly. He was just the mouthpiece of Christian groups, who have long planned for this bold step in this country where Muslims are the majority, and had been living to this extent far from any direct intervention to their exclusive right in a nation that took Islam as the state religion, without denying the rights of other religions to be practiced.
Many wrote about this issue, but few succeeded in solving the resultant confusion among the masses.
To be fair to the knowledge and minds of the society, maybe the academic part of this issue should be explained, however, I choose not to. Some writings had already been done to address the academic side, which is more than suffice. For me, this particular issue is a lot more political and even more threatening, than how innocently (or academically) it is portrayed by some politicians. While this so-called academic opinion which said that the usage is not wrong and the evidences that came with it, are still disputable (and had been opposed in fact, by some intellects with lots of stronger arguments), for me, even if that opinion was perceived as true, the most suitable phrase to describe their opinion is the phrase mentioned by Sayyidina Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam: ‘True word with false intention’.
As time passed by (within a week actually), things become clearer, unfolding themselves before our eyes. Especially when we see this issue with eyes wide open, reading between the lines and connecting the sequence of events. Showing to us not the answer to this so-called polemic, but the motive behind this demand, and how it has repeated the history that happened in Islamic world not long ago.
Quoting on this note, words from a prominent Muslim scholar, Dr Yusuf Al-Qardhawy (Our Altered History, 2005) :
“Verily the history of each nation, is the essence of education towards its people, especially if that nation has a deep-rooted glorified history, in which it has played a big role, sent a remarkable message, and left huge impacts in this world. Therefore it is undeniably necessary for this nation to learn so much, from what it has done and what great achievements they’ve made, and furthermore, pay heed to various mistakes and point of weaknesses in their history.”
And as a western philosopher, Friedrich Hegel, once made a remark (Lectures on the Philosophy of History, 1832):
“What experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”
But none of those words stressed more on the importance of understanding the history for the sake of future, than what Allah had clearly stated in The Quran (Surah Ali Imran, verse 137) :
“Similar situations (as yours) have passed on before you, so proceed throughout the earth and observe how was the end of those who denied.”
And thus I feel that there is a need to shed some light upon this issue, with what we’re supposed to learn from history. I intend to bring forward a tragedy, an effect, to what similarly happened, in the history of the Islamic world. Would this give us the final answer? Maybe, or maybe not. But surely this will give us a glimpse, to the future of Malaysia, if we let this issue make its way to the mainstream mind set of the Muslim majority society in Malaysia.
A chronicle of The Ottoman Empire
Dr Ali Muhammad As-Sallaby, a renowned contemporary Islamic historian, wrote in his book about the Ottoman caliphate (The Ottoman Empire: Factors of Revival & Descent, 2005):
“The Muslim nation, in the late period of Ottoman caliphate, experienced a state of stolidity. They were conscienceless, and they were so weak in term of their inner strength, to the extent that nobody even cares about upholding the truth according to Islam, and denouncing what is against the rules of Islam.”
Dr Ali followed up this statement by a detailed in-depth analysis on what had actually been the causes, for such a regretful situation. Among them of course some, that we might expect, such as oppression and ignorance of the people.
But what caught my attention was what Dr Ali insisted to put on the top of the list he made:
“The first corruption which got the nation into such a state was the corruption of their understanding towards the essence of their faith; the principle of loyalty to Allah and Islam, and of enmity from disbelief and unbelievers (Al-Walaa’ wa Al-Baraa’).”
To support this, he brought to light what the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) once said in his hadeeth (Sahih Al-Jaami As-Saghiir, hadeeth no. 2536):
“The strongest bond of faith is loyalty for the sake of Allah, opposition for the sake of Allah, love for the sake of Allah, and hatred for the sake of Allah.”
He explained that in the early period of the Ottoman’s caliphate, this important principle was not as ‘diluted’ as what happened later. Numerous historical accounts from that period showed that this principle, in the first place, was luminating the heart of the people, and was firmly engraved in their minds.
“The Jews and Christians, at that time, saw this firm principle as a great barricade for them to advance their strategies and plans to destroy the Muslims and their religion. Therefore, they worked out their way to demolish that barricade and to melt that concrete wall of faith, using their agents and workers inside the Muslim nation, and the Ottoman land itself, whom in their hands are the key to influence and power.”
“And this is what occurred to one of the Ottoman’s Sultan, Mahmud II (died 1839 A.H) who led a movement named as ‘Reform Movement’, which was an imitation of the West in form and method. This movement put great efforts on wiping out this strong belief and principle from the faith of the Muslims, and they tried to scrape it out from their souls.”
Dr Muhammad Al-Bahrawy wrote a research about this movement. In his book ‘Reform Movement In The Age Of Sultan Mahmud II’ (1978) he mentioned that this threatening plan had surfaced itself clearly in the speech of the Sultan himself:
“Starting from now, I do not want to differentiate the Muslims from the others, except in mosques, and not the Christians, except in churches, and not the Jews, except in synagogues. I want that as long as all are using the same greeting, then all should have the pleasure of equality in rights, and of the fatherly protection, and therefore the Christians, and others, in this nation, live in joy, in this age, with ample room for freedom.”
He then brought some accounts of what happened after that speech:
“Once men from the national guards of Ottoman caliphate revolted upon an order to put on their chest pieces of belt in the form of a cross, following the tradition of Austrians (Austria was under the Ottoman’s empire at that time). The Ottoman’s governor (‘Basha’) expelled these men, on behalf of the Sultan.”
“The Sultan granted permission for the Christians to use and wear ‘tarbush’ (a headgear previously worn exclusively by Muslims in the Ottoman Empire) instead of their old Christian hood, so that they looked no different than the Muslims. This permission was so much celebrated, and they were extremely happy with it.”
These short accounts of what had been said and done by The Sultan may seem to be minor cases for some of us. Some may say that these cases weren’t even supposed to be taken with too much fuss, especially considering how big the empire of the Ottoman was at that time, and how strong it was in term of military.
But what follows after these minor demands – as seen by some – indeed bore witness that these small demands, were just the tip of the iceberg. Tragedies which happened as implications for these so-called petty demands were too much grieving for anyone who cares about the dignity and honour of Islam, which the Ottoman caliphate tried to protect, for more than 600 years:
- Revolutions started by the Christians (protected mainly by Russia) and spread quickly across European territories under the Ottoman Empire. Starting in state like Bosnia Herzegovina, the revolution propagated to nearby states such as Bulgaria, Austria, and Serbia & Montenegro.
- The European countries proposed a new constitution for the Ottoman caliphate, which claimed to be improving the living condition of the Christians. This proposal was rejected, and this rejection was taken by Russia as a reason to attack the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was fiercely attacked until they had to raise the flag of truce, as the Russian army was only 50km from Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
- The San Stefano treaty of peace was then signed between the Ottoman Empire and Russia. In this treaty, Serbia & Montenegro, Romania (and Transylvania) were given their independence from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was also ordered to improve the living condition of the Christians (this order was utterly rubbish as it was proved later that the Christians were actually living in better conditions as compared to what happened after the fall of the Ottoman Empire).
- The Ottoman Empire was then called as ‘The Sick Man of Europe’.
- Another treaty followed in Berlin, where Bulgaria was declared as totally independent from the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia Herzegovina were given to Austria, and the border of Greece was expanded.
- Series of losses which led to the occupation of Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, and Libya by French and British army.
(Concise Encyclopaedia of Islamic History, 2005)
Lesson learnt, the hard way
What started as a so-called ‘reform’, or as a progressive method to create a society with equality and fairness, turned out to be an inescapable burden for an empire that had been standing tall for more than 600 years. An act equivalent to digging its own grave.
Dr Ali As-Sallaby then concluded this tragic chronicle, where he wrote:
“It is one of Allah’s rules, which we could extract from the facts of this religion and history is that those who knew about Allah, but yet they betrayed Him (and the truth that came from Him), will be overpowered, according to Allah’s plan, by those who knew nothing about Allah. Therefore, in the case of the Ottoman Empire, they were overpowered by the Christians, by Allah’s will.”
A thought for us today
It is not an exaggeration to say that the issues faced by the Muslims in Malaysia of late, are not much different compared to what I’ve offered about this historical tragedy. Frankly, in my view, the same culprits arestanding behind all of these issues. These culprits are and will continually and persistently put a lot of efforts to create the most critical corruption in the Muslim world; the corruption of faith, and knowledge. Much of the effects they expected were already present in our society. Only naiveness and foolishness will obstruct one’s view from seeing these facts which had been taught to us by our own history. This small demand we are debating over today, is a sign of an enormous wave of ideological war, which has yet to deliver its ultimate blow. It is a series of unfortunate events, whether we see it or not, which will end up binding us, making us weak inside and out.
There is no such thing as a ‘centric position’ in Islamic political stands, if it fails to obey all of the guidelines of the view of Islam and stay within the perfect boundary set by Allah. Being in the center does not necessarily means that we should always satisfy others, and treat different matters and cases with one ruler. Be it ‘equality’, ‘justice’, ‘rights’, or whatever ostentatious terms used to name the ruler. We can only be the at the center of this nation upon His permission, and without doubt, that will require us to hold tight to the bond of faith as mentioned by prophet Muhammad (pbuh): “Loyalty (al-muwaalah) for the sake of Allah, opposition (al-mu aadah) for the sake of Allah, love for the sake of Allah, and hatred for the sake of Allah.”
This recount of history should not be disregarded. It should be pondered upon closely, rationally, with mind ready to contemplate and reflect upon our own actions. As George Orwell wrote in his famous novel (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949): “Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past.”
Al-Azhar Universiti, Cairo, Egypt.