The race to score A’s and its implications

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The yearly examination results announcement season is here again and as usual the nation celebrates the achievements of top scorers not realizing that Malaysians’ preoccupation with “scoring” in school examinations does no one any favours.

For the high-achieving students themselves, it instills the perception that straight A’s are the be-all and end-all of school life.

Co-curricular activities and simply socialising with friends – so important in developing a child’s social skills – may thereby be neglected. Moreover, the pressure to keep on getting top marks could prove overbearing, and if the student should fare less well in a subsequent exam, there might be adverse effects on his or her emotional health sometimes resulting in depression or even suicides.

On their part, the non-top-scorers may feel as if they are left by the wayside amid the glorification of good grades, and end up having a sense of low self-worth and an inferiority complex.

Nor is society as a whole best served by the race for A’s. The prevailing exam culture has fostered a dependence on uncritical rote learning which will not help the cause of promoting creativity and innovation in the long run. And as has been well documented, many leading lights in business, the arts and science, such as Albert Einstein, James Cameron and Steve Jobs, were in fact dropouts.

The examination-based education system can in fact stifle creativity, original and critical thinking as such different modes of thought usually give us varied answers.

All this is not, of course, to celebrate mediocrity; on the contrary, we should always strive to improve ourselves and pursue high achievement. At the same time, we must also recognise that achievement comes in myriad forms, not just a string of A’s on the exam results slip.

While some people may be academically inclined, others may be good with their hands, have innate artistic abilities, be natural people persons … and the list goes on. Although these life skills do not feature in our examinations, they are often more important than academic skills because working life demands these communication, interpersonal, leadership and other qualities, often more than the technical skills. 

Rethink of our priorities may thus be in order. Instead of emphasising A’s at all costs, let us work towards an education system that nurtures well-rounded individuals and offers each student the opportunity to be the best they can be — now that would be something we can really be proud off.

The celebration of academic achievements through news reports should be stopped as it only serves to strengthen our preoccupation with academic achievements. We are producing skewed students who know a lot about examination-taking but lack other real life skills.


Islam & Science -The road to renewal

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After centuries of stagnation science is making a comeback in the Islamic world

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THE sleep has been long and deep. In 2005 Harvard University produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking countries combined. The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have produced only two Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics. Both moved to the West: the only living one, the chemist Ahmed Hassan Zewail, is at the California Institute of Technology. By contrast Jews, outnumbered 100 to one by Muslims, have won 79. The 57 countries in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference spend a puny 0.81% of GDP on research and development, about a third of the world average. America, which has the world’s biggest science budget, spends 2.9%; Israel lavishes 4.4%.

Many blame Islam’s supposed innate hostility to science. Some universities seem keener on prayer than study. Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, for example, has three mosques on campus, with a fourth planned, but no bookshop. Rote learning rather than critical thinking is the hallmark of higher education in many countries. The Saudi government supports books for Islamic schools such as “The Unchallengeable Miracles of the Qur’an: The Facts That Can’t Be Denied By Science” suggesting an inherent conflict between belief and reason.

Many universities are timid about courses that touch even tangentially on politics or look at religion from a non-devotional standpoint. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a renowned Pakistani nuclear scientist, introduced a course on science and world affairs, including Islam’s relationship with science, at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, one of the country’s most progressive universities. Students were keen, but Mr Hoodbhoy’s contract was not renewed when it ran out in December; for no proper reason, he says. (The university insists that the decision had nothing to do with the course content.)

But look more closely and two things are clear. A Muslim scientific awakening is under way. And the roots of scientific backwardness lie not with religious leaders, but with secular rulers, who are as stingy with cash as they are lavish with controls over independent thought.

The long view

The caricature of Islam’s endemic backwardness is easily dispelled. Between the eighth and the 13th centuries, while Europe stumbled through the dark ages, science thrived in Muslim lands. The Abbasid caliphs showered money on learning. The 11th century “Canon of Medicine” by Avicenna (pictured, with modern equipment he would have relished) was a standard medical text in Europe for hundreds of years. In the ninth century Muhammad al-Khwarizmi laid down the principles of algebra, a word derived from the name of his book, “Kitab al-Jabr”. Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham transformed the study of light and optics. Abu Raihan al-Biruni, a Persian, calculated the earth’s circumference to within 1%. And Muslim scholars did much to preserve the intellectual heritage of ancient Greece; centuries later it helped spark Europe’s scientific revolution.

Not only were science and Islam compatible, but religion could even spur scientific innovation. Accurately calculating the beginning of Ramadan (determined by the sighting of the new moon) motivated astronomers. The Hadith (the sayings of Muhammad) exhort believers to seek knowledge, “even as far as China”.

These scholars’ achievements are increasingly celebrated. Tens of thousands flocked to “1001 Inventions”, a touring exhibition about the golden age of Islamic science, in the Qatari capital, Doha, in the autumn. More importantly, however, rulers are realising the economic value of scientific research and have started to splurge accordingly. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened in 2009, has a $20 billion endowment that even rich American universities would envy.

Foreigners are already on their way there. Jean Fréchet, who heads research, is a French chemist tipped to win a Nobel prize. The Saudi newcomer boasts research collaborations with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and with Imperial College, London. The rulers of neighbouring Qatar are bumping up research spending from 0.8% to a planned 2.8% of GDP: depending on growth, that could reach $5 billion a year. Research spending in Turkey increased by over 10% each year between 2005 and 2010, by which year its cash outlays were twice Norway’s.

The tide of money is bearing a fleet of results. In the 2000 to 2009 period Turkey’s output of scientific papers rose from barely 5,000 to 22,000; with less cash, Iran’s went up 1,300, to nearly 15,000. Quantity does not imply quality, but the papers are getting better, too. Scientific journals, and not just the few based in the Islamic world, are citing these papers more frequently. A study in 2011 by Thomson Reuters, an information firm, shows that in the early 1990s other publishers cited scientific papers from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (the most prolific Muslim countries) four times less often than the global average. By 2009 it was only half as often. In the category of best-regarded mathematics papers, Iran now performs well above average, with 1.7% of its papers among the most-cited 1%, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia also doing well. Turkey scores highly on engineering.

Science and technology-related subjects, with their clear practical benefits, do best. Engineering dominates, with agricultural sciences not far behind. Medicine and chemistry are also popular. Value for money matters. Fazeel Mehmood Khan, who recently returned to Pakistan after doing a PhD in Germany on astrophysics and now works at the Government College University in Lahore, was told by his university’s vice-chancellor to stop chasing wild ideas (black holes, in his case) and do something useful.

Science is even crossing the region’s deepest divide. In 2000 SESAME, an international physics laboratory with the Middle East’s first particle accelerator, was set up in Jordan. It is modelled on CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory, which was created to bring together scientists from wartime foes. At SESAME Israeli boffins work with colleagues from places such as Iran and the Palestinian territories.

By the book

Science of the kind practised at SESAME throws up few challenges to Muslim doctrine (and in many cases is so abstruse that religious censors would struggle to understand it). But biology—especially with an evolutionary angle—is different. Many Muslims are troubled by the notion that humans share a common ancestor with apes. Research published in 2008 by Salman Hameed of Hampshire College in Massachusetts, a Pakistani astronomer who now studies Muslim attitudes to science, found that fewer than 20% in Indonesia, Malaysia or Pakistan believed in Darwin’s theories. In Egypt it was just 8%.

Yasir Qadhi, an American chemical engineer turned cleric (who has studied in both the United States and Saudi Arabia), wrestled with this issue at a London conference on Islam and evolution this month. He had no objection to applying evolutionary theory to other lifeforms. But he insisted that Adam and Eve did not have parents and did not evolve from other species. Any alternative argument is “scripturally indefensible,” he said. Some, especially in the diaspora, conflate human evolution with atheism: rejecting it becomes a defining part of being a Muslim. (Some Christians take a similar approach to the Bible.)

Though such disbelief may be couched in religious terms, culture and politics play a bigger role, says Mr Hameed. Poor school education in many countries leaves minds open to misapprehension. A growing Islamic creationist movement is at work too. A controversial Turkish preacher who goes by the name of Harun Yahya is in the forefront. His website spews pamphlets and books decrying Darwin. Unlike his American counterparts, however, he concedes that the universe is billions of years old (not 6,000 years).

But the barrier is not insuperable. Plenty of Muslim biologists have managed to reconcile their faith and their work. Fatimah Jackson, a biological anthropologist who converted to Islam, quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founders of genetics, saying that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Science describes how things change; Islam, in a larger sense, explains why, she says.

Others take a similar line. “The Koran is not a science textbook,” says Rana Dajani, a Jordanian molecular biologist. “It provides people with guidelines as to how they should live their lives.” Interpretations of it, she argues, can evolve with new scientific discoveries. Koranic verses about the creation of man, for example, can now be read as providing support for evolution.

Other parts of the life sciences, often tricky for Christians, have proved unproblematic for Muslims. In America researchers wanting to use embryonic stem cells (which, as their name suggests, must be taken from human embryos, usually spares left over from fertility treatments) have had to battle pro-life Christian conservatives and a federal ban on funding for their field. But according to Islam, the soul does not enter the fetus until between 40 and 120 days after conception—so scientists at the Royan Institute in Iran are able to carry out stem-cell research without attracting censure.

But the kind of freedom that science demands is still rare in the Muslim world. With the rise of political Islam, including dogmatic Salafists who espouse a radical version of Islam, in such important countries as Egypt, some fear that it could be eroded further still. Others, however, remain hopeful. Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s president, is a former professor of engineering at Zagazig University, near Cairo. He has a PhD in materials science from the University of Southern California (his dissertation was entitled “High-Temperature Electrical Conductivity and Defect Structure of Donor-Doped Al2O{-3}”). He has promised that his government will spend more on research.

Released from the restrictive control of the former regimes, scientists in Arab countries see a chance for progress. Scientists in Tunisia say they are already seeing promising reforms in the way university posts are filled. People are being elected, rather than appointed by the regime. The political storms shaking the Middle East could promote not only democracy, but revive scientific freethinking, too.

Why listen to the Vice Chancellor?

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In a democratic country like Malaysia, it rests upon all the citizens of this country to determine the fate of our nation and communities. I feel that my fellow academics and I have a unique opportunity to advise and educate the citizens of this country about many technological, social and spiritual issues so that we can all one day call ourselves, truly a civilized nation.

In my 25 years at a public university, I have not seen much of the responsibility of the academics in educating the masses being highlighted or even mentioned at all.

Only a civilized and critically minded citizenry can exercise appropriate decisions in selecting who the parliamentarians should be to carry the issues that would bring much benefit to all and not just a few.

In my 25 years at a public university, I have not seen much of the responsibility of the academics in educating the masses being highlighted or even mentioned at all. Whether in departmental meetings, in faculty meetings and meetings with Vice Chancellors and top university officials, there is hardly a mention about the important and crucial roles of academics being the educators of the nation…much less being the conscience of a society.

The importance of academics engaging in public discourses and issues via the mass media or in writing popular books to explain scientific or social issues in a manner that is comprehensible to all is drowned by the dubious statements on the importance of publishing in so called ‘high impact’ international journals and securing million ringgit grants in order to boost the university’s international ranking. It seems that the success of our fully funded public universities is now dependent on a ranking figure by some rating agency and not on our evaluation of its contribution to developing the minds of our communities.

Traditionally and presently, the office of the Vice Chancellor is held by an academic, and not by some company manager or full time politician. If the said academic fails to appreciate the important roles of professors in educating and advising the people of this country, then he or she will develop policies for promotion and excellence based on a ‘cut and paste’ methodology of various so called ‘successful’ institutions. I have no problem of benchmarking ourselves against such well known institutions as Harvard or Oxford but let us do so critically.

Perhaps our society is 80 years behind in terms of social, technological and political awarenessas the US or the UK and so we should check at what these famous institutions had done for their society at that time. I am sure that these institutions gave much acknowledgement to their academics in terms of book writing for the populace as well as engagement in public debates and discourses. Since these institutions have come a long way from educating the public, their attention now turns towards other matters such as securing grants, industrial alliances and international competition for students.

It seems to me that Malaysian public universities have leap frog one whole century of knowledge generation and dissemination and imagine themselves ‘on par’ with other famous institutions. I can find a book on nuclear physics for children in the West but I cannot find one in Malaysia. I learnt about the beautiful discipline of Structure from a Professor in Structural Engineering through his two books ‘Why Buildings Stand Up’ and ‘Structure for Architects’. He has had even made a series of films on the subject matter. Where are these books and films in Bahasa Malaysia from our Structural Engineers from UTM?

I feel much saddened by the fact that such pressing issues as the Lynas issue or even the sex video of a Malay politician’ comes with a deafening silence. Where are our Professors of Environmental Engineering or Islamic Revealed Knowledge on such subjects? Are these academics frightened that their contracts will not be renewed?

I feel sad that whenever I want to hear a view by someone deemed as ‘opposition’, I would have to download the YouTube version of his lecture given at a noted university in Australia. Why can’t I listen to this man here at UTM?

Or these academics feel that their knowledge and research is bordered only by their peers and students at the university? So…knowledge is only for self-promotion and private wealth accumulation…not for society’s betterment?

Prophet Muhammad taught Muslims that the only thing that survives a dead person is his or her progeny, the wakaf property and knowledge left for community development. Among the three, knowledge is the longest lasting. A privilege to academics! But the Prophet also warned the academic and ulama that on the Day of Judgement, they will be one of the three personalities that will be judged harshly as to their conduct in this world. A warning to academics!

Professor D. Gareth Jones had written an interesting audit proposal to vet New Zealand Universities on the aspect of academic freedom and public discourses. In his paper entitled “Universities as Critic and Conscience of Society: The Role of Academic Freedom”, he deems a university as a failure if it punishes any academic for their public engagement in the media. He also deems it a failure for universities that have no professors engaging at all in public discourses.

One of the things that I would love to see for the first time in 25 years is a public discourse on an important national issue debated by panelists from academia, various NGOs and political parties. I feel sad that whenever I want to hear a view by someone deemed as ‘opposition’, I would have to download the YouTube version of his lecture given at a noted university in Australia. Why can’t I listen to this man here at UTM? He is a Malaysian and a veteran politician who has been appointed as a full professor at a noted American University. Where is our academic freedom?

Recently, a group of young lecturers complained to me that they feel stressed their first day on the job after the faculty briefing. They were stressed at the number of journal publications needed and amount of grants to be secured. When I asked them whether the faculty mentioned the importance of books and public engagement, they all shook their heads and said that nothing was mentioned remotely close to those responsibilities.

I felt a deep pain that the profession I love most has been turned into a paper publishing factory and not any chance given to be a visionary for a better society. I have 25 years to know that Deans of public universities are simply followers of the Vice Chancellor’s instructions. So I gave these new lecturers the only advice I could: If you listen to these kinds of Vice Chancellors, know that they will change and what they do is only for a selfish agenda.

But if you listen to your heart and conscience, and work towards developing the society, then your life will have a better meaning than just following someone else’s instructions. You are the expert in your chosen fields and only you and your conscience shall truly govern your KPI. So..why listen to this kind of VC? Be yourselves the conscience of society.

Dr Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi is the author of Why Listen to the Vice Chancellor? University as the Conscience of Society

Indonesia’s Muslim schools draw Christians

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Where can one find schools run by a Muslim organisation, the majority of whose students are non-Muslims?

Christian-Muslim relations in Indonesia are too often associated with conflict, disharmony and hostility, thus, it might be surprising for many to learn that such schools exist in different parts of Indonesia.

In some Christian Indonesian enclaves, Muhammadiyah (literally the followers of the Prophet Muhammad), one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisations, have established a number of schools where, in a few cases, 50 to 75 per cent of students are Christian.

This interesting phenomenon is found on some islands of Indonesia, for instance in the predominantly Catholic town of Ende on the island of Flores in the south-eastern part of Indonesia, and the predominantly Protestant town of Serui on the smaller island of Yapen in the eastern part of the country.

This point is highlighted by Dr Abdul Mu‘ti, senior lecturer at Walisongo State Institute for Islamic Studies in Semarang, Central Java, who conducted field work in some of these areas. His findings were presented recently at the International Research Conference on Muhammadiyah held recently in the University of Muhammadiyah in Malang, East Java.

Christian parents in fact, frequently make the decision to send their children to Muhammadiyah schools because of the high quality education and low cost, as well as the fact that the schools provide Christian religious education. They choose to provide the opportunity for their children to interact with Muslims, despite the availability of nearby Christian schools, for example in the case of Ende.

This implies that these Christian communities trust such institutions. They are unconcerned that learning in a Muslim school would pose a threat to their children’s religious beliefs. In fact, they do not see the religious difference as a problem and even highlight similarities among religions.

“Islam and Catholicism have many things in common. Both seek the good in people,” said a devout Catholic parent in Ende. Some parents see interfaith interaction, as well as the Islamic characteristics of the school, as something positive that state-run or other private schools do not offer.

Both the Muhammadiyah Senior High School in Ende and the Muhammadiyah Junior High School in Serui provide Christian students with a Christian religious education course taught by a Christian teacher. Indeed, in the Ende school, the course has been offered since 1971, long before the Indonesian law requiring such a class was issued in 2003.

In both schools, not only can one find Christian instructors teaching Christian religious education classes, but also Christian instructors teaching other subjects to Christian and Muslim students alike. These teachers find the experience of working in Muslim schools helps them better understand Islam and Muslims, a view shared by most of the students.

As Mu’ti’s survey shows, both Christian and Muslim students consider the experience in a multi-faith environment is remarkably helpful for building religious harmony.

Instead of being a source of religious tensions, the existence of schools run by Muslim organisations like Muhammadiyah has proven to bridge different religious communities, functioning as a safe space for interfaith encounters.

With young people growing in an environment characterised by peaceful religious cohabitation in Muslim-run schools in Indonesia’s Christian enclaves and elsewhere, one can hope for a more tolerant, inclusive, peaceful world – a better place to live for all.

Izza Rohman is a lecturer at UHAMKA University’s School of Education in Jakarta and a Tangsel-based translator.

Developing a Close Relationship with Allah

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Dear beloved jemaah blessed by Allah,

On these last days of the blessed month of Zulhjjah, let us seek from Allah s.w.t. to continue protecting our taqwa to Him throughout the year. Let us persevere, my dear brothers, in our efforts to improve our obedience to Allah s.w.t. as well as to subjugate our hearts to avoid all that He has forbidden. May on these last few days of the year 1434 Hijrah, Allah will accept all our good deeds and reward us with His pleasure, Amin.

My dear brothers blessed by Allah, 

With each passing year, we are in fact getting closer to Allah s.w.t. With the balance of time left for us to live in this world, we should remind ourselves by asking: What have we done to bring ourselves closer to the pleasure of Allah? Have we observed the examples of our beloved Prophet s.a.w. to become as what Allah s.w.t has described in surah al-Anbiya ayat 107:

Meaning: “And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds.”

This is where I wish to share with you, one of the earlier advices of our beloved Prophet Muhammad s.a.w., when he first entered the holy land of Madinah Al-Munawwarah. He advised us to take a step closer in becoming a community of Rahmatan Lil ‘Alamin (that is, a merciful community to the worlds) and a community that is close to Allah s.w.t.

From Abdullah bin Salam r.a., he said, meaning: “The first words that I heard from Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. were: “O People! Spread the Salam, feed the people, pray in the middle of the night while the people are asleep, for verily you will enter Paradise in peace.” Hadith narrated by Imam at-Tirmidzi.

This hadith reminds us of three main things, which forms the basis for the well being of humankind.

The first point relates to spreading of Salam. My dear brothers, although extending Salam to another Muslim may seem trivial and insignificant, nonetheless, it has a very profound impact. 

The advice to extend Salam to another reminds us to always be a source of peace and tranquillity, as well as the carrier of hope to people around us. The declaration of “may peace be upon you” that we frequently recite, is in fact, a prayer that can soften any angry hearts and be a cure for those who are depressed and in sadness. It conveys to the listener the message that we only wish for them goodness and peace. 

My dear brothers, 

Would we not feel happy if our relative or friend regularly speaks good things to us, or reward us with a cheerful smile every time we meet? That is what was intended by the advice to spread the Salam. It makes a Mukmin a catalyst for a tranquil heart, to pacify others who may be feeling anxious or sad. That is why the Prophet s.a.w. reminded us in a hadith which means: “Do not discount any deed of goodness, even greeting your brother with a smiling face.” Hadith narrated by Imam Muslim.

This is one of the noble characteristics of the Prophet s.a.w. He is known as a generous man with his smiles and encouraging words. He is also known as someone who only speaks when it is beneficial. This is what makes the Prophet s.a.w. approachable and attractive to those around him. This is among the characteristics of a candidate for paradise. 

What about us today? With the presence of new media and modes of communication, such as facebook, we are given a new freedom in expressing our opinions. There is nothing wrong with this, provided what we are responsible and what we express reaps goodness. Let us make use of this new media to be a place for us to plant goodness, and not to promote slander and hatred. This does not mean that we cannot be firm on the issues that we strongly feel for, but let us focus on the issues at hand and not attack other’s personal reputation and dignity in public.

Every time we publish a comment on platforms such as facebook, twitter, email and the rest, do remember that Allah will hold us accountable for them. Remember that in the end, we all want to earn the pleasure of Allah s.w.t., and not to succumb to our own desires.

The second point that the Prophet s.a.w. advised us in this hadith is to feed others. The willingness to share part of our possession whether it is time, wealth, energy or knowledge constitutes an important aspect to the well being of our lives in this world and the hereafter. How is this so? 

Imagine what would happen if every one of us refused to share what Allah has blessed us with? It will destroy the spirit of our humanity. The fates of those in need are neglected. Worse, it will lead to a feeling of jealousy between the rich and the poor and it will result in grave discomfort between them. 

As the ummah of the Prophet who is a mercy to the universe, let us rise and respond to the call of our beloved Rasulullah s.a.w. Let us help those in need, as best as we can. We do not have to go very far to do this. We just need to look around us. Ask the condition of our neighbours, our relatives, and our friends. Are they in need?

If we are not able to help them individually, we should at least refer them to various self-help groups to assist them. We need to understand that matters involving families, health, finance and others, are complicated and requires the help and advice of professionals and experts. Hopefully, by channelling them to the appropriate assistance, we are able to alleviate and lessen their burdens in this world and in the hereafter. Let us be reminded by the sayings of Rasulullah s.a.w. which means: “Whosoever relieves a Mukmin of his difficulties in the world, Allah will relieve him of his difficulties in the Hereafter. Whomsoever, eases the path of a Mukmin in the world, Allah will ease his path in this world and in the hereafter.” Hadith narrated by Imam Muslim.

The third is the advice given by the Prophet which form the basis of a compassionate heart, is to establish a good and strong relationship with Allah s.w.t. This can be achieved through night prayers and supplications to Allah s.w.t.

My dear brothers, when was the last time we submit our hearts and souls in complete humility to Allah s.w.t.? When was the last time we experience the beauty of a peaceful heart as a result of our repentance to Allah s.w.t.? If our answer to these two questions is always, let us recite Alhamdulillah. But if our response is the opposite, then let us resolve to re-establish an intimate relationship with Allah s.w.t. 

A heart that knows his Lord will always remember the mission of his life on earth that is to be the one who spreads mercy to the world. Therefore, let us set aside some time from our daily lives to supplicate to Allah s.w.t. If we can set aside time for vacations, entertainment and other works, we can also set aside time for Allah s.w.t.

Remember my dear brothers, each of these three deeds reinforces each other. The deed of extending Salam makes it easy for us to be closer to Allah s.w.t. and will transform our hearts. When we set aside time to pray to Allah, our hearts will be strengthened to continue performing good deeds consistently. 

It is in this spirit that we discussed today, that all the mosques in Singapore will be holding an event called ‘Rahmatan Lil ‘Alamin’ this Sunday. This is to encourage a heightened appreciation of the teachings of Rasulullah s.a.w., so that we will be his successors as carriers of compassion to all. I call upon all of you to support this effort by making this as part of our lives. May Allah facilitate and make it easy for us to receive His Pleasure and His Blessings in this world and the hereafter. Amin Ya Rabbal ‘Alamin.

Source : Khutbah Jumaat 30 Nov 2012, Majlis Ugama Islam Singapore (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore)

Perfecting the Beginnings

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In his well-known book, Al-Hikam (Words of Wisdom), sheikh Ahmad Ibn `Ataa’illah As-Sakandari says:

“A sign of success in the end is to refer to Allah in the beginning. If there is no sunrise in the beginning, there is no sunrise in the end.”

A servant journeying to Allah, who is passing through difficult tests and heading to horizons of peace and tranquility, always thinks of new good deeds that advance him/her along his/her journey. This word of wisdom teaches us here another universal law: Perfecting the basis and the start of any new project, almost guarantees the desired outcomes in the end. In Ibn `Ataa’s words, if there is sunrise in the beginning, surely there will be sunrise in the end. But the question is: how can I make the sun rise and shine at the beginning? The answer, according to Ibn `Ataa, is by referring to Allah. But, how could one ‘refer to Allah’ in the beginning of any work?

Prophet Muhammad taught humanity something unique, which is how to start every daily action with a way of mentioning Allah that suits that action. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Every action that does not begin by invoking the praise of Allah is not blessed“. (Al-Bayhaqi) Therefore, we have to start every action in the name of Allah. If you are giving a speech, you have to start it by sending peace and blessings upon the Prophet and praising Allah Almighty. If you are starting an act of worship, you have to start with a remembrance of pure intention. You do not have to start your prayers by ‘mentioning’ that you have an intention to pray, but it is the Prophet’s tradition to start your prayer with this supplication: “I turn my face in complete devotion to The One, The Originator of the heavens and the earth and I am not of the disbelievers“.

And when you embark upon big tasks, you have to perform two rak`at (units of prayer) of istikharah (praying for the best course of action). All these things are forms of referring to Allah in the beginnings. Istikharah is a form of supplication that you recite when you have a choice between two actions. Prophet Muhammad taught us the following supplication:

O Allah, I seek Your help in finding out the best course of action in this matter by invoking Your knowledge; I ask You to empower me, and I beseech Your favor. You alone have the absolute power, while I have no power. You alone know it all, while I do not. You are the One Who knows the hidden mysteries. O Allah, if You know this thing I am embarking on [here mention your case] is good for me in my faith, worldly life, and my ultimate destiny, then facilitate it for me, and then bless me in my action. If, on the other hand, You know this thing is detrimental for me in my faith, worldly life, and ultimate destiny, turn it away from me, and turn me away from it, and decree what is good for me, wherever it may be, and make me content with it.

The purpose of this supplication is to show that you wholeheartedly surrender to Allah and rely on Him alone. Seeking Allah’s help is a kind of ‘referring to Allah in the beginnings’, as Ibn `Ataa asked us to do. Therefore, it is a sign of success in the ends, no matter what these ends are, according to our human and worldly calculations of gain or loss. What matters is that you refer to Allah in the beginnings so that the calculations will be in your favor in the end.

For example, if you are running a business trying to make some profits, there is a possibility that you lose your investment. But if you pray istikharah and lose, think deeply about it, you might find out that you lost some investments now, but then, huge profits follow in a different business in the future, in which you learnt from the lessons of your loss. It is also possible that Allah made you lose so that you reconsider many things, people, and plans in your life, in order to find out why you were losing. You may continue to lose, but win a close friend who helped you during the time of your troubles. Therefore, your real success in the end, is in making profits in another deal, reconsidering your plans, or even winning a friend. {Allah knows, whereas you do not know}.(Al-Baqarah 2:216)

The human standards of success and failure are usually based on financial calculations or figures, or some sort of ‘statistical’ achievements. However, these calculations, in Allah’s sight and in reality, do not mean anything. What really matters is Allah’s pleasure in this life and the afterlife. So, if you refer to Allah in the beginning, the end will shine and Allah will be pleased with you, no matter what the material calculations are.

This rule applies to everything. For example, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said that one of the seven persons whom Allah would give protection with His Shade on the Day when there would be no shade but that of Him is “a youth who grew up with the worship of Allah”.(Al-Bukhari and Muslim) This young man or woman perfected the beginnings of their life, therefore Allah granted them success in the end and protected them under His Shade.

There will also be sunrise in the beginning when one refrains from committing any sinful acts and seeks to establish justice through all the affairs that he/she handles. On the contrary, if one commits forbidden acts in the beginning, surely the end will be a state of failure. {Allah does not further the works of spreaders of corruption}.(Yunus 10: 81) This is because doing the things that Allah made unlawful results in failure and obliterates the blessings.

I pray to Allah to grant us a happy and good ending of our life. I also pray to Allah to help us refer to Him in every beginning so that we will achieve success in every end.

The Prophet’s Wisdom in Leading His Companions

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Human resources experts say that successfully leading a small group of people is not an easy task.

Imagine for a moment the challenge Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) faced when he established the foundations of the first Muslim community first in Makkah, then in Madinah.

When Islam started to gain publicity, the few people who had embraced it in Makkah formed the nucleus of the first Muslim community. This small community was put to persecution at the hands of the people of Quraysh.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) had to do something about this challenging situation. When the persecution intensified, he asked some of them to leave Makkah and migrate to Abyssinia where its king, Negus, gave them protection and welcomed them in his country. As a responsible leader, the Prophet (peace be upon him) had a serious concern for his followers’ safety and he took wise measures to ensure that at least some of them were safe, far away from danger.

After the death of the Prophet’s wife, Khadijah, and his uncle, Abu Talib, the persecution of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions in Makkah increased, and his personal safety was at risk as the tribes joined hands to kill him. At that point, God commanded the Prophet (peace be upon him) to leave Makkah and migrate to Madinah where he started a new phase in establishing the new Muslim state.

In Madinah, the Prophet (peace be upon him) declared that both the migrants (Al-Muhajirun) and the helpers (Al-Ansar) were brothers, and that they formed one community. The Prophet’s main goal in building this community was to strengthen their bonds of brotherhood in Islam.

He also wanted to ease the pain of the migrants and wanted the helpers to extend their hands to the new members of the community who had left their houses and properties behind in Makkah for the sake of Islam. This healthy and positive atmosphere was an important factor that led to the long-term success of the new Muslim community in Madinah.

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) loved his companions and cared for them a lot. His care and concern covered even those who had died, as he was very keen for example to pay off their debts. When God made the Prophet wealthy through conquests, he said:

“I am more rightful than other believers to be the guardian of the believers, so if a Muslim dies while in debt, I am responsible for the repayment of his debt, and whoever leaves wealth (after his death) it will belong to his heirs.” (Al-Bukhari)

In what follows, I will shed more light on some other aspects of the Prophet’s wise leadership.

Recognizing His Companions’ Skills

A good leader is one who sees the positive traits of his team members and invests in them. This is exactly what the Prophet (peace be upon him) did with his companions. There are many examples that show how the Prophet (peace be upon him) discovered where his companions excelled and how he utilized their potentials and wisely invested in them.

One of the famous companions, Bilal ibn Rabah, had a very beautiful voice, and the Prophet being aware of this gift declared Bilal to be his official mu’adhin (one who calls Muslims to prayer). On the other hand, the Prophet (peace be upon him) refused to offer another distinguished companion, Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, an administrative responsibility because he lacked the required skills.

Out of appreciation and motivation, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) conferred some titles to his companions. For example, he told Abu `Ubayhdah ibn al-Jarrah:

“You are the protector of this nation.”

He said to Khalid ibn al-Walid:

“You are one of the swords of Allah.”

In a third occasion, he told Mu`adh ibn Jabal:

“By God, I love you O Mu`adh.” (Abu Dawud)

After embracing Islam, the family of Yasir was put to persecution and torture. In recognition of their sacrifice, the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to comfort them, and he promised them that their final abode will be in Paradise.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) remained faithful and thankful to those who helped him at the beginning of his mission. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:

“There is no one who had done more favor to me with life and property than Abu Bakr.” (Al-Bukhari)

Seeking His Companions’ Opinions

In line with the divine command: {and consult with them in the matter…} (Al `Imran, 3: 159), Prophet Muhammad used to consult with his companions before taking any decision. The Prophet’s counseling with his companions were so common that Abu Hurairah is reported to have said:

“I never saw anyone consult his companions more often than the Messenger of Allah.” (Ahmad)

The consultations had to do with matters on which there was no divine guidance in the Quran or the Sunnah. The Prophet (peace be upon him) did not go to the battle of Badr and the battle of Uhud for example without consulting his companions.

In some cases, the Prophet (peace be upon him) sought his companions’ opinions as what happened in the aforementioned example and this is called “positive consultation”. In some other cases, the companions took the initiative and expressed their views on certain issues and this is called “negative consultation”. For example, the location of the battlefield of Badr was decided after Al-Habbab ibn al-Mundhir proposed it. The usual term used by Prophet Muhammad in these cases is: “Give me your opinion, O people.” This practice became a key characteristic of the nascent Muslim community for which they are praised in the Quran: {…and whose affairs are a matter of counsel…} (Ash-Shura, 42: 39)

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) consulted his companions even regarding personal issues, like what happened when the news of the slander against his wife Aisha spread in Madinah.

“O people, give me your opinion regarding those people who made a forged story against my wife…” (Al-Bukhari)

Dealing Gently with His Companions

Gentleness is a key quality of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). When he wanted to teach his companions, he used a very wise method which entailed both respect for the recipient of such knowledge without embarrassing him. One day a Bedouin urinated in the mosque, and the people ran to beat him. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

“Do not interrupt his urination (i.e. let him finish). Then the Prophet (peace be upon him) asked for a tumbler of water and poured the water over the place of urine.” (Al-Bukhari)

In another version, the Prophet (peace be upon him) called the man and explained to him that the mosques are not places for urine, but they are for offering prayer and worshipping God. This example takes us to the following point.

Correcting His Companions’ Mistakes

Correcting people’s mistakes is a Quranic guidance. The Quran has many references to situations in which a certain conduct is blamed and corrected. These situations apply to Muslims in general and to the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself.  (see 80: 1-10; 33: 37; 8: 67; 3: 128; 60: 1; 3: 152; 4: 97)

Let us first clarify that because we are human it is normal that we make mistakes. What is more important is learning from our mistakes and not repeating them. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) confirmed this meaning in his famous hadith which reads:

“Every son of Adam makes mistakes, and the best of those who make mistakes are those who repent.” (At Tirmidhi)

Following the Quranic guidance, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) applied the same methodology when correcting his companions’ mistakes because he felt that it is his duty to do so, being the chosen Prophet (peace be upon him) to guide people to God.

While correcting his companions’ mistakes, the Prophet (peace be upon him) considered different factors. The approach differed from one situation to another and from one person to another. Dealing with someone who often makes mistakes is different from dealing with one who makes a mistake for the first time. The kind of mistake is also determinant in the kind of treatment. Priority is given to mistakes which have to do with peoples’ belief. Situations which involve everyday life or etiquette come in second place.

When the Prophet (peace be upon him) wanted to teach his companions something, he used to introduce the topic by telling them that:

“I am like a father to you.” (Abu Dawud)

Here is an example of how the Prophet (peace be upon him) corrected his companions. Umar ibn Abi Salamah said: I was a boy under the care of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and my hand used to go around the dish while I was eating. So the Prophet said to me:

“O boy! Mention the Name of Allah and eat with your right hand, and eat of the dish what is nearer to you”. Since then I have applied those instructions when eating.” (Al-Bukhari)

Persuasion was a fundamental tool that the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to correct his companions’ mistakes. It is reported that a man from Banu Fazarah came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and said: ‘My wife has given birth to a black boy’ – and he wanted to disown him. He said:

‘Do you have camels?’

He said: ‘Yes.’

He said: ‘What color are they?’

He said: ‘Red.’

He said: ‘Are there any gray ones among them?’

He said: ‘There are some gray camels among them.’

He said: ‘Why is that do you think?’

He said: ‘Perhaps it is hereditary.’

He said: ‘Perhaps this is hereditary.’ And he did not permit him to disown him. (An-Nasa’i)

Respecting the Feelings of His Companions

The Prophet (peace be upon him) was aware of the details of every single companion’s social status and managed to deal with every one according to his circumstances. Once a poor man invited the Prophet and served him vinegar. The Prophet (peace be upon him) comforted him and said:

“The best condiment is vinegar.” (Muslim)

This reaction reflects the Prophet’s wisdom. He did not want to hurt the man’s feeling because of his poor condition.

Muslims’ Duty Today

It is because of this wisdom and these refined skills that the Prophet (peace be upon him) managed to gain this large number of followers, and to successfully convey God’s message to the world. And because of his refined manners and wise leadership, the companions deeply loved the Prophet and were ready to sacrifice their lives to save him.

Once a man asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) about the timing of the Day of Judgment. In response, the Prophet asked the man about the good deeds that he had prepared for that day. The man said: “I have not prepared much prayer or fasting or zakah, but I love God and His Messenger.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

“You will be with those you love.” (Al-Bukhari)

Now, it’s our turn. Muslims are told in the Quran that they have in the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) the most beautiful pattern of conduct:

{Verily there is for you a good example in the Messenger of God for whoever hopes for [the encounter with] God and the Last Day, and remembers God often.} (Al-Azhab 33: 21)

It is now the Muslims’ turn to re-live the conduct of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and embrace it in their daily lives. If Muslims claim that they love their Prophet, they have to demonstrate this love by following the Prophet’s footsteps and his guidance in all walks of life; at home, at work, with their families, with relatives, with friends, with neighbors regardless of their race, faith, color or status.

If we sincerely love the Prophet (peace be upon him) and follow his guidance, Almighty God will love us, and we will be with him in the Herafter, and the closer to him in Paradise will be those who follow his example and are best in manners.