When asking questions is dangerous

MAY 31 — Meet Wan Sulaiman Wan Ismail. The soft-spoken 54-year-old is a father of four from Ipoh, Perak who is rarely seen without a skullcap on his head.

However, he has been hounded by Perak’s religious authorities for more than a year now.

Things came to a head in January this year when his house was raided by the Islamic enforcers, where they confiscated his personal handwritten notes and went through his mobile phone and personal computer. On the same day, he was charged in the Ipoh Shariah High Court.

Since then, things have gone downhill for him. He has been ostracised by the same family who has never before this wished him ill. Even his wife has left him.

His small business selling briyani was boycotted by the locals as they learned of the allegations. No longer able to sustain the losses, he shut it down. In the end, he even had to sell off his only home.

What did Wan Sulaiman do to deserve this?

On his charge sheet, Wan Sulaiman allegedly derided and mocked the hadith — the collected sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad. In his personal notes. That was stored in a room in his house and hung on its walls.

He was also accused of disputing authentic hadith and rejecting the shahadah, the Islamic declaration of faith. Another of his alleged offence was translating two terms — “fajar prayers” and “wusto prayers” by “using his own intellect without referring to the hadith.”

The reality was much different. The main issue here seems to be Wan Sulaiman’s fondness of asking questions, especially about Islam, the very religion that he practises.

He has spent years questioning why the religious practices that seem routine to Muslims is dissimilar with what is mentioned in the holy scriptures, especially the Quran.

Wan Sulaiman Wan Ismail speaking at a press conference on Friday about his ordeal. — Picture by MMO/Choo Choy May
Wan Sulaiman Wan Ismail speaking at a press conference on Friday about his ordeal. — Picture by MMO/Choo Choy May

Among others, those two prayer times: fajar and wusto, which were two of the only three daily prayer times named in the Quran, whereas Muslims practise daily prayers five times a day.

Similarly, Wan Sulaiman wanted to know the origin of the shahadah, which comes in two parts: to declare a Muslim’s belief in the oneness of Allah, and the acceptance of Muhammad as Allah’s prophet.

Indeed, a semblance of the first part was mentioned in the Quran, specifically verse 3:18. But one might ask: where did the second part come from?

After all, shahadah is such an integral part of a Muslim’s life. Not only is it considered one of the five pillars of Islam besides prayers, fasting, tithing and performing the hajj. But it can also be found adorning Islamic flags from Saudi Arabia, to Hamas, to al-Qaeda.

To a thinking Muslim, it would only be natural to get curious about these questions. After all, what is the point of blindly practising a ritual without knowing its significance?

So, Wan Sulaiman did what he thought a teacher would appreciate. Like a pro-active student, he did his own homework: he researched and studied on his own, so he would be ready to discuss this conundrum when he finally got to discuss this issue with somebody more learned.

In 2013, he started his quest. And he followed the most appropriate channel known to him. He sought audiences with state-sanctioned religious teachers and scholars from the office of the Perak mufti, the state’s religious department, and state mosque imams — many whom he had seen for the past 15 years.

Wan Sulaiman never got his answers. Instead, some of those he called “teachers” were irked by his inquisitive nature, and he was asked to abandon his questions and several Quranic practices he has since adopted. It was then that Wan Sulaiman stopped asking.

The Perak Islamic Affairs Department (JAIP) made a mistake when it thought that charging Wan Sulaiman would deter others from asking the same questions. Once a question has been asked, the only way it can be stopped is by giving a satisfactory answer.

This is part of the reason why I disagreed with British author Mehdi Hasan when he wrote earlier this month that Islam does not need a reformation, unlike what its critics have urged for.

Hasan warned against wishing for a Martin Luther-like figure in the faith, pointing out that the divisively puritan Ibn Abdul Wahhab of the Salafi movement is one such figure.

Although he back-pedalled later and said that the Muslim-majority world does need a reform, Hasan’s remark only perpetuates the lack of self-awareness that an overhaul is needed in the way some Muslims approach their faith and practise it.

And this is one such example. If the Muslim world flourished with thinkers who had spent their lifetimes shaping and fine-tuning the legacy of Muhammad years after he died, surely the Muslim world would benefit from such thinkers again?

Alas, many Muslims seem content to live with the interpretation of Islam made hundreds of years ago constrained to the Arab and Middle East region, way back when the world was much smaller and our knowledge of how the world works is not as rich as it is right now.

And when a Muslim is gifted with that spark of thought, like Wan Sulaiman, religious authorities see it not as an impetus to an intellectual and academic discussion to enrich the faith, but as a threat to a well-worn belief that they think belongs only to them.

If Islam calls itself a blessing for mankind, then surely it can answer the wants and the needs of every man, not just those living in the land where it originated. Surely its teachings can adapt to the modern world while retaining its core principles and values. Because otherwise, Islam is indeed too small.

But can it? Can it not? When asking questions is made dangerous, then one can scarcely find the answers.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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