The Journey Spiritual in a Dogmatic World

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion

Albert Camus

Every human is born a free spirit, and it is the experience of life that shapes who we eventually become. And although we have “become“, possibilities and opportunities will always present themselves to enable us to redefine ourselves.

But only if we want to.

Just so you don’t read the rest of this post confused, allow Walski to elucidate why he’s writing this. Some weeks back, he completed reading an important book by author, journalist and thinker Mustafa Akyol, “Reopening Muslim Minds“. To say it’s an important book would be an understatement. Walski believes everyone – Muslims in particular – should read it. And for selfish reasons, Muslims in Malaysia especially.

(Disclaimer: Walski is a Malaysian, hence the slight selfishness)

One of the things he thought of doing was to write an unsolicited review on the book, and why Walski thinks it’s important, especially for Malaysia currently. But before that, he thought it only fitting that Walski share a little bit about his own spiritual journey, so that the review might have some foundational context as to where Walski comes from.

And so, with that out of the way, let’s begin our journey. Well, Walski’s journey…

Let’s start at the beginning. Or, as close to the beginning as practical.

Walski grew up in a middle class family, both parents in the civil service, as were his granddads on both sides of the maternal/paternal divide. He was born in the mid-60s, and grew up during a time Malay/Muslims weren’t so obsessed with performative piety as they are today. A lot less uptight, too, about… well, just about everything, really.

Sure, Islam was observed in the family then. 5-times a day prayers, fasting in Ramadhan, etc. But apart from that, by and large Islam wasn’t something every damned thing revolved around like it is in Malaysia today. Yes, the state did have some level of control, but by and large it was a personal belief matter. And in the 70s and early 80s, no one talked about religious rehabilitation.

Fast-forward to 1990, when Walski returned to Malaysia after spending 8 years abroad, doing his tertiary education and briefly working after that. By then, Malaysia was already in the early stages of metamorphosis, religion starting its creep into the public sphere. Later in that decade the now infamous Lina Joy case made it clear that government departments were bound by what religious authorities dictate. Religion – specifically Islam – was no longer something between an individual and God, but between an individual and state dictates. And what the state dictates shall be what “Islam” is in Malaysia.

So if the state dictates a particular school of thought is the only permissible school of thought, then that’s that. Personal conscience? Doesn’t exist in Malaysia; at least not among anyone unfortunate enough to be born into a Muslim family, or decided to embrace the religion.

What changed Walski, looking back, was probably the Black Metal police raid that happened on New Year’s eve 2006 in KL, and before that, another in December 2005 (in Seremban). These two police raids, it would appear, were the direct result of moral outrage caused by religious councils about the evils of Black Metal, which later morphed into fantastical articles in Mastika (yes, that literary giant), and which eventually drove PDRM to act. Later in 2006 the National Fatwa Council made it “officially” haram.

Ok, first off, Walski is not a big fan of Death Metal. And the real point is not this specific genre being banned, but how the opinion of religious bodies (a fatwa, by definition, is an opinion) could drive enforcement apparatus of the state to act. Which leads to another question: do religious authorities have the power to shape legislation, and the actual people responsible to create legislation (Parliament and the respective State houses) have no choice but to comply?

Sadly, as we have slowly discovered since then, the answer is yes. Whether or not this power of sway is based on actual laws or not is irrelevant – what they say, goes. Or else, the legion of Islamic NGOs creep out of the woodworks to shout loudly. And this government, which has historically relied on the Muslim vote to remain in power, kneejerks into action. The question of legality doesn’t even arise – the religionists speak, and therefore MUST BE OBEYED.

Also interesting was this popular notion going around during the Lina Joy trial – she had abandoned Islam (and did it publicly), therefore must be eliminated. Killed. Wait, what? Isn’t Islam a religion of compassion and peace? Or, at least, that’s what Walski had been brought up to believe.

And then there was also this thing about certain words that are exclusive to Muslims in Malaysia, and no one else may use them. Huh? How and when did Islam become so exclusivist?

There are other things that popped up in addition to these two, but suffice it to say Walski had to find out more. And thus, in 2006 his spiritual journey began. The year he turned 42. Which, coincidentally, is also the ultimate answer; the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

But just like in Douglas Adams’ series of HItchhiker books, the quest became to seek what questions to ask. And the questions were many.

And it was also at this point that Walski (finally) took the trouble to read the Quran. Not merely recite it while not knowing what it says, but really read it. And understand it (or try, at least). Back in 2006 there wasn’t the abundance of tafseer (or “translation”, loosely translated) to be found on the Internet like there is today. But there were enough resources, that said.

And what Walski found out was actually in the Quran? Eye-opening and enlightening, to say the least. More importantly, a lot of what today constitutes Islamic practice and belief is not in the Quran at all. Like, for instance, that apostates and blasphemers may no longer live. Sure, there’s damnation and all, but no worldly punishment. Similarly, the punishment of stoning to death – nowhere in the Quran.

Also eye-opening was the much-repeated appeal for us to use our intellect and reason. And not at all like what most religionists today demand, that we must accept their truth as the only truth, and most of all, never question.

So what happened to Islam between the time the Quran was revealed, as the seal of revelaion and God’s final word to mankind, and the present day? In a nutshell, a lot. Put it this way: if the very basis of this nation being secular in nature can be altered, challenged and re-interpreted 60-some years after 1957, what more a faith that’s been around for over 1,400 years?

Which brings us to back to Mustafa Akyol’s book, “Reopening Muslim Minds“. Its subtitle, by the way: A Return to Reason, Freedom and Tolerance. Not ‘opening’ but Reopening. Not ‘Towards’ but A Return to. Think about the title and their implications.

And when Walski gets around to writing the review, we’ll discuss this more.

So that’s the journey Walski embarked on in 2006, and which continues till this day. A journey of asking questions, and seeking answers. It’s a journey that will continue until his last breath, in all likelihood. There have been more questions than answers, but that’s okay.

Such is the nature of spiritual journeys, it would seem.

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