What the word ‘dakwah’ means to me

A FEW weeks ago, Dr Maszlee Malik drew a lot of flak for his use of the word ‘dakwah’ in his speech appealing to teachers to stay in Sabah and Sarawak as their national and religious obligations. Non-Malays in that region were up in arms over charges of proselytisation. Maszlee then made a statement explaining his idea of ‘dakwah’ to mean to teach with full commitment as a religious act of faith, not to participate in proselytisation.

This week, I wish to share my journey into rediscovering Islam as a spiritual path after 18 years as a Malay born with a Malay based cultural construct of the religion. Along the way, I would like to also share my take of what the word ‘dakwah’ means to me.

Before I left for Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA in 1980, I did not know much about Islam aside from the practice of it in the Malay culture like praying at mosques, fasting, going to hajj, and refraining from alcohol or non-halal food. My first encounter with the word ‘dakwah’ occurred when I came home to our Kamunting bungalow one day from my Form 5 class at Hua Lian, Taiping. My mother was sitting outside alone doing some knitting. Suddenly I noticed her Islamic tudung and asked what that was. She replied that she was now considered as a ‘dakwah woman’. At that time, the tudung was taking over Malaysia by storm after the charismatic Anwar joined Umno and brought   the Islamic Reformation spirit into that Malay party and later on in government. The alien tudung is not usually worn by Malays because the selendang was the required female attire for social functions. I assumed then a ‘dakwah woman’ meant that a woman who has decided to follow the true path of Islam rather than just practising the normal Malay-Muslim one. I thought nothing of it since I had not much education in Islam because I dropped the subject from Form 2 until Lower 6 at Hua Lian.

When I was in Green Bay, Wisconsin at the tender age of 18 in 1980, I was not praying regularly like my other two friends, who hailed from Terengganu and Kelantan. They were both religious and knowledgeable to me. I began to learn about Islam and other faiths on my own. One of the first batch of Malay students there, showed me Abul A’la Maududi’s book titled ‘Towards Understanding Islam’. It was a book originally penned in Urdu by the great Islamic scholar in India, who headed the Jamaat’ al-Islami political movement to bring about an Islam that has political power. After reading that book, I found a book catalogue from Islamic publishers and bought a few more like Abul’ala Maududi’s ‘Fundamentals of Islam’, Syed Qutb’s ‘Milestone’, and Ali Shariati’s ‘Man and Islam’. All the books were targeted for Muslims to rediscover the true side of Islam by understanding the original message of the Sunnah or way of life of the Prophet and the message of the Quran in social and geo-political perspectives. The word dakwah then was mainly about re-explaining Islam to Muslims. There were no arguments of ridiculing other people’s faith but mainly ridiculing the false lives of Muslims and their governments.

I was then introduced to the works and activities of the MISG or Malaysian Islamic Study Group in the USA. This was a large network of Malay students, who go from campus to campus to invite the Malay students who were practising a wayward life of alcohol drinking, sex, and many other western values considered degrading.

These students would spend much of their own scholarship money travelling with their own grocery supplies and then asking permission to stay for two nights at the rental homes of boys and girls who are Malays. They were all kind, intellectual, firm, and disciplined. Their handshakes were strong, manly and their eyes were piercing with faith. They conducted ‘usrah’ with us Malays and gave talks about Islam as a way of life and provided free books and reference notes for us to study and discuss.

One of the main text used was Fathi Yakan’s ‘Apa Maksud Saya Memeluk Islam’ as well as Abu Urwah’s ‘Risalah Usrah’. Many Malaysians do not know that Abu Urwah is the penname of one of the giants in Islamic Reformation in Malaysia, YB Saari Sungib now of Amanah, before this PAS. He was the two-term leader of the Jemaah Islah Malaysia and now renamed Ikram (which is not an acronym). He was also the one that Hadi Awang referred to as ‘barua’ a derogatory term like ‘bangsat’ in Malay over Saari’s defection in the ousting of Khalid as the Selangor Menteri Besar seen to be friendly to PAS. Saari is an intellectual Muslim but not an ustaz like Hadi and this was the ongoing battle between religious clerics, who think they know better than anyone else about Islam and the professionals who became intellectuals in modern Islam.

What is important here for Malaysians to understand is that the MISG were doing dakwah to Malay Muslim students. There were no events that I know where the MISG went on a ‘conversion’ activity of non-Muslims. Mosques in the USA mostly have what is known as an outreach programme, which is a weekly or a monthly open day affair where non-Muslims would come and interact and listen to a dialogue session on what Islam is. I view this as a necessary activity of communication more than a proselytisation process.

Later on in the USA, I had moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where I mixed with a larger group of international Muslims from all over the world at the Milwaukee mosque. At Green Bay, there were not that many but in Milwaukee there were a significant number of Muslim immigrant families, who were academics, doctors, lawyers, architects, grocers, and many more. I was made the vice-president of the MSA or Muslim Student Association. Many of the activities were centred in manning a booth about Islam at the university student union and also visiting different mosques, like the Shi’a Mosque and the Black Muslim Mosque to maintain brotherhood. We also entertained invitations by Church groups to talk about Islam. So, all that time, I was never involved in any activities for the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam.

In my graduate year, I met the Tabligh group for the first time. The Jamaat al-Tabligh is a ‘missionary’ travelling group. They consist of lawyers, doctors, lorry drivers, and Muslims from different countries in many different socioeconomic activities who have pledged two weeks or 40 days of their lives to travel while learning to rejuvenate their spiritual Islam as well as ‘dakwah’ by inviting Muslims to join them in the ‘sacrifice’ of tabligh. The activities of tabligh include visiting Muslim houses and politely inviting them to the mosque to listen to a ‘bayan’ or spiritual talk.

The Tabligh never talk politics at all. They shun it. To them Islam is about training the heart to be soft and the body to perform rituals with absolute humility to Allah. Night prayers are always filled with real tears. Included also is the ‘khidmat’ where each tabligh member would take turns preparing food for the group. I had travelled several times with the Tabligh group in USA and in Malaysia for a few days only. Again, the dakwah was for Muslims to find the right path away from cultural or racist Islam.

In Malaysia, I follow the activities of the JIM/Ikram and Abim groups, which hold usrah or halaqah, which are discussion circles in mosques and private residences to teach and learn Islam outside the traditional ustaz mosque ceramah model. All of the activities I have thus described are efforts for a Muslim to renew his or her ideas, attitudes, values and practices of Islam and what they know and experience are shared among themselves and finally acting as teachers to other ignorant Muslims brought about by a cultural Malay context. Dakwah was about Muslim to another Muslim.

Engagement with non-Muslims has always been in a cordial and intellectual explanation or sharing of thoughts. The Zakir Naik Islamic evangelical model of belittling other religion does not exist in my experience of learning, sharing, and practising Islam. Dakwah has always been first and foremost to myself to understand, practise and be humble; secondly to my wife and family; and then to those who seek guidance and explanation.

I have thus far read over 100 books on Islam about its message, practices, prayers, values, and intellectual adaptation to modernity. I have never read a book about Islam bashing other religions or people although I saw a few such books. The Muslims I have come across who engage in dakwah to non-Muslim in terms of conversion are either the ones who are paid a salary by a government body or personalities like Zakir, who make a living out of donations to his cause of ‘spreading’ Islam to non-Muslims. As far as I understand the Quran, the Hadith, and the readings I have done, a Muslim must be humble to Allah through the rituals, be tolerant, just and compassionate to all mankind, and explain clearly the message of Islam to the best of his or her ability when called upon to do so.

Conversion to Islam is the act of Allah alone who chooses whom He wishes to award the divine light of consciousness. A Muslim can only explain, not convert others because it is by Allah’s grace only. This is what dakwah means to me. I suspect Dr Maszlee in his speech had an almost similar spirit to the message of dakwah in inviting Muslims to the right path and explaining Islam to others.

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