Of magic water and celebrity preachers in Malaysia: The Star columnist

A student reading the Quran at the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on June 15, 2016.
A student reading the Quran at the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on June 15, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

Johan Jaafar

The Star/Asia News Network

Selfies are haram (forbidden). You can't send a picture of food on the table via WhatsApp. Music is not permitted. Jews are everywhere to undermine the ummah (believers). Even Mother's Day is not acceptable.

Muslims in this country have never been more confused. There are simply too many religious statements, coming from too many people.

The older generation of pendakwah (preachers) are already coming out with their decrees and interpretations.

Now a new crop of preachers are making waves.

TV stations are promoting various religious programmes, making celebrities out of those who are not even qualified to preach.

Becoming one is a new Malaysian Dream.

Some of them are even more popular than pop stars and actors. They are booked many months ahead.

Some live lavishly, even driving flashy cars. "Richistan", a word coined by some people to mean the land of the rich, today is made up of preachers, too.

There are of course many genuine and good preachers out there, but there are opportunists among them, too.

By virtue of their popularity, they have a big influence on society.

The saddest part is, official outfits are hapless.

Even Jakim (Department of Islamic Development) has yet to raise a finger to address the issue.

Little wonder there is a robust, profitable, even glamorous homegrown ceramah (religious talk) industry in the country today.

We have nothing against them.

It is everyone's responsibility in Islam to do the right thing, to encourage people to do good, to instil good values and to reaffirm one's fate.

But using the platform to make judgments, to confuse the faithful and to create doubts and discord among Muslims is totally unacceptable.

You hear conflicting views about almost everything.

Much of the debate is on halal and haram anyway.

In this business, the most popular is always right. Some of them are creating a standard of "piety" which is almost humanly impossible to achieve.

The detractors are arguing that we are going backwards.

Too much energy and what little is left of the intellect are spent on debating unnecessary matters that are considered insignificant in Islam.

The halal and haram issue is only one element of the religion.

Other aspects about moving forward, progressing with confidence and dignity, and about moderation are taking a backseat.

Back in the early 19th century, graduates from Al-Azhar University in Cairo who came back challenged the old thinking among the religious establishment and preachers.

The debate between the so-labelled Kaum Muda and Kaum Tua (Young Turks and the Old Guard) was intense but clever.

The young scholars argued for progress and the well-being of the ummah.

It was mostly about preparing the believers for the present and the future.

The reformists started a tidal wave of new thinking.

Yet 100 years later, we are bogged down with petty, even irrelevant issues, not the real discourse that will bring the ummah to the next level.

There are many other critical issues bedevilling the Muslims today.

Rising from the yoke of poverty is one. Education is another.

Making the mark in all disciplines of knowledge known to man is critical.

Being successful economically is key.

But nothing is more important than portraying Islam as a progressive religion, not one entrapped by the vestiges of time.

After all, our leaders have always been talking about moderation and progress.

Yet, on the ground, we are allowing novices masquerading as preachers to be the spokespersons of Islam.

There are few brave voices these days. It takes someone like Zainuddin Maidin (Zam) to take them on by the horns.

His blog "zamkata blogspot" recently questioned the hypocrisy of these people.

His argument is simple - we are losing the bigger Islamic agenda.

And we are allowing these preachers to hijack the Cause.

Zam, never known to mince words, concludes that people with little knowledge of the real Islam are dominating the airwaves.

The path to righteousness as portrayed by these people is littered with threats, anxieties and dangers.

The talk is about kiamat (Judgement Day), not about living and the future.

He cynically paints a picture that Muslims today will face kiamat earlier than non-Muslims.

Zam was also commenting on views made by Dr Asri Zainul Abidin, the mufti of Perlis, in one of the programmes on Astro Oasis.

Dr Asri, vilified by some for his "progressive stand", has always argued that Muslims are simply confused by too many decrees and statements made by people who have no business in making them.

He condemned those who believe that these preachers are the passport to syurga (heaven), and that these people are the intermediaries with heaven.

And worst, cleanse them of their dosa (sins).

He finds it ridiculous that parents are being duped that air tangkal (talismanic water) can make a below average student excel in examinations.

You can fault Zam and Dr Asri for their views. But they represent the silent majority.

Religious discourses should flourish and not be suppressed.

Part of the portrait of current Islam, sadly, is painted by those who are confusing the ummah rather than enlightening them.

The religious authorities must act.

The writer was a journalist, editor and chairman of a media company for some years.