Abû Hurayrah relates that Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: “Islam began strange, and it will become strange again just like it was at the beginning, so blessed are the strangers.” [Sahîh Muslim (1/130)]

Sunday, January 31, 2016


I was recently blessed by the Almighty with a daughter who I am looking at as I type these words. I recall the the voices of some who said they would think twice of having children with the world in such a miserable state, and the future looking so bleak. I think otherwise. To me, our children represent our investment in a future for humanity. With life, and the Mercy of God, there is hope.

Fatherhood has yet to sit as I have spent much of my time running. I do take some moments to look at her big wandering eyes. With her reduced field of vision at this point, I can only wonder what her developing mind is making of all these shapes and sounds that assault her senses. When the soul is taken from our bodies at the point of death for its journey to the next world, it is described as a difficult and warping process. I can imagine the entry into this world from the purely spiritual through the birth canal into this haphazard mania must be similarly jarring though perhaps to a much lesser extent.

As parents, we no doubt share pure joy at the new arrival. It is this radiance that makes all the little tasks such as cleaning and feeding seem rather minuscule. But there is a point at which the father's love and attachment take a back seat to the bond the mother instantly develops with the newborn. Newborns for many men can be a bit one-dimensional in how they are almost purely driven by physical needs and responses. Once the child has the ability to be on stand their own two legs and forms a proto-personality, the man's interest increases exponentially. Not so much for the mother, who finds every little wrinkle and curl on the baby's body a source of endless fascination.

I came out of the birthing experience with a new-found respect for the inner strength and endurance the Divine has put in women to allow them to go through the surges of increasing discomfort and the final release. I wonder how some women who seem so petite and fragile can deliver several children without much fuss. It boggles the mind. Then again, this perhaps isn't the best time for such pontification, rather a better time to throw up my hands, thank the Lord, and get busy with the messy acts of fatherhood.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Waiting for the Perfect Day

This time I dedicated my column to a free flow writing process, by transferring my thought directly from mind to type with little editing in between. What comes out may be garbled but may contain some notion or two of minor significance.  

It wasn't until recently that I realized that I will spend much of my life waiting for the perfect day. The daily grind of work, the ebb and flow of extracurricular stuff that also assumes the garb of work, the needs and demands of family, all tug me in this direction or that.

Sometimes I wonder whether much of the control I exert in my life is on things that will eventually exert their control over me. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. We may be free at times from external control but we are never free from our responsibilities. We are defined by our responsibilities.

Executing responsibilities leaves me with a degree of satisfaction of a job well done. Once it becomes habitual though, the satisfaction is dulled and I look to build on this with something new. The responsibilities it seems will never end, but with each new one, I feel I gain something.

Men are defined by their ambitions, this is something I have believed for a long time. The world is our oyster, and we try and make whatever mark we can before we become dust and return to our Lord. However, I have noticed that no matter how lofty the ambition may be, it requires us asking some question from the Dunya, and seeking a response.

So the perfect day I wait for is when all responsibilities are fulfilled and every question from the Dunya is answered and I no longer need anything from it nor does it need me very much. Then I can know the true feeling of roaming through this world as if one were a traveler.

The perfect day would start with me waking up without my first thought being what are my plans for the day. The perfect day would continue with time with family and friends that is leisurely and without any refrain to gadgets or office work. The perfect day would have three meals of mild but filling proportions. The perfect day would have sunshine but light rain, a lovely combo. The perfect day would be long enough that each part of the day would feel like a chapter to a novel, with its own twists and turns, and of sufficient length to merit reflection. The perfect day would include a nice cup of tea with a intellectually challenging book of choice. And the perfect day would end with the eyes drooping slightly with a slight slumber, before surrendering to the night.

Sometimes I think that life should be spent trying to gain enough points to earn a perfect day. But maybe in between some perfect days slip by unnoticed.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Is 'Idealism' a Bad word?

Recently, I was conversing with a loved one about whether the word 'idealism' has become something of a pejorative of late. How often has someone been described with a sigh as 'a bit too much of an idealist'. Implicit in this are a number of notions. A idealist can be seen as a foolish chaser of dreams, someone granted too much time to engage in frivolities. This idealist has his or her head in the clouds and need to come to grips with the ground realities of life. This idealist is somebody who wishes that circumstances, as the word suggests, were 'ideal' and when it comes time to deliver results, can only deliver empty promises.

Growing up, I never felt idealism was a loaded term or anything short of necessary. I believed that what separates the good people from the great people in this world are that the latter pursue their ideals over their self-interests. To work for the services of God and others was the ultimate ideal and source of satisfaction. With hard work and dedication, anything that could be properly envisioned was possible.

The world of today is soaked in cynicism. It is vogue now to describe oneself as a pessimist or realist, since as my cousin says, then you are either always correct or pleasantly surprised. Maybe it's a combination of reaching adulthood and experiencing the gory events of the last decade or so that have made my 'idealistic' thoughts seem so old-fashioned.

A famous social critic once replied when asked if he was optimistic or pessimistic, "I can't be a pessimist because I'm alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I'm forced to be an optimist." That essentially is why I am an idealist to this day and hopefully till I die insha Allah. I have no other choice.

Friday, August 7, 2015

What about Yemen?

Two scenarios providing a very stark contrast:

Scenario 1 takes place around Ramadan 2014. Israel has launched Operation Protective Edge, effectively turning the biggest open air prison in their world, Gaza, into their own shooting gallery and testing center for their latest batch of armaments. The usual howls of protest are heard around the Muslim world, yet there is deafening silence from the rulers of the nearby Gulf states, and the Egyptian government is almost an open collaborator with Israel. More than 2,100 innocent civilians died.

Scenario 2 takes place around Ramadan 2015. Following a political takeover by the Iran-backed Houthi tribes, Saudi Arabia and the adjacent Gulf States are suddenly galvanised into action and begin a relentless carpet bombing campaign of the country to bring the group into submission. Egypt once again gives it helping hand in this effort. Even far away Turkey and Pakistan were asked to lend their military muscle (thankfully they declined). No major protests from my view are taking place across the Muslim world. Thus far, the death toll is 3,000 person estimated in the first 100 days of the bombing.

There is a problem when the richest oil-drenched Muslims countries gang up and pound perhaps the poorest, with nary a complaint from the rest of the so-called 'Umma'. Yes, there is a complicated set of internal politics that must be taken into account before passing any judgment (not that complicated really, Arab Sunni Saudi Arabia and Persian Shia Iran are both tying for regional influence with its spillover in Yemen and Syria).

Many of the nearby Arab states are particularly queasy  given the recently signed deal between the US (and five other world powers) and Iran to effectively end its nuclear programme. No doubt, for Iran it has granted a seal of legitimacy that will see a rush of investment and expanding clout. The problem is that now solving the Yemen situation has become much more difficult.

It is times like this that I feel that the Muslim world could use a non-sectarian Muslim Diplomatic Corps to work towards effective diplomatic solutions to these problems. The UN and some Muslims governments have tried some feeble proposals that never panned out. It is time that the concerned public take a more proactive stance towards peace rather than wait for seeing how it will be handled by inept and often corrupt governments that care more about political considerations.

In the policy circles, they call this Track II diplomacy, implemented by private actors who have the expertise and freedom to work with actors on the ground and find solutions. To establish a viable international Muslim-centric diplomatic push like this would take a degree of foresight and patience that I have yet to see demonstrated.

In the mean time, Yemen continues to be sadly torn apart. One can only pray that this poor and impoverished country finally see some measure of calm after so much carnage. We make dua.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Are we approaching Singularity?

And now, on a completely different note...

As a media guy, I make it a point to notice certain trends that appear in television and cinema, which I feel are broader reflections of globalised society. Something that has struck me in the past few months has been a new resurgence in AI (artificial intelligence)-themed movies and literature. Last year's release of Transcendence, the latest Avengers movie, and the new Terminator all feature antagonists created as a result of AI gone awry, of machines taking a life and intelligence of their own with disastrous results. Could this be a pushback against recent developments in the field of robotics and computers? Or is simply Hollywood's regurgitating themes of the 50s and 60s involving self-aware computers?


Research on artificial intelligence for computers has been happening for decades. The gist of AI is to finally create a machine with intelligence capable of any task of a human being. More than that, the machine should be capable of 'recursive self-improvement', to be able to build better robotic versions of themselves without outside assistance.

Through successive cycles of self-improvement, the idea is that one day the machines will reach a tipping point, a sudden quantum leap in intelligence capacity. This phenomenon is called 'technological singularity' and is the fodder for half of the sci-fi movies before and after The Matrix appeared.

This isn't some fringe quack science though. Scores of futurists and scientists have dedicated themselves to the task of realising AI by the mid of the 21st century. There is even an annual conference dedicated just to exploring this issue. Very rudimentary AI-based software is already in the market used by sites such as Google and Facebook.

Mad Science

The thrust of the pursuit behind AI is a form of technological utopianism, a belief that somehow computers can and will tackle all of humanity's dilemmas. If you think that's a stretch, NASA scientist Richard Terrile said recently, "The benefits of AI are that it could solve all the world's problems. All of them. Seriously. Technology could probably solve all of them in one form or another."

Not all scientists are so sure. Among the doubters are the famous Stephen Hawkings and even Bill Gates, who feel that once the machines reach a critical point of intelligence, they move beyond human control. Hawkings speculates whether AI could be the last human invention, ever. Especially if machine are put in the decision makers' seat to do crucial tasks. Many countries are already developing battlefield robots, for example. Any plan of putting safeguards to inhibit the actions of the machine is as limited as our own intelligence.

Problems with AI

AI is based around bio-mimicry, using machines to copy biological patterns in human beings. To achieve intelligence, researchers work on various algorithms based off the neurological activities of our brains to simulate what is manifested as intelligence.

The obvious problem is that defining what exactly constitutes intelligence is difficult. According to Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at New York University, "intelligence is not a single-dimensional trait (like height or weight, something that can be measured with one number) but a complex amalgam of many different cognitive traits."

Another problem is that a machine replicating our patterns in the end is just a simulacrum, a replication, a photocopy. This is a far way from a living and thinking entity capable of self-conscious. Duplicating certain neural impulses in a computer doesn't mean that this computer is aware of its own identity the way we do.

Professor Noam Chomsky dismisses the possibility of singularlity altogether, citing our limitations in understanding the human brain as the biggest hurdle. For obvious reasons, we don't perform live testing of human brains the way researchers carve into mice and frogs, and there will still be a glass ceiling to our level of knowledge anyways.

As much fun or dread we may gain from the thought of living in an AI world, I myself remain doubtful that it is even remotely feasible. I see consciousness as a unique gift from the Almighty that we experience, a cognitive acceptance of our material and spiritual existence. The thought that this can be duplicated on a hard drive offends my sensibilities somewhat. But then, it's a crazy world, so few things can be completely ruled out.

Friday, June 26, 2015

UNRIBA: A Retrospective

A little bit over a year ago, I, along with a couple of my friends, sat down and began to work on bringing an idea to life. To be more accurate, to bring an idea back to life. This idea was UNRIBA, a Muslim youth-oriented campaign that we have been running in Malaysia, trying to address issues that are well off the mainstream. Given that it is Ramadan, and UNRIBA has taken a break for some spiritual downtime, it is as good a time as any to look back at what we sought to accomplish and where we go from here.

UNRIBA was officially launched at the World Conference on Riba (RIFCON) in 2012 with a bit of buzz and fanfare. Unfortunately, in the immediate months following the conference, the campaign fell silent as different parties got involved in their own personal ventures. It was only towards the beginning of 2014 that a few core members came together to try and resuscitate UNRIBA.

My initial focus in restarting the campaign was on the issue of money and monetary reform. Specifically, on exposing the obvious flaws in the current fiat monetary setup and pushing for alternatives and complementary currencies more in line with what is in Islamic tradition i.e. gold, silver and other asset-based forms of money.

However, after much discussion with my colleagues Justin and Giovanni, I soon became aware that money is only a part, albeit a critical part, of the entire riba-based economic system. To address systemic problems that have afflicted Muslims and other communities, we need a holistic and not selective approach. Besides educating on riba and money, we need to spread awareness about other economics issues such as debt dependency, banking scams, and the need to revive classical Islamic community markets/entrepreneurs. Beyond this, we need to attack the root of the disease that has resulted in such a system being imposed upon us, topics such as materialism, consumerism, and the values inculcated by the economic machine. In short, we need to look at our own lifestyles first, and the 'UNRIBA' process begins here.


Our campaign is not youth exclusive but it is youth-centric. The reason is that the heart of any meaningful social change should begin with the next generation. It is one reason we have been fortunate to directly address students courtesy of our partners at universities such as UTM, UIA and University of Malaya.

Another promising observation from conducting this campaign has been that the issues we target quite often cross sectarian lines. Problems such as riba, money and debt transcend the normal Sufi/Salafi divisions that have hindered Muslims in the past. and the potential to use Muamalah as a unifying force is still very much there.

The hope is not that we can bring some overnight revolution. The hope is that, through slow and deliberative education and advocacy, we can cause a ripple to become a wave, and our campaign may one day insha Allah become a movement to change the basic conditions in which we are forced to live. Whether this happens is not up to us, but any incremental effort we can do to push in that direction is part of the solution, while indolence is part of the problem.

Over the last year, we've made some headway with a variety of interesting programmes more tied to the nature of money and the Islamic free market. Post-Ramadan insha Allah, we look forward to putting spotlight on some more offbeat topics, such as the effects of the riba-system on corrupting food, media and family. Stay tuned for some updates.

Lastly, our takeaway from UNRIBA is that to avoid riba doesn't mean just changing the bank you use, it means changing how you live. Until we can internalise that message, true progress will remain elusive. Our sincere apologies for any mistakes on our part, and we ask for your kind duas for the success of UNRIBA as we move forward.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Make the most of this Month

Ramadan is upon us again. It either silently snuck upon us or the last year just sped by us. Either way, it gives a welcome breather from the inanities of life that mask themselves as important. The challenge is to sustain the momentum that crests in the beginning and end of the month but becomes a trough towards the middle of the month (much like the congregational attendance at the masjid). It is something I typically struggle with, remembering the sacred promise of the special period of the year.

I like to consider Ramadan a time to press the personal reset button. I need this month. Like an old carpet, I need to be dusted out. Bad traits that have found a comfy residence in my character need to be expunged. A diet softened on the sugars and fats of this world needs to be reigned in once again. A gaze that has too often been set left or right needs to now look inward and upward.

It seems to difficult to break set patterns, like trying to derail a locomotive set in motion. The enormity of sins and general lethargy of daily life is hard to overcome. Personal resolutions to spiritual growth are usually drowned out in the drudgery of work and lesser responsibilities.

But this month gives me hope. It does every year. Allah (sbt) created this month for a reason, to cleanse us mind, body and soul. My hope is that, by the end of this month, I can claim some personal advancement that wasn't there before. A spiritual souvenir if you will.

My sincere dua that all of you find your spiritual souvenir this month, and plenty of blessings insha Allah along the way. Ramadan Kareem!