When is humour just silly slapstick and when is it subtle satire? One wonders.
IS it proper for a prominent Islamic scholar to fool around with an idiot? More precisely, should the director-general of the Government`s Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia (Malaysian Institute of Islamic Understanding or Ikim) associate himself with Pak Pandir, the Mr Bean of the Malay world? If it`s all frolicking on print, why not?
Hence, Eh! Wat Yu Talking? - Chronicles of Malay Humour, the first comedy book by Dr Syed Ali Tawfik Al-Attas, the aforementioned director-general, who is more used to writing serious treatises on Islam (including, occasionally, in Ikim`s column in The Star.)
Pak Pandir is a well-known village idiot in Malay culture and Syed Ali has compiled many of his classic tales, and also composed some “modern” ones. Other characters include the silly Pak Sago, the wise Abu Nawas and the religious teacher Pak Him.
In fact, the first story, entitled “The Mosquito”, is about Pak Him, Pak Mat and ... wait for this ... Pak Lah. When mosquitoes bother the first two men, they slash the air with their keris, slicing the pesky bugs to bits.
Pak Lah slashes the air, too, but the mosquito still buzzes about. When he is questioned about his seeming ineffectiveness, he replies, “Aah ... but now it is circumcised.”
Surely, it cannot be that Pak Lah?
“Yes, it is,” explains Syed Ali, in an interview before his book launch last Wednesday.
“It is (a reflection of) the Prime Minister as well as his father and grandfather, who were both (renowned religious) scholars. You see, scholars can (intellectually) destroy in a very direct way. But politicians, they incapacitate without killing. Hence, circumcise,” he smiles.
But back to the main protagonist. Why Pak Pandir?
“He`s senseless, yet he succeeds in the end.”
Humorous anecdotes with a dash of Moral Message are a tradition of the Muslim world and Syed Ali says that these include the tales of Joha (in Arabic countries) and Mulla Nasruddin (in Iran).
“I have written lots of serious, scholarly works on Islam. But nobody reads them. This is Malaysia. Maybe people will read a book of humour.”
A few tales in Eh! Wat Yu Talking? show up the denseness and tyranny of certain leaders.
Like when a silly Sultan goes hunting and gets all wet in the rain because he only half-listens to the even sillier Pak Pandir. And then there is the judge who reads the law according to his financial self-interest.
Are these just Dumb and Dumber style jokes? Or is Syed Ali doing a critique of the slavish “yes man” neo-feudal culture of Malaysian politics and patronage?
“I am not taking aim at anybody. I have no intention to slight anyone,” he maintains.
In one story, Pak Pandir says he can`t lend his buffalo to a neighbour because the animal is not around. When the beast grunts loudly from the shed, our good Pak asks whether the neighbour will “take his word as a religious teacher” or believe a buffalo?
Syed Ali has been in the news in the past few months with frank views on Islam. In May, he said that it is not Islam that is to be blamed, but Muslim administrators who cause injustice.
For instance, he explained that in the case of a spouse who converts to Islam after marriage, the Syariah Court would be wrong to pronounce the marriage dissolved automatically. This, he says, is a breach of contract, and is not permitted in Islam.
This has a direct bearing on recent court battles over custody of children after one spouse has converted to Islam. Can the children also be converted by the converting spouse?
In the Ikim Views column of May 1 in The Star, Syed Ali pointed out that a young child cannot really understand the real implications of being so-called “converted” to Islam.
“...What is the point of using the courts `to convert` a child, and separate it from his or her non-Muslim mother? It should be clear by now that one does not become a Muslim (only) by changing one`s name to Muhammad or Abdullah, nor by changing the status of religion in the registration office, what more if it is done by someone else.”
“A child is a child, and naturally has a strong emotional bond with its mother ... To separate a child from its mother is indeed a cruel act, and is unjust from the point of view of Islam, let alone to claim that one is doing so in the name of Islam.”
Syed Ali has been attacked by conservative Muslim voices in Malaysia for his stands.
“Criticism should be constructive. If people don`t agree with the ideas, then we should have a discussion. Unfortunately, people are more interested in insults and personal attacks. Not on what he says but on who is saying it. That is very un-Islamic.”
In January, Syed Ali made waves in local newspapers when he said that the greatest danger to Islam in Malaysia was not couples committing khalwat but rather the “corruption of knowledge” from ulama who are “ignorant of their own ignorance”.
In the interview, Syed Ali recounts a Malay saying that true knowledge, in the breast of an ignoramus, becomes bitter poison.
“It`s like the game in kindergarten when you all stand in a circle. You tell something to the next person and so on until it comes back to you.
“The message usually ends up totally different from the original. It`s because different people have different aptitudes for understanding. When some cannot grasp the meaning, the message becomes corrupted.”
So, is this one of the pointed morals in Eh! Wat Yu Talking?
“It`s just a small book of humour to be read in a bus or maybe in the bathroom. It`s not meant to fire salvoes at anybody. I just collect the stories ... how they are understood is up to people.”
Source: www.thestar.com.my (16 Juli 2007)