Published in Malay Mail Online
For a religion that emphasises free will and no compulsion in believing, its authorities in Malaysia seem awfully insistent on proving the opposite.
In a week, starting June 1, Muslim men in the northern state of Kedah may now be liable for a fine not more than RM1,000 and jail not more than six months, or both for missing Friday prayers three weeks in a row.
The Section 13 that governs that offence was passed in the state’s latest Shariah Criminal Enactment amended last year. But of course, Kedah is not the sole state where such a law has been enacted.
The Federal Territories, for example, also criminalises skipping Friday prayers in Section 20 of its Shariah Criminal Enactment, with the exact penalty.
So do Perak in its Section 23, and Negri Sembilan in its Section 113, among others.
Back in February, Terengganu even mooted the idea of parading offenders in hearses as part of the penalty.
There is a reason why this law has failed to be enforced consistently, and surfaces in the media once every blue moon.
Most of the laws governing Friday prayers require a Muslim man to register at a mosque that represents a kariah, or a parish.
The crime is committed when the man fails to attend Friday prayers in that specific mosque at least once every three weeks, and should someone in that same parish lodge a complaint against that man, he can be charged.
I shall leave out the discussion on the justification behind the jurisprudence that decides on the seemingly arbitrary three-week threshold. The gaping hole here should be obvious: we no longer live in parishes.
The notion of parishes and tying a religious obligation to that concept has its roots in the archaic practices of tribal men who lived in desert communes, with little inter-city ties, what more global ones.
It might still be relevant to those who live in villages in rural Kedah or Terengganu, where men go to work and do their chores not far from their own homes, stuck in their parishes. But nowhere else.
For a start, it is a given that most Muslim men spend their Fridays at work far away from their parishes, where they take time off to perform the prayers. Some do not even have permanent workplaces, always on the go and often away from not only their parish, but their homes.
These men would go to the nearest mosques, which now handle hundreds and hundreds of faithful every Friday. To keep track of several men registered at the mosque among those adherent, where most of them would not even be from the same area and might even be from different states, is totally ridiculous.
Like I said, archaic tribal practices.
Since Kedah made its announcement, there has been suggestions made by some Muslims online on how to lighten the burden of these mosques in keeping track of its parishioners every Friday.
Among those is a system where Muslims can check in automatically using some sort of electronic system, similar to how employees clock in for work.
What a waste of money and resources, but above all, missing the forest for the trees.
For many, the solution is simple. Just never register with any mosque or parish, so there is no need for a “check in” every week.
Like many other annoyances and complexities regarding the practice of Islam in this country, the solution here seems to be to cut yourself off from other Muslims.
A parish is supposed to be a localised support system, where a Muslim can seek help and counsel, both religious and practical. It has many benefits, especially logistical support when it comes to grand gestures of religious rituals, such as marriage and death in the family.
By practising these sorts of restrictions, a parish is now reduced to mere “house arrest”, where you are forced to report in for fear of a fine and prison, which should never be confused with fear of God.
For many, prayers are meant for them to seek solace. The Quranic verses involving Friday prayers (62:9-11) seem to suggest that Muslims are obliged to drop everything to perform it, and then go about their business when the deed is done.
It is not rare to hear how tourists in other Muslim countries speak of the beauty of prayer when Muslims take a breather to greet their God, and continue when they are done like it was no big deal.
Many might agree: that is how religious obligations should be. As something that connects one to God, it should nonetheless not interfere with living.
But when such rituals become institutionalised, you get the nation grinding to a halt for three hours mid-day every Fridays, its roads choked, as many seek advantage of a religious practice to slack off on their jobs.
When Friday prayers have been turned into just a routine chore, criminalising giving it a miss does little to give any incentive for one to prostrate himself without compulsion.
Many Muslims insist that Islam is attractive because it does not seek to burden its adherents. As more and more Muslims nationwide take the role of moral police, and increasingly acting as God’s surrogate, the remark rings less and less true.