Of Snakes and Ladders, and Dance

There was a time when kids used to spend their free time playing board games. Sometimes it was a whole family affair; at other times it was when friends came over on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It even used to be part of one’s repertoire of packed time-fillers when the family traveled. Games ranged from the four-cornered Ludo (didn’t everyone have their own favourite colours to start from?) to the strategic Battleship (particularly enjoyed the battery-operated version, complete with missile launch and explosion sounds) to the whodunits like Cluedo, and the empire-building Monopoly. I must say that the most complex board game I have ever played (once) was Poleconomy, a Monopoly-like game that swapped companies for properties and had a parallel political and capitalist actions. There was one particular game though which more often than not introduced kids to the whole concept of board games; it was none other than Snake and Ladders.

For many, Snakes and Ladders was probably the first board game they ever played, and one that most never say no too. Its simple mechanics would encourage anyone to start, and the gameplay gave a relatively equal chance for anyone to win. In addition, one could easily acquire it at the nearest mamak sundry or magazine shop. Many would have moved on to other more complex games, without knowing the rich background of this up and down game. I had earlier thought of the game as a good summary of one’s journey of faith without realising that the game itself was borne out of a spiritual context.

Reportedly Snakes and Ladders was born out of India, together with its dice-based siblings called  Gyan chauper and pachisi (present-day Ludo and Parcheesi). It was known as  Moksha Patam in ancient India and was associated with the Hindu and Jain philosophy which contrasts destiny and desire. The ladders represented positive virtues such as generosity, faith and humility, contrasted by those such as theft, anger and murder, symbolised by the snake. Salvation (Moksha) was achieved by doing good, whereas evil results in a rebirth to lower forms of life (and having to start at the lower rungs).

It may not be too far a stretch to bring this analogy to one’s spiritual progression in Islam. While the board game, normally in grids of 8×8, 9×9 or more often than not 10×10, is usually viewed in two dimensions, I had always imagined the game to be much more complex continuous three-dimensioned environment. This was due to the fact that if one were transported from square number 47 from the head of a snake to its tail at number 24 for a second time or after several ups and down, surely one was probably wiser and had a higher spiritual level than when one went through square number 24 for the first time.

The other aspect that would underline one’s attitude to life was how one moves from one square to another. Do you treat it like a sprint, front-loading all your good deeds but potentially burn out and change? Do you take a slow stroll, promising yourself that piety should be reserved for a later age once you have maxed-out your partying in the squares that you occupy right now? Do you take your time, studying the significance of the squares before you, and how it should impact your current and future squares? Or do you dance to and fro, treating all squares as your destined playground, moving to a beat resonant with all that is created, and therefore potentially also the rhythm of your Creator?

Another interesting analogy is also the dice. Without going into the whole fatalism and choice debate, and taking it into a more rudimentary level, how you throw is often a determinant in how the dice lands. Is the chance factor just the universe colluding (or itself having no other chance) to make what the Creator had pre-determined happen? Or does it even matter, for in the end we are accountable to how we react to the choices that are put before us, which may be understood as the real test. Did the Creator not say that whom He loves the most, would be the most tested?

Maybe it is because I am way into my fourth decade on this earth, and speedily approaching my fifth. I try to oscillate between the third and fourth way mentioned above – to study, and to dance. What is ecstasy without grounding, but a fleeting moment whose meaning dissipates with the wind? What is knowledge, if it does not permeate through one’s being, and where knowledge begins and being end is no longer defined, and in fact longer matters?

Is there any other way to live?




Gateway to Consciousness: My (Continuous) Journey to Accessing the Arabic Language

I now know why I MUST study Arabic.

Today was the fourth lesson for my wife and I. Ustazah Faezah was very accommodating about me not completing my homework, saying that it was more important to practice verbally, at the very least. Against the backdrop of the other student, my soul mate of 19 years, I was supremely pathetic. Zawjati (my wife) had even done some of the homework on my behalf last week. I had tried numerous excuses to get the lesson postponed, as it was always a rush to revise and get my wajib (homework) done on time. I thought it could wait, but the conversation with our ustazah just after our fourth class totally changed my perception – no more excuses, just do it to the best of our abilities and do not relent – no retreat, no surrender!

My first flirtation with the Arabic language began in 1990 when I was studying architecture in Cambridge. I had to write a thesis for my final year, and after some soul-searching the topic of arrived at was “The Problem with Defining Islamic Architecture”. The previous two-plus years were entrenched in the history and theory of architecture from a primarily western perspective – I wanted to discover my own weltanschauung of architecture, and what better to focus on the more universal Islamic architecture rather than just traditional vernacular Malay architecture (where the latter was also somewhat influenced by the former). Having done some desktop research, I had felt that I should be visiting the actual buildings in the Middle East, whilst at least having some rudimentary grasp of the local language. I had therefore signed up for an Arabic course (probably at the Faculty of Linguistics, I forget which). It was unfortunate that after attending five or six lessons, I started missing the classes as I had to spend more time at the studio to compete lagging design projects. The silver lining was that I did finish my thesis, which in itself was a process of self-discovery, but never did complete one level of Arabic language nor did I go to visit the targeted buildings and regions.

After graduating from Cambridge during an economic downturn in 1991 (72 applications to work in the UK, only one offer subject to them getting projects), I decided to head home to Malaysia where jobs were aplenty. Whilst learning the ropes at Damansara Architect, I undertook to pursue Arabic again, this time by taking night classes at the International Islamic University in Petaling Jaya. Having enrolled in the only class that teaches in English, I tried to absorb as much as I could. Inadvertently, work started getting much busier and I started skipping every other class. I did actually sit for the final exam, but my lecturer as kind enough to not let me know my results, God bless his kind soul!

After that practicum year, I continued on to Part II of Architecture by enrolling in the post-graduate Dip (Arch) in Edinburgh. Those two years were a fairly reflective period in my life, a certain level of maturity setting in after working during the year out. While at Cambridge I was elected as the Vice President of the Cambridge Islamic Society during my second year, in Edinburgh I had a short stint as the President for the Malaysian Islamic Study Group. The yearning to study the Quran became greater, and I began attending numerous usrah (Islamic discussion gatherings) and conferences. I read voraciously to try to understand the Quran more, yet the roadblock was always appreciating the nuances of the Blessed Book through its linguistic medium.

Subsequently back home, the same problem gnawed at me. My motivation to learn Arabic was to really immerse myself in the Quran, to be a better Muslim. I collected and read Yusuf Ali, Pickthall, Thomas Irving, Muhsin Khan, Muhammad Al-Ghazali, all translations that gave one exposure, but rarely piercing the veil of enlightenment. The discovery of Muhammad Asad’s “The Message of the Quran”, written by the grandson of a rabbi who then embraced (in the full sense of the word) Islam and chose to live among the bedouins, experiencing their lives and immersing in the culture and traditions in which the Quran was revealed, brought me a little closer. Having been schooled in concepts and Gestalt theory, finding Ahmad Ahsan Islahi’s “Pondering on the Quran” was a revelation, and was further fulfilled by Nouman Ali Khan’s approach to the Quran. Still, it was not enough.

There was a further dalliance with Arabic when my family organised a weekly class at my Kak Long’s house, conducted by Ustazah Faezah some years ago; work pressures, like study  pressures put paid to that ambition after several months. So just over a month ago, my beloved contacted our ustazah again to arrange for weekend classes, but having to start over from the beginning in order to ensure our fundamentals were strong. No, this time it would be different.

Our ustazah’s little pep-talk after that fourth class would not have hit home as hard if I had not been actively studying Imperialism and Decolonisation. It was Raman Ragunathan, my fourth year thesis supervisor, who had put me on the path by introducing me to Edward Said’s “Culture and Imperialism” and Syed Hossein Al-Attas’ “The Myth of the Lazy Native”, which formed the basis of my study on Abdel Wahid El-Wakeel’s architectural journey from a western education to a traditionalist approach. The work at University Sains Malaysia on “Decolonising Our Universities”, led by Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak coupled with my discovery of Pankaj Mishra’s “From the Ruins of the Empire” further fueled my desire to free myself, and hopefully others, from cultural and mental imperialism which besiege us way past our post-colonial ‘independence’.

Ustazah Faezah, our Yemeni teacher of Arabic Language, underlined the importance of learning Fusha (Classical) Arabic. She surprised us with the fact that many native Arabic speakers do not understand the Quran as they often speak only Colloquial (Ammiya) Arabic, in which there are significant variations in the different nation-states. The colloquialism of Arabic was an effective tool in the pre and post Imperialism Divide and Conquer strategy, not unlike how our previous Imperial governors divided the Malay, Chinese and Indians economically in Malaysia, whose effects we are still battling to this day. How can one embrace the Quran (a phenomenal uniting factor, a major threat to those with imperialistic ambitions, although more from an economic/political perspective these days) if one is linguistically distant from it, bereft of its fine nuances and context? How, when for any one word, there are approximately 90 variations in meaning, depending on context and intonation? How lost are those who superficially quote the Quran without considering its context, especially when seeking to justify their own agenda?

In this light, it is an absolute crime for a Muslim not to study the language of the Quran, if one were to really seek its meaning. So no more excuses, just do it to the best of our abilities and do not relent – no retreat, no surrender!