Self-mastery is the key to better politics

WITH GE14 imminent and the politicians in a mood for campaigning, the political temperature in Malaysia is rising. Even so, all these years, the tranquillity of our life has, more often than not, already been affected by political issues.

To many people, politicking and the politicisation of almost all matters seem to go on unabated and with that, so do anxiety and restlessness in society.

The voters and observers who have gone through many election cycles will tell you that the political scene here has almost always been as such, but they too are worried about the impact on their religion and country.

For far too long, politics has been seen as the art of gaining and retaining power.

However, power often intoxicates the one empowered. Because of this, one who possesses power and influence always faces the risks of derailment and transgression.

Nevertheless, for Muslims who are conscious of their religious teachings, the Quran – especially in Surah al-A’raf (7):20 and Ta Ha (20):120 – has long informed us about this inner inclination to power existing as early as the creation of the first human being, the Prophet Adam.

In fact, in the two Quranic reminders above, it is related that the Devil used a two-pronged ploy – power and immortality – to seduce and thus derail Adam and Eve. The power to be immortal as well as unceasing power, such a pair is indeed enticing!

If the aforementioned verses are scrutinised together with Surah al-Humazah (104):2–3, then the Quranic admonition is rendered all the more lucid about some who mistakenly assume that the wealth they amass can sustain them.

It is important to note that Adam’s derailment still occurred even though the Quran in Surah al-Baqarah (2):30–39 explicitly proclaims him for the knowledge that Allah bestowed upon him, especially the knowledge of all names.

Due primarily to forgetfulness and lack of resoluteness on the part of Adam, the knowledge that was expected to guide him seemed insufficient to save him from the charms of the two factors cunningly crafted by the Devil, such that he and his partner later became denuded.

It is more difficult to manage man’s inner cravings today, given that there seems to permeate among us a particular understanding of knowledge as power.

How can it not be more challenging?

The knowledge that is supposed to lead and guide can also be misused and abused to keep one in power and, worse still, increase one’s dominance!

Is there no way to avoid such a predicament?

In addressing this issue, we should bear in mind that the knowledge that ought to be nurtured towards controlling those who hold power as well as those eyeing power, actually has to do with our reality and nature.

One’s own self is indeed the most intimate domain over which one asserts his power and influence.

In fact, self-knowledge and self-mastery are originally the essence of ethics, a discipline of study that springs from intelligence guided by revelation.

And the never-ending struggle to control and manage oneself properly has been declared the greatest jihad in Islam.

Ethics in the religious and intellectual tradition of Islam is understood as ‘ilm tadbir al-nafs – the knowledge of governing and steering oneself.

It acts as the basis of the two subsequent disciplines of study pertaining to governance at large, that is, ‘ilm tadbir al-manzil (economics, originally) and ‘ilm tadbir al-khilafah or ‘ilm al-siyasah (politics).

Ethics is thus understood because the relationship of the “soul” (nafs) – also taken to mean “spirit” (ruh) and “intellect” (‘aql) – and the body (jasad; badan), which characterises the human self as an integrated whole, is defined in psychology (‘ilm al-nafs) as the relationship between “that which governs” (that is to say, the intellect) and “that which is governed” (the body).

Unfortunately, the organic symbiosis between the three aforementioned disciplines of study, with ethics being the core, has long been severed and ignored.

Even if ethics were taught at the primary and secondary levels of education, the quality of its content and articulation would be left stunted.

It has been quite some time since ethics was taught in a dynamic and engaging manner as a core subject of utmost significance at the tertiary level of education, what more in the overall system of fostering leaders in various fields and on all levels.

In fact, even if it is offered at such an advanced level, ethics is no longer focused on the inner self-knowledge and self-mastery – the spiritual and the bodily, toget­her – but is narrowed to etiquettes, rules and regulations, as well as procedures and protocols governing the externalities of human relations, all of which often need to change and are indeed subject to change due to human cunningness!

Dr Mohd Zaidi Ismail is Deputy Director-General of the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (Ikim). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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