CRUCIBLE: Parable of Mamasapano

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 25 Feb) – The challenge faced by the ummah (community) comes in many forms requiring understanding that should sink in into our consciousness so we heighten our faith or iman. Every challenge, in fact, presents as ayah or sign, which every individual ought to read and understand. Each challenge reveals certain message especially to the ulu l-albab (people of understanding).

What is significant is that, there are simple ways, which the Qur’an and the hadith (saying) of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) provide so we could use them to understand certain phenomenon. They are known as parables or amthal.

Before we speak about the value of parables and how we could draw lessons (ibra) and make them part of our learning experience, we have to note that any phenomenon or thing, animal and so on, could be subject of parables. The presentation could be grand or simple. It could also be something historical or contemporary that reveals some urgency of understanding so we are able to simplify it easily.

Green field, river, makeshift bridge

In this regard, it comes to mind the present state of our affairs where a new round of violence has defined the present socio-political landscape of the nation especially with the tragedy – the so-called Mamapasano encounter – that killed around 70 or more human beings.

Much has been said about the said issue. To say the least, although we won’t claim full certitude to what we’ll try to deduce, in the interest of engaging reflection beyond what is usually or publicly revealed in the media, we’d rather look at this new round of violence in light of parables.

To begin with, we have come into this insight as we’d been practically barraged with inquiries from media since the news broke out about the encounter on January 25, 2015. I’d never been as harassed on the need to engage on this issue. Comparatively, the closest of my engagement with media on Mindanao issues in recent years that had relatively similar reverberations were the Maguindanao massacre in 2009, the Lahad Datu stand off in 2013, and the war in Zamboanga in 2014.

There is no way, given our limited time today, to lay all major and attendant issues surrounding the Mamasapano encounter. We thought the best way to reflect on it is to go back to the area where the tragedy happened.

It is very vivid to see the place of military encounter in Tukanalipao in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. There is a green field with verdant plantation with rivers and makeshift, wooden bridge that connects two seemingly separate areas. We thought this picture where the war happened presents us not only simple way in reflecting why we have come this far with our affairs; but what lessons could we draw for us not only to understand our condition but to take them as part of our learning experience so we could derive, too, certain values.

Four pillars

Indeed, a makeshift bridge, a river, and two seemingly separate plantations and other attendant elements speak volume with what happened in Tukanalipao in Mamasapano.

As a way to relate with what has been discussed in both the Senate and the House of Representatives these past few days, we could in fact identify four (4) pillars (without burdening ourselves with other attendant sub-pillars cum issues) that will determine the condition of that makeshift bridge in Tukanalipao.

The first pillar revolves around the issue of command responsibility. Here, question of culpability, accountability and liability of high government officials of the land and the institutions they represent are involved. To say the least, command responsibility operates along top-bottom and bottom-top range.

The second pillar speaks of AFP/PNP warfare strategy. It shows precisely the supposed disjuncture or incoherence of command in the security sector and the relationship of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP). If the Mamasapano encounter did not happen, we would have not known the serious rift between the AFP and the PNP – the reason why the protocol of coordination has been avoided to justify the so-called time on target.

Incidentally, our view of these two pillars appears to be situated in the first side of makeshift bridge before the river. These are issues or concerns that could be addressed internally by the Philippine government and its security sectors. And its resolution is short-term.

The other side of the river represents two pillars of the makeshift bridge. Constituting as third pillar is Philippine government’s war against international terrorism. Questions in this area revolve around the relationship between the Philippines and the United States in combatting global terrorism and the extent to which Philippine sovereignty has been infringed particularly in matters of internal or domestic concern of the country.

The fourth pillar of the bridge represents the Mindanao peace process where questions revolve on the extent of how this tragic event could derail the momentum of peace process in Mindanao given the continuing discussion on the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) and given, too, the limited time the Aquino government has in addressing the Mindanao conflict.

All these four pillars intersect between and among each other eliciting questions and necessitating answers from concerned authorities and the public at large.

By the way, the last three and fourth pillars are issues both internal and external to the Philippine government that could not be resolved immediately. These have to be addressed over a long haul and would involve the crafting of vision about what we want to attain not only in the area of Maguindanao but in the whole part of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago and, by extension, the whole country. Indeed, any problem or prosperity that happens in that part of the south would have cascading effect – directly or indirectly – in the whole nation.

With this brief depiction, we thought that makeshift bridge, the river that separates the green field and the four pillars as mentioned give us some recipes of reflection and provide us ways to deduce some lessons.

Highest similitude

When we resort to parables as our way to simplify the tragedy that has gripped the nation today, we have in mind the methods in the Holy Qur’an including the hadith of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Amthal or parables, according to Yusuf Ali, are mentioned 39 times in the Holy Qur’an. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) speaks, at times, in parables, notwithstanding great scholars of Islam both past and contemporary like the late Badiuzzaman Said Nursi.

For instance, in Suratu n-nahl, the Qur’an reads:

“God has said: take not (for worship) two gods for He is just One God: then fear Me (and Me alone).

To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and on earth, and to Him is duty due always: Then will ye fear other than God? (51-52)”

After few verses from above, Suratu n-nahl reads:

“To those who believe not in Hereafter, applies the similitude of evil: To God applies the highest similitude: for He is the Exalted in Power, Full of Wisdom (60).”

The value of parables is to allow us to simplify what is supposedly a difficult subject and make it understandable in layman’s term. Thus, the use of certain object, animal or any entity would become an effective tool of understanding.

Most of us are quite familiar with the hadith of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) that says:

“The similitude of the five obligatory salah (prayer) is like a river running at the door of one of you on which he takes a bath five times a day.” 

Here, we are shown with the value of five obligatory prayers the performance of which is akin to someone who lives in a nearby river where he takes a bath five times a day. If a person resides near a river and takes a bath five times a day, how could he possibly dirt himself?

In other words, salah, like taking a bath in river, is a way in which we are able to cleanse and purify ourselves. Thus, the hadith of the Prophet (SAW) simplifies the logic of salah as tool of cleanliness and purification. If salah is not explained through the use of similitude it would take time for the Prophet (SAW) to convey the wisdom behind five times regular prayer.

This is the reason why parables are used in the Holy Qur’an and the hadith: it is to facilitate understanding. Obviously, parable is not sophisticated in terms of grand concept and theories and so on. It is very simple where you and me can understand easily.

There are few other works in Islamic thought about parables and how they are often used. Before we identify them, it is important to cite another set of verses in the Holy Qur’an that speaks of parables.

In Suratu l-kahf, the Qur’an says:

“Set forth to them the parable of two men: for one of them We provided two gardens of grave-vines and surrounded them with date-palms; in between the two, We placed corn-fields.

Each of those gardens brought for its produce and failed not in the least therein: in the midst of them, We caused a river to flow (32-33).”

We don’t want to connect the rather disconnected in our attempt to make sense of the parable we want to relate. But these verses reflect a refrain in the Qur’an regarding tension between and amongst individuals often portraying one person as virtuous while the other as less virtuous.

To say the least, in this story of Suratu l-kahf, it highlights the seeming arrogance of a person who is usually in the position of power and wealth and the seeming discouragement of another person who is less with such power and wealth. In certain condition, they usually engage in a clash against each other.

But what is important in the Qur’an is seemingly the wisdom that having more is not always a sign of good virtue and having less is not necessarily disadvantageous. For the Qur’an says about the man involves in the parable after being maligned or slighted by the one who is in power:

“It may be that my Lord give me something better than thy garden, and that He will send on thy garden thunderbolts (by way of reckoning) from heaven, making it (but) slippery sand (40)!”

What we are trying to emphasize is that in history there has been constant refrain of clash of virtues and the seeming fleeting nature of what men used to fight for. As shown in many phases of history, even great civilizations have no guarantee of permanence; they have come and gone. Therefore, what is important is not simply the object we want to achieve, but the virtues or values that we exhibit in the process. Thus, neither the powerful nor the powerless; the rich nor the poor have the monopoly of values. It is the way they exhibit their character and reveal who they are especially when they are faced immense challenge. Indeed, the value or character of a person is often shown during unguarded, critical moments.

Clash of values

The use of certain concepts like garden, date-palms, river, corn-field are obviously present in the parables we mentioned.

There are a number of, as we said, scholars who used the technique of parables. In our time, one of them is the late Badiuzzaman Said Nursi. If you read his Kalimat (The World), from First Word to Eight Word, which are similar to chapters in the Risale-i nur (Treatise of Light), Badiuzzman relays his message through story-telling method.

For instance, in the First Word it reads: “two men went into such a journey.” In the Second Word: “One time, two men went on a journey for both pleasure and business.” In the Third Word, it reads: “One time, two soldiers received orders to proceed to a distant city.” In the Fourth Word, it reads: “One time, a mighty ruler gave each two of his servants 24 gold pieces.” The same theme and style of story telling continue until the Eight Word.

Why does Said Nursi use these types of parable? It is because they are easy to understand. Apart from they have general application, these features of parable continuously characterize our time: the clash of values. If we lose tract in handling our values we could be enmeshed in situations where they could spiral to perpetual cycle of violence. Hence, we are encouraged to always take certain wisdom from things happening in our midst so that we are better able to manage our affairs and be more circumspect in handling and dealing with things happening around us.

When we connect our discourse to such makeshift bridge including the four pillars and other attendant elements in what we refer to as Mamapasano parable, we have in mind the view despite the seeming polarization of our world like that area in Tukanalipao in Mamasapano that is divided, say, by a river; reality is, it is still connected by a bridge, albeit a makeshift one, providing us hint that our situation is not necessarily unbridgeable.

We need to transcend beyond the obvious and understand ourselves more deeply. Our affairs are not necessarily difficult to resolve. For all we know, by insisting to simply see our differences and selfishness than the ties that bind us all, we are actually even more displaying our pitfalls and deficiencies as weak human beings.

The place and their varying elements we mentioned are interconnected with each other. That broken bridge in Tukanalipao symbolizes humanity’s nature: the will to cross over and the desire to build relationship. People would do well to dispense in creating more barriers. They have to minimize their division and selfishness.

The parables of the Holy Qur’an including many hadith of the Prophet (SAW) always emphasize the need to elicit wisdom and understanding. They serve as guides in understanding the challenges they faced as ayah or message to know their condition.

The First Word which shows the significance of the journey between two persons and the importance of declaring bismillah or in the name of Allah, Said Nursi likens the person who does not declare bismillah as someone who travels without the security or protection from a king. To say in the name of Allah or in the name of God it means everything one does is done in the name of God. In the same manner, a person who travels and says bismillah, he is as if travelling in the name of particular authority in that place; therefore, he will be safe from danger as he is journeying in the name of authority or king.

For Said Nursi, to declare bismillah in every endeavor is something reciprocal to every beings in creation that are also invoking bismillah in every instance. Although we could not understand how mountain or stone declares bismillah, truth is, all creation is in the state of declaring praises to Allah (SWT).

The Qur’an says: “Whatever is in the heavens and on earth, let it declare the Praises and Glory of God: for He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise (Hashr: 1).”

If thus a mountain, a rock or stone renders their praises in the name of Allah (SWT), why is it difficult for man to engage in the same?

At the end of Said Nursi’s discourse as far as the significance of bismillah is concerned, he says, it elicits three values. The first he said when one declares bismillah it develops in him a sense of dhikr (remembrance), shukr (thanks) and fikr (reflection). Thus, declaring bismillah, while we feel it is just an easy word, elicits virtues in building one’s consciousness.

The tragedy in Mamasapano should lead us to ask why we reach this state of affairs when we can actually transform and share that beautiful garden, the river, the cornfield and so on. We need to take a wider gaze. This way we are able to transform a difficult ajal or challenge for our new understanding. Thus, we won’t be discouraged. It will give us optimism and convince us that it is not necessarily dim in that part of the world. There is a brighter future if we change our ways and our way of seeing.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A khutbah delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 13 February 2015. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.]