Time to bring back ‘humility’

THE celebration of Prophet Muhammad's birthday last week drew on another highlight not seen previously. I was touched by the presence of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to grace the occasion.

More so by his humility, demonstrated by his simple outfit complete with a casual white haji headgear and standing bare-footed. Of course he has been seen many times dressed this way but not during the occasion of the prophet's birthday as far as I can recall. So what is the difference?

At the mention of the prophet's name, the word "humility" is among the first to pop up in the mind. But during the celebration of his birthday, this is normally forgotten – not in a "negative" sense but unintentionally the reverse.

We tend to equate birthdays as something that must be grand and often superfluous as a sign of respect if not reverence.

To many, this comes naturally and the prophet's birthday is no different. What is more when it involved the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. To be "presentable" the male guests put on traditional costumes complete with the samping and songkok. The cost of the samping can range up to several hundred or even thousands of ringgit. That normally comes with the status as well.

To ordinary mortals, it is no more than a pulikat sarong that doubles as a samping – more practical and sustainable but no-class as some would judge.

On the night of the event the "class" element was rather apparently displayed by those on stage with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. The rule of thumb is not to "outdo" the guest of honour but not to go "below" your status either.

This was what we observed over the years. But this time the unthinkable happened: the Yang di-Pertuan Agong was somewhat "out-dressed" by almost everyone on the stage, even by the ordinary mortals. To use today's jargon – what a "disruption"! because it causes us (me) to reflect on what we have taken for granted all along. And how to do better next time.

For the female guests, it is the "hijab" (used to be called "tudung") that apparently can cost a bomb. A guest claimed that her "hijab" cost close to a thousand ringgit. And this prompted another guest to say with an obvious sigh of relief (financially): That is why she did not put on a "hijab". She somehow forgot that the local tudung is still affordable as long as you avoid the "arabised" versions.

So we have another "disruption" – a common piece of textile intended as a form of modesty and humility has suddenly become a branded item. Like the samping, it is now a status symbol raking millions of ringgit at a price of so-called "humility" and "modesty". We need to decouple them and bring the culturally simple and elegant tudung back.

For the sake of argument, let us imagine the prophet was present that night. How would things be different? Going by documented accounts of how he lived, we can make an educated guess. Foremost, he deplored being announced as he walked in.

Thus he evoked an aura "humility" – something that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong aspires to by dressing modestly relative to all the King's men that night. For it has been narrated several times that the prophet often patched up his own garments and sandals too so as to continue wearing them in public – unmistakenly a sign of utmost "humility". Class and status symbols are irrelevant if at all.

So here is the "rupture".

Often times, on joyous and celebratory occasions we unintentionally perhaps go overboard spending much time, effort and especially funds to bring out the "best" that money can buy (no pun intended) but somehow missing the point of being humble and modest as a statement of principles. Worse when it becomes so jarring that "values" of the occasion are lost or diminished in translation.

In the eyes of the prophet "humility" is beyond external appearances and clothing or the tangibles to be predominantly displayed and impress. His was the attitude of the mind and embodiment of the soul such that status symbols and ranks are unnecessary "disruptive" elements.

For example, he loved to visit the poor, the needy and the sick, even though he was regarded as their bitter enemy or rival. Yet all of the visits were performed without much fanfare or publicity.

It underpins what "humility" is all about – unlike today where the poor and sick are paraded in full view of the media spotlight to "receive" some tokens from VIPs who smile broadly at the camera rather than at the recipients.

We think we are doing them a favour but it is dehumanising and the arrogance outshines the "humility" if there is any left.

No one (including so-called "slow learners") wants to be humiliated in public and they should not be made to suffer for whatever reasons; especially when the reason is more for the "giver's" egoistic instinct latched on to the "recipients" in dubious ways.

Of late, the tendency is to hype up such token "giving" events so much so that it created false expectations and helplessness, unconsciously leading to dependencies of all sorts. It goes against the grain of age-old wisdom: better to teach the people how to fish rather giving them bigger and bigger fish all the time, and doing so publicly for all to see.

So this time, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong has done the nation an unprecedented favour beyond just pronouncements. He succinctly drives the point home in a practical and exemplary way aligned to what the prophet advocated, practised and taught. Humility. There can be no better time to be reminded by the head of the country of this invaluable principle.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that "another world is possible". Comments: letters@thesundaily.com