Left And Right
By Halimah Mohd Said

Like nature’s temporal distinction between “day and night”, the human body is classified into the binary divide of “left and right” from the head right down to the toes. If we measure the two sides of our bodies such as our arms and legs we realise that they are not quite equal in length or size. Our facial features – eyes, nose, mouth, ears – are not exactly symmetrical. Somehow, nature has made one side – usually the right – a little bit larger or stronger than the left. Our major internal organs – brain, heart, lungs, kidneys – have right and left parts each with different but complementary functions.

The view of life and the diverse phenomena surrounding it as existing in a scheme of opposities is prevalent in many civilisations and cultures. Hinduism, for instance, holds the belief that the cosmos comprises two opposite halves – the passive and active; the gross and the subtle; the right and the left – which complement each other to form a unified whole, This distinction between the right and the left is strictly adhered to in Indian culture where the right is considered pure and sacred and used for ceremonial rituals as well as daily activities like eating, receiving and offering. The circular cosmic scheme of opposites which create a whole exist in the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang where night turns into day and day turns back into night. Yin – the female energy of the human psyche – guides intuitive and creative thinking, while yang – the male energy – controls inductive and deductive thinking. This corresponds to modern scientific knowledge of the functions of the left and right hemisphere of the human brain. In Christianity the right hand of God is the favoured hand in images of Jesus sitting at God’s right side and John, the loyal disciple, sitting on his right in The Last Supper..

Across the world’s population, there is a strong bias towards right-handedness. Nine out of ten or roughly 90 percent of people, use their right hand for writing, eating, handing out or picking up things and doing other daily activities. It is a fact that many common tools such as knives and scissors are designed solely for use by right-handed people, Left-handedness is therefore thought to be a problem and children showing this tendency are corrected from an early age. Throughout history this right-handed bias has created a host of socio-cultural habits and beliefs which pervade our daily lives and govern our lifestyle choices. Just as day brings sunlight and good cheer and night brings darkness and fear, the right side of things creates a more positive response than the left.

From the time he was born, my only brother Yusof was quicker with his left hand than his right. My mother, who was influenced by the taboos and superstitions in her Malay kampung upbringing, tried very hard to correct what she thought was a disability in her only son. She told us how each time baby Yusof reached out with his left hand, she would give it a tap, put it down and pull out his right hand. When he was bigger and could eat with his fingers as the Malays do, he was instructed at each meal to use the fingers in his right hand. This he learned to do after being sternly warned that it was haram or forbidden in Islam to use the left hand for eating.

Educated in the sciences, my father did not see anything abnormal in being left-handed and allowed his son the freedom to develop his motor skills unimpeded. Thus, in school Yusof was confidently left-handed for classroom work and sporting activities. As my father rightly predicted, he would do very well academically earning top marks in his favourite subject biology, where he dissected plant and animal specimens with his left hand. In sports, he overcame his initial awkwardness and became a good badminton and tennis player. A further blessing was that of all the seven siblings Yusof had the most beautiful cursive handwriting and produced the finest pencil sketches of birds and animals. Later on in his career as a plastic surgeon, his left-handedness was never a barrier to his performing the most delicate harelip operations, an area in which he specialised.

As Muslims parents, my father and mother made sure their seven children were raised in a household where Islamic teachings and beliefs, rituals and practices were routinely observed. Besides the rules and principles laid out in the Quran, Muslims faithfully abide by the code of conduct and behaviour documented in the traditions of Prophet Muhammad SAW known as the Hadith. These include the etiquette for cleaning and cleansing; eating and drinking; greeting and praying; and a host of other daily activities, as Islam is considered a way of life.

Through the religious teachers – ustaz (male) and ustazah (female) – who taught us to read the Quran from the time we were five, my parents initiated us into performing our daily prayers or solat, Before reading the Quran or performing the solat, we were taken through the Muslim ritual of cleansing called wudu’ or ablution. This involves the use of running water to clean the face, hands and legs starting with the right side while chanting the prescribed doa or holy verse. Thus, we were carefully instructed in the use of the index finger of the right hand when pointing to the Quran during recitation, washing the head, neck then the right shoulder and hand first before the left and so on.

In Malay-Muslim culture, be it the hand, the leg or any other part of the body, the right hand side is always given a higher status, preference or position in terms of positivity. In the daily ritual of eating, we children were often reminded of the Prophet’s injunction “If one of you eats, he should eat with his right hand. And if he drinks something, he should drink with his right hand. For indeed, Satan eats and drinks with his left hand.” And so it was that in the preparation of food and drink and in serving them to our guests, the right hand was always used. We were told to receive offers of food and drink or gifts with our right hand and never with our left. In showing people the way or to their seats, we were instructed to use our right thumb not the index finger which is considered impolite.

The right leg is also accorded a higher status in daily practices such as stepping out of the house, entering a mosque or getting into a car. I remember my mother reminding me to use my right leg every time I stepped out of the house to go to school or back to university after the long vacation. Apparently some enthusiastic religious teachers tell the children they teach to enter the toilet using their right leg in order to distinguish themselves from the evil beings who use their left limbs. It is only in the ritual of cleaning our bodies after toilet use that we are told to use the left hand, and in this case, the use of the right hand is strictly forbidden.

And as a mother, this is what I have passed down to my three children and as a grandmother, to my twelve grandchildren. I hope and pray they will also share these Muslim beliefs about right and left, about right and wrong with their own families. This is all the more important as we see families divided and growing apart because they do not share common values and interests or speak a common “language”. The intergenerational gaps are growing wider by the day as the advancement of knowledge and the spread of information in all fields is too fast and furious for us, the family elders, to catch up.

We have only to look at our own families to realise how far behind we are in the use of technology compared with our children and grandchildren. I am amazed at how advanced my grandchildren are in the use of their IPhone and IPad which they deftly operate with the fingers on both the right and left hand. They are ambidextrous in the use of modern gadgets and therefore do things much faster, sometimes at lightening speed.

My daughter’s thirteen year old daughter, Zara, is especially clever in using her IPhone functions and restored my WhatsApp twice after it was accidentally deleted. Last week over dinner, Zara clicked a candid photo of me and in seconds produced her photoshopped interpretation of what she thinks her Nini really is – a silly old ninny or better still, an eccentric witch. (picture).

Yes – we should learn from the younger generation to be as cool and clever as they are or as right and left as modern technology allows us to be!

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March 2016


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