Monday, 9 April 2012

Islam in Malaysia

Azmi AZIZ & SHAMSUL A. B. The religious, the plural, the secular and the modern: a brief critical survey on Islam in Malaysia. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 5, Number 3, 2004.

This is my comment on how Islam came to be in our country:

There are 2 sides to the coin. With regard to who or what brought Islam to southeast Asia, we have 2 contrasting ideas and both can be true.

  1. One school says the traders were Muslims and they came to trade as well as spread Islam.
  2. The other school says the Sufi people came and spread Islam. Sufi is a diverse group but they share some common practices and also have dissimilar practices. The Sufi are rich people (millionnaires and billionnaires). There is no such thing as a penniless Sufi.

Having come this far in life and meeting so many Muslims from the 4 Schools and a number of Tariqats, I will conclude that both Muslim traders and Sufi people came to our Malay lands. The traders got busy trading but did not lose track of their daily prayers and rites and kept as close as possible to their Sufi brothers. In the meantime, the Sufi brothers also had their own businesses, maybe selling Quran and Islamic books as well as items and clothes. They have strict routines which they must stick to and missing any procedure means they will need to catch up before proceeding. As the Muslim traders and Sufi brothers prospered, they constructed mosques and started religious teachings for young children. These early stage of Islamic teaching at the mosques is called madrasah. We still see some of these early madrasah today. In Kelantan, madrasah is pronounced as malassah, which is a bit dangerous because wrongly pronounced, it can be malas-lah! The lower madrasah is madrasah ulum and the higher one sanawi? Now, since the area was still largely Indian and Hinduism prevailed, the learned among the early Muslim traders and Sufi Sheiks travelled many places to spread Islam. They also served as tutors to the Hindu royalties. The Hindu royals denounce their Hindu faith and converted to Islam. Their consorts and children followed suit too. Thus, the sultanate converted from a Hindu Sultanate to a Muslim Sultanate. A lot of things had to transform and change - laws, marriage, names, living quarters, trade, etc. Now that the State is Muslim, the populace also followed suit and embraced Islam. Thus, the Malay lands transformed from the originally Hindu-strong land to an Islam-backed land. A few things did not change though - the name of our country, honorifics and name prefixes. Also our preferences for colours did not change much. We still prefer brightly coloured clothes of the Indians and we revere the yellow colour as our royal colour.

The process of transforming from an Indian land to a Muslim land is ongoing and will continue for many more hundreds of years. We cannot expect people to easily give up the practices, cultures and traditions of their ancestors. Even the Diffusion of Innovation Theory tells us that some may be quick to react positively and change to conform but there will be many who still do not want to change their old ways and move out of their comfort zone. Thus, we see many waves of Muslims, and changes in the clothes, appearances and the way they greet and speak. A lot of Arabic words and phrases have crept into Malay speech and soon, many will be speaking and writing Arabic. Children nowadays rush to go to Islamic classes in blue jeans, dress and a scarf. It looks odd dressing up children that way but that is the gradual process of change. Soon we will see the jubah and then the black jubah and that will revert to mini-skirts once again. So what we see of Islam today is that the people are still learning and adapting, to what is perceived and believed as correct in Islam. We will often find people and hear those who say exposing aurat is haram, and on the other hand find that there are clergy Muslims whose wives are happy walking in public and working without a scarf or shawl to cover the hair and breasts. So transformation means different things to different Muslim people and therefore we see a lot of variations, both in thought and physical appearance. There is a lot more to the essence of Islam than just thought and appearances. I tend to like the story of a non Muslim warrior who killed 99 Muslims and after he killed the 100th Muslim, and heard his sister reading the Quran which melted his heart and he converted to Islam. Isn't that great? So Islam is about becoming a better person (Surah at-Taubah). And I like this phrase of becoming a better person because it has a lot of bearing on Human Development and Human Resource Training.