Malays, Chinese and Islam

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The issue of ethnicity in Malaysia should be complex one but the system in the country has evolved in such a manner that there is strong identification between religion and ethnicity in Malaysia: The Malays are presumed to be Muslims regardless of their beliefs, there is a strong identification between being Chinese and Buddhism or Traditional Chinese Religions and in the case of Indians it is Hindus. That said there are Christian and Muslim minorities among the Chinese and Indians. Because of this strong identification there is also a psychological barrier for many Chinese people to convert to Islam because of certain practices of the Malay people and the state, for all practical purposes it has become the case that to be Muslim is to be a Malay and thus one has to leave one’s culture. Malaysian Unplugged and Uncensored has an article exploring this issue:

Chinese, Malays and Islam: NO Separate Mosques Allowed for Chinese Muslims
Monday, February 19, 2007

Quote:

“They (the Malays) want us to become a Malay. Three or four years after conversion, my father passed away. They didn’t allow me to go back, they say if I go back, I will revert to become a Chinese but I defied them.”
- Mohamad Ridhuan Tee Abdullah,
Vice-president of the Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association

There is the popular notion that becoming a Muslim means “masuk Melayu” (becoming a Malay), adopting the Malay culture at the expense of his or her Chinese identity. The converts also have to take on Arabic names, such as Abdullah, and change identity cards to reflect their new religion.

Some Chinese Muslims have also been rebuked by Malays for celebrating Chinese New Year.

Excerpts: Read here for more

“… Chinese Malaysians who have embraced Islam are testing the government over a mosque issue that analysts say highlights a racial divide in the multi-ethnic country.

Malaysian authorities has spurned applications by Chinese Muslims to open their first mosques.

The authorities argued that having separate mosques would segregate Muslims. This could anger the majority Malays, who by definition are Muslims.

Mohamad Ridhuan Tee Abdullah, marriedl to a Malay and a convert championing the cause of his fellow 70,000-strong Chinese Muslims, said Malaysia must show that Islam transcends race and culture.

Ridhuan, 42 year-old Islamic scholar told Reuters:

“We have to change the perception that Islam only belongs to a particular race, for example the Malays and the Arabs.

We have to show the universality of Islam by allowing Chinese mosques.

The authorities have to do away with the stereotypes.”

The issue goes to the heart of what Islam means in Malaysia, and shows how race continues to shape life in Malaysia 50 years after independence, analysts said.

“There is fear that the Malay identity will be lost if Islam is practiced in languages other than Malay,” Canadian Muslim, Moaz Yusuf Ahmad, wrote in the New Straits Times recently.

Islam is the official religion in Malaysia, but other religions can be practiced.

Malays form just over half of Malaysia’s 26 million people. The sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities are mostly Christians, Buddhists or Hindus.

Malaysia has no shortage of mosques, many with Moorish-styled domes and minarets. Mostly funded by the government, the mosques cater almost entirely to the Malays and provide Friday sermons in the Malay language.

There is not a single mosque for Chinese Muslims, although Indian Muslims are allowed to have their own mosques.

Ridhuan said his association was proposing to build mosques that would reflect Chinese design.

“We would like to portray mosques that are based on Chinese architectures,” he said. “It’s to show that we are still Chinese but the mosques will be opened to all Muslims.”

The mosque issue is not the only problem, Ridhuan and other Muslims said. There is the popular notion that becoming a Muslim means “masuk Melayu” (becoming a Malay), adopting the Malay culture at the expense of his or her Chinese identity, they said.

The converts also have to take on Arabic names, such as Abdullah, and change identity cards to reflect their new religion.

Mohamad Asri Zainul Abidin, a young firebrand Muslim cleric, has came out in support of the Chinese mosque proposal despite the government’s reservations. Asri, himself a Malay, said in a commentary published in the New Straits Times:

“Malays assume they are the only pure Muslims, although Chinese Muslims may have stronger faith.”

Some Chinese Muslims have also been rebuked by Malays for celebrating Chinese New Year.

Ridhuan, married to a Malay, also had a painful experience. He said:

“They (the Malays) want us to become a Malay. Three or four years after conversion, my father passed away. They didn’t allow me to go back, they say if I go back, I will revert to become a Chinese but I defied them.”

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One response to “Malays, Chinese and Islam

  1. Ethnicity is not only linked to religion but to Politics as well. So its not uncommon for people to assume this. Malaysia need to put efforts to de-couple the perceptions linking race, religion and Politics. Having a Chinese mosque does not gurantee increase in convert numbers otherwise Surabaya would have built more Chinese mosques. What is needed like in Singapore is to have sermons in dual languages, first in either Emglish, Tamil or Mandarin and the second qutbah in Malay. I have prayed in a Mandarin-speaking mosque in Beijing, I dont feel at all alien, in fact I was very proud to be part of the congregation. The arabic part is the linkage to make me feel at home.

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