Based on the writing prompt: What I Learned from Someone*
Sparked by ear candy
The year was 1991. The American rock band REM released a single that shot them to superstardom, Michael Stipe’s crooning of being left in the spotlight andlosing his religion has emphatically propelled the band out of obscurity. Personally, I preferred the Nina Persson’s version; her sweet, slightly raspy voice lent a different piquancy to the lyrics and melody. Tori Amos, mad musical genius that she is, deconstructed the song and reinterpreted it into something very different.
(more after the break)
The things you learn when you Google is simply amazing.
The Land Where My Blood Will be Spilt
There is no other country in this world where one’s ethnicity is inextricably intertwined with one’s religion like Malays and Muslims in Malaysia. This fact is inviolate and entrenched in the infamous Article 160 of the nation’sconstitution; that a Malay person must be a Muslim, practices the Malay customs and traditions and speaks the Malay language.
Sometimes I think that Lina Joy would have been better off working to strike off the word “Melayu” on her MyKad rather than her continued and desperate insistence to remove “Islam” from that piece of plastic. Perhaps the courts would be favourable to remove the indication that her parents adhered to the Muslim faith on her identification card if she was willing to renounce her ethnicity. I bet that no one would care if she was a Christian, Hindu or an animist, if it was not indicated that she was a Malay on official documents.
The Constitution notwithstanding, the practices of the religion varies among the Malays themselves. Though many observe the obligatory prayers, payment of zakat etc faithfully, there are those who do not do so, for whatever reason. Malaysian Muslims are expected to adhere to the edicts of the Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah (the congregation of the Sunnah), another feature that is utterly unique to Malaysia. The reality is that Islam is heterogenous, with many colours and flavours to it courtesy of the ethnicity and traditions of the practitioners. Even Saudi Arabia, the cradle from which Islam expanded, acknowledge the various sects that exist within their borders although the majority follow the Government-sanctioned Sunni practices flavoured with the ultra orthodox Wahabbis. However, in Malaysia, anyone who colours outside the lines of accepted practices will be labeled a heretic; and if reported and caught, could find themselves enjoying a sojourn at an Islamic rehabilitation camp for an unspecified period (or until they repented and re-joined the masses).
Catch ‘Em Young and You Can Train Them to Do Anything
Indoctrination in Islam as sanctioned by the officials starts early. All Malay schoolchildren is obligated to attend religious study class in school from Primary One all the way to the Fifth Form; the non-Muslims attend Moral lessons. Hence, whenever people blame social ills on lack of religious training or moral inculcation, I laugh like a hyena. If those socially ill people ever attended Government schools or even private ones, they HAVE attended religious or moral class. It goes to show that just because you take the horse to the water, it don’t mean that they’d drink it.
My religious teacher (ustazah for the female and ustaz for the male variant in the local parlance) in primary school was a stout lady with excellent teeth and wisps of curly graying hair escaping her headscarf at the sides of her face; her voice was effortlessly loud and her enunciation crystal-like, whether when reciting beautiful passages from the Quran or terrorising us with punishment. She was of the hellfire and brimstone old school; everything and nothing will lead us to Hell. Even prayer, if done incorrectly, will toss us into Damnation. The obligatory rituals of prayer, fasting etc have strict rules that you must follow or it will be for naught. Being a fidgeter with selective memory (if it’s not coming out for the exam, I probably have heard of it), all this requirements filled me with anxiety and a deep dread for my immortal fate. After all, who wants to roast for ever after, right?
Some time ago, I read about how a great proportion of people afflicted with obsessive compulsive disorder are actually quite devout in their religion and the researcher had linked religious practices with the advent of the problem. I was unsurprised to read this; recalling a school friend who earnestly urged me to recite the Basmallah (invoking the name of God) with every mouthful of food that entered my gullet, in order to make my food halal and blessed. Also, with a cousin who would restart his prayer at least 3 times before settling down to complete it, I have excellent examples of this clinical condition without going too far. OCD is about controlling your anxiety with ritual and repetition, and boy do religion feed this anxiety well.
Luckily for me, my mother made me attend kelas mengaji (Quran recitation class) after or before school, depending on the school session. Like my primary school ustazah, this ustazah was also plump, with excellent teeth and fantastic diction. However, she gave me the first example of not being judgmental and how service to God is actually a kindness to yourself, rather than being subservient out of fear. Her fardhu ain class every Thursday was a relaxed session, with gentle admonitions for mistakes and smiles to praise good performance. I learned from her that God is Loving and Merciful, not this terrifying figure out to toss you into Hell.
But she did not undo the paralysing fear inculcated by my ustazah in school. I begun thinking that there was no point for me to worship God as He will hate me anyway and I could never perform the obligatory rituals the way He (or my ustazah?) demanded. I told myself that I had not reached puberty, thus am absolved of all major sins anyway. I fasted during Ramadhan, since it was expected, but I did little else to nurture my spiritual needs.
This indoctrination continued into secondary school, with greater length and expansion. We were told that our fathers would go to Hell for every strand of hair that we exposed, much less the legs we show underneath our pinafore skirts. We were told that our husbands not just have the sole right of divorce, but they could beat us if we were disobedient. We were told that we must favour our husbands over our parents who have loved and nurtured us till our majority, and that Heaven is found not just under our mothers’ feet, but also under the soles of our husbands.
I began to think that God is really unkind if you don’t have a penis.
I spent forms four and five at a boarding school; a nearly all Malay bastion with a small student body. Because we live in the school compound and could not run away, we were forced to pray in congregations, wear baju kurung although when I first entered girls were allowed to wear skirts and to greet the teachers with the salam instead of “Good morning” as I was taught in my previous school. After being a nobody in a large school, I was dismayed to discover that when you have less than 25 people per class and only 5 classes per form, anyone who do not conform sticks out like a sore thumb and presents a tempting target for a set down for those interested in power plays.
Not so ironically, the bullying I suffered there led me back to God; I could find no solace in confiding with anyone except for Him. It should be strange that my conversations with my Creator did not feel one-sided, though His replies were never verbal. I found peace when I relented and surrendered to him. This, however, did not mean that I became religious and prostrated myself at the prescribed times daily. As a matter of fact, when the school administration wanted to make headscarves mandatory, I invited them to expel me because I had no intention of toeing that line.
Beauty in Heterogeneity
My parents broke the unexpected news that we will be going for a mini pilgrimage (or umrah) after my high school examination was over. My sister and I made faces over this; we’re not exactly the candidates who would be ecstatic over such an opportunity. However, we cheered up when we learned that the umrah trip will be followed by a short trip to Turkey. That was an idea that we could get behind.
Nothing could have prepared us for Saudi Arabia, no matter the lectures and reminders not to go about by ourselves. It was there that I saw signages that women are not allowed in some shops, like we were unwelcome stray pets that would wreak havoc. In between settlements, the land was dry and desolate; not as hot as we would have expected, thanks to the winter weather. The lack of humidity made our noses bleed and we staved off cough by drinking as much of the zam zam water provided for free at the mosque.
It was at inhospitable Saudi Arabia that I got my first idea of the grand diversity that could exist within Islam. I saw tiny old ladies from Eastern Europe, dressed in baggy skirts and sweaters, their hair covered by simple headscarves knotted or pinned under their chin, their cheeks and/or forehead decorated with delicate, blue floral tattoos. Tall, broad boned ladies with the ebony skin of the African continents, their flawless skin bore trails marked by the scarification ritual of their tribes, sharing their milk and dates for breaking fast at dusk. Husbands and wives holding hands as they circumnavigate the Ka’abah. Shiite practitioners from Iran and Iraq biting their cloaks or chador as they pray to keep it in place, their foreheads firmly placed on round, little stone tablets when they prostrate themselves.
But no matter what sect they follow, everyone was respectfully silent during the call to prayer and arranged themselves in congregated lines to pray, all bowing and prostrating themselves in the same direction in unison. Watching this, I cannot believe that people still kill and maim each other out of sectarian disagreement in some parts of the world.
Here, Shiites are reviled as heretics and condemned. But those Shiite ladies are among the best when it comes to reciting the Quran; one of them even corrected my recitation from memory! Permanent body modifications are not allowed here, but who is to say that the prayer from the tattooed or scarified ladies are ignored by the Almighty? It dawned on me that our way was not the only way to practice Islam. This variety opened me to Prof. Amina Wadud’s philosophy of radical pluralism: accept everybody and let God sort it out. After all, who are we to judge and cast the first stone?
Read in the Name of Your Lord
I have always been a voracious reader; I used to hound the student librarians to quickly open the library so that I could borrow books daily. I even read the newsprint in primary school; when my classmates were unaware of what was the Cold War, unappreciative of the fall of the Berlin Wall or that homosexual men were dropping like flies in horrible ways courtesy of a tiny little thing called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. However, I was never virtuous in my reading, the majority of which that I devour tended to be fiction of the romance variety, be it English or Malay.
It was a book by a Moroccan feminist scholar that I gained a new and deeper appreciation of my faith. Fatima Mernissi’s Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry reminded me that faith is a very personal thing. Her book also reminded me that as a Muslim, I am obligated to search for the truth about life and my faith and not be dependent on what was told to me by a middleman. She reminded me that in Islam, there is no clergy, no mediator to convey your prayers or grant you absolution for your transgression. This book showed me that women has a place that is at the same level of men in Islam, and that God is Infinite in His Wisdom and Kindness to His creation who lacks the Y chromosome.
I was taught afresh that perception is not truth; and that we must be aware of the prejudices and ulterior motives of people who convey messages deemed to be of divine truth to us. We must be sceptical, and most importantly for women of the faith, we must reinterpret the faith to suit our needs based on contemporary thought and reflection, not blindly following the edicts of scholars who have been dead near a millennium.
I choose the word faith rather than religion here because there is a distinction between them. Religion is mostly related to rituals and customs, the structure that gives meaning to the religion. But faith is a personal thing; it is intangible and unrelated to physical rituals. Rather, it is an acceptance and openness to the spiritual aspect that we often neglect in favour of other things that distract and clamour for our attention. You may arrive to your faith via your gut instinct, or through contemplation and reflection. Building your faith is very hard, because it requires a willingness to be brutally honest with your motivation and being ruthlessly rigorous to the proofs that support your faith. Blind acknowledgment and obedience is NOT faith, because it lacks the most important ingredient: a real agreement to embrace the truth because you know it is true, not because you have be TOLD that it is true.
The journey is just the beginning for me. I lost the religion of fear and damnation of my childhood, though not some of the OCD-like tendencies that still plague me. But I will not trade a faith that has allowed me to be comfortable in my skin and surrendering all judgment to the Lord of the Worlds, the Creator and Destroyer, just so that I can have other people’s approval that I am behaving as what they think a good Muslim should be.
*written for my creative writing class