Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Life As A Chinese Muslim Convert in Malaysia
Inside a Kuala Lumpur mosque - Photo by Oxymanus
Juggling dual cultural identities
2009/12/13 - Excerpt from New Straits Times
Chinese Muslim researcher Rosey Wang Ma opens up about the identity dilemma faced by her community in Malaysia, writes SUZIEANA UDA NAGU
IT was past 5pm and Datuk Mustafa Ma had not performed his Asar prayers.
As Ma had time to kill before his flight to Kuala Lumpur, he headed for the surau at the Penang International Airport to pray.
There, a man stopped him and pointed to a sign next door.
“Toilet is that way,” said the man, oblivious of the fact that Ma is Muslim-born, had performed the Hajj and is president of the Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association.
In Malaysia, being Muslim is constitutionally associated with being Malay.
Chinese Muslims, with shared cultural traditions and religion with the Chinese and Malays, can be a catalyst for nation-building.
Ma’s distinct Chinese features had made the man at the surau to assume that he was non-Muslim.
“It is not apparent to most Malaysians that a person who does not look, speak, dress or act (like a) Malay might be Muslim,” says Rosey Wang Ma, who recently graduated from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia with a doctoral degree.
The above incident is one of many examples of identity dilemma faced by Chinese Muslims in Malaysia — whether converts or born into the religion — captured in Wang Ma’s doctoral thesis Negotiating Identities: Hui, The Chinese Muslims.
The thesis examines the identity construction and evolution of the Hui — Chinese Muslims in China — in countries outside China such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
It also includes a special study of the identity dilemma of the Chinese Muslims in Malaysia.
“Through a multi-layered process extending more than a millennium, they have defined, redefined and reconstructed various aspects of their cultural, political and social identities to survive in the vastly assimilative China,” says Wang Ma, a Muslim since birth.
The study also exposes the tension that exists between Chinese Muslims in Malaysia and the Malays as well as the non-Muslim Chinese.
“Malaysia is a country where ethnicity is entwined with religion.
And Chinese Muslims belong to the ethnicity of one community (the Chinese) while professing the religion of another (the Malays).
“Although they have one foot in each ethnic group, the Chinese Muslims find themselves marginalised by both,” says Wang Ma, who grew up in Turkey and has resided in Malaysia since 1973.
Wang Ma is vocal in her thesis but the mother of six was not always comfortable discussing openly about the Chinese Muslims’ struggle for acceptance.
Without the study, the larger community will never understand the Chinese Muslims, says Rosey Wang Ma
“I once thought it was something private that did not need to be shared with others.
But I realised later how important it is to open up because (without the study), the larger community will never understand the Chinese Muslims,” she says.
Until now little is known about this community.
According to the Malaysian 2000 census, there are 57,211 Chinese Muslims throughout the country.
It is believed that Chinese Muslims have had a presence in Malaysia as early as the 13th century.
They came to the Malay World from different regions in China, spurred on by various reasons.
They comprised traders, missionaries and officials; victims who fled from the Qing government’s persecution; imported labourers during European colonial times; and those who wanted to escape poverty, famine, and the chaos of the civil war in the early 1900s.
Over the years, some have assimilated into the Malay culture and assumed Malay identity as a result of interracial marriages.
Others, on the other hand, had abandoned Islam after marrying non-Muslim Chinese.
“Descendants of this group — which can be found in Penang, Ipoh, Malacca and Johor — may not even realise their great-grandparents were Muslims,” says Wang Ma.
However, mixed marriages over the years have also produced a steady stream of Muslim converts among Malaysian Chinese.
For the Chinese Muslims in Malaysia, juggling their dual identity is a constant battle.
Most are torn between keeping to their ancestral culture and proving their devotion to Islam.
Conversations Wang Ma had with Chinese Muslims reveal that practising the Chinese culture raises suspicions among Malay Muslims, who “tend to measure devotion to Islam based on how much a non-Malay Muslim adapts to the Malay culture”.
“The more the person adapts, the better a Muslim he is assumed to be,” says Wang Ma.
On the other hand, internalising this “Malayness” and demonstrating Islamic piety can alienate Chinese Muslims from their own ethnic group.
While living in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Wang Ma had gone to the local market to buy slaughtered chicken.
“I had got along well with a chicken seller, who is Chinese, and had even bantered with him in Mandarin.
However, his friendly demeanour turned hostile the moment Wang Ma requested that the seller’s Muslim worker slaughter the chicken.
“His attitude changed.
Never mind that I spoke better Chinese than he did and had Chinese culture deeply ingrained in me,” she says.
The strong reaction, Wang Ma believes, stems from erroneous knowledge of Islam.
“To some, being Muslim is equivalent to becoming Malay.
Many Malaysian Chinese refer to Islam as Malay jiao (Malay religion).
“Some parents believe that once their children become Muslims, they will not be able to carry their surname or allowed to perform certain rituals at their parents’ funeral,” she adds.
These examples perpetuate the belief that there is a dichotomy between being Muslim and Chinese.
Yet the Hui in China and Malaysia have proven that it is possible to “negotiate the dual cultural identities with the demand of changing times and political social environment without compromising their faith”.
The key to overcoming the identity dilemma among Chinese Muslims is to be knowledgeable and confident about both their ethnic heritage and Muslim faith.
The Chinese Muslims — with shared cultural traditions and religion with the Chinese and Malays — could be a catalyst for nation-building.
“They must assert their role in leading the creation of a recognisable and acknowledged Chinese Muslim identity within the Malaysian social context,” says Wang Ma.
Aishah Ong - From Buddhism to atheism to Islam, the story of a Chinese Muslim.
Islam has done me a world of good
I was born a Buddhist but I was not taught anything about Buddhism, its teachings or its principles. All that I knew about Buddhism was following my parents to the temples during festive seasons (which is on a birthday, nearly every month, of one god or another) or praying at home to the god of Heaven, the god of the lounge, the god of the kitchen and so on.
We used joss sticks to pray to those idols, or even colored metal plates with inscriptions on them. When we prayed, we prayed only for our own good, making up a very long 'Shopping list'. In our worship we did not think of anybody except ourselves and our immediate family.
In Malaysia, the Chinese think that they are superior. Most Chinese are either Buddhists or Christians and there is only a very small minority who are Muslims. These Chinese Muslims are looked down upon. All the Malays are Muslims and the Chinese consider them stupid and lazy. Therefore to associate with any Malays was a terrible 'sin'.
To the older generation of Chinese and their ignorant way of thinking, Islam is only for the Malays, and since all the Malays are Muslims, Islam is a stupid religion. This is because to the non-Muslim Chinese the Muslims seem, when praying with their faces turned towards Qibla (direction of prayer, i.e. Mecca), to be praying to the wall, while they, the Buddhists pray to idols which, to them, is more realistic. Secondly, the Muslim fast is considered stupid as the Chinese enjoy their food. Thirdly, Muslims do not eat pork while the Chinese love it. And the sin of all sins-Muslims can marry four wives whereas the Chinese would not admit that they have a few mistresses, although keeping up the appearance of only one official wife.
Because I was brought up in such a society, I also accepted their ignorant way of thought. Moreover, because of the racial tension in my country, I did not trust any Malays and so my knowledge of Islam was practically nil.
I was never a religious person at home so when I came to England I became an atheist. All my friends were not religious either. All we were interested in was amusement and entertainment, like parties, discos, going out with men, etc. I was, if you would like to term it, a very bad girl.
It was after two years in England and one broken marriage, that I met a Muslim Malay. He gave me a few books on Islam and in order to please him I read them. I was very suspicious of Islam but I was willing to learn and soon my interest grew.
He then took me to the Mosque at Malaysia Hall and introduced me to someone who then introduced me to the Ladies Islamic Circle where I could learn more about Islam.
I did not have much opportunity to go to the Circle in the beginning because of my work. However, my fiance was always there to answer my questions when I was in doubt.
Then one day I came across a copy of the book 'Islam Our Choice', I read this book carefully and the feeling that those brothers and sister of Islam expressed in that book made a great impression on me. I realized then that Islam would be the right path for me to follow.
Another thing that made me to embrace Islam was the close unity I felt towards the Muslims I met. I have never felt or seen such close brotherhood.
The five pillars of Islam, when I analyzed them, made more sense to me than worshipping the idols:
1. Belief in One God and that Muhammad is His Prophet and the last of the Prophets. This made more sense than praying to Buddha (who was a man) and to idols made by man.
2. Prayer reminds one of God and Prevents one committing sins. Also praying towards Makkah brings about a central focus for all Muslims of all races and notions.
3. Fasting develops one's will-power, and self-control. At the same time, it reminds one of the poor and needy and starving people.
4. Zakat (alms giving) ensures that the materialistic urge within us does not overpower our tendency to share with others.
5. Hajj (pilgrimage) during which we visit Makkah once in a lifetime is a gathering of Muslims of all colors and races.
What really impressed me most about Islam was its moral teachings; that one must dress decently and cover up one's body especially in the case of women. This is to prevent any destructive or unbefitting trends or desires to prevail in the society.
Another aspect of Islam that attracted me was cleanliness, which in Islam is very important. Cleaning after answering the call of nature, and taking Wudhu (ritual purification/ablution) before going for prayer sounded natural to me and very wise.
Against my parent's wishes, I became a Muslim after six months of studying the religion. I hope one day my parents will come to understand that Islam has done me a world of good, much more than even what they had taught me for eighteen years.
I became a Muslim because I believe in Allah as the only God and that Muhammad is his Prophet, and because I accept the teachings of Islam as they are laid down in the Glorious Our'an and the practice of the Prophet.
I intend, In Sha'Allah (if Allah wills) , to be a good and true Muslimah (Muslim Woman) and I would like to thank all the brothers and sisters who have helped me, in one way or another, to discover and embrace Islam.