Culture Versus Islam
This is an interesting article which addresses a major problem in most Muslim communities. Although it has been written specifically for Malay Muslims, just replace the word Malay in this article, with say, Bengali or Indian or Pakistani and you will get an article fit for any culture. The author is a Malay who wrote this letter to members in his immediate community. – ITMR WebmasterIslam is a religion. But, to many Malays, Islam is a culture. It is a practice handed down by their fathers, and their father’s father before that. It is something they do out of habit rather than out of the education they have received. That is why the converts or the “Born Again Muslims”, if I may be permitted to use this phrase, make better Muslims.
Converts learn the religion from scratch and throw away their old beliefs on becoming Muslims. The Born Again Muslims re-learn the religion and are able to differentiate between Islam and the Malay Adat, and are brave enough to reject what is unIslamic though they run the risk of being branded fanatics.
The majority of Malay Muslims confuse between what is religion and what is culture. They take both as one and the same and, on many an occasion, practice religion as if it was part of the Malay culture, or adopt some of the old cultures thinking they are doing an Islamic thing.
Sometimes even the culture over-rides religion and they rush out to implement a cultural practice as if it would be unIslamic in not doing so. Culture takes precedence over everything else and, if they miss one or two obligations in Islam, like praying or fasting, it does not matter as long as that so called “adat” has been safely implemented.
For example, they would spend hours dressing up a bride for a wedding ceremony. Never mind that the
bride has to miss her Maghrib prayers because of this. Allowing her to do her Maghrib prayers would mean the preparations would be interrupted or delayed, not to mention her hair, which had been carefully set at great expense of time and money, would get all messed up.
The house would need to be cleaned and everything would need to be nicely set up in preparation for Eid/Hari Raya. This would mean they would have to miss the last day of fasting or else there would be no energy left for the great task ahead of them. Impressing the guests who would be visiting for Eid/Hari Raya is more important that fasting.
Is it not a Malay proverb which says, “Biar mati anak, jangan mati adat”? In other words, culture is so important that they would sacrifice their child as long as the culture is protected. They would not sacrifice for Islam.
How did this come about? Islam is very specific and explicit. Islam is the ultimate and everything else comes later. How could, therefore, culture stand between the Muslim and his religion? Even more important, how could the Malay get so confused that he could not differentiate between religion and culture and allow himself to practice Islam his way; religion as a culture.
Malays were Hindus long before they became Muslims. In fact, a good part of Indonesia, where the Malaysian Malays originally came from, is still Hindu. Even in those parts of Indonesia which have become predominantly Muslim, you can still see the remains of the Hindu religion and many of their dances and so on still retain this culture to a certain extent.
The Malay Sultans of early Melaka had Sanskrit names, proof of the Hindu influence. They became Muslims not through the influence of the Arabs, but through the influence of the Indian merchants who came to Melaka to trade.
That is why our brand of Islam is the same as in India and we find some differences when comparing our practices to that of the Middle Eastern Muslims.
The nation at that time owed their loyalty to the Sultans. When the Sultans converted to Islam the nation followed suit without any questions asked. They became Muslims due to the tradition of loyalty to the Sultans rather than because they were committed to the religion.
Here alone was reason enough for the weak following of the religious principles. The people were just doing what the Sultan asked. The old cultures and traditions were retained and practiced side-by-side with Islam. The early Malay Muslims were one confused lot of people and, to some extent, this confusion still remains.
In fact, you can still see aspects of Hindu culture in our so-called “Islamic” practices. Take the lighting of lanterns on the last seven nights before the end of Ramadan. This is modelled after the Hindu religious celebration of Deepavali, the festival of the lights.
What about the wedding ceremony mentioned earlier? Very much a Hindu practice where the bride and bridegroom sit on a stage so the world can see them see and to receive the blessings of the crowd who sprinkle scented water and flowers on them.
Many acts the Malays do in the name of religion is not Islamic at all.
In fact, some are even contrary to religious beliefs; bida’ah or shirik; and compromise the principles of the Islamic faith. These practices are not only sinful but makes a mockery of the One God fundamental because that forbidden practice acknowledges the existence of other forces equally powerful.
For instance, take the practice of consulting bomohs. Most Malays believe in the powers of the bomoh and many actually go to see them for assistance.
Bomohs are nothing but witch doctors. In the Western terminology “witches” are servants of the devil as they draw upon the powers of the forces of evil. The Malays swear by the power of the bomoh rather than do their Hajat prayer to get their wishes fulfilled. Bomohs use the Koran, spirits of dead people, bones of humans, and so on, to “pray” for help.
It must be remembered that though the bomoh uses the Koran it is not used for reciting the verses but as talismans or “tangkals”. The Koran is not taken in its spirit or substance but in its physical form, as an object of magic.
Sometimes the verses are recited but only for “fixing things”. The “client” may want the bomoh to help them get a job promotion, a contract they have tendered for, the love of a woman or man, and other worldly desires. In extreme cases the bomoh calls upon the “powers” of the Koran to harm an enemy or as a prevention, called “sekatan”, from an enemy who is suspected of using another bomoh to give this client bad luck or make him sick.
Islam, or the powers of Islam, is treated as something magical or mystical, and who better to call upon the magic of the Koran or the verses of the Koran than the black magic man, the bomoh. Of course, every bomoh would claim he is doing things the Islamic way and that there is no shirik in what he is doing. This gives the Malay the feeling of security, that he is not offending God in his actions or creating an associate to God.
Many religious people, those well learned in Islam dare not speak out.
They realise that this is a very sensitive area to venture into. In fact, some of these religious people even contribute to the belief by themselves offering mystical services. The Malays believe that these religious people have a closeness to God due their “ulama” status and how better to reach God than through these people.
One reason why the Malays are so gullible may be because Islam was an “imported” religion. Malays choose to be Muslims only when it suits them and revert to their old cultures and traditions freely.
Consider the concept of water and oil; they do not mix. Oil stays on top and does not contaminate the water below it. What we do not realise is, oil chokes life in the water by blocking the flow of oxygen.
In the same way, the belief in other forces other than Allah “kills” the fundamentals of Islam. Without this fundamental belief, their Islam is just as “dead” as the life in the water below the oil. It is time the religious authorities and the ulamas speak out. Re-education is required.
You are either a Malay or a Muslim and, if to be a proper or good Muslim means we have to be less of a Malay, than let it be so.