Malaysia - Religion

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Two people dressed in ceremonial outfits, and a mosque in Malaysia

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic society and as such, has a variety of major religions which occupy an important place in the daily life of its citizens. The country is officially an Islamic nation and Islam is the state religion of Malaysia. However, Malaysia guarantees freedom of religion and Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Sikhism, and indigenous religions are all practiced freely although there are many ways in which Islam is privileged and there is some discrimination practiced. For the most part, religious affiliation follows ethnic lines. Almost all Malays, the dominant ethnic group in the country, are Muslims and, because Malaysia is an Islamic state, many Muslim schools, mosques, and religious organizations are supported by the state. In fact, by law all Malays must be Muslim; for an ethnic Malay to convert from Islam means that she/he would lose his/her status as an ethnic Malay with the privileges which that entails.

The next largest ethnic group, the Chinese, practice a mixture of Daoist, Confucianism and Buddhist beliefs, although a small number are Christians. The third group, the Hindus, practices popular Hinduism; this group is comprised mostly of Indians who have migrated from Southern India and are Tamil speaking. The small Sikh community derives from the British importation of Sikhs for employment in paramilitary and police units and is ethnically homogeneous. Christianity was spread by missionaries and while few peninsular Malaysians are Christians, a higher percentage of the indigenous inhabitants of Borneo have converted to Christianity. Christianity is the one religion which has spread, in small amounts, to all ethnic groups. Many of the tribal communities, in Borneo and in peninsular Malaysia, continue with their traditional animistic beliefs and religious/cultural activities.

The tolerance and acceptance of a variety of religions is clearly shown in the calendar of national holidays in Malaysia in which the most important celebrations of the 4 major traditions are all national holidays. Muslim national holidays include the celebration marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, the end of the Hajj pilgrimage season, and the birthday of Mohammad. Chinese New Year, the Buddhist celebration of Vesak (the day in which the Buddha was born, achieved enlightenment, and died), the Hindu holiday of Deepavali or Festival of Lights, and the Christian holiday of Christmas, are all national and school holidays. However, it is worth noting that Easter is not a national holiday and that each religion other than Islam has only one official national holiday. In tribal areas, other holidays celebrating special events common to that indigenous population, are celebrated as local holidays. For a good discussion of these and other festivals of Malaysia, please read Culture & Society - Festival & CelebrationsOpens in new window

Malaysia is an official Islamic state (about 60% of the population are Muslims) and thus Islam is privileged in a number of ways. Moreover, although Malaysia is an ethnically diverse nation, the government favors the Malays and other indigenous peoples over the Chinese, Indian, and ex-patriate communities. The city states that now comprise Malaysia were first influenced by Indian traders who brought with them Hinduism and Buddhism and for many centuries these two religions were widely practiced. Islam first came in the 10th century, brought by Arabic and Indian traders and began the slow process of converting the population. The first ruler was converted in the 12th century and by the 15th century many of the citizens considered themselves Muslims. The Islam adopted by the Malaysians was the tolerant strain brought by the Sufis and even today, a number of ceremonies incorporate pre-Islamic traditions. However, the in past 20 years, the nation has become more Islamically concerned and adherence to the practices of the religion is growing.

Since Islam is central to Malay culture and since the other religions are practiced by other ethnic groups, there are constant attempts to pass laws limiting the activities of these groups and limiting the freedoms associated with religion for both Muslims and non-Muslims. For example, Malays must be Muslim and, if they renounce Islam (which is very difficult as they have to be given a certificate of apostasy by an Islamic court) they are also renouncing their Malay identity. At the same time, converts to Islam (for example through marriage) automatically become “ethnic Malays” with the rights that status brings. The identity card that all Malaysians over the age of 12 must carry, identifies the bearers as Muslim or non-Muslim; when this card was first introduced, non Muslim groups protested it but now they have come to accept the card.

For the most part, the Islam as practiced in Malaysia is relatively liberal. Muslim women often wear the tudong, the traditional Islamic head covering that leaves the face exposed, but there is no law requiring this and some women do not wear it. In the International Islamic University, all women must wear the tudong, including non-Muslim women. The concept of Islam most widely embraced is that call Islam Hadhari, introduced by Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Prime Minister of Malaysia. This code stresses knowledge, hard work, honesty, good administration and efficiency, and appeals to Muslims to be inclusive, tolerant and outward looking. Abdullah Mohd Zain, a minister in the Prime Minster’s government, stated that Islam Hadhari “ emphasizes wisdom, practicality and harmony, encourages moderation or a balanced approach to life. Yet it does not stray from the fundamentals of the Qu’ran and the example and sayings of the Prophet.” However, one of the major political parties, PAS is a fundamentalist and conservative party that wants to make Malaysia an Islamic state. It is constantly trying to implement stricter Islamic Law and regulations.

For an article dealing with Islam and Politics in Malaysia, please read Religion and Poitics in MalaysiaOpens in new window

Malaysia has two law systems: the civil courts and the Sharia courts. The Sharia courts are only concerned with the activities of Muslims and primarily deal with religious issues and family matters. The question of whether one can choose to renounce Islam is open to question as, in some cases, the courts have refused to recognize this renunciation. The Sharia courts are open only to Muslims. This creates problems when the court case involves one Muslim and one non-Muslim as the rulings of this court are binding only on Muslims. In most such cases, the civil court verdicts predominate, but in a few cases the non Muslim partner has had no voice in such things as religion of the children or custody or property settlements. On a lighter note, the courts requested that any non-Muslim who wishes to keep a dog, obtain the permission of Muslim neighbors (dogs are considered unclean in Islam)

In addition to a system of Sharia courts, Malaysia has other state supported institutions to assist Muslims. For example, one of the five pillars of Islam is the payment of the zakat or charitable tax. Each of Malaysia’s fourteen states has an official zakat collection agency which collects both kinds of zakat: the personal one and the wealth based one. The personal zakat is collected form each person with sufficient means and is given during the month of Ramadan so that poor families have the where-withal for the feast celebrating the end of the fasting month. This tax is the equivalent of a day’s food for one person. The zakat based on wealth is due from each person with sufficient funds and is about 2.5% of the net worth. The zakat agencies collect and distribute this on behalf of the citizens. The zakat can be given through payroll deduction or on line through Malaysia’s Islamic banks.

Malaysia also has a state supported system to help Muslim fund the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca. The administration of the Malaysian Hajj group is done by the Pilgrim Management and Fund Board. It both enables people to save and invest their money to fund the Hajj and trains and organizes the pilgrims so they avoid common problems on the Hajj. It is considered both a model of Islamic banking and the reason that Malaysia’s pilgrims are well prepared for the Hajj and seldom run into problems. It provides all aspects of the Hajj, from giving members prayer beads, to arranging travel and accommodations, to recommending special face creams to be used in the dry and arid climate of Saudi Arabia.

Members of the Chinese community for the most part practice a mixture of Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist doctrines, although a number of communities are Christian. While Chinese have been traders and businessmen in Malaysia for centuries, the great influx of Chinese workers brought to Malaya by the British to work the tin mines, has resulted in a population which is about 28% Chinese. Most of them today are concentrated in cities and are among the wealthiest groups and the ones who control much of the wealth and many of the international businesses of the country. This has given rise to resentment on the part of the Malays and measures to limit the business practices of the Chinese. It is estimated that about 19% of them classify themselves as Buddhist and Buddhist temples and ceremonies abound in both cities and rural areas. Buddhism has no official head and each temple or monastery is autonomous. Most Chinese adhere to one or another of the Mahayana Buddhist schools while the immigrant Thai and Sinhalese communities practice the Theravada form. In recent years, there has been an attempt to coordinate activities of these different sects of Buddhists. For example, they have formed a joint Vesak Celebration Committee in the temples in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor to coordinate celebration of Vesak, the holiday commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. The Malaysian Buddhist Council was formed both to promote the study and practice of Buddhism and to promote solidarity among Buddhists in general.

Daoism in Malaysia, also practiced by the Chinese community, is less organized although many of the Daoist sects retain their ties with Daoists in China and in Taiwan. Daoist deities are often found in Buddhist temples and the two traditions co-exist quite well. It is estimated that there are over 150 Daoist temples and over 12,000 priests in Malaysia. Since most of the Chinese are from the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, many of the Daoist deities are local deities from these areas. In addition, these temples enshrine images of the city god, ancestral gods, earth god and the god of war, as well as the traditional trinity of Daoist gods. In recent times, there have been attempts to organize Daoist priests and temples and the government authorized the establishment of the Malaysia Daoist Association in 1995. This was followed in 1997 by the formation of the Daoist Organization League to promote Daoist philosophy, culture and values, lead devotees in traditional practices and contribute to social welfare.

The third largest ethnic group in Malaysia is the Tamil Indians who comprise abut 9% of the population. The majority of these are practicing Hindus today. Prior to the coming of Islam, Malaysia was greatly influenced by both Hinduism and Buddhism brought by early Indian traders. However, this Indian influence waned with the coming of Islam and the conversion of Malaysia’s rulers in the 11-14th centuries. The present day community is composed mainly of the descendants of migrants from Tamil Nadu who came to work the rubber plantations under the British. A much smaller number migrated from North India. Hinduism in Malaysia is complex featuring large colorful urban temples dedicated to specific deities and smaller country temples which often house a multitude of deities. The temples and the specific deities worshipped reflect the diverse origins of the population as workers brought their own local images and deities and customs with them. Many of the temples and people follow the Saivite tradition (the worship of Siva) which is prevalent in Southern India, although worship of other deities is also found.

Siva is one of the three great gods of Hinduism and comprises one of the trinity of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Siva the destroyer. Siva is depicted in two contrasting modes: as the god of destruction who dances the earth to pieces, thus making way for rebirth of a new and better world, and as the oxymoronic “sexual ascetic.” In the first mode, he is often shown dancing in a ring of fire; in the second he is shown as an emaciated ascetic with matted hair or as a lingam, a depiction of the phallus. However, all these elements show that Siva is filled with love for humanity and thus Sivaism promotes love, not fear of the deity. Even as the destroyer, Siva is destroying the bad elements in the world and thus creating the possibility of a better world to come. As an ascetic, he is sacrificing himself, in the Hindu concept, for all living beings, thus again enabling them to find a better life or better rebirth. As the lingam, of course, he represents continued sexuality and thus continued rebirth and creation.

About 10% of the population of Malaysia is Christian of one variety or another; Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist are the most common denominations. Most of these are located in East Malaysia, on the Island of Borneo, rather than in Peninsular Malaysia. Christians, while theoretically allowed to practice their religion, have experienced some restrictions as Malaysia seeks to become more of an Islamic society. While all existing churches are allowed to operate, there have been restrictions placed on the construction of new churches and in the city of Shah Alam (considered as Malaysia’s first “Islamic City,”) no churches have been allowed. Christians are not allowed to proselytize Muslims and all Christian literature must carry a note “for non-Muslims only.” Moreover, the Indonesian and Malay language Bibles are banned in the country (ostensibly because they both use the word Allah for God); an attempt was made to ban the Iban Bible for the same reason but it was finally lifted after it was explained that there is no other Iban term for the Almighty other that “Allah Taala.” Some further restrictions include the banning of Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ” which was open only to Christians; however, its two month run was extended, making it doubtful that only Christians viewed the movie. Christmas is a legal holiday, but its public celebration is more commercial than religious. While Good Friday is not a federal holiday it is a state public holiday in the states of Sabah and Sarawak where Christians form a sizeable minority.

The last religion prevalent in Malaysia is the Sikh community; a small community today, the Sikhs were brought in by the British to form paramilitary and police units and many have stayed. The Sikhs worship one God who is nameless and formless and denounce idol worship. Their Gurdwara, places of worship, are open to all on an equal basis, regardless of race, religion, ethnic background, or gender. They celebrate the Sikh New Year (Vasakhi) in April, as well as the birthdays and martyrdoms of the 10 Sikh Gurus (leaders), and the day of the installation of the Holy Guru Granth Sahib (scripture) as the “living Guru” of the Sikhs for all time, although none of these are national holidays. For more information on the Sikh Religion, you may read Introduction to SikhismOpens in new window

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