Written and submitted by Platypus One.
When I took the syahadah, I imagined I was well aware of exactly what I was getting myself into – a possible lifetime of judgement and recurring feelings of being neither fish nor fowl. I was no stranger to both, being the least conventionally Chinese Chinese person I knew. I had spent a 6-year relationship struggling to come to terms with all of this before finally marrying into Islam. In that moment, it was as if the people who already had trouble fitting me into one of their many stereotypes had their minds blown all over again. What bucket would fit him now? Chinese Muslims are essentially a minority within a minority in Malaysia – and when you’re straddling the fence, you’re pretty much exposed to a number of recurring (and often borderline and/or inadvertently offensive) sentiments from either side.
Before we go any further, a caveat – the content below is based off the experiences and observations of myself and people I know within the context of the Klang Valley, so your mileage may vary depending on where you are and who you hang out with. As much as we position our country as the epitome of inter-religious, interethnic harmony, it’s no secret that the race-based politics stemming from decades past has come to shape our culture that defines (and more often than we’d like, divides) itself along ethnic lines. That said, I’m no subject matter expert, nor am I here to trigger the ire of fragile sensitivities – these are real, boots-on-the-ground accounts of what has happened and what will probably keep happening for the foreseeable future.
Ready? Let’s go.
Pork and the Chinese Identity
You are not what you eat. Otherwise I’d be ice cream.
I tend to get asked if I miss the taste of pork and if I ever wished I could taste it again. Frankly? Not really. I mean, I get it – pork has deep roots in Chinese cuisine and when prepared in certain ways, it can bring flavours no other meat can (I’d know, I’ve been there). What I don’t get is how some people feel that not consuming pork makes one ‘less’ Chinese, like it’s somehow a defining aspect of the Chinese identity. Chinese cuisine is so rich and so diverse that it does it no justice to attempt to define it with the meat of one animal. I do have some theories (which will remain just theories, due to the lack of empirical evidence) on the psychology behind the obsession with pork that goes beyond its flavour. Being technically haram to the majority of the nation gives the meat a sort of edgy, rebellious branding – an implied I-can-have-your-forbidden-fruit that further perpetuates an Us vs Them mentality. But more on that later.
The prohibition of pork has been cited to be due to a number of reasons such as cleanliness, their dietary habits (which can potentially include carrion and excrement) and disease (the Nipah outbreak in 1999 must’ve helped reinforced this amongst the local community) among others – but this is not unique to Islam. The Torah and the Old Testament are also aligned – a seemingly recurring theme in Abrahamic religions.
Others may feel differently about this, but I’m comfortable with my choice to abstain from pork also because it’s simply never been the Number 1 meat for me. To be clear – it definitely does not mean I’m offended by the discussion/imagery/existence of our porcine friends. Nobody should be, because even though they’re haram, like us, they’re still living creatures that inhabit the Earth (the same also applies for canines, but that’s a whole other can of worms I won’t open here).
Alcohol and Collectivist Culture
Oh, look – non-alcoholic social lubricant!
Now that we’ve talked about pork, we need to talk about booze. It’s much of the same, really – I’ve never enjoyed the taste of alcohol, so abstaining just came naturally to me, even before I chose to enter Islam. This pretty much meant that I was often seen as prudish, a wet blanket or a combination of the two. I get that drinking culture is often viewed as a means of bonding and building rapport, but people found it a lot less socially acceptable that I was teetotalling before I became a Muslim. After that, everyone pretty much backed off. I guess now I have a socially acceptable reason to not drink – apparently all it took was changing my religion.
To understand this better, based on my brief and limited studies of sociology, we need to examine individualist and collectivist cultures. Here’s the tl;dr version:
- Individualist cultures emphasise the importance of the individual, valuing autonomy and freedom. Typically countries in North America and Europe.
- Collectivist cultures place priority on cohesive group relationships, loyalty and compliance. Commonly countries in South America, much of Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
I’m not saying either one is better than the other. Both are equally capable of being racist or discriminatory in different ways – think “Why are you like that?” vs “Why are you not like us?” Our society fits very much within the collectivist side of the spectrum (remember, it’s not binary). This explains why I’ve had more local Malaysians giving me problems about choosing not to drink compared to acquaintances I’ve known from, say, Australia or Denmark – no judgement, no questions asked. The same train of thought could also be the reason why China might be persecuting Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province with “re-education camps”, which is a whole other dumpster fire of its own.
I’ve personally witnessed a non-Malay Muslim unwillingly get peer pressured into partaking in some particularly non-halal festivities while other clearly Malay Muslim peers were exempted. The reasons were mind-boggling – hogwash like the Malay person appearing “too obviously Muslim” while the non-Malay person could get away with it when it was never about appearances, or that other Malay Muslim peers were joining too (no judgement on their lifestyle) were casually thrown about, which honestly sounds like massive disrespect towards the virtue of personal choice. This is an Us vs Them scenario driven by black-and-white thinking that has put people in a difficult situation within a collectivist environment that wants to project its idea of being liberal and progressive. The implication is that you’re either a “modern” Muslim (whatever that means – in this case it seems to imply the willingness to participate in said activities) or you’re a conservative prude. No in-betweens. What people need to understand is that being truly liberal or progressive means being inclusive and respectful of our differences and diversity, not expecting people to conform to personal ideals of what these archetypes should be.
Circumcision – Everybody Asks
What circumcision does not look like.
I don’t really mind the questions so much. I can totally understand the fascination with dicks – people are naturally curious about things kept hidden from them. The unfortunate reality is that it’s one of the main concerns many people obsess over whenever they hear of a guy embracing Islam. The thing is, the procedure isn’t exclusive to Islam – it’s compulsory for Jews, while in the United States, about half of all infants are circumcised annually for non-religious reasons.
So, let’s get this out of the way:
- Technically, it’s not compulsory in Islam. However, it’s generally encouraged in order to maintain hygiene, as prayers require a state of ritual cleanliness.
- It does not mean you’re “losing your manhood” (whatever that means) – some cultures actually view it as a sort of rite of passage to adulthood.
- Done right, it’s not nearly as horrifying as people like to make it out to be. Modern medicine and procedures like electrocautery have changed the game, though the circumcision of infants is a contentious issue due to the foreskin still being fused to the glans.
Bonus Round: FGM and Why We Need to Talk About It
Since we’re on this topic, let’s also talk about female circumcision – perhaps more accurately referred to as female genital mutilation (FGM). Someone once asked me (after finding out I was a Muslim, naturally) if this was actually a common thing amongst Muslim females. This is an unregulated procedure that’s been classified into varying types – from partial to total removal of the clitoral hood and clitoris to the removal and stitching of external genitalia – you can read more about this extremely dubious practice in a rather excellent feature published by The Star’s R.AGE late 2018. Statistically, it’s troubling – a 2012 study suggested that 93% of Muslim women surveyed (though it’s unclear if this is representative of the total population, since the female Muslims I know who have talked about this say it isn’t practiced in their families) had undergone the procedure. However, unlike male circumcision which has a wealth of empirical research documenting its medical benefits, FGM yields no health benefits and potentially results in a number of long-term consequences.
So why would people do this to their daughters? In 2009, the National Fatwa Committee decided that female circumcision was obligatory for Muslim women unless it was harmful. Was the “harmful” part intentionally ambiguous? Maybe. Culturally, it’s viewed as a means of reducing a woman’s libido, which supposedly prevents adultery and extramarital sex. If that sounds like a whole lot of bull to you, it’s probably because it was a cultural practice that emerged from the pre-Islamic Middle East and the African continent, likely as a means to control female sexuality during less enlightened times. For the record, libido is largely driven by hormonal factors, so physically stunting a person this way is only going to harm the person’s sexual wellbeing even after marriage when the banging become halal. It doesn’t help that it’s a topic seldom talked about – and when it is, it’s with hushed whispers behind closed doors like it’s taboo. Whilst struggling, Egypt has already outlawed FGM – so what does it take for the issue to be reviewed the way it deserves here?
Ultimately, it feels like the vast majority of circumcisions, whether male or female, happen in the absence of two very important factors – education and consent. Granted, it’ll probably be ridiculously difficult to get a child to agree to have his foreskin surgically removed, but it’s high time we took a long, hard, critical look at the why behind these practices and make that personal choice on whether it’s really for the best.
The Burden of Legalised Polygamy
The moment right before a dude realises his inflated machismo was wrong about being able to handle three boxes at once.
Upon learning that I had married into Islam, people tended to joke that I had space for 3 more in my quota. Legally, that was true – Malaysia allows Muslim men to take up to 4 wives (meanwhile, polygamy’s technically illegal for non-Muslims). Ethically, it’s quite a complex conundrum. In Malaysia, polygamy within the Muslim community remains a subject of much contention – Sisters in Islam has been battling for legal reform on Islamic family laws to make them better suited to the gender dynamics of today. It’s easy to see why – the current laws that govern polygamy vary from state to state and not all require the consent of current wives. On top of this, it’s pretty much an open secret that many clandestine marriages take place at the Thai border, with little consequence after registering them at the local Syariah court later. These factors, combined with perfunctory attitudes of quiet acceptance has led to numerous cases of systemic abuse.
While I can respect people who can make it work, I’ve personally never believed in polygamy, though I understood its place in the Islamic civilization over fifteen hundred years ago in the cultural context of that era. This was a time where women’s rights were nowhere near where they are today and many marriages were driven by power (both economic and political) and/or protection. Unlimited polygamy was very much the norm, so when Islam was introduced and brought that maximum wife count down to 4, it was not an enabler to an already pre-existing custom to take multiple wives, but rather it imposed a limit that was unheard of at the time. Even so, Iranian-American religious scholar Reza Aslan (check out No God But God – it’s a good read) points out that the Quran seems to suggest that monogamy was the preferred model of marriage, even if one may be permitted to take up to 4 wives:
“And if you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphan girls, then marry those that please you of [other] women, two or three or four. But if you fear that you will not be just, then [marry only] one or those your right hand possesses. That is more suitable that you may not incline [to injustice].” (Surah An-Nisa 4:3)
A few verses later:
“And you will never be able to be equal [in feeling] between wives, even if you should strive [to do so]. So do not incline completely [toward one] and leave another hanging. And if you amend [your affairs] and fear Allah – then indeed, Allah is ever Forgiving and Merciful.” (Surah An-Nisa 4:129)
Make what you will of this. We’re only human, after all.
‘Becoming Malay’ and the Malaysian Muslim Identity
So what’re your Malay names, Chinese Muslim children of Western China?
There’s this popular misconception amongst the uninitiated in Malaysia that becoming a Muslim means becoming Malay. To be clear: it doesn’t. No race and no country can reasonably claim ownership of Islam – not Saudi Arabia, home to the Ka’abah and much of the religion’s origin; not Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world; and certainly not the Malay Archipelago where Arab and Indian traders brought Islam to the largely Hindu-Buddhist society of pre-Islamic Malay civilisation.
That said, I can understand why people tend to ask what my ‘Malay name’ is upon discovering that I had married into Islam. It’s true that many who convert into Islam in Malaysia also legally change their name, taking on something more Arabic or Malay – though the practice isn’t exactly in Islamic legislature. It’s also likely that the practice originated because converts from a polytheistic religion, such as the from civilisations that existed in this region prior to the arrival of Islam, people may have been originally named after deities – a practice that is not aligned with the principles of Islam. The religion and what it means to be Malay have become so intertwined in Malaysian culture and society that many see them as representative of each other – a sort of cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that to be Muslim is to be Malay. While the Malaysian Constitution suggests that all Malays are technically born into Islam, it certainly does not mean that all Muslims are Malay, nor can the ethnicity be used as a sweeping representation of the religion.
Boozy rice. Yes.
I mean, consider tapai – a fermented rice dessert of Austronesian origin (yes, that includes Malaysia) that’s soaking in alcohol. I’m not talking about white-wine-that-evaporates-when-cooking-your-risotto alcohol here – tapai is pretty much fermented into a paste containing a similar alcohol content as beer. I’ve seen people who refrain from eating at a pork-free restaurant that has halal suppliers but doesn’t have halal certification because they serve alcohol, but still down some good old tapai without hesitation. Again – no judgement on their dietary choices (you’re probably not gonna get intoxicated on tapai anyway), but this cultural facet sounds like something that wouldn’t fly in more conservative Muslim societies. But I digress.
Today, all it takes to keep your name after taking the syahadah is to sign on a piece of paper to attest that you were encouraged to change your name but chose not to. Again, your mileage may vary – I’ve heard cases of certain state departments being more pushy with this, so the experience may differ by location.
You’d think that for such an interracial, interreligious society, people would be more adept at making the distinction between culture and religion. The unfortunate reality is that this isn’t really the case, as many seem to live clustered in their own microcosms of culturally like-minded individuals – which is only natural, as people tend to gravitate towards the familiar, after all. That said, I’ve become quite familiar with being seen as ‘betraying’ my own race by choosing to marry into Islam and, in some opinions, to ‘become Malay’, therefore positioning myself as the ‘Other’ in the Us vs Them.
A Few Ending Thoughts
I’m going to end this with one last anecdote – I’ve been asked if I still celebrate Chinese New Year, now that I’m, y’know, the ‘Other’. If you’re curious, I do. Much like the over 20 million Muslim population in China, I reckon.
With that, I wish you assalamualaikum and to those celebrating – a Happy Lunar New Year. May you have a blessed Year of the Pig.