My East-West Allah

25 Jan 10 : 8.00AM
By Petra Gimbad

Go not to the temple to put flowers upon the feet of God,
First fill your own house with the fragrance of Love.
– Rabindranath Tagore

MY first reaction to the news that a church was attacked was one of disbelief. Most East Malaysians, I think, would be confused as to why this is even an issue in the first place. Whether it was in East Malaysia or Kuala Lumpur, my memories of bilingual and Malay-language mass in church included this essential part:

"Kudus, kudus, kuduslah Tuhan, Allah Maha Kuasa."

When we asked for forgiveness, we would sometimes pray:

"Saya mengaku kepada Allah yang Maha Kuasa ... bahawa saya berdosa dengan fikiran dan perkataan."

In our prayer books, both in East Malaysia and in Kuala Lumpur churches, guidance for reading of the Gospels is written:

Bacaan Injil

Injil sebagai puncak sabda Allah diwartakan dari mimbar oleh diakon atau imam.

My father is a non-Muslim bumiputera and my mother a West Malaysian Chinese. My sister and I grew up attending mass and read books on Buddhism; my mother's Catholic brother who practises Buddhist meditation introduced Islamic poetry to our family. We have Muslim cousins and Buddhist aunts.

My East Malaysian cousins and I share ancestors who were bobohizans — pagan medicine women — and men who held bomoh abilities. My family members and I, regardless of faith — whether Muslim, Christian or Buddhist — understood that "Allah" and "Tuhan" could be used interchangeably. It was never something to get confused about.

As Catholics, we never fought with our Protestant cousins the way I had to defend my church denomination when I came to Kuala Lumpur. Diversity in skin colour and belief were expected, and accepted. Had anyone tried to put my Buddhist or Muslim relatives down on account of religion, they would have my sister and me to contend with.

Underlying it all, we knew, even as children, that everyone's blood runs red, and that we ultimately worship the same God. Those who did not believe in a higher being practised love and compassion anyway. This was good enough for most of us.

Being the product of a mixed-race marriage does that to you. In East Malaysia, taxi drivers would never ask, "You Melayu ke Cina?" Once, I had a conversation in primary school about our collective heritages. Many of us were the product of at least three races, most named five. Only two were pure Chinese Malaysian.

Imagine getting into a cab in Kota Kinabalu and having to recite, "Aku orang Cina, Bugis, Filipina, Kadazan, Murut ..." It just does not work. Plus, there are far more interesting things to talk about, such as poverty in Sabah or the Penan issue.

Blurring the lines

The recent church, Sikh gurdwara and surau attacks brought me home to Sabah and Sarawak and what I missed about them. In Malaysia, our textbooks ask schoolchildren, "Is Ali a Malay?" and "Is Mei a Chinese?" based on what they wear, what they speak, and what religion they practise. This is despite the fact that most Chinese girls do not wear cheongsams on a daily basis; and many of my Malay and Indian Malaysian friends in Kuala Lumpur speak English at home.

In East Malaysia, the lines are blurred. You find Kadazan Malaysians who pray at the gurdwara, and Sino-Kadazan Malaysians with Arab and Muslim ancestors who pray in churches.

My father's Muslim friends were so accepting of pork being served at the same table. This is similar to the acceptance practised by Buddhist and Hindu friends throughout Malaysia of non-vegetarian cuisine or beef meals.

It worries me how West Malaysian ideas of intolerance have started creeping in: during my childhood, peers started telling me off for being kurang ajar while I absentmindedly ate pork in front of them. What then, one begs to ask, of vegetarians or Hindus who do not eat meat or beef and accept the serving of certain foods at the same tables?

It seemed a little unfair when, as a Catholic, I refrained from meat on Fridays and was totally okay with chicken being served at the same table on that day. I would rather have my friends near than feel segregated on account of food. This is more muhibbah, no?

Why fight over a word?

The arguments we have over the right to a word are utterly bewildering. Classmates and I said "Ya Allah!" instead of "Oh my God!", and used the terms "Nabi Isa" and "Yesus Kristus" interchangeably. Out of respect, my Christian friends and I would try to use the term "Nabi Isa" when we were referring to Jesus Christ while talking to Muslim friends. However, if we said "Yesus Kristus", our Muslim friends did not mind — we understood that our faiths had differing concepts, but we knew we were essentially talking about the same man.

This took place in a school that had a 95% majority of Muslim girls, who may fit the constitutional definition of what it is to be a Malay Malaysian. They spoke the language as do all of us in East Malaysia, regardless of race — unlike the Kuala Lumpur community who sometimes cannot even communicate with each other. They wore the baju kurung, as do many non-Muslim schoolgirls throughout Malaysia. And they professed the Islamic faith. However, many of the girls were ethnically Bajau.

The only Muslim I had to worry about was the ustaz who purportedly sexually harassed his students. I was exempt from this because I did not have to take Islamic studies — a part of me wished I could, because it angered me to hear my friends' stories and I wished I could have collected evidence on their behalf.

As early as primary school, Malay-Muslim friends in Sabah made sure I knew that I should never feel forced into Islam, and that some would attempt to do so by force to "capai pahala". I was to take my time to learn about the religion. If I chose not to convert, that was okay, too. One of these friends was the daughter of an ustaz and ustazah.

Closer to God

In the light of attacks on churches, a gurdwara and surau, I feel immensely lucky to be a mixed race child from a family of many faiths. I believe — and this is personal — that this has brought me closer to God. Hafiz expresses it best:

I have learned
So much from God
That I can no longer
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
A Buddhist, a Jew.
The Truth has shared so much of itself
With me
That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even pure

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