October 26, 2013
The recent Mid-Autumn Festival in Ipoh witnessed a lantern procession held at an unlikely location: the Muhammadiah Mosque in Tasek Jaya.
It isn't commonplace for a traditional Chinese festival to be held in a Malaysian mosque because most congregations consist of Malays with a markedly different cultural background.
But the congregants of the Muhammadiah Mosque are hoping to help foster cross-cultural understanding.
The mosque, in existence since 1980, has about 300 Chinese Muslim members. Many are Muslim converts, primarily through marriage. The congregation now enjoys a beautiful new facility completed in September and distinctive for its Chinese architecture.
"The common perception is, when non-Muslims embrace Islam, they are also giving up their own identities. This is not true. As Chinese, we still have our traditions," Lili Chan told Khabar Southeast Asia.
Lili, a mother of three who embraced Islam to marry her Malay husband shortly after the infamous May 13th sectarian riots in 1969, said there are complexities in blending Chinese traditions with Islam.
In Ipoh, where 70% of the population is Chinese, people who convert to Islam are often seen as having abandoned their roots.
For example, Chan said she had to give up pork, which is considered unlawful in Islam but is a staple of Chinese menus, especially at family reunion dinners on the eve of Chinese New Year.
An old mandate requiring converts replace their family name with Abdullah (servant of God) is considered insulting among Chinese, who place great value on their surnames. Now, relaxed rules on this issue allow many new converts to retain their original names.
Also, converts are discouraged from paying respects to one's ancestral family altar, seen by Chinese as a breach of filial piety.
As a result of such requirements, many converts choose to keep their embrace of Islam a secret from family members.
Muslim convert Amin Thein recalls how he'd go home hungry after a day's work, only to discover pork dishes on the dinner table. Unable to tell his Chinese mother the truth, he'd cook up an excuse, saying he'd eaten with co-workers.
"But I have no regrets. I converted on my own free will through my understanding of the religion from my Muslim friends who have given me much support and guidance throughout my spiritual journey," Amin said.
Meanwhile, some Muslims may fear retaining Chinese customs will lead a family astray from the Prophet's teachings.
"We do not force the issue. As Muslims, we believe in being patient and by achieving understanding through peaceful dialogue. This is the beauty of Islam," Lili said.
Said Mosque Committee Deputy Chairman Fadzli Cheah Abdullah, "We are praying for gradual changes through education and gentle dialogue."
Fadzli, a neurosurgeon and medical director of KPJ Ipoh Specialist Hospital, said the lantern procession was one way to foster better understanding for all parties.
"There is a difference between religion and culture," he said.
The lantern festival, he explained, commemorates how the forefathers of Chinese Muslims fended off invading Mongols– including by planting secret messages in mooncakes. It is not a form of worship of the moon goddess, as Malays often believe.
"It is through no fault of theirs, as they may not have been exposed to Chinese culture," Cheah said.
A June 2012 dumpling festival at the mosque was another opportunity to introduce Chinese culture to Malay Muslims. The dumplings, Cheah said, are symbols of filial piety in memory of a daughter who drowned while trying to save her father.
An impromptu dumpling-wrapping demonstration, conducted by a Malay lady married to a Chinese man, surprised visitors amidst the weeping willows and goldfish pond.
In the end, love triumphs over all, according to Siti Mashitah, the Malay wife of Hafiz Ng, an ustaz who conducts religious classes for new converts.
"When I married Hafiz, there was no problem. My parents were happy to have gained a son," she said. "In fact, I am glad for the marriage, because our two sons are beautiful because they are of mixed parentage."