It’s the faith that matters, not race
by Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin
In my observations, among the serious misunderstandings involving religion is the use of the term "Malay" as synonymous with Islam and "Chinese" with infidel.
There are Malays who describe a new Muslim convert as masuk Melayu (becoming Malay) or sometimes say that he is "not Muslim but Chinese!" For them, the Chinese represent the infidels and Malays embody the Muslims.
To make matters worse, some Malays label the converted Chinese as mualaf and, more disparagingly in the northern Peninsula dialect, Mat Loh.
Malays assume they are the only pure Muslims, although Chinese Muslims may have stronger faith.
To some Malays, Chinese Muslims are not authentic and are seen merely as hitchhikers.
However, many Chinese who have converted to Islam are more pious, while many Muslim-born Malays are of questionable devotion. Malay attire such as kain pelikat, baju melayu and samping are not the garments worn by the Prophet.
But Malays perceive their clothing as Islamic because it is from Malay culture.
Islam does not impede a culture which is not against its teachings. In the past, Malays perceived the use of chopsticks as wrong because it was associated with Chinese culture.
Actually, there is no difference between eating with one’s fingers or using cutlery, or chopsticks. The Prophet called on Muslims to invoke Allah’s name, use their right hand and only eat permissible food.
The Prophet once told a young Umar Abi Salamah when the latter was about to eat: "Dear child, say Allah’s name, eat with your right hand and consume what is close to you." (Hadith of al-Bukhari and Muslim).
Malays will normally ask Chinese Muslims to change to Arabic names, as if the name Ah Chong, Ah Seng, Lim or Koh would mean they were unIslamic.
Maybe because such names do not sound Arabic, the Malays feel awkward about them.
Sadly, the Malays do not feel the same way about names such as Awang, Leman, Seman and others which are not Arabic either. In reality, there are many Malay names which do not have any meaning in Arabic and some have bad meanings if they are translated.
Still, it is all right for the Malays because they are, after all, Malay names.
Again, are Malays Islam and Islam Malays? The Prophet did not ask those who embraced Islam to change their names as long as they did not have bad meanings.
For instance, the name Umar was used during the pre-Islamic Jahiliyyah period and remained when the person became a Muslim.
I do not stop any Chinese Muslim from changing his name, especially if the new name will make him feel closer to the Muslim community.
Still, they must be given the choice to do so. If the changed names only make non-Muslim Chinese afraid of embracing Islam and fearful that their families will disown them, is it wrong for them to maintain their Chinese names?
If Awang can keep his name, why not Ah Chong?
An assumption that Islam mirrors Malay characteristics has dire consequences in many areas, especially when some Malays themselves act against the teachings of Islam.
Fortunately, most Malays still adhere to the teachings of Islam.
A strong faith is the saving grace in the hereafter.
However, we cannot ignore the fact that many Malays practice syirik (polytheism) and ridicule Allah’s commandments and the Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet).
These Malays are only Muslim in name.
From the perspective of history, the majority of the Chinese in Malaysia are non-Muslims. The call of Islam does not seem to reach them. Perhaps this is because the Malays have not effectively imparted the correct form of dakwah (missionary work).
Instead, many Malays portray an attitude that is against Islam.
Although the Malays can discuss many things with the Chinese, including the political party they should vote for, the Malays do not seem capable of presenting the greatness of Islam and inviting the Chinese to follow their religion.
Since many Malays contradict the teachings of Islam, the majority of the Chinese have misconceptions about Islam or abhor the idea of embracing Islam.
Islam is against negative traits such as laziness, apathy, envy and the like. Unfortunately, many Malays possess such attributes.
For instance, many Malay students are left behind in their studies. If they are set against the Chinese, either at school or university, many of the Malays will lag.
Also, most Malays are not interested in acquiring true Islamic knowledge. They would rather listen to Israiliyyat stories (derived from the Bible and Jewish folklore, used to help "fill in" the details especially when the passage is a narrative piece, which were traditionally deemed helpful or at least not harmful but could cloud the meanings of the Quran), fables and advice which are not founded in the Quran and Sunnah.
They prefer easy instruction without research and thought. At public libraries, the number of Malays using these facilities is still small. Chinese students diligently acquire knowledge, whereas many of their Malay counterparts are distracted by other things.
Some Malay parents will seek out blessed raisins and water for their children just before sitting for examinations to bring on good results. In the end, only those who study hard will excel, not the ones relying on blessed raisins and water.
The non-Muslim Chinese will reject Islam when they witness the Malays’ dependence on such practices but still fail to do well in their examinations.
Academically strong Muslims will not rely on water that was blessed with the Surah Yassin (one of the most important chapters in the Quran). Previous generations excelled because they stressed the importance of knowledge and were sincere in their efforts to acquire it. They were not merely focused on getting a certificate. Such qualities led to the creation of a powerful civilisation of knowledge in Islam.
Sometimes we as Muslims should praise the Chinese. Their children can still do well in their undertakings with neither high education nor paper qualifications. They either inherited the skills from their parents or from practical learning. Many successful Chinese businessmen are masters in their respective fields without having official paper qualifications. This trait is highly regarded by Islam. The religion urges its followers to rely on Allah and to increase their knowledge. In Surah Taha (verse 113) God says: "(Say Muhammad) Oh Lord, increase my knowledge."
Based on what I have mentioned above, how can the Malays bring the non-Muslim Chinese closer to Islam and convince them that Islam has shaped the Malays to become noble human beings? The Chinese businessmen are better managers and portray strong positive traits compared with their Malay counterparts — to the extent that many Malays have more confidence in Chinese businessmen than their own. Where are people like Abd al-Rahman bin Auf, a Muslim role model of doing business? Maybe the Chinese, the majority of whom are non-Muslims, have a keener insight into Abd al-Rahman’s business acumen than the Malays.
There is much else that I can say, to the point that I am inclined to think that if the Malays were not Muslim, there would be little else they can be proud of. If the Chinese can receive Islam in its true form, they will have much to offer.
* The writer is the Mufti of Perlis.