Finding holiness

Fahmi Mustaffa

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Sri Maha Kaliamman Kovil temple, Johor Bahru, Malaysia. Photo: WikiCommons

Dina Zaman
SIRD: 2017

As a multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith country, Malaysia is a place where magic happens. First came the magic, then the traders and merchants from China and the Arabian Peninsula. Over time, Islam found its way into the country’s arts, culture, politics, administration and law. Beliefs trickled from the thrones of rulers to the streets and were eventually enshrined in the Federal Constitution. Our law today protects freedom of worship. Islam in Malaysia has been nurtured over centuries and passed on through generations. I was born and raised as a Malay, in a culture that has absorbed a cornucopia of cultural mysticisms, so religion is a way of life for me.

I remember, as a boy, arranging seven types of flowers of different colours in a bowl wet with morning dew, as my grandfather, a local witch-doctor, or bomoh, prepared to help the sick and the anxious. Through word of mouth, people came from far away to seek his healing powers. As the woodchips burned and spells were cast, I watched in awe as the believers, in a trance, were put in touch with spirits and supreme beings. It could have been “God” in Arabic, al-Lah, because the spells sounded, to a boy, like verses from the Quran. I grew up believing that the colours of flowers are a language, and that spells worked because spoken language creates vibrations in the air; vibration creates energy and energy produces force, thus the healing.

Healing is holy. We are all looking for the same healing but through different beliefs. Such a wish — to find a cure — is a mission of adaption, of survival. Today there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world; some are endangered and some are being strengthened and reformed. Religion, unlike God, is mortal, because it is a belief system. Such a system, to survive the decay of time, obeys the long course of Darwin’s natural selection.

Dina Zaman’s Holy Men, Holy Women, a collection of previously published essays and reports, explores faiths in Malaysia, how they are practised today, and how they have influenced the construction and reconstruction of personal, cultural and national identities.

What is “holy”? The term is associated with the sacred and comes from the Old English hálig. Though a connection to a god, religion or even morality, or to a set of beliefs and practices that should not be violated, “holy” can be more or less anything you want it to be. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.” The Old High German word heil probably said it best: a salutation that carries connotations of health, happiness and good luck.

To define what “holy” means in an age where labels and classifications matter is problematic. For instance, how do you define what my grandfather did? The rituals he used to treat a patient during the night, communing with spirits (sometimes 3,000 years old and hailing from Morocco) that have possessed a human life and asking them to leave the body? The woodchips, the spells, the morning dew, the flowers and the trance: from an early age, this was what “holy” looked like to me.

Reading through Dina’s essays and interviews is like seeing through the eyes of believers and feeling the battles they’ve been through. Such ancient battles, too — between engineering and art, between science and religion. The author has provided a safe space for all her respondents, from different religions, classes and walks of life, to talk about how they feel and what they believe. All topics are on the table: religion, race riots, witchcraft, politics, gender, social class and what it means to be a Malay.

In one essay, Dina talks to transgender people about how they make it through life amid prejudice and discrimination. Although LGBT people’s sexual orientations are no longer regarded as a mental illness, they still endure social and religious pressure to conform. While few of my LGBT friends have committed suicide, many have decided to stay under the radar. Some have married a person they do not and cannot love. It is confusing to me how people can interpret a page from a holy book as dictating whom we should and should not love. I do not think that is “holy” at all, whatever the term means. This is why Dina’s book is such a blast of fresh air. She has discovered people who live as they are and tolerate those around them. The acceptance they seek is from within themselves, and that is more than enough. She shows how religious traditions and sexuality can coexist.

Dina’s Holy Men, Holy Women stands as a brilliant survey of the spectrum of religion, culture, beliefs and superstitions that make up Malaysia today. Every aspect of life — from enforcement of Islamic law, to marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims, to traditional medicine and witchcraft — is explored and tackled.

Since its independence in 1957, Malaysia has faced a host of racial and religious challenges, from the race riots in 1969, to the siege of Memali in 1985, to today’s arguments about the exclusivity of the word “Allah”. Dina’s book attempts to connect the difficult dots in Malaysian history — not an easy job, especially when the wounds are still bleeding.

Fahmi Mustaffa is a Malaysian writer. His latest novel is Amsterdam.
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