My earliest understanding of Islam is not a mosque, an azan or a Quran. Rather it was the scene of my Malay neighbour performing her prayer in hr own house.
I was about five, and the terrace-house next door to mine was rented by three young Malay ladies. They were very friendly and they always welcomed me to their home. On that particular afternoon, only Auntie N was in the house. The door was unlocked, so I stepped into the familiar living room, wondering where she could be. The first bedroom door was ajar, and there was my first glimpse of a different type of prayer performed by a woman.
On my black-and-white tv screen (those days there was no coloured screen) I had always associated the Malays praying at only the mosque. And only the men would prostrate in unison to the ‘sing-song chantings’ that to my ears, seemed so good to hear. I had never seen a woman performing solat before, as there was hardly any shown on tv, the only connection to the world for a five-year-old. I thought the Malay women prayed like I did, putting two palms together towards the sky and bending the tips of the fingers up and down three times. And there stood Auntie N all dressed in white facing the wall, looking so much at peace with herself. I didn’t know what she was doing then, but I had the sense that she mustn’t be disturbed. So I stood at the door and watched in silence as she performed her prayers. I watched as she bend, prostrated and then sat down. I observed the way she turned her head to the right and then to the left. Then she looked up and saw me.
Auntie N took off her outer garment and there stood the young lady friend as I had always known her. Even at that young age, I understood that Auntie N was different, that she prayed to a different god. And I as a Chinese pray to another god. The gods that my family pray to have human shapes but they couldn’t move. They were statues and wooden palates that we had to pay homage to, bribed with joss-sticks and food. I didn’t understand why we must pray to statues and wood carvings but because everyone else in my family did, and I was told that I would be struck by lightning if I disrespect the gods, I had to be a good obedient girl and pray to the gods too. And so I did.
I learnt that the Malays were different. They only pray when they hear the sing-song call on tv, that shows pictures of buildings with onion-shaped roofs. And their religious writings were different, like ‘taugeh’ or bean-sprouts. There was no ABC at all. When a very important man died ( it was Tun Abd Razak, but I was too young to know who he was then) both the tv stations available showed only words and words of ‘taugeh’ writings with a pencil as a pointer. It was indeed a sad day for me because I couldn’t watch all my favourite shows that day.
I was fortunate because my earliest dealings with Muslim Malays were good. I was always welcomed in their homes and a majority of my school friends were Malay airs, daughters of teachers and soldiers. I understood more about Islam and their ways of living through observation. Interestingly I wasn’t at all interested in Islam at that time. I even paid my last respects to my friend’s father and my Malay teacher when they passed away unexpectedly due to heart attacks. It was all part and parcel of life, and I didn’t feel odd being the only Chinese girl among the Malays. We were more open minded and carefree in those days, and I suppose being dressed like everyone else (only one among 40 wore a tudung in mid 80s) helped to forge better friendships among us.
Little would I know that I am destined to be a Muslimah like all of them. If I had know, I would had asked more questions about their beliefs etc. But then the will of Allah swt works in strange ways.