Effective reading class.
We were discussing about the problems of reviving the Malay wayang kulit, or shadow play in Malaysia. Questions were thrown about and answers were given freely among us, where half the class were Muslims and another half were not.
Suddenly, Ben stood up and spoke loudly.
“Sorry if what I’m going to say may offend some of you. In my opinion, the problem today is that Muslims have adopted the Arabic culture in their dressing and way of life. Anything that is not Arabic is considered unIslamic. That is why even the traditional Malay wayang kulit has been rejected by Malays because it is considered unIslamic. Even women’s way of dressing is no longer Malay style of kebaya and kurung. Now the women have to cover up in tudung, jubah, purdah and the men in long robes and serban. You have rejected your own culture and tradition in the name of Islam and Islamic culture.”
The hall fell silent.
We looked at each other. I waited for somebody to reply but it seemed like everyone was waiting for someone to take the initiative. I hated to do it but there seemed to be nobody else who wanted to answer Ben's provocative question. So with a silent prayer, I stood up. Haiyah, Aliya again.
There were two issues to be tackled. Firstly, that being Islamic means being Arabic. Secondly, Malays rejected the wayang kulit, their own culture, because it is unIslamic.
I explained to Ben and everyone in the hall that the concept of Islamic does not mean having to adopt Arabic culture. While it is true that Islam originates from the Arab nations, so do Christianity and the Jewish religion. Of course, with the Koran in the Arabic language and the obligatory hajj in Mecca, we naturally have a close connection to Saudi Arabia. However, being a Muslim does not mean that we have to adopt the Arabic culture of dressing. I explained the real concept of Islamic code of dressing for Muslims women, which is to cover all except the face and the palms of the hands for women, as stated in the Koran, surah an-Nur. It is fine for Muslims to wear anything as long as it is adheres to the teachings of Islam; not necessarily have to wear the jubbahs. However, some may choose to do so because jubbahs are loose and comfortable. Same for the men. They can choose to wear serban or go bare-headed. Nobody is being forced to follow the Arabic dress-code.
“But why didn’t the women wear like they used to in the 60s and 70s .ie. tight kebaya and free-flowing hair?”
“Because at that time most of them were ignorant of the teachings of Islam. With knowledge comes enlightenment and changes, laaa. We want spiritual advancement too, you know not just material comfort.”
“Why can’t they leave the wayang kulit alone? Why ban it from being performed in public?”
“Well, keep in mind that the stories in wayang kulit plays are Hindu epic of Ramayana and Mahabaratha, with jins, fairies and Hindu gods. The people who perform the shadow plays are Malay Muslims; hence it is contradictory to teachings of Islam. Furthermore, as we know, the puppeteers had some ‘mantra’ or chants before performance to appease the ‘spirits’ of the puppets, which is syirik or wrong according to Islam. So this shadow play is banned because it contradicts with Islamic teachings. Of course, if we adapt it to other stories and stop the ‘mantra’ ritual, of course it can be performed again or public viewing.”
“But that won’t be original wayang kulit anymore!!”
“Tell me the, what cultural practices remain pure and original today? Chinese wedding? Hindu funeral rites? We adapt according to the time and our increased knowledge, don’t we all?”
Others had joined in the discussion. We had a long heated one that day, and needed the wise comments of the lecturer to close the discussion amiably. There are still a lot of issues that the other communities do not understand or misinterpreted. Kost of these concepts are not highlighted or discussed openly, so the misinformation remains among the communities. Too bad.
After the class, I asked my Muslim friends why they has not answered Ben’s question.
“Eee, tak tau la bagaimana nak jawab, Aliya.” ( I don’t know how to answer)
“ Takut salah jawab, nanti kena batang hidung sendiri.” (Scared of answering wrongly, then I'd been seen as stupid)
“My English is not that good. I don’t know what to say.”
“ I was waiting for others to answer first, hehehe…”
Well, perhaps because I was not a born-Muslim I think differently. I don't keep quiet like most Malay Muslim ladies do. I guess being a revert gives one certain advantages and a different way of thinking. Also I believe that we have to be prepared all the time to answer such questions as well as we can. Loose the chance due to our own insecurities and we might loose the chance to give true information about Islam to others. The only way to be confident to answer is through readings of religious books on Islam, especially the Koran. Don’t you agree?