JAN 10 — “Aku nak Islam lama balik. Bukan Islam ini.” (“I want the old Islam back, not the current one.”)
I was in Sabah recently, right smack in a small village of 2,000 people. (I am not naming the village because I feel protective over it.) I was there to assess the socio-economic situation of the village, and after a few days of being viewed as a visitor, my newfound friends finally felt comfortable enough to let their guard down.
We were at the anjung of the homestay I stayed in. A faint scent of the sweet but pungent smell of the palm oil that had muddied the village river drifted over from time to time. The village was quiet; an occasional clanging of kitchen utensils broke up the stillness of the night.
The homestay owner had family visiting her. The conversation was banal at first, and like all conversations, family illnesses, ghosts, the rising cost of living peppered the air. A short acknowledgement about a friend’s death stirred the hornet’s nest: the women became very angry.
The martriach of the family looked hard at the homestay owner, who turned to me to explain.
“We Orang Sungai (the people of the river) have always been Muslim,” she said. “And like the Malays of the Semenanjung (Peninsular Malaysia), we have our customs.”
“The thing is, orang Semenanjung are intent on destroying us.”
The arrival of ulamas (preachers) from the Peninsula over the last few years in Sabah, and especially in the interiors, is tearing apart the social fabric of the villagers.
Young, fresh graduates from Al Azhar University and other Islamic colleges, but with little life experience, these young men come to Sabah, with the intent of righting the villagers.
“Dulu, we could wear henna during weddings but now they say it is haram.”
“We’ve always prayed, but now these tabligh, they come to our houses to check that we pray and tell off our men for praying at home, they must pray in the surau.”
“Friday prayers, yes, men must go but when it’s not Friday, they can pray at home too. So why is it wrong now?”
When there is a death in the village, they have a feast, a kenduri, so the whole village comes as one, to grieve.
“These tabligh, they tell us it’s wrong. But to us it is not wrong – the food goes to people who can’t afford to buy food. The funeral unites us as a village.”
In fact, the homestay owner and her family told me they practised many things that united the village. Solat hajat tolak bala berjemaah (mass prayers to avoid misfortune, illness el al). Prayers for those leaving the village to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
“Kamu tau tak, sekarang semua ini haram! Tabligh Semenanjung ni pandai – mereka cakap dengan orang muda kampong ini. Lepas tu, satu keluarga pecah, berkelahi. Sebab orang muda kata orang tua mereka jahil. Orang tua pula marah, ini adat resam kami. Apa yang syiriknya?”
The matriarch glared at me.
“I will fight this type of Islam to the death. Islam Semenanjung merosakkan hidup kami di sini.”
Almost everyone I met in the village, male and female, were disturbed by Semenanjung politics. The Allah issue and “… Satu Malaysia… in Sabah we have always been united…”. They thought their counterparts in the Peninsula odd: the latter was supposed to be more educated, wealthier and sophisticated than they, and yet they fought over petty things.
What is refreshing (or odd, whichever side you are on) is that the women want change but the men of the village acquiesce to the Ulamas’ demands. The women are bewildered and disheartened: surely they (men) too want to protect their ways and traditions?
“The men use (this) type (of Islam) because it conveniences them. If their wives erred, they’d quote what the tabligh said. If they want to take on another wife, they’d say that it’s all right by the Quran.”
But polygamy is a small issue. The villagers come from a communal culture whereby the whole village would be involved if there was a misfortune, or a social problem arises. If a child misbehaved, the clan would sit and confer. They would also hold mass prayers.
“Al-Azhar kak,” one of the women told me. “We can’t fight with educated people, we are orang kampung.”
“We give it two generations. Then we won’t be who we are.”
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.