JAN 24 — I learned three things from my short stay in Sabah and they are as follows:

One is that male proboscis monkeys have permanent erections, and that their noses do match the sizes of their penises. In the human male, however, the size of the nose does not necessarily match with his apparatus and one may end up disappointed.

Secondly, because Muslims eat only what is halal, wildlife in Sabah is somewhat more protected and abundant in Muslim areas as they don’t end up as dinner. And breakfast, lunch and tea.

Thirdly, I was told that the ikan tamban that washed up on the beaches of Lahad Datu late last year were actually and truly the militants of the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. They had gone to the bomoh to change into fish, to re-enter Sabah again.

“So we caught them! We killed them, and fried them, and ate them up,” one of the villagers crowed at me.

“We ate up our enemies!”

Where I was, and will be heading to again this year, may be an example of a village in Sabah, or a unique example of how progress is muddling a simple, generous community.

As early as 15 years ago, they were still small time farmers, dependant on the jungle and the river for their livelihood. Today, many own cars, and many go to school, and yet as many are illiterate, and the village has no access to clean, fresh water. Ironically, the village is right beside the river.

The men, at one point, stood up for the village and their needs, but have been browbeaten so many times that they are now tired and meek. The women are hardier, but frustrated. How do they manage their families?

They are poor and yet not poor. They are educated but not as sophisticated as their counterparts in Sandakan or Kota Kinabalu. They are in a state of flux. They want to be modern too, but the trappings of modern life jar with their very nature: they are soft spoken and perhaps, too gentle.

My previous article sparked a small storm and touched a number of Sabahans, who have told me that they are tired of interference from Semenanjung.

Let them decide what, who, when and how they wanted things, especially, religion, to be. Amidst the noise was also dissenting voices who asked, and had every right to, why not? What was wrong with proselytizing and teaching Sabahan Muslims the true, correct Islam?

As an amateur and independent researcher-anthropologist (what a lovely ring to this, yes? Now if only someone would fund my Malaysiana adventures!), I straddled two boxes. The conditioned Muslim self could see where conservatives came from whereas the “writer slash amateur researcher” agreed that the lives of a people should have little interference unless their human rights and livelihoods are challenged.

“As a Muslim, we are urged to ‘menegakkan amar maaruf dan mencegah nahi mungkar,’” a reader wrote to me. “I hope you will be able to motivate the Sukau ladies about the importance of finding knowledge. And to encourage them to motivate their daughters about the values of knowledge.

“They will be different not through the latest fashion, how skinny they are, their make-up or how much they can attract boys (generally not only in this village) but how they value themselves. Most of the women I know personally want the best in terms of education facilities for their children but they are lacking dedicated teachers and resources for revisions.”

But she admitted that she was confused by the article, surely it was the duty of righteous Muslims to correct their brothers and sisters if they erred?

Another participant in the discussion disagreed with the above view. “I believe pendakwah and in this case tabligh need to be sensitive about local customs and traditions, if they are not from Sabah. My ustazah, for example, is very mindful of this. She is from an urban area in Selangor and a graduate in banking, and now married to a Sabahan. She told us once that many customs are different here, and that it is an eye opener for her.

“Personally, there is nothing wrong with using henna as mentioned in this story, or to have hantaran or certain rituals rooted in the respective traditions of Sabah’s diverse community, for as long as they don’t clearly go against the teachings of Islam.

“I feel it would be more beneficial for tabligh or any pendakwah to point out that akad nikah is important, and not the ceremonies that come with it in the event that a couple puts off marriage due to financial reasons.

“Instead of falling into haram due to the long wait, it is better to hasten the nikah. I believe Malaysians regardless of where we are located, what our roots are and whatever religion or customs we follow should be respectful of one another.

“More so when dealing with people from rural areas, who may not have as much exposure. That way, there will be less suspicion and hatred.”

Shortly after my column was published, an article followed, with the headlines, Sabah Christians claim bribed, tricked into Islam.

The muted hysteria that followed had many angry, and sadly the story became a convenient target for blame and accusations. More articles followed in other media.

I can imagine the anguish, but I also see that it’s not just about being tricked into a faith unwittingly.

It’s about poverty and illiteracy, and they have been hijacked and taken advantage of, by parties with a very suspicious agenda. Islam, sadly, is again being used as a tool by a minority that wants dominance. Its grace and beauty are hidden by ignorance and politics.

Two sisters have been my educators on their state, Sabah, all these years. Tread very carefully on the issues, and speak truth, they advise.

Islam in Sabah is used as a tool to create distrust and divide communities and families. Religion used to be a private affair for Sabahans with lots of intermarriages between Muslims and Christians.

Their children were allowed to make their own religious choices and it’s very confusing for the new generation why something that was accepted 50 years ago is now considered haram.

“The sense of anger against Semenanjung Muslims is caused by the fact that the Semenanjung ustaz coming over are polarising the young Sabahan Muslims by telling them not to mix with non-Muslim relatives and friends, and to be more wary about the places they eat in and go to.

“Things used to be based on trust—makan places that used to just have signs saying ‘Serve no pork’ now need giant halal logos, and every week, nasty rumours will spread about these places. Which goes to show what little trust there is now between the Muslim and non Muslim populations in Sabah.”

There seems to be two groups of Muslims in Sabah these days, they told me. The first group is eager to learn more about Islam and the principles while maintaining their own cultural practices.

They are the ones who are more likely to ask questions and to examine whether their practices go against Islam. The second group is very much like the conservatives in West Malaysia. Anything old is bad and they unthinkingly accept that the Semenanjung brand of Islam is better.

This also has to do with the fact that Sabahans have been brainwashed into having such bad self-confidence, they just stopped asking.

“What people ignore is that the history of Islam in Sabah developed differently compared to Semenanjung. You have two large sultanates here—Brunei and Sulu—who both had their own pendakwah from the Middle East running around and educating people. So how do we know which form of Islam is “older” or “purer” or more “correct”? The Sulu, Brunei or the Malay Sultanate?”

“By the way, if you dig little deeper into some communities, they say that the practice of henna came with the Middle Eastern and Pakistani Muslim clerics. Jadi masih haram ke?”

Good luck, they wished me.

It looks like Sabah will need it, as well as me.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.