What we can learn from Muslim converts in Malaysia

What we can learn from Muslim converts in Malaysia
Perhaps the sensitivities surrounding name changing for Muslim converts is rooted in the increasingly racial form of Islam here in Malaysia.
IN a Malaysia where we have become so strict on determining what constitutes a muslim, the story of non-Malay muslim converts in Malaysia provides us an opportune learning curve towards a more diverse understanding of being Muslim.

'At first my Chinese friends felt a little bit awkward when they found out I wanted to convert to Islam. They thought that once I’ve converted I would be different and that I wouldn’t be as sociable as before.'

Saralyn Hor Abdullah is a Malaysian Chinese Muslim convert, a Mualaf. She read her shahadah—the first step towards becoming a Muslim—at the age of 24 when she discovered her love for the Quran’s rich reflection on past prophets, their trials and hardships. For her the Quran was relatable in its ability to shed a path on our own current individual problems.

Saralyn is a corporate woman. Tidy and punctual, I caught up with her during office lunchtime where she outlined her life as a Muslim convert in contemporary Malaysia. “When someone converts to Islam, they may think that you have leaned more towards being Malay. Because being Muslim is very linked to being Malay. So my friends felt awkward, they thought I would become more Malay, following Malay culture.”

In Selangor alone, it is estimated that around 3,200 Malaysians convert into Islam every year. And while these new followers have different reasons for accepting Islam, all Muslim converts in Malaysia are faced with the decision of changing their names. It has become a sensitive topic. Most Muslim converts are disturbed at the idea of having to take up a Malay or Arabic name upon embracing Islam. For them, the practice feels discriminatory because it forces them to abandon their heritage and culture when they only intend to change religions.

According to the Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association (MACMA) president Professor Dr Taufiq Yap Yun Hin, having to change your name upon conversion is a common misunderstanding. “If you change their name, basically you are trying to change their identity. Most Chinese names actually have good meaning. There is no such thing that is practiced by the Prophet where when you convert a person, you have to change their name. Unless your name has a bad meaning.”
When Dr Taufiq converted into Islam in 1983, he opted to add “Taufiq” into his Chinese name to clarify that he was a Chinese Muslim. “I wanted people to see me as a Chinese but at the same time a Muslim.” But the process was messy. It was only when he renewed his IC card did he learn his name had been changed to Mohd Taufiq bin Abdullah. His whole Chinese name was gone. Only after coordinating with the National Registration Department and flying to his home state Sabah did he get to retain his original Chinese name.

When asked of her experience, Saralyn said she had an Ustazah who suggested to her, in good intention, to change her name. “Like Prophet Muhammad, you put the name Muhammad because you want to have the blessing of having the name Muhammad.” That was the Ustazah’s reasoning.

When Saralyn converted, her family was supportive. She opted to add “Abdullah” in her name to mark a new beginning. “In Islam, Abdullah means the servant of Allah. For me its kind of positive to change my name, its a new start. When you change religion, some things need to be restricted. For example the things you drink and the things you eat. When you are going out with a group of friends, and you are in the attendance list or the reservation list, and if your friends are non-Muslim, your name speaks before you to clear up a lot of things. For example I won’t have to tell anyone that i am a Muslim convert and they wont mistakenly serve pork to me. It avoids awkward situations as your name speaks before you.”

Perhaps the sensitivities surrounding name changing for Muslim converts is rooted in the increasingly racial form of Islam here in Malaysia. Undoubtedly, the frequent politics of defend-Islam-at-all-costs, championed by political parties that are definitively race-based, has led to the perception that Islam is only meant for Malays.

Perhaps we can also link the issue to the Malaysian constitution itself. The famed Article 160 of the constitution defines a Malay as one who “professes to be a Muslim, habitually speaks the Malay language, and adheres to Malay customs.” It is understandable and somewhat predicted therefore that Malay-race based parties, working under the constitutional definition of a Malay, will inevitably grow more defensive of Islam. Because the very essence of their political rhetoric is grounded on the idea that a Muslim defines a Malay and a Malay defines a Muslim; any possible confusion of these two identities threatens the very construct of their party’s formation.

It is in this light therefore that we can understand why small issues such as the use of the word “Allah” or Malays entering a church or the cross being displayed in public can trigger outrage from a vocal segment of Malaysians.

Those who don’t understand this dynamic Malay-is-Muslim equation may question why a religion that has survived over 13 centuries needs to be defended by racial political parties that have only just existed within the past 70 years.

Both Saralyn and Dr Taufiq still celebrate Mooncake festival and Chinese New Year. For them and many other Chinese Muslims, the two festivities are cultural and have nothing to do with religion. “We do have reunion dinners at Chinese Muslim restaurants, we do still celebrate the same way, we have steamboats and we have mandarines. Sometimes people don’t understand that we have changed religion, but on the culture side, we are still ethnically Chinese,” said Saralyn.

When asked what he would do during Chinese New Year, Dr Taufiq delightedly explained how he would organize a gathering and invite members of his organization who had non-Muslim relatives. “We want to open their eyes and show them that we are Chinese Muslim, but we are Chinese as well. Most of them think that we have become a Malay. Some of them thought I wanted to be Malay or Bumiputera or something like that. But its not true at all.”

In a Malaysia where we have become so strict on determining what constitutes a Muslim, the story of non-Malay Muslim converts in Malaysia provides us an opportune learning curve towards a more diverse understanding of being Muslim.

Malaysia isn’t alone in the debate of whether one should change names upon conversion. Imam Khalid Latiff, the Islamic Chaplain of New York University addressed the issue after many people had asked why his wife, Priya, had not adopted a “Muslim name.” As Imam Latiff explains, “We are different in our backgrounds and we should be entitled to stay true to what makes us uniquely us. Embracing Islam does not necessitate having to commit a cultural apostasy of some kind. Priya’s name is not un-Islamic just because it’s not an Arabic name.”

Dr Umar Farooq Abdullah, a Muslim scholar from the Nawawi Foundation based in the US wrote an article entitled “Islam and the Cultural Imperative” in which he explains how cultural diversity has always been embraced and appreciated in the growth of Islam: “In history, Islam showed itself to be culturally friendly, and in that regard has been likened to a crystal clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet and life-giving but—having no color of their own—reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow. In China, Islam looked Chinese, in Mali, it looked African. Sustained cultural relevance to distinct peoples, diverse places, and different times underlay Islam’s long success as a global civilization.”

So the strength of Islam, the reason it has survived and thrived as a religion in the past 13 centuries comes from the fact that it accepts and is flexible enough to compliment believers of diverse backgrounds.

Imam Latiff puts it beautifully when he said that “the beauty of a faith that claims universality and appreciation of diversity the way Islam does is that we all have the opportunity to gain from each other so long as we’re comfortable with the idea that we’re all not going to be the same. Islam is not better in one part of the world or another simply because it exists in one part of the world or another, but can exist nonetheless in every place without it having to be uniform in its manifestation.”


*Shamil Norshidi is a special adviser of a Malaysian politician and a columnist.

**The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.