Culture, religion and beliefs, as many of us may see it, are often common factors most people would use to identify ourselves with, both as individuals and as communities. For many people, these factors help us understand and know ourselves further in order to gain some sense of purpose in life. From the time we begin forming our own ideas until the day we leave all thoughts behind, our upbringing, surroundings and experiences have directly and indirectly informed the way we see ourselves, and the world we live in. Our cultures, religions and beliefs become reference points that we use to make sense of the life we live, and inform values and virtues within that many of us claim to hold dear to, i.e., of compassion, love, care, loyalty, mercy and responsibility.
However as we grow, most of us begin forming fixed views on certain realities in life. Sometimes because we are misinformed, or perhaps out of convenience, these fixed views may become stereotypes or biases. Without really understanding much about the cultures, religions and beliefs of people and places other than the community we fit in and ourselves, we begin labelling others and putting them in boxes in an attempt to “understand” them. A number of us begin to allow ourselves to accept these created views as truth or dogma. The diversity we have within people and communities have now become “foreign” to each other, and we either learn to befriend and accept, or merely tolerate, or worse, become suspicious of and make as our enemies.
Growing up in Malaysia, I can’t help but notice that all of these happen- The good, the bad, and everything else in between. We claim to celebrate our unique cultures and beliefs, especially during festivities, or to attract tourists to experience our rich heritage – but sadly, sometimes this is only true as long as these beautiful pieces of identity do not “infringe” on each other. A number of us here have come to believe that they must remain separate for many reasons (or excuses) which I won’t be talking much about here, but as I observe, these imaginary lines have been drawn out of ignorance and fear that perhaps we might lose ourselves, our identity, if we open ourselves to others. However, as many friends and I have come to believe, keeping ourselves ignorant about each other can make us more vulnerable to the negative aspects of human nature – fear, suspicion, envy, anger and eventually acts that may very well lead to destroying ourselves and each other, and make a mockery of whatever values and virtues we claim to hold true to.
It was really refreshing then, to note that the establishment of Masjid Muhammadiah was based on the idea of bringing communities from different backgrounds together. Members of the Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association of Ipoh (MACMA Ipoh), lead by president, Dato’ Fadzli Cheah, have long felt that something positive needs to be done to address misinformed views about culture and religion. Although Malaysia is presumed to be a predominantly Muslim country (the official religion of Malaysia is Islam), the majority of the Muslims here are ethnically Malay.
Furthermore, the Federal Constitutional defines being Malay as anyone who professes to the religion of Islam, speaks Bahasa Melayu (Malay Language) and practices Malay customs and cultures. Because of this, there has always been a perception that culture and religion are one and the same for the Malays. Therefore, more often than not being Chinese and Muslim in Malaysia would make a person and/or the community a minority within a minority. Because of misinformed perceptions, the Chinese Muslim community in Malaysia have always had to explain themselves. As a MACMA Ipoh member puts it, “Many of those who share the same culture would say that you have to be a Malay, while many of those who share the same religion would sometimes find it confusing or difficult to identify with culturally.”
Speaking to members of MACMA Ipoh, who mostly also happen to be Masjid Muhammadiah officials, I can’t help but admire their zeal and dedication to build bridges within the wider community’s perception and understanding, and ultimately create that bond and trust where people can come together regardless of their background to work towards a common good. “This masjid is a place can be owned by all races. We wanted to a place where conversations and understandings can begin happen, so that we all can learn to know each other,” said one of the MACMA members.
MACMA Ipoh envisioned a space where this unique relationship between culture and religion can flourish positively, particularly in relation to their own cultural and religious experiences. “This masjid is a place can be owned by all races. We wanted to a place where conversations and understandings can begin happen, so that we all can learn to know each other,” says Ustaz Hadiz Thien, who is a Masjid Official with MACMA Ipoh, as well as an Official from the State Religious Department.
The Authenticity of the Chinese Architecture
The first of it’s kind in Perak, the idea for a culturally Chinese Masjid was proposed in 2007 and opened it’s doors in August 2013. With support from Zakat institutions, the Government and the general public, the site chosen for the masjid was previously the site of a small community musolla or surau that was established in the late 1970s within the Taman Tasek Jaya neighbourhood.
MACMA Ipoh was determined that the Masjid design looks as culturally Chinese as possible. Although a local architect made the drawings, the design process of the masjid went through several phases of consultation with design consultants from China.
The roof tiles were specifically imported from China with several redesigns to suit the Masjid, the traditional Chinese lotus flowers were replaced with Malaysia’s national flower, the bunga raya, and the dragons were replaced with crescents, a symbol typically related to Islam. The huge red painted wooden doors and gateway into the Masjid are adorned with gold coloured knob, typical Chinese design usually seen in Chinese temples or palaces. It is a rather beautiful building, with natural lighting and air circulation.
There are three prayer areas, the main one and the one upstairs with air conditioning, and an outdoor open area overlooking the compound. Surrounded by oriental designs and featuring several courtyards, the Masjid’s compound is adorned with bamboo shoots and weeping willows, as well as a small fountain, making it ideal for quiet contemplation.
A model for racial harmony?
I was curious to learn more about the community interactions around and within the Masjid, and was fortunate to speak with Ustaz Hadiz Thien, who is a Masjid Official with MACMA Ipoh, as well as an Official from the State Religious Department.
“The Chinese community, even those who are not Muslims, feel welcomed and connected to this place because of it’s form. Some even pay respects in their own way at the gates because of their cultural affinity to the place. This is a place that can be owned by all (races and ethnic groups),”explained Ustaz Hafiz. Sometimes, couples would choose the Masjid gate and compound as backdrop for their wedding photoshoot. “We don’t mind this as it is outside of the prayer area, and it would be odd to ask the bride to put on the Masjid’s tour robes over her wedding gown”, said Ustaz Hafiz.
Every morning on weekends, there would be free Tai Chi classes in the Masjid compound for the community – most of those who attend are from around the area and are not even Muslim. Every weekend as well, Ustaz Hafiz says there would be several bus-loads of tourists coming in to visit, where members of MACMA Ipoh would be more than happy to show them around and explain their culture and religion, clarifying that Islam is universal and does not belong to any one culture, but can adopt all cultures harmoniously. As part of the Ipoh City Mosque Tours programme, Masjid Muhammadiah will always have it’s doors open to visitors.
Ustaz Hafiz also says that since it’s establishment, the Masjid has become a sort of welfare centre where the community would come to discuss issues and seek mutual solutions. People also come to seek counselling on family and personal matters, and not all who come for help are Muslim. In fact, residents in the housing area surrounding the Masjid are predominantly non-Muslim Chinese. The Masjid is mindful about not blasting it out loudly on the speakers, so they would lower the volume if there is a request. However, Ustaz Hafiz said sometime people would complain if it is too low as they rely on it as a wake up call.
Even before the Masjid was established, the site was used for festive celebrations such as Eidul Fitri and Eidul Adha. After the Masjid was proposed to this day, culturally Chinese celebrations are held here for the community, such as Chinese New Year, as well as Winter and Summer Solstice celebrations. Ustaz Hafiz said the people would gather together to make dodol (a traditional Malay sweet treat), as well as Tong Yuen (a traditional Chinese sweet treat) in their respective festive seasons.
The daily congregation in the Masjid comprises mainly of foreign workers from Bangladesh and Pakistan who work in the nearby factories or restaurants. Ustaz Hafiz says they bring a lot of vibrancy to the Masjid and are usually the main helpers during events. The State Religious Department has appointed a Malay Imam for the Masjid to be on duty for the five daily prayers as well as weekly Friday prayers. However, MACMA Ipoh’s office is right next to the Masjid, and although not all its members live nearby, they would frequent the Masjid as much as possible. There are regular classes and seminars on Islam held in the Masjid which are conducted by local Chinese Ustaz. The masjid has become quite a melting pot for people from different backgrounds. People are able to look past differences and meet in a common ground to help one another grow in big ways and small ways alike.
What about the youth?
I was slightly disheartened to learn that there aren’t many activities for the youth in the Masjid, at least not yet. Although strong, MACMA Ipoh is not a very big organisation so they must focus their efforts – and what they have achieved thus far is astounding in terms of bridging cultural differences. Generational differences however, might be a completely different ball game – and it is encouraging to know that MACMA Ipoh are open to ideas and suggestions to being more inclusive to young people. Additionally, there are plans to upgrade and expand the Masjid in the near future to include a business centre, clinic, café, gallery, counselling rooms and more seminar rooms.
Perhaps understanding and knowing one’s identity, as individuals or as communities, will always be a work in progress over time. The more we know each other and ourselves, the more we see ourselves in each other. We begin to identify common grounds, which are our values, and appreciate differences as learning points. It is perhaps a conscious decision for all of us to take what is good and leave that which would not help in building bridges behind, so that we can all help one another grow and seek happiness in life together.
Sometimes finding common ground isn’t easy, especially with the baggage of biases and stereotypes. In this respect, I can’t help but feel that the establishment of Masjid Muhammadiah in Taman Tasek Jaya is a great example of not just seeking, but actually assertively establish common grounds to address myths, and begin new stories of hope for the next generation.
“Watch out for your dogma, because it might get run over by your karma”