Finding Solitude and Understanding in Muslim Malaysia, A Religious Melting Pot

I admit that I was a bit skeptical of moving to Malaysia – a predominantly Muslim country – the very month that Trump declared a travel ban targeted towards Islamic countries. As of 2013, over 60% of Malaysia’s population declared itself Muslim, with Sunni Islam being the predominant sect. The country has deep roots in Islam, which was brought to the Malay peninsula in the 12th century, despite being officially secular and heavily influenced by Buddhism (~20%/pop.), Christianity (~9%/pop.), and Hinduism (6%/pop.).

Here are a few images I took inside both Buddhist and Hindu Temples around Malaysia.

So what has it been like living in a Muslim country? Overall, I have been blown away by the kindness and generosity of Malaysians, regardless of religion.  Religious days across various religions have been declared national holidays (Christmas, Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, Prophet Muhammad’s birthday), and different religious preferences are generally tolerated. I’ve been lucky enough to be here in Malaysia during two of the biggest holidays – Chinese New Year, which I wrote about in this blog post, and Thaipusam, a Hindu festival that commemorates the occasion when an evil demon was vanquished by a spear used by a god named Murugan.

Every year, Hindus from all around Malaysia congregate at the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the oldest temple in Kuala Lumpur, to make a pilgrimage together to the largest statue of Lord Murugan in KL located at the Batu Caves, a holy temple located in a series of caves just outside of KL. The procession is led by a lit golden chariot. People bring milk pots as an offering or, in some cases, pierce themselves with spears or hooks and go into a trance as an offering to Lord Murugan. I participated in the kickoff of the procession from the temple, as seen below.

Here are two videos from the Thaipusam festivities. The first is a dancer honoring the festival and the second is of the procession itself.

Despite living in such a melting pot of religions, I have not changed how I dress, have not received any negative comments, and have not had a single person tell me they are upset with the United States over its state of affairs. When I have asked people how they feel about the election outcome, the typical response is focused on how the value of the Ringgit (Malaysia’s currency) has dropped since the election and what a brilliant campaign Trump ran.

How can a country be so warm and welcoming to visitors from the U.S., a country that has essentially declared war on Islam? I believe it is because of the core values of Islam, which I’ve made a point of learning. I had the opportunity to visit the National Mosque, Masjid Negara, a stunning, serene mosque in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Before entering the mosque, my friend, Kathrin, and I had to remove our shoes, place scarves over our heads, and put on purple robes. The mosque is utterly serene and an architectural masterpiece

The majority of Muslims pray five times a day to remind them of their core values and prevent the heart from becoming arrogant and to fill it with gratefulness. I asked one of my young Uber drivers how he knows when to pray, and his response was, ‘I have an app.’ He has memorized the core scriptures of the Qur’an and recites those during the call to prayer. The individuals I have spoken with about their religion and way of centering themselves has been a very open conversation.

Here is a short video of what the call to prayer sounds like at the National Mosque.

Like all religions, there are extreme ends of the religious spectrum. What I have learned during my time in Malaysia, however, is that Islam is based on living a life of truth, good deeds, and peace. In fact, most of its principles are principles shared by Christians and other religions. Noble qualities of patience, awareness of God, kindness, humility and self-control are at the heart of the religion. Ramadan, a yearly month-long spiritual and physical celebration, is intended to develop self will-power, compassion, and peace. The simple clothing Muslims wear is intended to erase distinction based on race, nationality, and wealth and unite members of Islam as equals.

While there are Muslim practices I strongly disagree with (similar to certain Christian practices I disagree with) but will not get into here, I believe the basic tenets of Islam are good and just. We are far more similar than different, and praying is similar to meditating. Islam has a long history of inspiring creativity, innovation, and the arts throughout much of our history. Prayer is believed to be a direct line of communication with God and through Him, creativity from within is inspired. Here is a sampling of the beautiful works of art on display at the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur.

5 Lessons from Islam that We Can All Learn From

  1. Set aside your ego and have gratitude
  2. Dedicate time during your day to close your eyes and recenter yourself
  3. Live a life of truth and peace
  4. Practice developing your compassion
  5. Recognize that regardless of nationality or wealth, we are all united

Please feel free to leave any questions or comments you have on my experiences in Malaysia!

8 Comment

  1. Very informative!

  2. So much truth in your writing. There is much more holding us together than keeping us separate! Keep up the good work <3

  3. Christina a very interesting and informative article!

  4. I really like what you write!)

  5. Beautifully written!

  6. I’m enjoying your observations and insights….reiterating how similar most of us are regardless of outward appearances.

  7. Sanja Francis says:

    It is a very hard sell: learning peace from Islam! History tells us that the learning should be in the opposite direction.

  8. Lovely article! I have similar experiences from when I was in Malaysia many years ago -including your views on islam (which I have experienced in many countries).

Comments are closed.