Salamat Datang – welcome to Malaysia!
Humid air, fragranced by overwhelmingly lush greenery, greeted me as I stepped out of Kuala Lumpur airport. I was beyond excited – this wasn’t just a regular tourist vacation; I was there to see my family for the first time since I’d got married and left Canada, my homeland, two years ago.
My family moved to Malaysia about a year after I moved to Egypt with my husband, eliciting complex feelings on my part. Whenever I thought about seeing my family again, I’d always assumed that “going home” would mean returning to beautiful British Columbia. At first, I resented the idea of my family leaving the place I had always called home. How could I feel at home in a completely different country, with a culture that was completely foreign to me?
However, my trip to Malaysia cured me of my misgivings, alhamdulillah. Within days of arriving, I was enthralled and enchanted by this jewel-toned land, studded with masajid and multi-ethnic markets.
Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice!
Malaysia is truly one of the most fascinating Muslim countries in the world. It is a literal hodge-podge of colours, languages, ethnicities, cuisine, and so much more! It is home to ethnic Malays, Indians, and Chinese, and graciously hosts business people and expats from around the world. The flavour of Malaysian culture is difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint; it draws upon its own historic legacy while welcoming all international contributions. However, one thing is for certain – Malaysia’s heart beats to the rhythm of Islam.
From halal cuisine of every stripe, to the hijab-a-riffic baju kurung (traditional Malaysian women’s clothing; a long blouse over a skirt) sported by smiling local women, Islam is evident at every turn. Like the country itself, Malaysia’s Muslim culture is lush, vibrant, and welcoming.
Food plays a central role in Malaysian society. Whether by oneself or with a group, every meal offers an opportunity to experiment with different flavours or simply to enjoy culinary favourites. At every street corner, throughout every shopping centre and in every home, one can find a dizzying array of cuisines, both “authentic” and contemporary fusions. The overwhelming combination of spices is enough to make your head spin!
Local markets offer classics such as satay and mutabbaq (an Arab-originated fried bread stuffed with ground meat and eggs), available 24/7. Of course, one hasn’t truly savoured Malaysian culture if one hasn’t tried the world-famous roti chanai, a buttery, flaky Indian-style flatbread served with a curry or two in the traditional Malaysian style.
If you have a craving for more variety and a more up-scale seating arrangement than the tables and chairs on the sidewalk, you need never look far for one of the countless restaurants that boast food from every corner of the world. Asian, Mediterranean, Western, Indian, or Arab, you can find an establishment offering each and every dish you could possibly imagine (and many that you can’t!).
Infused with Islam
Beyond the scents and sights of Malaysia’s bustling city centres, one cannot help but notice the unique way that Islam is evidenced in the country.
Masajid in Malaysia are open, airy affairs, letting in the bright sunshine and fresh breezes while you pray. Many masajid have no physical barrier between the men and women, and salah in Jama’ah is conducted truly sunnah-style: with the men in the front, young children in the middle, and women behind. To see this sunnah being observed, with absolutely no controversy and no free-mixing between the genders, was something very special.
Many neighbourhood masajid will play beautiful Qira’ah of Qur’an over the loudspeakers, about fifteen minutes before the adhan. I will never forget the amazing experience of walking in the park with my mother and my daughter, with Sheikh Mishary al-Afasy’s recitation in the background! In striking contrast to many Orientalist stereotypes, it made me smile to see Muslim women driving their families – including fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, to the masjid for salah and Islamic classes. Entering the masjid, I smiled to see the women’s section filled with a sea of refreshing white khimars for salah – I was the sore thumb sticking out, all in black!
After Salatul Maghrib, the weekly Tafseer class began, with attendees young and old whipping out their notebooks and taking diligent notes. Now these were true students of knowledge! Leaving the masjid, I realised that the class was broadcast over the loudspeakers for the members of surrounding homes who were unable to come to the masjid itself for the class. What a blessing to have knowledge delivered right to your ears, in the comfort of your own home!
These beautiful sights were not restricted to the masjid, however. At the numerous malls and markets, where I shopped, shopped, shopped ‘till I almost literally dropped, the adhan would remind us to make our way to the nearest surau (musalla/ prayer place). It was heartening to see even un-hijabed sisters, dressed in leggings and T-shirts, care a great deal about praying on time.
Passing a display of TV screens made me pause, stare, and laugh out loud: Malaysia’s film culture involves a lot of horror movies, and the one playing on the screen in front of me featured the heroine in a graveyard, menaced by ghastly ghouls and goblins. Her weapon of choice? Why, Aayatul Kursi, of course! Malaysian TV doesn’t only feature shivers and terrifying thrills; one particular children’s channel caught my eye with its daily show featuring an ustaaz and his young students, both boys and girls. Colourful and entertaining, each episode broadcasts the reading of Qur’an and an age-appropriate explanation of the verses’ meanings (tafseer). Not only were the children adorable, but their recitation was quite beautiful, masha Allah!
While my memories of Malaysia are simply too many to recount, there was one very special moment that I will treasure forever: Going to the private women’s surau on the roof of Central Market, taking off my niqab and hijab and feeling the breeze on my face and through my hair!
Zainab Bint Younus (aka AnonyMouse aka The Salafi Feminist) is a Canadian Muslim woman who believes that we have a great deal to learn from the women of our history.