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Malaysian Religions


Islam is a Middle Eastern religion based on the revelations of Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century A. D.

A Moslem is obliged to confess his faith, to pray five times daily, to pay a tithe of his income to the mosque, to fast during the month of Ramadan, and to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in his lifetime.

The earliest prayer, Subuh, is at about 5.45 a.m. to 6 a.m. to coincide with the first blush of dawn.  The Zuhur hour is at noon, Asar at 4 p.m., Maghrib at dusk and Isyak after dark.

Not every Moslem observes all the hours of prayer, but they are heard from the tower or verandah of Mosques and Surau.  Sung by a gifted cantor in the old days, prayers are recordings, replayed and amplified, nowadays.

Moslems wash their faces, hands and feet before prayer, and put on special clothes.  Men wear long sleeves, long trousers or a cotton sarung and cover their heads with a songkok or, if they have performed the pilgrimage, a flat white cap.  Women drape a voluminous garment around themselves either to go to the mosque or when praying at home.

One month of the Moslem calendar is devoted to ritual fasting, called Puasa in Malaysia.  No food may be consumed from before dawn till after dark.  Night is turned into day with a "breakfast" after the evening prayer, a dinner at midnight and a sustaining pre-dawn meal before subuh prayers.


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Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism
Most Chinese would say they are "Buddhists" or "Confucianists" without any elaboration.  The picturesque Chinese temples hold figurines of various gods and often a Buddha as well, but are not strictly speaking Buddhist.

Buddhism and Confucianism appeal to the intellect.  A popular version of Taoism is considered the "religion of the masses".  It venerates a multitude of gods, each with his or her own powers.  Gods are simpler to grasp than the refinements of Buddhist philosophy.  Regional and local gods, provincial heroes deified, and worthy ancestors hold a place in the Chinese temple.

The Chinese who migrated to Malaysia over the centuries brought along their own gods and learned men, the Confucian scholars.  The village temple was often the site of the local school and the temple committee was also the school committee.

Temple festivals are calculated according to the lunar calendar.  The beginning of New Moon is usually a festival, celebrated with lighting incense sticks or burning "hell money" in big-bellied incinerators.  "Hell money" are banknotes of huge denominations, sold for a few dollars per bundle, which mortals use to pay celestial debts.

The Indus valley civilization dates back to three millennia B.C.; aspects of Hindu religion are equally ancient.

Hindus revere a pantheon of gods, including the Lord Shiva who rides on a bull and his consort Durga who bestrides a tiger.  The august couple symbolize creation, preservation and destruction.  The main feature of Hindu religion is that there is no compulsion.  Pious Hindus have a little shrine in the house where lamps are lit and offerings of flowers and fruit are made daily, but no divine wrath threatens if this ritual is omitted.  People go to the temple as and when it suits them, not because it is the holy day of the week.

By living a good life, a Hindu can ensure that he will be reincarnated as a good person in his next life.  A miscreant may be born as a low animal or an insect!  Hindus may consult an elaborate horoscope before taking important decisions; a religious man will interpret it.

Malaysian Indians celebrate a number of festivals, among them Deepavali, which traditionally marks the end of the business year among some communities.  The house is cleaned and the family decked out in their best clothes.  Deepavali means festival of light, and at dusk, house and garden are dotted with candles and twinkling oil lamps.


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The first Christian churches in Malaysia were built in Melaka after 1511 by the Portuguese.  In 1553, the remains of St. Francis Xavier were temporarily interred in the Cathedral there until they found a permanent resting place in Goa.

The Portuguese cathedral suffered the fate of many a pioneering religious edifice:  when the Dutch took Melaka in 1641, they converted it to their own, protestant, form of Christianity and renamed it St. Paul's.  They added Christ Church to the town's landscape, a blood-red building in the Northern Renaissance style that may still be visited today.

There were Christian churches in Penang too.  All of them mostly served the foreign trading community.  The Malay inhabitants of the Peninsula remained Moslems.

In the early 19th century there was considerable missionary activity in Sarawak and North Borneo, and today both East Malaysian States have a significant number of Christians.  The clergy is no longer "imported" but consists of local priests and pastors.  Bishops, Moderators, Officers and Presidents of the Catholic, Anglican, Salvation Army and major Protestant churches are all Malaysians.



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Last modified: August 31, 2012      Copyright © 2001 - 2012  All Rights Reserved.