Letter from Malaysia
By Nurhidayati Abd Aziz
The opportunities that brought our paths together seem to be a random one. I first met Hanani when I was on a work trip to Nanning and she was one of the speakers at the conference we both attended.
Both of us work with data and trying to find out the patterns for which both our market segments could understand. We exchanged name cards then, delighted to find a fellow woman professional working in science.
A few months later, we met again.
This time we were students in a design thinking class. Together with a couple of other hopeful young professionals we sat in the same group and worked on the same project. At the end of the day, our project was voted the most promising by the rest of the class.
Saying to Hanani now that our path has crossed twice and for completely different reasons, I invited her to connect on LinkedIn and before long I asked if she would be interested to meet and chat about my project.
As it was Ramadan (the fasting month), we promised to meet and break our fast together. We exchanged updates about our lives and laughed as we realised that both of us started a new job earlier this year for the same reason of wanting to spend more time focusing on other aspects of our lives instead of just work.
‘‘I remember coming home late most days, finding my parents already asleep in their room. Three, five minutes ¬¬ was all I had to speak to them.”
The more I observe, the more I feel inadequate
When we sat down for dinner, I asked Hanani where did she go to school. Coming from an all-girls school down South, Hanani took up electrical engineering in the United States and worked briefly for a communication company before continuing her Master's degree.
She moved on to work for a think-tank organisation upon her return, and we found out to our great humour that while there she attempted to recruit me into her group. I vaguely remember an interview I had to pass due to work commitment at the time.
As we warm up to our topic, I asked Hanani if she considers herself a religious person or whether she thinks religion features strongly in her life these days.
At the beginning, Hanani said, being religious to her is about observing routines or rituals with family and friends at school like praying and fasting. “Nowadays however, I find that the more I try to observe. The more I feel inadequate,” she said.
“When do you think you start to realise that you have this identity as a Muslim?” I asked Hanani.
“When I went to the United States,” she was quick to answer. “I had witnessed how some of my friends changed from being non-observant to observant Muslims. Not to mention those who went from being Muslim to being agnostic and atheist.”
Observing and witnessing these changes, according to Hanani, made her feel more aware of who she is and where she stands in the grand schemes of life.
“Then there's the Jehovah's Witness group who would stop us on our way from college asking questions like: Why do you pray? Why do you wear the hijab? How can you prove that God is All-Merciful?”
“I must say, I didn't really seriously think of myself as a Muslim up until that point,” Hanani smiled as she made her last point.
Meaning before actions
I asked Hanani what was her religious education like when she was young.
“My mother is a major influence. She works in JAKIM and wears tudung labuh. Although my parents never strongly impose on us to follow the same things they did, we were sent to sekolah agama (religious school) and kelas mengaji (Quranic lessons),” Hanani said.
In retrospect, Hanani quickly added, “And from my own experiences, I would not make my kids go through the same thing.”
I asked her what she meant. Hanani said, “I don't want them to learn the routines first without understanding the meaning and drivers behind the actions.”
Out of curiousity, I asked Hanani when did she starts wearing tudung (headscarf).
“Darjah Dua (Grade Two) -- but I only understand its purpose for modesty and propriety in Darjah Enam (Grade Six), with the physical changes that are happening to your body,” she chuckled. “I was really a naughty student, like a boy.”
During her time in the boarding school, the sense of camaraderie from practicing the rituals collectively made Hanani really see the beauty of Islam. Praying and fasting together with her friends, waking up early to go to the school mosque before dawn, sitting in groups to discuss ideas and philosophies about Islam.
“Oh, by the way, do you realise that a lot more young people these days seem to be moving closer to Islam?” Hanani suddenly turned her question to me.
I quickly agreed with Hanani, noting the same happening among my peers from school. As the standard of living increases, there seems to be increased association to urbanites being more socially conscious and religiously aware.
“You know how the 19th Century is the age of industrialization, 20th Century is the age of technology, 21st is for biotechnology? I have read people say that the next one would be the age of spirituality,” Hanani added as we contemplated the changing nature of religion in our age.
A belief system for visionaries
Joking aside, “I do believe Islam is a belief system for visionaries,” Hanani said.
“Have you heard about the Marshmallow experiment?” she asked me.
The experiment was conducted in Stanford University, she explained, where the kids were given a marshmallow and was told that if they don't eat marshmallow in how many minutes they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow.
“The kids who were able to practice restraint, or delayed gratification are found out, years later, to perform better in their lives academically and professionally.”
Similarly, Hanani pointed out that the long-term approach Islam has provides a lot of comfort especially to us Millenials with our instant gratification culture.
“Islam teaches you about endurance and delayed gratification. If you don't get something now, you know there will be rewards for you in the Hereafter. Additionally, there is a collection of systems in Islam that gives you framework for your life, it makes you more disciplined,” Hanani said.
Bringing the conversation closer to home, I asked Hanani what she thinks about religion being dragged to the public sphere such as the Allah's issue between Christians and Muslims.
“I know people who works for JAKIM/JAIS, and I can say that I understand where they are coming from. They are mandated by the Malaysian Constitution to bring people closer to Islam. But at the same time, I do believe that the issue has been blown out of proportion and in some ways sensationalised for political and popularity gain.”
“We already have the perfect example of how to navigate our way among different tribes, races and religions, The Charter of Medina (from during the Prophet Muhammad’s time), what’s so difficult?” Hanani shrugged her shoulders, as if putting the matter to close.
“Do you think religion and how we practice religion is a personal or public matter?” I asked Hanani as we conclude our discussion.
“I believe in freedom to choose religion as long as we don't harm each other,” was Hanani's succinct response.
“I read about how among the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism is about overcoming God’s wrath and Christianity about redemption. To me, Islam is both personal and communal.
“The perfect example I can think of is the pilgrimage in Mecca. The experience itself is not only spiritually uplifting, but it’s also about being a part of something greater than yourself. It gives you strength, commitment and sense of purpose.”
This article is part of the author’s series on “Growing Up in Religious Asia” on http://www.insideasean.com.