I begin with the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
I had the opportunity to take some time off and travel. I chose Malaysia because 1) I have never been there 2) I enjoy visiting places where I can learn lessons and the way Islam is practiced would definitely be a good example of how Islam is present in a more highly developed Muslim majority country 3) I am not a big fan of cold weather so it is a great spot to escape the American winter. Although it was supposed to be just a vacation, I did get scheduled to speak at one Islamic University, but it is on the topic of cannabis which I have already prepared quite well.
My trip to Kuala Lumpur began on Sunday Jan 1, 2023. I don’t care much to stay up until midnight for New Year’s, so I went to bed early and caught an early flight the next morning. I read the entire Wikipedia entry about Malaysia on the plane to get a sense of the history, geography, politics, and other features of the country before visiting. After a one-hour stopover in Tokyo, Japan I finally arrived at the airport in Kuala Lumpur.
I passed by a currency exchange counter operated by “Bank Islam”. It’s nice to see such a public display of Islam, even if I am skeptical of whether that bank is really in line with Islamic Law. I was then greeted by two hijab wearing Muslim women at the immigration control counter. It is nice to see so many women wearing hijab and nice to see that practicing Muslim women have job opportunities. In some Muslim-majority countries, either women cannot work at all or only non-hijab wearing women work. I decided to say salaam, and although I did not receive a salaam back, it was still a quick and pleasant experience. Perhaps I should speak more loudly.
I had booked a cheap hotel at the city center while I was waiting in line for immigration. I then caught a ‘grab’ car (the equivalent of an uber in SE Asia) to my hotel. The taxi driver asked if I was originally from Pakistan and I said, “yes, my parents are from there.” He asked if he can put some Bollywood music on. I hesitatingly told him, “I don’t really like Bollywood”. He then asked, “what about salawaat”? I said sure, although I was half-asleep. Surprisingly, he put on Maher Zain. We had a quick discussion about nasheeds and then I asked about the group Raihan that I used to listen to when I first started practicing Islam. He said they are still around and later switched the album to that. It was a nice drive to the hotel. I arrived at 2:30AM so I prayed and went to sleep.
I awoke the next morning, prayed fajr, and decided to go for a walk. The weather was warm but nice. I chose to walk toward the giant national mosque nearby but never made it. I got lost in the downtown maze of central Kuala Lumpur for over an hour. According to my apple watch the walk was over three miles, but it was nice. I ended up in the main train station and tested whether the starbucks points from a gift card I received would work. It did not so I skipped that coffee.
I saw a McDonalds and, although I’m an opponent of heavy westernization in Muslim countries, I noticed their menu had localized the style of food a little by including Nasi Lemak and Teh Tarik. I asked whether the sausage was halal, just to be on the safe side, though I was pretty sure it would be. The man said it was, so I ordered some breakfast. I observed the individuals and families eating. Most of them were probably on their way to work.
I then kept walking and passed through a large bank, several high-end hotels, and a few luxury apartment complexes. It was very interesting observing the people heading for work. It was also nice to see prayer rooms in the hotels. It was not nice to see a giant Christmas tree in the middle of the mall.
Most women wear hijab and fairly-modest clothing so you can tell they are Muslim. Hijab is commonly found in advertisements and on tv, even on mannequins modeling clothing. The Muslim population is about 60% so for the men, you cannot know for sure since there aren’t any clearly distinguishing features that I could notice. Their name would usually indicate whether they are likely Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. The Muslims have very Arab names like Amsal bin Hasan Basri (one of the drivers I encountered later on). This is unlike other places in the ”Muslim World” where there is quite a bit of Persian or Turkish influence on the names of people.
It was starting to get hot, and I wanted to test the ‘grab’ app since my credit card was being declined, so I took a car back to the hotel. I tried to say salaam to this driver more loudly, since his name was clearly Muslim, but got nothing back. He was playing American pop music. I arrived, thanked him, and said salaam again even louder, but got no response.
Later that day, before touring the city again, I went next door to the local mart to get a bottle of water. A fairly-young hijab-wearing sister was at the register. I noticed that they sold alcohol in the store but there was a sign next to it saying “tidak halal” meaning “not halal”. Since about 40% of the population is not Muslim, but Islam is the official religion, this seems like an interesting example of pluralism (assuming that it is not a Muslim owned shop). In hotels and restaurants, there is a picture of the king and queen displayed, similar to what is seen in Saudi Arabia. The queen wears a hijab, which is interesting because it normalizes it everywhere, and the monarchy helps maintain Islam as the official identity and religion of the country.
I board a tour bus. After passing a few museums, I hop off the bus for a few minutes to glance at the national palace. I’m happy to see that the beautiful entrance gate has verse 17:80 of the Qur’an written on top. The leadership of this country is overtly and proudly Muslim. The next stop is the one I’ve been waiting for: the National Mosque of Malaysia.
It is a massive complex which can hold 15,000 people for prayer. It has very modern architecture, even though it is somewhat dated. At the entrance a few people are told that the mosque is closed for visitors. I walk right through because I hope they would allow me to at least go for prayer. Later, the lady clarified that the mosque is currently closed for non-Muslims: only Muslims are allowed to go for prayer. I don’t understand why, but it might be due to some construction that is taking place.
I had to remove my shoes before even ascending the stairs to the complex. As I took my first step, the same lady who had turned the non-Muslims away told me to stop. I turned around and she said: you cannot go inside with shorts on. I tried to explain to her that my shorts are well below my knees but she didn’t care. She pointed to a waist-wrapper (izaar) sheet on a hanger and said I must wear that to enter. I found it ironic that in a country which mostly follows the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence which doesn’t require you to cover your knees (while I follow the opinion that does require it), I was still stopped. Nonetheless, I was happy that modesty is being enforced and they had something for me to wear as an alternative. Since I have experience wearing a waist-wrapper (izaar) for Umrah and Hajj, I was able to put it on without embarrassingly having to ask her for instructions.
I climbed the stairs and entered the complex. There was a table with information about the history of the mosque and literature about Islam. This is a fantastic idea by the government. Since the building probably gets many non-Muslim tourists, it is a perfect opportunity to teach them about Islam. I walked around and admired the architecture, gardens, fountains, and the general atmosphere. I then headed inside. The entrances for men and women are separate but are on the same side and do not have barriers around them like many other mosques have. As I walked in, I noticed there was a very small space for visitors to take pictures and observe the mosque, and the rest was reserved for people who wanted to pray. This allows for tourists to get to see it but not encroach on the ultimate purpose of the mosque either. It seems like a nice balance.
The women’s section, at least for Zuhr prayer, had no barrier. It was a long line of carpet (on top of the main carpet) with ground fans in front to mark off where women were to pray. I noticed some women who arrived were confused and couldn’t figure out where the women’s section was because they were so used to it being in a completely segregated area. It was amusing to watch that and even more so when it finally clicked for them where the area was.
The imam and muadhdhin emerged right before Zuhr prayer from a hidden room at the front of the mosque. The imam led the prayer with perfect tajweed. He had clearly been trained well, unlike some other imams of major mosques in other Muslim countries. After the prayer was done, he made a long duaa and then I decided to go greet him. Before I could, all the people in the front started smiling and shaking hands with everyone else. The people are very friendly.
I finally reached the imam, introduced myself, and conveyed salaam on behalf of the Muslims in America. I left to get back on the bus and continue my tour. I was tempted to try the deer burger being sold in front of the mosque, since I have never tried deer meat before, but I didn’t want to miss my bus, so I skipped it.
It was getting late so I stayed on the top deck of the bus for the rest of the stops. I saw the Petronas Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world, and a few other buildings. I then hopped off and checked out of my hotel. I took a grab car to Cyberjaya, which is the purposely-built silicon valley of Malaysia. Malaysia has one of the highest GDPs in SE Asia. I prayed and went to sleep.
I decided to go for a walk early in the morning and discover the city. Cyberjaya is supposed to be a very modern, purpose-built city. It is, although some parts look a little dated, perhaps due to the humidity and rain. I noticed that most of the street sweepers who were cleaning the roads and parking lots were (hijab-wearing) women. I recalled reading that the unemployment rate was very low (and the birthrate was low as well) in the country but still wonder why it is normal for women to perform these jobs. Perhaps I will reflect on it more someday.
I tried the mee goreng for breakfast, since this was suggested to me by one of the locals who explained what Malaysians generally prefer for all three meals. I finalized my presentation and headed to the Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (lit. ’Islamic Science University of Malaysia’) campus. I was invited to present my research about ‘Cannabis in Islam’. The school recently opened in 2000 and is funded by the government. It promotes Islamic studies and even has an International Fatwa and Halal Centre.
The presentation was warmly received. We had lunch and discussed a few topics. One topic was about the new president of Malaysia. I asked about the “sodomy trials” scandal that had taken place over many years before he came to office. Both professors explained that Malaysia has shariah courts and civil courts. This matter should have been passed to the shariah court but it wasn’t. I told them that I read somewhere (on Wikipedia, not the most reliable resource) that shariah courts in Malaysia are only for family affairs like marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. They explained it is not restricted to that according to the constitution and we had an interesting discussion about pluralism, shariah courts, and the politics of bypassing a shariah court for a Western-based civil court. It is always a pleasure to discuss such topics with intellectuals who are well read on the subject.
I then discussed how Zakah is distributed in Malaysia with another female professor who specializes in Islamic medical ethics. She asked whether I thought it is better for the government to administer it or not. I presented the Zakah issues that Muslim Americans face and mentioned the pros and cons of having the government involved in collection and distribution. I got the contact of the professor who specializes in how Zakah is handled in the country so we can continue the conversation with an expert present.
From USIM, I headed to Malacca, the original capital of the country. I read about the history of the city once again to refresh my knowledge. It is surprising that it had been colonized by three European powers over 400 years, and briefly by the Japanese. The Muslims of Malacca have barely experienced much independence here since the introduction of Islam to the Island, yet there are public displays of being Muslim everywhere you go. I took a walk around the historic Malacca river but got caught in a massive downpour of (warm) rain. Despite having an umbrella, I needed to take shelter in a café. When the rain stopped, I continued my walk. Since it was a weekday, late at night, and it had been raining, the area was almost deserted. Nonetheless, I recall reading that Malacca is ranked as the safest city in all of SE Asia so I felt pretty comfortable.
I woke early and headed to the oldest mosque in Malacca near the old river. There were not too many people present, which was a little, sad, but it was nice to see the people nonetheless. Quite a few stayed and continued reading Qur’an until sunrise. I left for another, longer walk along the river, then headed back, checked out of my hotel, and left for the airport.
Malaysia seems like a great place to visit and potentially a nice place to move to. It is easy for a Muslim to fit in, the people are friendly, the economy is strong and growing, and English is the second language there. I believe, due to the shared language and culture, Western English-speaking Muslims, should maintain a strong connection with the Muslims in Malaysia for our mutual benefit.
[Shaykh] Mustafa Umar | Jan 5, 2023 – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia