Religion Malaysia

The variety of religions found in Malaysia is directly proportional to the variety of different cultures throughout the country. Islam is the state religion, but every citizen is free to practise whatever religion they wish. Islam came to Malaysia in the 14th century via tradesmen from southern India, although their version was less orthodox than the Arabic version. Upon the arrival of the Portuguese colonists in the 16th century, Islam was already deeply rooted in the religious life of the Malaysians, although conversion to Christianity was not uncommon. Although many Malaysian ceremonies still have elements of pre-Islamic beliefs, the Malays are in general fervent Muslims. The Chinese Malaysians still practise Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, while the Indian population are mainly Hindu, although a minority of them are Muslims or Sikhs. Hinduism has been present in Malaysia for more than 1,500 years. The native tribes generally have Animist beliefs and practise ancestor worship.

Islam: The Arabic word ‘islam’ means ‘submission to God’. The basis of the faith is the belief in the one indivisible god, Allah. Mohammed is his prophet. Allah revealed his word to Mohammed in the 7th century through the angel Gabriel. These revelations were written down to form the Koran, the Islamic holy book. For centuries the syariah, the holy Islamic laws based on the Koran, formed the core of justice, law-making and education in Islamic countries. There are five duties which all Muslims must adhere to in life, the so-called five pillars of Islam. These are:
- Shahada: The declaration that there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.
- Salah: Islamic prayer, which must be recited five times per day, in the direction of Mecca. Face, hands and feet must be washed prior to praying. The words and positions are clearly laid out. Every man is obliged to perform Friday afternoon salat in a mosque. Muslims are called to prayer from the minarets, which are scattered throughout Islamic countries.
- Zakat: The giving of alms to the poor. These days, this pledge is not carried out as fervently as in earlier times.
- Siyam: Fasting during Ramadan. During this month, Muslims may not eat, drink, smoke or have sexual relations during the period from sunrise to sunset.
- Hajj: Pilgrimage to Mecca. Every Muslim must make this trip during their lifetime, providing health and finances permit.
According to Islam, Allah is the same as the Jewish and Christian God. Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, David, Jacob, Joseph, Job and Jesus are also seen as prophets in Islam. However, Jesus is not seen as the son of God as in the Christian faith. All of these prophets received the word of God but only Mohammed was granted the whole divine picture. Islam forbids the consumption of pork and alcohol.

Buddhism: Buddha was born in the 6th century B.C. in Lumbini, in Nepalese Terai. During his luxury life as a prince, he was confronted with the suffering of the people surrounding him. After long meditation, he obtained enlightenment and started proclaiming a new philosophy of life. In fact, Buddhism is a reform movement of Hinduism with many similar elements. Yet in a number of significant aspects, Buddha rejected the prevailing doctrine. There were two significant matters he considered to be reprehensible: the Brahman ritual worshipping of the deities and the caste system.
Following Hinduism, Buddha maintains that everything that exists, is an eternal succession of creation and decay (samsara), from which nothing can escape; not even the deities, the universe and humankind. However, he, the Buddha, has managed to break loose from this eternal cycle of rebirth. His teachings are a method of escape to the nirvana, a state of timeless peace and union with the universal mind. There are four significant truths. 1. All existence is suffering; 2. Suffering is caused by desire and craving; 3. By overcoming of desire and craving and suffering will end; 4. ‘The Eightfold Path’ can treat overcoming of desire and craving. A system of thought and attitude provides improvement of the karma of the person walking the path. As the karma improves by walking the righteous path, one reincarnates in purer forms. Finally, one reaches the phase of Bodhisattva, in which one only seeks other people’s happiness. Subsequently one dissolves in the nirvana, the state of enlightenment in which one realizes that all existence is illusion and merely a mirage of an indivisible union in itself.
The most important form of Buddhism amongst the Chinese population of Malaysia and Singapore is Mahayana Buddhism, which is known as the ‘great vehicle’ and promises deliverance to all beings with the help of a Bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who have delayed their passage to nirvana to try to enlighten the whole of humanity by attempting to improve mankind’s karma.
Buddhism was developed between the 3rd and 6th centuries BC and was probably introduced to Malaysia by Indian tradesmen who brought Buddhist monks with them on their expeditions. In turn, the Chinese also brought their Buddhist beliefs when they set up home in Malaysia.

Taoism: Taoism is the only religion that originated in China. Buddhism came from India and Confucianism is primarily a way of life. The founder of Taoism was Lao Tse, meaning ‘grand old master’, and it is commonly held that he was born in the year 604 AD. Yet there are doubts as to whether the man has lived at all. Nothing is known about him, not even his name. Myth tells us that Lao Tse was born as an old man with white hair and a long beard, after having spent 82 years in his mother’s womb.
The concept of Taoism is ‘dao’. Though it is impossible to give an exact translation it means something like ‘the path’, ‘the road’, but also ‘the method’ or ‘the principle’. Even the Chinese find it hard to translate the concept. Another tenet is ‘wu wei’, meaning “without action” or “swim with the tide”. It is best described as being attuned to the deepest flow of life itself. The course of events in the universe is determined by two opposite poles: yin and yang. Yang is the masculine, the clear and high heavens. Yin is considered to be feminine, obscure, passive and unfathomably deep. Without yin there is no yang and without yang no yin.

Confucianism: The ideas of Confucius (5th century BC) have been of influence on Chinese culture for 2000 years. Because of this, his philosophies will be described here only briefly. Confucianism is not a religion; rather, it’s a practical, ethical system; a system of law and order. The philosopher was worshipped like a god, however, and innumerable offerings were made to him. The universe is determined by the order and rhythm in the world: the sun, the moon and the stars move according to the laws of nature. In the same way, man has to live within the scope of the order of the world. This idea is based on the idea that people have the capacity to learn.
Confucius assumed that there was a strict hierarchy and he defined this very clearly and precisely. Only if each separate individual in society takes complete responsibility for his or her position, can society function well as a whole. Family ties and social duties are of the utmost importance. Between father and son (the son is to obey the father unconditionally), between husband and wife (women hardly have any individual rights), between the older and younger brother, between mutual friends and between the master and his subject.

Hinduism: Superficially it would seem as if Hinduism has little in common with western religions. In a sense, that is true. There is no central hierarchy, no common confession of belief and no founding father that all Hindus believe in. Hindus express their religious feelings many ways. Concepts such as ‘ahimsa’, non-violence, or ideas about vegetarianism co-exist with rituals in which animals are slaughtered or self-punishment is practised. A belief in reincarnation co-exists with a belief in a heaven for ancestors, and highly formalized rituals alongside highly emotional ceremonies. To get a relatively complete impression of Hinduism, you would best ask individual Hindus about their ideas on the matter. You will find that almost all Indians have very distinct ideas about their own religious practices and are usually eager to tell you about them. Hindus generally recognize the fact that life has four objectives. Firstly, the aim is to live up to one’s religious and social obligations vis-à-vis the family and society. These obligations are summarized in the concept of dharma. Secondly, it is important to gain sufficient material possessions, so that alms can be given to beggars and itinerant holy men and the family can be sustained. This is known as artha. The third aim in life is experiencing sexuality or kaama, which should result in male offspring. The son is necessary to perform ancestral rituals. The last and highest goal is the liberalization from reincarnation, or moksha (a comparable and much more well-known concept in the West is the Buddhist Nirvana). As well as living up to these obligations, a Hindu is free to think what he or she wants. He can choose his own spiritual master or guru. There is a lot of respect for gurus and elderly people. An equal amount of respect is also paid to the numerous living holy men. Many of these living holy men wander through India and are called saddhus.
Most Hindus also believe in karma. This is the law that one deed prompts the other, and everything you come across in life is actually a result of previous deeds. By doing good deeds you can build up credits which you will reap the benefits from, either in this life or in a following one. Hindus spend a lot of time worshipping gods that live in temples. These can be enormous temples or small home shrines in a corner of a room where the family god is worshipped. In temples, god lives like a king. Many Hindus believe that it is possible to actually meet their god in the temple.

A visit to a Hindu temple is an introduction to the huge pantheon of Hindu gods. Most Hindus will tell you that they believe in just one god, even though thousands of Hindu ‘gods’ exist. If you ask about this, they will usually tell you that the many gods are merely reflections of one divine entity, like the many surfaces of a diamond. If a ray of light falls on different surfaces of a diamond, it will illuminate different aspects of the diamond, yet there is still just one diamond. The most prevalent Hindu ‘gods’ are Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesh. Brahma is the name of the complete entity that gives rise to the many gods (he is, in effect, the diamond in the analogy).

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