Q&A: Being a Minority Muslim in Malaysia

By Celine Fernandez

A trial is scheduled to begin this week in a religious court in Malaysia against two Shia Muslims accused of possessing books that violate an edict that only the Sunni branch of Islam can be promoted in the country.

Celine Fernandez/The Wall Street Journal

Mr Kamilzuhairi Abdul Aziz, head of the the Malaysian branch of Syiah Imamiyyah Jafari.

Some Shia followers say they feel persecuted in Malaysia, where the vast majority of Muslims are Sunni and the home minister and religious officials acknowledge authorizing raids on Shia centers and banning their books. The trial is being closely watched by Shia followers for signals about how open they can be in acknowledging they practice a minority denomination.

On Dec. 6 Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi acknowledged banning Shia books because they “derail from the real Islamic teachings.”

He also said he prevented Shias from registering their society, Majlis Shia Malaysia, because doing so would create disunity among Muslims. “That is why we insist on Sunni as our main belief in Islamic teachings,” he said.

In Malaysia, two parallel court systems operate – one based on common law, for all, the other based on Islam, which applies only to Muslims and hears cases pertaining to religion and family matters, such as divorce and inheritance. While a national religious body creates rules – fatwas – each state will adopt the fatwa after the ruler of the state consents to it.

At a press conference on Dec. 12, Mr. Ahmad said recognizing only Sunnis in Malaysia was necessary to ensure harmony in society.

“We can have differences of opinion when it comes to politics, but when it comes to questions of faith, we cannot have differences in opinion,” he said. “This will split the Muslim community.”

Well-known Sunni Muslim cleric Dr. Muhammad Asri Zainul Abidin told The Wall Street Journal that Sunnis and Shias cannot coexist in Malaysia. “In Pakistan, in Iraq, when you find Sunnis and Shias living together, you find riots, killings, there are so many problems,” he said.

Mohd Kamilzuhairi Abdul Aziz, 47, has led the Malaysian branch of Syiah Imamiyyah Ja’fari – the largest of the four Shia schools of jurisprudence – since 2011. Born a Sunni, Mr. Kamil says he gradually converted to Shiism, and then later graduated from the International Center for Islamic Studies in Qam, Iran. Mr. Kamil spoke with The Wall Street Journal about the differences between the Islamic denominations and why Shia followers feel persecuted in Malaysia.

Wall Street Journal: What is Shiism?

Mr Kamilzuhairi Abdul Aziz, head of the the Malaysian branch of Syiah Imamiyyah Jafari.

Mr. Kamil: Shia means followers of Prophet Muhammad progeny. We have 12 infallible leaders – or imams – beginning with Ali bin Abi Talib. The Prophet Muhammad said that after me there will be 12 leaders. The Sunnis have four leaders – Abu Bakar, Umar bin Al Khattab , Uthman bin Afan and Ali bin Abi Talib. The fourth Caliph, Caliph Ali, to us Shia followers, was the first leader. In Shiism, Caliph Ali succeeded Prophet Muhammad. For the Sunnis, Caliph Abu Bakar was chosen to succeed Prophet Muhammad.

WSJ: What are the fundamental differences between Shias and Sunnis?

Mr. Kamil: We believe the holy Prophet selected his successor. He selected his son-in-law Ali ibn Abu Talib, who is also his cousin. This is our faith…that the Prophet selected the leader. Our Prophet mentioned in the Hadith [the narration of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and actions] who will be his successor. In Shiism, Caliph Ali succeeded Prophet Muhammad. For the Sunnis, Caliph Abu Bakar was chosen to succeed Prophet Muhammad. In Shia, there is only one way…selected by God and announced by the Prophet.

We also observe Ashura as a holy day. The grandchild of Prophet Muhammad, Sayyidina Husain, who is the third infallible leader for the Shias, was killed in a battle in Kufa, a city in Iraq on the 10th day of Muharram [the first month of the year in the Islamic calendar]. Every year, we commemorate the martyrdom of Sayyidina Husain.

These are the fundamental differences.

WSJ: In August, the minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Jamil Khir Baharom, who is in charge of Islamic affairs, said that Shias were allowed to practice their belief but are not allowed to spread their faith. Your reaction?

Mr. Kamil : If they say we can practice [our faith], we will be very, very happy. Under the country’s Federal Constitution, we can practice our rituals, our beliefs. We have [international] agreements like the Amman Message, Islamabad Declaration [non-binding declarations that recognize Shiism as a valid branch of Islam and forbid ill treatment of Shia followers]. But the problem is people keep saying we are “haram,” unlawful.

WSJ: Do you feel Shia followers in Malaysia are persecuted?

Mr. Kamil : Under the federal Constitution, we are not persecuted. But under the fatwas, we are persecuted. We are persecuted by state Islamic laws. The enforcement officers, the religious authorities, they do many things that are against the Constitution and that is a form of persecution. Their interpretation of the religious laws are not always correct. We are not allowed to carry out our rituals, for example.

(Notes: JAKIM, the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia, did not respond to requests for an interview to discuss the various allegations.)

In Shia practice, the method of prostration is to place our forehead on the earth when we pray. We cannot prostrate on a carpet for example. So when we go to mosques, we bring along with us a clay tablet called the “turbah.” Placing the forehead on the earth was a practice of the holy Prophet too. But the Sunnis here say we are worshiping the clay.

WSJ : In May 1996, the National Fatwa Council issued a fatwa saying that any teachings other than Sunni are prohibited. Books are banned. What is your response to that fatwa?

Mr. Kamil: They [The National Fatwa Council] banned our group based on false accusations. One of the false accusations is that we do not place much importance to the Haj [the pilgrimage to Mecca]. This is definitely wrong. Every year millions of Shiites around the world perform the Haj. I myself have performed the Haj. I do not know what sort of accusation this is.

(Notes: The National Fatwa Council, which is under the Department of Islamic Development, did not respond to requests for an interview to discuss the ban.)

They also said we do not care about zakat [alms giving]. This is also wrong. We give alms. In fact, we give more than what is stipulated. We give zakat and we also give khums [a portion of our incomes to community leaders]. The Sunnis have only zakat. In Islam it is obligatory to give alms or zakat to the poor. The amount is one fourth of all income.

They also said we legalize temporary marriages. We said that it is not us who believe it but it is in the Quran. It is allowed in the Quran. And it was practiced during the time of the Holy Prophet.

WSJ : Have Islamic religious authorities ever told you that Shias consider the Sunnis enemies?

Mr. Kamil : They [Islamic religious authorities] want us to say this. They try to provoke us into saying this. We told them until the day of judgment, we will not say this. Recently there was an article in the newspaper by a so-called [Sunni Muslim] scholar who said [according to Shia teachings] whoever kills a Sunni will receive merits. This is a false accusation. This is a very dangerous thought. We can tolerate the fundamental differences.

WSJ : Your centers have been raided, your books banned. What is left?

Mr. Kamil: This is a very big question mark. I am a citizen of this country. I have my rights in this country. I am a Muslim. My welfare as a Muslim should be secured. Non-Muslims in this country are also given their rights. I, too, should have my rights as a Muslim. But for me, there are no rights at all. Even animals in the country have their rights.


Categories: Asia, Malaysia

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