Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies
When Ms Tan heard rumours in her native village that her son Danial had a Malay girlfriend, she was so concerned that she moved to the city to keep an eye on him and try to keep even worse from happening. However, unbeknownst to her, the couple had already married and her son had converted from Buddhism to Islam without telling anyone in his ethnic Chinese family.
Video: Multifaceted Islam
This story took place in Penang, but many others like it are being played out all over the multi-ethnic state of Malaysia, in which Muslim Malays make up the largest group of the population. “Many ethnic Chinese convert to the Islamic faith in order to marry their Malay partners, but often don’t dare tell their families,” says Frauke Kandale, a PhD student at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies, which aims to shed light on Islam as a force in culture, law and political life in predominantly Muslim societies and on the coexistence – peaceful or fraught with tension to varying degrees – of Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Europe, Africa and Asia.
Kandale is currently writing her ethnological dissertation “Becoming Muslim: Ethnic Chinese Muslims in Peninsular Malaysia”; Prof. Vincent J.H. Houben, a Southeast Asian Studies scholar, is acting as her adviser. To gather material for her thesis, Kandale spent eight months in Penang (along with her family), where she interviewed Chinese converts and observed them in their everyday life. “Malays make up about 60 per cent of the population In Malaysia, with ethnic Chinese and Indians constituting sizable minorities,” she says.
“Malaysia claims to be a moderate Islamic state, but there has nevertheless been an increasing trend towards Islamisation in the past decades,” Kandale says. Whether or not you are Muslim is decisive in many areas of life, such as the granting of scholarships, loans or coveted government jobs. Moreover, Muslim Malays are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims. “According to the constitution, a Malay is defined as someone who is Muslim, speaks Malay and practises Malay customs, so that converting to Islam is frequently seen as tantamount to changing one’s ethnic affiliation and becoming Malay.”
According to official statistics, 102,997 Malaysian citizens converted to Islam between 1980 and 2001. “But the actual number is presumably much higher, since earlier statistics are not complete. About half of those who convert are ethnic Chinese.”
Converting to Islam is not easy, especially for younger people, who frequently feel the need to prove they are especially good Muslims and strictly abide by the rules. They have to get used to a lot of unfamiliar customs and traditions. “One convert was invited to his Malay parents-in-laws’ house for Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, and was quite upset at having to witness an animal being slaughtered,” Kandale recalls. Some ethnic Chinese convert in name only and try to retain their Chinese traditions or reconcile them with those of Islam. Others take their conversion more seriously, in some cases building their career on it. A prominent example is Brother Lim, who went on to become a Muslim leader who enjoys high esteem among ethnic Malays as well as young Chinese converts. The fact that he is now a wealthy man and can afford a big car has meanwhile reconciled his family with the fact of his conversion, as well.
The Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies receives funding as part of the Excellence Initiative. Freie Universität is the coordinating institution, with the Institute for Asian and African Studies at Humboldt-Universität participating. In addition to spending one year conducting research in archives or fieldwork and writing their dissertation, participants in the three-year study programme are required to attend a number of courses in knowledge transfer and knowledge management. The programme also offers them the opportunity to choose between a range of language and soft skills courses, workshops and supplementary seminars at various academic institutions in Berlin and to exchange views and opinions with their fellow participants.
Freie Universität Berlin (with contributions from Humboldt-Universität)