Tuesday, August 11

The manner of sacrifice

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MALAYSIANS of my generation have grown up with the notion that Aidilfitri is the main Islamic holiday of the year, with Aidiladha being seen as secondary, approximating the way Christians might treat Christmas and Easter; or Hindus Deepavali and Pongal.

l though we often celebrate the endurance of old traditions, the reality is that the way in which we observe religious festivals can change or even disappear completely. Two generations ago there was a widely-celebrated practice called Mandi Safar, which comprised immersion in water (typically a sea or river) to provide cleansing and protection during the month of Safar. Following fatwas declaring this an impermissible innovation (bid’ah), most young Malaysians have not even heard of this festival.

In recent decades, rituals perceived to have a Hindu basis within Malay cultural festivities such as weddings and some royal ceremonies have also been questioned, leading to a wide literature and innumerable tazkirahs on YouTube about what is counted as purely cultural and what is religious in origin. The finer details of these debates can be convoluted, and the intensity of the disagreements can be bewildering. Longside this phenomenon are the various manifestations of religion in public: dress, the prefixing of events with prayers, and the replacement of Malay with Arabic. The 1957 Declaration of Independence in Malay begins ‘Dengan nama Allah yang Maha Pemurah lagi Mengasihani’, not ‘Bismillahirahmanirahim’ (which would be the norm today), and the use of Aidilfitri and Aidiladha is also a post-Merdeka development. The Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal, in announcing the dates of both, still uses Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Qurban.

Qurban means sacrifice, commemorating the willingness of the Prophet Ibrahim to offer his son (the Prophet Ismail) according to God’s command, only to be given a lamb to sacrifice instead.

Several friends have begun to observe the holier option of fasting for nine days (up to the Day of Arafah) before Aidiladha itself, prior to the usual balik kampung, with mosques across the country filled beyond capacity for morning prayers followed by the slaughter of lambs and cows to be distributed to the needy.
For the Bangladeshi and Rohingya community in Malaysia (the recent collective vilification of whom can hardly be ascribed to Muslim tenets of compassion and brotherhood), hard-earned savings are wired to relatives to enable similar celebrations.

This year, however, numbers will be significantly lower: with restrictions on congregations in mosques, large celebrations will have to be sacrificed (even if not to the same extent as Aidilfitri two months ago).

Our vigilance and normalisation of mask-wearing (compulsory from Aug 1) and QR-code scanning is especially important given the recent uptick in local transmissions and the declaration of Kuching as a red zone again.

Inevitably, people will make their own decisions about what group activities are important enough for them to take risks. There was much concern when Black Lives Matter protests saw thousands of people in close proximity in the United States, and debate has begun about the impact they could have had on the shocking numbers of Covid cases there.

Or hundreds of Malaysians on Tuesday, there was an event of sufficient importance that got them gathering outside the Kuala Lumpur High Court. I saw several Federal Reserve Unit trucks parked beside a normally quiet police station, presumably preparing for potential unrest. Thankfully, warnings by police to disperse were sufficient, as memos of the director general of Health expressing disapproval over a ‘Bossku Cluster’ made the rounds.

Our police, our public health experts and doctors within the civil service, and our judiciary: these are just three institutions that the majority of Malaysians hope will operate professionally, independently, and without undue interference from the Executive. Following the conviction and sentencing of his predecessor and former boss, the Prime Minister said that “the government will always uphold the rule of law” while asking Malaysians to respect and have faith in the court’s decision.

Or individuals with political and financial interests attached to certain party factions, the verdict — although it will be appealed — will no doubt accelerate conspiracy, hedging, and even some genuine soul-searching.  Some will conclude that a sacrifice of a former ally is necessary and desirable for their own ambitions; others will conclude that the sacrifice of billions of Ringgit is insignificant compared to the protection of race and religion; and others still will conclude that a sacrifice of power was necessary for the long-term rejuvenation of the country.

And, in keeping with the times, it has been observed that reactions to the verdict were couched in religious terms, whether in praise or disapproval of our constitutional process.  I will use an old vocabulary: Selamat Hari Raya Qurban.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.