THE late Malcolm X did it, and he’s a hero. Amina Wadud did it, and people call her a freak. “It” being converting to Islam. And as African Americans, Malcolm and Amina did it in the belief that Islam offered them spiritual liberation and justice.
People convert to different religions all the time. Who can forget rock ‘n roll legend Tina Turner‘s conversion to Buddhism, which eventually empowered her to escape her abusive marriage to Ike Turner? In another highly publicised — and highly mocked — journey of spiritual discovery, pop music icon Madonna found inspiration in the mystical Kabbalah sect of Judaism in the late 1990s. The creator of the Chronicles of Narnia, CS Lewis, also wrote extensively about his conversion to Christianity.
But the search for spiritual authenticity does not seem to be the only reason for certain individuals to convert. Former Argentinian President Carlos Menem was born to a family of Syrian Muslim migrants. He realised, however, that if he ever wanted a shot at leading Argentina, he could not remain a Muslim. So he converted to Catholicism and had his marriage to his Muslim wife, Zulema, annulled.
In Malaysia, however, the laws give religious conversions another layer of controversy and urgency. Most recently, the High Court yet again gave jurisdiction to the syariah court to determine whether a non-Muslim, art director Mohan Singh a/l Janto Singh, was a Muslim at the time of his death, despite his Sikh family’s dispute of his conversion.
Earlier, in April 2009, M Indira Gandhi was in the spotlight when she protested her Muslim-convert husband’s unilateral conversion of their three young children to Islam without her consent.
But Mohan Singh and Indira Gandhi are only the tip of the iceberg of conversion controversies in Malaysia. Mohan Singh’s case seems to be yet another consequence from the unprecedented tussle in 2005 over Everest climber M Moorthy‘s religion at the time of his death. Moorthy’s family had insisted on giving him a Hindu funeral, but the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department eventually buried him as a Muslim, after the Syariah Court ruled that Moorthy had converted to Islam.
There was also the headline-grabbing six-month detention of M Revathi in 2007 at the Ulu Yam rehabilitation camp in Selangor, where she was forced to cover her hair and eat beef. Revathi, although born a Muslim, was raised by her Hindu grandmother and married a Hindu Malaysian, V Suresh, under Hindu rites in 2004. When she left the detention centre, Revathi famously asserted her Hindu faith by saying, “My name is Revathi. I want to hold on to that name — forever.”
Even the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for detention without trial, has been wielded in certain cases of religious conversions. For example, during Operasi Lalang in 1987, the ISA was used to detain Yeshua Jamaluddin, a Malay-Muslim Malaysian who had converted to Christianity. Jamaluddin’s detention was eventually declared unlawful by the Supreme Court in 1989, but he had to flee Malaysia and resettle overseas.
Indeed, the situation in Malaysia easily overshadows the more complex, diverse phenomenon of religious conversions as experienced by people in other parts of the world. There is even diversity among leading Islamic authorities on the issue of conversion.
In 2007, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, wrote: “The essential question before us is can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam?
“The answer is yes, they can, because the Qur’an says, ‘Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,’ [Qur'an, 109:6], and, ‘Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve,’ [Qur'an, 18:29], and, ‘There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is distinct from error’ [Qur'an, 2:256].”
Gamal al-Banna, brother of the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, says “each and every individual has the right to change his [or her] religion without any conditions whatsoever.”
On the other side of the fence are scholars like Cairo University’s Dr Abdelsabour Shahin who uphold that Muslims who convert out of Islam should be killed. The Malaysian education system clearly adopts Shahin’s position: in the official Form Four Islamic Studies textbook, the authors state that the penalty for converting out of Islam should be death.
It is then no wonder that when organisations such as the Bar Council try to organise public forums on the impacts of religious conversions in Malaysia, some Muslims feel compelled to disrupt them coercively in the name of Islam.
But it is clear that when certain interpretations of Islam become the source of public policies, the issue of religious conversions into and out of Islam affects all Malaysians. And The Nut Graph believes that Malaysians are mature enough to critique, analyse, and argue the issue honestly and with civility. So, give us your Six Words on conversion. Here are some of the newsroom’s attempts:
Back off, let God judge apostates.
Plan to convert? Tell your family!
Conversions: For love or for God?
Senang nak masuk, mustahil nak keluar.
There is no compulsion in faith.
Imposed conversions give Islam bad name.
Kalau tak percaya, boleh paksa lagi?
Kalau bukan pengikut, nescaya tak percaya.
To convert, surely one must apostasise?
Anda cinta jejaka Islam? Jangan harap!
God grants free will. Malaysia doesn’t.
Being an unbeliever might be easier.
You gotta have faith: George Michael.
Some religions privileged over others. Why?
Should only be dictated by conscience.
Anda cinta gadis Islam? Snip, snip!
Inter-religious osmosis — a fact of history.
Creating God in our own image.
Leave body-snatching to sci-fi B-movies please.
Newsflash: Free will produces authentic believers.
The Nut Graph believes in choices.
Inspired by Ernest Hemingway‘s genius, the Six Words On… section challenges readers to give us their comments about a current issue, contemporary personality or significant event in just six words. The idea is to get readers engaged in an issue that The Nut Graph identifies, while having fun and being creatively disciplined.