KENINGAU: As the debate over who can use the word ‘Allah’ to describe God simmers in Malaysia, a Sabah family where there are Muslims and Catholics are showing the way for inter-faith understanding.
Ustazah Nooraidah Hidayah Dakun, 45, and Catholic priest Fr Francis Dakun, 44, were born to animist Dusun parents in Tambunan, but they and their 10 siblings willingly converted to Islam and Christianity during their teenage years. Their parents converted to Catholicism in 2000.
Nooraidah, who lives in Keningau, said she has her own copy of the Malay-language bible Alkitab to learn more about Christianity.
However, her younger brother, who is a Catholic priest, said he and his four Catholic siblings do not try to convert their other seven Muslim siblings out of respect for their choice of faith.
“We do not see religion as something that separates us, but as something that brings us closer,” Nooraidah told The Malaysian Insider this week.
The Dakun family’s mix of religious beliefs is in stark contrast to the peninsula, where cries to burn the Alkitab ring out and where the majority of Malay-Muslim voters claim the exclusive right to call their god ‘Allah,’ according to a recent survey.
Francis, who is Assistant Parish priest of the 15,000-strong congregation in St Francis Xavier Cathedral, Keningau, said that the words ‘Allah Bapa’ (God the Father) are used in the Bahasa Malaysia Sunday service that sees a regular attendance of 2,000 to 3,000 people.
“The word ‘Allah’ is very normal for us. The whole of Sabah, in particular Keningau, has no problem using the word. Even the Muslims respect it,” he told The Malaysian Insider.
Nooraidah agreed, pointing out that the word ‘Allah’ is in the Alkitab and has been long used by Christians.
“That issue has never cropped up here. People don’t even care about it,”she said.
She also pointed out that the Quran requires Muslims to read all religious scriptures, including the Bible, to learn more about other religions.
Nooraidah said she had converted to Catholicism when she was 12 and had longed to become a nun. But she converted to Islam three years later after she said an inner voice repeatedly told her, “we must be saved when we are alive, and we must be saved when we are dead.”
“In my dreams, there was something telling me to embrace Islam, saying that I would be the one to lead,” she said.
The ustazah said she converted to Islam secretly as her parents, relatives and the Dusun community were against Islam.
Nooraidah’s father and grandmother were spiritual healers, also known as bobolian, in the Dusun community. Every year after the harvest season, the bobolian would perform a protection ritual called ‘menerebung’ for the family that included slaughtering a pig and drinking alcohol called ‘tapai.’ Tapai is wine made from the tuber of the cassava plant.
“Tapai is very important in strengthening friendships. The community said that Islam should not come here,” said Nooraidah.
Nooraidah pointed out, however, that her father accepted her religious beliefs after five years.
“When I was searching for Islam, I found the word ‘Allah’ in a Christian book. It meant that I had finally found it... ‘Allah’ in Islam is ‘Allah SWT.’ He is the one that I have been looking for. Finally, I converted to Islam. I am not afraid while I live, and I am not afraid after I die,” she said.
Francis, who teaches at the St Peter’s College (Major Seminary) in Kuching, Sarawak, said he converted to Catholicism at the age of 14.
“I had many Catholic friends, so I’m more inclined to be with them,” he said.
Francis added that he and his family celebrate Christmas and Hari Raya together back in Tambunan every year.
He said that his father, who died in 2003, had built two kitchens after the conversion of his siblings into Islam and Christianity.
“My brothers and sisters in Islam don’t take pork. The other Christians would like to eat that kind of pork, so we don’t mix the cooking utensils,” said Francis.
Nooraidah, however, said that the family now used only one kitchen as the non-Muslims have stopped eating pork during joint celebrations, although alcohol would still be served outside the house.
“Before this, my father was conscientious and built separate kitchens. But now, everyone understands... we have Chinese friends inviting us to their Chinese New Year open house and they automatically order Muslim catering. Our neighbour asked us over for Christmas. He ordered Muslim catering too,” she said.
There is a restaurant in Kota Kinabalu where Chinese and Malay mixed rice dishes are sold during lunch, which is a rare sight in Kuala Lumpur.
Francis pointed out that religious debates among siblings were common only during their initial years of conversion.
“We seldom talk about that (now). We concentrate on how we can live together... for us, we make use of religion as a source of unity,” he said.
“If we keep on arguing, quarrelling, there is no point because the purpose of religion is for harmony, for love. So we follow that value. We realise that we are not converting each other because we realise that respect is more important...If some people choose their own belief, so let them be, as long as they are happy,” added the priest.
According to Francis, there are about 40,000 Catholics in Keningau, which is a timber and agricultural town located in the interior of Sabah, a two-hour drive on a misty mountainous road from Kota Kinabalu.
While Christians make up just under 10 per cent of the country’s 28 million population, Christianity forms the biggest religious group in East Malaysia, where bibles in the national language are widely used.
The ‘Allah’ dispute first arose in the early 1980s when the Home Ministry, then under the Mahathir administration, first banned Malay-language bibles shipped in from Indonesia.
But the Najib administration came up with a 10-point formula in April 2011 to resolve the issue before the Sarawak polls, where Christians make up nearly half of the state’s population.
In its 10-point resolution, the Cabinet through its minister Datuk Seri Idris Jala, assured the huge Bumiputera Christian population inSarawak and Sabah that they were free to bring in and use their bibles in Malay as well as in indigenous languages.
Muslim and religious leaders of other minority faiths in the peninsula have been at loggerheads over the use of ‘Allah’ following the 2009 landmark High Court judgment that awarded the Catholic Church the right to publish the word in the Bahasa Malaysia section of its weekly newspaper, HERALD, catering to its large Bumiputera Christian following in Sarawak and Sabah.
Muslims are Malaysia’s biggest religious group at 60 per cent, while the minority Christians have been at the forefront of issues confronting the non-Muslim community.
Independent pollster Merdeka Centre, which surveyed 1,021 voters in Peninsular Malaysia at the end of January, reported yesterday that 83 per cent of Malay voters - which formed 59 per cent of the participants - say only Muslims are entitled to call God ‘Allah.’
A significant 34 per cent of the Malay voters also backed federal lawmaker Datuk Ibrahim Ali’s call last year for Muslims to torch Malay-language copies of the Bible that describes the Christian god as ‘Allah.’
The founder and president of Perkasa, a right-wing Malay group, had sparked a potential faith crisis in December in response to DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, who urged Putrajaya to lift a ban on Malay-language bibles in Sabah and Sarawak, where the word ‘Allah’ has been in use for centuries. -- The Malaysian Insider