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  • Becoming Muslim or Becoming Malay?Conversion to Islam in Two Sinophone Malaysian Short Stories
  • Antonio Paoliello

Historically at the crossroads of important sea routes sailed by Arab, Chinese, and Indian merchants, and due to its more recent history of British colonization, the territory that constitutes present-day Malaysia has been deeply influenced by civilizations other than its local cultures. In fact, "the Malay World and more so the Malay Peninsula and the adjacent islands [have] been since time immemorial the half-way house of peoples plying the sea between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific" (Abdul 108). As Jim Baker notes:

[Malaysia] contains cultural elements of many countries-the indigenous influences of archipelago Southeast Asia; the impact of Asia's cultural giants China and India on the area; the coming of Islam from western Asia by way of India; the contributions made by the West through European colonialism and economic exploitation; and finally, the impact of the process of globalization […] in the late twentieth century.


On a religious level, Islam has had the greatest impact on the Malay world, traditionally and locally known as Nusantara, and on its ethnic Austronesian population. The Malay people became acquainted with the religion in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when they came into contact with merchants from the Middle East who arrived via Indian ports (Nagata, "A Question of Identity" 48). According to Baker, "[o]rdinary Malays converted to Islam because it provided unity and a sense of identity" (47), but the religion was able to spread also because of its adaptable nature, which tolerated existing cultural and social practices (Yegar 6). Islam, therefore, made a peaceful and gradual arrival to the Malay realm and the rest of Southeast Asia, as it was "borne not by sword, but peacefully by merchants, scholars, teachers, and Sufi mystics" (Nagata, "A Question of Identity" 50).

Throughout the centuries and following its independence from British rule in [End Page 470] 1957, Malaysia-known as the Federation of Malaya until 1963-has evolved into a multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious country, inhabited by Malays and other indigenous peoples collectively known as Bumiputera, by people of Chinese origin (24.6% of the total population), and by ethnic Indians (7.3% of the Malaysian population) (Department of Statistics Malaysia). Although a considerable number of non-Malay Malaysian citizens follow religions other than Islam, the latter is the religion of the Federation, as stated in Article 3.1 of the Federal Constitution, which was drafted between 1956 and 1957. However, the Constitution also states that "[e]very person has the right to profess and practice his[/her] religion and […] to propagate it" (Article 11.1), but only among non-Muslims. Constitutional articles concerning religious issues have become central to political and legal debates. For instance, Yvonne Tew states that while a secularist approach does not interpret Article 3.1 as an endorsement of Malaysia as an Islamic State, "[e]xpansive interpretation of [it] in the Islamic constitutional clause by the civil courts has also led to the elevation of Islam's place in the public order" (Tew). The centrality of Islam within the context of Malaysia is, therefore, undeniable, and how people from other religious backgrounds relate to it is relevant to the understanding of social relations in Malaysian society.

This article investigates conversion of ethnic Chinese as a special type of engagement with Islam in the Malaysian context, which not only involves religious and spiritual issues, but is also connected to ethnic, political, and social matters. As noted by Rosey Ma, scholarship on ethnic Chinese Muslims in Malaysia is limited in number and focus, and deals mainly with issues such as religion and ethnicity

(26). Similarly, in the field of Sinophone Malaysian narrative studies,1 the relationship between Chineseness and Islam has been consistently overlooked, with most scholars focusing on the position of Sinophone Malaysian literature in the larger Sinophone transnational literary polysystem2 (Bernards, Writing the South Seas), or on how authors deal with the issue of identity vis-à-vis both Chinese and Malaysian cultures (Groppe), highlighting the struggles of both the authors and the Chinese community in a generally hostile environment.

This article, by examining how ethnic Chinese converts...


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