A little bit of faith goes a long way, so goes the saying. Sheridan Mahavera finds that cultural acceptance is made easier with common faith. Read about his visit to a mosque in Taman Kosas, Ampang.

Mosques are native to Malaysia’s visual and cultural landscape, but a small mosque nestled in Taman Kosas, Ampang, may provoke a double take. Not because of how it looks – it is just as common as the next Taman’s, but for the lilt and rhythm of chanting emanating from it that an ordinary Malaysian Muslim may find unfamiliar.

On certain days of the week, a passerby might hear the congregation being addressed in Yoruba, a West African language with tonal registers.

Or perhaps, they might encounter the melodic Arabic recital of Quranic verses and prayers in a decidedly different rhythm.

Here, litanies are chanted, in a sing song-like manner, expressing the joy in the shared act of celebrating the Divine; and when caught in the rapture of the devotions, some in the congregation begin swaying slightly.

“We’ve reminded them to tone down,” a Malay Muslim man at the mosque shares. When pressed for his reason for discomfort, he shyly covered a corner of his mouth. He admits slight discomfort at the cultural dissonance. “[It’s] when we see them move their bodies.” My new acquaintance shakes his hips slowly to demonstrate.

In a separate conversation, a regular kuliah attendee, who preferred to remain unnamed mentioned that “The way Islam is practised  (in Malaysia) is so boring”.

When Nigerians recite prayers and litanies there is a melodic quality that speaks of blending the Muslim faith with their love of song. “You find that your soul is moving”, the man says.

The formal network of Nigerian Muslims came into place four years ago, when a couple in Kuala Lumpur sought out members of the same faith in the community to celebrate the blessing of a newborn, according to one of its leaders, Muhammad Ghali Ahmad.

Prayer gatherings were held at individuals’ homes for two years until the group decided that a proper meeting place was needed. They got approval from JAKIM — the national agency that regulates Muslim activities in Malaysia — to conduct weekly talks at the mosque.

“It’s better to have a proper place where we all can gather instead of going from house to house,” says Mariam Naib, a computer science student, and also a community leader.

When it first started there were only six people. Today, this congregation is 100 strong, counting amongst themselves Nigerian, Namibian and Togolese Muslims. They are guided by an informal committee of elders and religious teachers. Most attendees are students but there are also young families amidst them.

The religious proceedings are exactly the same as how Nigerian Muslims worship back home, I’m told, the format and timing of the talks synced to those held in Nigeria.

“For some of the new students, this gathering teaches them all the basics of the religion, from praying to fasting to going to the hajj. It teaches them how to be proper Muslims,” says Muhammad Ghali.

I attended one of their gatherings. Men and women were seated and lounged on plastic mats, separated as is customary, while different uztaz took turns talking on different subjects.

The talks are interspersed with melodious recitals of the Quran, as another uztaz gently leads them through the phonetic contours of the Arabic verses.

Some participants chose to recite the litanies loudly along with the religious teacher, while others repeated them quietly. Since turning up is entirely voluntary, each talk is intently listened to; heads nod at important points and cell phones are mostly put on silent. The respect and reverence was unmistakable.

Nonetheless, at one point, everyone suddenly started raising their right hands, pointing with their index fingers towards someone on their right. It was due to the exhortations of the uztaz who was speaking then. They repeated after the uztaz in Yoruba, with hands raised and chuckling at the teacher’s speech.

For someone brought up in the Malaysian Muslim tradition, this gesture caught me by surprise.

“The uztaz was just getting everyone to pray for someone in the audience. So we pointed with our hands to indicate this man and prayed that God bless him,” Muhammad Ghali explained, amused at my reaction.

The weekly kuliahs have the relaxed atmosphere reminiscent of a gathering of family or friends.

While it might not seem significant to some, this mosque has become a spiritual and communal sanctuary for West African Muslim migrants in Malaysia. In return, they have contributed to the diversity in how Muslims worship in Malaysia.

Audio: Sheridan and Grace discuss the discordance between how Islam is conventionally practiced by Malay Muslims and other diaspora Muslims in Malaysia | Duration 8:29

A little bit of faith

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