Imagine Singapore’s total population of 4.8 million, and then imagine about the same — about four to five million Iranians — who are living outside of Iran.

A people who have made conscious decision to leave their country, whatever their reasons may be, are exhibiting control of their lives — taking the path less trodden.

Malaysians are no strangers to various forms of divination. The Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu traditions have astrology, numerology and palm reading. Then there are Taoist fortune sticks and throwing wooden blocks, among other forms.

But the idea of foretelling existing within an Islamic society is novel and interesting to me.

I learnt of this from a book of poetry by celebrated Persian poet Hafiz, The Diwan of Khwajeh Shams al-Din Muhammad Hafiz-e Shirazi. The volume sits on Hamid’s shelf, beside a box-set of books on the civilization of Iran.

Divan of Hafez (Source: Wikipedia)

Divan of Hafez
(Source: Wikipedia)

The Diwan is a thick, hefty tome with a beige cover and vibrant illustrations of birds. It was a special farewell gift from a friend to Hamid when he left Tehran.

Hamid opens it up, revealing pages and pages of beautiful calligraphic type framed in ornamental borders.

He tells me that these poems can be, and are often used as, a popular way of spiritual guidance. When stuck in a dilemma, one can flip the book to a random page and the poem on it can be interpreted into a message. For his convenience the version he owns comes with ready explanations on the bottom of the page.

Hamid warns, strictly, that consulting the Diwan is not to be misconstrued as fortune telling.

“It is not in the slightest a book of telling fortunes but rather a spiritual connection, being that Hafiz himself was a spiritual man of high regard. Even Iranians with a higher connection to Islam read the book of Hafiz and interpret the poems.”

Iranians illustrate that cultural traditions and faith can be regarded as separately, and can coexist, as opposed to being one and the same, a view that may seem highly alien to Malaysians.

I learnt this firsthand, seeing the confusion of my primary school classmates when I explained that yes, I am legitimately ethnic Chinese and that yes, I celebrate the Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Winter Solstice – and know and respect their origins. But that at the same time, I’m neither Buddhist nor Taoist.

The thing is, in Malaysia, religion and culture are so often — and painfully so -– portrayed as a package deal. An iteration of this view can be found in school textbooks with clichéd images of some specifically Indian girl who must be Hindu and therefore celebrates Deepavali and dances the bharatanatyam as an extra-curricular activity.

Let’s not even talk about college-level Moral Studies or worse, Hubungan Etnik (Ethnic Relations) classes, that far from attempting to address these overgeneralizations reinforce them instead.

In March 2005, together with about 30 other teenagers, I travelled to Kota Bharu for a journalism workshop, where a few of us had the honour of meeting the nation’s foremost Tok Dalang for Wayang Kulit, the late Dollah Baju Merah.

What struck me most then was how it was such a big, fat shame that the art form in its complexity, beauty and heritage, could be banned from existing in the same space as religion for fear that their pre-Islamic elements would… do something.

Maybe in the next 50 years, Iranians in Malaysia can show us that there is room for both culture and religion, and that although they may blur along the edges of each other, they can exist separately for the good of our nation’s diversity.

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