What most of the world calls New Year’s Day, as a result of the widespread adoption through trade and colonialism of the Gregorian calendar, is not marked as a public holiday in Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu. However, every state in Malaysia receives a public holiday on 12 Rabiul Awal in the Muslim calendar (which this year fell on 3 January), which is the day thought by Sunni scholars to be the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad SAW. Still, this event is not celebrated by Muslims unanimously, with some arguing that it is an unacceptable innovation invented long after the Prophet’s death.
Though I haven’t been able to find evidence of how widespread the practice was before Merdeka, it has been marked as a national holiday since. Even so, the day is marked differently in different states – in some, there is a procession accompanied by singing praises to the Prophet, while in others there are only lectures or other community activities. These different practices (influenced either by tradition or by more recent fatwas) ultimately arise from the fact that Islam in Malaysia has remained a state matter under the purview of the Rulers, or the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in states without Rulers – I was heartened to read that in Kuching, non-Muslim contingents joined their fellow Sarawakians in the procession. Alas, as in many other spheres of policy, there are those who wish to eradicate distinctions between states in pursuit of authoritarian centralisation.
The gatherings on the morning of Maulidur Rasul provide an opportunity for the Rulers, as Heads of Islam in their states, to address thousands of their subjects who congregate in open fields. In Ipoh, it was reported that Sultan Nazrin Shah referred to the Constitution of Medina, and how “the justice of Prophet Muhammad was not only for Muslims, but also for non-Muslims, who were also assured of their protection, the freedom to follow their own religions, allowed to practise their own culture, and also assured of their rights to carry out economic and social development activities.” Also in his royal address was an apt reminder that “Muslims are urged to fulfil their moral responsibilities by using their intellectual power graced by God to come up with suggestions and views for the betterment and welfare of the community,” making reference to the concept of shura (consultation).
In Negeri Sembilan, the ceremony returned to Seremban this year after taking place in Seri Menanti last year (when it coincided with the Ruler’s birthday). In his royal address, Tuanku Muhriz reminded the 10,000 participants that “unity in Islam does not merely mean unity amongst Muslims only, but it extends to non-Muslims as well. Islam recognises and celebrates the diversity that God created on Earth.” The Yang di-Pertuan Besar went on to express alarm at the participation of Malaysians in the Islamic State and other terrorist groups who abuse the term “jihad” in order to commit violence, including against other Muslims.
Padang MPS, the field next to the Seremban Municipal Council building where the Ruler delivered his speech, is located on Jalan Yam Tuan (a contraction of the state ruler’s title), on which there are three places of worship: the Church of the Visitation (so called supposedly because French missionaries making the journey from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca to visit their flock would break their bullock cart journey on this site, establishing the parish in 1848), the Sri Balathandayuthapani Temple built in 1895 which houses a stunning Thanga Ratham (Golden Chariot), and the Gurdwara Sahib Seremban dating back to 1905 – though a new building was constructed in 1960 with the then Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia Tun Abdul Razak laying the foundation stone. At the northern end of the road (when it morphs into Jalan Tun Dr Ismail) lies the Malaccan-style Masjid Jamek Bandar Seremban built in 1924, while at the southern end on an adjoining road overlooking the Lake Gardens is the Masjid Negeri combining modernist and Minangkabau styles completed in 1967 (this creative fusion is reminiscent of the Masjid Negara in Kuala Lumpur.)
After the royal address, a qasidah group began the melodious praises to the prophet as the Yam Tuan led a procession on Jalan Yam Tuan, passing sites of places of worship that had been there during the reign of his great-great-grandfather. We passed groups of non-Muslims, with whom waves were happily exchanged. By the time we looped back round to the Seremban Municipal Council building (probably just over a kilometre), there were still groups yet to depart the padang for the procession, such were the numbers. I hoped that their short walk would give them a meaningful perspective to the speech that they had just heard.
Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS