Bridging the Gap
A Muslim from a non-Muslim family reconciles faith, culture and family
For most Muslims in Singapore, we were born into the religion. With that comes a support system of friends, family and acquaintances able to stand with us in prayer when the azan sounds, fast with us when Ramadan comes and guide us in the right direction when we have questions or lose our way.
Those without Muslim families, however, do not have this support system in place and often face challenges when trying to practice their faith.
Adam Tan converted to Islam at the age of 26 in 1976. Finding his belief in traditional Buddhist/Taoist religions waning as he matured, Adam’s interest in Islam was sparked by conversations he had with his colleague about the Prophet Muhammad SAW.[pullquote_right]They viewed the stories they learned about, such as the Prophet’s Isra’ and Mi’raj, as fairy tales.[/pullquote_right]
His colleague then directed him to Sunday classes held at Madrasah Alsagoff, at the time one of the few places one could learn about Islam in the English language in Singapore. There, he found himself surrounded by like-minded individuals, many of whom were also Chinese. The teacher was an educator at a mainstream school, who volunteered his time on weekends to educate those interested in learning more about Islam and taking them to the nearby Sultan Mosque for prayers.
Adam had attended these classes for almost nine months without converting, when the teacher decided to ask them a question – did they practice what they were learning about in class? And his students straightforwardly replied with a “no”. Even though they were learning the fundamentals of Islam, they had not yet established a spiritual connection to the religion and viewed the stories they learned about, such as the Prophet’s Isra’ and Mi’raj, as fairy tales.
Adam recalled, “He asked us “What is the reason you don’t practice?” and he emphasised on whether or not we prayed. And we gave the simple reason that if we didn’t know Arabic, how were we supposed to pray?”
So the teacher informed them that they could follow the movements of the prayer and simply recite one word in each movement of each cycle of prayer (rakaah) – “Allah”. And from there, Adam started to perform his prayers, saying the name of Allah in each rakaah. Doing his prayers regularly strengthened his conviction to become a Muslim and Adam made his way down to Jamiyah on 6th November 1976, saying his shahadah and becoming a Muslim.[pullquote_left]“Don’t throw away my race,” he recalled his father saying.[/pullquote_left]
As all this was happening, Adam was still living with his parents and his mother noticed that her son was no longer taking his meals at home. Adam’s mother was distraught that the son whom she had regularly brought along with her to the temple as a young boy had converted to Islam. His father took a more nuanced view and stated that while Adam was a grown man who could make his own decisions, he insisted that Adam hold on to his Chinese identity. “Don’t throw away my race,” he recalled his father saying.
Adam continued to hold on to his surname of Tan, and passed it on his three children as well. He continues to celebrate Chinese New Year, cooking halal Chinese dishes for visitors. And Adam stressed that one had to make others understand one’s beliefs in terms that they could understand, stating that he explained to his friends and family his consumption of only halal foods by relating it to Buddhists who abstained from beef or were vegetarians, and they too came to respect his beliefs, serving his family halal tidbits and packet drinks when they came to visit for Chinese New Year.
In fact, it was his wife’s family who questioned him on his Chinese identity. “My wife’s uncles questioned me when they first met me, saying “You sudah masuk Melayu, kenapa masih ada Tan?” (“You’ve become Malay, why do you still have the name Tan?”) So I told them that Islam was not a Malay religion,” Adam recalled.[quote] He added, “Until today, people still have the impression that when you become a Muslim, you become Malay.”[/quote]
Adam assured his parents that he would continue to take care of them, and they eventually came to accept his new faith, and moved in with him once he got married and bought his own apartment in Bedok Reservoir. While they didn’t pray or eat non-halal food in his home, Adam’s parents were free to do so outside of the home and continued to hold on to their traditional beliefs. The closeness between Adam and his parents grew such that his parents helped to take care of their children when both Adam and his wife were out at work. And when Adam’s mother came down with dementia several years ago, it was his wife who offered to take care of her, right until she passed away earlier this year.
Privilege, Not Right
For the majority of Malay-Muslims in Singapore, Islam came ‘naturally’. Parents, siblings, relatives were all Muslim. There was no need to question certain practices or festivities. Malay-Muslims could go on for years without seeing Islam as a gift or that having a support system was a privilege, not a right.
While some Muslim youth may appreciate their parents not nagging for them to pray, it would be a whole different matter when Ramadan comes and they have to wake up and prepare iftaar for themselves. As the age-old cliche goes, one truly does not know what one has until it is gone.
Alhamdulillah Adam Tan has managed to reconcile his faith with his culture and family. Not many are as lucky. One need only to speak to the reverts in Singapore to hear of the multitude of problems and challenges they face in their sincere desire to practice their faith. As the majority in the Muslim community here, the Malay-Muslims should be cognizant of their struggles and strive to make it easier for reverts.
Ahmad Zhaki Abdullah