at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

A Country Reacts to Muallaf

The Center for Southeast Asian Studies is pleased to add a new student and community produced film review component to our ongoing Southeast Asian film program resources online. Our first cooperative project was done with the Center for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies, Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia (see news post). We hope to continue to encourage students and community members to write film reviews both as an exercise in writing about film, but also to encourage them to think more deeply about the stories they are seeing produced by filmmakers in Southeast Asia.

A Country Reacts to Muallaf
Maria Ulfa Fauzy
Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies
Universitas Gadjah Mada

Yasmin Ahmad, in her film Muallaf (2008), successfully demonstrated a new way of seeing religious plurality in contemporary Malaysia. In doing so, she did not directly depict the differences between ethnicity and religious practice, but attempted to portray the many different ways of understanding religion through personal reflection. With this film, Yasmin deliberately raises the issue of religious pluralism rather than ethnicity, an important distinction in Malaysia. Yasmin also attempts to link religious identity with the issue of parenting.

Viewing the contemporary discourse in Malaysia, there is always a significant relationship between ethnicity and religion. Ideas about pluralism affect all sectors of society, and religion is also a sensitive issue for the Malay people. After I saw the film I thought that its controversial theme was a message aimed at the country itself. The film’s release in Malaysia was delayed almost two years due to issues related to the government censoring of film dialogue.

In Malaysia, it is commonly accepted that “Malayness” refers to those who profess the religion of Islam, habitually speak the Malay language, and conform to Malay customs. The film tries to work against this national portrayal of Malayness. Malay women are often portrayed in Malaysian film and television programs in such a way that upholds national constructions of tradition, for example through their style of dress. Adat or tradition is something that Malays regard very highly. This is because adat and Islam are integral to Malay identity and exist in a complementary fashion. There is always a certain degree of conservatism in Malaysia regarding the link between femininity, tradition and religion. Yet in Yasmin’s film, the main female characters Ana and Ani do not portray ideal Malay women. They do not wear heard scarves or only baju kurung, the common model for expressing Malay female identity in public.

Besides adat, the issue of conversion to Islam is always controversial in the Malay world. Although Yasmin does not show a scene dealing with conversion in the film, ideas about conversion are part of the film’s narrative. Although Brian seems eager to know how Ana and Ani understand Islam, there is no single scene in detail that portrays him converting from his Catholic faith. This is curious, as it seems Yasmin is concealing something from people who think the film will be about conversion or “Muallaf” as the title suggests. In my opinion, what Yasmin does present is how people find their way to God in different ways.

Ani and her younger sister, Ana, behave strangely. Ana always recites numbers that are meaningless to the people around her. They discuss the Koran every night, while comparing it with hundreds of Islamic theological books such as the Kutub al-Tafsir. This is what Yasmin wanted to show: that people have their own directions and paths to God, but the interaction between Muslims and Christians does not have to pull people away from their own faiths. Brian doesn’t become a Muslim after his interaction with Ana, nor after looking at the Qur’an to search for God. He compares it to the Bible, and starts a discussion with his pastor. He feels that the way Ani and Ana are navigating their path might also help him on his own path to God.

Yasmin wants to tell the story of the “real” Malay, the one that exists somewhere in between personal experience and experience interacting with “others”. What Yasmin criticizes in this film is that sometimes Muslims and Christians judge the others religion as wrong, or completely mistaken, a sin for which they will go to the hell. This kind of religious superiority can lead to conflict. The Malaysian citizen has to recognize that even though you perceive others through their traditional practices, being different does not justify the action of disrespecting one another.

Finally, I also find the idea of parenting key in this film. Both Ani and Ana are depressed by how their father behaves, often acting contrary to his life as a seemingly devout Muslim. The film portrays how parenting can shape people’s religious behavior and development. Ana, for instance, had a traumatic relationship with her father in the past, and her experiences cause her to run away from home, leaving her hometown and removing her sister from the abusive family situation.

Brian has a similar experience with his father. He was punished by his father when he was caught reading an inappropriate magazine as a child. The flashback scene of this event was successful in making me emotional. Both Ani and Brian basically inhabit the same kind of character in this film, both suffering very traumatic experiences at the hand of their parents, and both seeking a way to find their own path to God.

What has remained with me from this film is that Yasmin beautifully conveys the relationship between three major issues: religious pluralism, conversion, and parenting. This effort is almost seamless. I am amazed by her brilliance at showing us contrasting views of the characters. For instance, there is a scene where Ani and Ana’s father displays his Islamic piety by avoiding contact with a dog. Yet in another scene he is seen enjoying the company of women at a nightclub. I think the contrast is both ridiculous and smart. Yasmin likes to show the complexity of the characters in her film. Overall, it’s a brave and novel way to approach sensitive issues in the Malay world.

For the first ten minutes of this film, I predicted that I’d see a story of conversion. Yasmin builds this expectation by using the Arabic term “mu’allaf” and liberally using religious symbols. Surprisingly this film does not show us any scene specifically portraying a conversion from one religion to another. We are left not knowing whether Brian or Ani/Ana converted to another faith. It’s from this that I see Yasmin wanting to to tell the audience about her theory of how religion should be understood.