On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

See the beauty in all religions

This writer’s collection of books, including the Quran, often surprises his visitors but to him, no one should shy away from reading up about another faith.

I HAD one of the most interesting interviews last week – my fellow journalists from Sinar Harian, the most widely read Bahasa Malaysia daily in the nation, wanted to feature me on my collection of books on Islam and the Quran.

The media group had just kicked off its annual Malaysia #QuranHour, with Muslims around the country congregating in mosques to recite the Quran en masse for an hour.

As part of the campaign, Karangkraf (which publishes Sinar Harian) chairman and group CEO Datuk Hussamuddin Yaacub, had called me to seek the support of Star Media Group, for which I readily agreed.

I told him my collection of books on Islam and the Quran made up only a modest section of my library but the newsman in him, and its editorial adviser, Datuk Abdul Jalil Ali, caught the news angle.

My fellow Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia alumnus also wanted me to talk about my private library as a human interest story to generate support for the event.

Visitors to my home often express surprise – which amuses me somewhat – after seeing for themselves, how much of an interest I have in this subject.

After all, I also have a decent collection of Bibles, books on Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, even Baha’iism.

While I am Christian, I do not see why non-Muslims should be afraid of learning Islam and broadening our knowledge in this religion.

Non-Muslims in Malaysia should have an open mind about this and it is, of course, favourable to deepen our understanding of Islam as we live in a Muslim majority country.

Malaysians, regardless of their race and faith, should also not be afraid to understand and appreciate another religion.

Let us remind ourselves that all religions preach good values and, surely, there are more commonalities than differences in these books on religion.

My journey in understanding Islam probably began when I was sitting for my Sixth Form examination, which was then known as the Higher School Certificate (HSC), now known as the Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia (STPM), which is regarded as the university entrance examination.

I signed up for the Islamic History and Malay Literature subjects, which required me to read and memorise the entire Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) and several Indonesian classics.

The first few months were terrifying, and I wondered what I had gotten myself into as preparations for the exam involved mostly studying on my own. I began to have doubts about my own choices.

But soon, I fell in love with these subjects as I began to learn more about them, treating it as part of a journey, if not, an adventure.

By the time I gained a place at UKM in the 1980s, I voluntarily asked to be included in the Malay Letters Department, as a minor course during my first year, where I had the chance to listen to speeches by the biggest Malay literature icons in the country.

But I also learned that in UKM, every student was required to pass the Islamic Civilisations paper conducted by the Islamic Faculty. It was a compulsory course, and if a student failed it, there was no way the person would graduate. This was more than 30 years ago and the requirement has remained.

The thought of having to pass an examination on Islam must have horrified the majority of first-year non-Muslim students, but for some reason, most of us took it as another step in education.

I wasn’t sure if we were young, reckless or just innocent, but I kept an open mind about the whole thing. And having towering figures like the late Datuk Fadzil Noor and Datuk Dr Haron Din, both becoming big names in PAS eventually, to teach us, was inspiring. Haron, in particular, was a good storyteller and could render the lecture theatre awe-struck, as we hung on to his every word.

It was merely a course on basic Islam. And when it was time to sit for the exam, most of us were pretty confident of passing and most of us did. I did not get an A but my interest grew from there.

It amused many of us UKM graduates why politicians made a fuss by creating controversies when they learned about such a course, which we had gone through decades ago. It wasn’t something new to me.

I can say that most non-Muslims did not become Muslims and vice versa, Muslim students who attended Catholic schools, didn’t become Christians. Fears are manufactured by politicians and wannabes only. The Christian brothers were missionaries and certainly evangelists.

By the time I started working, it was almost natural that I started to build up my book collection on the Quran, with the most recent one being Al Quran Al-Karim, a gift from Hussamuddin.

But it is the world class quality publications from our Islamic Arts Museum which truly inspire me, including Faith and Power: The Role of Women and Al Quran: The Sacred Art of Revelation.

Despite not knowing enough about Islam, that did not stop me from appreciating the beauty of Muslim calligraphy in Nun Wa Al Qalam, another publication of the Islamic Arts Museum.

My passion for collecting these books has grown, although this can be an expensive pursuit.

But the point is this – see the beauty and positives of all religions, and from there, we will see more commonalities, especially the values on compassion, patience, forgiveness, and acceptance.

The Quran is truly unique compared to other holy books. For one, it is the only book that begins each chapter with praises to God, declaring “in the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful”.

Quran readers are constantly reminded of the values of being gracious and merciful. Surely, even non-Muslims would readily accept such virtues.

My favourite aunt – my mother’s sister – is a Muslim and I have plenty of Muslim family members. This is nothing unusual. We are all human … period. And at the end of the day, it is the heart that matters.

And on this special occasion, I wish all Muslims “Selamat Hari Raya, maaf zahir dan batin!”