Britishmisk's Blog

Book Review: Sufi Comics – Rumi

1408529068sufi-rumi

This review is a slightly different: One thing is that this book is not yet released and it can be read for free online. Secondly, I get a free print copy for making this review! When I discovered Sufi comics and the great work they were doing to introduce children to spirituality, I immediately ordered a copy of their first book, The Wise Fool of Baghdad, with the hope of donating it to the supplementary Islamic school I volunteer at. I was not disappointed, and neither were the children. I had one student who kept borrowing it from the library, and one of her friends was vying with her to get a chance to borrow it. Even one of the adult volunteers appreciated the lessons it had to give. There’s a lot of Islamic material out there for children, and unfortunately a lot of it is not very good, so this for me was a breath of fresh air.

The Rumi comic illustrates, explains, and details a number of parables and metaphors from the Masnavi, it’s beautifully decorated in the tradition of Persian/Mughal miniatures, but slightly updated in style to be in line with modern comics. As a result, the benefit of the story is not just the lesson in the story to be learnt, but the appreciation children can derive from the artwork and calligraphy that has gone into every page. It’s a very innovative way to encourage Muslim children to tap into our artistic heritage, which they may have never known existed.

unnamed

Some of the stories are quite complicated compared to the The Wise Fool of Baghdad, as such pre-teen children may struggle to understand some stories without an adult to explain (but even they may struggle to bring Rumi down to Earth!). The verses of Qur’an given at the end of each story really help to put the parable into context, the creators have made it clear in the beginning their objective is to educate from within an orthodox Muslim understanding of Rumi, and the Qur’an verses make sure of that. The Masnavi is indeed even considered an exegesis of the Qur’an, a fact unfortunately lost upon many western readers of Rumi.

I was really happy to see the completed product, and I pray Sufi comics carry on to do the great work they do. As many are aware, in the modern era spirituality is unfortunately seen suspiciously among certain areas of the Muslim community. This is a step to clear those doubts not just within our children, but I can imagne quite a few adults too.

I can’t wait to get my copy so the kids can dig into it.

Book Review: The Last of the Lascars – Yemeni Muslims in Britain 1836-2012

9781847740359

Aside from Islamic theology, my other keen reading interest is on Muslims cultures and societies (yeah I know it’s not that great a jump). I read a book last year called Bengali Harlem which traced the roots and history of South Asian migrants, mostly from the Bengal, to the United States. What made that book interesting was it talked about a community that has been greatly overlooked by American historians and sociologists, and broke fresh new ground and provided the way for ordinary peoples’ stories and struggles to be brought out into the open and appreciated.

In the same vein comes this book, ‘The Last of the Lascars’, this time discussing the British Yemeni community based mostly in Cardiff and Sheffield. For a lot of people interested in British Muslim culture, the Yemeni community comes up as one of the oldest, if not the first established immigrant Muslim community in Britain. I first found out about this in articles on the BBC and Saudi Aramco World, and this book provides more in depth details and history about Yemeni sailors who came to settle in this country: The issues they had to face, how their community developed, where they are now, and where they’re heading.

As a British Muslim, it helps to understand the context of the society and the environment we are currently in. Reading some of the newspaper excerpts from 100 years ago mentioned in the book about the sailor riots after World War I, it didn’t seem to far off from what we read in The Daily Mail regarding Muslims today. It provides us with a context and understanding of how little some things have changed in a century, and by looking with how our predecessors dealt with those problems provides us with ideas of how we can deal with similar issues in our time.

The book is very thoroughly researched, and quite in depth. Its style is written in a chronological order, starting from the first beginnings of the British Yemeni community in the Victorian era to the present day. It’s an interesting read for those who are interested in the kind of topic. After this and Kube Publishing’s other book on Abdullah Quilliam I look forward to further interesting works from them on the British Muslim community.

Book Review: Muhammad The Best of Creation – A Glimpse of his Blessed Life

bestcreation0

Any book by al-Sayyid Muhammad bin Alawi al-Makki comes recommended by me. This is recent translation of another seerah of the author’s (There are quite a few others). This particular one is a very simple breakdown of the Prophet’s ‎ life, and works by compartmentalising different aspects of the noble biography. So for example there is a section on the lineage and family of the Prophet ‎, and then gives separate lists of his wives, his uncles, his children, his wet-nurses and so on. Then there are lists of his companions who had certain tasks and duties, and who did what for him ‎. The second section of the book details main events in the life of the Prophet ‎ on a yearly basis after the first revelation.

The main benefit of this book given its style is that it will provide minute details that are otherwise lost in most other seerahs, as they will try to cover the most important topics and events as perceived by the author. This book works very well as a reference guide, and as a teaching aid for children. The only concern I would have is that for non or new Muslims, context isn’t really given for certain things, so it may raise questions that the book does not provide answers for. To that end it may be worth reading the author’s other seerah ‘Muhammad – The Perfect Man’ alongside this. But aside from that this is a great little book that is recommended for all Muslim households.

 

Book Review – Lost Islamic History by Firas Alkhateeb

Growing up in the UK, I didn’t learn anything very interesting in history before GCSEs, the curriculum in schools is based mainly around UK/European history, such as the Romans, Greeks, Tudors, Victorians etc. It was only when I reached my teens that I began to appreciate history on a more global scale, particularly the breadth and depth of Islamic history. Back then the Internet was still growing and beginning to snowball into web 2.0, Wikipedia came quite late on in my adolescence, and at this point articles on Islamic history were quite a dire affair. (Islamic theology still very much so). So my acquirement of Islamic knowledge was quite a slow thing a decade ago.

Recently Firas Alkhateeb started the Lost Islamic History blog, a great initiative that explores, delves and discusses numerous topics related to Islamic history (However as with most great websites don’t bother with the comments sections). And to accompany the blog now comes the eponymously titled book.

The book brings together the key aspects and events of the last 1400 years related to Islam and the cultures tied to it. It’s a great book for people who want to be introduced to the subject, it’s also something that’s suitable for young readers, particularly teenagers, a skill I think Alkhateeb has picked up given the fact he himself is a history teacher. Who knows what the consequences would have been if I had this when I was 14.

The book is different in the sense that it’s not written by a western non-Muslim academic, so it doesn’t have the sense of orientalism that nearly always comes with their works. It’s also very subtly written from the perspective of Sunni orthodoxy, which for me is not a problem, but others may take issue with a work of history not written in a critical/dismissive style, which is the standard for most works in English regarding Islam and the “orient”. Which unfortunately a lot of Muslims fall into the style of when tackling Islamic history. Saying that however, Alkhateeb still covers heretical and heterodoxical sects well, and avoids controversy and overt favouritism, it stays largely on point in remaining unbiased when discussing different Muslim empires of varying natures, and offers criticism where it is deserved.

My only real qualms with the book was the absence of footnotes and references, which was surprising for a work of non-fiction. There were times I came across something new and would have liked to look into it further, but unfortunately not much is given to help you along the way. There are also a few minor spelling and grammar mistakes, but I suppose this is expected in a first edition. Hopefully these things will get looked at in subsequent editions.

The book is quite brief, but to cover the amount of topics, geographies, time periods and people as Alkhateeb has done is quite an achievement. It is an introduction so it acts as gateway for people to find out more going forward. To that end people can make use of the site linked above which is quite regularly updated with new articles. There is also a series by Abu Ja’far al-Hanbali which is quite in depth.

Singapore

2014-05-03 11.11.29

The last stop on our journey before returning home was the black sheep of South East Asia. Singapore is a developed and modernised metropolis surrounded by its neighbours who are still trying to catch up. The two main things Singapore has, is food and shopping. So if you’re into either of them Singapore has plenty to offer, including a lot of halal options. All of the fast food chains in Singapore are halal, (but if you’re the kind of person who gets excited about halal McDonald’s then you’re politely requested to stop reading my blog). Our first day was spent meandering around one of the shopping centres in the CBD (Central Business District), one cool thing we came across was a place called Awfully Chocolate, check it out if you’re near one. One of the main touristy areas of Singapore is the bay next to the CBD, from here you can visit the gargantuan Marina Bay Sands Hotel which includes a shopping centre, but the main sight is to take the high speed lift to the viewing platform at the top. The complex also includes the ArtScience Museum which has a number of rotating exhibitions and we took the opportunity to visit the Annie Liebovitz exhibition.

From there we made our way to Gardens By the Bay, a futuristic botanical gardens that has a number of interesting exhibits. A lot of what’s on display is used to educate people about protecting the environment and looking after the planet and so forth, which for the cynic in me felt like Singapore was trying to make up for cutting down all its rainforest years ago. From the Gardens we took a cab to the Singapore Zoo. The zoo is quite long winded to get to if you use public transport, so it may be worth taking a taxi or finding a coach that will take you straight there. The zoo has a large collection of animals, but like all zoos you’re getting a very sanitised experience of bored animals, exemplified best I felt by the Sumatran orangutan:

DSC00225

 

To see animals in more of a ‘natural’ surrounding, after the zoo closes the Night Safari begins in an adjacent part of the same complex. Although not a real safari, it’s as close as you’re going to get to one in a place like Singapore.

The next day we visited the best part of Singapore which is found in the area around the Sultan Mosque, this part of town is much like Penang, the hip “Shoreditch-y” part of town, but it is also still the main Muslim part of the city and there are a number of shops and restaurants you can visit. The greatest thing about this neighbourhood however is Wardah Books, for a Muslim bibliophile like me this place is a must-stop and I unfortunately missed out on it when I was in Singapore the previous year, so I felt very fortunate to visit it this time. They stock a number of books that are quite hard to find in the UK and even online. It was eventually also in this area of Singapore I found a decent artisanal cafe at Maison Ikkoku after all the disappointing cafes in Penang. From the Sultan Mosque area, which is the traditional Malay part of town, you can visit the traditional Indian part of town in Little India, though there’s nothing unique about the area that differentiates from any of the other Little Indias in south east Asia.

And thus ended our two day sojourn in Singapore and our trip in general. In the end I found Malaysia a mixed cosmopolitan country with plenty of space to improve and modernise into the future. The country is held up in the Muslim world as a beacon of modernity and a vision to aspire to, but from what it seems they still have plenty to offer. The different ethnicities and religions all get along with one another from what it seems, and it’s a far cry from all the debate and political postulating we see in Europe about emerging multicultural societies and how minorities need to integrate blah, blah, blah. Malaysia (and Singapore) in its post-colonial period relatively quickly got through all of that debate and now things work out pretty well. (Though positive discrimination of Bumiputeras leaves a bit of a question mark on the issue). Malaysia has a lot to offer to different types of travellers, my advice is decide what you’re interested in, and you’re pretty sure to find what you’re looking for here.

Malaysia – Kota Kinabalu

Image

From Kuching we took another Air Asia flight to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah state on the east side of Malaysian Borneo. On the first full day we decided to explore the main city and eventually found there isn’t much going on during the day. There’s also very little in the way of sights and historical places to visit. My advice would be if you’re around during the day, don’t bother with the city itself, go to the jetty and head out to the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, the name is a little misleading when thinking about national parks in Malaysia, as this isn’t a rainforest but is made up of a group of islands. We unfortunately missed out on the park as we spent the first day trying to see the city only to realise, as I already mentioned, there wasn’t much to see. We took a taxi to the main city mosque on the eastern side and were hoping to visit the bird park which the Lonely Planet guide mentioned was near it, but the taxi drivers hanging around said it was a car journey away, whether they were being truthful or not I wasn’t sure, instead we headed back to the hotel and came back to the city in the evening when the night market is on. The night market, more so the food side, makes up for what KK has missing during the day. Similar to what we had in Kuching you can pick fresh fish and have it cooked how you want. There’s a variety of different fish for sale in general, and it does what most markets do best in allowing you take in some weird and wonderful sounds and smells.

The next day we went out to Mount Kinabalu National Park, the main attraction Sabah state. The park hosts South-East Asia’s tallest mountain, to ascend to the top is a two day journey and is quite gruelling but doable by most people in decent health (have a google to get an idea). Looking at some of the trips offered by numerous tour groups I was under the assumption you get take a trip up part of the mountain in a day and get back, so after having visited park headquarters and picked up a map we headed on some of the trails but eventually found they are based more or less around the park headquarters, none of them offered the tame ascent I was looking for. My advice would be if you do decide to visit Kinabalu Park consider going with a tour operator, they can show you the best parts of what we missed out on, and also give you transportation there and back. We made the choice to head out there on our own, and it took a while to find at least two other people to share a taxi with us back to KK.

And that was pretty much our time in Kota Kinabalu, most of it in summary was me misplanning everything. From the hotel being way out of the city, to missing out on Tunku Abdul Rahman, and not bothering to climb Mount Kinabalu. I suppose my main bit advice would be not to make the same mistakes I did. From KK we made our way to Singapore which would be the last part of trip and that is to follow in the next piece God willing.

Malaysia – Kuching

Image

From Penang we took an Air Asia flight to Kuching in Sarawak state on the island of Borneo. Borneo conjures a lot of exotic images for a lot of people, not for me particularly, but it was easy to see why. Rainforests, mountains, orangutans, head-hunting tribesmen, all of it adds up for a potential out-of-this-world experience. Given Malaysia’s rapid economic expansion, the abundant tour operators and the fact nearly everyone speaks English, you’re not going to find a new world here, but it doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy all the things Borneo has to offer.

In Kuching city the main point of interest is the south side of the harbour, during the night it’s full of people out about on walks, having a meal, listening to buskers and perusing market stalls. During the day on the other side of the road you can visit the many shops that offer numerous locally made handicrafts, particularly by those of tribes native to Sarawak. For a Middle Eastern perfume head like me Sarawak’s main product is oud, but alas I didn’t see anyone selling to the public here or in neighbouring Sabah state which we visited later during our trip. Our first meal in Kuching was at an excellent food court called Top Spot, a number of hawker stalls operate here most of which specialise, in what I assume, are freshly caught local fish. Located on top of a car park (look out for the sign) this place gets frequented by loads of locals in the evening. Pick a fish/lobster/crab/Godzilla size prawn, anything that looks good and have it steamed/fried/grilled, definitely try some steamed fish (I think we had the snapper). Prices at fresh fish hawker stalls are more expensive as you’re paying for a whole fish by weight, so don’t be surprised when you get the bill, but make sure you check it over before paying.

On our first whole day in Kuching we started with a wander round the harbour where we were the night before. Making our way westwards towards the main city mosque. At this point we tried to find the Islamic Civilizations Museum, which took us a very long time, due mostly to Lonely Planet’s surprisingly inaccurate map and directions. To get to the museum find the Gurdwara on the corner of Jalan P. Ramlee and from there head south-west down this road, you’ll see the museum on your left. The museum is quite dated, everything feels like it’s from the 80s, but it was free and quite varied so I wasn’t complaining. Before we found the museum we came across an “Islamic shopping centre”, I can’t remember what it was called but it’s near the museum and next to a banqueting hall called Dewan Kompleks Islam, I only mention it if sisters are looking to buy hijabs/jilbabs etc, there wasn’t much in the way of goods for men over 6ft. In the afternoon we had booked a trip to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, situated in a nature reserve the centre caters for the semi-wild orangutans that live there. Seeing orangutans is a big feature of many people who visit Borneo, as this is one of only two places in the world you can see them (the other being Sumatra in Indonesia). The good thing about Semenggoh is that the orangutans here are not kept in captive, they live in the nature reserve and come to the centre for food if they’re hungry. The whole purpose of the centre being to help them get reintroduced back into the wild, so as such their main concern is not catering for tourists but the orangutans themselves.  However this does mean that you’re visit Semenggoh may result in you not seeing many, or any orangutans at all. From what I gathered Semenggoh is quite difficult to get to using public transport, it may be worth doing what we did and booking a tour through your hotel (which is quite out of character for me), our guide was a native Sarawakan called Tony, he drove us from the hotel, gave us information about the centre, explained things, let us wander by ourselves and then drove us back, the cost of the tour includes entry into the reserve, so it works out pretty well. If you do decide to visit the centre on your own there are two feeding times, once in the morning and once in the afternoon so time your visit to coincide with them.

The next day we visited Bako National Park, we took a taxi there which cost RM50 (we unknowingly agreed a price with one of the blue taxi drivers which are more expensive than the more humble red ones), the bus is a much cheaper alternative at RM3.50 per person and leaves every hour from the bus station near the mosque, and takes around an hour to get there. The bus or taxi won’t actually take you to the national park itself, it’s situated on a peninsula jutting out into the South China Sea and can only be reached by boat. You buy your ticket and get on the next boat, it’ll stop a little further out from the beach so you have to wade out to the park entrance (apparently this is meant to be “part of the experience”). At the park entrance pay the entrance fee, sign in, pick a trail and head out. You can hire a guide if you wish but apparently given Bako’s relatively small size it’s not really needed. The park has a mixture of beaches, jungle, mangroves and cliffs, it’s definitely worth making a visit to if you’re in Sarawak. Just make sure you take a big bottle of water for each person, use mosquito repellent, and as a personal recommendation, consider wearing one layer of clothing. Sisters who wear hijab may want to consider bandana style, though you do see Malaysian girls wearing the standard hijab I suppose they’re used to the heat and humidity. The park is one of the best places you can see proboscis monkeys, who are only found in Borneo, as well as silver leaf and macaques. Bit of advice, don’t feed the macaques, unless you want them to go through your bag for anything else you may have to offer (and no I didn’t find that out the hard way). There is a trail that leads to a beach where you’re meant to be able to see proboscises, though we didn’t see them along the way, there were quite a few at the park entrance. The tide was low when we got there and you can go for a swim but the water around the park is teeming with jellyfish so check with the rangers at the entrance before deciding to take a dip. From there we backtracked to take another trail which went through different terrains in a very short period of time to reach a cliff overlooking a great secluded beach:

DSC00180

The reason for its seclusion is that the only way to get there is to charter one of the numerous boats operating around the park (I only realised that after we go to the top of the cliff). From there we made our way back to park headquarters and paid for a ticket on the last boat at 4pm. There are a number of lodges you can stay in overnight if you want to, the wildlife changes completely at night and it’s meant to be quite an experience, but apparently the accommodation is quite dire.

The next day we visited the cat museum on the north side of the city. At this point I should explain that ‘Kuching’ means cat in Malay, and as a result the city authorities have jumped full on in capitalising on this, there’s a number of cat statues scattered across the city, and the cat museum is even run by the state and located in city hall. Entry is free but you have to pay if you want to take photographs, or hand over your equipment. The museum is an eccentric collection of literally everything cat related covering numerous topics. History, religion, culture, biology, film, anything that had anything remotely cat related you can find it here. In the afternoon we decided to use the time to visit the Sarawak museums located near the western side of the city centre, you can tie in a visit to these museums as well as others, including the Islamic Civilizations Museum in a single trip.

And thus ended our time in Kuching. One of the main tourists things we skipped on was the ‘longhouse experience’. Personally I don’t really see the appeal of going into a longhouse to experience someone else’s culture just because it’s weird and different to where you’re from. Sure the whole point of travelling is to see, experience and feel a different culture to yours, but when it’s handed to you on a plate as opposed to coming to you naturally it loses its appeal to me. But if you are interested every tour company offers trips to take you to some of the longhouses still occupied by native tribespeople, most of whom are now Christians, and there’s also the Sarawak Cultural Village if you prefer to see it in a sanitized form.

From Kuching we flew further east to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah state, and that will God willing follow in the next piece.

Malaysia – Penang

Image

From Puduraya Bus Station we made our 5 hour journey to Penang in the north of the country. There are a few options available to get from KL to Penang, flying is probably the easiest, but given the fact KLIA is around an hour’s journey from the city centre and you have to get there a couple of hours beforehand, and with the hour’s flight time, there’s not that much time saved from the extra carbon emissions. There is also a train that runs from Singapore all the way through Malaysia to Butterworth, and from there you take a ferry to Penang island, but it takes a lot longer, the evening run is a sleeper train. There are a number of companies that operate buses from the station, all of them will try to ply you with promises so you’ll make use of their services. I searched online for a bus company that would take me to Komtar Tower near Georgetown, the colonial area of Penang Island we wanted to stay in. I confidently walked up to the counter for the bus company I wanted, ignoring all the touts who tried to take me for another western tourist, asked the guy for a ticket to Komtar, confirmed with him the bus did actually go to Komtar after he gave me a ticket that said ‘Sungai Ni[bong]‘, the bus station in the middle of the island as opposed to the north, got on the bus and five hours later I found out it didn’t actually go to Komtar but to Sungai Nibong, go figure. So we ended up having to pay around £8 for a taxi to our hotel to Georgetown, not the worst thing that could happen on a holiday, but it was a reminder that not everything you read on the internet is true.

Georgetown in Penang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that adage in itself is usually enough reason for me to want to visit a place. In its heyday it was a thriving British trading post that acted as a melting pot of different cultures and peoples. Its best enjoyed, like many other cities that enjoy UNESCO privilege (such as Kyoto and Fes), by going for a wander and coming across old houses and places of worship perchance. As Penang is the one state in Malaysia that has a majority Chinese population the best buildings to see are the Chinese temples and clan houses, the most famous of which is Khoo Kongsi (pictured above), but there many others scattered around that are just as impressive on a smaller scale. One thing Penang takes pride in is the way its different ethnic and religious groups have got along with each other, and the fact that you have so many different temples. mosques, shrines and churches sprinkled around town, usually within close proximity to one another is testimony to that.

The first day and half we were in Penang were spent as I mentioned just wandering around the streets. Georgetown is not massive, so you can see a lot in a short period of time. The main things to see I felt, were Khoo Kongsi and the Kapitan Keling Mosque, originally built by Indians (I believe) but now used by Muslims of different ethnicities in Penang. You’ll find a number of Tamil Muslims praying in a syncretic mix of Shafi’i and Hanafi given that over the centuries followers of the two schools have mixed, though Shafi’i obviously being the more predominant in Malaysia. As you a wander around a bit more, especially by the time you get to Armenian Street, you’ll realise that the city has jumped on its UNESCO status in the last few years. There’s street art and hip cafes and shops opening up everywhere, usually next to run down dilapidated buildings waiting for the next businessman to turn it into the next trendy venue. It provides and interesting mix of old and new, and eventually I recognised as a Londoner that Georgetown was being Shoredified. Now I hate Shoreditch and the whole gentrification of East London by the hipster race, but in Georgetown the process seems to work. People who have been there for years, are still there, and they can still afford to live there (by the looks of it), prices (unless you go into one of the hip cafes/restaurants) are still cheap. There’s no unemployed arts students going around trying to makes their middle class accents sound street, there’s no guys with Philly beards in extra-skinny jeans (Malays struggle to even keep Sunnah beards given their genes, and secondly it’s too hot and humid for skinnies). And the street art is actually quite good, especially given that a lot of it involves cats:

Image

Image

Image

Image

So it had everything Shoreditch has to offer but better, and without the bits I hate. The only thing that still doesn’t work are the cafes. Most of them are style over substance, the one exception I found was a place called siTigun, a non-pretentious, rustic style coffee house that even had its own roastery. (I picked up some Sumatran beans which were great).

The main thing however that Penang is famous for after its history, is not its cool-hip scene, but its food, especially its hawker stall culture. Think what Lahore is to Pakistan, but with at least some form of health standard, and much less requirement for imodium. As a colleague who lived in China advised me, the tip to finding a good hawker stall is to find one that’s busy, that way you know the food is probably going to be good, and secondly they’re constantly going to be cooking their items fresh. To that end if you’re made to wait a little while for your food that’s usually a good sign. The only problem is that most businesses, including the hawker stalls, open from 10-5, when the day is at its hottest, you’ll still be able to find food in the evenings, but your choices will be limited slightly. The Red Garden however is a good choice to make for an evening meal. If you feel a little awkward about the whole hawker style system of ordering, you’re not alone, it can be quite confusing, even for locals, “Do we go up to the counter to place our order, or does someone come over?”, “Do we pay the guy who served us or do we have to go up to the counter this time?”, “Is this guy scamming me cos I’m tourist or have I just forgotten how to work addition”, all of these and more are valid questions when going out for a meal in Malaysia. The best thing to do is have a walk around and find a place that looks interesting, there’s usually someone who assists the cook by helping out customers, look out for this person and ask them any questions you have, most places will be halal but some of the Chinese run establishments won’t be as they use pork lard in some dishes, they’ll tell you if this is the case. Once you’ve made your order pull up a plastic chair on a dirty table and don’t expect Parisian style dining, it’ll be hot, busy, noisy, you’ll still be a little confused about the whole system, but the food is going to be great. Once the person has served you they’ll take payment there and then, there’s usually a separate business that handles drinks, and they will is most cases come over to you quite soon after you sit down. Personal tip is call them over again once you’ve finished your meal and order a teh tarik (Malaysian style tea) for afters, it’s one of the best hot drinks ever. To get an idea of what to try we picked up a food map from the hotel which had a list of dishes Penang is famous for, and some of the stalls that produce the best versions of said dishes. See if you can find a copy, but don’t worry too much about going for the stalls listed, just look out for a busy one serving any of the dishes you’re interested in.

On our final full day in Penang we visited Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, situated in the middle of the island up the hill. From there we visited the national park in Batu Ferringhi. Batu Ferringhi is the beach resort side of town (you’ll see a lot of Gulf Arabs on honeymoon, dudes dressed in t-shirts and shorts while wifey stays in niqab, go figure). The national park is the smallest in Malaysia, it spreads along the coast at the north-western tip of the island and there’s a beach for most of it. Unfortunately we couldn’t spend too long there as we had hired a driver for the day, but the main destination in the park for most people is Turtle Beach. Despite its small size there are a few trails of varying lengths you can go on. From there we made a brief stop at Coffee Tree a popular place that lots of taxi drivers will recommend to you, I assume they make some sort of commission as you’re given a sticker on your shirt as you walk in with your driver, but the prices are fixed and our driver didn’t push a sell on us so it was no loss on us. They sell loads of different flavours of coffee, mostly instant, and weird and wonderful chocolates, it’s a little pricey but a decent place to pick up gifts for back home. From there we made our way to the temple of the sleeping Buddha, which is built in a Thai style, immediately across the road on the other side is a Burmese style temple with a standing Buddha. In the evening we took a bus back to Batu Ferringhi to check out the night market. Though most of it is cheap wares from China, you can pick up some decent pieces, make sure you take your haggling skills with you.

And so ended our trip in Penang. Looking up a list of places to visit in Malaysia, Penang is always on there, and rightly so. If you consider going to Malaysia I would highly recommend adding Penang to the list. From there we made our way to Kuching in Borneo, and that will God willing follow in the next post.

Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur

Image

Last year I had planned a trip from Singapore, through Malaysia and into Thailand, but a family emergency lead me to call the trip off short. This year I returned to Malaysia after only being able to spend about 20 hours there the year before, but my intention this time was to spend around two weeks just in Malaysia (with a brief weekend stop in Singapore again on the way back).

For most people Kuala Lumpur is the starting point of any trip to the country. My first piece of advice, everything in Malaysia is cheap, including the five star hotels in KL. A three day stay for two people in the Shangri-La costs as much as a single night in the London equivalent, so if you’re up for it it’s worth making the investment. (I won’t go into the spiritual repercussions of doing so, this is one of my travelogue articles as you can tell, not an Islamic one).

Our first day in KL started with a very long nap as we were both very jetlagged. After our initial wanderings we made our way to KL Menara or KL Tower, which much like the Petronas Towers offers you great views of the city, the main difference being the viewing deck being a circular platform so you end up with a more panoramic view. From there we made our way to Bukit Bintang, a bit of a shopping area just on the fringes of the city centre, this is where you will find a lot of Arab residents and tourists to KL. For those who are interested you can also pick up some oud or perfume in this part of town. Oud comes from this part of the world, but from what I can tell the locals don’t really use it and export most of it to the Gulf, so I’m not sure which of the few shops around are actually any good. I decided to make my purchase from Oud Line, which I found out about before we flew out, and it seemed to be the only large well stocked shop we came across during our travels.

The next day was our first full day in Malaysia and we started off at the Petronas Towers. Another bit of advice, we got there around 8:30 in the morning on a Sunday when that whole area of KL feels deserted, but yet there are still tourists queuing up waiting for tickets in this small antechamber area in the bottom of one of the towers. They’ve recently started allowing people to pre-book tickets online and it’s definitely worth it if you’re keen on going up the towers, otherwise I’ve heard the wait can go on for hours. The tour includes a visit to the skybridge which connects the two towers, and then a trip to the top where, as you can expect, you can get a great view of the city. Though be warned, pollution and rain is quite common in KL so you may not necessarily end up with clear skies. The area around the towers is made up of a large complex containing a number of different things, one of which is the KL Aquarium, which was OK, there’s also the Suria KLCC shopping mall if you’re into that sort of thing. Though given the glitz and glamour of the place I was wondering what normal Malaysians must think about it.

From the the City Centre, we made our way to the colonial district, which as my brother pointed out, actually makes you feel like you’re in Asia. The City Centre is a mass of skyscrapers, expatriates and big business, but KL certainly hasn’t forgotten its roots, once you leave KLCC you’ll soon be reminded that 1) this is actually still South East Asia and 2) that this place used to be a massive rainforest. There’s a still a lot of greenery around pockets of KL, particularly if you walk between KLCC and the Colonial District. You also will end up walking past the edges of an area known as Kampung Baru, the traditional Malay area of town that still has a few wooden houses. The main sites in the Colonial District are the Jamek Mosque, built in a Victorian-Moorish style of architecture familiar to many sub-continentals, Merdeka (Independence) Square, as well as a few museums that follow on from the architecture of the Jamek Mosque. Not too far down the road is Masjid Negara (National Mosque) which took over as the main mosque of Kuala Lumpur from the Jamek Mosque when it was built. The mosque, like many modern mosques in Malaysia, is a mixture of different architectural styles, mostly modernist, but the Mihrab is built in a beautiful Andalusian style:

2014-04-20 13.40.34

Nearby the masjid are a number of sights, the Islamic Arts Museum was, given my addiction to museums and Islamic art, high up on my list and it’s definitely worth paying a visit. Reading descriptions of pieces it’s clear to tell the people who work here are enthusiastic about the subject matter, there area number of permanent and temporary exhibitions, plus a well stocked shop with original calligraphy pieces, and even a Lebanese restaurant. Up the hill from the museum is the KL Bird Park, which was nice to visit, but it’s evident a number of the birds don’t enjoy being in their cages. If you’re interested nearby the mosque and museum is KL’s old train station, built again in a Victorian-Moorish style but on a much grander scale. Think the Brighton Pavilion x 2. Heading back towards Jamek Masjid we visited the Central Market south of the mosque. The market is in Chinatown, and at night when the market is open you can end up going down narrow streets clogged up by stalls which makes for an interesting experience.

The next day we travelled to the Batu Caves north of KL. You can take a taxi which is quicker, but I would recommend taking the train from KL Sentral which is a lot cheaper and doesn’t take too much longer. The caves form an important part of Hindu culture in Malaysia and KL in particular, and there are a number of temples located in numerous locations around the caves. Aside from the temples the natural scenery is definitely worth checking out. There are about 200 steps leading up to the main area up into the mountain, there are large steps along the way that you can rest on before carrying on. We were both under the impression the area would be a lot larger than we thought it would be, but we ended up going up the stairs and coming back down again in just under an hour. The Batu Caves were the last thing we wanted to see in KL, so the rest of the day was spent filling it up with shopping mall wanderings, and also taking the opportunity to take pictures of the Petronas Towers at night. We also decided to have a wander around Kampung Baru, which ironically given that it lies in the shadow of the Petronas Towers feels like a world away. There’s a large hawker centre on the main thoroughfare going through the area which was quite busy when we walked through in the early afternoon, which is usually a good sign of what the food is like there, but unfortunately we didn’t get to try any (my tips on Hawker Stalls will follow in a subsequent piece).  The next day we made our way to Puduraya Bus Station (or Pudu Sentral) to take a bus to Penang, which will follow in the next article God willing.

We are all Malcolm X

Image

Today marks 49 years since the martyrdom El-Hajj Malik al-Shabbaz, more commonly known as Malcolm X. For Muslims in the Anglophone world, and particularly in North America, Malcolm is regarded as a sort of patron saint, a pioneer of Islam into an unfamiliar world. As someone who lives in a culture that has been greatly influenced by Malcolm, my social media accounts were replete with eulogies and remembrances of him on this day. As a result it got me thinking, given Malcolm’s huge influence over English speaking Muslims, and the profound effect of his mentality and outspokenness, have we lived up to the challenges that Malcolm faced? Have our homages to his legacy been demeaned to a simple retweet, or sharing a post on Facebook? Are we doing enough to honour everything he sacrificed for?

The people Malcolm had the most profound effect on were his own qawm, his own people, the African Americans, more specifically those who live in the ghettoes from which Malcolm emerged. If it were not for Malcolm, America would not have Muhammad Ali, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, Ameena Williams, Warith Deen Muhammad, and countless others whose stories were told too late to the masses, such as Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah, or those whose stories are left to history. But yet in America, despite the great efforts of these people, more is still to be done. Blacks in America are still at the bottom of the social fabric of society, their children are subjugated by the social system, with inadequate state schooling, and by a racist stereotyped cultural system fuelled by television and film that teaches their youth that all they can aspire to be is a criminal turned hip hop lackey, or a sports professional. The cultural influence, given the globalisation of everything American, affects black youth all over the world, including here in the UK. Whereas in Malcolm’s time, blacks were subjugated by a clear-cut apartheid system, today it’s an implicit form of subjugation based on commercialism. Whenever you see a black person on tv or a film, the vast majority of the time it’s a negative portrayal. In a post-9/11 system, this has now been expanded to include Muslims from the whole colour spectrum. It’s from Malcolm’s fight against explicit racism from which we can learn how to deal with the implicit racism we find ourselves surrounded by today.

Malcolm’s greatest asset was he was a non-conformist, he didn’t believe everything he was told, he asked questions, explored answers, he went looking for the truth. When he found the things that were false, he fought against them, this is what the great patrons of African American society did, are still doing, and it’s what we need to take part in in our own societies. Here in Britain, Muslims make up 2% of the population in Britain, but 13% of the prison population, we suffer from domestic abuse, substance abuse and common criminality, to live up to the legacy of Malcolm we need to do something about that, but what? Malcolm is a huge cultural icon, and most of us, if any at all, will never reach that sort of exposure, our honouring his legacy must come through changing the negative aspects of the world around us one small step at a time, just as our spiritual predecessors had done, from the Prophet (ﷺ) to Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani, Shah Jalal, Mawlana Rumi and Malcolm X, they sat with the poor, listened to the downtrodden, advised the needy. Our personal effect on the people around us must first be internalised by forming an intention to live up to the teaching of the Prophet (ﷺ) when he said:

Whoever of you sees an evil must then change it with his hand. If he is not able to do so, then [he must change it ] with his tongue. And if he is not able to do so, then [he must change it] with his heart.

Once we have made our intention, we must make a sincere effort to bring these words to effect, this happens by doing simple little things, such as clearing rubbish from an elderly neighbour’s garden or buying a sandwich for a homeless person. If we miss a chance to do these trivial things we must regret the lost opportunity, this is the latter part of the hadith where one regrets an evil with the heart. The next level is to make a solid commitment to an ongoing cause, this in our time comes about in the form of volunteering, whether at a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, abuse counselling, or even a homework or youth club for teenagers. If we do work with teenagers, it must be understood they are at the most formative period of their life, and if you are working with them you have a chance to make them into something great. Tell them to stop listening to commercial music, enlighten them to the realities of fake advertising, advise them to read. Following on from this, if one has children of their own that entails the next step, a lifelong commitment, “emancipate them from mental slavery” as you would the children you volunteer with, and encourage them in take part in your struggle to make the world around you better, so that they carry it on to their own children.

None of us will ever have be Malcolm in the truest sense, but if we make sincere efforts, and strive to carry on the work that Malcolm started, not just in the States but in our own part of the world, we can all become Malcolm X.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 49 other followers