As the van hurtled me and my fellow urban studies enthusiasts towards the heart of Kuala Lumpur on Day 1, to my immediate left appeared the KLIA Mosque in all its Middle Eastern ornateness and proved to me that yes, I was traversing through what Ross King labeled as “a pan-Islamic hyperspace” (King 2008, 6). Kuala Lumpur which identifies as 46% Muslim is the capital of Malaysia, a country that is just over 60% Muslim, and the mosque that was essentially the airport’s very own, seemed completely in place.
Our evening journey through Bukit Bintang and Jalan Alor food street later that evening, left me with some deep-seated surprise as well as inquisitiveness. I noticed that there was something starkly different about how the Malay Islamic identity is represented and collides with other cultures and their religions throughout the urban fabric: it is seemingly more liberal or progressive than the traditional, more orthodox interpretations that I had seen and studied in India and heard about in the Middle East. Walking through Bukit Bintang felt almost as though I was visiting the high-end retail streets of a city that incorporated elements from Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City, an almost-supercenter of luxurious commercial sites that was superimposed against the greater Kuala Lumpur environment.
As we turned on to Jalan Alor Food Street the setting changed instantly, as the smell of perfumed handbags and leathered clothes transitioned to fresh delicacies from Thailand, Malaysia, China, and numerous other cuisines. Exotic fruits and vegetables, simmering skewers of various meats, and the even more refreshing presence of numerous drinks filled the atmosphere and left me with only one option: grabbing a seat and tasting as much as possible. Around me was a mix of Malays, Arabs, Chinese, Indians, other East or Southeast Asians and Westerners (European/Caucasian), all eating, smoking, and drinking (alcoholic and non) together.
This is where the surprise and curiosity arose from. Islam as I have read about and observed, prohibits smoking and drinking alcohol as it constitutes haram, which are considered acts of sin by traditional interpretations of the Quran. Throughout Jalan Alor, it seemed as though Malay men and women alike, and perhaps even their Indonesian counterparts as well, were enjoying their alcoholic beverages and tobacco as casually as any of their fellow non-Muslim patrons. However, one may wonder how such individuals are discernable within the larger Southeast Asian fabric. Two words. Religious garb. Malays and Indonesians are stereotypically identifiable for their solid-colored hijabs (women), fez-caps (men) and traditional robes (men and women). Linguistically, Bahasa Malayu and Bahasa Indonesia are intricately linked, setting them apart from other Southeast Asian languages, which also makes them audibly noticeable. Comparatively, the Arab/South Asian Muslim men and women also dressed in their specific clothing (niqabs and robes for women, standard informal clothing for men) were not drinking or smoking at all. So how could this be?
It seems that the Malaysian and even larger Southeast Asian Islamic identity was more fluid and liberal in its applicable interpretations, as opposed to its Arab and South Asian contemporaries. The simple fact that Malay and Indonesian women are not adorned in niqabs, but in more-revealing hijabs proves that there is a visible lapse in the levels of orthodoxy between the two sub-categories of Sunni Islam. This is not to say that women are represented within these societies through completely opposing methods, but that the Malay context that I was able to observe, seemed certainly more progressive in the way that certain acts deemed sinful in other Muslim societies were expressed throughout Bukit Bintang and Jalan Alor Food Street. So some questions I leave you with are: How is this progressive Islamic interpretation viewed through a more orthodox lens? What do the Arabs living, visiting, and exploring Kuala Lumpur environments similar to Bukit Bintang and Jalan Alor think of the Malays and Indonesians with regards to religious activism? Do the cleavages between such groups create tension or serve as causalities of a harmonious faith-based balance?