Halal Chicken While You Wait

Vacationing in a rural area like Bagan Datoh means you are far from the entertainment and amenities of city life. One definite advantage lies in being closer to where your food comes from: fresh, wholesome food is just outside your door. When we ran out of chicken, I had simply to ease on down the road to get the freshest possible halal chicken available.

It’s amazing sometimes how obsessed Malays are with eating halal. I knew of Malaysian students in the US who would drive hours to stock up on halal meat every few weeks, others in a rural area that would gather funds from the student community to slaughter their own cow at a nearby farm and divvy up the meat. Compared to many of us American muslims who simply eat local beef and chicken as christian meat or buy Kosher, it is a tremendous amount of effort, may God reward them for it.

But now here we are in a muslim country with national halal certification, a huge thriving halal food industry, yet people will still go to great lengths to ensure their meat is halal, and rumors constantly swirl about non-halal products or butchers that have a halal sign but are really not. Caution in religious matters can be a form of piety, so I’m not condemning that, but sometimes I feel like people should just see the halal sign and say bismillah, put tawakkul in Allah and get on with it.

All such fears are allayed if you simply get your chicken right from the source, in this case, Wak Nab’s open air butcher shop. As I pulled over the rickety wooden bridge across the canal, Abang Nor, my wife’s half-brother’s wife’s older brother, took a break from his yard work, washed off and strolled over to take our order. He asked if I wanted to pick my birds, but I demurred: any two would do. From the cage to the killing floor to the boiler to the plucker to the cutting board, the whole process
took just a few minutes a bird. You can’t get chicken fresher than that, and you can’t get chicken any more halal than that unless you could see the islam inscribed on the man’s heart. It hit the lunch table an hour later as ayam masak kuning. Yum yum.

Tourists Reach Bagan Datoh

Canal at Rungkup

I was amazed to see all the development upon my return to Bagan Datoh. Roads were being widened and resurfaced, the water infrastructure was being upgraded, civic buildings looked spiffy with fresh paint. Am I reading to much into it to see a political lesson here? Having your district go to PAS is bad for government investment, but having your district almost go to PAS (as Bagan Datoh nearly did last election) is fantastic for government investment.

The most interesting new development was that the whole district had been organized into a Homestay program, whereby a few homes in each village became glorified Bread & Breakfasts. Unlike with your basic B&B, here the host is part of the attraction. (The idea is not all that different from the longhouse stays that adventurous visitors to Sarawak often take. Bagan Datoh is far more tame, I can assure you.) It turned out even our neighbor two doors down had enrolled. For about RM50 a night, you can stay in an authentic village house, eat authentic village homecooked food, and meet authentic village people. And to think, I’ve been getting all this for free!

Seriously, it is a nice idea. I’ve always been fond of the place during the many trips here over the last ten years, but in a way, finding out that it was now a tourist attraction made me take a second look. Perhaps Bagan Datoh has overly informed my impression of the Malay countryside. I imagined that all of rural Malaysia was more or less this way. But if Malaysians would choose to come and stay here as tourists to experience real kampung life, than maybe what we have here is something more special and rare than I realized. Socially, the kampungs here are very tight knit, traditional, and deeply religious. The area has an idyllic quality, with it’s miles of swaying coconut trees, slow-moving canals, and beautiful wooden homes. It is lovely. I suppose it could be a tourist destination if you enjoy your vacations slow and restful.

A few resources if you want to plan a vacation to Bagan Datoh:
Tourism Malaysia: Homestay
AdventureQuest: Bagan Datoh Homestay

Journey to Ihsan: looking back

Alhamdulillah, I was able to fly to Singapore to attend the conference Journey to Ihsan last weekend. It was my first time in Singapore, and I came in the hard way, landing in Johor Bahru, then taking a three hour combination of trains and buses before arriving at my hotel, across the street from Dar ul-Arqam, the Singapore Muslim Converts Association. The Geylang street area was lovely. Just a block from my hotel were two old masajid across the street from each other, Masjid Khalid and Masjid Ta Ha (I think – there’s an excellent Singapore mosque portal here, but the second masjid isn’t listed). I sorely missed my camera the whole trip long, which I left at home, inoperable for lack of a screw.

I started at Masjid Khalid with Subuh Saturday morning, and then made my way across town to Arab Street by rail. Impressions along the way: The public transit was superb, the city is shiny and new, every nook and cranny is lush with landscaping. Singapore has much more in common with New York than with Kuching, that’s for sure. Maybe it’s a measure of how long I’ve been stuck in the sticks (almost four years now) that I was so bowled over. One thing that kept coming to mind due to its absence was the sight of children. There weren’t any. Every now and then I’d see a couple with one child and it would only reinforce the feeling: This is the land of the DINKs.

I got off at the Bugis train stop and proceeded on foot to the Sultan Mosque, where the weekend event was to be held. Mash’Allah, from the opening session till 4 o’clock the next afternoon when I had to leave before Shaykh Hisham’s closing speech to wind my way back to Johor, I had a wonderful wonderful time.

I’ll admit the main attraction for me was Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, whom I hadn’t seen in four years. Shaykh Hisham started, as he often does, with a bit of stumbling, a bit of awkwardness, just enough for you to think maybe he’s unsure up there, and then the spirit moves him and he explodes into just the most moving oratory imaginable. I’ve never seen another speaker like him, may Allah bless him and elevate his station.

Many other speakers gave interesting presentations, from a wide range of perspectives. Prof Gianotti brought up the issue of humane treatment of animals as an aspect of making meat halal, an issue I sorely wish our local halal certifiers would look into. The halal chickens I buy every week uniformly have there forelegs (drumsticks) broken. I’m fairly sure this is because they are hung upside-down by their feet on metal hooks as they are conveyed down the line to the killing floor, their legs breaking from struggle. Even if their necks are then slit, how can this be halal? Here in a muslim country, if our halal council certifies it, I’m not one to dispute. Still, it’s not the path of Ihsan, that’s for sure.

Sister Aisha Gray, the founder of Fons Vitae, is an American convert to Islam who performed the Hajj before I was even born. If that isn’t enough reason to sit quietly and pay attention, I don’t know what is. She showed an excerpt from a new documentary on sacred art and architecture in Cairo. It was stunning, but then at the end, there were some selections from the Hikam of Ibn Ata Allah that, after gazing at all the sacred imagery preceeding it, moved me to tears. Looking back at the selections that night from my hotel room, they were beautiful, but they didn’t touch me the same way as they had that afternoon. It proved her point to me, that being surrounded by sacred art softens the heart and makes one more receptive to sacred knowledge.

I had the opportunity between sessions to go around the block to the storefront of Wardah Books, an Islamic bookseller you should really take a look at. Their collection isn’t enormous, but it is 100% quality. Last time I wrote, they had come out with a translation of Mawlid Daiba’i. Well, they’ve got another now, a new version compiled by Shaykh Hisham that I picked up. I sprung for a few of Imam al-Haddad’s books that have been translated by Mostafa Badawi too. I had to pick up what I could, since sadly Wardah Books doesn’t deliver outside Singapore.

All in all, it was a great trip. Living in a muslim country, you rub shoulders with people all day long who have only a tenuous connection to their faith. Attending events such as this, shaking the hands of people who are committed to the spiritual journey, listening to advice from our scholars and saints, it is truly invigorating. I just hope next time I have a camera with me. And that I don’t lose my phone again. Mash’Allah, you win some you lose some…

[Update: Streaming audio of Shaykh Hisham’s speeches at the conference is available at Sufi Online.]

2nd International Conference on Islamic Spirituality

2nd International Conference on Islamic Spirituality

The Abdul Aleem Siddique Mosque of Singapore is hosting the 2nd International Conference on Islamic Spirituality, to be held on 2-3 September, 2006. The theme of the conference is Journey to Ihsan. Among the headlining speakers are Shaykh Hisham Kabbani and Professor Abd al-Haqq Godlas. More details including bios of the speakers are available.

It looks like a great program. I’m just a short plane ride away – I hope I’m able to attend.

Visit the Gulf

I’ve come across two weblogs by American muslim expats that are wonderful complements to each other, Nzingha’s Soapbox from Saudi Arabia, and Life in Exile from the Gulf nation of Qatar, best known as home to the indispensable Al-Jazeerah network. Side by side, they are a great introduction to a part of the world I haven’t been to yet but hope to visit one day, inshallah. They also show the significant differences that exist amongst the gulf nations, which I might have assumed to be more or less the same before now.

Life in Exile shows life in Qatar to be a pretty enjoyable experience. The country is modernizing in its own way and diversifying its economy as best it can. Dervish of Life in Exile explains why he doesn’t dwell on controversy or on unpleasant aspects of life in Qatar. He has several reasons, including

According to the Qur’an, we are not supposed to speak of an evil unless we are a victim of it. There are exceptions to this when a problem affects society at large, however. An example of this is as follows. Say someone else commits a sin, and I become aware of it. If I tell others of his sin, I am committing a sin probably more grievous than his. On the other hand, I can speak in general terms against the type of sin that he commits, or, I can speak of his sin specifically, if society as a whole is harmed by it. I generally will not speak of negative things that do not affect me or society as a whole, as it is unislamic.

I’ve been holding to a general “speak no evil” policy for the same reasons here on this site. I have one more reason to keep silent on local controversy: I have no idea what is going on. It’s not that I don’t try to keep informed. It’s that the coverage of issues in the local media is remarkably superficial. It’s remarkable because the press is not actively censored here. It’s more like it is neutered to start with. If you thought the American press just passively repeats government press releases, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Front page headlines will often read like, “Get Act Together, People Told” or “Industry Must Raise Standards, YB Says” accompanied by glamor shots of politicians grinning and shaking hands. Our local top politician proudly calls it the “Politics of Development”, which basically seems to mean, as long as everyone’s fortunes are rising, nobody better rock the boat. And since everyone’s fortunes have been rising since indepedence, albeit perhaps not at uniform rates, the press seems content not to dig too deep.

Meanwhile, the news is less than encouraging from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Nzingha writes that now the religious police are forcing women to cover their faces in the two holy places while they pray! I’m no religious scholar, but I’m certain covering the face invalidates the prayer for those following the shafi’i madhhab. Not content to vandalize our sacred architectural heritage and prevent us via truncheon of receiving baraka at the Propet’s door, they are now compromising the performance of our sisters’ salat. Subhanallah. I was advised years ago to make my hajj as soon as I could, before they wreck anything else. I think I need to start taking my preparations more seriously.

Islam in Detroit

The University of Michigan Graduate School has a project on the web called Building Islam in Detroit: An Interdisciplinary Study of Muslim Institutions & Collective Spaces. The site is not fully developed yet, but it sounds like a great project, with case studies planned for a number of masajid around town including Muath bin Jabal near Hamtramck. They have a list of masajid around town, plotted on a map. I’m fond of telling people that Detroit has as many masajid as Kuching; now I have proof. The most fleshed out part of the site is the section that has photographs of various mosques, taken by a photographer visiting from Sudan. Well worth a look.

[via Islamicate]

Naming conventions pt. 3


One last thing about names here is the “bin”. Bin is Arabic for “son of”. Binti is “daughter of”. Although it does not appear on the birth cert itself, it is inserted between the first and last names of muslims, or more accurately, between the child’s name and the father’s name. (So in case you hadn’t put it together yet, my name is not Bin. I am the son of Gregory.) That part is straightforward. What is curious though, is that non-muslims don’t get a “bin”. Instead, they get “anak” inserted between their and their father’s name, as in Jefferson Anak Tutong. Anak means “child” or “child of” in that context. Then, it seems only with Hindus, it is changed to a/l or a/p, short for “anak lelaki” or “anak perempuan”, meaning son of or daughter of, respectively. What could be the reason for this? Why not just “bin” and “binti” for everybody? There’s nothing particularly islamic about it, aside from the Arabic origin of the word. There is a ton of Arabic in Bahasa Malaysia (and Bahasa Iban for that matter. See Bup Kudus) that doesn’t have any overt islamic significance, so that’s not a good reason. I don’t know, but I think it is a bit of chauvanism on the part of the Malays, to distinguish between the muslims and non-muslims that way. It’s not as though anybody would be confused between Muhammad Abdul Latif and Sivabakti Mahalingam. It’s not uniform anyway. Some tribes here in Sarawak use bin even though they are not muslim, specifically the Melanau, who are very close to the Malays in culture but are mixed christian and muslim. Maybe it’s a non-issue… Still, from time to time, some wiseacre in my class will put “bin” on his attendance sheet.