Islam is primarily identified with the Malays, although there are a considerable number of non-Malays (i.e. particularly Muslim Indians, and also Chinese, Kadazan and others). It forms the largest single religious group in the country.

The earliest evidence of the presence of Islam in Southeast Asia comes from near Gerisik in Java from the tomb of a Muslim merchant dated AD 1082. In Malaysia itself the earliest evidence comes from the famous inscription from Kuala Brang in Terengganu which, dated to the fourteenth century, precedes the Melaka sultanate.

These and other corroborative evidence such as isolated finds and travellers reports make it clear that the main avenue for the coming of Islam to the region was by trade. Arab traders had been calling at the southern Chinese port of Canton since the eighth century AD, leaving traces of their influence on the way. The number of Muslim traders coming to Southeast Asia greatly increased with the conversion of the powerful kingdom of Gujerat on India’s Malabar coast to Islam at the end of the thirteenth century, and around about the same time Islam had established a firm foothold in North Sumatra. From there the new religion was carried to the fledgling port of Melaka.

Although Melaka’s first ruler, Parameswara, became a convert to Islam around 1410, it was not until some forty years later that it became firmly established as the state religion under Sultan Muzaffar Shah. From that time onwards Melaka became the nodal point for the spread of Islam throughout Island Southeast Asia, spreading through its political connections throughout the Malay Peninsula and the Sumatran shore opposite. and carried by traders converted in Melaka to Java, Borneo, Celebes and beyond. Melaka also became an important centre of Islamic learning under the patronage of her rulers until the time of the Portuguese conquest in 1511. By this time Islam had become firmly established as the religion of the Malays and the successor states to Melaka developed strong Islamic institutions.

Islam as The Official Religion

According to the Constitution, Islam is the religion of the Malaysian Federation. However, the Constitution also provides that every person has the right to profess and practise his own religion, and also has the right to propagate his faith, although the right to propagate other religions is not permitted by law amongst persons who are Muslims.* Under the provisions for the freedom of religion, the Constitution states the following:
that no person may be compelled to pay any tax, the proceeds of which are allocated in whole or part of the purpose of any religion other than his own;
that every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, and to acquire and hold property, and administer it in accordance with the law.

The Religious Position of The Yang Di-Pertuan Agong and The Rulers
There is no pan-Malaysian head of Islam. The position of head of Islam in each state with a hereditary Malay Ruler is held by the Ruler. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong is head of Islam in his own state, and also in the states of Melaka and Pulau Pinang, the Federal Territory Sabah and Sarawak
The Yang di-Pertuan Agong has the authority, granted to him by the Conference of Rulers, to fix uniform dates for nation-wide religious acts and observances such as the starting and ending of the fasting month Ramadan.

Islam a State Subject

Under the Constitution Islam is a state subject, meaning that only state governments possess legislative and executive authority over it: The central government only has such authority in the case of the Federal Territory. State powers include, inter alia, over Muslim law and personal and family law for Muslims, Muslim wakaf (endowments); Malay custom, zakat and (the obligatory religious dues of Muslim), baitul-mal (meaning a treasury, in which unclaimed estates are held in trust) and similar Muslim revenues, mosques, the creation and punishment of offences by Muslims against the precepts of Islam; Muslim Courts; the control and propagation of doctrines and beliefs among Muslims; the determination of matters of Muslim law and doctrine and of Malay custom. Under the state law, every state in the federation has established a state religious council (in Sabah and Sarawak known as the Islamic Religious Council ) to advise the ruler concerned on Muslim matters. In the cases of Pulau Pinang and Melaka, to advise the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and in those of Sabah and Sarawak to advise the state government concerned. Islam was made the state religion of Sabah by an amendment to the state constitution passed by the states legislature in 1973. Sarawak has not passed a similar law.

Muslim Courts

Such courts, known as syariah courts, established by state governments, have jurisdiction only over Muslims and only over such offences committed by Muslims against the precepts of Islam as defined under the Muslim Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act of 1969. In 1988 Article l 21 of the Constitution was amended so that the secular courts of Malaysia no longer have any jurisdiction over any matter within the jurisdiction of the syariah courts. The effect of this amendment has been to raise the status of the syariah courts and place them on par with the secular courts. The syariah courts are in the process of being recognised into three tiers, subordinate courts, a high court, and a court of appeal. At the same time the syariah courts have been freed from the control of the State Islamic Council in each state.


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Confucianism, Taoism and Ancestor Worship

These three religions, all of which along with Mahayana Buddhism have been identified with the Chinese. As such they are inevitably associated with the Chinese wherever they have settled and have formed an integral part of Chinese life and culture, although to what extent these traditions and practices can be described as a religion rather than a system of moral and social codes is a moot point. Their presence is reflected in the ubiquitous household altars, little shrines with joss sticks and fruit offerings along the roadside, and of course with the multitude of temple schools, and charitable institutions to be found all over the country. Furthermore, the maintenance of these institutions and the traditions, practices and beliefs which go with them is in the hands of the numerous clan, pang and district associations to be found in the Chinese community.

Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and Kwan Ti, in particular, have come to be adopted by many businesses and professions, and as a result are nowadays identified with prosperity and wealth.

The traditions of ancestor worship are reflected amongst Malaysian Chinese especially in their worship of Sam Po Shan among the shen and Toh Peh Kong among the fu, in this respect distinguishing themselves from their fellows in China itself. Sam Po Shan (Sam Poh Tai Shen) is the spirit of the celebrated Admiral Cheng Ho of the Ming dynasty who visited Melaka in the 1400s and who is recognised as the protector of travellers. Toh Peh Kong (Ta Pai Kung) is worshipped as the spirit of the pioneers. Although he probably is derived from Tu Ti (the Earth God), he appears to exist solely as a god amongst the Overseas Chinese.

Taoism, along with Buddhism, has undergone attempts at revival and reform in the twentieth century. Amongst such organisations founded for this purpose is the World Red Swastika Society which has a number of branches in Malaysia.


There have been Hindu influences in Malaysia since the dawn of history but the Hinduism of the Hindu period in Malaysian history has little connection with the Hinduism practised in the country today: Brahmanical Hinduism which flourished at the courts of petty Malaysian states before the coming of Islam in the fifteenth century was an aristocratic religion used to bolster the authority of the ruling class which had been carried across the Indian Ocean by early Hindu traders. The influence of the Hinduism of this period is still reflected in Malay language and literature, in the traditional wayang kulit in various traditional ceremonies such as the bersanding at a Malay wedding, mandi safar ( now discouraged amongst Muslims), and the puja pantai of Kelantan. Relics and remains from this period have also been found, principally in Kedah.

But the Hinduism practised in Malaysia today is the Hinduism of the settlers who came into this country in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, mostly as contract labourers with a sprinkling of English-educated immigrants who provided the basis of a professional middle class community. It is reckoned that about 87 per cent of Malaysian Indians today are practising Hindus. Like the religion itself Hindu temples and institutions are varied and diverse. Each estate which has Indian workers has its temple managed by its own committee, following closely the forms and practises from its area of origin in southern India. In the towns are found larger temples, usually dedicated to universal deities in the Hindu pantheon, and supported by wealthier elements from the professional and middle classes. Probably the best known of these urban temples is the long-established Maha Mariamman Temple in Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, Kuala Lumpur. Since the bulk of the Indian population in Malaysia is derived from Tamil Nadu, Shaivite forms of Hinduism predominate, with Murugan or Subramaniam and Mariamman being the two most popular deities.
The Lakshmi Narayanan Temple in Kuala Lumpur is the most important of those supported by the much smaller North Indian Hindu community in the country.

Since the end of the Second World War there has been a considerable revival of Hinduism amongst Indian Malaysians. The formation of Hindu Youth Associations all over the peninsula led to an attempt to coordinate the various Hindu organisations. The first Malayan Hindu Conference held in 1954 gave rise to the formation of a Hindu Council for Malaya. which today functions as the Malaysia Hindu Sangam (established in l965). The Sangam is responsible for coordinating the various needs of the Hindu religious community and has the support of over 400 leading temples and religious institutions. The Ramakrishna Mission and the Vivekananda Society represent reform movements started in this country a couple of decades before the Second World War which aim to purify the religion and rid of its outdated or irrelevant aspects: Both movements have played an important role in preserving and propagating Hindu values. Other groups which exist for similar ends include the Divine Life Society and the Society for Krishna Consciousness.


Early History

International trade in early times played a key role in bringing Christianity to this part of the world. Some Persian traders were Nestorian Christians. There is literary evidence that there was a trading community of these Christians on the Malay Peninsula either in Kedah or modern day Klang. Later in the middle ages Catholic diplomats’ travelers and priests travelled through the Straits enroute to China. Among the traders resident in Melaka during the Melaka Sultanate in the 15th century were Nestorian and also Armenian Christians from what is today Eastern Turkey.

Churches were established in the area with the coming of the Portuguese in 1511, the Dutch in 1641 and the British in 1786. However, in this early period the Christian community was still largely an expatriate community. The l9th and 20th centuries saw greater Christian influence among locals.Chinese Christians sometimes migrated as communities as in the case of Basel Mission Hakkas to Sabah and Methodist Foochows to Sibu, Sarawak and Sitiawan, Perak. Christian missionaries played a key role in the field of education and medical services by establishing schools and hospitals in various parts of the country.

Major Festivals

The Main Christian festivals are Christmas, Good Friday and Easter, marking the birthday, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ respectively. Christmas Day that falls on 25 December is a public holiday throughout the country.

Christianity Today

With the country’s independence in 1957, the country’s churches also underwent its own process of nationalisation. Foreign missionaries could only have their visas renewed up to a total of ten years. At the same time, relatively few visas were granted to new missionaries. This had the effect of forcing the churches to nurture local leaders. Today the Christian Church in Malaysia is by and large local in leadership, membership and finance.

The Christian population is estimated at one million or 6% of the national population and includes some Indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak and some Orang Asli in the Peninsula.

In a major initiative taken in 1985, the heads of churches from the different church traditions present in the country voluntarily came together and established a national Christian body.


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