Like most Muslims in Malaysia, Mohammad Shah was raised according to the Sunni school of Islam. But when he was about 30, he said, he came to believe that Sunni teachings did not answer all of his questions about Islam. He began reading about the Shiite school of thought, the world’s second largest Islamic sect, and decided that “Sunni was not right for me.”
“I consider myself the new generation of Malaysian Shia,” said Mr. Mohammad, 33, using another term to describe Shiites. “My father is Sunni, my mother is Sunni. They are aware that I’m practicing a different school of thought. It’s no problem at all.”
Such acceptance does not extend to Malaysia’s religious authorities.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but when it comes to Islam, the country’s official religion, only the Sunni sect is permitted. Other forms, including Shiite Islam, are considered deviant and are not allowed to be spread.
Mr. Mohammad was one of 130 Shiites detained by the religious authorities in December as they observed Ashura, the Shiite holy day commemorating the martyrdom of the Holly Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Ali (a.s), in their prayer room in an outer suburb of Kuala Lumpur.
There are no official figures on the number of Shiites in Malaysia, but Shiite leaders estimate that there could be as many as 40,000, many of whom practice their faith secretly.
While sectarian divisions are associated more with countries such as Iraq and Pakistan, Islamic experts say Malaysia is a rare example of a Muslim-majority country where the Shiite sect is banned. They say the recent raid reflects the religious authorities’ reluctance to accept diversity within Islam, and was part of the authorities’ continuing efforts to impose a rigid interpretation of the religion.
Although there had been some earlier arrests of Shiites since the National Fatwa Council, the country’s top Islamic body, clarified that Sunni Islam was the official religion in 1996, the December raid on the prayer room occupied by the Lovers of the Prophet’s Household was the first in recent years, according to the Shiite group’s leader, Kamil Zuhairi bin Abdul Aziz who had studied in Al-Mustafa International University.
Mr. Kamil and the other Shiites who were detained in the raid have been summoned to appear before the Shariah court for hearings scheduled for March and April to answer charges that they insulted the religious authorities and that they denied, violated or disputed a fatwa. The offenses are punishable by a fine of up to 3,000 ringgit, about $981, imprisonment for up to two years, or both.
On a recent evening, a small group of men and a handful of women with toddlers in tow climbed the three flights of stairs to the prayer room where the raid had taken place.
A sign atop the building, which is sandwiched between a mechanic’s workshop and a small cafe on a quiet suburban street, reads “House of Knowledge.” A Koranic verse in Arabic marks the entrance.
Inside the prayer room, the flags of Malaysia and the state of Selangor flank a red and black banner bearing the name of Imam Hussain (a.s).
As many as 100 Shiites attend prayers led by Mr. Kamil each week, although he said many Malaysian followers worship privately. “Most of the Shia are in hiding because of the oppression,” he said.
He said some fear they will be discriminated against when they apply for jobs if it is known that they are Shiites, while others are afraid of being detained by the religious authorities.
Some Sunni leaders have claimed that Shiites deviate from the true form of Islam and represent a “threat to national security,” according to Mr. Kamil. He said some Sunni leaders, alluding to violence in Iraq and Pakistan, have alleged that Shiite Islam permits the killing of Sunnis, an accusation he emphatically denied.
Since the raid, the group has installed a security grill in the stairwell leading to their prayer room, where a black curtain divides the men’s section from the women’s.
But Mr. Kamil and others attending the prayer session this evening insisted that they were not afraid to continue practicing their beliefs. “We are not in fear, but we live in difficulty,” he said.
Calling for dialogue with the Sunni majority, Mr. Kamil insisted that Malaysian Shiites, some of whom are married to Sunnis, want to live in harmony with all other religions.
A statement issued by a spokesman for the federal government said the Constitution guaranteed religious freedom to all Malaysians, and that the National Fatwa Council was responsible for guiding the practice of Islam in Malaysia.
“In 1996, the National Fatwa Council issued a ruling that Sunni Islam is the official faith of Muslims in Malaysia. Under this ruling, which is enforced by Islamic affairs departments in each Malaysian state, Shia Muslims are free to practice their faith, but are not permitted to proselytize,” the statement said.
“It would be inappropriate for the federal government to comment further on this state-based matter.”
The Selangor State Islamic Religious Department, which carried out the raid, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Harussani Zakaria, a member of the National Fatwa Council, said allowing different sects to practice in Malaysia could lead to disputes. “It already happens in some countries,” he said in a telephone interview. “We don’t want that to come here.”
Chandra Muzaffar, president of the International Movement for a Just World, a nongovernment organization based in Malaysia, said while there may be differences among the various sects, Shiites are part of the Muslim community. “It’s just wrong to describe Shia as deviants,” he said.
Greg Barton, acting director of the Center for Islam and the Modern World at Monash University in Melbourne, said that Malaysia’s religious authorities had adopted a more rigid approach to Islam in recent decades and that space for public discussion of religion had narrowed under the influence of “Saudi Salafism and Egyptian Brotherhood prejudice.”
“The group that speaks formally for Malaysian Islam is a very narrow group who have taken a very puritanical approach,” said Mr. Barton. “The religious bureaucracy has become a very meddling bureaucracy. It has a very pernicious impact on religious freedom, not just for non-Muslims but for Muslims as well.”
Mr. Barton said while there were no precise figures, there are probably tens of thousands of Shiites in Southeast Asia, most in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Mariyah Qibti, who teaches Shiite Islam to children at the prayer room on Sundays, has experienced firsthand the two countries’ differing approaches to Shiites. Born to a Shiite family in Indonesia, Ms. Mariyah went to Iran when she was 19 to pursue Islamic studies. Two years ago she married a Malaysian Shiite, and moved to Kuala Lumpur.
Feeding her 1-year-old son as she sat on a rug at the back of the prayer room, she said that, in contrast to Malaysia, in Indonesia Shiites could practice their faith freely.
Despite her looming court appearance in March, she says she is not afraid to continue practicing her beliefs.
“This is part of the risk of being followers of Shia,” she said.
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