Islamic influence is heavier on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. Sure, you might find a lounge singer performing Tom Jones’s Sex Bomb at the Berjaya Redang Spa Resort on Redang Island, as I did, but that isn’t the norm for the state of Terengganu.
The vast majority of citizens are observant Malay Muslims. At the Noor Arfa Craft Complex, I admired the work of young women in blue smocks and white scarves who were meticulously tracing gold-paint patterns onto the signature Malaysian batik fabric. My guide cautioned me not to shake hands with the women we met, as this would violate religious custom.
Visiting the Terengganu State Museum, I examined the Batu Bersurat, an inscribed stone from the early 14th century that proclaims Islam to be Terengganu’s state religion. I couldn’t help but gulp when viewing an exhibit of tools for Islamic circumcision, performed on boys between ages 12 and 15, who sit on a dais facing a ceremonial dish of yellow rice during the procedure.
The real religious dividing line in Malaysia emerges when you head north and west into the conservative state of Kelantan. Bordering on Thailand, it’s been ruled by the Islamic Party of Malaysia since 1990. Kota Bharu, the state capital, was designated an “Islamic City” in 2005, and the government tries to clamp down periodically with everything from bikini bans to separate queues for men and women in stores.
Still, relatively strict religious governance hasn’t stifled the indigenous Malay culture.
At the Kota Bharu airport bookstore, I was startled to notice Romanticism: A Weapon of Satan, by Harun Yahya, next to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey. Yet I noted that both titles are available in English, and not just because airport bookstores cater to foreign tourists.
I enjoyed the hospitality of Malaysia, where English is widely spoken and friendly strangers strike up conversations in elevators. Savory Indian, Chinese, Thai and Malay cuisine abounds. With the Malaysian ringgit pegged at approximately 29 cents American, a food-court lunch is less than $3, and admission to Butterfly Park near the National Mosque is about $4.
And if you come away with a better sense of a religion that governs over 1 billion people worldwide, so much the better.
If You Go
Kuala Lumpur Tourism