Where Muftis Fear to Tread

Gubra raises a whole pile of socio-religio issues — some may even consider it somewhat overburdened — and in a heavily censored society, you really want to credit Yasmin Ahmad for using narrow windows of opportunities to test the limits of national and social discourse, even if some viewers may come away confronted and uncomfortable.

For example, the character of the muezzin, on his way to the mosque, pats a three-legged dog on the head. Some will argue that the Qur’an expressly prohibits dog-touching, but others will tell you that there isn’t a single reference to the dog being haram anywhere in the Qur’an, and that there are differences of opinion within the various schools of jurisprudence and thought.

Interpretations aside though, the testing of this limit was refreshingly confronting. Dog-patting is not something one usually associates with the general Malaysian Muslim, what more a man with a kopiah and a kain pelikat on his way to the mosque to perform the azan (call to prayer).

Some may wonder:

  1. If the muezzin was from some strange mazhab or deviant group;
  2. If he practises samak (ritual cleansing) after touching the dog;
  3. If it was a bit frivolous and unIslamic of the filmmaker to even depict this in the first place.

But the bottom line is that it challenges the viewer, and challenges perceptions of Muslims as homogenous, whether filmmaker or film character.

Mind you, I wonder if the muezzin and his wife, who have a warm friendship with two sex workers in the kampung (one who later discovers she is HIV positive), may not be characters out of a Surabaya or Jogjakarta context rather than a kampung in Perak.

Perhaps I am still stung by the suggestion by a certain Malaysian mufti that people living with HIV and AIDS ought to be left to rot on an island — so the kind and thoughtful muezzin and his wife seem like idealised fiction. I know of religious community leaders in Indonesia who live in ‘red light’ areas and unless approached and requested, do not preach nor teach rituals of religion. Instead, they make it their ‘religion’ to assist sex workers and their families to survive, lead safer lives and explore various employment options. But, I guess one shouldn’t completely write off the possibility that such a muezzin might actually exist in Perak.

There are several other moments that straddle idealism and Malaysian reality. For example, when Jason’s mother screams at her cantankerous low-kong in the hospital ward because he can’t seem to survive a day without babi in his diet, the Muslim family at the next bed respond very endearingly — which is nice and I wish (hope?) that this does happen. But, in a country where non-Muslim school-kids are told by their teachers to not bring pork in their own lunchboxes because it offends Muslims (but won’t think twice that beef rendang might offend Hindus), I almost had the feeling the Muslim family would want to be shifted to another ward.

There are moments in Gubra which you can’t help but compare it with (sorry bout this!) a Petronas ad and wonder whether if it wasn’t slightly forced and out of place, like when the Chinese patient and Malay patient commiserate the death of a mutual Indian acquaintance. And there are characters and plots that are almost too nice and neat, like the muezzin and his wife, who are sweet to the point of being too perfect, as well as the lives of the sex workers they come in contact with — one who mends her ways and wants to be closer to her religion again while the other who is just trying to save up money faces a tragic end.

It may well be the filmmaker’s take on life — who is to say? — but it may also well be the concession that a filmmaker in Malaysia feels she needs to make in order to push the limits on other issues, in particular on ethnicity and religion, which would otherwise perhaps never see the light of day.

There are several other issues that you could expect to make past the censors — even some of the sexual innuendos which suggest sex outside of marriage. But I kept wondering how the dog scene got through; and even ‘babi’ did not get bleeped out or replaced with the Arabic ‘khinzir’. And this from folks who have historically made it their business to, amongst other things, guard ‘Muslim sensitivities’. Each ‘controversial’ issue that made it unscathed felt like a small victory for the freedom of expression.

Like the scene in church — that left quite an imprint, not because I’ve not seen the inside of a Malaysian church, but because it’s not really something you often see in Malaysian — what more Malay — films. If at all. That the scene is beautifully interlaced with another scene of two Muslim women saying a doa makes it even more poignant, because the prayer from both shots could’ve almost been said in synchrony, such is the similarity in both prayers.

Makes you wonder then what it is about the inside of a church that is so offensive to sensitivities that we rarely get to view the pulpit or the pew. Like an unspoken mantra, we’ve come to normalise this in our psyche, that somehow that kind of depiction would crack muhibbah Malaysia.

It struck me then that there are two ways of exerting political hegemony of belief and thought — either by a direct imposition of your own belief and rituals, or by rendering other belief systems invisible. And questioning the invisibility seems to sometimes come at a cost as well — just ask the Kelana Jaya MCA MP who was ‘visited’ and threatened by 50 UMNO Youth members from his constituency for raising ‘sensitive’ issues. So most of us just internalise this state of affairs and say no more because this might cause some other chaps to run amok.

But if we are gunning for a muhibbah Malaysia, then it has to be built on a social consciousness that affords visibility to all belief systems and identities, where all of us get to ask the tough questions without being intimidated for doing so.

Granted, Gubra doesn’t go so far so as to deconstruct the intertwining of Malay and Islam which forms the unfortunate bedrock of Malaysian identity politics, but it raises the potential for discourse by providing an effective platform for the many other bits and bobs that are too often hidden away in the ‘too sensitive’ basket. And you really have to give it that.


Toni Kasim’s fantasy of Malaysia is a place where no one else is allowed to comment on the colour of her seluar dalam — or who she gets to peel them off.

First Published: 14.04.2006 on Kakiseni

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