It’s a velvety warm evening in the northern Malaysian hamlet of Kampung Batu 13, deep in the country’s Islamic heartland in Terrengganu state.
From a rutted dirt track the commune led by Ayah Pin, an illiterate 61-year-old Malay man, suddenly looms over the hedgerows.
The commune would not seem out of place in a Disney theme park. It contains an umbrella-shaped building about two storeys high, an ornamental fishing boat, strategically located faux Greco-Roman pillars, and the centrepiece – a pink teapot.
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Ayah Pin and his followers – he claims to have several thousand in Malaysia, Singapore, Bali and beyond – say the two-storey-high teapot was inspired by the dreams of one of the cult’s followers, and reflects a similar vessel in the sky which God uses to shower his blessings on mankind.
Followers who come to the village for the first time have to drink “holy water” pouring from a giant vase that is perpetually filled by the teapot.
The cult does not have any moral or religious strictures of its own. Instead, Ayah Pin, whose real name is Ariffin Mohamad, says members can follow any religion they like. He claims that all prayers will be answered by none other than himself, because he is God.
“All religions are basically the same,” says Ayah Pin through an interpreter. “God teaches love. He is for anyone who wants to know about the world. You can choose whichever religion you want.”
Race, religion and politics mingle uneasily in Malaysia, making the existence of the cult remarkable. Four members of the group were jailed for two years for attempting to leave Islam in 1998, and the former fundamentalist government of Terrengganu state, run by the Islamic Party of Malaysia, tried to close it down in 2000. While religious freedom is enshrined in the country’s secular constitution, Malaysia’s parallel Islamic judicial system holds great sway over the Muslim majority on religious issues.
Many cult followers do not publicly admit their association with Ayah Pin; in closely knit Malay societies doing so could lead to ostracism and humiliation. Many end up leading double lives, appearing to follow Malay Muslim ways among friends and colleagues, but shedding many of those pretensions at home. “None of my friends at school know that my mother is a follower of Ayah Pin,” says 12-year-old Johan.
To Ayah Pin’s followers, any bad press he receives is merely confirmation that their small community is under threat, fostering ever stronger bonds among them.
In a country where race and religion are badges of identity, Ayah Pin and his followers are, in their own small way, testing theone of the constitution’s key promises: the freedom to worship anyone or anything.