Malaysia is dominated by a moderate Muslim majority, and has a secular legal system. But one quirky, quasi-religious group based in the country’s Islamic heartland, led by a man who claims to be God, is testing the country’s religious freedoms.
Terengganu state, set in the lush north of Malaysia, has long been part of the spiritual and religious heart of the country.
But the Terengganu village of Kampung Batu 13, about 400 kilometers north of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, is slightly different.
It contains a six-acre commune, dominated by a building about the size of a two-story house, shaped like a giant pink teapot. Next to it is an umbrella shaped building and an assortment of other objects, such as a fishing boat and an oversized vase containing “holy” water.
This is the village of Ayah Pin, a 61-year-old Malay man, who claims to be God.
And, according to Ayah Pin, several thousand others in Malaysia and overseas, believe him.
It is late on a Saturday night in Kampung Batu 13, and Ayah Pin, whose real name is Ariffin Mohamad, reclines on a circular dais, smoking clove cigarettes and dispensing advice to his followers. They have driven for hours from all over northern Malaysia, some come from as far away as Kuala Lumpur.
With two teenage girls fanning him to stave off the mugginess of the evening, he interprets the dreams of some of the 400 or so people there.
He tells a follower who saw a woman in her dreams that the visitor is from the “government of the sky,” an emissary sent by Ayah Pin to deliver a message.
It was visions and dreams among Ayah Pin’s followers that led to the construction of the commune in 1996. The giant teapot is to symbolize the showering of God’s blessings on all mankind.
Ayah Pin’s followers do not follow a single doctrine. Instead, they can follow any faith, because, he says, ultimately, all their prayers go to him.
Most of his followers are Malay Muslims, but some are Hindus, or Christians. Many are farmers, but others, such as Nani Rosli Mohamad, are young people who come from the cities, seeking a solution to the conflicts of economic progress and age-old traditions.
“A lot of things have changed my life here,” she says. “It’s really a miracle place. They have changed my life, because I do suffer a lot out there, before I met Ayah. I find happiness love, everything here. To be honest, I was an alcoholic before.”
Malaysia’s Culture, Youth and Heritage minister, Rais Yatim, says much of the group’s popularity may be due to a failure to provide poorly informed people in these areas with adequate diversions and education.
“Our weakness is, the system. There is no alternative to counter that, when it was in its offing, or its infancy,” says the minister.
The group has drawn the ire of religiously conservative elements of Malaysian society. Officials from the fundamentalist Islamic Party of Malaysia tried to close the commune in 2000, while the party governed the state, by saying it was an illegal use of the land. They eventually backed off, in part because many landholders in Malaysia do not follow regulations on land use.
Ayah Pin’s claims of being a deity fly in the face of Islamic teaching.
For most followers, this means having to lead a double life. Muslims in Malaysia come under the purview of religious courts that are not part of the secular federal legal system. Any attempt to deviate from Islamic teachings, or to leave the religion, can bring harsh penalties from the religious courts.
Families also typically reject apostates.
Four members of the Ayah Pin group decided in 1998 to publicly renounce their Islamic faith. That led to their arrest, and they served two years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement.
Lawyers for the four are trying to use the case as a test of Malaysia’s constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms, in particular, the freedom of people to leave the faith they were raised in. Hariss Mohamad Ibrahim is one of the lawyers.
“Now, if you take someone who was raised [Muslim], then renounces, he cannot change the historical fact that he was raised as a Muslim. So, there’s no getting out in law [as it is],” he explains.
Back in Kampung Batu 13, as one follower after another launches into syrupy odes of devotion to Ayah Pin, the evening’s gathering draws to a close. They will do it all again on Sunday, and then return to their fields and cities, blending back in with their countrymen.