“Holy Men, Holy Women” by Dina Zaman Review

It is too easy to think of religion as a homogeneous entity, summarisable by a holy book, a set of rules, and an iconic figurehead instantly recognizable from miles away, so that people can point and say, “That’s ___. He’s (it always has to be a he), the founder of ___ism.

Anyone who has thought hard about religion and its many manifestations in various cultural settings would recognize this as an oversimplification of a sprawling web of intricacies and shibboleths. Religion, as it is practiced in the real world, consists of diverging interpretations, assimilation with local cultural beliefs, and idiosyncratic additions injected by neo-religious figureheads mingling their own worldviews into the otherwise two-dimensional set of beliefs.

And though followers of various sects may decry their counterpart’s beliefs as plain wrong, the practices remain very real for those who live and breathe them, who believe in them with the same conviction as one might believe that the Earth is round. (Unless you are a Flat-Earther)

This is pretty much what Dina Zaman is aiming to get at. She attempts to showcase the religious beliefs and practices of Malaysians in their natural setting. Variety is present, and presented honestly, not just between multiple religions, but within a single one.

So we are introduced, within Islam itself, to a group of individuals differing widely in the way they practice their religion. From the ultra-conservative, almost-cultish religious community, to the hijab-wearing agnostic, readers are regaled with a palate of interesting anecdotes which captures the diversity of practices by ordinary Malaysians.

But anecdotes they remain, save for a few exceptions. Make no mistake–Ms. Zaman’s writing is lucid and colorful, peppered with honest lines where the personality of the author and her subjects shine through. However, some of the tales are not written to their fullest extent. Take the hijabi-wearing agnostic as an example. We know she exists, and that she is not the only one. We know she chose to conceal their agnosticism behind the garments of a religious person. We are given a short overview of her background. But there’s about all. A lot is left to the reader’s imagination–we can only imagine her life story, how she came to arrive at this conviction, (aided by some brief passages of the author), and the inner conflict she must have felt between her inner thoughts and her outward show of piety. The reader walks away with this partial picture, somewhat wiser but not too much.

Perhaps I was wrong to expect so much of a book that is a collection of column articles. Perhaps the author never meant her work to be an NYT-esque in-depth study of the inner lives of her subjects. And to the author’s credit, there are a couple of more detailed pieces in the book itself. That said, I wish there were more of every interviewee’s story, for a brief impression invites hasty judgments, inevitably pulling the reader into the “you’re wrong, I’m right” kind of thinking. Which, I believe, is the exact opposite of what the author intends to gain by sharing these stories.

Another thing: expect this book to be more heavily centered on Islamic practices, and less on other religions. For one, the author’s identity as a Muslim prevents her from actively participating in other religious services. This is not a fault of hers–it is rather the fear of censure, by the groups she expressed an interest in, that prevented her from venturing further. It is a feature of Malaysian society which I will not elaborate further. Still, I admire her efforts to break through the barrier and speak the unspoken.

All in all, I would recommend this as an easy piece of reading if you have some time to kill, and want to broaden your mind a little. Take note: it is best to approach this, as with other works, with an open and unjudgemental mind. To acknowledge the practices of others does not undermine your own belief system; rather, it is a celebration of human diversity, a reminder of how far we have come, and how much farther we may go.