Malaysia

Why this Muslim goes to churches to build goodwill

Mujahid Yusof Rawa said Christians have been receptive of his message, saying the view of PAS as an 'extremist Islamic party' has been altered. – The Malaysian Insider pic, October 5, 2013.Mujahid Yusof Rawa said Christians have been receptive of his message, saying the view of PAS as an 'extremist Islamic party' has been altered. – The Malaysian Insider pic, October 5, 2013.As the politician from PAS settles on a plush red cushion chair in one of the many common areas of Parliament, he shrugs off his cream-coloured coat, which he had paired with matching pants and a red-and-white striped tie.

"It was so cold in there," lets on Mujahid Yusof Rawa, referring to the main Parliament hall, where proceedings take place. "And now, here, it is hot."

Just five minutes ago, this two-term Member of Parliament was on the television outside the hall, where he had debated a subsidy bill.

He is rarely outspoken in Parliament but this 49-year-old recently hit the headlines after several Muslim groups protested his efforts to foster a interfaith relationship with the Christians.

Even a police report was lodged against Mujahid before a dialogue session in St. Mark’s church in Penang just last month.

"Well, that worked in my favour," he laughs. "We received a lot of publicity and more people are beginning to open up to this idea," he says, referring to his interfaith efforts.

Mujahid chuckles and nods his head when it is put to him that people find it incredible that PAS, which has a reputation for being extreme on several issues, had taken the first step to hold dialogues in churches.

"Yes, that's right. They were surprised that a PAS guy was saying and doing these things. They were even more shocked when I told them that I was not alone in this, that my whole party is behind me."

He was seized by the idea of "mending the fractured relationship" between Christians and Muslims after several churches around the country were attacked and vandalised in early 2010.

Aware that Christians were in fear of being victimised, he approached his party leaders with the idea of interfaith dialogue.

PAS leaders, including president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and spiritual leader Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, eventually gave him their blessings to reach out to Christians.

Also in solidarity with Mujahid is PAS deputy president Mohammad Sabu, or popularly known as Mat Sabu, who says he is proud of his comrade's efforts.

"He is on the right track. He's made a difference, especially among the Christians in Penang. Islam encourages dialogue with the non-Muslims and I am 100% behind Mujahid on this," says Mat Sabu.

PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat presents a cake to Penang's Catholic Bishop Sebastian Francis, early this year. Mujahid said top PAS leaders including Nik Aziz gave him their blessings to reach out to Christians. – Pic courtesy Anil Netto.PAS spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat presents a cake to Penang's Catholic Bishop Sebastian Francis, early this year. Mujahid said top PAS leaders including Nik Aziz gave him their blessings to reach out to Christians. – Pic courtesy Anil Netto.Mujahid has since held talks in at least 30 churches around the country.

"My father, the late Yusof Rawa, was a defining force in my life and I believe he would have done the same as well," Mujahid says, his voice breaking. His father was a former president of PAS.

"He was big on interfaith relationships and was extremely fond of all my non-Muslim friends when I was a young boy in Penang."

As the youngest of 11 children, Mujahid was especially close to his mother and was one of two siblings who followed his parents to Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan while his father was posted as the Malaysian ambassador there.

"I did my primary education in the international schools in those countries. My third sister had come with us to help my mother at official events."

With pride in his voice, he confesses that he had never attended any religious schools, and instead relied on his parents to educate him on Islam.

"Even as an ambassador, my father would come home in the evenings, sit with me and make me recite verses from the Quran," he reminisces.

Mujahid came back to Malaysia when he was 14 and continued his secondary education at the Penang Free School, right up to Form 6.

"I had a dream of becoming a lawyer. But I didn't do so well in the STPM exams so that was it."

His life changed after a friend of his father, who was already the PAS president by then, came to visit from Kelantan.

"This friend, Ustaz Yahaya Osman, asked my dad who was going to take over from him. He asked my father if I would be interested in learning Arabic from him.

"I did not know anything about the language but I thought I could go and have a nice holiday in Kelantan on the pretext of learning Arabic. My father was so happy but he did not know I had an ulterior motive," he smiles.

In Kelantan, however, Mujahid was surprised to find himself becoming more and more immersed in Arabic.

Later he enrolled at the American University Cairo in Egypt to study Arabic for non-native speakers and two-and-a-half years later, he went on to the Al-Azhar University and took up Islamic studies.

"My father was keen for me to go to Al-Azhar and he was proud that I had already started writing letters back to him in Arabic."

In his final year, a Malaysian friend introduced Mujahid to his future wife – Zuraida Husin – who was also a student from Al-Azhar.

"I had no desire to get married at that time. Had no time to flirt around," he jokes.

The friend continued to urge the then 26-year-old Mujahid until he agreed to meet her.

"My friend arranged for me to see her at a shop where I pretended to buy a bottle of Coca-Cola while I observed her. I didn't want her to know I was looking!"

Mujahid then told his friend that he was smitten with Zuraida and gave his “best picture” for her to see.

"The hurdle after that was to convince my father. I was expecting a negative response because he always said 'studies first'.

"But he was curious and told me he would check out her family in Terengganu first. He sent his men and they sent back a good report and then we were married," he said with a flourish.

Mujahid (left) launching his book on Christian-Muslim dialogue, last month. – The Malaysian Insider pic, October 5, 2013.Mujahid (left) launching his book on Christian-Muslim dialogue, last month. – The Malaysian Insider pic, October 5, 2013.The couple went back to Egypt after the wedding and had their first child there, a son. Another two girls followed and now Zuraida is a religious teacher at a school in Nibong Tebal, Penang.

His 23-year-old son is studying political science at the International Islamic University, while his first daughter is taking up child education at the Islamic International College. His youngest daughter is due to sit for the SPM this year.

Mujahid was a religious teacher upon returning from Egypt in 1991. Up until 1999, he was teaching, and then lecturing, at various institutions until he decided to follow in his father's footsteps.

He went on to become Bayan Baru PAS chairman in Penang and is now the PAS state deputy commissioner and the chairman of the PAS national unity bureau.

"I think that religious issues give a lot of impact on national unity," Mujahid says.

"I do not think that the government was on the right track by dragging the poor nation into the abyss of hatred, intolerance and prejudice."

The Christians, he notes, have been receptive of his message and he was delighted to find that it also altered their view of PAS as an ''extremist Islamic party".

"In the midst of all this religious tension, Christians are now able to feel that there is some hope for them because of the dialogue sessions," he adds.

Catholic Bishop for the Penang diocese Right Reverend Sebastian Francis agrees.

"Mujahid is a person who believes in dialogue. Dialogue is about listening, communicating and relationships. All this can only come about if there is a basic spirituality to inspire and motivate.

"He comes across as one such person. The world and our nation needs more of such persons who can reach out to others beyond boundaries," says Francis. – October 5, 2013.

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