Holy men, holy women 9
APRIL 27 — Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, above Dengkil and Bangi, en route to Kajang, is a little oasis for women of a certain age, or marital status, orphans and widowed men.
I was told about this place by a family friend, whom I met at a Raya Open House. She was the epitome of serenity, and everyone remarked on the “light” which seemed to come from within her.
When we talked that night, Tok M invited me to stay with her for a few days. I quite fancied a spiritual retreat, and the idea of devoting a few days to prayers and zikir was attractive. It wasn’t an Umrah, but it was a respite from the city.
Prior to my week there, I had made a recce to the site with a few friends, as I would be driving up there.
It was a sight that took your breath away.
The first thing to confront you was a huge signboard that warned all and sundry the area was a non-smoking zone and that the aurat (1) must be hidden, and a cartoon of a woman wearing the tudung was shown.
Then the stillness of the air. Nothing moved, not even the leaves from the trees surrounding the houses. Forbidding white walls housing the commune where I’d be staying for the next one week loomed large.
“I can imagine a jihadist movement in here,” said a friend.
Three days later found me with two green grocery bags packed with my clothes and provision, and I, covered from head to toe, in my mother’s jubah and tudung.
My taxi driver, G, was shocked to see where I’d be staying, and urged me to call him at any time of the day, “... in case anything happened.”
It rained on my way to the commune. I remembered to recite The Abundance, Surah Al-Kauthar, 10 times. Someone had told me to recite the chapter whenever it rained, for protection and wealth.
“La. Dah sampai dia.” (“You’ve arrived.”)
Tok M had seen me walking around the commune, and waved me over to her house. It was a tidy, functional two-bedroom house.
She had come to the commune a few years ago to attend mass prayers with her friends. She liked what she saw, and the one day she spent with the community had her hooked.
After all, her children had grown up and her husband was dead. She once had a thriving multi-level marketing business but now that she was in her 60s, what else was there to do, but to worry about the afterlife? “Terus tersangkut,” she said.
While Tok M cooked, I looked out the window. Middle-aged women in floral baju kurung, jubahs in varying colours, walked past the house.
The matrons who passed were sprightly and greeted everyone they met with a salam. The houses looked like white Lego blocks.
Most of the houses were spartan, and this was not by choice. Residents were advised to only bring a pair of every utensil and furniture they felt were needed to create a home.
Space was limited, and their objective was to pray, not become elderly interior decorators.
The site of the commune used to house the Al Arqam community, before they moved to Rawang. From there, with funding from private donors and residents, it became the pristine white commune that we see today.
Tok M was not happy. She pointed at the green curtains with a spatula. “Tok M suka warna pink... tapi kedai kat sini ada warna hijau je...”
(“I like pink... but the shop here only has green material...”)
It had cost her RM25,000 to buy the house and she paid another RM1,000 for her grave.
“Tok M beli kubur?” I was surprised.
(“You bought your grave?”)
“Dah, ye lah. Satu hari nanti Tok M akan mati kan? Sini, semua dah siap. Rumah, makan, kubur. Senang. Jadi kerja Tok M sini selesai, Tok M sediakan senjata untuk mati. Dunia tu.”
(“Yes. One day I’ll die. Here, everything is arranged for. Easy. So all I do here is to prepare for the afterlife. That world.”)
We settled down to have tea. Tok M asked if my parents knew where I was. I smiled. My father had a few choice words about the commune; he had visited it a few years back with my uncles.
He felt that the imam who led the ceramah was not right in the head, “... imagine, when we prostrate, our hands must be FLAT on the floor. Now if you have arthritis, how then? You’ll go to hell because you couldn’t flatten your hands? And oh! Those men... they’re the marrying kind. When they divorced, they married their friends’ ex-wives! Incest!”
Tok M blinked. “Eh, ustaz kat sini bini satu je. Laki yang kat sini, kalau tak duda, bini semua dah mati.”
(“The ustaz here has only one wife... the other men, if they’re not divorced, their wives are dead.”)
The concept of a sekolah pondok is not unfamiliar to the Malays. Most Muslim Malaysians of a certain generation were given religious education by the local ustaz or ustazah, who had been educated at a sekolah pondok.
A sekolah pondok is a religious Islamic school that is common in Malaysia and Indonesia and its sole objective is to school its students in fardu-ain.
There is no age limit — anyone who’s a Muslim may come.
The most prominent Muslim commune to have sprung out of the many jemaah would have to be Al Arqam, which had its beginnings in the 1960s.
 Many more offshoots sprang forth, and from time to time, news of religious authorities clamping down on renegade Muslim communities will pop up.
There’s a frenetic feel to the community — there is always something to do. Muslims must not be idle, Tok M said. There was food to cook, and prayers to perform.
“Tok M. Kat sini boleh cakap dengan ustaz-ustaz, laki tak?” I asked.
(“Can you talk to the men here?”)
“Boleh! Eh, dah kenal, apa nak sorok-sorok? Lagipun, kalau ada soalan nak tanya ustaz, macam mana kalau tak boleh bercakap?”
(“Of course you can. Since you know one another, why must one hide? Besides, how can you ask questions if you can’t talk?”)
Footsteps were heard. The women were rushing to the mosque to pray.
“Jom. Dah time solat ni.” Tok M got up and shooed me from my chair.
(“It is time to pray. Come.”)
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.
Part 2: My days in a pondok.
 The Al Arqam originated as an informal religious group (jemaah). Like many groups that sprang up in the city... the Al Arqam served as a social context within which a new consciousness of Islam, Islamic history and the Shari’ah was forged among urban-based Malay middle class. Its founder, Ashaari Muhammad, came to maturity just as the British were about to leave Malaysia (then the Federation of Malaya) and was not unaware of the rising tide of Islam in Egypt, India, Sudan and Pakistan. Islam, State and Civil Society in Malaysia: the Case of the Al Arqam. Contributors: Sharifah Zaleha Syed Hassan — author. Magazine Title: NIAS Nytt. Issue: 4. Publication Date: December 2004. Page Number: 8+. © 2004 Dr. Jorgen Delman
(1) Aurat in English means (i) private parts; (ii) those parts of the body that cannot be exposed or should be covered according to Islam. Kamus Dwibahasa Oxford Fajar, Edisi 4