KOTA KINABALU, Feb 2 — Sabah’s Islamic authorities lauded the mass conversion of a Bajau Laut community by popular preacher Ebit Lew recently, but clarified that the nomadic sea gypsies are mostly already classified as Muslims.
Sabah Mufti Datuk Bungsu Aziz Jaafar said that while he was not privy to the actual conversion ceremony, the Sabah Islamic Affairs Department (JHEAINS) does classify the Bajau Laut ethnic group as Muslims based on its own surveys and reports.
“As far as I know, in the Bajau Laut or Pala’u community, they are considered Muslims. Based on a survey by JHEAINS a few years ago, they are classified as Muslims,” he said when contacted by Malay Mail.
Bungsu said that he is aware of Lew's visit to Sabah but was not part of the conversion ceremony which was believed to have been unplanned. He said their conversion stands as long as they recited the shahadah with belief.
“But to enter Islam is simple, one just has to believe in Allah, be pure and sure that there is no other God, and that Muhammad is the messeger of God, and recite the shahadah.
“In the eyes of Islam, they are Muslims,” he said, when asked about the procedure required for such mass conversions to happen.
However, he admitted the registration process for the any such converts in those communities may be a different story, as the 157 villagers of Pulau Tatagan in Semporna are believed to be mostly undocumented, owing to their nomadic lifestyle.
“In that case, the process is different. Normally, a new convert would have to come into the office for the administrative process — register, get the picture taken, go through the process. But if they are undocumented, or stateless the process then is more complicated,” said Bungsu.
He said that other agencies like the Immigration Department, National Registration Department and JHEAINS would be the rightful authorities to speak to.
On January 31, the philantrophist posted on his social media that he had allegedly converted some 157 Bajau Laut to Islam by reciting the shahadah after he reached out to them with food supplies and other aid.
The Pahang-born Lew was on day three of a 10-day humanitarian visit to Sabah’s east coast districts of Lahad Datu, Tawau, Kunak and Semporna when he visited the water village off Semporna.
The Bajau Laut are originally from a sea gypsy nomadic culture and practice an ancestral worship or belief in spirits, sometimes of holy natural objects or places. Some beliefs and practices still go on today despite having embraced Islam.
Many communities who have yet to assimilate to life on land continue with their mix of Islamic and traditional beliefs.
Malay Mail has learnt that other non-governmental groups and organisations have previously reached out to the Bajau Laut of Tatangan island, as well as nearby islands of Maiga, all within the Tun Sakaran Marine Park where villagers had also converted.
“In fact, there are suraus which have been built by NGOs and groups in the two adjacent villages in the area, in Maiga and Alab.
“There are definitely other groups who have met the villagers and each time, the villagers would again profess their faith,” said Aminor Azmi, a scuba diving operator based out of the nearby Selakan island since 2013, and is familiar with the community there.
He said that though “converted”, the Bajau Laut may not have had the benefit of continuous Islamic teachings to practice the religion without any kind of school.
Lew has since said that he was in the process of building a school which he hopes will be ready within a month, and has engaged six teachers who can speak the local language ready to teach in three schools he intends on building overall.
In Malaysia, Muslim preachers and missionaries are free to evangelise and convert those from other faiths into Islam.
However, it is illegal and forbidden for other religions to preach and evangelise towards Muslims.
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