All of the world's major religions have substantial representation in Malaysia, the main adherents of each largely reflecting the multi-ethnic character of the population. The variety of religions found in Malaysia is a direct reflection of the diversity of races living there. Although Islam is the state religion of Malaysia, freedom of religion is guaranteed. The Malays are almost all Muslims. The Chinese embrace an eclectic brew of Taoism, Buddhism and ancestor worship, though some are Christians. Although Christianity has made no great inroads into Peninsular Malaysia it has had a much greater impact upon East Malaysia, where many indigenous people have converted to Christianity , although others still follow their animist traditions.

Islam came to Malaysia with the Indian traders from South India and was not of the more orthodox Islamic tradition of Arabia. Islam was adopted peacefully by the coastal trading ports people of Malaysia and Indonesia, absorbing rather than conquering existing beliefs. As in many Muslim countries, Islam in Malaysia has seen a significant revival over the past 10 years or so. It is wise for visitors to be appropriately discreet in dress and behaviour, particularly on the more strictly Muslim east coast of the peninsula. Malay ceremonies and beliefs still exhibit pre-Islamic traditions, but most Malays are ardent Muslims and to suggest otherwise to a Malay would cause great offence. With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the calls to introduce Islamic law and purify the practices of Islam have increased, but while the Government is keen to espouse Muslim ideals, it is wary of religious extremism. The Koran is the main source of religious law for Malays, and though few are proficient in Arabic, all Malay children are sent to learn to read the Koran. Malaysia has an annual Koran-reading competition, and passages of the Koran are read in Arabic at many Malay ceremonies.

The Chinese religion is a mix of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Taoism combines with old animistic harmony with the universe. Confucianism takes care of the political and moral aspects of life, while Buddhism takes care of the afterlife. But to say that the Chinese have three religions - Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism - is too simple a view of their traditional religious life. At the first level, Chinese religion is animistic, with a belief in the innate vital energy in rocks, trees, rivers and springs. At the second level, people from the distant past, both real and mythological, are worshipped as gods. Overlaid on this are popular Taoist, Mahayana Buddhist and Confucian beliefs.

There have been Hindu influences in Malaysia since the dawn of history, but the Hinduism of the Hindu period in Malaysian history has title connection with the Hinduism practiced in the country today. Brahmanical Hinduism which flourished at the courts of petty Malaysian states before the coming of Islam in the 15th century was an aristocratic used to bolster the authority of the ruling class, which was carried across the Indian Ocean by early Hindu traders. Relics and remains from this period have also been found, principally in Kedah.

While The Sikh community in Malaysia owes its beginnings in the country to the British connection and in particular with the recruitment of Sikhs for the paramilitary and police units which formed the nucleus from which the modern police and military forces of the nation derived. The first of these units was the Perak Sikhs. The Sikhs believe and worship the one and only God who is formless. Hence, idol worship is denounced by the Sikh scriptures. The Sikhs' place of worship is known as a 'Gurdwara' which is open to all irrespective of race, religion, colour or sex. The Sikhs celebrate the principal festival which is also the Sikh New Year that is called Vasakhi , each April and the birthdays and martyrdom of Sikh Gurus and the installation of the Holy Guru Granth Sahib as the 'living Guru of the Sikhs for all times', amongst others.

International trade in early times played a key role in bringing Christianity to this part of the world. Some Persian traders were Nestorian Christians. Later, in the middle ages, Catholic diplomats, travellers and priests travelled through the Straits enroute to China. Among the traders residing in Melaka during the Melaka Sultanate in the 15th century were Nestorians and also Armenian Christians from what is today Eastern Turkey. Churches were established in the area with the coming of the Portuguese in 1511, the Dutch in 1641 and the British in 1786. However, in this early period, the Christian community was still largely an expatriate community. Chinese Christians sometimes migrated as communities as in the case of Basel Mission Hakkas to Sabah and Methodist Foochows to Sibu, Sarawak and Sitiawan, Perak. Christian missionaries played a key role in the field of education and medical services by establishing schools and hospitals in various parts of the country.

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  Information provided by Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board.


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