Mixing with people from different faiths humbled him

Mixing with people from different faiths humbled him
Mr Muzakkir Samat (right) and Mr Ow Yeong Wai Kit published a book of poems titled From Walden To Woodlands, an interfaith project which saw more than 160 contributors — including migrant workers — submit poetry they wrote about nature. Photo: Muzakkir Samat
Ex-hotheaded youth now champions religious unity
Published: 8:15 PM, August 8, 2017
Updated: 12:05 AM, August 10, 2017

SINGAPORE —When he was 21, Mr Muzakkir Samat wrote a 686-word letter, angrily demanding that the leaders of his university’s Muslim Society remove “filth” on the group’s Facebook page. This was because he objected to videos put up on the page.

Fast forward four years to today: The civil engineer is not so hotheaded and rash, and is involved in interfaith activities, promoting unity and fellowship among various religious groups.

Speaking to TODAY, Mr Muzakkir cringed when he recounted what he did as an undergraduate in the National University of Singapore (NUS), saying it was as if he were on a moral high horse.

These days, he approaches things differently on social media. He will check with people if they are aware of contentious material, highlight his concern, and “leave it at that”. And he will do all these in a private setting.

No doubt, he is still the same devout Muslim who makes it a priority to pray five times a day, but the interaction with people from other faiths have humbled him.

It all started with an unlikely meeting with a Buddhist in December 2014.

By then, Mr Muzakkir had become the vice-president of the Muslim group he criticised, and was representing the group at a three-day interfaith camp.

He met Mr Ow Yeong Wai Kit, a former president of the NUS Buddhist Society and literature student, who broke Mr Muzakkir’s stereotype of a Buddhist.

“My lay understanding of a good Buddhist was someone who wears robes and abstains from the world. But when I saw Wai Kit, he was (not like that). He abstains (from certain things) but, at the same time, he is not too overbearing,” said Mr Muzakkir.

Most importantly, he saw how Mr Ow Yeong empathised with people of other faiths by acknowledging their personal stories before 
making his point, where needed.

Mr Muzakkir admitted that he was close-minded before, but now he is convinced that it is meaningless to “view each other with blinds drawn”.

He and Mr Ow Yeong, 28, now an English and literature teacher at Bukit Batok Secondary School, went on to spearhead an interfaith project, which saw more than 160 contributors — including migrant workers — submit poetry they wrote about nature. The theme was chosen as a common ground across all faiths and, after nine months, a book containing the poems, titled From Walden To Woodlands, was published in 2015.

While compiling the book, they sought to work out differences in friendlier ways.

“We say things like, ‘Can I clarify why you are doing this?’ And not, ‘This looks wrong to us’,” he said. Engaging with people from different religious backgrounds has not “diluted his faith”, said Mr Muzakkir. Rather, it has helped him grow in his own faith by witnessing how others related to a higher being.

Once, at an interfaith dialogue session that he attended with Mr Ow Yeong, he was “inexplicably” touched by a Lord Of The Rings song that a Christian sang to relate his experiences with God. “The way he sang it was very heartfelt … I felt that sort of connection. When someone has a connection with a higher being, I see a sort of similarity that I have of my understanding of a higher being,” he said.

Last September, when invited to recite poetry before a Muslim-dominated crowd at a full-house event held in the auditorium of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), he and Mr Ow Yeong did a presentation by combining elements from different religious traditions.

To the tune of In Paradisum, a Catholic Christian hymn sung in Latin, Mr Muzakkir recited the first poem about the Celtic cross, a symbol that fascinated Mr Ow Yeong when he was furthering his studies in Dublin, 

Then, Mr Ow Yeong read a poem by Mr Aaron Maniam about Muslim prayers, while Mr Muzakkir sang nasheeds (Islamic songs) and recited salawats (invocations to Prophet Mohammed).

Finally, the two acted out a skit with a poem written by Mr Ow Yeong, called Walking With The Buddha at VivoCity. Mr Muzakkir played a shopper and Mr Ow Yeong played Buddha, and both discussed concepts such as being “a lamp unto yourself”.

Mr Muzakkir could tell that the crowd was the most uncomfortable when they performed the hymn, but he felt that it was a “good” discomfort.

“Discomfort is to be expected in a very diverse and modern world … When there is wind and discomfort, you always try to get out of it. In trying to get out of it, you get to expand your horizons. It helps us grow even more,” he said.