Storm in a teapot

A man who claims he's God and a cult that venerates tea? In many places, this would be viewed as harmless eccentricity. But in Malaysia, where the limitations on religion are growing ever more rigid, they are seen as dangerous deviants

Jan McGirk
Tuesday 19 July 2005 00:00

The giant teapot is tucked behind a palm grove in the spiritual heart of Malaysia. A painted, concrete structure, it stands two storeys high in the village of Kampung Batu 13. At first glance, you might think it was some sort of advertisement, or part of a theme park. But the teapot is the symbol of a bizarre cult, set up by a 65-year old Malay who claims to be God, and it was built to symbolise the pouring of blessings on mankind.

For nearly 10 years the teapot has dominated Ayah Pin's commune, named "Sky Kingdom", and worshippers flock to the village to test its healing powers. An umbrella-shaped building stands nearby, and there is a floating ark and a huge vase to store "holy" drinking water that is distributed to devotees. People from Malaysia, neighbouring countries and beyond come for healing sessions in the mysterious round room under the lid.

But trouble is brewing for the teapot cult, which occupies a six-acre commune in the village. Local authorities in the region, about 400 kilometres (248 miles) north-east of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, have suddenly lost patience with the sect and branded it as a deviant cult. Last month they ordered the structures to be torn down, stating they were illegally built on agricultural land and violate the building code.

Yesterday, about 30 robed figures laid siege to the teapot and the umbrella building. The night raiders slashed tyres with their machetes, pounded in the windows of four cars, and tossed Molotov cocktails over a wall. The umbrella building was soon in flames and the top of the giant teapot was scorched.

"The roof of the teapot structure is slightly charred but since it is made of concrete, the damage is not extensive," said Ahmad Fakarudin, a fireman.

In one of the first warnings to Pin, enforcers from the Islamic Religious Department entered the Sky Kingdom temple grounds on 3 July and arrested 21 followers for adhering to his "deviant" vision. Pin proclaims that all humanity will eventually realise that he is God Almighty, no matter how they choose to worship. "All prayers are go through me," he claims.

Fundamentalist Muslims worry that Pin is persuading people to renounce their faith, not something that Islam takes lightly. Over the past decade, Pin has built up a following that numbers several thousand.

His followers bring sundry rites from Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam, but such an ecumenical smorgasbord is not appreciated in every quarter. Four followers face two years in prison for possessing documents said to ridicule Islamic teachings; the rest are charged with breaking the state fatwa that has ruled the teachings as deviant. Sect members have been in and out of prison for a decade for continuing to associate with this cult.

When the local authorities ordered the most senior of Pin's four wives, Che Mina Ramli, to tear down thestructures, she defied the order because she believes that the blueprints came to her husband in a prophetic dream, and are divinely inspired. The second time she refused the demolition orders, the night raiders did the job for her.

In another country, Pin, born Ariffin Mohammad, might be dismissed as an eccentric with grandiose notions. But in predominantly Muslim Malaysia, this elderly man is seen as a threat. In his youth, Pin was keen on cock-fighting and bird-singing contests, and eked out a living selling scrap iron and trading water buffaloes.

"I want people from all faiths to practise their own religion diligently," Pin said. "If you are a Muslim, you must observe the tenets strictly such as praying, fasting, going on pilgrimage and giving to charity," he added, echoing the authorities' requirements for good Muslim behaviour.

A spot of tea at Sky Kingdom is meant to provide celestial comfort, and the "Father" (Pin) invariably volunteers to play mother. He pours out the symbolic blessings from the spout into a big blue vase.

As a divine presence, he seems rather louche. His fingers are stained yellow with nicotine, and he is wreathed in clove cigarette smoke when he can't get hold of his Salem menthols. Often, two teenage acolytes are on hand to fan him. He has sired at least 20 children by his four wives.

"When I was 10 years old, I found myself to be dead for 40 days and up in the sky. Since then, I've been dead 17 times and each time have come back to save the lives of all people, of any religion,'' Pin told the Hong Kong Standard earlier this month. His uncomplicated creed is for all religions to blend as one, coexisting in harmony through him.

When it comes to religion, Malaysia, ruled by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), officially promotes persuasion over coercion. It is no fundamentalist hotbed. But the limitations on worship are growing more rigid in a nation that portrays itself as a tropical and prosperous haven for moderate Islam.

The Malaysian constitution enshrines tolerance of religious minorities. Yet some 22 Malay sects are considered deviant forms of Islam, and authorities keep close track of their 22,800 members. They have launched "morality raids" on nightclubs and on homes and businesses. Officials have been throwing the book at Sky Kingdom after the sect found its way into newspaper headlines.

Last year, some Muslim followers of Pin tried to sue for freedom of religion and took their case to the Federal Court, generating a lot of media coverage on the way. But the nation's top judges managed to avoid making a ruling on the issue.

Because Islam is the state religion, Muslims in Malaysia answer to a parallel religious court system that is separate from the secular federal justice system. Any attempt to diverge from traditional Islamic teachings can bring harsh penalties from these religious courts. Anyone trying to leave Islam for another religion may be cut off from their inheritance, banished from the family and deprived of employment, so the followers of Sky Kingdom who were brought up as Muslims are forced to lead a dual life. And old-fashioned laws against heresy and apostasy can be enforced by local councils as they see fit.

Only rarely are the clerics overruled. When a Muslim judge ruled that text-message divorces could be legal, and husbands started thumbing their mobiles by the thousands, legislators in Kuala Lumpur overturned the judge's decision.

Abdullah Muhammad Zin, Malaysia's Religious Affairs minister, said: "Ayah Pin is the disciple of Hassan Tuhan, who claimed to be god. When Hassan passed away, he [Pin] took over and furthered the teachings by combining all religions - Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism - to create the 'Sky Kingdom'. We consider him a deviationist, although he has renounced Islam. We don't accept that because it's just an easy way out for him to escape the law. He must be regarded as a Muslim and be dealt with as a Muslim."

However, a recent appeal to good Muslim youths to report the transgressions of their peers incensed many liberals, who are opposed to the morality police introducing Taliban-like intolerance. Unlikely though it seems, there is a liberal backlash.

A petition, which is being circulated by non-government organisations, is gaining support across the spectrum of Malaysian society. Government ministers and two members of parliament are known to have signed this document, which reads: "We question the state's role in defining and controlling the morality of its citizens and its use of punitive religious and municipal laws. Forced and fearful compliance with such laws results not in a more moral society but a mass of terrified, submissive and hypocritical subjects."

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