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Preserving the Right Rites of Passage

“TO MAKE A GOOD STORY GREAT, YOU MUST TELL IT”. I saw the phrase online sometime ago and couldn’t agree with it more. However, I had no story to tell, let alone a good one – just yet. But as I watched the simple, yet beautiful and meaningful ‘Majlis Aqiqah dan Bercukur’ of my two precious grandnieces held last April 2018, I felt this age-old tradition is a story worth telling and, most importantly, worth sharing.

Zikir marhaban pembuka acara
Merafak kesyukuran ke hadrat
Ilahi Riang merai Aqisha dan Alyssa
Majlis aqiqah penuh tradisi

3-month old Aqisha Laura Aisyah binti Mohammad Nasreen Adam and her 2-month old cousin, Anggun Alyssa binti Mohammad Nazrin Adam shared their ‘welcoming ceremony’ or Aqiqah (Islamic tradition of sacrificing an animal on the occasion of a child’s birth) and Bercukur (newborn’s first haircut or shave), an essential celebration for welcoming newborns in a Muslim family.

The practice of Aqiqah is usually held on the seventh day after the baby is born. There would also be additional prayers called the berzanji marhaban as part of the well wishes for the baby, where members of the neighboring mosque or surau (known as the kariah masjid) recite prayers and sing praises for Prophet Muhammad SAW – all beautifully done with the intention of receiving blessings from the Almighty. Usually during the berzanji marhaban, the baby’s hair is cut or shaved, and then its weight in gold or silver is offered as a donation or alms to the poor or orphaned. It is also on this Aqiqah day that the little bundle of joy would then be gifted with the most beautiful name.

The most important aspect of Aqiqah, nonetheless, is the slaughtering or the sacrifice of an animal – usually a goat, a sheep, a cow, or even a camel – which is seen as a way for the parents to show their gratitude to Allah the Almighty for being blessed with a new child. Following the hadith of Prophet Muhammad SAW, he advised two sheep for a boy and one for a girl.

The practice of Aqiqah is considered a Sunnah in Islam, and therefore not obligatory; so it is no sin for those who do not do it, especially when the family can’t afford it. However, it can be delayed until the family is able to do it or at a later stage carried out by the child himself or herself once he or she has reached puberty.

It is also important to note that in Islam, there are precise conditions when choosing the slaughter: the animal must reach a certain age, must be healthy and free of defects and the slaughter must be carried out in the most appropriate humane way with prayers offered before the sacrifice.

It is also the usual practice that one-third of the meat is given to the poor and the rest is served during the ceremony to neighbors, friends and relatives.

The name seems to make more sense here as ‘Aq in Arabic means ‘to cut’. This could be attributed to the newborn’s first haircut or first shave and it could also refer to the act of sacrificing an animal.

Tenang si kecil rambut digunting
Dititip cincin emas simbolik rezeki
Dipanjatkan doa jadi solehah penting
Dunia akhirat dirahmati Ilahi

Aqisha and Alyssa’s parents decided to have only the haircut done during the ceremony, leaving the clean shave for later. Islam encourages a clean shave for babies so that all the impurities that come from the womb can be removed – this allows for new hair to grow more healthy and more beautiful.

It is interesting to see how the Islamic rites and Malay traditions are interwoven in the Aqiqah and Bercukur ceremony. One that is clearly not an Islamic rite, but widely practiced in the Malay culture is placing the baby’s hair that has been cut into coconut water (said to be a Hindu influence). Though the majority of Muslim scholars are opposed to this practice, most Malays believe that there isn’t anything wrong with carrying out the adat (tradition) — it is simply an ageold tradition that does not involve any practice of idolatry or polytheistic worship other than Allah SWT.

Many of the elders whom I spoke to with regards to the use of coconut water stood by the practice: it is believed that by placing the cut hair inside the coconut water, the newborn will grow up as someone with a very calm personality, not hot tempered, akin to the cooling properties of coconut water. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, coconuts were neatly carved and widely used in the Bercukur ceremony. Once the ceremony was over, the whole coconut was then planted in the backyard.

Aqisha and Alyssa too had their cut hair placed in coconut water – as with their two elder sisters, Sofea and Ayudia back in 2014 and 2015. In fact, I was told by my mum that all the children in ‘our clan’ had had the same ritual done: the placing of cut hair in coconut water, the ‘tepung tawar and merenjis air mawar’ ceremony, lightly dabbing gold (usually in the form of a gold ring) onto the newborn’s parts of the body (often on the forehead, mouth, hands and legs) as a symbol of wishing him or her all good fortune and prosperity (the notion of ‘murah rezeki’ in Malay).

There’s always that fine line between religion and tradition – I am not a religious authority nor am I a culture or heritage expert. What I could see still being practiced in most Malay traditions (my family in particular) is merely carried out as part of upholding and appreciating hundred of years of traditions – one can’t help but have that immense sense of appreciation, of pride — and the sense of accomplishment upon the completion of the ceremony. For someone who tries to love and appreciate cultures, the embedded message behind every ritual, every prayer or incantation read, watching the council of elders ‘do what they do best’ in perfecting the ceremony, I can’t help but have that sense of awe. Perhaps this is what is meant by the Malay adage: tak lekang dek panas, tak lapuk dek hujan (customs that remain intact, not eaten by time).

Ibu si kecil cantik berkeringkam
Merah dan biru manis sulamannya
Adat tradisi bukan hanya amalan silam
Ia pegangan pengekal budaya

One main thing remains for sure: by showing one’s gratitude to Allah SWT through the practice of Aqiqah and Bercukur, it strengthens not only the bond between the child and his/ her parents but sustains the brotherhood among the family members, relatives and neighbours who attended the ceremony (not forgetting the delicious food served too!). At the end of it all, it is done for the sake of the new bundle of joy.

Liza Sideni enjoys literature, history and travelling – her other love includes Linut, kopi-peng kaw & DATUK SHEILA MAJID©! When she is not guarding the fort (Brooke Gallery) she scribbles on her current love, the Keringkam or re-watches The Nanny. She firmly believes education is the best way to empower women and girls to make that big difference in life.

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