The Veiled Butterfly – Islamic Values in Selubung (part 2)


Concluding her look at Shuhaimi Baba’s ‘Selubung’, Putri Tasnim Arif considers how it may be more Islamic than many thinks.

Analysing further EJ’s character, especially her abrupt decision to leave immediately to join the Islamic class with Brother Musa, she represents a group of people, who are portrayed as someone who is easily drawn to ‘Islam’, closing herself only to those who attach to that movement, ‘forced’ to cut all the worldly relationships with her fellow friends, including her best friends, Mas and Halim, who are depicted as Muslims. In Islam, to cut relationship between humankind, especially the people of Believers, is deemed impermissible, as Islam urges the people to be just:

“Serve Allah and do not join any partners with Him. Do good to parents, relatives, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near and neighbors who are strangers, the friend by your side as well as the traveller, and what your right hands possess. Allah does not love the arrogant and proud ones.” (Qur’an 4:36)

“And We have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with [definite] preference.” (17:70)

“The believers are nothing else than brothers (in Islam). So make reconciliation between your brothers and fear Allah, that you may receive mercy.” (10:49)

“Infuse your heart with mercy, love and kindness for your subjects . . . either they are your brothers in religion or your equals in creation.” (Excerpt from a letter by the Muslim Caliph Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 661) to Malik al-Ashtar on the latter’s appointment as governor of Egypt)

The above quotes, featured extensively by Ali Asani in his publication, On Pluralism, Intolerance and the Qur’an, describes the relevance of the Holy Book to the subject matter. The opening has the sky predominantly overlooking the beautiful nature of a beach and a lake. Sky, as far as film lingo is concerns, symbolises God and religious significance. Where ever we go, God is with us, and in this instance, Shuhaimi Baba is trying to say the issue of what will unfold in this film is experienced in both locales, even though both, as mentioned earlier, come with opposite ideology. Terengganu in this film is portrayed as an isolated beach (perhaps conforming the idea of the sense of isolation within the rural people) that comes with strong traditional ritual of ‘puja semangat’ (ritual for cleansing the soul using essence). This is something that is forbidden in Islam, as stated in the Quran, translated thus: “And verily, there were men among mankind who took shelter with the masculine among the jinns, but they (jinns) increased them (mankind) in sin and disbelief.” (72:6)

The other strong natural element that is injected at the beginning of the film is the butterfly. There is a lot of butterflies on the old man’s face when he performs the puja semangat. The butterfly symbolises many things. One that is very obvious is the nature of its process of its metamorphosis, from cocoon to a butterfly. It strongly links to the system of faith, religion and God.

Avia Venefica writes that “this unwavering acceptance of her metamorphosis is also symbolic of faith. Here the butterfly beckons us to keep our faith as we undergo transitions in our lives.” She further explains that in Christianity, butterfly symbolises the soul. This is similar with what the scene in this film is associating with puja semangat, a calling for the soul of the dead. Later in the scene, when Mas comes to visit the old man, while seated in the hut by the beach, a swarm of butterflies surrounding the old man in the beginning now encircles her, as if trying to tell that she has already transformed. Norman Yusoff contends this in his article, From Selubung to Turtle Beach, further concluding that the connection between the butterfly and Mas “focuses on the metamorphosis… from youthful naivety to maturity.” It can also be linked to the idea how one must learn to let go of the past and transition to something better and beautiful, while keeping the faith strong during the entire process.

During these calamities, one should be careful not to fall for the whispers from the Satan. This struggle (jihad) in an eventuality is the way of life, the ad-din that is promoted in Islam, written sporadically in the Holy-Quran:

“If Allah helps you, none can overcome you; and if He forsakes you, who is there after Him that can help you? And in Allah (Alone) let believers put their trust.” (Quran, Surah Aal-e-Imran: 160)

“Say: ‘Nothing shall ever happen to us except what Allah has ordained for us. He is our Maula (Lord, Helper and Protector).’ And in Allah let the believers put their trust.” (Quran, Surah Towbah: 51).

There is a very strong relationship between religion and how humans perceived it, and sometimes this perception leads them to be ‘stuck’ in the old understanding, without having to replenish and transform into something better. Muzaffar commented that this is the pivotal factor in this issue: “Invariably, there is a great deal of pride in what is perceived as ‘the past glory of Islam.” Perhaps Shuhaimi Baba is giving her opinion through this symbolism, asking the audience to reflect and move on from the thinking of the old man to Mas, from the old conceptions to something new and reformed.


Another entity in this film that is worth discussing is the pressure created by the extreme in Islam by the missionary group, led by Brother Musa. He is portrayed in this film as a proselytizer of Islam around the campus of UWA. Referring to the previously discussed factor on the emergence of the Islamic Resurgence that can create gap and disparity, the group that is formed by Brother Musa and his clan is the example that is documented in this film. Perhaps Brother Musa is the prime example that represents the group of students who feel the isolation mentioned by Muzaffar earlier. Perhaps Shuhaimi wants to portray Brother Musa as someone that comes from a rural area and, for the first time, travels out from Malaysia.

Brother Musa, portrayed as an educated medicine student, is allowed by UWA to promote Islam. Later, this movement begins to strike disparity and gap among the students, reflects the tolerance level practiced by the university, but not from Brother Musa’s clan. The missionary group is shown throughout the film as a group that completely rejects unity within the small community that they live in, something that contradicts the element of Islam: “O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.” (Qur’an 49:11).

There are a few incidents created by Brother Musa and his group that can be displayed as ‘insulting’ and arrogant, but I am going to focus on one scene. Brother Musa, in a self-righteous way as the husband who controls his wife, believed that he has helped cleanse EJ’s soul. “’I have saved her soul (The word soul might have the same connection with the idea of puja semangat- cleanse of soul by the old man in the village in Terengganu),” he said to Mas. “It is a sin for women to expose her flesh and beautiful object to temptation. Perhaps a suitable marriage partner for you would lead you away from the sins and lusts. If you wish, I could arrange that’.” Later, Hani walks to Mas and receives her line, “Mas, only the righteous will find a way to heaven… Mas, don’t be like Zack (Zanariah). She’s the mind that will take you to Hell, being overtly friendly with men, and uncovered. Don’t go anywhere with her. People like her are Satan.”

The incidents written by Shuhaimi Baba are not a mere coincidence. She is trying to inject the idea that somehow extremist in any sense, whether puja semangat or missionary clan will only bring disaster to the community, and a real cleansing of transformation and metamorphosis is required, suggested by the symbolism of the butterflies. We go back to Muhammad Iqbal, who urges the concept of reforming without taking away the idea of spirituality, not in the sense of the old understanding of puja semangat, but more of the understanding of the complexity of the idea of being spiritual.

“The ultimate reality, according to Quran, is spiritual, and its life consists in its temporal activity. The spirit finds its opportunities in the natural, the material, the secular. All that is secular is, therefore, sacred in the roots of its being. The greatest service that modern thought has rendered to Islam, and as a matter of fact to all religions, consists in its criticism which discloses that the merely material has no substance until we discover it rooted in the spiritual. There is no such thing as a profane world. All this immensity of matter constitutes a scope for the self-realization of spirit. All is holy ground. As the Prophet so beautifully put it: “The whole of this earth is a mosque'”(1980, p/g: 24).

I wonder if the scene of Halim (Jit Murad) exposing the news on the burned mosque is trying to symbolise the profane act of Muslims who should not be obsessed with matters that on the surface, but rather to look at the real problem that is embedded in the Muslim communities and their spiritual understanding of Islam. This sentiment is undoubtedly rooted from one of the main ideologies of Islam that is called the science of Tasawwuf, the process of cleansing one’s heart in order to have a good solid relationship with one’s Creator, Allah S.W.T.

Earlier in the chapter, I composed a few questions such as question on the perception of Islam in the 1990s and how these perceptions affect the reactions from fellow Muslims. Through the analysis and observations on its mise en scene, ‘Selubung’ helps to unfold the concept of tolerance and balance in promoting Islam. Shuhaimi Baba, in reshaping the milieu of Malaysia’s 1980s-1990s social landscape in the film, stretched it to fit the function as a fiction film. Nevertheless, the hint of realism in the film is transpired enough for the audience to read within what is documented.

There are many issues that Shuhaimi tries to bring forward, either through its subtext, like the issue of EJ and Brother Musa, and metaphor (the use of butterfly) to symbolise the need for reformation and renegotiation on Islamic understanding.

‘Selubung’, as a film in the 1990s, represents the reality of what has taken place in Malaysia and most of the world during the Islamic resurgence. It throws in questions to the public on the issues that need to be looked into as a discourse that are interrelated with what has been happening in today’s world, including the failure to communicate and practice tolerance and bridging the gap between different tribes and communities. The famous Quranic verse from surah Al-Hujurat, almost always being quoted every time a discourse on unity and tolerance between mankind is mentioned, reads as such:

“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (49:13).

Indeed, ‘Selubung’, through the settings and visualisations, represents the dichotomisation of these differences by projecting the reality of the emergence of Islamic Resurgence, which is trying to be ‘Islamic’ but defiled its own mission by projecting it in a completely reversed ideology, portrayed by Shuhaimi Baba as a form of ‘nuisance’. It manages to resurface the idea of self-contradictory within the genre of ‘Islamic’ film, proven by using the same spiritual source which is by using the Quranic verses and Hadith.

Originally presented as ‘Malaysian Cinema in the 1990s: The Representation of Islamic Values through its Visualisations in Selubung (1992)’ at the International Journal of Arts and Sciences 2015 in Paris, France. You can read the first part here.

Featured image credit: La Trobe University

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