On board an Islamic cruise that attracted controversy

Regional Correspondent Arlina Arshad discovered a different type of holiday when she spent five days on an Islamic cruise that made headlines when three foreign preachers scheduled to join it were denied entry into Singapore.

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After two Islamic preachers were barred from talking on a religious cruise, The Straits Times regional correspondent Arlina Arshad went undercover to see what actually goes on.

As the passionate wail of the azan, or Muslim call to prayer, rang through the dimming evening sky, hundreds gathered to pray on the deck of the luxury cruise ship.

Singaporean Jamelah Sulaiman described the experience of performing the congregational prayer on board the Italian-owned Costa Victoria as "very special".

"It's amazing. Even though there's a lot of people, I don't see anybody else. It's just the sky and me, my creator and myself," the 49-year-old kindergarten owner told The SundayTimes.

"Praying under the stars, under the moon, it's really beautiful."

She was among 40 Singaporeans and over 1,000 Muslims from 12 nationalities - mostly Malaysians - who went on the spiritual voyage across the Malacca Strait last week. They left Singapore on Nov 25 for Indonesia's Aceh province, known to many South-east Asian Muslims as the verandah of Mecca as it was where Islam first spread to the region, and returned last Wednesday.

The Sunday Times had also joined the cruise dubbed "Navigating Towards Paradise", which cost around $1,500, as a paying passenger and discovered it was spiritual, not radical. It had attracted media attention following the Singapore Government's denial of entry to three foreign Muslim preachers for their hardline views: Zimbabwean Ismail Menk, Malaysian Haslin Baharim and American Yusuf Estes.

But industry experts said it is important to make a distinction between cruises and individuals.

Evening prayers on the deck of the Italian-owned Costa Victoria. More than 1,000 Muslims from 12 nationalities went on the voyage across the Malacca Strait last week. ST PHOTO: ARLINA ARSHAD

Mr Fazal Bahardeen, chief executive of Crescentrating, a firm which gives "halal" or Islam-compliant ratings to hotels and travel-related establishments, believed the ban on preachers "is not related to the cruise itself; it is related to restrictions of individuals on the cruise".

There are two types of Islamic cruises: those catering to halal-conscious travellers who seek leisure trips but want halal food as well as no gambling or alcohol on board, and those that have religious education built into the programme.

Markets for both types of cruises are niche, "pretty new and currently small", but are set to become more popular, especially among the elderly, said Mr Fazal.

Last week's cruise organised by Malaysia-based Islamic Cruise would have fallen into the second category, as the organiser had also invited Islamic scholars to give lectures. All were Malaysians except for Gabriel Al Romaani, the co-founder of the Islamic Centre for Research and Academics who is based in the United Arab Emirates.

From observations by The Sunday Times, the mostly Malaysian passengers were a mixed crowd, from fashionable young women toting Louis Vuitton bags to men with Datuk honorifics to elderly folk using wheelchairs. Many had travelled on previous cruises with the organiser, such as to Thailand's Phuket and Vietnam's Halong Bay, and had enjoyed themselves.

"This cruise is just a holiday," Islamic Cruise founder Suhaimi Abd Ghafer told The Sunday Times.

"The passengers sit together, have fun together, enjoy the entertainment, take part in worship, as well as experience the beauty of nature and comfortable cruise facilities."


Malaysian Masturah Muhammad, a 51-year-old library director, said she "got goosebumps" when she boarded the vessel and heard melodious recitations from the Quran, the Muslim holy book.

"This is a huge ship known for various forms of entertainment. But as you walk through it, all you hear is Quranic recitations, Islamic nasyid music and good messages. It's unique," she said.

Madam Masturah said she sent to a video to her friend showing a Quranic reading session. "She said 'it's like going to Mecca to perform the pilgrimage, but without the Kaabah'", referring to the black box-shaped building at the centre of Islam's most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram.

There were various activities for passengers, such as religious talks, Quran reading sessions (above) and singing performances by popular Malaysian nasyid group Raihan. ST PHOTO: ARLINA ARSHAD

A typical day on an Islamic cruise starts with a non-obligatory Qiyamulail prayer at 4am, a favourite activity among the passengers, but the toughest to perform due to the early hour. On this cruise, there were religious talks, Quran reading sessions and singing performances by popular Malaysian nasyid group Raihan. Some of these activities took place simultaneously so passengers could choose which activity they wished to attend. They could return to their cabins to rest or go to the ship's deck and enjoy the ocean breeze. Or they could exercise to Middle Eastern music, watch nasyid performances and play arcade games.

Passengers could choose which activity they wished to participate in. They could return to their cabins to rest or exercise to Middle Eastern music or play arcade games. ST PHOTO: ARLINA ARSHAD

There was no compulsion or peer pressure to join any of the activities, whether religious or recreational. Mr Suhaimi said: "You don't see us going around knocking on doors, do you? It's your vacation, do whatever you like."

A passenger who declined to be named thought that she was joining a religious boot camp, but the cruise turned out to be a pleasant family trip.

"I thought I had to eat dates and drink holy water, but no such thing. I overslept every day so I missed the early morning prayers," she said, giggling sheepishly. "The people here are no terrorists. One ustaz (Islamic teacher) looks like a teddy bear. The old uncles tremble just from carrying their luggage, I don't think they can carry a rifle, what more shoot."

The casino, which was shut down for this trip, drew curious visitors. The Sunday Times saw several passengers scrutinising the slot machines and roulette tables as if they were museum exhibits.

"I have never stepped into a casino. So this is how it looks like. I will take a selfie!" quipped a woman.

Retired Malaysian teacher Abdul Ghani Ahmad, 62, said he was accompanying his two children at the games arcade. He said: "The environment is safe. After all, this is a vacation. Let them enjoy themselves."

The highlight of the cruise was a day trip to Banda Aceh, the provincial capital which was badly hit by the 2004 tsunami. A highlight was its grand mosque, the only structure that remained standing then.

The sheer size of the group and poor weather ate into the time for visits to Banda Aceh attractions, such as Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, and activities such as shopping. ST PHOTO: ARLINA ARSHAD

For retired hotel manager Abdul Rani Mohamed Hassan, 70, and his wife Kintan Ali 74, being able to visit Aceh together to celebrate their wedding anniversary in their old age was a dream come true.

"Seeing (the place) with your own eyes is different from hearing from other people," she said, wiping the tears welling in her eyes. "There's so much change, the buildings looked new. I hope they will continue to be blessed with progress and success."

But the trip was a letdown for many. The sheer size of the group and poor weather ate into the time for visits to Banda Aceh attractions and activities such as shopping.

Travellers returning to the ship after sightseeing in Aceh. The highlight of the cruise was a day trip to Banda Aceh. However, some passengers wished they had more time to see the sights. ST PHOTO: ARLINA ARSHAD

"Frust giler..." or "crazy frustrated", some had grumbled as they boarded the ferry empty-handed from Banda Aceh to Sabang port, where the cruise ship was docked. Others thronged the shops near the port, buying bags and local cakes to satisfy their shopping fix.

Malaysian housewife Mazlina Mastor, 40, believed the organiser lacked the experience to handle large groups. "They over-promised and under-delivered. We didn't get to visit all the places on the itinerary and were stuck at the Singapore immigration for quite a while too."

The Islamic cruise, which had hogged media headlines, was anything but dangerous. It felt like any other cruise, only Muslim-friendly. As an Islamic preacher told some of the passengers during his lecture: "We are not terrorists. We are not ISIS. We are not Daesh," referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorist group.

Costa Cruises, which operates the ship, told The Sunday Times that "most of the passengers on board were delighted with this cruise", adding: "Costa is heartened to receive a lot of positive feedback."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 03, 2017, with the headline On board an Islamic cruise that attracted controversy. Subscribe