“The Third Notch” and Traditions of Mourning: A Malaysian Short Story

How have environmental and cultural factors influenced religious and religious practice in Southeast Asia?

How is this reflected in the literature and life experience of the people?

This activity provides an opportunity for students to examine some of the ways in which both environmental and cultural factors influence how communities elaborate elements of Muslim belief and practice. It can also be used to provide students the opportunity to reflect on the broader issue of the internal diversity that characterizes world religions in history.

Students will be able to:

  • Identify environmental features of Southeast Asia that impact religious and cultural traditions.
  • Recognize basic tenets of the Islamic faith.
  • Recognize the influence and tensions between local practice and fundamental religious practices.

One class period for Background Reading and reading the story
One class period for completing Text Response Worksheet, sharing responses, and discussion (alternatively, Text Response Worksheet might also be assigned as homework between class periods.)

Introduction to Southeast Asia: History, Geography, and Livelihood
Barbara Watson Andaya

Religious Practices and Cultural Expression
Michael Laffan

Diversity and Community in Contemporary Society
Michael G. Peletz

Handout, which includes Background Reading for “The Third Notch”; One copy of the short story “The Third Notch” by Shahnon Ahmad; Text Response Worksheet. One for each student.

  1. Teachers may review the Student Background Reading for general information relating to burial rituals in the Muslim faith and the story by Shahnon Ahmad used here. Local practices of Malay Muslim death rituals are built around a framework of more universally recognized Islamic scriptural and legal injunctions that can be further investigated in John Renard’s Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996). Additionally, both teacher and students would benefit from an understanding of the Five Pillars of faith, outlined in Michael Laffan’s essay.

    Also, note the environmental factors that exist in this location, an equatorial region that experiences monsoons. It is known as the rice basket of Malaysia, reflecting its tropical geography and agricultural traditions.

    Over the course of the twentieth century, many of the traditional practices mentioned in “The Third Notch” have lost their appeal for many Malay Muslims. The increasingly critical way in which they are viewed is reflected in the text where the author writes, “Let outsiders say that we
    are wasting our resources… we don’t care.” (p. 102) Here he can be seen preemptively responding to a common critique voiced by religious reformists in the modern period who regard much of what is elaborated in this “letter” as irrational “superstition,” as well as an ineffective use of personal and communal resources that might otherwise be more productively employed in a “rational” manner.

    For the text of the sura mentioned in the story, see Chapter 36 of the Qur’an. Recommended English translations include: M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford University Press); N. J. Dawood (Penguin Classics); Ahmed Ali (Princeton University Press); Majid Fakhry (New York University Press).

  2. Anticipatory Set
  • Begin by asking students what are some universal human experiences (birth, growth, fear, joy, hunger, death, for example). Tell students that you will be addressing one of the universal experiences of all human beings—experiencing the death of someone close—as a reflection of culture, environment, and religion
  • Ask students what traditions exist in our cultures to prepare the living and the dead for impending death, how we acknowledge death, and how these traditions help the family/community to come to terms emotionally with death.
  • Ask students to consider how environment, culture, and religion might come together in these preparations and traditions. Explain that this activity will be used to consider these questions as they relate to Muslims in Southeast Asia.
  1. Background Reading
    Share with the students the Student Background Reading, providing contextual information for “The Third Notch.”
  2. Read
    “The Third Notch” should be read aloud with/to students.
  3. Text Response
  • Ask students to individually complete the Text Response Worksheet following the directions indicated—limit work time to 10-12 minutes.
  • Have students present the reading responses as indicated. Students will read their chosen sentences aloud, one by one, without comment or pause. Phrases are offered in the same way, followed by the single word they’ve chosen. The activity will provide
    a basis for illuminating themes of environment, culture, and religion that come together in the story.
  1. Discussion
    With the entire class, discuss the story using the following questions as a guide for discussion:
  • Which passages are repeated more than once? Why do you think the author did this?
  • What elements in the story are universal to mankind? (family unit, love of parents, death, etc.)
  • What elements are distinctly anchored in Southeast Asia? (weather, food, betelnuts, for example)
  • How are the weather and the local environment re-flected in the author’s thinking about Muslim funeral observances? Be certain to underscore the origins of Islam in a desert/arid region that stands in stark contrast to the Malaysian environment. How might this alter traditions? What would be preserved?
  • What kinds of people are mentioned in connection with carrying out the customs of this Malay-Muslim death observance?
  • Who is paying for the funeral? How do the characters in the story deal with the issue of expenses and the cultural traditions related to them?
  • What kinds of materials are required to carry out these customs?
  • What elements are distinctly Muslim? (Five Pillars, four notches, for example)
  • What are the four notches? How might this be seen as a local elaboration of universal Muslim ideas?
  • What religious texts and prayers are mentioned and how are they used?
  • How many of the Five Pillars of Islam were observed by the father and mother?
  • Which obligation was not completed? Why?

Choice of appropriate passages shared with class and response to discussion questions provide reflection of pupil learning and understanding of concepts.

Students should have access to understanding and responding to the text by having the story and background information read aloud. Offer additional support to students while they are choosing their passages to ensure that they understand the requirements of the selections.

Write a journal entry or letter of response from Sister’s point of view after the burial.