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Friday, January 11, 2013

How "Brahma" became "Allah"


Therefore, the passages and commentaries presented above showed the difference in the conception of God in the treatment of both epics; the original being very Hindu and the derivative of the Ramayana, whilst the Hikayat Seri Rama was given an Islamic treatment.
A REPUBLIC OF VIRTUE
Dr Azly Rahman
In the case of the ongoing "Allah" problematique, I'd like to see discussions on the concept of ‘god’ more from the perspective of the ‘transcultural flow of ideas’ -- transfers and borrowings, adaptations, hybridisation, and enculturalisation -- rather than seeing it blown out or proportion leading to the call for this  or that nonsensical jihad/crusade or any form of religious amuck. 
We can look at moments in the history of literature in which creative adaptations happen they pertain to how concept of the Divine or the idea of the deity gets enculturalised.
Below is an excerpt of the paper, Islamising the Ramayana, that I wrote during my undergraduate days, analysing the influence of Valmiki’s Ramayana in South-East Asia.

Excerpt:

The popularity of Ramayana and other Hindu epics at the time of the arrival of Islam, without suspect, brought major concerns to Islamic preachers at that time. In fact, a religious writing by an Islamic scholar from Gujerat, India who served in the court of the sultan of Acheh in the early part of the 17th century, condemned the Hikayat Seri Rama as “unfit for Muslim readers”.

Sir Richard Winstedt, a critic of the classical Malay literature was not far from being right when he mentioned that the first task of the Islamic preachers was to replace the heroes in Indian epics with Islamic warriors (Ahmad, 1981, pp 110).

The spread of Islam was so very intense that Hinduism held by the people of this region was reduced to their social customs only; marriage, birth and funeral ceremonies. From time to time the Hindu beliefs were replaced by customs characteristic of Islam. As told in another classical Malay epic, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, the Hindu idols were from time to time destroyed. Hinduism became very weak, hence.

This condition manifested itself in the development of the Malay literature, Hindu elements that originated from the Hindu holy scriptures, for instance, the Ramayana and Mahabharatta that glorified Vishnu, Siva, Brahma and other gods and godesses were replaced with Islamic concept of the Supreme being (Hamid, 1974, pp 77-78).

To illustrate the point above, let me compare two passages of the epic in its Indian version (as told by William S Buck) and to the one in Shellabear’s version of the Hikayat Seri Rama. These passages concern with the Rakshasha King Ravana’s coming into power: Ravana held the knife to his throat, when Brahma appeared and said, “Stop! Ask me a boon at once!”

“I am glad that I please you,” said Ravana. “Please me!” said Brahma. “Your will is dreadful, too strong to be neglected; like a bad disease, I must treat it. Your pains make me hurt. Ask!” “May I be unslayable and never defeated by the gods or any one from any heaven, by Hell’s devils or Asuras or demon spirits, by underworld serpents or Yakshas or Rakshasas.” “Granted!” said Brahma quickly.

He gave Ravana back his burnt heads better looking than before. They rose living and smoothed down his black moustaches. Brahma told Vibhishana, “Ask.” “May I never forget Dharma in peril or in pleasure, in comfort or in distraction.” Brahma said, “Yes, and you will be immortal on Earth and exempt from death or oblivion, and my truth knows no turning” (Buck, 1976, pp 23).

Here in the Indian version, Lord Brahma, the creator is presented as the one approaching King Ravana. In the Malay version, there was a middle man who dealt with what Ravana’s wishing for, the prophet Adam, first man on Earth.

With the blessing and power of Allah (SWT) the prophet Adam was hence descended from heaven for some period of time on earth. Once upon a time, at dawn, the prophet was walking on Earth when he met Ravana, meditating, hanging upside down. The prophet asked:

“O Ravana, why art thou doing as such to thyself? How long has thou been this way?” Ravana replied, “O Gracious prophet of Allah. I have been in this condition for twelve years.” Adam then said, “O Ravana, what is it that thou hath begged from Allah (SWT) that thou hath acted as such?” Ravana answered, “O My Lord Prophet of Allah, if it would be at all possible that thou would asketh Lord Allah’s granting of my wish. I would hence proclaim the nature of it.”

The prophet Adam then said, “O Ravana tell me the nature of the wish of thou” (Shellabear, 1964, pp 3).

Thus, Ravana told the prophet of his wish that Allah grant him four kingdoms on earth, heaven, the underworld and the seas. The prophet then told Ravana:

“Hence, at this moment, thou hath to promise me, that whenth thou doth commit wrongdoings or thou subjects doth doings as such and thou blesseth thee therein and not judge otherwise, thou hath to accept the wrath of thy Lord Allah. Whereas thou agreeth upon this promise. I would hereby asketh upon Lord Allah thou’s humble wishes (Shellabear, 1964, pp 2).

From the three passages quoted above, there are several differences that could be accounted:

(i) The concept of the creator in Valmiki’s Ramayana, Brahma is replaced by that of Prophet Adam as the one who approached Ravana.

(ii) Brahma, as the god who creates, seems to be portrayed as weak, threatened by Ravana’s meditative acts.

“Please me!” said Brahma, “Your will is dreadful too strong to be neglected; like a bad disease, I must treat it. Your pains make me hurt. Ask!” (Buck, 1976, pp 23).

In Hikayat Seri Rama, Ravana in the beginning of his coming to power, had to ask the utmost consent of the Supreme Being, Allah, to grant him the four kingdoms. His wish could not possibly be channeled directly to Allah, rather, the prophet Adam was asked to present his wish.

Leading to idolatry

Here, the concept of Brahma as the Supreme Creator and Allah is very different in a way that Brahma’s supremacy was shaken by Ravana’s meditative act and hence, Brahma had to grant whatever the Rakshasha was asking for to save himself.

On the other hand, Islam does not see the power and might of the Supreme Being, Allah as anywhere in the position of that portrayed by Brahma. This leads to another discussion of the conception of God; The Hindus divided God into three deities: (1) Brahma, the Creator, (2) Vishnu, the Preserver and (3) Shiva, the Destroyer.

This led to idolatry and images being made out of these dieties and cults formed to worship one or the other of these gods (Akhbar, 1983, pp 52). The concept of god in Islam is such that Allah is ‘Unit and Indivisible’.

He is born of none and has given birth to none, there is no sharer in His authority and that He is the Creator, Nourisher, and Sustainer of all universe, and has full sovereignty over them and everything in them for destroying and recreating (Akhbar, 1983, pp 71).

Therefore, the passages and commentaries presented above showed the difference in the conception of God in the treatment of both epics; the original being very Hindu and the derivative of the Ramayana, whilst the Hikayat Seri Rama was given an Islamic treatment.

End of Excerpt


How then must we Malaysians look at the current controversy on the word ‘Allah’ as we frame the discussions not only philologically, but also through the study of humanities, so that we will be all the more cultured in the way we look at the evolution of knowledge?
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