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Friday, August 30, 2013

The history of ourselves

The Malays of yesteryear may have been passive, but a spark had been ignited. There may have been no Internet then, but colonisation brought new forms of activities; urbanisation, modern bureaucracy, and these unsettled them. Who were they really? What were they? Were they to be the dogs of the colonialists forever?
Dina Zaman, MM
To understand why we are who we are today, I referred to a few texts (and with a word limit, I would like to stress again that this essay is not a definitive and conclusive one. I read and write to seek answers.).

The Islam that was brought to our shores — was it political? A tool to colonise the Malays into submission? There has been much discussion that in the early days, Islam was Sufistic in nature.

As mentioned in an earlier essay, Husin Mutalib’s Islam and Ethnicity in Malay Politics, documented in the first chapter the origins of Islam’s arrival into the region. Prior to that, the Malays were followers of animism and Hinduism.

The British Occupation changed everything, especially for the Malays. Realising that the Malays were most observant of their faith, their educational policies “… not only contributed to the relative passivity of the Islamic factor in the life of the Malays, but (also) added a new and unsettling Islamic dimension.”

While the average Malay was accorded basic primary Islamic education, it was the scions of the rich and aristocrats who were allowed entry into a privileged world: they had the opportunities to pursue a secular education to the highest level, including “tertiary education in Britain.”

The Malays of yesteryear may have been passive, but a spark had been ignited. There may have been no Internet then, but colonisation brought new forms of activities; urbanisation, modern bureaucracy, and these unsettled them. Who were they really? What were they? Were they to be the dogs of the colonialists forever?

Hope came in the form of a group of concerned Muslims: the Islamic reformists. An example would be the Kaum Muda, who are what few know as literalists and greatly influenced by Wahabism.

“At the beginning of the twentieth century pamphleteers and editors in Singapore, then the hub of the regional Malay language media, spread competing Islamic doctrines around the region. They set the stage for a political contest in Indonesia, and later in Malaysia, between the Sufi-influenced practices of Kaum Tua (the traditional establishment) and the Wahhabi-influenced approach of the Kaum Muda (the reformists).

"The Kaum Tua represented the traditional court-centred doctrines in Malaysia and the inclusionist beliefs of the Javanese heartland, which had accommodated pre-Islamic and Sufi practices and beliefs.

"The Kaum Muda represented the modernist, Muslim reformists strongly influenced by the pan-Islamic revivalist movement originating from Egypt. It sought to expunge the pre-Islamic beliefs that had been woven into the fabric and practice of Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia.

"As a result of the large numbers of pilgrims who went on the haj to Mecca and Muslim ulema who had attended madrassahs (Islamic religious schools) in Arabia and India, the austere literal interpretations of the Islamic faith contained in Wahhabi doctrines have had a growing impact on the region since the 1870s."

References: William R. Roff, The Origins of Malay Nationalism (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1967; Robert W. Hefner and Patricia Horvatich eds.), Islam in an Era of Nation-States: Politics and Religious Revival in Muslim Southeast Asia (University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1997).


Many will argue that syirk practices must be done away with. Paganism, seeking the advice of healers per se; yet as we modern-day Muslim-Malay Malaysians pursue our faith, we forget our roots, language and culture.

One authority we should also turn to is Indonesia’s Azyumardi Azra who can be considered one of the definitive historians on Islam in Southeast Asia.

He is not verbose but eloquent, and in his essay Islamic Thought: Theory, Concepts And Doctrines In The Context Of Southeast Asian Islam (Islam in Southeast Asia, edited by KS Nathan and Mohammad Hashim Kamali), he wrote in depth about the clashes between Muslim thought and sects. “Southeast Asian Islam is overwhelmingly Sunni since the 12th century.” Wandering Sufi teachers, mystics and traders, mostly from Arabia, spread the word of Allah to the people they met in tropical, humid SEA.

He admitted in his essay that literalists such as the Salafis, who are more literal in their outlook and radical in their approach to political and religious matters, have made an impact on the Islam practised today.

However, this is not just the only reason and factor as to why Islam in Malaysia is practised the way it is presently. There are many factors leading to the divide. An erosion of true Islamic education based on compassion, intellect and facts is one contributor.

Another intellectual who echoed similar sentiments was Syed Naguib Al-Attas. The still-living philosopher wrote in his paper, A Preliminary Statement On A General Theory of the Islamisation of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago, that Islam came to the region “couched in Sufi metaphysics. It was through tasawuf that the highly intellectual and rationalistic religious spirit entered the receptive minds of the people” and this spiritual enlightenment was not just brought to the courts, but to the people. Its egalitarian approach to faith and spirituality was very attractive to the Malays.

In light of the above, my question is how did such a democratic Islam that empowered a people and country become vilified today? Is it the people or the politics? How strong is the Wahabi/Salafi influence, that we have or are losing ourselves?

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