Islam As A Defining Characteristic Of The Malays

Prof. S M Naquib Al-Attas defines Islamization, in a general sense as it occurred in history, as means towards “…liberation of man first from magical, mythological, animistic, national-cultural tradition (opposed to Islam), and then from secular control over reason and his language….

It is also a liberation from subservience to his physical demands which inclines toward the secular and injustice to his true self or soul, for man as physical being inclines towards forgetfulness of his true nature, becoming ignorant of his true purpose and unjust to it. Islamization is a process not so much of evolution as that of devolution to original nature…”[1]

With the coming of Islam to this region, this process of Islamization was catalytic towards the evolution of the Malay race, beyond the narrow definition of a tribe or dialect. The term “Malay” was synonymous to and became identified with the values, civilization and worldview which is Islamic. It was an effort towards forging hegemony amongst the various sub-groups of the region, raising them above the narrow confines of dialect and uniting them into an affiliation based on the universal teachings of Islam.

The spread of Islam successfully galvanized them all towards acknowledging, accepting, and willingly identifying themselves with a greater community as Muslims. Unlike the Western Imperialist hegemony which uses political domination and colonialization, Islam came not as a political force but through what we may rather call “civilizational osmosis”, which emphasized attitude of tolerance and the sharing of truth and values which are universal.

This would not have been possible without a common language. The early Muslims adopted the Riau-Malay (the dialect of a minority sub-group who was living around the coastal region then), and with its use it became the lingua franca. It is to be noted that through Islam and Islamization, the Arabiced script was introduced, and with it many new terms were added to this language, much of it borrowed from Arabic as well as Farsi (Persian) and Urdu. Islamic scholars have long contended that the Malay language indeed belongs to Islam, much in the same genre as Farsi (Persian), Urdu, Turkish etc.

Incidentally, the proliferation and general acceptance of Malay as the lingua franca was not motivated by any political agenda or by political enforcement, but through knowledge-based culture of Islam which was being spread throughout this region. The Riau-Malay, although in the beginning belonged to a minority group, through Islamization it grew in importance as it represented the language of knowledge then.

The script (Arabic with additional letters to aid peculiar pronunciation of the people here) replaced the older script that was used e.g. the Javanese script. This new script is given the term “Jawi” which in Arabic actually means(literally) “air or windy” from which the island of “Java” derived its name (but generally the Arabs was referring to lands below the trade wind i.e. South east Asia, the Nusantara). But “Jawi” also refers to a medium of writing Riau-Malay.

If strength in number of people speaking a particular language then, was to be a criterion, the Javanese language would be a more logical choice. Yet, the Riau-Malay dialect was chosen. This was because the spoken language of the people living around the coastal region which first encountered Islam and the Islamic civilization, happened to be speaking this language, and thus favored its usage by the Muslim propagators.

It must be remembered that when Islam came, it represented a much higher form of civilization and the Muslim community that settled in this part of the world was looked upon as being positive and progressive community.

The Muslim scholars and propagators, who were spearheading the Islamization of this region, not merely conveyed its teachings but moulded, transformed and uplifted communities, through the culture of knowledge and learning.

The important role of language as the medium for Islamization must be noted [2]. Whichever local language was adopted, Islamization would enrich it as well as popularized it (as in the case of Farsi (Persian) and Urdu – in Persia and the Indian sub-continent). Thus although the Riau-Malay, a local dialect of a minority, was adopted, it was the Muslims who transformed it into a language for learning and communication, gradually making it the lingua franca of this region.

Reading and writing, especially was important for Muslims. Amongst the obvious contribution of Islam towards this language were, the adaptation of the Arabiced script, introduction of certain rules of grammar of the Arabic as well as coinage of many terminology directly from Arabic and Persian, into Malay.

Islamization emphasized a culture of knowledge representing a more advanced civilization, which attracted many of the indigenous sub-groups to imitate or even align them with it. This attraction was able to galvanize, and it paved the way towards unifying, the various sub-groups into a ‘hegemony’, which is in fact Islamic-based, rather than ethnic. But, because of normal convention, this affiliation became simply identified with the language i.e. “Malay”, rather than the religion.

The noble concept of brotherhood expounded by Islam (i.e. Ukhuwwah Islamiyyah) which transcends tribal or racial ethnicity, broke the ancient tribal mentality and became instrumental even in encouraging political alliance amongst local rulers in the region, e.g. like the state of Melaka with Pasai etc.

This contention, that it was Islam and the process of Islamization which created the Malay race (Bangsa Melayu) as it is known today is evident when we consider the following major factors:

> that the written script for the Malay language was “Jawi” (wholesale borrowing from Arabic, with additional letters to accommodate distinct pronunciation not common to Arabs) and not the Javanese script (although Javanese hegemony had once dominated this region);

> words and terminology of the Muslims (Arab/Persian) became common usage, added and enriches the vocabulary of the Malay language, especially intellectual terms and words related to knowledge. Examples are terms like :

Dunia (dunya – world), ilmu (‘ilm – knowledge), makna (ma’ana – meaning), maksud (maqsud or objective), alam (‘alam – world/universe), hakikat (haqiqah – reality), batil (baa-til – falsehood), kalbu (qalb – mind heart), fikir (fikr – think/reflect), akal (‘aql – reasoning faculty), nasib (naa-sib – fate), faham (fahm – understand), kitab (kitaab – book), insan (insan – mankind), haiwan (hayaawan – animal), adab (aadab – proper ettiquette), hayat (haayat – life), mati (maut/mamaat – death), sabar (sabr’ or patience), akhirat (aa-khirah or Hereafter) and many more.

> Islam and Islamization had influenced the evolving of local customs and values which adjusted itself towards conforming to the Islamic value system based on the Syari’ah. Example, In the case of the adat pepateh of the Sumatran, Islam became the basis for their customs as it even declared that “adat bersendikan syarak, syarak bersendikan Kitaabullah” meaning “ custom must be based on syari’ah; and syari’ah based on the Book of Allah [i.e. the Qur’an]”).

That is why we find in defining the Malays, the Malaysian Constitution accepts the definition that a Malay is a person who is a Muslim, living in this region (Malay Archipelago) who speaks the Malay language and follows the customs/practices of the Malay people.

Thus it explains why there seemed to be a diverse mixture in terms of, let us take the physiological features or ethnic roots of the Malay people. And that some Arabs especially those with ancestors that hailed from Hadhramaut (Yemen), but have been living amongst the Malays and fulfilled the stated criteria, are today accepted as Malays too.

Whereas, the Straits-born Chinese who have adopted much of the Malay language and customs, but still clings on to their Chinese religion and have not become Muslims are not included as Malay by the Malays. They are referred to distinctively as the ‘Baba or Nyonya.’

> Another interesting point to note is that those native Malays that intermarried with the Portuguese or Dutch settlers and became Christians were regarded as no more Malay, although they may still be adept in terms of speaking the language and adhering to local customs.

Although intermarriages are a common and acceptable norm amongst the Malay stock, it was conditional the parties adhere to Islam i.e. as longs as they all share the common faith in Islam. If this factor i.e. Islam is absent, ones affiliation to the Malay milieu will be affected.

This explains the coining of the term “Serani” to refer to the Malay/Portuguese couple and their descendants, indicating a purposeful attempt to exclude and distinguish them from the rest of the Malay milieu. Interestingly, this term “Serani” – is a direct reference to their adopted faith Christianity (the Malay word for Christianity i.e. ‘Nasrani’ is derived from the Arabic ‘Nasara’ – equivalent to the Biblical Nazarene and the place Nazareth).

Through usage, this term today has been regarded as the translation for the “Eurasian” which actually is inaccurate. “Eurasian” as a term in the English language refers people from racial stock borne out of intermarriages between a European and an Asian, a reference to racial make-up and genes. But as we have already explained, this term came about due to the lack of an important criterion for their acceptance into the Malay race i.e. Islam.

This factor, Islam, is the most important criteria for being Malay and it is to Islamic teachings whose values define what a ‘Malay’ is. This point must never be ignored, Yet, unfortunately there are some parties that tries to suggest the possibility of accepting the terms like “Melayu Kristian” (Malay Christian), “Melayu Ateis”(Malay Atheist) etc. or such terms that purposely seeks to detach Islam from the notion of being a Malay.

Not only are such terms to be regarded as misnomer, it is in fact a contradiction in terms reflecting ignorance of the one who tries to advocate.

The inseparability of Islam in being Malay is most apt, as Islam extols universal values which can be accepted at all times. It’s principle teachings being firm and unchanging has made it capable of forging a global community since the Prophet’s time. And yet, Islam also advocates flexibility and adaptability in the outward implementation of its ways, thereby various people with diverse customs are merged and adopted into this universal Islamic community, yet each having their own distinctness. The Malay is one such race.

Wa-Allaahu a’-lam

This post is an abridged version of an article written by Ustadz Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail that appeared in Risalah (PERGAS).


[1] “The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas” by Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud pg. 312

[2] as observed by Prof. S M Naquib Al-Attas in his explanation on Islamization. Ibid.

Source: Almakhazin SG

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