The Lessons From Our Encounter With Islam


M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com

The smooth assimilation of Malays into Islam was the result of both “down-up” and “up-down” dynamics. The average Malay peasant in his or her interactions with the ancient Muslim traders saw the value of this new faith. This message then spread laterally among the other villagers and later upwards to the nobility and ultimately the sultans. They too saw the merit of this new religion and that acceptance trickled down to the masses. The result was the quick transformation of Malay society.

Today in the retelling of the arrival of Islam to the Malay world, there is not a dissenting voice. All agree that it was a positive development, for the faith as well as for Malays. We also agree that our culture adapted well to Islam.

Those sentiments have more to do with the human tendency to romanticize the past, especially one perceived as being glorious, rather than a true reflection of the reality. We spare ourselves from looking more critically at our past for fear that we would discover something that could blight that pristine image and sweet memory.

Yet in all human endeavors nothing is pure white or all black. The noblest deeds often have a sliver of tarnish if we were meticulous and fearless in our scrutiny. At the other extreme, even in the horror and depravity of a Siberian prison camp one could still discern sparks of compassion and humanity, as Dostoevsky’s noted in his House of the Dead.

So it was with the coming of Islam to the Malay world. Those early Muslims came not to proselytize, though that was a well-established tradition with the faith, rather to trade. In that respect those Arab and Indian Muslim traders were no different from the subsequent European explorers who came for our spices.

However, the natives were so enamored with the way those Muslim traders conducted themselves – with honor, piety and honesty – that soon their ways rubbed off on our ancestors and they too became Muslims. They, as a culture and community, were free minded enough to recognize a better way and did not hesitate to incorporate it as part of their own.

Our ancestors were enthusiastic converts. They willingly absorbed this new faith based on its evident merit, and did so with an open mind. They accepted its teachings with complete trust.

They could not however, claim to be diligent learners. If they were, they would have discovered a much bigger and richer dimension to Islam beyond the spiritual and metaphysical. After all this great faith had emancipated the ancient Bedouins and caused them to give up the more gruesome aspects of their culture like female infanticide and the utterly destructive “eye for an eye” sense of justice.

Our forefathers would have also discovered the rich and varied intellectual traditions of this great faith, from the rationalist Mutazilites to the mystical Sufis. Islam, far from being a rigid and uncompromising faith, is malleable and adaptive, which explained its remarkable vibrancy and tolerance as demonstrated in such disparate places as South Asia and Iberian Europe.

Those Arabs and Indians came to the Malay world in search of trade. Spreading their faith was secondary, if at all, and only in so far as it would facilitate their trading. The primary pursuit of all traders was their customers’ satisfaction, not salvation. Traders want their customers to return. Whether they would end up in heaven or hell is of little interest to those traders.

Our ancestors missed this important but subtle point. They were so obsessed with their fate in the Hereafter that they missed learning the equally important but worldly trading activities of those earlier Arabs and Indians. Our forefathers forgot or failed to discern the elementary Islamic principle that our religious and worldly obligations were (still are) related if not the same. Earning a living, as with trading, and serving the needs of your fellow human beings, also a function of trading, are but part and parcel of ibadah (worshiping).

Serve your fellow man and you serve God, exhorted our Prophet Mohammad (May Allah be pleased with him). That’s what trading does. The prophet was himself a trader; he explicitly permitted and indeed encouraged trading even during the Hajj to reinforce the point that earning a living and worshiping Allah are but two sides of the same coin. Both are far from being incompatible.

Thus while our ancestors learned much about Islam as a theology, they failed to acquire the skills of trading from those Muslim traders. Then consider the books that were translated. They were heavy on legends and the spiritual aspects of Islam but precious few on trade, financing, and the setting up of enterprises. Even on the theological aspects of Islam, our ancestors restricted themselves to learning only a very narrow interpretation of a particular fiqh (school of thought).

Our ancestors were not at all curious of the vast richness of the intellectual heritage of Islam. Had they been, our ancestors would have learned that those ancient Muslim luminaries beginning with Al Kindi and on to Ibn Khaldun a few centuries later also wrote on such worldly topics as astronomy, physics, medicine and sociology. To them, knowledge was all encompassing, with no artificial differentiation between the spiritual and secular, or worldly and “other-worldly.”

Our sultans too were not diligent learners. Otherwise they would have discovered that the Caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty, for example, had their Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) where they gathered the leading scholars and learn from them. Instead, our sultans of yore (and even today) were content to be in the company of their gundek (concubines).

Malay society did benefit in one significant area. As Syed Naguib al-Attas noted, “… [T]he most important single cultural phenomenon directly caused by the influence of Islamic culture … was the spread and development of Malay language as a vehicle not only for epic, romantic and historical literature, but even more so for philosophical discourse.” This was one of the paramount factors that displaced the hegemony of Java in the region, Al Attas concluded.

With the adoption of the Arabic jawi script, Malay culture transited from the oral to the written tradition. Whenever that happens to a society or culture, it is a significant advancement. We are indebted to those ancient Muslims for that precious gift.

This unwillingness of our ancestors to learn about Islam beyond the theological carried a heavy price. We did not benefit as greatly as we should have from this encounter with Islam.

Had our ancestors been more encompassing in exploring the vastness of the intellectual and other traditions of the Arabs and of Islam, as those folks in Iberia did, and studied the varied richness of this new faith, its tradition of hosting a wide spectrum of opinions and its great scholars, we could have triggered our own renaissance, our own Nusantara (Malay Archipelago) Andalusia as it were, in the fine tradition of the Iberians.

We could have then, like those ancient Arabs who learned prodigiously from the Greeks, do likewise with the Arabs. Those early Arabs (unlike their modern counterparts) had no hesitation in translating Greek works and learning from Greek philosophers, even avowedly atheistic ones.

Instead our ancestors were content with being ardent but passive followers rather than engaged and active contributors. Had they done more of the latter, there would be no limits to the height of our achievement while at the same time enriching this great faith. Instead they were satisfied with being merely takers and followers; they did not contribute to nor enrich the faith.

Medieval Europe discovered Islam through Andalusia only a few centuries before the faith landed in the Malay world. Unlike Malays who were interested only in the spiritual aspects of the faith and perhaps some accompanying philosophy and literature, the Europeans were interested in everything the ancient Iberian Muslims had to offer, especially their sciences and mathematics. And those early Muslims had much to offer in those areas.

The subsequent European Renaissance and the continent’s exit from its medieval culture owed much to the contributions of those early Muslims. Yes, the Europeans also translated the Koran and the various religious treatises of ancient Muslim scholars, but unlike those in the sciences, mathematics and philosophy, they were done less for learning but more for demonstrating the “superiority” of Christianity and to “protect” the flock from an alien faith. Thus the ensuing translations were clearly jaundiced, presumably to spare the Europeans from yet another reformation.

Imagine the intellectual emancipation of Malay society had our ancestors been more diligent in learning from those ancient Arabs the full breadth of the intellectual endeavors of Islam beyond merely the religious, and translated the great mathematical and scientific texts of the ancient Arabs as those Middle Ages Europeans did! Our society could have gone on to make our own unique contributions and trigger our own Nusantara Renaissance.

Even to this day while we have an abundance of Malay translations of religious texts and Arabic legends, no one has yet seen fit to translate such seminal tomes as Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimmah (An Introduction [to the study of History]), Ibn Rashid’s Kulliyat (Generalities [of medicine]), or al-Khwarizmi’s treatise on Algebra.

While Middle Age Europe eagerly learned from Andalusia, the Europeans did not become Muslims. Only a few centuries later, Malays became Muslim through their encounter with those Muslim traders but we did not learn much from them. This irony, as yet unexamined, baffles me.

It is this myopic take on Islam that prevents Malays from fully benefiting from this great faith. Like monkeys, we are content only with imitating, and then only the superficialities of the faith and the trappings of Arab culture while missing the core or essence. That was true then and it is still true today.

Next: European Intrusion Into The Malay World

This essay is adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, 2013.

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  1. #1 by good coolie on Monday, 24 August 2015 - 10:50 pm

    What seminal works now come from Baghdad, once a centre of learning? What has Alexandria to offer to the world now? The wheel of fortune turns, and I have no doubt that one day the Arab (Muslim) seats-of-learning will take their rightful place among the intellectual centres of the world.

    Beset by war and strife, Arab refugees consider the Western world a haven of peace. Perhaps we should ask and answer the question, “Why?” It could be that corruption, greed, hypocrisy and mindless religiosity is the reason. The same vices threaten to swallow us Malaysians too. Watch out!

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