Wednesday 21 Feb 2024
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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 24 - 30, 2016.


There has been much resentment expressed recently towards what is perceived as the Arabisation of Malays. This Arabisation is said to be manifested in a number of ways, the most common being the adoption by Malays of Arabic words in their vocabulary and the donning of Arabic dress such as the thobe, an ankle-length garment similar to a robe.

In the past, for example, Muslims in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia would use the term “buka puasa” for the breaking of the fast during the month of Ramadan. These days, however, the Arabic word, iftar, is often heard.

After the end of the fasting month, the common greeting among Muslims was Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri, but this has increasingly given way to the Arabic eid mubarak.

More and more male Muslims in the region are using the Arab thobe rather than the sarong or kain pelikat. In fact, a variety of thobes originating from the United Arab Emirates, Oman and other countries in the Arab world can be seen in our mosques and at religious functions.

Many have lamented the fact that things Malay have been substituted by things Arab and fear that this is the beginning of a trend of the Arabisation of the Malay identity and culture. Indeed, this phenomenon of Arabisation must be properly understood and distinguished from an earlier process of the Islamisation of the Malays, when Islam arrived in the Malay world of Southeast Asia.

When a religion spreads from one region to another, it is quite normal that elements of the culture of the society of origin of that religion would be adopted by its new adherents. This can be said to have happened with the spread of Islam to the Malay world.

When the Malays adopted Islam as a religion and way of life, the Malay language was influenced in significant ways. Not only was the Arabic script in a modified form adopted by the Malays, but many Arabic words also found their way into the Malay language. This was the case not only with religious vocabulary but also with words used in other areas of social, cultural and political life.

Some words in Malay are obviously of Arabic origin. Examples are tadbir (administer), had (limit) and mustahil (impossible). Other words, however, are less obviously of Arabic origin. Examples are kuat (strong), derived from the Arabic quwwah, and pasal (paragraph, section), derived from the Arabic fasl.

This process of acculturation is something normal that takes place whenever there is contact between two different cultural areas. Aspects of the Arabisation of the Malays that had accompanied the Islamisation of the Malays since the early days of the coming of Islam to the Malay world must be distinguished from what is being referred to as Arabisation today.

What is referred to as Arabisation today is in fact a worrying trend. This is because the adoption by some Malays of certain elements of Arab culture would result in the gradual erosion of Malay culture and practices. If more and more Malay men were to adopt the thobe, this would mean the marginalisation of the kain pelikat and baju Melayu and their possible demise as a cultural artifact. Indeed, it is already the case that there is hardly a Malaysian kain pelikat industry to speak of, as this is dominated by a few Indonesian manufacturers.

An even greater concern as far as the trend of Arabisation is concerned is the adoption of a way of life that is not only contrary to Malay culture but is also inappropriate for our society. The example I have in mind is the adoption of the niqab, the part of the hijab that covers the face. The niqab is a tradition of many Arab societies but is foreign to Malay culture. Still, it is increasingly seen on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Jakarta.

Arabisation in this sense is really a reflection of the influence of certain understandings of Islam originating from the Arab world. For example, there is the phenomenon of Malaysians and Indonesians going to the Hadhramaut region in Yemen to study and returning home with Hadhrami Arab practices such as the donning of the niqab, gender segregation and so on.

Those Malays and Indonesians who adopt such ways perhaps imagine that they are practising a more authentic version of Islam. In doing so, they set themselves apart from the larger Malay society, contribute to the erosion of Malay traditions and practices, and could be a party to the infusion of extremist interpretations of Islam.

When Islam arrived in the Malay world centuries ago, it adapted itself to the culture of the region and did not marginalise the culture of its people. Take the zapin, a musical and dance genre. Zapin (Ar. zafin) was introduced to the region from Hadhramaut centuries ago.

In each part of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, zapin was indigenised to suit local conditions. Among the Malays of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, for example, the language of the song-text of zapin became Malay and the dance was not gender-segregated, unlike in Hadhramaut.

Furthermore, the introduction of zapin throughout the region did not result in the marginalisation of the music and dance genres that were already thriving in the Malay world. This is unlike the situation in Malaysia today in which some Malay music and dance genres, such as wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) and mak yong (dance drama), are said to be unIslamic and proscribed.

If elements of Arab culture blend in with Malay traditions and practices without eroding or eliminating things Malay, then such “Arabisation” can be said to be a creative process.

On the other hand, if Arabisation is founded on the idea of the greater Islamic authenticity of Arab culture, it would result in the erosion and marginalisation of Malay culture and the adoption of inappropriate practices.

It is this sense of Arabisation that has come under attack in Malaysia recently. The same can be said of the influence of any other culture such as Westernisation.

Syed Farid Alatas teaches at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Sociology

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