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On Arabisation: Understanding the Negative and Positive Aspect of It
By Ustaz Firdaus Yahya
There is no doubt that more and more people are looking into religion for answers to issues and problems thrown up by globalisation: fragile state of world economy that affects everyone, unstable political structure that can turn things on their heads, frantic pace of wealth creation and its attending fear of poverty, climate change, social problems and a myriad of other issues.
Muslims are no exception. The observable trend for the last 50 years is that Muslims all over the world are getting more religious. The local Malay Muslims demonstrate this trend.
The Malay films of the 60s and 70s are microcosms of the larger populace of that era. And they showed a trend in which Islam did not play a large role in the daily lives of Muslims. Islamic observances were restricted to major rituals such as marriage and death. Other than that, Islam generally took a back seat. Muslims were free to consume alcoholic beverages (and in fact it was the beverage of choice for wedding dinners), to practise lifestyles that imitate closely their western counterpart, and to partake in traditional customs and rites that were seemingly in contradiction with Islamic laws and beliefs.
Then came 1979 with Iranian revolution, the siege of Masjidil Haram and invasion of Afghanistan. Suddenly, Islam gained prominence among Muslims all over the world. In this region, that piece of sheer cloth that women placed over their heads, the so called ‘tudung’, was gradually replaced with hijab that covers the head properly. And then it got longer. Initially only the neck was covered. Several years later, it became more fashionable to cover the bosoms with hijab. Then came the ‘niqab’. When you can hardly find a woman in the 60s and 70s adorning such face cover, in the 80s the ‘niqab’-wearing women became more noticeable.
The tight-fitting translucent kebaya lost its attraction among the younger generation of the 80s and 90s. In its place, the loose fitting ‘baju kurung’, with all its colourful designs, became the clothing of choice for Muslim women. Over the years, even the Malay ‘baju kurung’ lost its appeal over the Arab ‘jubah’, a one piece shapeless cloth that drabs down the shoulder all the way to the ankle.
The changes in attire were not limited to the females. As if not to lose out on the ‘religiousity’ factor, Muslim males started throw shawls over their right shoulders, putting on turbans or at least a Muslim cap. White was the colour of choice, but other colours were worn too. And to carry it to the next level, some Muslim caps even had a symbol of the Prophet’s sandal imprinted or sewn on it.
These changes among Muslims were not confined to attire per se. Malays started to pepper Arabic words and phrases in their conversations. Words like ‘akhi’ and ‘ukhti’ were used instead of the Malay ‘saudara/tuan’ and ‘saudari/puan’. Even religious and social terms in Malay language such as ‘sembahyang’, ‘buka puasa’, ‘derma’, ‘mas kahwin’ and ‘majlis kahwin’ lost their prominence over similar words in Arabic: ‘solat’, ‘iftar’, ‘infaq’, ‘mahr’ and ‘walimah’. And Arabic phrases such as ‘Eid Mubarak’ and ‘Salam Aidilfitri’ found their ways in Malay lexicons and slowly replaced the vernacular ‘Selamat Hari Raya’ and ‘Selamat Hari Lebaran’.
Though the reason behind this trend is obvious, people started to find terms for this phenomena. Names such as Islamisation and Arabisation were conjured up.
While Islamisation is a globally accepted term, and it denotes the trend and aspiration among Muslims in ensuring the conformity of all aspects of their daily lives to Islamic percepts, and that this word has been discussed in academic sphere and used liberally in normal conversations since the 1980s, the term Arabisation only appeared in discussions at the turn of this century, and peculiarly more so in South-East Asia region than others.
What is Arabisation?
Let us look at several attempts to define it.
Baladas Ghoshal wrote in his piece published by The Straits Times on 19 July 2016:
“…to be a true Muslim, one has to be different from “others” in every aspect of life and that there cannot be a meeting ground between Islam and other religions. Adaptation to other customs, traditions and cultures in its path towards the expansion of the religion had only led to aberration and corruption of original and pristine ideas of Islam. It is only through the practice of mediaeval Arab traditions and way of life that the evil eyes of other religions can be kept at bay.”
Dr. Syed Farid al-Attas commented in a forum on Arabisation in Kuala Lumpur on 23rd May 2016, “For some reason the Malays often feel very low about themselves. So when they ape the Arabs they believe they are the more authentic (Muslims),”
At the same forum, Professor Khoo Khay Kim noted, “Malays believe weaving Arabic words into their daily speech made them come across as more knowledgeable about Islam.”
And in an interview with Malay Mail Online on 22nd of May 2015, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir lamented the difficulty in finding traditional “baju Melayu” for women during Hari Raya as Arab attire like kaftans became more popular instead. She pointed out that Malay women below 50 generally do not know how to tie the ‘baju kurung’ skirt so that “it falls into pleats and makes it easier to walk in”. And she attributed this to Arabisation. She said, “This is just Arabisation. Our culture – it’s colonialism, Arab colonialism…But what happened to our tradition, culture, everything?”
Apart from the comment by Marina Mahathir, it is obvious that Arabisation here refers to the mimicry of Arabic culture, tradition and language in the erroneous belief that it makes one a more pious or at least a more authentic Muslim.
But it is a big logical jump to equate Arabisation as defined above with radicalisation and extremism. Ghoshal remarked:
“Arabisation’s major appeal emanates from Islam’s millenery expectations and the unfounded utopia of a just and prosperous society under Islamic rule… If the powerful, modern ideas of “jihadi” Islamism are not met in the marketplace of ideas with an equally vigorous, contemporary articulation of peaceful, syncretic and inclusive Islam, then “the centre of gravity” of public discourse will inevitably slide towards those ideas that appear most powerful and relevant to the modern world.”
The acceptable form of Islam for Ghoshal and like-minded analysts is one that is contextualised and absorbs other cultures and even beliefs. In other words, a syncretic and inclusive Islam which, according to Goshal, ultimately manifested in the structures of Borobudur and Prambanan temples.
Al-Attas did not go that far in bending and moulding Islam until it loses its original form. Instead, he believes that Arabisation is a manifestation of Salafism which ultimately undermines the diversity of Islamic thought and cultural heritage. He said:
“What we are importing is not the faith but the practices and beliefs from a culture from Saudi Arabia…So what it is actually, is not Arabisation but the salafisation or Saudi Arabisation process… this is dangerous as this narrow interpretation of Islam can undermine (the diversity) of our religion.”
The view on the other side of the aisle is that Arabisation is an artificial creation of term that is not based on reality. Or at least, it is something that is natural. Acculturation, a process of adopting other cultures, is part and parcel of humanity.
Dr Nazaruddin Zainun commented:
“Borrowing language only means that the Malay language will progress. And progression also involves welcoming new words. Language is flexible, it has to be, otherwise it would not evolve…The process of adopting foreign languages into our Malay language is ongoing. We either accept it or don’t. But one thing’s for sure, language can never be stagnant. So for me, I would rather see it as an enrichment to our language instead of a threat. But it is up to our society to use or not to use these words.”
When it comes to acculturation, he said, “What we have now is a mix of two cultures. It is not an assimilation because our Malay culture still triumphs…it is happening everywhere around the world, not just in Malaysia. Hence, we cannot say that we are losing our Malay identity, customs and traditions, to the Arab culture.”
Clearly, the term Arabisation is a desperate attempt to identify the cause of two fears: the gradual lost of Malay culture and customs, and the creeping extremism and exclusivism of Muslim popularly equated with Salafism/Wahhabism/Saudism.
And the base line for both fears is the belief that local Muslims look upon Arab cultures and language as the standard bearer of Islam.
It is true that Islam is not exclusive to one race, culture region and language. Islam in its universal percepts and teachings is for all humanity across time. However, it cannot be denied that Arabic culture and language do have very prominent place in Islam. And none is more obvious than the fact that the final revelation was sent down in Arabic to the Seal of all Prophets who is an Arab man practising Arabian cultures of his time.
It is true also that, in the diversity of Muslims all over the world, one major act that unifies them is the five daily prayers (and here I have to use the technical word in Arabic – ‘solat’) which are conducted in Arabic. Why, if Islam is not exclusive to just the Arabs, do the five daily ‘solat’, or for that matter all ‘solat’, have to be conducted in Arabic?
Imagine then, in a congregational ‘solat’, the Imam who, the sake of argument, is an Arab and starts his ‘solat’ with the Arabic “Allahu Akbar”. The Malay guy behind him follows with “Allah Maha Besar”, the Englishman with “God is great”, the Frenchman with “Dieu est grand”, the Tamil-speaking Indian with “Katavul periyavar”, the Chinese man with “Shangdi shi weida” and the Javanese person with “Allah Maha Gede”.
Language unifies a race in so much as Arabic unifies Muslims. With such diversity of languages used in congregational prayers, unity will undoubtedly be lost. Hence the importance of Arabic language in Islam, whether one likes it or not, is a fact not to be dismissed.
The creeping frequency of Arabic words and terms used by Malays should be of a lesser concern than the onslaught of English on Malays to the point that a growing number of young Malays have lost the ability to speak Malay fluently and found it a struggle reading articles written in formal Malay. Nobody so far has coined the term ‘English-isation’ to highlight this fact.
When I was studying the Arabic Language, I frequently wondered why don’t the Malays adopt more Arabic terms and phrases? It will make learning Arabic so much easier, not unlike the Pakistanis with their Urdu that is semantically quite close to Arabic.
Inevitably the question will arise, why then should Malays put so much effort in studying Arabic? Is that not a real manifestation of Arabisation?
The answer to that is so clear to the point that the question should not be posed in the first place.
The Quran is in Arabic. Our corpus of Islamic knowledge is locked in books written in Arabic. Hence, understanding Arabic is the key to unlock them. Without this understanding of Islam, the bridge that links us to the Prophet will be crumbled, and what is left will then be a yawning chasm of ignorance which will manifest in the creation of syncretic Islam or artificial Islam.
Negative and positive Arabisation
If we do indeed are in need of the term Arabisation, then at the very least we should be fair and give adjectives to it: positive Arabisation and negative Arabisation.
The increasing usage of Arabic language among Malays can be viewed as positive Arabisation. Malays will be never be in danger of losing Malay language to Arabic language because Malay is inherently a simpler language than Arabic. But Malay language is in real danger of being wiped out by English. And that should be the real worry.
Negative Arabisation can be defined as the false belief that Arabic cultures, manners, customs and diets are manifestly superior and inherently Islamic. This obviously has no foundation in Islamic teachings. Wearing of different types of headgears that are common to different Arab cultures does not make one more pious. So does wearing of ‘jubah’ and other Arabic attires. They are just fashions and as long as they do not contradict Islamic principles, one is free to adorn any type of attire one wishes. Of course, one has to take into context of circumstances. To adorn Arabic attire in a formal setting when you are certainly not an Arab is a negation of your own culture and a hypocrisy at the very least.
Negative Arabisation reaches its peak when one is so fixed in Middle East events to the point that he or she loses the ability to see the bigger picture. Political conflicts there, especially among the Arabs and non-Arabs (including Israel), the Sunnis and Shi`ah, the different political parties, can easily be looked upon as the epic battle between good and evil, believers and infidels and thus a jihad not to be missed. At this stage, negative Arabisation has certainly overwhelmed that person. He loses his anchor and focal point. He misses the fact that only around 40 percent of Muslims are Arabs and not all Arabs are Muslims.
Arabisation, like Westernisation and assimilation of other pop cultures, is unstoppable. The trick is to sieve through the positives from the negatives and to be careful so as not to lose one’s cultural identity.
Muslims have to be wary of any trends and actions, be they from the Arabs or other races, which contradict the teachings of Islam.
He is the Secretary-General of the Society for Indian Ocean Studies based in New Delhi, India.
He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.
He is currently an emeritus professor in the History Department of the University of Malaya.
He is a Senior Lecturer in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), who specialises in Socioeconomics History.