NST COVER STORY: More Arab than the Arabs?
by Sarah Sabaratnam and Loretta Ann Soosayraj
Why are Malays turning to Arabic customs, speech and outlook to define themselves? SARAH SABARATNAM and LORETTA ANN SOOSAYRAJ explore the issue.
THE Malay community is the result of a diverse and distinctive mix of cultures and religions. However, of late, there has been the concern that many traditions and rituals previously associated with the Malay psyche are being rejected as un-Islamic.
Recently, a local daily carried an interview with Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim. Among issues discussed was the “Arabisation” of Malay culture. Rais talked about the rejection of many ancient Malay traditions and rituals considered un-Islamic, which resulted in the neglect of Malay culture.
His concerns could not have come at a better time.
Art forms such as wayang kulit, dikir barat and menora were deemed un-Islamic and banned in Kelantan after Pas gained control of the state. Some Malays reject the adat bersanding because of its Hindu origins.
Now, there is a worry that many Malays are replacing their culture with an Arab-slanted one.
The new “dress code” being adopted, says Dr Hatta Azad Khan, director-general of Istana Budaya, is definitely an example of this “Arabisation” of Malay culture.
Eddin Khoo, director of Pusaka, a non-profit organisation dedicated to cultural preservation, notes the change of head dress he sees following Friday prayers. “The traditional songkok appears to be less popular with congregationists, especially among the younger ones,” he says.
He has noticed that the songkok has instead been replaced by the ketayap (skull cap), the kefayih (head scarf) and Tajik (Afghan) caps.
If this is indeed true, why is it happening?
The new resurgence of Islam is one of the reasons, says Johan Jaafar, New Straits Times columnist and former Utusan Malaysia editor.
“It has had diverse effects on the mentality of the Malays,” he says.
“As they become more ‘Muslim’, they become less Malay. They discard old values associated with the Malays, and which are considered un-Islamic. They believe that cultural expressions like theatre and art forms like wayang kulit are un-Islamic because of their pre-Islamic origins.”
Ramli Ibrahim, classical dancer and director of Sutra Dance Theatre, agrees. “Performing art genres such as the makyong and wayang kulit have been banned from public performances due to the process of ‘cleaning’ Malay culture of ‘un-Islamic elements’.”
Khoo adds that a related factor is the “rise of religious, ideological politics over the past two decades accompanied by theological dogmatism and puritanism…”
Furthermore, some politicians use their power or perceived authority to make statements which “appeal to the most primitive and medieval impulses in belief.”
For instance, he says, “they claimed that people who partake in these traditions (such as wayang kulit, makyong, main puteri and menora) engaged in spirit and devil worship and ‘main hantu’ (playing with ghosts).”
He says “we must acknowledge that much of this thinking has been supported by political power”.
“The proscription of traditional theatre in Kelantan by Pas and the actions of one Minister of Education who ‘discouraged’ the teaching of music in schools on the grounds that such instruction was un-Islamic are significant…”
Johan contends that Malays should not fear that these traditions and cultural expressions will make them less Islamic, as they have been part of the Malay psyche for a long time and they are no less Muslim for it.
“Yes, the wayang kulit tales are based on stories from Indian texts such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata but they have been given local colouring and the characters have been given local names. They have become a Malay thing.
“Our parents were less concerned with superficial things such as how they were dressed,” he says, “but that did not make them less Muslim.”
Khalid Salleh, an actor and director, reiterates this point. “If I buy a topeng tari from Bali and put it on my wall as decoration, does this mean that I am being influenced by Hinduism?”
Alternately, he asks, does putting on the kopiah, serban and the jubbah make one more Muslim?
“As Muslims grow older, they put on the … jubbah. This, to them, is the image of Islam. But who is to know what is in their soul? Anyone can wear clothes.”
He asks another question: “If someone wears that gear, and studies the Mahabharata, does that mean he has gone astray? Maybe he just wants to discover the parallels between the religions.”
Ramli certainly feels that Islam in Malaysia is seen as more conservative and “right wing” than in most other Muslim countries. “I have met Arabs who say that Islam in Malaysia is stricter than in some Arab countries themselves. There is a joke also that some Malays are more ‘Arab’ than the Arabs themselves.”
Johan says the Malays should consider carefully what they are rejecting.
“Malays in Malaysia are unique in that a Malay is defined as a Muslim unlike in Indonesia where an Indonesian can be non-Muslim. The Malays and Islam are considered one. There must be a reason why this is so. There must have been some compatibility between Islam and the Malays for them to have embraced Islam so easily and for them to identify themselves only with this religion. The values that the Malays had and the values of Islam must be very close. Why, then, discard them?”
He also says the Malays have adopted their own local brand of Islam that fits the situation in Malaysia and that is something that they need to treasure. “You don’t have to look like an Arab to be a Muslim,” he says.
Khoo says it would be of great consequence if we denied our past and neglected our culture.
“What this means is that entire communities are denied an anchoring in their past, and hence a sense of themselves. More importantly, they are denied the freedom to explore their history, culture and evolution; that is, denied the freedom to explore their sense of Self.”
As a result of this, he says, there will be a void in the individual and community sensibility that is then filled with politics and inflammatory ideology. “This is a phenomenon occurring especially among the young.”
On the other hand, he adds, the rituals and customs of the past are intimately bound and are inspired by a contemplation and understanding of self.
“A Self rooted in this understanding is able to adapt and accommodate change and transformation, which makes cultural dislocation all the more difficult.”
Producer and theatre director Faridah Merican feels that we are too quick to make decisions on what people like, reject and believe.
“I don’t think that is right. If the person can find enough reason within himself to reject his culture and if he is happy to be in that situation he should not be blamed or accused of being less Malay. It would be just like saying that a Chinese who can’t speak the dialects is not Chinese. We spend too much time looking for the negative things in each of us. We should instead focus on enriching our lives and our children … cultivate a race of people who read, who are cultured, who go to the theatre, who listen to music, and go to the museum and the art gallery.”
Meanwhile, others feel that the issue of the Arabisation of Malays and the cleansing of Malay cultural elements deemed un-Islamic remains a real threat.
Johan contends that no regulation can turn around this “Arabisation” process. Instead, he says, the moderate Muslim needs to speak up.
“Culture is about acceptability by a society. It is not about regulation. What we need is for moderate Muslim voices to be heard.”
Ramli says the ministry can play a part in protecting Malay cultural heritage by reviving cultural art forms that are being sidelined such as wayang kulit and makyong.
“I am pleased that the Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage has the courage to face these difficult questions and take a positive stand to protect Malay culture,” he says.
In order to do this, he says, the minister needs to get people who are passionately interested in culture to help him.
“Most people in the ministry are there because they happen to be working in it … he should (also) consult those who are in the field and hear their views. Sometimes he has to beware of scholars too!”
Hatta suggests we be clear about what aspects of art forms are against the tenets of Islam. “Indonesia has been using wayang kulit and other traditional theatre forms to spread the teachings of Islam. Why can’t we learn from them?”