For the universal fraternity of drug fiends, decadents and university drop-outs who make up the vast army of the world's unwashed and debauched, Thomas de Quincey's 'Confessions of an English Opium Eater'1 has to be one of the greatest works of literature to grace their mouldy shelves. Indeed, when the book first came out it was heralded as a classic of its time- for both the best and worst of reasons.
The Confessions of Thomas de Quincey still reads like a rambling narrative of a deranged madman driven to the peaks of ecstasy and the depths of despair. Written in the earlier half of the 19th century (while Europe was slowly coming to terms with its first truly European war, occasioned by Napoleon's dreams of Empire), de Quincey's book was a testimony to a lost generation of European youth who already realised that the myth of European civilisation was nothing more than an illusion underpinned by oppression, violence and the horrors of everyday life.
More so than any other book it its time, it also captured the multifarious shades of the opium addict’s sordid and lonely existence. De Quincey himself was a drop-out of the highest order. Kicked out of university (without even a show-cause letter) because of his debilitating habit that was slowly eating up both his sanity and his health, he was forced to send himself into a wretched exile in the dingier quarters of London and later to other lonelier towns that dotted the English isle.
De Quincey's confessions reveal the true portrait of the opium addict, long before the likes of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg ever put their fevered imaginings down in writing. But the Confessions of Thomas de Quincey also happens to be one of the most erudite and accomplished works of English literature ever. The narrative, jumbled and confused though it may seem, is a treasure trove of historical facts and vignettes about life in England and Europe at the time. Where else would you get a commentary on Ecclesiastes, a critique of Grotius, a critical commentary on the virtues of Renaissance art, a multi-sided debate on the virtues of traditional Islamic historiography vis-à-vis orthodox Christianity, a discourse of the true nature of tragedy and a treatise on humankind's lot, all interspersed between vivid and explicit descriptions of the ecstasy and anguish of drug addiction? No mere junkie was our man de Quincey.
De Quincey's laudatory paeans to the pleasures (and subsequent pains) of opium should therefore be read against this backdrop of social, political and cultural upheaval taking place in England and Europe at the time.
Opium was for de Quincey the only poison-remedy to the ills of a society driven base and corrupt by itself. It was the asylum of the lonely and the oppressed, the downtrodden and the marginalized. False though its promises may be, it was the only escape for many. In his deranged wanderings and fantasies, de Quincey could at least find momentary refuge from a world that was evil, degraded and corrupted from what it once was. It was the final equaliser that brought high and low, rich and poor down to the same level of the basest humanity. (Today we have Karaoke instead, which equalises both the gifted and the criminally untalented in a medium of universal mediocrity.) Cold comfort for one who was thoroughly sickened by life in a sick world.
Enter the Malay from Nowhere
Now one of the most amazing encounters in the Confessions of Thomas de Quincey takes place at a lonely and desolate inn that he was living in while on his nomadic travels across the English countryside. In his own words:
'One day a Malay knocked on my door. What business could a Malay have to transact among the recesses of the English mountains was not my business to conjecture, but possibly he was on the road to Seaport, about forty miles distant'.
This mysterious Malay (whose name we never learn) happened to chance upon the same inn that de Quincey was staying in that night. The inhabitants of the inn were just as surprised as de Quincey, and all were in a state of panic, not knowing how to greet this extraordinary stranger. The servant girl, 'who had never seen an Asiatic before', was dumbfounded by the sight of the solitary Malay who spoke no English. (Needless to say, her knowledge of Malay was hardly any better). As the crowd stared at the Malay (who only stared back), it was left to de Quincey to break the ice.
De Quincey himself admits that his only knowledge of the Oriental languages were the Arabic word for barley and the Turkish word for opium. Not much help under the circumstances, but at least he had to courage and common sense to realise that what stood before him was a human being with ordinary human wants and needs. He therefore saw to it that the Malay was given food and a place to sleep for the night- while the rest of the inhabitants of the inn slept, no doubt, with their loaded muskets close at hand.
When it became clear that the Malay had had his rest and was about to leave, de Quincey offered him a parting gift in the form of a lump of opium. What happened next is best recounted by the author himself:
'I was struck with some little consternation when I saw him suddenly raise his hand to his mouth, and bolt the whole, divided into three pieces, at one mouthful. The quantity (of opium) was enough to kill some half-dozen dragoons, together with their horses, supposing neither bipeds nor quadrupeds were trained opium-eaters. I felt some alarm for the poor fellow, but what could be done? I had given him the opium in pure compassion for his solitary life, since, if he had travelled on foot all the way from London, it must have been at least three weeks since he could have exchanged a thought with any other human being... The mischief, if any, was done. He took his leave and for some days I was anxious; but, as I never heard of any Malay being found dead on any part of the slender road between Grasmere and Whitehaven, I became satisfied that he was familiar with opium.'
Malays were tougher fellows (or chronic addicts) those days, obviously.
Now de Quincey's encounter with the mysterious unnamed Malay from nowhere has to be one of the more curious vignettes found anywhere in English literature. From this one encounter alone we learn so much about the Malay world then. That the Malay was travelling by foot on his own across England is proof of the fact that the Malays were really an international people who were used to travelling abroad. (Yet another salvo to be fired against the Orientalist school that claimed that the Malays were really a sedentary people). That he could have made the journey on his own also shows that he was an independent free agent who was free to exercise his own will. He was not stopped or prevented from travelling and staying wherever he wanted, and he travelled with all the confidence and bravado of a man with his own sense of purpose, identity and destiny. Who this Malay might have been, we will probably never know- but one fact remains: He did cause a stir in that little inn tucked in between the cold and soggy hills of England.
The Return of the Repressed
Now the rest of de Quincey's narrative plods along at its own inebriated pace. His bouts of rabid addiction, anxiety, fear, depression and moral collapse take their toll and as the days wear on his health deteriorates further and further. His days grow shorter as his nights grow longer, and in the darkest hours of the night he is tormented by nightmares and visions of paradise. The stage is set for de Quincey's next encounter with the Malay from nowhere...
Later in the text, de Quincey recalls a particularly troubling and powerful dream he has, where he sees a vision of the mysterious Malay once again:
'This Malay,- partly from the picaresque exhibition he assisted to frame, partly from the anxiety I connected with his image for some days,- fastened afterwards upon my fancy and that upon my dreams, bringing with him other Malays worse than himself who ran am-muck at me, and led me into a world of nocturnal troubles...
That Malay has been a fearful enemy for months. Every night, through his means, I have been transported into Asiatic scenery... Southern Asia, in general, is the seat of awful dreams and associations. As the cradle of the human race, if on no other ground, it would have a dim, reverential feeling about it... The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, above all their mythologies- is so impressive that to me that the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual... Man is a weed in those regions. The vast empires, also into which the peoples of Asia have always been cast, give a further sublimity to the feelings associated with oriental names and images...'
The author goes on to describe the strange and fascinating images that were conjured up by the Malay in his dreams. His mind wandered to wondrous landscapes, filled with the most exotic forms of jungle growth, huge and wonderful temples, beautiful idols and strange customs. The Malay served as the trigger which unleashed a flood of images that literally overwhelmed the dreamer himself: De Quincey was blown over by images of Shiva, Vishnu, spirits, Gods and demons. He felt himself crushed by the weight of Asia in its entirety.
De Quincey, had, in other words, experienced what has been terms the return of the repressed. In his nightmares we witness the encounter with the modern European subject and the exotic Asian other. The unnamed and unknown Malay stands before the Englishman and makes him feel puny and 'weed-like'. De Quincey admits that he could only have a 'dim, reverential feeling' about Asia and what it represents. The Malay, on the other hand, embodies a huge culture and civilisation, and interestingly, the Malay for him is also the inheritor of all the cultures and civilisations of Asia. He is, for de Quincey, the embodiment of the great cultures and civilisations of India, Southeast Asia and China. He is at once primordial and timeless- he carries with him a history that spans four millennia (while Europe was then merely an infant civilisation barely learning to crawl and already too drugged up to walk properly). The Malay, in short, was Asia embodied, with all its past, its depth, its hidden mysteries and unknown horrors.
But for us in Malaysia today, Thomas de Quincey's encounter with the mysterious Malay from nowhere is of special importance as well. For what the encounter reveals (and this is really underscored in de Quincey's paranoid and nerve-wrecking nightmares) is the antiquity of the Malays. The Malays, for de Quincey, were among the oldest people of the world. It is clear that for him the Malay is someone whose history pre-dates that of Europe's.
Today, Malaysia is also grappling with its past. Like de Quincey, we too are overwhelmed by our history and the politics of writing that history. We dream of placing ourselves at the forefront of the developing world, and of presenting Malaysia as the one country that encapsulates and accommodates all the cultural variants of Asia. For this to happen, we need to learn a lesson or two from the unknown (and forgotten) Malay of the past. But before that process can even get off the ground, the least that we have to do is to let this Other Malay speak for himself.
III. Strangers to Ourselves: How the Malay was taught not to recognise himself
‘Then a new era began for them. Little by little they lost their ancient traditions, the memory of their past. They forgot their writings, their songs, their poems, their laws; in order to learn by rote alien teachings they did not understand. They went into decline, belittling themselves in their own eyes. They became ashamed of what was their own and their nation’s in order to admire whatever was foreign and unintelligible. Their spirit became dejected and they surrendered.’
Filipinas Dentro de Cien Anos (1889)
We have, in a sense, become strangers to ourselves- to borrow the phrase made famous by Julia Kristeva2.
In her work, Kristeva looks at how our notions of identity and difference are founded upon a logic of oppositional dialectics which invariably draws upon the Other (as a basis for difference) while exteriorising it at the same time. Working through the ideas of Lacan, Derrida and Nietzsche, she has elaborated at length about how the excluded (though sometimes sanctified) Other has always been a constitutive component of the Self. Working through the framework of psychoanalysis and discourse analysis, she problematises the politics of identity construction and has tried to bring to the surface the dimension of power and force that is always at work behind the scenes in the process of identity-formation. Her conclusions are simple and direct: Identities are always relational, but the relationship between the Self and the Other is never a neutral one that is free from the dictates of power, force and violence. The Other may be summoned to serve as a counterpoint to the Self, but the entry of the Other is always, as Edward Said has argued, a disabling one which relegates it to an inferior station within the register of the Self. This observation will serve as the first thesis to our argument here.
In the specific context of the Malay-Muslim experience, one can see this process of identity formation and reformation taking place as early as the 19 century. (Obviously we are not suggesting that such strategies were not at work before that, but one has to limit the scope of one’s analysis somewhere).
The question of what is a Malay, and more specifically what is a Malay-Muslim, really began to take off with the emergence of the Malay-Muslim modernist and reformist movement of the late 19thth century. In many ways the debate over the question of Malay-Muslim identity (which later developed into an essentialist discourse in its own right) was sparked off by the encounter between three apparently irreconcilable forces: Malay traditionalism, Islamic reformism and Western colonialism.
Western colonial rule drastically challenged the worldview of the Malays and forced upon them the agenda for change. What made matters worse for the self-esteem of the Malay-Muslim peoples was the fact that these foreign infidels had actually defeated them by using techniques, skills and technologies that were alien to them. The British and Dutch had introduced new modes of production, transport, agriculture and warfare, which were hitherto unknown to the Malays. As the process of colonisation progressed, the Malay world was opened up, studied, categorised and finally quarantined within the coloniser’s order of knowledge. Raffles, Brooke, Hurgronje, Swettenham, Clifford and other colonial administrators took to the task of regulating and compartmentalising the Malay world within their own ethnocentric and eurocentric world view which necessarily placed the native as well as his culture, beliefs and symbols on an inferior, subjugated register3.
Colonial rule reconfigured the world of the colonised in every respect. The religiopolitical environment of the Malays was dissected into two categories: the rational and governable realm of the State and the other, darker world of Malay beliefs and religion. This epistemic arrest of the Malay world ensured that every element was neatly labelled and placed within its own appointed space, and a location was found for all. Within this colonial orientalist order of knowledge a strictly policed hierarchy of differences was established. The Malay world was relegated to the past while the colonial order of the present was located in the present (and projected far into the future). Being relegated to the past also meant that Malay history was submitted to an inferior station within the colonial register for Malayness was now equated with all that was antiquated, redundant, retrogressive and obscure instead.
But it wasn’t just the modernising Europeans who were bent on marginalizing Malay tradition to the footnotes of history: the Malay-Muslim reformers and modernists played their part as well. The emergence of modern schools of Islamic thought came about thanks to the integration of the Malay kingdoms within the global current of pan-Islamism. The modernist trend within Islamic thought manifested itself in the form of modern reformist and revivalist movements that borrowed extensively from the tradition of Modernity in the West while also rejecting that system of belief and values at the same time. In the end it became almost an inverted mirror image of the Modern tradition itself.
By the 19 century, the Malay world was in closer contact with the rest of the Islamic world than ever before.th The modernist and reformist trends of Islam within the Malay world were very much inspired by the developments elsewhere in the Muslim world such as the emergence of the conservative Wahabbi and Deobandi4 traditions and the modernists schools of al-Azhar and Aligarh. The new Muslim revivalists’ (Mujaddid) plans for the revival (tajdid) of Islam was often linked to the goals of purifying it of pre-Islamic elements that were regarded as khurafat (un-Islamic) or syirik (idolatrous). Consequently new Malay-Muslim scholars like Sheikh Nuruddin al-Raniri, Sheikh Buchara al-Jauhari, Munshi Abdullah Abdul Kadir, Syed Sheikh Ahmad Al-Hadi5, Shaykh Mohammad Tahir Jalaluddin6, Haji Abbas Mohammad Tahar and Shaykh Mohammad Salim Al-Kalili emerged to challenge the forces of the status quo made up of the traditional Kerajaan establishment as well as the secular modern colonial regimes installed by the British and the Dutch in Malaya and the East Indies.7
These modern Islamic thinkers and the movements they led were particularly concerned about the plight of the Malay peoples, whom they regarded as victims of the twin evils of modern colonialism as well as traditionalist obscurantism.8 In their crusade to uplift the Malays and drag them into the modern age, they fired their polemical broadsides in both directions, against the ‘secular evils’ of modern colonialism as well as the ancient evils of the pagan pre-Islamic traditions that were still evident in contemporary Malay-Muslim culture.
Anxious to prove that Islam was a rational creed that was compatible with the claims of modern science and instrumentalist rationality, the Malay-Muslim modernists were keen to relegate their pre-Islamic past to an inferior, secondary position vis-à-vis their Islamic present as well. At the hands of reformers and modernists like Syed Sheikh al-Hadi, the history of the Malays was hastily re-written and the arrival of Islam was re-presented as a radical break from the past which reconfigured the Malay world anew.
The Malay-Muslim reformers loathed the pre-Islamic past not because it was so different from the world of the present, but because it was so much alike. Thus their focus was directed towards introducing and maintaining the sartorial and behavioural distinctions between the Malay-Muslims of the present and his Hindu-Buddhist ancestor of the past. To them the private space of Muslim life was more often than not an esoteric realm (khalwat or khas) where the Muslim’s psyche and spirituality (batin) was most in danger of contamination from dubious elements from the occult or pre-Islamic past. Their modernist and reformist agendas ensured that the policing of discursive, behavioural and sartorial frontiers remained a paramount objective in their work. Fearful of returning to the days when the discursive economies of Islam and Hindu-Buddhism co-mingled and interpenetrated with promiscuous ease, they were desperately concerned to rid Malay Islam of the traces of pagan pre-Islamic influences.9
While the new modernist and reformist Ulama and Imams were issuing their fatwa du jour against all that was un-Islamic, they created the popular impression that many of the traditional elements of Malay culture were obstacles to the fulfilment and completion of the Islamic project. The generation of modern Malay-Muslim thinkers and scholars of the late 19 century who made up the Kaum Mudath (Younger generation) of Malay-Muslim nationalists and activists attacked many cultural practices such as the traditional Malay wedding ceremony (bersanding), the hair-shaving ceremony (cukur rambut) for babies, the burial rites of Malays and the Malay practice of puja laut10 as being pagan or Hindu in origin.
It was clear that by the end of the 19 century, the eclectic local genius of the Malay peoples was outshone by the waves of new ideas, trends, values and lifestyle that crept in from abroad. Malay society became increasingly fragmented, as there emerged new social classes and constituencies that were shaped by modern ideas and values that came either from the school of secular modernist thought or from the modernist Islamic movements. Caught in the middle and rendered powerless through economic, political and military pressure, the traditionalist elite was left with little to do but to focus their attention on areas such as traditional customs and practices, social rituals and the reproduction of a cultural identity deemed more and more outdated and stigmatised by the modern social movements (both colonial and Islamist). As this local genius was eclipsed, modernisation via imitation became the order of the day. The Malay world had finally been hegemonically incorporated into the modern global mainstream, and the Malay mind colonised at last.
Disavowing the Past: The Rewriting of Malaysian history in the post-colonial era
The problematic relationship between past and present- or more specifically the Malay of the past and the Malay of the present- remained unresolved up to the mid-20thth century. The emergence of Malay-Muslim nationalist and anti-colonial movements was a phenomenon that could only be located within the context of Modernity, yet many of these organisations drew heavily from the wellsprings of the past as well. Malay politics was invariably an amalgam of various, and at times conflicting, elements- traditionalism, Islam and (secular) Modernity. The net result was the creation of political movements like UMNO11 and PAS12, both of which were straddling a number of discursive frontiers at the same time.
Malaya (later Malaysia, from 1963) gained its independence in 1957- more than a decade after Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines- and its own history has been somewhat different. The conservative-nationalist UMNO party was in power at the head of the Perikatan (Alliance) coalition and the royalist-turned-politician Tunku Abdul Rahman was the country’s first Prime Minister. While the other leaders of Southeast Asia (most notably Achmad Sukarno of Indonesia) were denouncing the West and accusing European and American powers of trying to destabilise and topple the newly-emerging forces (‘Nefos’) of the East, the Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was busy trying to secure Malaysia’s entry into the Commonwealth and other Western-dominated military and economic alliances.
At that point in Malaya’s early history, the country’s links to the ‘mother-country’ Britain13 and the West was strong indeed. Malaya’s Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman spoke of the ‘special relationship’ between Malaya and Britain (though the image of post-war Europe, and Britain in particular, was a highly ambivalent one at this stage in Malaysia). It was not an accident that while the Malayan flag was being raised for the first time in Kuala Lumpur another was being hoisted in front of Malaya House in Trafalgar Square, London. The national anthem, Negaraku (My Homeland) was also played and sung in both countries for the first time. The Federation of Malaya inherited the system of Parliamentary Democracy from Westminster along with a Constitutional Monarch as its head of state, something which the leadership of UMNO in particular were keen to install.
Malaya’s leaders were overly enamoured by the West at that time. Europe’s seemingly miraculous recovery in the wake of the Second World War (financed to a considerable extent by the Marshall Plan of the United States) was a source of inspiration for many of the leaders of Asia and the Muslim world, and Malaya was not an exception to the rule. It was at this time that the political and business elite of Malaya (like many other parts of the Muslim world) looked to the West for guidance and instruction on how to get their economies and governments in order. The relationship between Malaya and Britain (and the West in general) was therefore predicated on a chain of equivalences14 (to borrow Ernesto Laclau’s phrase) which equated Europe with everything that was good under the sun.
From the mid-1940s to the early 1950s, Malaya’s political elite saw Europe and America as the shining beacons of instrumentalist rationality, material development, economic progress, universalism, cosmopolitanism and human rights. Europe was, for the leaders of the newly-independent countries in Asia and the Muslim world, the birthplace of the renaissance and the Enlightenment. It was home to Adam Smith, Newton, Rousseau, Voltaire, Kant and Einstein (though the latter had migrated to the United States by then).
It was clear that at that stage of Malayan-European relations, the Western world was still able to mesmerise the political elite of the newly-independent country. The very idea of Europe, apparently rock-solid as it stood on its universalist foundations, still possessed considerable hegemonic power over the rest of the world. And it was precisely this hegemonic dominance that allowed the West to relegate Asia and the Muslim world to the periphery, as Hall and Gieben (1992) have argued.15 The mapping of the world according to the Eurocentric imaginary effectively created neatly compartmentalised distinctions between the developed and under-developed, civilised and un-civilised, enlightened and obscurantist, progressive and backward. Needless to say, ‘Europe’ was linked to the first range of categories while the rest were lumped with the other.
For a whole generation of Malaya’s postcolonial elite, the West was the model that was to be emulated. The break with the past was seen as the way to get the country on the road to development and progress, and the ways of the past were seen as obstacles to this development. Tradition and history were seen as cumbersome baggage that needed to be discarded at the earliest opportunity.
Cognisant of the new political realities that stood before the newly independent state, Malaya’s leaders began to formulate their foreign, domestic and education policies accordingly. Under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman Malaya spent more on education that any other country in Southeast Asia (a trend that persists till today) and the government was keen to send the best and brightest among the youth to the West to study. Malaya began sending thousands of young Malay-Muslim students to study abroad in Britain and the United States- both of which were Anglophone countries while the former was particularly favoured for its academic system which was compatible to that of Malaya’s. Malayan students were sent to study in both arts and sciences, and Britain was the favourite destination for those who wanted to enter the Malayan civil service.
But while Malaya’s elite were busy playing court with the political and business elite in Europe, other shifts and changes were taking place on the international scene that would later alter the popular perception of the West in the eyes of the Malayans back home.
Popular though they were, the Tunku’s parties could not go on forever. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, newly-independent Malaya found itself being rapidly out-manoeuvred on the international level by other more aggressively anti-Western countries and leaders like Indonesia’s Sukarno and India’s Nehru. Malaya’s close relationship with Britain (which was underpinned by its dependency on the West for capital investment as well as military assistance) made it appear as the dark horse in the stable of the newly-independent countries that were in the non-aligned movement. The anglophile and eurocentric proclivities of Malaya’s leaders and ruling elite also singled them out at the numerous South-South conferences where every Third World leader was expected to pepper his speeches with barbed invectives directed towards the evil forces of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism that were hovering above the Southern nations like predatory vultures.
The 1960s witnessed the emergence of popular anti-colonial and anti-Western movements the world over, and the influence of their movements, their ideas and their leaders could be felt everywhere in Malaysia. It was during this time that the leadership of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS), then under the capable guidance of its most sophisticated and vocal president Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy, began to attack the Malaysian government for its dependency on European and American powers. In his speeches, Dr. Burhanuddin (who was a fervent admirer and follower of Sukarno in his youth) condemned the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman and the UMNO-led government for their betrayal of Malay-Muslim interests and for their willingness to bend over backwards to meet the demands and conditions imposed by the West. Dr. Burhanuddin cited the example of Muslim countries (like Egypt under Gammel Nasser16 and Indonesia under Sukarno) that had defied the will of the capitalists of Europe and America by nationalising the major industries of their respective countries and introducing the fundamental structures of a welfare state.
It was during this period that the political mood in the country began to take a radical turn. PAS, under Dr. Burhanuddin, had been transformed into a radical Leftist-Islamist party that was vehemently opposed to all forms of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism. The leaders of PAS injected into their followers and supporters a new level of political awareness that made them see the struggle of Asians and Muslims worldwide as their own. The growing radicalism of Islamist leaders in Malaya in the 1960s was slowly growing and reaching out to new constituencies and groupings. In time, this would lead to the emergence of a second generation of Malay-Muslim students, activists and intellectuals who would shake the foundations of the state from below, while burying the past as well in the process.
Kaum Muda Revisited: The second wave of Islamisation from below
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, another chain of equivalences was being created thanks to the incessant critiques against the (pro-Western) establishment in general by the radical Islamist opposition leaders in Malaysia and the rest of the non-Western world.
Disappointed and disillusioned by what they saw as the government’s slavish intellectual dependency on the West, a new generation of Malay-Muslim students, activists and intellectuals began to formulate their own Islamist alternative to the model of development propagated by the state. It is hardly a coincidence that the second wave of Islamisation from below came from the university campuses of the country. The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed the emergence of new counter-culture groupings like the Darul Arqam17 movement of Ustaz Ashaari Muhammad, the Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM)18 that was led by Anwar Ibrahim, Razali Nawawi and Siddiq Fadhil and the Islamic Representative Council (IRC)19 which had infiltrated the student body both at home and abroad.
The rank and file of these organisations were made up of young Islamist students and intellectuals (many of whom had been sent abroad for further studies) who had been exposed to the ideas of Islamist thinkers like the Egyptian Islamist Hassan al-Banna (founder of the Ikhwan’ul Muslimin) and the Pakistani Islamist Ab’ul Al’aa Maudoodi (founder of the Jama’at-e Islami). A number of them had also made contact with some of the more prominent Islamist intellectuals who were now based in the West like Ismail Ragi Faruqi20, Tahar Jabir al-Alwani21 and Kurshid Ahmad22 who were proposing a radically different Islamic solution to the problems of the modern subject living in the modern age.
The emergence of movements like Darul Arqam, ABIM and the IRC in the country was symptomatic of the changes taking place in Malay-Muslim society as a whole. Thanks to the Islamisation race between UMNO and PAS which had begun in the 1960s, Islamic influences had penetrated even deeper into the political, economic and cultural environment of the Malays in the country. The inflation of Islamic discourse in Malay-Muslim society meant that Malay politics had begun to shift to a more Islamist discursive register. The 1970s was a time that witnessed not only the development of new Islamic movements in the country but also the first signs of popular Islamic resurgence that came in the form of Islamic dress, social norms, modes of communication and Islamic literature.23 Ironically, it was the contestation between PAS and UMNO that helped to create these new Islamist movements.
ABIM’s aim was to spearhead the struggle for Islamic reform and revival in the country, and to work towards ‘Islamisation from within’. The movement sponsored a number of religious pondoks and madrasahs all over the country, such as the Madrasah Sri ABIM at Kuala Ketil, Kedah and the Ma’ahad Tarbiyyah Ismamiah at Pokok Sena. It also established its own private school called Yayasan Anda (which was partly financed by the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), a regional council representing the more established Protestant Churches in the Asian region) . Like Darul Arqam, ABIM sought to create an Islamic society instead of trying to build an Islamic state. Groups such as these were trying to reinvent Malay society so that the Malay subject could be transform into an Islamic subject (homo islamicus) in no uncertain terms. ABIM’s leaders condemned Secularism per se and other western ideologies that they regarded as antithetical to Islam, and called for the control and purification of Muslim culture in the interest of creating a healthy Islamic society.
On the campuses of the country, ABIM and IRC’s impact was clear for all to see: The members of the organisation were among the few who did not smoke and who dressed according to Islamic standards of decency and modesty. The young men who joined ABIM and IRC were also reminded not to be in close contact with women, and to avoid shaking hands with them. The leaders of ABIM were particularly concerned about the need to introduce gender segregation in the universities, and the policing of sexual behaviour among the students soon became a matter of prime concern for them.24 They also encouraged their parents and the elders around them to follow their example. In time the policing of sartorial and behavioural norms became one of the defining features of the new Islamist movements.25
IV. From Malay Subject to Homo Islamicus: The Erasure of the Pre-Islamic Past During the Era of Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia
The production of history is an enterprise that takes place in a discursive terrain that is forever shifting and contested. The site of discursivity itself, as we all know by now, can never be fully sutured or closed in any way, and intertextuality is the order of the day in the incessant war between the disciplines.
Intertextuality also happens to be the framework within which the battle for meaning was fought in the struggle to reinvent Malay history during the 1970s and 1980s. The three cardinal ‘coordinates of dialogue’ (to borrow another of Kristeva’s phrases) then were: The advocates of the new revisionist reading of Malay identity, history and culture; their intended audience (the Malay community at large, which was always in need of being ‘saved’ by someone for whatever reason); and the ever present exterior text that would serve as the counterpoint to the new history to be told.
The struggle to invent the Malays took place on practically all levels of society. On the political level the two main Malay-Muslim parties, UMNO and PAS, were battling for the hearts and minds of the Malay public as a whole. The leaders of both parties were equally convinced that their view of the future was correct and that their interpretation of the problems of the past were equally valid. What was interesting was the fact that while UMNO and PAS’s vision of the future were radically different (UMNO was looking forward to a Malaysia that was industrialised, modern and integrated into the world economy while PAS was aiming to create an Islamic state ruled by a theocratic leadership), they both shared a common contempt and loathing for the past which served as a counterpoint to the present. The leaders of UMNO and PAS both regarded the pre-Islamic Malay past as an age of darkness that was contaminated by superstition, idolatry and paganism. In the writings of UMNO’s new leader Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the Malay past was littered with obstacles to the progress of the Malays in the present. While for the Deoband-educated spiritual leader (Murshid’ul Am) of PAS Tuan Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the past was strewn with traces of moral decadence, irreligion and evil that had to be fought against.26 As the political leadership of the country engaged in a prolonged conflict over the identity of the Malays as a whole, other sections of Malay-Muslim society were brought into the fray.
In the colleges and universities of the country, Islamist students, academics and intellectuals began the work of dismantling earlier accounts of Malay history on the grounds that so much of it was tainted by Western orientalist biases. (Which was true, in any case.) Postcolonial Malaysia’s history had to be saved from the corrupting influence of the colonial mindset which had configured the Malays as a race of lazy, backward and ignorant natives. Critiques such as these came from the pens of postcolonial critics like Syed Hussein Alattas.
But the task of recovering Malay history was also undertaken by those who sought to invest it with a host of new essentialist values and understandings. In time this became the objective of those of the Islamist tendency who wished to review and rewrite the past of the Malays according to distinctly Islamic lines. While the UMNO-led government of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was deriding the Malay past for its economic and political backwardness, the Islamists of the 1980s were more concerned to paint an Islamic gloss on everything Malay instead.
It was during this time (1970s to 1980s) that we see Malay history being radically re-written by those of the Islamist tendency themselves. In the departments of History, Politics, Islamic and Malay studies, the history of the Malay race was being reinterpreted and reinvented by those who felt that the pre-Islamic past had nothing to offer to the Malay-Muslim of the present. The leaders of groups like Darul Arqam, ABIM, IRC were of the opinion that the past was a different country populated by heathens and infidels and that these aliens bore no relation whatsoever (or rather should not) to the Malay-Muslim of the present whom they sought to convert to their cause.
Malay history was written with a decidedly Islamist slant that invariably presented Malay identity through an Islamic lens. The Islamic elements of Malay culture and history were backdated as far as possible, while the enormous cultural and civilisational heritage of the pre-Islamic Malays were sidelined or diminished. The search for Islamic roots and origins was carried out with vigour, despite the fact that the earliest traces of Islam in the archipelago did not (and could not) sustain the claim that the creed had arrived as a complete and immaculate totality.
The revisionist writing of Malay history was therefore a political enterprise (and adventure) in many respects. Many of the earlier attempts at such revision proved to be cavalier at best, counter-productive at worst. But in time there emerged an Islamist intellectual and scholar whose work and ideas represents this symbolic rupture with the past at its best: Syed Naquib al-Attas.
All that the Malay isn’t: The exteriorisation of the pre-Islamic Other in the reversed Orientalism of Syed Naguib al-Attas
‘The coming of Islam, seen from the perspective of modern times, was the most momentous event in the history of the (Malay) Archipelago’
Syed Naguib Al-Attas,
Preliminary Statement on a