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The One-Dimensional Malay: The Homogenisation of Malay Identity in the


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General Theory of Islamization

More so than any other scholar in Malaysia, it was Syed Naquib al-Attas27 who managed to occasion a radical break with the past. By doing so he became the mentor, spokesman and ideologue for an entire generation of young Islamist activists, students and intellectuals who were preoccupied with the task of creating the new homo islamicus from the ashes of the Malay of yesterday.


The rise to prominence of Syed Naquib al-Attas can be linked to the resurgence of political Islam in the local universities and colleges of Malaysia. Himself the product of Eton, Sandhurst and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, al-Attas also happened to be the mentor to the ABIM movement and its leader Anwar Ibrahim28. His most influential book was ‘Islam and Secularism’- which was first published by ABIM in 1978 (the same year that Edward Said’s Orientalism was published in the West) and it became the standard reference for an entire generation of middle-class professionals, politicians, students and teachers in the country.
By the year 1991 al-Attas had risen to become one of the most influential Islamist thinkers in the country, thanks in part to his close relationship with his ex-student-turned-UMNO politician, Anwar Ibrahim. For his part in the Islamisation effort, al-Attas was given the chance to found and direct the International Institute for Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC).29
The philosophy of Syed Naquib al-Attas can be summarised as follows: Like Khomeini, al-Attas regards Islam as a complete, totalised, exclusive and unique system of belief and thought. It is, for him, the sole religion which possesses a ‘salvatic mission’ and the only one with truly universalistic claims.30 Islam has therefore nothing to learn from other belief and value systems, and Muslims must reject the relativisation of values and beliefs which has become en vogue of late thanks to the scourge of Western secularism.
The writings of al-Attas work within a defensive and reactionary logic which sees Islam as a religion with singular purpose that is at the same time under threat from two contaminating elements: Secular Modernity (which represents the external Other) and the pre-Islamic past (which is the enemy from within). In his writings, al-Attas frames Islam in terms of a nostalgic politics of authenticity which seeks to return it to its pure and pristine past, free from the contaminating influence of both.
Al-Attas’s critique of Secular Moderntiy takes the form of an oppositional dialectic which invariably presents Islam and Secularism in oppositional terms. For al-Attas Secularism is a Western and eurocentric belief and value system which confines human existence to the level of the profane, material and physical world. It has been one of the tools used by the West in its war against Islam and its effort to ‘de-Islamize’ Muslim intellectuals.31 Western secularism leads in turn to the promotion of secular (Western) sciences and knowledge such as biology, physics, anthropology and the humanist sciences.32 It promotes humanism and positivism as the benchmarks of epistemological certainty and Truth. These ‘lesser’ or ‘lower’ knowledges then contribute to what al-Attas calls the ‘levelling’ of the (Muslim) mind, which creates the impression that all knowledge and truth is relative, contingent, historically and culturally specific and arbitrary.33

The effect of Western-inspired and Western-directed secularisation is that it has brought about a state of total moral and epistemological confusion in the Muslim world. Muslims no longer lived in a God-centred universe as soon as they receive their knowledge (and doctorates) from the West. They have become confused about their true purpose in life, their obligations and priorities as well as the social and cultural hierarchies that once governed the universe of Muslims the world over.34 While great men of learning once governed Muslim society, Muslims are now being ruled by technocrats and politicians instead. And worse of all, while at one time savants of scholarly vision and purpose (like Naquib al-Attas himself, presumably) once enjoyed the status of illuminati and guides to rulers and peasants alike, this coveted role has now been handed over to lesser academics schooled in Western political science, economics and other such vulgar disciplines of the bazaar. It is hardly a surprise that the homesick Malaysian Muslim students who were longing for a return to the pristine golden age of Islam found a welcoming port in the Utopian writings of al-Attas.


Al-Attas’s attack on ‘secular’ and ‘Europeanised’ (re: Western trained or educated) intellectuals and political leaders in the Muslim world falls back on his own (Western) military training35 and employs the metaphors of battlefields and troop movements. In his polemic against these insidious ‘agents of Western secularism’, al-Attas only stops short of calling them heretics in the eyes of Islam:
‘They have all become conscious or unconscious agents of Western culture and civilisation, and in this capacity they represent what we have identified as the external sources of our Muslim dilemma. But their existence among us as part of the community creates for us the situation where what was once regarded as the external has now moved in methodically and systematically to become internal. In their present condition they pose as the external menace which has become a grave internal problem, for intellectually, dar al-harb has advanced within dar-al-Islam; they have become the enemy within’.36 (italics ours).
But while the ‘Westernised’ or ‘secularised’ Muslim was an easy target to deal with, al-Attas finds it more difficult to handle the Malay of the past whose identity he cannot recognise and whose name he cannot even mention. One is reminded of a curious encounter between a certain Thomas de Quincey and the Malay from nowhere…
Convinced as he is by Islam’s ‘salvatic mission’ and unity of purpose, al-Attas is at a loss to explain the transition and transformation of the Malay world with the coming of Islam. Like many Islamist thinkers and scholars in the country, he finds it hard to reconcile the ideal vision of Islam as a pure, authentic and totalised discursive system with the reality of eclecticism and syncretism that took place during the first few centuries of Islam’s arrival and which exist till this very day. (One does not have to look very far for traces of the pre-Islamic past in the experience of lived Islam in the Malay world. The very word ‘sembahyang’ (prayer/to pray) literally means to offer homage (sembah) to Hyang (the Primal ancestor of pagan times). One cannot help but wonder if the Malay-Muslims of today are aware of how close they are to the margins of their own faith and the Other in their daily rituals.)
The problem faced by al-Attas and the Islamists is that they cannot simply deny or reject the pre-Islamic past in the same way that they rejected the advances of Secular Modernity. While the latter could be dismissed as an external element that was alien to Islam, the pre-Islamic past was clearly something that had existed prior to Islam’s coming into being itself. What is more, in the context of the Malay archipelago it was impossible to deny the fact that long before the word of Allah had arrived to the shores of Nusantara, the call of Shiva and Vishnu was already heard. (The earliest trace of Islam in the Malay Peninsula, for instance, is the famous 14 century Trengganu stone which bears an inscription in Jawi script. While this has been used time and again as a reference point to mark the arrival of Islam in the Malay world, few have cared to point out that the inscription itself does not mention the word ‘Allah’ but rather refers to God as ‘Dewata Mulia Raya’- a phrase that is totally Sanskrit in origin.)
The solution that al-Attas finds to the problem lies in a different discursive strategy altogether. While in the case of his rejection of Secularism he posits the view that Secular Modernity is alien to Islam, in the case of the pre-Islamic past al-Attas attempts to diminish the influence of the pre-Islamic Other altogether. This becomes the central argument in his other equally influential work, the Preliminary Statement on a General Theory of the Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago(1963).th
In his Preliminary Statement al-Attas presents an image of the pre-Islamic Malay world as an incomplete universe. Malay identity may have been nominally identified with Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and cultural practices at the time, but al-Attas contends that pre-Islamic Malay subject was an incomplete subject whose rational faculties were not fully developed and whose potentialities were not fully realised. The picture that he draws of the pre-Islamic past is one where social, cultural and political development was, at best, lopsided and partial.
The reason for this lopsided development of the Malay subject, al-Attas insists, lies in the fact that the Malay experience of Hinduism itself was an incomplete one. For him, the pre-Islamic Malay world was one that was bereft of philosophical thinking and enquiry. As al-Attas argues: ‘In the Hindu-Malay translations of Hindu-Indian religious literature such as the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita depicting the life of Arjuna, and the Bharatayuddha... the philosophical expositions, so important in the original, suffered great neglect’.37 Even when Hinduism did made in-roads into the world of the Kerajaan, al-Attas insists that ‘it was aesthetic and ritualistic Hinduism that was recognised and accepted; the scientific, with its emphasis on rational and intellectual elements was rejected. ...and even when accepted had first to be sifted through the sieve of art so that the worldview presented was that envisioned by poets rather than philosophers’.38
For al-Attas the Hindu-Buddhist past of the Malays was therefore a fractured, uneven and incomplete one. ‘Hinduism’, he argues, was only ‘a superstructure maintained by the ruling group above an indifferent community. The community’s participation in Hinduism was a necessary influence from above; the (Hindu) religion was imposed upon the community by the authority of the ruling group’.39
Al-Attas argues that the elite monopolisation of Hindu-Buddhist discourse had actually kept it inert and static, as court patronage of these religious discourses invariably eschewed any attempts at radical (and potentially revolutionary) thinking. The net result, as he points out, is that:
‘neither the Hindu-Malay nor the Buddhist-Malay, as far as we know, have produced any thinker or philosopher of note’.40
By positing the thesis that the pre-Islamic Malay world was in a state of intellectual crisis, al-Attas is also preparing the way for the solution of his own riddle. If Malay identity was not complete, who and what would help it achieve its full completion. The answer, for him, was Islam.
Al-Attas’ theory of Islamisation is one which sees the arrival of Islam as the final stage to the full development of Malay society. It is with the arrival of Islam, he argues, that Malay identity is fully constituted and the Malay becomes a rational subject. In the Preliminary Statement al-Attas argues that within the Sufi interpretation of Islam, ‘the essence of Man is that he is rational and rationality is the connection between him and reality. It is these concepts and that of the spiritual equality between man and man that gave the ordinary man a sense of worth and nobility denied to him in pre-Islamic times’.41
The arrival of Islam- the totalised system of belief with its own ‘salvatic mission’- therefore marks the completion of Malay identity. Whereas in the pre-Islamic era the Malays were not fully constituted subjects (who had no past as they were not themselves rational agents of history), Malay history only begins to take off with the arrival of Islam. By foregrounding Islam’s concern with rational enquiry and critical thinking (while playing down Hinduism’s concern with the same), al-Attas has effectively redefined and relocated the criteria for human subjectivity, agency and identity in the process. Via this neat discursive strategy he has tried to relocate the starting point where Malay history begins and ends, and in accordance with his own political and ideological agenda those boundaries happen to coincide with the arrival and consolidation of Islam in the Malay archipelago. One thing that cannot be denied is the fact that Syed Naquib al-Attas was, and remains, one of the most articulate and intelligent Islamist ideologues that the country has produced. Whether his narrative holds water is another question altogether.
In time the ideas of al-Attas have become part of the ‘official Islam’ that is promoted by the Malaysian state, and his beliefs continue to filter down to the level of the leaders of Malaysian political parties and student movements. More so than any leader produced by PAS, UMNO, ABIM or the IRC, it is Syed Naquib al-Attas, the state’s own resident Islamist scholar and educationalist, who has singularly marked the confrontational boundary line between Islam and the Other and by doing so shaped popular opinions and attitudes towards the pre-Islamic past.
The ideas of al-Attas may have had an enormous appeal for a whole generation of Malaysian Muslim youth who were returning from their studies abroad, disillusioned with the broken promises of the West and uncomfortable with the thought of seeking refuge in their own history. Al-Attas offered them a new refuge in the form of an Islam couched in terms of a discourse of purity and authenticity. He had, after all, overturned the violent hierarchies of classical Orientalist discourse (something he learnt while at SOAS, presumably) against the very same people who produced it. While Western Orientalists had configured non-Europeans in terms of what they lacked (rationality, modernity, progress), al-Attas had done the reverse by characterising the West in terms of what it lacked (and what Islam possessed in abundance), namely order, discipline, morality, tradition, honoured customs, purity and spirituality. By repositioning Islam at the centre of an Islamocentric worldview the way he did, al-Attas had placed both Secular Modernity and the pre-Islamic past at the margins of a new (Islamist) world order whose star was on the rise. For thousands of young Malay-Muslim students, al-Attas’s grand project of reconstructing Islamic knowledge anew (complete with an epistemology and genealogy it could call its own) seemed to be the antidote to the social ills of the West as well as the ‘shameful decadence’ of their own past.
It was the ideas of al-Attas that served as the justification and rationale for the rewriting of Malay history all over again. That this was even possible at all was due, in part, to his claim that the break with the past and the external world had been accomplished long ago with the arrival of Islam to the shores of the Malay world itself. For al-Attas also argues that proof of the radical impact of Islam on the worldview of the Malay peoples can best be found in the radical changes that occurred in the Malay language itself, and the paradigm shifts that took place in the discourses contained therein. For him it is in language ‘that the revolutionary changes in worldview effecting other changes would be preserved and reflected; for language is the silent yet ever present witness whose words and vocabulary still hold captive the thoughts and feelings of centuries’.42
Yet despite the impressive discursive arabesques that he weaves through his narratives, even al-Attas cannot alter the fact that the traces of the repressed past remain stubbornly present in the here-and-now. Like the Malay from nowhere who haunted de Quincey in his dreams, al-Attas’s own grand narrative cannot radically exteriorise the pre-Islamic past which it draws upon as its constitutive Other, and this is precisely where the entire Islamist project encounters its own internal crisis.
For the weakness of the Islamist project lies in the fact that it’s ‘salvatic mission’ and universalist claims requires the obliteration of the Other while at the same time conjuring it up time and again as its own counterpoint. The Islamist al-Attas needs presents Islam and Islamic history as total, absolute, pure and authentic- yet continually draws upon the threat of the pre-Islamic other in order to give his grand narrative its internal coherence and unity of purpose. It denies the Other while calling him back, just to have him dismissed again. Yet without this other Malaysia, cluttered with the pre-Islamic past and traces of alterity, al-Attas’s grand narrative would not even have the shape and form that he wishes it to have. Islamism therefore requires the Other and seeks to lose it at the same time. The tension between these two impossible demands that can never be reconciled makes it impossible for the Islamist project to be fully constituted itself. The discursive arabesques of al-Attas meander on and on endlessly, but never come to a neat and final end. The Islamist project remains an incomplete one, its goal differed infinitely and the final destination- its homecoming to the perfect Islamic state- postponed ad infinitum.


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