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Jawi Script as Identity Marker


Oman Fathurahman


Jawi script has played an important role in the development of the literary tradition among the Malay-Indonesian peoples. It is often considered as a means of first access to their literary tradition for people in this region. Apart from this, a number of scholars – perhaps exaggeratingly – are of the opinion that the history of the Malay literary tradition started with the introduction of the Jawi script.[2]

The long-standing influence of Jawi script came about parallel with the islamization process where it became the written means of communication for the Malay-Indonesian people starting as early as the fourteenth century, replacing a number of other scripts that had developed before it.[3] For this reason it is not surprising that writings in Jawi script form a depository of information from the past about customs, traditions, literature, culture, and religion.

It is important to stress that it was also via the Jawi script that the ‘Malays’ came into political contact with the larger Islamic community which had a literate tradition and by so doing arrived at the same level of other communities that had used Arabic script before them to write such as the Persians, Urdu speaking peoples in India, Turkey and peoples in Central Asia.

It is often assumed that the Jawi script came up as an attempt to modify Arabic script. While this cannot be denied, it is also important to consider the influence of Persian script in the process of the creation of Jawi script, bearing in mind the number of similarities in form and character. Moreover, the Muslim intellectual tradition in island Southeast Asia does indeed note a rather strong Persian influence, especially since its early times. Unfortunately, this Persian influence on Jawi script has as yet not been the focus of much research.
Leaving the exact origins of Jawi script behind, it has been acknowledged that in the context of the Muslim intellectual tradition it has put the Muslim community in the Malay world, which was up to then considered to be the periphery, into the mainstream Islamic world. This can be seen, for instance, from the formation of interrelationships that came into being between a number of ulama from the Malay-Indonesian world and great ulama in the center of Muslim scholarship, especially Mecca and Medina (aramayn).
[4] Religious works in Jawi script, writings of the ‘Jawi ulama’, or AîÊāb al-Jāwiyyīn as they are commonly called, such as Abdussamad al-Palimbani, Dawud al-Patani, Nawawi al-Bantami were not only found in the Malay-Archipelagic world but also among the community in Mecca and Medina.

Indeed, during its next development, the influence of Jawi writings among the Malay-Indonesian communities experienced an extraordinary decline. Dutch and British colonialism has undoubtedly contributed to the decline in the usage of this script. There were two critical moments in the development and demise of Jawi script. Did we witness a change in the fourteenth century from a number of writing systems such as Pallawa and post-Pallawa to Jawi, from around the end of the nineteenth century the demise set in and Jawi script was gradually replaced by Latin script.

Naturally, these developments did not occur in any extreme way but came about gradually. Also, not all regions in the area experienced this change to the same degree. In Malaysia, for instance, the influence of Jawi script is still felt (see e.g. the contribution of Jim Collins to this volume) in its literacy tradition up to the present. In Indonesia, even though limited to a few regions, the Jawi script is at present still used among certain groups in society for the transmission of ideas as well as for less ‘serious’ matters.

This contribution will pay attention to a number of issues in connection to Jawi script in the Malay-Archipelagic world such as those touched upon above, especially related to Jawi script as identity marker stressing the focus on experiences in West Sumatra and Aceh.

Jawi Script: the Domestication of Arabic Script
and the Vernacularization of Islam

For part of the general public, the word ‘Jawi’[5] immediately refers to one specific area in the Indonesian region, Java. This is incorrect as the term ‘Jawi’ in this context refers to the Nusantara area as a whole which includes in this context present-day Malaysia, Indonesia and Southern Thailand. In the context of the Muslim tradition, for instance, the expression ‘Jawi ulama’ does not at all refer to those ulama only who originated from Java but to ulama from the whole Nusantara area such as Abdurrauf Singkel from Aceh, Abdussamad al-Palimbani from Palembang (South Sumatra), Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari from Banjar (South Kalimantan), Shaikh Yusuf al-Makassari from Makasar (South Celebes), Nawawi al-Bantani from Banten (West Java), Muhammad Zainuddin bin Muhammad Nadwi al-Sumbawi from Sumbawa (Lesser Sunda Islands), Shaikh Dawud al-Fatani from Patani (present-day Southern Thailand), etc. [6] In the same vein, in the context of Jawi writings, the Jawi characters do not at all refer to Javanese script or language, but to Arabic characters modified in such a way as to be able to be used for writing a number of languages in Nusantara such as Acehnese, Minangkabau and especially Malay while Jawi script used for Sundanese (West Java) and Javanese is referred to as pegon.

Indeed, considering the form and the number of its characters, Jawi can be called a domesticated (adjusted) form of Arabic script for the use of writing regional languages, especially Malay. This domestication is especially related to changes here and there to adjust it to the phonological system of the local languages concerned. Jawi therefore includes all the 29 characters of the Arabic script completed with 6 additional characters so that the total number of characters, excluding the numerals, is 35.[7] The added six letters have of course been added to accommodate sounds in the local languages unknown in Arabic.

The twenty-nine characters of the Arabic alphabet are: ا (a), ب (b), ت (t), ث (tha), ج (j), ح (Ê), خ (kh), د (d), ذ (dh), ر (r), ز (z), س (s), ش (sh), ص (î), ض (¼), ط (ð), ظ (§), ع (‘), غ (gh), ف (f), ق (q), ك (k), ل (l), م (m), ن (n), و (w), هـ (h), ء ('), dan ي (y). And the added six characters are: فـ (v), چ (c), ع (ng), ڤ (p), گ (g), dan پ (ny).

As has been mentioned above, there are no definite data to explain how, and from where, these six characters are derived while the influence from Persian script needs to be considered as it would seem inconceivable that these characters were devised in a vacuum without any outside inspiration lying at its basis.

Whatever the case, regardless of how and from where the six characters originate, it is undeniable that as far as their historical development is concerned, Islam forms the most important factor as Arabic script itself is used for the Quran. It was thus parallel to the intensification of the islamization process in the area that Jawi script also experienced the top of its immense distribution.

The sultans in the region, who often considered themselves to be defenders of Islam if not the shadow of God on earth (zillullah fil ard) were also instrumental in the acceleration of the socialization of the Jawi script. The Sultan of Bima, for instance, ordered in 1055/1645 that the palace chronicle (Bo’) be written ‘using Malay with a script condoned by Allah the Highest.’ (“dengan memakai bahasa melayu dengan rupa tulisan yang diridlai Allah ta'ala”).[8]

Moreover still, Jawi script clearly also formed an important factor in the articulation of society in the Malay-Indonesian world in particular, and Nusantara in general in the acceptance and translation of Islam in writings in the local context.[9] These local writings came in their turn to be a distinctive characteristic that differentiated Islam in this region from Islam in other parts in the world.

Jawi Script and the Literacy Tradition in the Malay-Indonesian World

A number of regions in the Malay-Nusantara world in general and in the Malay-Indonesian world in particular used to have a high level of literacy from old times onward which was possibly higher than literacy traditions in Europe during the same period.[10] Before Jawi became in use a number of languages were written using a number of scripts such as Rencong, Lampung, Javanese, Buginese/Makassarese, and others.

Jawi script is often considered in this context as the first door to open up the literacy traditions in a number of regional languages in Indonesia. However, it is important to note that compared to the number of regional languages in Indonesia the phenomenon of Jawi script is only applicable to a small number of languages such as Acehnese, Minangkabau, and, possibly in a more restricted way, to Ternatanese and Banjarese. In Aceh, for instance, Acehnese in Jawi script only came up around two centuries after writing Malay in Jawi script experienced its golden era during the times of the Kingdom of Aceh Darussalam in the seventeenth century. The same may be said of Minangkabau where prior to the introduction of Jawi script Minang society was known for its oral traditions. The Minangkabau language became known in written form only after the introduction of Jawi script.

The concept that the Jawi script formed the first access to their written tradition would seem not applicable for Malay itself. Writing traditions in Indonesia had existed a long time before the advent of Islam introduced Jawi script, Malay was already distributed in scripts available at the time, although this distribution was not as spectacular as after the introduction of Jawi script. From old times onward Malay was admired not only because of its orality and development into a lingua franca, but also because of its written tradition.[11]

Research conducted by Uli Kozok on a Malay manuscript from the fourteenth century in the village of Tanjung Tanah in Kerince (South Sumatra) revealed that as early as the fourteenth century Malay was written using s pre-islamic post-Pallawa script that still shows many similarities with Malay characters from the time of Adityawarman.[12] In the same collection of manuscripts Kozok encountered another manuscript in Malay using Ulu or Rencong script.

Annabel Teh Gallop also pointed to a tree bark manuscript in the library of Oxford University that was written in Malay using Lampung script. This manuscript is said to have been bequeathed to the Library as early as 1630.[13]

It is thus clear that the assumption that the Malay literary tradition started with the introduction of the Jawi script is incorrect. What is true is that the Malay literary tradition experienced a complete change after Islam entered Nusantara and the Jawi script became more widely known; virtually every other script for writing Malay was abandoned in favor of the use of Jawi script. This happened because the Jawi script itself was commensurate with the ‘ideology’. The Muslim dimension and also the political one in writing in Jawi script influenced the advent of the hegemony of writing in Jawi in the subsequent Malay literary tradition. In this case, Hasan Madmarn (1999, p. 40) –after explaining the extend of the Hindu-Budha script in the previous century– draws the following picture:

‘This ancient system of writing was then almost totally replaced by the Arabic script, due to the spreading of Islamic influence into the region. … With the islamization of the Malay Peninsular in the thirteenth century, Islam brought with it the message of the Quran and its script. Thus, abandoning original Indian script, the Malays adopted the Arabic writing system with certain modifications to suit the local phonological system.’

However, it is important to note that while Islam penetrated a number of regions and was accepted by various ethnic groups in Indonesia, apparently only Malay experienced extreme changes in its literate tradition. A number of other areas, such as Java, Bugis-Makassar, Rencong, and Batak, for instance, did not abandon their scripts. This may be surmised especially from the great number of manuscripts written in these languages not using Jawi. In South Celebes, for instance, many religious manuscripts – even though partly written in Jawi – were written using Bugis-Makassarese script.

The Hegemony of Jawi Script: The Religious and Political Dimension

As has been referred to above, one of the factors that caused the immense influence of Jawi script in the Malay-Indonesian literate traditions was of course Islam. Arabic script – as the basis of Jawi script – was used to write the Quran and in the context of the vernacularization of Islam, as pointed out above, the Jawi script in its turn was used by the ulama in the Malay-Indonesian world to write religious texts in Malay and other local languages, or, at least, in translations from the Arabic into these local languages. One of the most important pieces of evidence for this phenomenon are the large number of manuscripts with religious content that were written in Jawi (including pegon) both in Malay as well as in Javanese or Sundanese.

In the Muslim tradition, wherever in the world, including in the Malay-Indonesian world, texts occupy an important place. The major teachings of Islam are found in written texts, including the Quran and the hadiths of the Prophet. Quranic interpretations and interpretations of the hadiths were also put into writing and became to form a multitude of texts in themselves starting with texts on interpretation, jurisprudence, Sufism, theology and other is a multitude of languages as well. All these texts came to form guidelines for a way of living for each Muslim and it is therefore apt to call the Muslim society a ‘text society’. Of course, the script (Arabic) used for these respected texts became respected itself in Muslim society.
In the context of the Malay-Indonesian communities these religious texts were frequently written and translated in local languages and the Jawi script became a factor of identity among the members of these communities. By borrowing and subsequently modifying Arabic script into Jawi it seems the Malay peoples found an identity as a large people as they became connected to a different and much larger and universal world: Islam. Moreover, by implementing their literate tradition by means of Jawi the Malay-Indonesian community politically became on a par with other peoples that had adopted Arabic script before them to write their local languages such as Persia, the Urdu speaking communities of India, Turkey and Central Asian States.

Having an ‘Islamic’ literate tradition the Malay-Indonesian community became intensively involved in the transmission of Islamic sciences from its center in the Arab world, especially the Haramayn: Mecca and Medina. Research conducted by Azyumardi Azra reveal the extent of the force of the Haramayn influence in forming the intellectual Islamic tradition and discourse in the Malay-Indonesian world especially since the seventeenth century.[16] Whatever dynamics were taking place in the Haramayn were also having their impact in circles in the Malay-Indonesian world. This in its turn had as a consequence that a mainstreaming took place in the Malay-Indonesian world itself, being part of the Muslim world.

Latest Developments in Jawi Script:
Some Leftovers

The replacement of a number of scripts used for local languages in Indonesia by Jawi script in the fourteenth century may be viewed as an extremely important cultural momentum. It is important as it designates the arrival of an era in which Jawi script gained its hegemonic role in the literate traditions to come.

In the context of Indonesia the number of manuscripts, literary and religious ones, that were written in Jawi script, especially in Malay, was enormous. This was evidently pushed by the fact that since the fourteenth century Malay literature started to flourish at both sides of the Strait of Malacca. At that time the Malay language had already spread throughout the Indonesian archipelago and was used in the entire Malay world in general as a lingua franca, and had become the medium for Islamic propagation. That is why Malay literature, which in the context of religion was written in Jawi, had also spread throughout Nusantara. Malay works of literature in Jawi were not only produced in Riau or the Malay Peninsula only, but also in a number of other royal centers sometimes located far away such as Aceh, Bima, Ternate, etc.[17]

The second important momentum in connection with Jawi script in Indonesia occurred five centuries later, at the end of the nineteenth century when slow but surely Jawi script came to be replaced by Latin script as a result of influences of Dutch and British colonialism.[18] From that moment onwards up till the present day the tradition of writing using Jawi script has declined and almost vanished. All sorts of intellectual works, literary and religious, are now being written in Latin script. Perhaps only in a handful of pesantren is the Jawi script still used, but even there very rarely.

Indeed, the demise of the tradition of writing Jawi does not mean that it has meant the disappearance of the identity that has been build by means of the tradition of the usage of Jawi script and the transmission of Islamic science continues be it in a different way and having a different character, using Latin script.

Apart from that, it should also be noted that in a number of regions in Indonesia the tradition of writing in Jawi script has not totally disappeared. In West Sumatra, for instance, the tradition of writing religious manuscripts using Jawi script continues be it much less intensively compared to former times. A number of Shattāriyya manuscripts from the end of the twentieth century which were discovered present proof of the continuation of the tradition parallel with Islam taking roots and develop in circles of tarekats, especially the Shattāriyya and the Naqshbandiyya in this area.

The same is witnessed in Aceh. As far as can be gathered at the moment, in Banda Aceh city the Jawi script is always used but in a different context; no longer in connection with scholarship but ‘only’ to accompany Latin script for many place boards, banners, school names, names of Bank offices, restaurants and even on rice bags. Putting Jawi script next to Latin script has been stipulated in a District Regulation in connection with the implementation of the sharÌa in Nanggroe Aceh Darusslam.

Abdullah, Abdul Rahman. 2000. Sejarah dan Tamadun Asia Tenggara Sebelum dan Sesudah Pengaruh Islam. Kuala Lumpur: Utusan.

Azra, Azyumardi. 2004. Jaringan Ulama Timur Tengah dan Kepulauan Nusantara Abad ke-17 dan XVIII. Bandung: Mizan, revised edition.

-----------. 2004. The Origins of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia: Networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastren ‘Ulamª’ in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Chambert-Loir, Henri & Fathurahman, Oman. 1999. Khazanah Naskah: Panduan Koleksi Naskah-naskah Indonesia se-Dunia. Jakarta: Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient in collaboration with Yayasan Obor Indonesia.

Chambert-Loir, Henri & Salahudin, St. Maryam. 1999. Bo Sangaji Kai. Jakarta: Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient in collaboration with Yayasan Obor Indonesia.

Collins, James T. 1994. “Bahasa Melayu di Batas Zaman: Renungan Sejarah, Ramalan Arah”. Dewan Bahasa 38: 484-495.

Gallop, Annabel Teh & Arps, Barnard. 1991. Golden Letters: Writing Traditions of Indonesia=Surat Emas: Budaya Tulis di Indonesia. London: The British Library; Jakarta: Yayasan Lontar.

Hooker, M.B., 1983, “Introduction: The Translation of Islam into South-East Asia”, dalam Hooker, M.B. (peny.), Islam in South-East Asia, Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Johns, A.H. 1996. “In the Language of the Divine: The Contribution of Arabic”, dalam Ann Kumar & John H. McGlynn (eds.), Illuminations: The Writing Traditions of Indonesia, Jakarta: Lontar, p. 33-48.

Jones, Russel. 1986. "The Origins of the Malay Manuscript Tradition" In C. D. Grijns and S. O. Robson, Cultural Contact and Textual Interpretation. Papers from the fourth European Colloquium on Malay and Indonesian Studies, held in Leiden in 1983, pp. 121-143. Dordrecht/Cinnaminson: Foris.

Kang Kyoung Seock. 1990. Perkembangan Tulisan Jawi dalam Masyarakat Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

Kozok, Uli, “Kitab Undang-undang Tanjung Tanah: Naskah Melayu Tertua dari Abad ke-14”. Paper at the International Simposium of Archipelago Manuscripts (Manassa), Wisma Syahida UIN Jakarta 26-28 July 2004.

Madmarn, Hasan. 1999. The Pondok and Madrasah in Patani. Bangi: Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Press.

Musa, Hashim Haji. 1999. Sejarah Perkembangan Tulisan Jawi. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

------------. 1997. Epigrafi Melayu: Sejarah Sistem Tulisan dalam Bahasa Melayu. [Siri Monograf Sejarah Bahasa Melayu]. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

Reid, A. 1992. Asia Tenggara dalam Kurun Niaga 1450-1680, Jilid I: Tanah di Bawah Angin. Jakarta: Yayasan Obor Indonesia.

Riddell, Peter Gregory. 2001. Islam and the Malay-Indonesian World: Transmission and Responses, Singapore: Horizon Books.

Sedyawati, Edi, and others (eds.). 2004. Sastra Melayu Lintas Daerah. Jakarta: Pusat Bahasa Departemen Pendidikan Nasional.

Tradisi Penulisan Manuskrip Melayu. 1997. Kuala Lumpur: Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia.

[1] This article has been translated from the Indonesian version by Dick van der Meij. I would like to thank also to Prof. Dr. Henri Chambert-Loir for his comments and suggestions on the first draft of this article.
[2] See for instance Jones 1986, p. 139, and Abdullah 2000, p. 405.
[3] Madmarn 1999, p. 40.
[4] Azra 1994, especially chapters 3 and 4.
[5] The term ‘Jawi’ is not only mentioned in the context of the script, but also in studies on a number of ulama originating from the Malay area who studied religion in the Haramayn (Mecca and Medina). This Malay ulama community was known under the name Ashāb al-Jāwiyyīn.
[6] Studies on these ulama include their academic carriers and the significance of their roles in the Muslim Malay-Nusantara intellectual tradition and discourse. See Azra 1994 and 2004.
[7] Kang Kyoung Seock 1990, chapter 2; Musa 1999, p. 11-12.
[8] Chambert-Loir & Salahuddin 1999, p. xii.
[9] See Hooker 1983, p. 1-2.
[10] Reid 1992, p. 276-277.
[11] Collins 1994, p. 484-495.
[12] Kozok 2004, p. 1.
[13] Gallop 1991, p. 71.
[14] See, for instance, Roger Tol in Tradisi Penulisan Manuskrip Melayu, 1997, p. 163-164.
[15] Johns 1996, p. 33-48.
[16] Azra 2004. especially chapters 3 and 4; see also Riddel 2001.
[17] On this and on a general picture of the plethora of Malay manuscripts see Chambert-Loir & Fathurahman 1999, p. 131-171.
[18] Collins, in Tradisi Penulisan Manuskrip Melayu 1997, p. 55.

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