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Malay society examined


Important essays by the pre-eminent historian of 20th century Malay society on Peninsular Malaysia has been brought together into an engaging book.


By William R. Roff

Publisher: NUS Press, 354 pages

ISBN: 978-9971694890
IS the saliva of dogs unclean? Is contact with dogs defiling and, accordingly, prohibited among Muslims, especially of the Shafi’i school? Controversy over this question split the Kelantan royal family in the late 1930s and divided Kelantanese society, from top to bottom, between religious modernists and traditionalists.

After heated disagreement and an impressive and well-attended majlis muzakarah (formal public debate), the question was eventually referred to the very highest of authorities, Sheikh-ul-Islam at Al-Azhar in Cairo, for authoritative adjudication.

This dramatic confrontation is the subject of one of 15 essays by William R. Roff that were originally published between 1964 and 2007; the essays have been collected in a handsomely-produced book that was launched at Universiti Malaya on Thursday.

The front dust jacket of this notable collection of essays by the preeminent historian of 20th century Peninsular Malay society is telling. It is emblazoned with a picture of the Raja Muda of Kelantan’s splendid Dalmatian hound seated obediently beside the leading Islamic modernist Haji Abbas Taha who was prominently involved in the debate.

(The rear cover offers a picture of Roff in Malay kampung company at the outset of his distinguished research career in this country in 1959.)

The specifically focused but substantial essays brought together in this new book, published by Singapore’s NUS Press, are companion pieces to Roff’s great masterpiece, The Origins of Malay Nationalism (Yale University Press), long recognised internationally as the single most important book for the understanding of modern Peninsular Malay history and contemporary Malaysian society.

These essays range across a variety of different but intimately interconnected themes and topics. Their subjects cover the richly cosmopolitan Muslim world of late 19th century Singapore and the role of Muslims of Arab Hadrami (from the Hadramaut region in the Middle East) origins in Malay cultural, intellectual, and journalistic life, and the modern Malay cultural renaissance.

The essays explore the experiences of Malay and Indonesian students in Cairo in the 1920s, in a time of anticolonial ferment and exciting religious polemics, and their subsequent religious role and political influence in this region.

The essays also trace the sources and pathways of some key long-term processes of Malaysia’s more recent Islamisation initiatives.

They reveal some changing patterns yet underlying continuities: in the “production” and recognition, or social authentication, of religious scholars (ulama); in the publication and diffusion of ideas of correct Islamic doctrine and action; and in the management and supervision, including political policing, of the haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of Islam’s cardinal obligations).

Above all, these essays highlight the fundamental importance of two powerful dynamics in the strengthening of Malay, and Malaysian, Islam.

The first has been the centralisation and streamlining, under modern bureaucracies, of the management and everyday administration of Malay religious life. The second has been recourse to derivatively modern Western procedures for the enactment of statute law, and the issuing of related government regulations, to promote orthodox views of correct Islamic practice and to expand the social reach of those eager that such views be made to prevail.

Together these measures have been crucial in the rectification and consolidation of officially desirable Islamic practices, and in entrenching the power and position of their duly appointed custodians.

Other essays probe such subjects as the nature of Islamic social movements and their driving ideas; the interplay, as understood or misunderstood by the great Dutch historians of a century ago, between adat and hukum (between local Malay custom and Islamic Syariah law); Islamic naming practices and what they may reveal about the long-term processes of the Islamisation of society and culture; and the beginnings of modern Malay popular and didactic literature in the translation and publication in the 1920s of a Nick Carter-type detective story.

Among these 15 essays, some will be of special appeal and interest to many readers here in Malaysia – and not just those from the scholarly community, either.

One essay stands out especially. It probes an intriguing story, the notoriously unsolved murder of a prominent Hadrami Arab, Syed Abdul Kadir Alsagoff, in Singapore in 1908. Was the reason business rivalry, personal jealousy, doctrinal disagreement over the propriety of marriages on a basis of equality between higher- and lower-ranked Hadrami Arabs?

The truth of the matter? We will never know. We may now only wonder and speculate. As Roff wisely concludes, Wa Allahu’alam ... God alone knows.

History, among its best observers and recorders, is not about definitive answers but about good questions and perennial issues. The Alsagoff murder is such a question. The various issues that Roff opens up to his readers in these essays are issues of continuing significance. And Roff does them justice. He has written a book that is as readable and engaging as it is important.

Clive S. Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. He has been researching and writing about Malay society, culture, and politics for over 40 years.
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