Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World

Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid

Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World by Sumit K. Mandal offers a riveting account of the history of Arab migrants in Southeast Asia from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century – a period spanning some 70 years that was most definitive in shedding light on European colonial expansion in the Malay world. Brilliantly illuminating his narrative and analysis with empirical details sourced from original references and fieldwork material in Java (Mandal’s chosen site of investigation), the book is all the more admirable when we consider that the author’s national and ethnic backgrounds do not coincide with those of the subjects he has assiduously researched, and with whom he poignantly empathises with.

The topic of Arabs in Southeast Asia has been dealt with in the past 25 years or so by the contributions of scholars such as Syed Farid Alatas, Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, Omar Farouk Bajunid, Sharifah Zaleha Syed Hassan, and Sumanto Al Qurtuby, but one can easily guess from these authors’ honorifics and surnames that the parallel relationship between their ancestry and the theme would have been an extra stimulant to their research. Going back one generation, the names of such doyens as Syed Hussein Alatas, Syed Naguib Al-Attas, and Cesar Adib Majul, all of whom are Arab, come to mind as representatives of scholarship in the field, whose deeds include rebutting conclusions made by some Dutch historians on issues pertaining to the advent and establishment of Islam in the East Indies. Sumit Mandal, a Malaysian of ethnic Indian and non-Muslim upbringing, will perhaps eventually join the ranks of Western scholars such as Martin van Bruinessen and Mark Woodward, whose writings on Islam and Muslims in Indonesia have helped a great deal in highlighting the finer aspects of Arab influence in Southeast Asia from colonial through contemporary times.    

Mandal’s choice of Java, the major destination of far eastern Arab migration in the 19th century, as his research focus is understandable. In the cities of Batavia, Surabaya, Semarang, Pekalongan, and Ceribon, Java boasted Arab population hotspots that were the primary recipients of restrictive Dutch colonial policies undergirded by heavily racialised segregation of residents based on the categories of “foreign Orientals” (which include Arabs), “Europeans,” and “natives.” Yet, as Mandal deftly shows, not all of these so-called “Arabs” were pure Arabs; they were in fact Peranakan or creole Arabs, the majority of whose forefathers had come from Hadramaut in present-day Yemen and married local women in line with Hadrami culture that did not encourage womenfolk to emigrate together with their male counterparts. Such Hadrami migrants, among whom Sayyids – i.e., direct descendants of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH: peace be upon him) – figured prominently, along with them a family pedigree and geographical origin connecting them to the birthplace of Islam. They quickly established themselves in the Malay world as Islamic scholars, traders, entrepreneurs, and diplomats who gained entrée into indigenous ruling families via strategic marriages. While Java occupies Mandal’s attention for most of the book, he intermittently relates happenings from other Arab population hubs such as Palembang in Sumatra, Pontianak in Kalimantan, Penang, and Singapore.

The above pattern of Arab-Malay world migration had been in place since the 1500s. The earlier destruction of Baghdad at the hands of the Mongols in 1258 unleashed a new impetus for the movement out of Arabia, fuelled by the consequent shift of Muslim maritime commerce to the port-city of Aden in southern Hadramaut. While religious impulse was almost definitely one of the underlying factors behind (if not the cornerstone of) Hadrami assimilation into Malay-Muslim society, one should not discount the roles of their business acumen and merchant networks in sustaining Muslim economies in the face of increasing Chinese competition and rising European colonial wariness. The Dutch, however, were wont to view such Arab-native links, cemented by familial connections by virtue of inter-marriages, as exploitative in favour of the former. As Mandal chronicles, exploitation did take place – for instance, in the form of Arabs’ usurious money-lending practices and economic bondage, which held natives as plantation labour to compensate for failure to pay off arrears accumulated out of pilgrimage trips to Mecca. Occurrences of exploitation became more common as the Europeans sought to establish capitalist ascendancy over their colonies, shifting the Arab economic emphasis to the land from the sea, over which the Arabs gradually lost mastery with the introduction of European-controlled steamships from the 1870s onwards.

Styling themselves as the ostensible protector of the natives against Arab paternalism and Chinese economic prowess, the Dutch sought to restrict and regulate the movements of migrant populations through a devastating pass and quarter system, whereby travel passes were rendered mandatory for travel outside residential quarters designated to population cohorts segmented according to racial identity. Yet, as Mandal demonstrates, racial boundaries were and had always been fluid when they involved creole categories. One could easily slip between being an Arab based on paternal lineage to being a native with indigenous relatives on the mother’s side. Thus, there were odd instances when a population category appeared in one year only to disappear in the next and perhaps re-appear in re-constructed form a few years down the road.

European colonial bureaucracy introduced census classifications, which came as a package of colonial knowledge that was predicated in important respects on 19th-century, Orientalism-laden developments in such fields as anthropology, cultural studies, and linguistics. Boosted by advancements in science and technology, prejudicial understandings of social Darwinism and scientific racism underscored many colonial policies, even if they were legitimised as part of the white men’s civilising mission. In the Dutch East Indies, the archetypal scholar-bureaucrat driving colonial policy in this direction was Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936). As the Adviser for the Bureau for Native and Arab Affairs, Hurgronje enjoyed the close companionship of Hadrami Islamic scholar Sayyid ‘Uthman ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Aqil ibn Yahya Al-‘Alawi (1822-1914). Hurgronje’s innovation in scholarship on Arabs in the East Indies, as Mandal explains, was to attend almost exclusively to Islam in analysing them. This was a far cry from the approach of an earlier commissioned exposition authored by L.W.C. van den Berg (1845-1927) entitled Le Hadhramout et les colonies arabes dans l'archipel Indien (Hadramaut and the Arab Colonies in the Indian Archipelago), originally published in French in 1886. Unable to erase images of complicity with an oppressive colonial regime, Sayyid ‘Uthman’s popularity in turn nosedived among his ethno-religious compatriots.

In spite of having essentialised racial categories enforced upon them by the colonial masters, and having biased impressions of them manufactured by scholars who at one time or another were on the payroll of colonial governments, Arabs in Southeast Asia were far from being monolithic. This became increasingly obvious as more Arabs embraced modernity as adopted by Istanbul during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire or the modernist reforms as popularised by the Al-Manar school in Cairo. Mandal brings out these tensions in Chapter 7, which draws out the wedge between Sayyid-led traditionalists and non-Sayyid or Shaykh-led modernists. The wedge saw contestations over such issues as kafa’a (appositeness) between marriage partners. Helmed then by one Shaykh Ahmad Soerkati (1875-1943), the Al-Irshad movement strove to modernise Arab educational norms and has left its legacy in the Muhammadiyah organisation in Indonesia.

If there were any shortcomings of Mandal’s account, it would be the absence of any mention of Sufi tariqah or mystical brotherhoods in driving Sayyid activism in Southeast Asia. Many of these orders enjoyed a Sayyid leadership during their peak years of proselytisation. These did not necessarily last, except for the ‘Alawiyyah order, which once maintained a famous centre in Kwitang, Jakarta under Habib Ali ibn Abd Al-Rahman Al-Habshi (1870-1968) and until now runs the Ba’alwi mosque in Singapore. In view of the recent resurgence of the Haba’ib (plural of “Habib,” an alternative rendering of “Sayyid”) community among Southeast Asian Muslims, as can be seen by their well-attended grand dhikr(remembrance of God) and salawat (salutation in honour of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH) events graced by dignitaries, the organic linkages between Sayyids, Sufism, and Islamic traditionalism in the Malay world could have been brought out more clearly.

The recent growth in Southeast Asia of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi-Salafi school, sourced from the puritanical teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab (1703-1792) of Nejd in present-day Saudi Arabia, is another missing point that should not have escaped Mandal’s attention in his otherwise entertaining Epilogue. Contemporary Western vilification of Arabs has implicated them as perpetrators of global Islamist terrorism in much the same way that Arabs were strenuously monitored for anti-colonial activities and pan-Islamist inclinations during the heyday of colonialism. However, the underlying currents behind both anti-Western impulses are rather different. In any case, Mandal’s observation of how colonial-era racialised representations of the populace left a devastating and enduring legacy on contemporary ethno-religious politics in Southeast Asia is spot on.