Arabic and the Qur’an
One undeniably universal expression of religiosity is the recitation (qira’a) of the Qur’an, which all Muslims are enjoined to learn as soon as they are able. The Qur’an is understood to be the eternal expression of God’s will revealed through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, who is believed by Muslims to be the last messenger appointed to mediate between God and humanity. Indeed the Qur’an is also affirmed as the final validation of the messages of all the prophets before him, including those known in the Jewish and Christian traditions. These include Abraham, Joseph, and Jesus, though there are additional figures such as Iskandar (Alexander the Great) and the enigmatic Khidr.
The Qur’an contains stories of all these prophets and many accounts of the difficulties that they—and Muhammad in particular—had in being accepted by their own people before winning them over and establishing God’s law (shari`a) among them. It is further replete with parables ranging over a broad range of human experience, and its recitation brings feelings of closeness to God and His Prophet, as well as solidarity with Muslims all over the world. Some Southeast Asians, such as the Indonesian Hajja Maria Ulfah, have even obtained international recognition for the quality of their recitations.
Yet while the Qur’an may be recited as proficiently, and as often, in Jakarta and Pattani as in Mecca or Algiers, the fact remains that the Holy Text was revealed in Arabic, and in the Arabic of Muhammad’s day. As such all Muslims require explanation of its meanings and those of non-Arab traditions—whether in India, Central Asia or Southeast Asia—require the additional intervention of translation.
The task of the explanation of the divine text is helped, in part, by the fact that Malay (both in its modern Indonesian and Malaysian variants), Javanese, and several other Austronesian languages spoken in insular Southeast Asia, are infused with Islamic terms. This process of linguistic appropriation may be linked with the expansion of a Muslim role in the trade linking the port towns of Southeast Asia, starting in the thirteenth century. It was in this way that the Arabic of the Qur’an, its associated scholarly traditions, and the everyday speech of many of the visiting traders suffused local languages—Malay in particular—with both sacred and profane terms. For example, the Arabic word fard (broadly meaning an obligation), has left two traces in Malay: one with the same sense of a “religious obligation” (fardu), and the other as the more general verb “to need” (perlu).
Regardless of the presence of Arabic elements in the Malay vocabulary that are not specifically religious, Southeast Asian Muslims have long been mindful of the sacred role that Arabic has played in what has increasingly become their history as much as that of Arabs. Certainly, there is a long history of the translation and explication of the Qur’an in the region, although it is important to note that in the Islamic tradition a translation, being the result of human interpretation, may never be elevated to the status of the divine text itself.
This principle, along with heightened contacts with new forms of Islamic thought being propagated from British-occupied Egypt and India in the late nineteenth century, led to debates in the similarly-colonised entities of Indonesia (then the Netherlands Indies) and Malaysia about the legitimacy of attempting to produce a translation—particularly after the widespread availability of printing presses and heightened literacy made it a commercial possibility. Some even argued that written translation (as opposed to the glossing of words and fragments) had never been permitted by Islamic law.
Whether permitted or not, such translations have long been made. Indeed, among the Islamic books brought back to Europe from Southeast Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were Qur’anic texts, religious treatises, and works in verse that made use of holy scripture. These include the works of the mystical poet Hamzah Fansuri (d. 1527), who liberally infused his writings with Qur’anic verses, as well as more neutral Arabic, Persian, and Javanese terms, while stressing his distinct identity as a Malay of Fansur, a port-town of Sumatra.