This is an edited version of a comment I had written (in 2006) in response to a sister’s thoughts on the Malay language. She had spoken about the Malays in Singapore and the need to return to appreciating the Malay language and heritage to build an outstanding and glorious generation.

In penning down these thoughts, I hope that I don’t appear contentious. Well, actually, who cares if I do? :P First of all, I don’t deny the advantages of learning a language or, for that matter, more than one language – it helps to build rapport and forge friendships and it is certainly an asset for da`wah. I also agree that the Malay language can be profoundly beautiful.

My take on the Malay language is simply this: that it is just another language. I confess, I do not have the interest to expand or cultivate the Malay language nor do I feel mortified that people other than Malays are teaching Malay at varsity level. I may draw a lot of flak for what I am about to say, but you see, even though I am a Malay, I do not find it necessary. By this, I mean vital to my identity or mission in life. Lest I be misconstrued as a ‘banana’ (i.e., that I am “yellow on the outside but think I am white on the inside”), let me clarify that I do not think that English is superior to Malay either. :)

What makes a Malay “Malay”? Is it the ancestry? Is it the language? Is it the mores he adopts? I remember the Malay movies I watched when I was growing up. They emphasized certain traits like honour, courage, hospitality and gentility (sopan-santun) and back then, I thought these formed the core of our identity.

The more I think about the matter, though, the more convinced I am that race or culture are secondary at best and irrelevant at worst. I have a HUGE problem with the Malay culture – and here I stress once again that I am a Malay and have no problem saying I am one, in case someone feels like walloping me – especially when people place it above religion. I am tired of attending events with music and free mixing. I am tired of hearing how a man must provide hantaran for his bride. (Look it up… these are wedding gifts and money that are given to the bride and do not come under mahr.) I am tired of people saying, “Tapi ini budaya kita!” (“But this is our culture!”) even when told that a certain action is bid`ah and haram.

I used to work in a Malay/Muslim (I hate that term – why not just “Muslim”? but I digress…) organisation and come Bulan Bahasa (Malay Language Month), we would get requests from other Malay organisations asking us to support or sponsor their efforts to promote the Malay language/culture. There were a few worthy causes, but many involved things that are questionable or haram (music, dance etc). In general, it was a reflection of how we Malays are just not understanding the reality of our sad situation.

As a teenager, I had teachers who, seeing how the Malays were lagging academically, pushed us on. Religion was never mentioned, only ethnic pride. I suppose they felt that Islam was a given and was thus taken for granted. I never questioned it then either, but I think that had they instead brought religion to the forefront and used that as a means to attain excellence, how much better it would have been. They would have gone to the root of the problem and achieved success that went beyond the books.

Pride in language and culture are but flawed stategies to success. We can’t gain honour or achieve kegemilangan by promoting our culture or language. We can only get it by striving for the pleasure of Allah and we can only do this if we obey Him and put our deen supreme. This we can only do with knowledge and how can we truly understand if we do not know the language in which Allah spoke to us?

The sister mentioned in her blog, “So before we start learning about other people’s language and religion, shouldn’t we be experts in our own language and religion first?” If we were to try to be experts in our own religion first, then I think that our time and effort would be better spent, not on Malay, but on Arabic. It is infinitely more beautiful and complex than any other language.

Most of all, it is the language of our faith.

Language can shape one’s character, so if we were to hope for excellence for the Malays, then again, I think the best language would be through Arabic. Ibn Taymiyyah rahimahullah said, “Using a language has a profound effect on one’s thinking, behavior and religious commitment. It also affects one’s resemblance to the early generations of this Ummah, the Shahaabah and the Taabi’een. Trying to emulate them refines one’s thinking, religious commitment and behavior.”

Why do the Malays continue to harp on how important Malay is? Why are we so sad that our youngsters are not fluent in it? Why do we not instead grieve over the fact that we cannot understand the Book that holds the key to our salvation?

I am not trying to say one should simply sweep Malay under the carpet; neither am I saying that we should deny our Malay heritage. I am just saying that we are Muslims first and last and that Arabic should be our lingua franca.

After all, what are the Malays without Islam? Nothing much really.