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.
Jazakillah khayran! Sister, it has been TOO LONG! We must meet soon… maybe when your home is all done up!
InshaAllah. Yes, it has been a long time since we met.
This was a great post, Ma sha Allah. You had some awesome gems in this post that are inspiring me to post a few things on the same topic too! Barak Allahu feeki.
very nice post mashaallah. jak for this. I feel the same way! how come i never knew you were malay before this? or am i mixing up the many imaans i know from the blog world?
wa `alaykum as salaam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh!
You know, I got to know a few mums online when I was in Singapore and sometimes chatted with them. Once I joined a group chat and the mums often lapsed into Malay. One of the mums kept translating for me and I wondered why she kept explaining things to me :P I realised then that she didn’t know I was (am) Malay! I don’t know why I don’t seem Malay online :P
I was in malaysia for 5 years . I was sent there because we thought it was a muslim country.It was more like malay culture with an islamic flavour,just as it is almost everywhere else. The worst bit was all the malpractices of culture and malays in general were attributed by the nonmuslim minorities to the Islam . For example muslim boyfriends and girlfriends having iftar holding hands ! not to mention the skin tight clothing
as salaamu `alaykum… Yes, this problem exists in many countries/cultures not just among the Malays. May Allah guide us all ameen.
“race or culture are secondary at best and irrelevant at worst.”
“we are Muslims first and last”
Yet, this is a complicated subject. As Muslims, yes, we should learn Arabic in order to understand the Quran better. But for those of us born in a non-Arabic speaking country, this is a slow and on-going process in which the overwhelming majority of us will never be as fluent in Arabic as in our native language. As someone who works in the field of language learning, I have seen that most of the children of immigrants in the U.S. lose the ability to speak the language of their parents, certainly at least fluently. They may (or may not) understand a lot of it, but that understanding is much, much less than their understanding in English. And if that’s the case for the children of immigrants, who hear their parents speak their homeland’s language every day, how much more so for the children born into an English-speaking home.
Definitely, language has an effect on our thinking. Again, the need to learn Arabic. At the same time, for non-Arabic speakers, the language that shapes our thinking the most is the one we were born with.
So, what does this mean for me, a convert to Islam? As a Muslim, my priority is to put Allah first and use the Quran to guide my path. If I wait until I have a real understanding of Arabic, I will have lost many years in shaping my behavior and my mind to conform to the guidance of Allah. Even after becoming fluent in Arabic, which would take a minimum of 10 years based on my understanding of language acquisition, the formative years of my life are still more influenced by my native language. It’s sort of like listening to music. When my international friends listen to American music, and when I listen to their music, I don’t feel anything and understand very little. When I listen to the music of the younger generation, I understand most, but don’t feel anything. But when I listen to the music of my youth, many associations come into play in which I have more understanding and more emotion.
In following the guidance of Allah, I want to do so 100% with my mind and my heart. And it is unlikely that I will ever be able to do that learning Arabic in an English-speaking country. Yes, I want to learn Arabic to understand better the Quran. At the same time, I want to shape my mind as much as possible in accordance with our religion, and the best way to do that, based on my understanding of learning a language, is in English. Allah knows best.
as salaamu `alaykum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh Charles
JazakAllah khayran for your comment. As someone who speaks (and thinks in!) primarily English and as someone who also grew up in a non-Muslim and non-Arabic speaking country, I understand, empathise and completely identify with your experience and opinion.
I regret that I did not give a clear picture of my background because I may have given the impression that I think less of those who do not know Arabic or do not study Islam in Arabic.
I’d like to clarify that I myself am struggling to learn Arabic even though I am of Malay-Arab parentage. The Arabs in Singapore have been here for many generations. Due to many factors (British colonialism and its influence on the education system here, assmimilation into the Malay culture, etc.), most Arabs here no longer speak the language. (Many here speak English and Malay.) They can read the Qur’an in Arabic but what is left of their Arab heritage? Just biological make-up and what is largely cultural – food, certain rituals and such. The language has been lost and many Muslims here don’t realise that they have let a treasure slip through their hands. (Do you see now why I am so bitter?) Instead of trying to rectify this, many are harping on all the wrong issues… like piffling, pettifogging campaigns on how to preserve the Malay culture.
I too have been studying Islam in English and I too believe that we can’t wait or put if off if we have difficulty in learning Arabic. We do the best we can with whatever we have and we pray that Allah puts barakah in our efforts. Alhamdulillah, there are so many resources now in English – a far cry from when I was growing up!
What I believe that Muslims now must do is to change the mindset. We need to give our kids what we did not have… a solid education grounded in Islam with a strong command of the Arabic language.
Thank you for the clarification. Yes, the mindset is crucial. This morning after sahur my family read a translation in English of Al-Lail and Ash-Shams which emphasize the importance of the mindset of being conscious of God in striving for good and purity.