Abdullah’s Bible

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For
a country that is not exactly known for its reading habit, we seem to
be grabbing a lot of books lately, observes Farish Noor. Or to put it more accurately, we
seem to be confiscating and detaining an awful lot of books


 For
reasons best known to themselves, the benighted authorities in this
land of ours have been vigilantly manning the outposts on the
frontier lest we, while sleeping, are caught unawares by the legions
of dog-eared tomes that are – at this very moment –
surreptitiously on their way to this country to ‘pollute, corrupt
and confuse’ our minds. The list of banned books grows ever longer;
and the outrages continue unabated. The latest fiasco was when
thirty-two Bibles were confiscated by customs officials from a
Malaysian Christian on her way back from the Philippines , to be
submitted for inspection by the Ministry of Internal Security.
Strange that Bibles are now seen by some as a potential ‘security
threat’ that need to be confiscated upon entry into the sacred
precinct that is Malaysia . But Bibles? A security threat?
To whom?

All
this talk of ‘dangerous’ texts and potentially dangerous Bibles
in particular reminds me of one particular edition of the Bible that
caused quite a stir when it first came out. In fact so controversial
was this particular edition that it almost never came out at all. For
here I am talking about Abdullah’s Bible; or rather the translation
of the Bible by none other than Munshi Abdullah Abdul Kadir, who is
universally regarded as one of the forefathers of modern Malay
literature.

Now
those of you who remember what you were taught at school (and believe
me, as an academic I am all too familiar with the phenomenon of
selective amnesia among students), will also remember the name of
Munshi Abdullah. He was the Peranakan Muslim scholar and translator
who served both the early British colonial administrators in
Singapore and Malacca as well as the various Malay courts during the
opening stages of the 19th century.

Abdullah
wrote his ‘Hikayat Abdullah’ which stands until today as
one of the most honest accounts of the state of the Malay world at
that crucial juncture in the history of this region. Abdullah was of
course a key figure in the exchange of letters between British
colonial administrators like Raffles, Farquhar, Minto, et al. and the
Malay nobles and kings. The Hikayat of Abdullah was unique for
its pointedly frank observations about all that was wrong with the
world he lived in then, though perhaps one of the most interesting
and touching episodes in the Hikayat is where Abdullah
describes his quarrel with his father, who was afraid that his son
might be tempted off the right path by the ‘deviant teachings’ of
the English missionaries he was working with.

The
thorny issue that was being debated between Abdullah and his peers at
the moment was his role as translator for a particular text that many
of them were reluctant to touch: The New Testament.

Abdullah
had been approached by some English missionaries and commissioned by
them to translate the New Testament into vernacular Malay, which was
to be used at Church as well as the modest missionary efforts among
the colonial subjects of the Crown Colonies. As Malay was the lingua
franca
of everyone who lived in the straits then (including the
Peranakan Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and even the British and
Dutch), it was deemed appropriate to have the Bible translated into
Malay as well.

Munshi
Abdullah who regarded himself primarily as a professional translator
was prepared to do the job that scared off all other contenders;
until his father came into the picture, spewing steam and hot curses,
and swearing that his son would never be converted by the heathen
missionaries. In a touching passage of the Hikayat Abdullah
describes how he appealed to his father’s own sense of values, and
in particular to his father’s own love for knowledge and languages
in general. His father was further persuaded by the appeals of the
priests Milner and Thomson, who promised that they would respect his
father’s wishes and refrain from offering any religious instruction
to Abdullah. In the end, Abdullah notes how the appeals eventually
won over his father’s consent and he was allowed to continue his
study of this foreign language called English. The result of
Abdullah’s efforts came in the form of one of the first vernacular
Malay translations of the New Testament, the Kitab Injil al-Kudus
daripada Tuhan Esa al-Masihi
.

Now
contrary to the fears and doubts of his friends, Munshi Abdullah was
not secretly converted to Christianity as a result of translating the
Kitab Injil al-Kudus. No magic Christian pills were plopped
into his tea behind his back while he was working in the
missionaries’ quarters; nor were there any reported attempts to
lure him to the Church by offers of money, promotions or package
holidays. As he stated from the outset, he was professional through
and through and he carried out his translation work in a scrupulous
and objective manner, to the satisfaction of all.

Today
one can only wonder aloud about the fate of such a text, should it
find itself before the customs officials or immigration desk at KLIA
or the Golok crossing up North. If Bibles from the Philippines can be
detained upon arrival, what then would be the fate of Abdullah’s
Bible, born and bred (or translated and bound) right here, in our
dear ‘ol Malaysia ? And how would be take to Munshi Abdullah,
‘father’ of modern vernacular Malay literature, pioneer of the
vernacular autobiography and realist writing; who also happens to be
one of the first translators of the Bible? Or have we, in denying the
religious complexity and pluralism of Malaysia today, also closed the
door to Malaysia ’s past where Muslims seemed less easily spooked
by books of whichever tongue?

 Dr.
Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore;
and one of the founders of the
www.othermalaysia.org
research site.

This article first appeared in this month’s "Off the Edge"  

READ MORE:  Back to PPSMI? One size cannot fit all

 

 

 

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