The Malays “in the old days” and today are far more intelligent and independent minded than some of our politicians give them credit for. Having insulted their intelligence today, try not to insult their past and history too, for heaven’s sake, says Farish Noor.
As if it was not bad enough that Malaysia has been overrun by an outbreak of frogs – like a scene from some Biblical catastrophe – we now have to stomach the spectacle of humbug heroes and demagogues as well.
One is deeply distressed to read reports of conservative politicians and their followers crying for revenge against those whom they accuse of having offended the fragile sensibilities of the monarchs. According to one such report, Umno deputy Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin had asked his followers, referring to Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, “In the old days, what did we do to those who commit treason?”
The crowd replied, “Kill him!”
Khairy then said they should only ask for Nizar “to be banished”.
Not being a legal expert, I am uncertain of the gravity of the actions of the abovementioned individual. From my own untutored perspective it appeared more like an invitation to violence than anything else. But being a historian myself I am struck by the first part of Khairy’s question, i.e. the phrase: “In the old days …”
The past is never simple
Now that the past has been brought up, the historian in me is compelled to respond by first reiterating that there has never been and will never be a simple, essentialised, linear past. The past is as complex as the present, and there are as many strains and currents of history that have been forgotten and marginalised as there are liminal presences that we remain unaware of.
To suggest somehow that “in the past” those who were found guilty of treason were due for severe punishment – death, in fact, according to Khairy’s followers – is obfuscating the facts. We need to also ask the attendant questions: Who has committed the alleged act of treason, against whom, and why? After all, Nelson Mandela was found guilty of treason and sedition too, for he openly challenged the authority of the racist apartheid state. Likewise the founding leaders of this nation of ours – men such as Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy, Ibrahim Yaakob, and Ahmad Boestaman – were likewise accused of treason and sedition as they struggled against British colonial rule.
On the subject of the relationship between the Malay monarchs and their subjects however, there has also been a lot written in the past that we ought to revisit in the present. The reason for this is that there has been this tendency to see and understand the relations between rulers and the ruled in purely one-sided terms favouring the rulers. Was this always the case? Was there ever a time when power relations in Malay-Muslim society were understood and configured differently?
I think so, and to demonstrate just that I would like to revisit the writings of Imam Buchara al-Jauhari, the scholar who pioneered what can justly be described as the beginnings of Malay-Muslim political theory.
Historic Malay-Muslim scholarship
During the bad old days of Western colonialism in Malaya , Western Orientalist scholars were keen to diminish the value of Malay-Muslim scholarship and to reduce important works of philosophy as mere fairy tales and fables. Not true.
There were texts written by scholars such as the Taj-us Salatin, Mahkota Segala Raja-Raja (1) (The Crown of Kings) of Buchara al-Jauhari (written in 1603 in Aceh); and the Bustan as-Salatin fi Dhikr al-Awwalin wal-Akhirin (The Garden of Kings and the Beginning and End of All Things) of Sheikh Nuruddin (written in 1638). These provide ample proof of the extent which Islamic scholars were already beginning to consider questions relating to the spiritual covenant between God and humankind, as well as the socio-political contract which bound ruler to subject.
These Muslim scholars were neither detached from nor indifferent to the nature of the political space they were penetrating. Indeed, not only were they aware of the political nature of the terrain they were operating in; their very mode of entry was itself political in terms of its strategic approach. By working both within and against the official ideology of the feudal system, Islamic scholars such as al-Jauhari and Sheikh Nuruddin played a crucial role indeed. Their attempt was to mould the wayward rulers into the ideal image of the Islamic ruler as God’s vicegerent on earth and defender of the community.
Nearly half a century before Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan would be published in England (2), Al-Jauhari’s Taj-us Salatin (1603) was already spelling out the duties and responsibilities of the ruler and the role of the court and the laws to restrict the king’s powers. As Taufik Abdullah notes, the function of Islamic texts such as the Taj-us Salatin is clear: it sets out the parameters and guidelines for good government in Islamic terms. It thus inevitably reduces the ruler to the status of God’s servant on earth. Furthermore, it places great emphasis on the role of the pengawal raja, the raja’s advisors, ministers and ulama to ensure that the ruler does not veer off the right path.(3)
What is radically different about the narrative of Al-Jauhari’s Taj-us Salatin when compared to most pre-Islamic feudal propaganda is that it reorganises the worldview of the feudal system in an unmistakable way. In many pro-feudal texts, loyalty is demanded and expected from the rakyat as the right of the ruler. The Taj-us Salatin, however, demands the loyalty of all subjects to the supreme power of omniscient and omnipotent God, thus distracting both loyalty and attention from the rajas themselves.
The emphasis on maintaining the ruler’s just conduct is not merely empty rhetoric or religious homily either. Al-Jauhari devotes several chapters on instructing the courtiers, advisors and servants of the ruler as well. In case the ruler should be in any doubt as to what kind of advisor he should seek, al-Jauhari clearly spells out the Islamic credentials that the ruler ought to look for in his staff:
“Dalam kitab Sifat As-Salatin, hendaklah yang raja itu sentiasa rindukan sahabat akan orang yang berpengetahuan dan orang yang berdiri pada pekerjaan ugama, dan sediakala bertanyakan daripada mereka itu pekerjaan ugama, dan peri orang berugama, dan diingatkan segala perkataan mereka itu.” (4)
These Islamic credentials are of crucial importance. For Al-Jauhari they serve as a safety check by ensuring that the loyalty and obedience of the courtiers is to God before the ruler. The duties of these advisors include the need to educate the king and to instruct future monarchs; the need to present all information that the ruler may require in detail and without fear; and the need to reproach the ruler if and when he or she transgresses the law. (5) For the first time in the history of the traditional feudal universe, the discursive territory of the ruling ideology was being opened up to new participants. The site of political activity was extended beyond the person of the ruler himself to include the courtiers, commanders, qadis, shiekhs and advisors of the court:
“Maka hendaklah raja yang kehendaknya mengerjakan adil dan memelihara akan beberapa orang yang demikian perinya dan pekertinya banyak bawanya dan kurang tanmanya dan keras ugamanya diserahkan raja segala orang itu dalam negeri supaya melihat mereka itu baik dan jahat negerinya, dan mendengar khabar pekerti segala menterinya, dan mengetahui perbuatan segala hulubalang dan hambanya, dan tahu pekerjaan rakyat negeri itu semuanya, dan disampaikan segala khabar itu kepada raja dengan sempurnanya. Maka seharusnyalah akan segala-gala raja-raja memeliharakan berapa orang yang demikian.” (6)
All of these demands are articulated via an Islamic ethical discourse which focuses the subjects’ attention upon their moral and political obligations primarily to God, and no longer the king solely. Should the ruler transgress the rules that God has laid down before him, he immediately forfeits his authority to rule (“erti-nya hilanglah daulat (raja) daripada sebab aniaya” (7)). The end result is a state of chaos and disorder that, by a strange twist, anticipates the Hobbesian account of the state of nature in the Leviathan that would be written half a century later.
A ruler’s place
Al-Jauhari has thus put the ruler in his place. The survival and prosperity of the realm depends upon whether the ruler rules according to the dictates of his faith and abides by its laws, which are, of course, the laws of God. Failure to do so leads to moral degradation, despair, and eventually, total chaos and destruction.
While symbolic power is allowed to remain in the hand of the ruler, the true centre of attention is thus relocated on a higher metaphysical level, beyond the reach of rakyat and rajas alike. It is clear that for Al-Jauhari it is God, and not the ruler, who is truly supreme and that it is God’s will and commandments that are to be obeyed and followed before the raja’s:
“Hendaklah segala hamba raja itu terlebih takut kepada Allah taala daripada takut akan rajanya, dan terlebih harap akan kurnia Allah taala daripada harap akan rajanya.” (8)
A ruler’s attributes
Amidst all this, the ruler is humbled and reduced to being the mere symbolic instrument of God’s will on earth. But even as a symbol of God’s will on earth, the ruler, for Al-Jauhari, is still required to possess and develop certain attributes and characteristics that are the prerequisites for the office of the leader of the community. Among these are piety, charity, fairness and truthfulness. Quoting the Kitab Fadhail al-Muluk, Al-Jauhari warns that the absence of any of these attributes immediately robs the ruler of his credentials:
“Sesungguhnya Allah Taala menitahkan akan adil dan ihsan. Bermula kehendak daripada adil itu kebenaran juga dalam segala pekerjaan dan segala perkataan; dan kehendak daripada ihsan itu kebajikan juga dalam segala pekerjaan dan perbuatan dan perkataan; dan keadaan kedua peri ini daripada sekalian manusia baik adanya daripada segala raja-raja itu terbaik; dan tari’la-lah kedua peri dan barang siapa daripada raja-raja yang tiada dua peri ini padanya tiada dapat dibilang raja adanya.” (9)
Bound thus by the code of law and the demands placed upon him by the faith and his role as the leader of the community, the raja has come to be an appendage to God. By placing the raja at the head of the state as the leader of the community, Al-Jauhari has also placed the burden of maintaining the image of religion on the ruler as well. Al-Jauhari affords the ruler no special privileges on account of his status as raja. Furthermore, Al-Jauhari insists that any ruler should come under particularly heavy scrutiny as he is meant to be the living embodiment of the law he is meant to protect. So great is the responsibility of the ruler that Al-Jauhari doesn’t even afford him the luxury of food and sleep as he undertakes his task of government:
“Maka harus-ah yang raja itu kurang makan dan kurang tidur dan jangan menurutkan hawa nafsu supaya dapat mengerjakan ia pekerjaan kerajaan yang maha sukar mengadakan dengan sebenarnya.” (10)
But such mortal rajas were also liable to fail in their tasks, and the Taj-us Salatin takes seriously the very real possibility that any ruler may occasionally commit an indiscretion. It prescribes the appropriate measures to remedy them without allowing for instances of divine mercy and intervention or even the sympathy of revisionist court historians. The ruler who fails in his duties and does not care for his subjects is told in no uncertain terms that his chances for eternal salvation are low indeed:
“Barang siapa daripada raja-raja yang tiada kasihankan rakyat itu diharamkan Allah Taala atas syurga.” (11)
And in cases where the raja has clearly gone beyond acceptable religious norms and standards, Al-Jauhari’s answer is clear: he is no longer the ruler of his people, but their enemy. (12) Citing the story of Moses and his fight against the fir’aun (pharaoh) as an epic precedent befitting the status of the royal subject he is addressing, Al-Jauhari commends the act of rebellion against any tyrannical ruler. By doing so he has prescribed a formula for legitimate disobedience, while remaining faithful to the tenets of Islam and the principles of Islamic law. For Malay-Muslim scholars like Al-Jauhari, Islam was both a discourse of legitimisation as well as a discourse of delegitimisation whenever it needed to be.
Re-reading the Taj-us Salatin today should remind us that in “the old days” (to quote a politician educated at Oxford ) the Malay-Muslims were far more advanced in their thinking when it came to the question of power-relations between rulers and their subjects. The image of the docile, subservient Malay subject who is blindly loyal to his master may be of some comfort to right-wing politicians bent on developing a cult of worship around themselves. The same image certainly helped to maintain the racist politics of the colonial era too. But the Malays “in the old days” and today are far more intelligent and independent minded than some of our politicians give them credit for. Having insulted their intelligence today, try not to insult their past and history too, for heaven’s sake.
(1) Taufik Abdullah has noted that the Taj-us-Salatin, written by Buchara al-Jauhari in 1603 in Aceh is probably one of the most original Malay-Islamic texts to be found. Although eclectic in its composition, it was an indigenous piece of work, not a translation of Arabic, Persian or Indian texts. Its influence was felt as far as the courts of Surakarta and Yogyakarta in Java. (Abdullah, pg. 41).
(2) It must be noted that Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was only available in England in 1651. He began work on the text while in exile in France in 1640-41. Al-Jauhari’s Taj-us Salatin was composed and completed by 1603 in Aceh, North Sumatra .
(3) The very first chapter of the Taj-us Salatin already begins with the universal declaration of the equality of mankind as creatures and representatives of God on earth. Its Islamic credentials can be found in the way that it draws examples from Islamic and Semitic history in order to illustrate the proper conduct of Muslim rulers. Citing the example of the prophet Muhammad as the exemplar ruler bar none (Chapter 10), the Taj-us Salatin notes down the necessary characteristics and obligations of the just Muslim ruler. These include the need to ensure the prosperity and livelihood of his people; to protect his people from all manner of calamities (from poor government, abuse of power to invasions from abroad); to ensure the stability and prosperity of the country; to protect those who cannot protect themselves such as the poor, the disabled, widows and orphans, etc.; and to ensure that he chooses good advisors and listens to their counsel. (Bukhair [Buchara] al-Jauhari, Taj-us Salatin , edited by Khalid Hussain, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, 1966.)
(4) Translation: “And it is written in the Qitab Sifat As-Salatin that the ruler should always seek the company of those who are knowledgeable, and those who are engaged in matters of religion, and he should seek their instruction in all religious duties, and enquire about the characteristics of the pious, and remember what is taught to him.” (pg 75)
(5) Ibid pp 71-74.
(6) Translation: “And therefore it is necessary for the ruler who wishes to rule justly to have several advisors around him whose characteristics are their dedication, lack of greed and strength in their religious devotions; and they are to be sent to all corners of the realm so that they may see all that is good and bad about it, (and they) must relate the reports from his ministers, and know of the deeds of his commanders as well as his servants, and know of the work of all his subjects; and all this must be conveyed without fail. Therefore the ruler must cultivate such a reliable staff around him.”(pg 72)
(7) Translation: “This means that he (the ruler) has lost his right to sovereignty due to his cruelty.” (pg 73)
(8) Translation: “And all the servants of the king must first of all place their fear in God almighty above all else and before their king, and they must also hope for the bounty of God almighty rather than their king.” (Hussain, pg 150)
(9) Translation: “Verily, Allah taala has demanded (us to be) fair and charitable. For from fairness comes truthfulness in all our deeds and all our words; and from charity comes kindness in all our labour and all our work and all our deeds; and these two virtues are found in all of mankind though in the ruler they are found most of all; and these two virtues, if they are not found in the ruler, then it cannot be said that the ruler is truly a ruler at all.” (pg 67)
(10) Translation: “And therefore the ruler should eat less and sleep less, and the ruler should never submit to his desires, so that he may be able to perform his duties of kingship which are such a great burdensome responsibility unto him.” (pg 71)
(11) Translation: “And whichever king who fails to show pity to his subjects, Allah taala has forbidden him from entering heaven.” (pg 70)
(12) AC Milner has noted that the in the Taj-us Salatin is the famous injunction: “Because the king is wrong, he has turned his face from Allah, those who deviate from Allah’s law and reject the syariah are enemies of Allah and Allah’s prophet. It is obligatory for us to treat the enemies of Allah as our enemies.” This, in effect, is probably one of the first attempts to give an Islamic license to revolt against one’s ruler in the kerajaan era, by turning a revolt into a holy war. (Milner, 1983, pg 26)
This article first appeared on www.thenutgraph.com.
Dr Farish A Noor is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore and affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia . He is also the co-founder of www.theothermalaysia.org website, where this article also appears.