Hamka as Public Historian

I was reading Hamka’s Ayahku (2016) when I encountered fellow academic Dr Syed Khairudin Aljunied, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore, in the same year at a conference in Ipoh, Perak.

At that time, I was dwelling on the early part of the book, very much on the history and the coming of Islam to Minangkabau society. Syed Khairudin related that he too was reading the book — research for a book about Hamka, Islam and his cosmopolitanism, to be published not long after the meeting. My engagement with Hamka, the polymath, was much out of interest on his thoughts and worldview on modernity.

In the mid to late 1970s, while at secondary school and university, I would frequent a small outlet called Timoer Store at what was then Simpang Enam, along Jalan Dato’ Keramat, in Pulau Pinang. The bookshop sold books on Islam, those published mainly in Kota Baru, Singapura and Bandung. It was there that I came across a slim copy about the 13th-century sage Jalaluddin Rumi. At the same place, I bought Hamka’s Falsafah Hidup, published in 1977 by Pustaka Antara. There were also books by Penang-based Sinaran Brothers.

Abdullah Malik Abdul Karim Amrullah (1908 – 81), Hamka, as many in Malaysia would remember, was the public face of Islam in the 1970s. He would appear on Malaysian television, speaking on various aspects of Islam—ethics, theology, morality; and history and society of the Malay archipelago and the Islamic world.

In recent times, there is a surge of interest in Hamka, noticeably amongst the younger generation Malays, that saw his works re-published both by established and newer publishers.

Last week Syed Khairudin presented his book titled Hamka and Islam: Cosmopolitan Reform in the Malay World (2018) at the ISTAC’s Monthly Book Discussion Forum. ISTAC is The International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization at the International Islamic University. I was one of three discussants. One other discussant was Dr Afifi Hamka, an educationist from Jakarta. He is the son of Hamka.

During the discussions, I focused on Syed Khairudin’s contribution to advancing the “omnipresent” corpus of Hamka’s writings and the significance of the book to intellectual production.

Hamka and Islam is the first in the English language that synthesises the expanse of Hamka’s corpus with more than 100 books—histories, treatises, surveys, commentaries, exegeses, speeches, sermons and lectures.

His works are certainly a significant contribution to the intellectual history of Malay society. In that sense, Hamka left us with a body of works on the study of Malay attitudes, behaviours and sentiments in engaging with modernity and colonialism. Apart from the writings of Abdullah Abdul Kadir, or Munsyi Abdullah (1796-1854) and Jose Rizal (1861-1896), the works of Hamka lend to us an alternative source in developing an autonomous tradition for the study of Malay society in the Malay archipelago, especially the dynamics of culture and change in Malaysia and Sumatera.

If the sociology that we know was borne out of a crisis in modern Europe through the likes of the French Philosophes, Durkheim, Simmel, Weber and Marx, Hamka was one of the early Muslim thinkers in the modern period who saw a crisis in the Muslim/Malay world. He cast a long shadow on the history of Islamic reform. He created an endogenous sociological tradition (not in the academic sense) that can help us problematise, conceptualise and theorise Malay society fairly over the last 200 years.

There is one other significant contribution out of this which had earlier escaped my attention, i.e. the use of history as a tool for change and reform.

Hamka writes history. And according to Syed Khairudin, it is still widely read among Muslims in the Malay world. In chapter six, titled ‘History as a Tool of Reform’, Syed Khairudin noted that Hamka’s corpus includes themes such as the global history of Islam, great Muslim personalities and the history of spiritual movements in Indonesia. These were reprinted several times.

Significantly, his works have now become a source for professional historians in the Malay world. Hamka’s works are said to have vastly exceeded the influence of academic works and are acknowledged as a source of reference for both the public and scholars. The traits of Hamka’s work are seen “as striking because he single-handedly bridged the gaps between academic and popular historians”. Syed Khairudin describes Hamka best as a cosmopolitan public historian.

Hence, Hamka sought to make history accessible to the general public. Hamka is conscious of personal experiences and the collective memories of others. Here he fuses them with his historical narratives. He is intimate with his subjects. Hamka knows history and what it can do. He believes and practises it in his consciousness to reconstruct the minds of ordinary Malay-Muslims across both sides of the Straits of Melaka. Know the past, know your ancestors.

That was his plea to the Malays.

Hamka’s writing brings forth the legacy of cosmopolitanism embedded in the varying Malay traditions. His writings call for Malay-Muslims to be open to their coreligionists of different backgrounds and also to non-Muslims in the Malay world. In Sejarah Umat Islam (1994), Hamka sought to capture and popularise the legacy of Muslim history in the Malay world in his effort for reform. The discourse on Islamic history mainly falls short of the Malay archipelago. It stops at the Indian sub-continent. Hamka, the ulama and the intellectual, was not an Arabist.

He aims to project and link into “one seamless and synergistic whole” (to quote Syed Khairudin) the Arab world of Islam and other centres of faith in Africa, Asia and Europe.

Significantly in this context, he sought “to reform the self-identity of Malay-Muslims into a feeling of belonging to a millennium-old civilisation”. Hamka’s work is part of a wave of writing “new Muslim histories” in the wake of the emergence of new nation-states, post-World War 2 in the empowerment from colonialism.

In the Malay archipelago, the earlier introduction of the printing press, the publication of periodicals and newspapers in the dynamics of Malay journalism beginning the middle 1800s, and the mass production of books some decades later in the century ushered the writing of Muslims histories and challenged the colonial order. Hamka wrote in the vernacular language and exposed his readers to immediate challenges, locating it between the past and the future.

He challenges the dominant historiography and discourse, in that Islam in this part of the world is not derivative of Middle-Eastern Islam, nor from India; that Malay-Islamic thought is not peripheral to the larger story of the spread of Islam in world history. Hamka is an embodiment of the pluralistic and inclusive character of what Syed Khairudin described as “Muslim cosmopolitanism”.

My reading of Ayahku, where Hamka criticises his father’s stance on Islam, in the wake of Minangkabau history and society, has been fairly cast by Hamka’s history as an instrument of change and the larger cosmopolitan reform.

I end this essay with Syed Khairudin’s consciousness of the presence of Hamka in his midst. Borrowing from Muhammad Asad’s Islam at the Crossroads (1999), Hamka “came over me like a robber who enters a house by night; but unlike a robber, it entered to remain for good”.

The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at ahmadmurad@usm.my