Who is Hamka?

HamkaHaji Abdul Malik bin Abdul Karim Amrullah, better known as “Hamka” (1908–81) is a renowned Southeast Asian Muslim scholar and cleric. Author of more than a hundred books and articles that touched on Islamic philosophy, theology, history, jurisprudence, ethics, literature, and culture, Hamka’s diverse writings are still read and referred to by many scholars, students and the layman alike. His thirty-volume exegesis of the Quran, the Tafsir Al-Azhar, is regarded as among the most influential among Muslims in Southeast Asia.

Hamka was born in Minangkabau, in Sumatra in the early twentieth century from a family of scholars and reformers. He was initially taught by his father, Abdul Karim Amrullah, in an Islamic school established by reformist Muslims then. Hamka mastered the Arabic language, memorized the Qur’an and was tutored in the finer details of Islamic laws. He was quickly disillusioned with the rote learning and strict discipline that was common in most Islamic schools in the early twentieth century. At the young age of sixteen years old, Hamka dropped out of formal schooling and was practically self-taught. A fast reader who was endowed with a strong memory, he spent much of his days at private libraries owned by his father’s students reading Arabic books on any subject that quenched his thirst for knowledge.

Upon his return from Mecca in his early twenties, Hamka began establishing himself as a novelist, amateur journalist and a writer of popular Islamic books. Sufi-inspired books such Lembaga Budi (Foundation of Character), Falsafah Hidup (Philosophy of Life), Lembaga Hidup (Foundation of Life) and Tasauf Modern (Modern Sufism) were best sellers throughout Indonesia in the 1930s and 1940s. They were Islamic versions of what is now termed as “self-help books” which provide admonitions and guidelines on the paths to achieving true happiness in life.

Tenggelamnya Kapal Van Der WijckAt the same time, Hamka gained fame as an admired realist novelist who documented the challenges faced by Muslims in his era. Titles such as Si Sabariyah, Dibawah Lindungan Ka’abah (Under the Protection of Ka’bah), Kerana Fitnah (Because of Defamation), Tenggelamnya Kapal van der Wijck (The Sinking of van der Wijck), and Merantau Ke Deli (Sojourning to Deli) were at first serialized in magazines and newspapers before they were published as books. These stories received much enthusiasm from Muslim readers and went through several reprints before the outbreak of the Second World World War. Beyond the imagination of his own father who felt that his son was a “good-for-nothing and would never become an alim (learned man) like that of his ancestors, Hamka, the problematic and stubborn child, grew to become a respected Muslim da’i (missionary) who inspired and empowered Muslims through the force of used his pen and imagination.