What have I been reading lately?
Recently finished a great book I should have read long ago: Jeffrey Hadler’s Muslims and Matriarchs (Cornell 2008). I read this at the urging of David Kloos (thanks for the prompt, David!). This is a social history of the Minangkabau society in West Sumatra, and gives a dynamic perspective on the institutions for which the region is so famous (longhouses, matriarchy, Islamic learning, Islamic modernism etc). Hadler discusses some fascinating texts originally written by Minangkabau people as school exercises, and by doing so, he conveys an assortment of voices more domestic and intimate than one might otherwise encounter in a historical work of this kind.
The book had extra value for me as a detailed study of a sub-national Indonesian culture. Jeffrey is a student of West Sumatra, I am a student of West Java. And this is where it gets interesting. Jeffrey’s work throws light on some issues concerning Sundanese identity. Sundanese frequently point out to me that positions of leadership in West Java have been and are frequently occupied by non-Sundanese – the most famous example is Kartosoewirjo, the Javanese leader of the Dar ul-Islam rebellion – and that Minangkabau men have been especially prominent amongst such leaders. Some of my friends even read this as a national trait of the Sundanese: they are too ready to follow the leadership of non-Sundanese. Seems far-fetched, but the examples are there. Examples of Minangkabau who became leaders in West Java include Muhammad Natsir (1908-1993), Muhammad Isa Anshary (1916-1969) and Rusyad Nurdin (1918-2002). The entry point into West Javanese society for all three men was the Islamic Association (Persis), a famous West Javanese institution.
Why should these men have done so well in West Java? For one thing, both provinces are very Islamic – according to Indonesian census figures, West Sumatra and West Java both have Muslim populations exceeding 97% of the total population. In this sense, they are similar environments. Hadler points out that in the 19th century Minangkabau men were quite active in their uptake of the bureaucratic/clerical skills that would be required in the era of the market economy, and that the colonial native schools of the region were populist (in contrast to the hierarchical West Javanese, perhaps?). Apart from that, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the core social institution of the matriarchate had changed fundamentally, meaning Minangkabau men ‘were forced to question received and seemingly elemental cultural definitions. It was this condition of fundamental and inescapable change that made Minangkabau unique and dynamic, capable of envisioning possibilities and making them real’ (155).
Conditions in West Java were different. In the decades of rapid change in the first half of the twentieth century, while Malay was gaining acceptance as proto-national language, knowledge of the language was not high in West Java, whereas Minangkabau have reasonable claims to being labelled as the original speakers of Bahasa Indonesia. Literacy was low in West Java. In 1930, only 7% of Sundanese were literate, and even more revealing, less than 5% of Sundanese at that time lived in the three most highly populated municipalities (kota) of West Java Province (Batavia, Meester Cornelis and Bandung). Furthermore, the Sundanese nobility attempted to keep a firm grip on government and commerce (the work of Thommy Svensson gives some good examples). All this suggests that in the first half of the twentieth century, when West Javanese towns were becoming prosperous nodes in the market economy, Malay-speaking Minangkabau might have been better equipped than Sundanese to find success in urban contexts.
I’ve just come off a big spell of reading Hasan Mustapa (1852-1931), the Sundanese cleric, colonial official, mystical poet and all-round outside thinker. Has a more enigmatic figure ever set pen to paper in the world of Indies/Indonesian Islam? I finally finished off the five volumes of Mustapa’s mystical verse published by Kiblat in 2009 (respect to Pak Ajip and Bu Ruhalia for the great work on these!), as well as a recently published collection of writings by Ahmad Gibson Albustomi, most of which deal with Mustapa and his work (thanks to Neneng Lahpan for bringing the book to Monash!). Kang Gibson, who lectures in comparative religion at UIN Sunan Gunung Djati (and also runs the computer network there), has been the major interpreter of Mustapa since Ajip Rosidi’s 1989 anthology, publishing regularly in Pikiran Rakyat and other forums. Gibson’s book is distinct for the way he mobilises Mustapa’s ideas in the context of contemporary West Java. In Gibson’s view, contemporary Sundanese have much to learn from Mustapa’s ideas on religion and social life. Gibson’s message is: all humans need Mustapa in the present! (You can read more about these works and Mustapa in my 2014 BKI essay Arriving at the Point of Departing: Recent Additions to the Hasan Mustapa Legacy, in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 170 (2014) 107–112.
Here is a taste of Mustapa’s thinking, translated by myself and Hawe Setiawan from The Fundamentals of Islamicness. It captures Mustapa’s style well. (I frequently have the impression that Mustapa is leading me in circles). This was composed around 1899:
‘People say it is difficult to search for the feeling of Allahness, and that is because the feeling is only an introduction, and if someone has not yet experienced the feeling, he puts emphasis on the thing’s name, and is moved to ask: What is its nature? For instance, a child wants to taste the thing called ‘sweetness’, but we could swap it for something else; a sick person wants a strawberry, but we could give him a snack made from flour. When we want revelation of something because of the fact that the thing exists, when we obtain it, even if it is real, we disregard it, for although the thing really exists, it is something new, whereas what we search for is not new but something that exists. When we want revelation of the nature of life, the life we have is disregarded, because even though the life is real, it is new, but what we are searching for is life, not something new. When we want revelation of the nature of knowledge, the knowledge we have is disregarded, because although it is knowledge, it is new, and what we are searching for is knowledge, not new knowledge. When we want revelation of the nature of want, the want we meet is disregarded, because even though it is really want, it is new, and what we seek is want, not a new want. When we want revelation of the nature of hearing, the one we come across is disregarded, because although it is genuinely hearing, it is new, and what is sought is hearing, not something new. When we want revelation of vision, the vision we come across with is disregarded, because although that vision is real, it is new, and what we seek is vision not something new. When we want revelation of the nature of speech, the one we come across is disregarded, because although it is real, it is new, and what we seek is speech, not something new…’
Keith Foulcher and Brian Roberts
A Weekend with Richard Wright. We had the good fortune to host Keith Foulcher and Brian Russell Roberts for a Centre of Southeast Asian Studies seminar (28/5/2013). Brian lectures at Brigham Young University in Utah, and is the author of ‘New Negro Ambassadors: Literary, Racial, and International Representation’. This was his first visit to Monash. Keith continues his amazing journey through Indonesian writing and culture, with continuing attention to post-independence modernist visions. The two are researching the (CIA-funded!) visit of Richard Wright to Bandung in 1955, where he covered the Asia-Africa Conference. Brian and Keith showed that Wright’s meetings in Indonesia with intellectuals such as Mochtar Lubis and Sutan Takdir Alisjabana triggered a series of misunderstandings about racial sensibilities and decolonisation. I found this to be a gripping talk, which motivated me to check out their recent article in PMLA (126.3, 2011), which is for the main part a translation (from Dutch) of an account of Wright’s visit by the Dutch Indonesian writer Beb Vuyk. Brian and Keith have consulted widely for this research, including such people as Ajip Rosidi and Atep Kurnia (who wrote a thesis on Wright’s visit), and I look forward to further publications. They form an impressive duo: Brian’s field is modernism and black American writing (although he is learning Indonesian – way to go Brian!), while Keith’s feel for early versions of Indonesia’s national culture is unparalleled. At a time when area studies is having to justify its value, this was a strong reminder of how regionally-specific expertises can cut across the reductive and generalising tendencies of much contemporary humanities scholarship.
Ahmad Baso, Pelesetan Lokalitas (2002). Baso’s work is refreshing for his reluctance to accept broadly received constructions of categories such as religion, performance, culture, work and so on. This book helped me understand the constraints affecting performance and religious expression in the public sphere. His work cuts through the rigid definitions of these concepts that are accepted in public discourse, and invites us to take a deeper look. Ahmad is/was a researcher for a uniquely placed cultural studies project, the Desantara foundation.
Ibnu Hijar Apandi
Ibnu Hijar Apandi. Hijar is a low-key but intense man whom I frequently meet in company with the Centre of Sundanese Studies crowd in Bandung. He doesn’t speak much about his own work, which is mainly published as poems, articles and other pieces in the magazine Cupumanik, but the longer I am exposed to it, the more I think I understand his project. He makes me think that the destructionof the Sundanese writing genres he employs within his prose pieces is a paralell process to the negative effects of development on the area he calls his own, namely the location of Cihideung in Northern Bandung (he comes from Suka Mulya – salam untuk Ustad Cecep!). The most recent piece of his that I have read describes, in warm humour, his efforts to become a flower-farmer in this fresh, highland area (this is a funny piece, Jar!). This includes many sisindiran: The land I work is as wide as a spade/I rent it from a Chinese landlord/The inheritance left by my ancestors/Is now owned by someone else.
Ajip Rosidi, Haji Hasan Mustapa jeung karya-karyana (1989). I am sure I will never understand this book – a remarkable and sprawling work of dedicated scholarship – for as long as I live. But I am trying! So is Kang Hawe: together we have been translating ‘Stages on the Journey to Islamicness’ for publication in a forthcoming volume about Hasan Mustapa.
Andries (‘Hans’) Teeuw: Shair Ken Tambuhan (1966). This is probably not his best work, but it had a great influence on me when I was studying older Malay writing. I pulled it out to renew contact with him now that the great man has passed on (May 18, 2012). He opened up so many vistas for scholars of writing, and for that I hold him in utmost respect.
Mohammad Natsir: Fiqhud Da’wah (1965). This is a must for anyone wanting to find out how the world looks to someone inspired in their subservience to monotheism. From that view, the world is rich with promise and potential, and this book conveys the intensity of that experience. Natsir’s humourous account of wayang as dakwah is an affectionate view of Indonesian Islamic performance, although behind this description looms the shadow of a Sumatran who never really got the Java thing. The book has been in constant print since being assembled out of his writings on dakwah in the mid-1960s.