Thursday, October 14, 2010
The Patani script is a cultural treasure
The issue of Jawi has once again reached the public sphere. The debate among linguists and academics is centred on how to preserve this Malay historical treasure while at the same time come to terms with realities and challenges confronting the Muslim community residing in the southernmost provinces
On the one hand is a group of Thai academics who believe that using the Thai alphabet to teach the Malay language, as opposed to the traditional Arabic script known as Jawi, would best serve locals in the deep South, where students continue to score lowest in exams compared to the rest of the country.
On the other hand are the guardians of the Patani-Malay culture who see these government-funded initiatives as a form of encroachment on their cultural treasures.
These people are extremely proud of the fact that Jawi is still being used in Thailand's Malay-speaking South - also known as Patani - while the rest of the Malay-speaking world has opted for a colonial legacy by replacing the Arabic script with Rumi or Roman alphabets.
They blame the poor student performance on lack of commitment by the state. The end to this argument is nowhere in sight.
To better understand why the Malays of Patani are so passionate about their alphabets, it is important to understand the linkages between the language, the people and their Islamic faith.
It has been said that the Malay language is as old as the ancient Hindu Kingdom of Langasuka, and that the early 14th-century artefact known as the Terengganu Inscription Stone constitutes the earliest evidence of Jawi writing to have been found in the Malay world.
The discovery of this 700-year-old inscription gave testimony of the role Islam has played in the Malay Peninsula and the extent to which Islam has been embraced by the people of this region. Beside declaring that Islam was the state religion, the inscriptions also highlighted 10 Islamic laws and their punishments.
While Malay Muslims embrace the concept of a holy language, namely Arabic, they also believe that it was God's will to have his subjects be broken down into various tribes and nations with their own languages and cultural characteristics. And while learning the Arabic language is a religious requirement for all Muslims, many clerics would also argue that Muslims are obligated to protect and defend their culture while at the same time respecting others.
Therefore, it is understandable that Malay Muslims in the deep South take to heart Surah 49, verse 13 in the Koran, which states:
"O mankind! We created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise [each other]. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is [he who is] the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted [with all things]."
Today, much of the Thai public is still confused as to the nature of Malay language and the nature of Jawi. Basically, one is the spoken language of a people and the latter is its written form in Arabic script.
The use of Arabic script as the written form of the Malay language came into being almost immediately after the arrival of Islam in the Malay Peninsula and was propagated by the Malay Muslim clerics, or "ulema", who returned home from their studies in the Middle East to spread the word of Islam.
The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, but minor adjustments were made by adding six more to accommodate the Malay language, including a letter that generated the sound "v" as in "victory".
The use of the Jawi script allowed the entire Malay-speaking world and its various dialects - from Patani Darusalam to Nusantara (Indonesian archipelago) - to communicate in a more systematic fashion. Islam, along with the text and other religious books, was spread throughout much of Southeast Asia through the use of Jawi. A number of ulema from Patani made considerable contributions in this respect and their work helped put Patani on the map of Malay civilisation.
Numerous Arabic texts were translated into the Malay language and students at the numerous pondoks and madrasah that dotted the three southernmost provinces continue to use these text to study Islam.
The colonial period left its mark, and the use of the Roman script is a testimony of the extent of its influence. Nations were created and the legitimacy of their political boundary was pretty much based on the borders of the colonial powers that occupied their respective homelands.
Newly created nation-states, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei continued with the use of Rumi for political and various other reasons.
Today, however, a generation that grew up using Rumi in their everyday life is turning to Jawi, seeing the need to preserve this dying cultural asset.
In spite of the lack of appreciation among wider Thai society for the cultural treasures of the Malays of Patani, the state has learned quickly that when it comes to religion and cultural identity - which in many respects are two sides of the same coin for the Muslims of Thailand's deep South - the Malays of this contested region will not compromise. It is this refusal to compromise that permits the continuity of Jawi.
Thailand, of course, can do a better job in preserving this cultural heritage of Patani.
We should take pride in the fact that this Patani cultural treasure is also a cultural treasure of Thailand, something that we can appreciate, understand and embrace, instead of seeing it as an obstacle. We often preach about respect, human dignity and living in peaceful coexistence. These noble values must be respected if we are to live in peace and move on as a nation.
By Fadell Hayeeharasah lecturer at Kasem Bundit University in Bangkok, where he teaches the Malay language.The Nation, Bangkok