Back in 1966 I wrote a song in which mentioned an old town in Malaya, about a fisherman I met there and a song he taught me. Strange how life and history unrolls… here we are today 50 years later brought together in faith, brotherhood and culture.
Malaysia is a unique nation, after studying its history I discovered something very special, its connection to Islam was like mine: an unexpected meeting with destiny, born out of love for beauty, ethics and honesty. It was not the sword, but the glaring arrival of truth and the noble face of humanity which made us bow down. For me it was the Qur’an. The instant uncovering of mysteries and secrets which only Divine revelation can explain.
The way the Qur’an presented the reality of this universe was so convincingly obvious, simply staring straight at our eyes: the miraculous balance within nature, the harmony of male and female, night and day, the glorious sun and moon, stars and galaxies, bountiful plants, fruits, trees oceans and creatures of all shapes, sizes and characters, large and molecular, in this universe, if all this evidence of beauty and predestination were not enough to challenge our intelligence and make us appreciate the existence of the most perfect, All-Wise Creator, what else could possibly wake us from our ignorant slumber?
The Message, above all, directed me unswervingly towards absolute oneness. The contradictions of multi-devotional view of life, where mysterious forces from the unseen played with mankind’s fate; where different deities and religions seemed to battle and clash for dominance, was hard to accept.
Instinctively, I began to feel at home.
The arrival of Islam in Malaya is a wonderful tale of transformation and gradual change. It must have been amazing when the people of the islands came in touch with the Arab and Muslim merchants. The profound simplicity of the message of Unity must have opened their hearts. Also, their characteristics and manners were shaped by God-consciousness; the brightness of their faces, the trustworthiness and honesty of their behavior and cleanliness; the way they prayed and their peaceful demeanor and social interaction, must have shone out.
The more the locals learned about their faith, the more clarity dawned.
It was not quite like that for me, the negative impression of Islam and Muslims had sunk deep into the historical psyche of the West and the news was never good nor accurate. There was much to overcome in terms of prejudice.
However, in these lustrous watery regions, back in those days, there was much less of that: the religion was not delivered through war or BBC or CNN, so bad news was not a hindrance. People learned through people they met, trusted and did business with.
The honest business integrity of the Muslim traders had enabled them to establish a rich network linking the coastlines of East Africa, Arabia and the Persian Gulf with the islands of Indonesia and the coast of China. They brought with them a common united religion, joining peoples from different castes and colours, without the stain of prejudice or tribal superiority.
Ibn Battuta, the great traveller, praised the kindness and hospitality demonstrated by the sultan of Sumatra (Samudera Pasai), in Indonesia, where Islam had taken root. There he stayed for about two weeks as a guest of the sultan, who then provided him with supplies and sent him on his way on one of his own junk boats to China. This was the beauty and character of Islam.
Kedah was one of the first Sultanates to be established in Malaya. There are also historical records that around the year 1390, a prince from Java who was forced to flee his homeland, landed on the west coast of Malaya with a loyal following of about a thousand young men. At that time, there were various Hindu, Buddhist and Animist Kingdoms in power in the area; Siam (modern Thailand) was a strong imperial force in the area.
The prince drove out the Siamese. Once settled, then he established the town of Malacca and encouraged peaceful trade.
Local folklore has it that the Prince (whose name was Parameswara) fell in love with a princess from the court of Pasai, accepted Islam, married her and changed his name to Sultan Iskander Shah.
Sultan Iskander Shah ruled as a generous and good hearted monarch and invited Muslim scholars from as far away as Mecca, honored them and encouraged the spread of Islam. Malacca became not only the hub of international trade but also a center for Islamic learning. It was a bustling port that attracted hundreds of ships every year.
However, Malaya and Malacca, in particular, soon became an attractive and coveted prize eyed by the emerging European Empires. By the end of the period, European colonial interests soon upset this free-flowing cultural hub.
Portuguese and then the Dutch and English introduced ‘armed trading’ into the Indian Ocean, forcing others already there to arm themselves in defence or to pay these European intruders for protection.
Sultan Iskander Shah died in 1424. His grave is not to be found because the Portuguese, when they captured Malacca in 1510, dug up the graves of all of the Sultans of Malaya and destroyed the tombstones. But the legacy of Sultan Iskander Shah lives. He was a prince who helped Islam blossom in Malaya through the love of a beautiful princess and her beautiful religion.
Time has travelled even further, the technological and political gap between the Islamic peoples and the modern western world often seem unbridgeable. The secularization of knowledge and distancing from revelation has created a soulless citizen, as the Maous Malaysian scholar Syed Naquib Al Attas says: the purpose of seeking knowledge in Islam is to produce a good man, not just a good citizen or consumer.
The challenges of living Islam and the test of being Muslim today are enormous. The struggles which are going on are a result of the inability of Muslims to find their balance and accommodation in the world where the philosophy of a Godless universe and economic considerations dominate.
But mankind travels on, because hope of a more peaceful and just world is a candle in the heart of humanity that never goes out. In fact civilization is not static, it is a creative process, it needs ijtihad (intellectual exertion) as well as action. As Iqbal put it: ‘The pith of life is contained in action. The delight in creation is the Law of Life. Arise and create a new world!’
Nothing can bring back the glory of the past other than the creation of a new today. One of the most popular songs I sang was called Morning Has Broken, it reflects the power of God to make things new again through His eternal Wisdom and mercy.
The chaos and confusion we are witnessing in the Arab heartlands is a symptom of the desire for change. But without the spirit of God’s mercy or justice, the absence of good will and charitable works which help humanity as a whole, replaced by a strict imposition of rule by force and fear, is not a formula that can earn the world’s admiration. It only leads to more revulsion.
Violence and enmity serve the objects of the Arch Deceiver and his evil strategy to keep people divided and fighting. Especially those who frequent the mosques, churches or Temples. In this context there is much to learn from the history of Islam in this region. While realizing that one cannot turn back the clock or return the world to eras which have past, the pragmatic ingenuity of man can definitely enable us to learn from our successes and our mistakes and light for us a way forward.
The Truth when it arrives, stands above over all other distortions. It doesn’t need war, homeland security or nuclear bombs to advance or protect it. When the Prophet (peace be upon him) was completing his Hajj pilgrimage he was given some of the last words of the Qur’an which stated that the Religion and the blessing of Islam was complete.
“This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favor upon you and have chosen for you Islam as religion…” (The Qur’an, 5:3)
With this verse came the end of the hostilities and the light and peace of Islam began spreading. As Augustine said, “The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.” Gradually people embraced Islam and a new nation of believers blossomed.
My first journey to Malaysia after becoming Muslim, was an eye opener to see how Islam expressed itself in the Far East. The gentleness of the people was evident. The colours were startling!
I have finally come round to understanding the place of art and music in Islamic civilization, something that we’ve forgotten and lost in the process of time. Ibn Khaldun, probably the world’s first most recognized Historian and one of the most influential philosophers to come out of the Muslim world at the end of the 14th Century said, “The craft of singing is the last of the crafts attained in civilization, because it constitutes (the last development toward) luxury with regard to no occupation in particular save that of leisure and entertainment. It also is the first to disappear from a given civilization when it disintegrates and retrogresses.”
Art itself is an aesthetic crossroad, where cultures and civilization freely mix peacefully without borders or passports. It is the way in which we can trade with each other the fruits of our beliefs and ideas, in symbols and through prose, the mysterious sentiments and beauty of our faith and eternal hopes.
My journey is just a microcosm of the larger story of human survival. When I learnt something better, I moved and was accommodated in the broad body of rich Islamic history and human civilization and experience.
The same for Islam in Malaysia. It has a beautiful history of peace and tolerance through its beginnings, and it is probably time to revisit the original message of openness which is a major characteristic of the Truth. There is no need to lock down and close the doors, as we can see Europe doing at present. The help of Allah is with the patient and those who do good. The principle of broad tolerance is clear in the Qur’an’s verse:
‘Let there be no force in Religion; the Truth stands clear from error.’ (The Qur’an, 2:256)