Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia

Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia

by Ronit Ricci

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The spread of Islam eastward into South and Southeast Asia was one of the most significant cultural shifts in world history. As it expanded into these regions, Islam was received by cultures vastly different from those in the Middle East, incorporating them into a diverse global community that stretched from India to the Philippines.

In Islam Translated, Ronit Ricci uses the Book of One Thousand Questions—from its Arabic original to its adaptations into the Javanese, Malay, and Tamil languages between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries—as a means to consider connections that linked Muslims across divides of distance and culture. Examining the circulation of this Islamic text and its varied literary forms, Ricci explores how processes of literary translation and religious conversion were historically interconnected forms of globalization, mutually dependent, and creatively reformulated within societies making the transition to Islam.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226710907
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/01/2011
Series: South Asia Across the Disciplines
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Ronit Ricci is associate professor in the School of Culture, History, and Language at the Australian National University.

Read an Excerpt

Islam Translated

Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia
By Ronit Ricci


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-71088-4

Chapter One


An Arabic Cosmopolis?

The spread of Islam eastward into South and Southeast Asia represents one of the most important cultural shifts in world history. When Islam expanded into these regions, it encountered cultures vastly distant and different from those of the Middle East, and it incorporated them into a premodern globalized community of great geographical, linguistic, and social diversity. Long before print and mass communications became widespread, written texts played a key role in spreading ideas and beliefs within this Islamic universe. Texts of many kinds—the Qur'an above all, but also hagiography, poetry, jurisprudence, scientific writing, and more—were the bearers of the new religion and way of life both in Arabic or in vernacular translation. In this study I examine the circulation of Islamic texts, ideas, and literary forms within South and Southeast Asia, the regions where the world's largest Muslim populations reside today. I explore processes of literary transmission, translation, and religious conversion, and how these processes were historically interconnected, mutually dependent, and creatively reformulated in an important area of a transregional Muslim world.

Literary Networks

Different kinds of networks, often intertwined, traversed these regions, forging connections between and among individuals and communities. To the networks of travel, trade, and Sufi brotherhoods, commonly presented as the paths by which Islam spread and flourished, I propose adding the literary networks. Literary networks connected Muslims across boundaries of space and culture, and they helped introduce and sustain a complex web of prior texts and new interpretations that were crucial to the establishment of both local and global Islamic identities. Literary networks were comprised of shared texts, including stories, poems, genealogies, histories, and treatises on a broad range of topics, as well as the readers, listeners, authors, patrons, translators, and scribes who created, translated, supported, and transmitted them. Beyond attention to particular texts and individuals, thinking about literary networks also requires exploring the multilayered histories of contacts, selection, interpretation, and serendipity that shaped the networks in particular ways.

Across South and Southeast Asia orally transmitted materials as well as performative traditions complemented and enriched written literatures through a complex ongoing matrix of interaction and exchange. Large numbers of people could be considered as highly literate in their traditions, despite being illiterate by modern day standards, since they lived in environments where texts were recited out loud for various occasions and familiar stories were performed through puppetry, dance, and theater.

In Sumatra, for example, singers memorized large numbers of Malay pantun poems and wayang tales. Public manuscript readings drew large, enthusiastic, and engaged crowds where "men and women, youth and coolies, slid off their mats, and drawing near, with swaying heads, and moving hands, kept pace with limb and sympathetic look to the songs of their land, the sagas of Sumatra." In Java, where an 1891 survey found that only an estimated one percent of the population was literate in Javanese, rulers regularly commissioned and collected manuscripts. These same rulers were often important patrons of the performing arts through which the stories and lessons put forth in the manuscripts were expressed in music or drama. Such overlap and interaction between written and oral forms of production mean that any discussion of cultural or religious transmission in South and Southeast Asia must remain keenly aware of its non-inscribed aspects. My own focus here, however, is on the circulation of written works.

In largely illiterate societies, those capable of reading such works possessed a special kind of authority. Texts written in metrical verse and meant to be recited, often in public, were central to conveying and shaping cultural codes, religious doctrines, and political agendas. Public recitation of a manuscript meant that its message reached many listeners simultaneously. In this manner its impact far exceeded that of the book as we imagine it today, read silently by an individual reader. Public readings were commonplace and had important social and political functions in ritual events taking place in court cities, villages, and Islamic educational institutions. It is this particular relationship between written works and their consumption that has, throughout this book, made me favor "audiences" over "readers" when I discuss the impact of literature on those who engaged with it.

The realm of the written word in local Muslim communities was vast and encompassed many themes, genres, and linguistic forms. I use "literature" to refer to a wide range of forms of production, in which often easy boundaries cannot be drawn between the theological, philosophical, legal, political, or belletristic writing.

Generically, too, our categorizations often fail, as the same poetic meters were employed in Java for mystical and political tracts, while the Malay genre of hikayat seems to have encompassed almost every possible topic, from romance to history. This is not to say that these literary cultures themselves did not distinguish between various forms of writing, telling, and creative expression. They certainly did. In my discussion of particular traditions and examples I attend to specific categories—like masalah, suluk, or puranam—rather than impose an outsider's definition of what "literature" was or was not. The definition of "text" or "literary work" is no simple matter either. In Javanese and Malay especially, histories, biographies, stories, and various compilations were copied repeatedly over time, with authors and scribes often taking lesser or greater license in the way they rewrote the text under the old title (sometimes that changed as well). These practices, which defy ready definitions, are pertinent to the arguments I put forth and will be discussed throughout the book.

The texts, or works, I examine herein (referring to diverse genres of literature as they appeared in both handwritten manuscripts and printed books) were written and rewritten in local languages that were profoundly influenced and shaped by the influx of Arabic. Arabic throughout this study possesses an expanded definition and is understood as the bearer of new stories, ideas, beliefs, scripts, and linguistic and literary forms. Muslims from across linguistically and culturally diverse regions shared inscribed texts as well as oral sources, poetics, and genres derived from or inspired by Arabic models. These shared texts formed a common repository of images, memories, and meanings that in turn fostered a consciousness of belonging to a translocal community. The two-way connections many literary works had—both to a larger Islamic world and to very local communities—made them dynamic sites of interaction, contestation, and the negotiation of boundaries. Competing agendas (as, for example, between creative and standardizing impulses) often played out between their pages.

Islamization was an ongoing and uneven process in South and Southeast Asia, as it was in many regions. Literary texts of various kinds played an important role in enhancing and shaping this process by introducing those who converted to Islam to their newly acquired faith, history, practices, and genealogies, as well as by reaffirming the truths of Islam for those who were already members of the universal umma. As Muslim societies expanded, additional texts were translated and composed, further enhancing Islamization. Literature produced within local Muslim communities, and the literary networks that extended across and beyond the local—especially when studied comparatively—provide new insights into the history of Islam in these regions, the fluctuating balance between local and global elements privileged by particular Muslim authors and societies, and the roles played by literary transmission and translation in their histories.

I approach particular regions of South and Southeast Asia as interconnected nodal points of material and cultural exchange in the process of Islamization. To draw out and examine their connections, I have chosen one particular literary example, the diverse textual tradition of the Book of One Thousand Questions, from its Arabic source to its translations and adaptations into the Javanese, Malay, and Tamil languages between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. This story, and its afterlives, provide a lens through which to examine the intricate relationships between Islamization and literary and linguistic transformation. The Book of One Thousand Questions offers a means for considering literary networks and their importance to historical processes. The One Thousand Questions also provides a paradigm for examining what I term, following Sheldon Pollock's work on Sanskrit, the "Arabic cosmopolis" of South and Southeast Asia, a translocal Islamic sphere constituted and defined by language, literature, and religion. This "cosmopolis" spanned a large geographic area through South and Southeast Asia, including much of present day Indonesia and Malaysia, parts of the Philippines and the Indian subcontinent, communities in Sri Lanka and southern Thailand, and beyond. My discussion in this book, however, will pertain specifically to the Tamil-speaking region of southeast India and the Indonesian-Malay Archipelago, with an emphasis on Sumatra and Java. This framework permits my work to be based, first and foremost, on primary sources produced in local languages rather than on derivative literature.


The spread of Islam in the Indonesian-Malay region was a complex process that has been much debated by scholars, both local and foreign. Basing their research for the most part on archeological findings, travelers' accounts, and local chronicles, scholars have suggested various theories regarding Islam's arrival and ultimate acceptance by indigenous populations. There was likely an Islamic presence in maritime Southeast Asia from the time of 'Uthman, the third caliph, in the mid seventh century. Evidence also demonstrates that envoys with Arabic names visited the Sumatran court of Srivijaya between the tenth and twelfth centuries. However, no local Islamic states appear to have been established, and no significant conversion is known to have occurred in these regions until a later date.

The first evidence of Muslims in these parts comes from northern Sumatra, where gravestones demonstrate that in the thirteenth century the area was under Islamic rule, and where both Marco Polo (in 1292) and Ibn Battuta (in 1345) noticed, while passing through the region, that local rulers were followers of Islam. An important series of gravestones was found in the east Javanese cemeteries of Trawulan and Tralaya, marking the burial place of Muslims but using Old Javanese numbers and the Saka rather than Hijri years in their dating. These date from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries and strongly suggest the presence of local, rather than foreign, Muslims living on Java at the time. The great trading state of Malacca was founded around the beginning of the fifteenth century, becoming an Islamic center for the Archipelago until its capture by the Portuguese in 1511; late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century graves document the establishment of additional Islamic states in north Sumatra, and Tomé Pires wrote about such states along Java's north coast in the early sixteenth century. Evidence suggests that Islam was also spreading farther east than the Malay peninsula and Java, all the way to the southern Philippines.

The evidence taken together points to a slow and gradual process: by the end of the thirteenth century Islam was established in north Sumatra; in the fourteenth century in northeast Malaya, Brunei, parts of east Java, and the southern Philippines; in the fifteenth century in Malacca and other areas of the Malay Peninsula; in the sixteenth century the coastal areas of central and east Java were mostly Islamic while its western region and much of the interior were not.

The type of evidence that can be gleaned from tombstones and European accounts provides only a partial picture at best. Answers to the still open questions of why significant conversion in Indonesia (in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries) began only after the several hundred years during which Muslims were passing through or living in Indonesia, of how Islam spread, and of why it became the dominant religion have been sought by some scholars in local chronicles that attest to Indonesians' multiple understandings of their own conversion history. Such writing includes, for example, several Malay chronicles like the Hikayat Raja-raja Pasai ("Book of the Pasai Kings") and the Sejarah Melayu ("Malay Annals"), as well as the Javanese Babad Tanah Jawi ("History of Java"). Although most surviving editions date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they likely contain much older stories, and their emphasis on the roles of magic, esoteric learning, trade, and the foreign origins of the first Islamic teachers may well point to some aspects of the historical events. Even while much remains unknown to us about the origins and development of the conversion process—which was happening throughout the Archipelago's multiple islands and among many of its ethnic and religious groups—what is clear is that Islam brought about significant change in the region. From politics, law, social custom, and education to literary production, conversion to Islam altered in fundamental ways previous structures of rule, everyday life, and belief.

Turning to the Tamil region, archeological studies suggest an Islamic presence—rooted in Arab trade—in the Coromandel region since the eighth century of the Common Era, with that presence strengthened by the mid ninth century. Scholarship on Indian Ocean trade points to a continuous and dynamic Islamic presence in the Malabar, Coromandel, and Sri Lankan regions from around that time through the Portuguese colonial period, with Coromandel ports forming important trade centers. Such trade, especially in horses, gems, textiles, and pearls, has historically sustained the Muslim coastal communities. Nearby Sri Lanka, with its deep-rooted Muslim-Tamil population, has also long been associated with the important pilgrimage site of Adam's Peak, the place where, since the early days of Islam, Adam was believed to have fallen from paradise to earth, a tradition recounted in several One Thousand Questions tellings.

As in the case of the Indonesian-Malay Archipelago, tombstones in the Tamil region provide evidence of, and approximate dating for, an early Islamic presence. Inscriptions on gravestones in the mosque on Kilakkarai's shore attest to the existence of Arab settlements there from the seventh or eighth centuries. Arab traders received permission from local kings (the Cholas, and later the Pandyas) to settle in the area, and were sometimes granted land and the right to create their own communities.

The numbers of such settlers increased as the region began to play a central role in the international textile trade linking South India to the ports of west Asia and the Indonesian Archipelago. One consequence of this process was the rise to prominence of foreign Muslim commercial men in the Tamil country's local courts. Further evidence on the spread of Islam and Muslim life in the region comes from traveler accounts, including those of the above mentioned Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. Both famous travelers arrived in Tamil Nadu after visiting Sri Lanka and reported landing along the coast called Ma'bar by the Muslims, referring to the Coromandel coast. The port towns along that coast, with their trade links to Arabia and the Indian Ocean, became South Indian Islamic centers with clearly identified Muslim populations by the twelfth or thirteenth century. The towns were dominated by the Maraikkayar, groups of elite Sunni, Tamil-speaking trading families. All other Tamil-speaking Muslims in the south were known as Lebbais, a population which was probably introduced to Islam by the thirteenth or fourteenth century, and which was also Sunni and included fishermen, pearl divers, and many hinterland cultivators, artisans, and petty traders.


Excerpted from Islam Translated by Ronit Ricci Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



List of Abbreviations

1    Introduction: An Arabic Cosmopolis?

Part One: Translation

2    On “Translation” and Its Untranslatability   

3    The Book of Samud: A Javanese Literary Tradition   

4    The Tamil Āyira Macalā: Questions and Marvels   

5    Seribu Masalah: The Malay Book of One Thousand Questions   

Part Two: Conversion

6     Cosmopolitan in Translation: Arabic’s Distant Travels   

7    Conversion to Islam and the Book of One Thousand Questions   

8    A Jew on Java, a Model Malay Rabbi, and a Tamil Torah Scholar: Representations of Abdullah Ibnu Salam and the Prophet in the Book of One Thousand Questions   

Part Three: Conclusion

9    The Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia    



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