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Self, Family, Nation

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Islam can be a suffocating prison, a collection of outdated ideas and practices that underwrites the oppression of elites over common people, the old over the young, and men over women. Left unexamined for centuries, Islam in this instance equates to calcified communal habits. One feels that Islam is ripe for wholesale dismantling, to be replaced by either a better reconstructed version or an altogether different sociointellectual system. In this understanding, the progressive improvement of human ideas over time has made Islam obsolete and temporally regressive. Those who remain invested in it, such as religious scholars, are in danger of being left behind by the rest of the world. Muslims who insist on living by old Islamic patterns are then frozen in time, relics of the past with disorienting presents and dismal futures.

The view of Islam I have just described represents an opinion that features extensively in thought generated during the approximate period 1850–1950. This understanding was endemic to European colonial discourses, where it was useful to justify sociopolitical domination of Muslim-majority societies. Relatedly, and more significantly, this view was adopted extensively by people who identified as Muslims or came from Muslim backgrounds. Sometimes collectively called “modernists,” those who adopted the view were compelled by a sense of competition with Europeans, next to whom Muslims lagged in economic and political terms. In societies and polities big and small, we find influential speakers and authors asking Muslims to pay urgent attention to Islam’s backwardness.

In the sociopolitical arena, the greatest consequence of European imperialism was the imagining of new nations, many of which would eventually become the basis for new states upon colonialism’s end. In political formations where Islamic identification mattered, new histories that were posited as nations’ pasts accommodated Islam in a variety of ways. Sometimes, Islam was deemed essential to the nation, resulting eventually in “Islamic” republics, kingdoms, emirates, and so on, all claiming a privileged religious position. In other cases, Islam was acknowledged as a part of social but not political identity, which often required placing limitations on institutions and classes seen to represent Islam. Across the board, the nation and Islam as collections of ideas modulated to each other, imagined as long-standing aspects of individual and communal identity regenerated in response to the age of modern nation-states.

In this section, I discuss an autobiography penned in Indonesia in 1950, a year after the country’s formal independence from the Netherlands. Indonesia is an especially interesting case for considering nationhood because it is host to one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. Moreover, it encompasses vast linguistic and ethnic diversity, a territory spread over more than seventeen thousand islands, and a history that includes a mixture of British, Dutch, and Japanese colonial regimes during the period 1800–1949. Muhamad Radjab (1913–1970), the author, wrote as an adult while recalling his life from birth to teenage years in West Sumatra as a part of the Minangkabau peoples. The work ends as he leaves the village to become a part of the emerging Indonesian nation.

Radjab’s passage from a Minangkabau boy to Indonesian adult shadows the evolution of populations identified by their ethnonyms becoming citizens of a modern nation-state. The work’s narrative is focused on the homosocial village sphere consisting of boys and men, which is especially interesting because the Minangkabau are a matrilineal society in which lineage and property passes between generations via links between women rather than men. In part due to the matrilineal social structure, the Minangkabau are especially known for producing male Islamic scholars in Southeast Asia.

In Radjab’s self-description, he was expected to take up the role of an Islamic scholar in the community. His disinclination toward this occupation fed into his view of Islam as an imprisoning condition, which he eventually overcame by leaving Sumatra. His later profession as a journalist, who wrote in Indonesian, the national language, was in many ways the radical opposite of being a Muslim ritual expert like his father. It made him a mouthpiece in the language that unified the nation looking to the future.

Birth and Lineage

Radjab’s autobiography begins enigmatically: “Why I was born into this world, I do not know. Why I was born in Minangkabau puzzles me even more. These two things have surprised me very much and have bothered me since I was little” (Rodgers, Telling Lives, Telling History, 149). These starting thoughts distance the author’s adult, writer’s self from the childhood that he claims to remember in minute detail. The narrative contains no reference whatsoever to the author’s life past being a teenager. Yet, the narrating voice objectifies the childhood self’s actions and thoughts in such a way that throughout the reading experience, we are cognizant of a radical break between the surpassed past and the existent present. What we see in the text is a child’s world presented in adult understandings.

As a Minangkabau, Radjab describes himself as suffering from two disadvantages: the absence of his mother, who died when he was nine months old, and the constant presence of his father, a poorly off Islamic teacher of strict disposition, whose bad temper tended to land on Radjab’s body. Under Minangkabau social patterns, women remained in households of their birth, inheriting homes from mothers and passing them to daughters. Boys would stay with their mothers until puberty, when they moved to communal quarters in the village mosque or school. When they got married, they acquired new sleeping quarters in their wives’ homes.

As adults, men’s lives and responsibilities were, on one side, to their mothers, sisters, and their children and on the other to their own children, for whom their wives’ brothers also retained significant responsibility. In this setup, losing one’s mother as an infant was a severe setback since it meant losing one’s home before puberty and having reduced contact with maternal kin.

Being an only child with no mother, Radjab became entirely dependent on his father. He was a teacher at the local Islamic school, having gone on Hajj shortly after Radjab’s birth. This meant that the young Radjab’s sleeping arrangements shuttled between staying with boys and men in communal settings from a younger age than usual and being taken in by one of his stepmothers, the other women his father had married.

His father’s authoritarian personality exacerbated the sense of rootlessness created by this situation since he could not rely on his mother as a refuge. Ever on the lookout to control and punish Radjab as a child, his father was also either unable or unwilling to provide for him financially beyond the mere basics. Radjab’s antipathy toward traditional practices, which were coded as simultaneously religious (Islamic) and socially customary (Minangkabau adat), derived from the irreparable loss of his mother and the strained relationship with his father.

The Uselessness of Islamic Knowledge

Radjab describes his father as wishing that he would join in the family profession by becoming a religious teacher, even though he himself “didn’t have even the slightest, tiniest desire” (233) for this. His education as a child included going to the secular school but concentrating most of his time on traditional forms of religious knowledge. These included reciting the Quran correctly, learning the details of Islamic legal matters, becoming familiar with Arabic grammar to read old texts, and becoming an expert in performing rituals to become hired for leading prayers and officiating at special occasions.

In the autobiography, Radjab depicts himself questioning the value of Islamic activities on both intellectual and moral grounds. Amid exhibiting resistance, he provides a sustained critique of Islamic ideas and practices as antiquated and unreasonable ways of managing self and society. With respect to the Quran, when reporting on a community fight he witnessed, he writes “I just laughed. Why make such a big deal over such a small matter…as if their lives depended on whether the Koran was recited rightly or wrongly! Why didn’t they try to understand what the Koran actually meant” (272). On learning legal matters, he says he protested to the teacher when the class spent a month discussing the rules for tayammum, the practice of doing ritual ablutions with sand when water is not available. He said that while this may have been a good topic for life in the desert, it was a complete waste of time for those living in Sumatra where water was abundantly available (220–221).

[T]he net of Islam and custom amounted to a form of corruption in which a certain class maintained its hold on society, accruing worldly goods to some people in the name of religion and respectability.

When being taught traditional cosmology, in which seven heavens sit on top of each other, he objected on the basis of modern scientific ways of thinking about the universe (219). Going to Mecca for the pilgrimage, or dressing up in Arab clothes because Islam had been born in Arabia, seemed meaningless practices that devalued people’s own lands and cultures (189). When he tried magical and occult practices to try to have a girl fall in love with him, nothing happened and he became utterly disenchanted with the notion of such powers (275, 296–297).

In Radjab’s projections, the net of Islam and custom that enveloped young people like him was a recipe for keeping them ignorant and underdeveloped. It amounted to a form of corruption in which a certain class maintained its hold on society, accruing worldly goods to some people in the name of religion and respectability. Among other things, this explained the practice of young women being married to old men regarded as great religious scholars despite their intellectual as well as physical limitations (313).

Radjab’s experience of being sent to a specialist school for aspiring religious professionals (santris), where he was made to study Arabic grammar, proved his convictions:

I myself was always rebelling; I’d opposed the whole lot of it, seeking freedom of thought. I was always worried that if I stayed there a long time, associating with these santris who were thinking like human beings living in the thirteenth century, I’d surely be influenced by them. My spirit would be extinguished, and after that I would have no use whatever for living in the real world. My hopes and aspirations whose flames still burned in me would be cloaked and vitiated by a darkness that would simply kill them (231).

Islam as practiced in his community was therefore a kind of existential threat that could be managed only by leaving:

I was abundantly aware of the fact that the ancestors of the Minangkabau people were illiterate and their descendants were ignorant and foolish.…What would we become, we young fellows, if we followed the guidance and teachings of the kiais in the pesantren—as I once experienced for two years in that dark period of my life. Could we possibly surrender our lives and fates to people who were mired in such darkness? (319)

The autobiography is peppered with sentiments expressing Radjab’s desire to experience the world beyond Minangkabau territory. This wish acquires great urgency as he reaches his late teens and beseeches his father to let him leave for purposes of education and greater professional opportunities. The father resists, portraying this as unbearable because Radjab is his only son. But Radjab’s own reading of the situation is that the real reason is his father’s selfishness, which is common to most people in his generation. He even imagines simply running away without permission, but his father eventually relents, allowing him to go to Padang, the capital of West Sumatra. The autobiography ends with Radjab daydreaming of the next day, when he would leave, torn between his love for his father and the memories of growing up in the village on one side and his desire to experience the world beyond on the other (319–320).

Self and Nation

Muhamad Radjab’s autobiography was published in 1950, when he was thirty-seven years old and was working as a journalist and an author of popular histories in Indonesia. The country had been declared independent in 1945 but was acknowledged as such by the colonizing power in 1949, after a four-year insurgency against the police and other authorities. The autobiography is poised between nostalgia for a world that is missed but needed to be surpassed, representing the situation for all citizens of Indonesia.

Up to the point of independence, the major experience Indonesia’s vastly diverse peoples held in common was opposition to Dutch (and for many, between 1942 and 1945, Japanese) colonial rule. Beyond this recent shared experience, thousands of groups maintained their own separate pasts hearkening to ancestors, lineages, customary laws and practices, and views of time that explained their self-understandings for being Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim.

Independence removed the common colonizing foe while simultaneously bringing into view the necessity to amalgamate vastly different pasts into one, with an eye toward creating a common national future. Autobiographies such as Radjab’s that were addressed to a national audience were performances to reorient selves from local to national identities. They allow us “to understand the manner in which Indonesia has been conceived and represented and how those representations have become part of an ongoing tradition of reflection among Indonesians themselves, responding at different times and in different circumstances to available constructions of the nation” (Watson, Of Self and Nation, 10).

Radjab’s autobiography ends with him lying in bed at night imagining the next day when he would leave his village: “Life in this wide world was beginning to call to me, its voice was blurred, like softly rumbling thunder, audible from afar. Tomorrow I would begin, and attack this life” (320). Standing in stark contrast with the narrative’s beginning on perplexity regarding his own existence, this statement was easily transposed to Indonesia as a nation full of hope in 1950. The future’s positive valorization required that the local past was delineated and surpassed.

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