Thursday, March 20, 2008

Abdullah’s Bible

The Hikayat of Abdullah was unique for its pointedly frank observations about all that was wrong with the world he lived in then, though perhaps one of the most interesting and touching episodes in the Hikayat is where Abdullah describes his quarrel with his father, who was afraid that his son might be tempted off the right path by the ‘deviant teachings’ of the English missionaries he was working with.

By Farish A. Noor

For a country that is not exactly known for its reading habit, we seem to be grabbing a lot of books lately. Or to put it more accurately, we seem to be confiscating and detaining an awful lot of books.

For reasons best known to themselves, the benighted authorities in this land of ours have been vigilantly manning the outposts on the frontier lest we, while sleeping, are caught unawares by the legions of dog-eared tomes that are – at this very moment – surreptitiously on their way to this country to ‘pollute, corrupt and confuse’ our minds. The list of banned books grows ever longer; and the outrages continue unabated. The latest fiasco was when thirty-two Bibles were confiscated by customs officials from a Malaysian Christian on her way back from the Philippines, to be submitted for inspection by the Ministry of Internal Security. Strange that Bibles are now seen by some as a potential ‘security threat’ that need to be confiscated upon entry into the sacred precinct that is Malaysia. But Bibles? A security threat? To whom?

All this talk of ‘dangerous’ texts and potentially dangerous Bibles in particular reminds me of one particular edition of the Bible that caused quite a stir when it first came out. In fact so controversial was this particular edition that it almost never came out at all. For here I am talking about Abdullah’s Bible; or rather the translation of the Bible by none other than Munshi Abdullah Abdul Kadir, who is universally regarded as one of the forefathers of modern Malay literature.

Now those of you who remember what you were taught at school (and believe me, as an academic I am all too familiar with the phenomenon of selective amnesia among students), will also remember the name of Munshi Abdullah. He was the Peranakan Muslim scholar and translator who served both the early British colonial administrators in Singapore and Malacca as well as the various Malay courts during the opening stages of the 19th century.

Abdullah wrote his ‘Hikayat Abdullah’ which stands until today as one of the most honest accounts of the state of the Malay world at that crucial juncture in the history of this region. Abdullah was of course a key figure in the exchange of letters between British colonial administrators like Raffles, Farquhar, Minto, et al. and the Malay nobles and kings. The Hikayat of Abdullah was unique for its pointedly frank observations about all that was wrong with the world he lived in then, though perhaps one of the most interesting and touching episodes in the Hikayat is where Abdullah describes his quarrel with his father, who was afraid that his son might be tempted off the right path by the ‘deviant teachings’ of the English missionaries he was working with.

The thorny issue that was being debated between Abdullah and his peers at the moment was his role as translator for a particular text that many of them were reluctant to touch: The New Testament.

Abdullah had been approached by some English missionaries and commissioned by them to translate the New Testament into vernacular Malay, which was to be used at Church as well as the modest missionary efforts among the colonial subjects of the Crown Colonies. As Malay was the lingua franca of everyone who lived in the straits then (including the Peranakan Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and even the British and Dutch), it was deemed appropriate to have the Bible translated into Malay as well.

Munshi Abdullah who regarded himself primarily as a professional translator was prepared to do the job that scared off all other contenders; until his father came into the picture, spewing steam and hot curses, and swearing that his son would never be converted by the heathen missionaries. In a touching passage of the Hikayat Abdullah describes how he appealed to his father’s own sense of values, and in particular to his father’s own love for knowledge and languages in general. His father was further persuaded by the appeals of the priests Milner and Thomson, who promised that they would respect his father’s wishes and refrain from offering any religious instruction to Abdullah. In the end, Abdullah notes how the appeals eventually won over his father’s consent and he was allowed to continue his study of this foreign language called English. The result of Abdullah’s efforts came in the form of one of the first vernacular Malay translations of the New Testament, the Kitab Injil al-Kudus daripada Tuhan Esa al-Masihi.

Now contrary to the fears and doubts of his friends, Munshi Abdullah was not secretly converted to Christianity as a result of translating the Kitab Injil al-Kudus. No magic Christian pills were plopped into his tea behind his back while he was working in the missionaries’ quarters; nor were there any reported attempts to lure him to the Church by offers of money, promotions or package holidays. As he stated from the outset, he was professional through and through and he carried out his translation work in a scrupulous and objective manner, to the satisfaction of all.

Today one can only wonder aloud about the fate of such a text, should it find itself before the customs officials or immigration desk at KLIA or the Golok crossing up North. If Bibles from the Philippines can be detained upon arrival, what then would be the fate of Abdullah’s Bible, born and bred (or translated and bound) right here, in our dear ‘ol Malaysia? And how would be take to Munshi Abdullah, ‘father’ of modern vernacular Malay literature, pioneer of the vernacular autobiography and realist writing; who also happens to be one of the first translators of the Bible? Or have we, in denying the religious complexity and pluralism of Malaysia today, also closed the door to Malaysia’s past where Muslims seemed less easily spooked by books of whichever tongue.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the http://www.othermalaysia.org/ research site.

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