World Literature and Muslim Southeast Asia

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    Southeast Asia, as categorized in post-World War II divisions of the globe, includes a broad collection of nations, some of which are among the world’s most internally diverse: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Cambodia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, and East Timor. Considering this vast and variegated region in terms of nation-states (most of which were created as recently as fifty or sixty years ago, if not less), as well as in terms of our present, rigid categorization of world “areas,” obscures the fluid realities of earlier centuries. In particular, it tends to hide from view the circuits and networks by which people across these lands were connected with each other, and their paths of contact and exchange with sites and communities in China, India, Arabia, the Pacific and beyond. Such tendencies meant that not only did vibrant and diverse local literary cultures emerge in Southeast Asia, but a whole range of literary works, genres and poetics that came from other parts of the world have been accommodated, adapted, and transformed in the region. For example, if we look back to the fifth to ninth centuries AD, Sanskrit epigraphsappear not only across the Indian subcontinent but also in Java, Cambodia, Laos, and the Malay peninsula (Pollock 2006: 125-32). These Southeast Asian locales were integrated into what Pollock has termed “the Sanskrit cosmopolis” (Pollock 2006). Authors’ and audiences’ participation in a Sanskritic literary world that stretched from Kashmir to Bali is attested in Sanskrit inscriptions at Angkor Wat (from the fifth to thirteenth centuries), and in Javanese poetry (written between the ninth and fourteenth centuries) that was highly Sanskritized in its vocabulary, verse forms, and content. In Cambodia’s next-door neighbor Vietnam, however, different developments unfolded: bordering on China and dominated by it for a millennium, the vocabulary, grammatical structures, forms of writing (including political and poetic discourses), and, above all, orthography were strongly influenced by Chinese models. Almost a millennium later, during the late colonial period, present-day Malaysia,Brunei, Burma, Singapore (and of course India, now considered part of South Asia) were all part of British Asia, Indonesia was a Dutch colony, Vietnam a French one and Timor Portuguese. These different colonial powers imposed, among otherpolicies, different language and educational policies on the peoples they ruled, resulting in lasting effects on the choice and use of national languages in these postcolonial states and on their scenes of literary production, including what forms of world literature they chose to draw on, circulate, or ignore. For the purposes of this chapter I define world literature, following Damrosch(2003: 6), as works circulating beyond their linguistic and cultural point of origin. My own primary interest is in thinking not just about how such literature circulates far from its birthplace but also about how it then crosses paths with local, earlier literary traditions, transforming them while, concurrently, being transformed in the process. That is, I am less interested in tracing the trajectory of a work moving from one particular place to another, and more in the encounters and interactions that such mobility entails. In the following pages I discuss such developments as they have taken shape in Muslim Southeast Asia. The designation Muslim Southeast Asia as employed here refers to Muslimcommunities across the region, where they are concentrated first and foremost in present-day Indonesia and Malaysia. However, there are Muslim populations in all other countries in the region, most notably in Thailand and the Philippines (with both states experiencing violent tensions related to their rule over Muslim minorities), Brunei, and Singapore. Despite speaking different languages and living across a large geographical and cultural expanse, Muslims in Southeast Asia have long been connected with one another, and with Islam’s centers elsewhere, through a variety of networks: they often lived in coastal towns from whence they traded across the Indian Ocean; some travelled to Arabia to fulfil the important duty of the hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca – meeting and interacting there with their co-religionists from other parts of Asia and beyond; others travelled for the purpose of livelihood or religious learning. Writing of his experiences in the fourteenth century, Ibn Battuta (who visited Sumatra in 1345) described the hospitality and local support he could count on wherever he went throughout a plural, vast, and networked Muslim world. Whereas a traveller of similar scope and daring such as Marco Polo experienced an ongoing sense of being a “stranger in a strange land,” Ibn Battuta felt an “at-homeness” everywhere, even while travelling great distances from his homeland of Tangier, despite being, on many objective counts, a foreigner (Dunn 1986). The study of networks is thus essential to understanding Islam and SoutheastAsia. Also pivotal to understanding both is thinking in terms of the “world”: considering Islam as a global religion, and Southeast Asia as a crossroads leading to faraway horizons. In this essay I focus on a particular kind of network – which I call “literary network” – and how it served to connect Muslims across the region and further afield through works of a particular world literature, fostering a sense of shared community, a shared idiom, and a common history. Within such networks it was Arabic (and sometimes Persian) literature that provided the conduit – through its themes, genres, and language – for a religious and cultural transformation of great magnitude: Islamization. The Islamic literary networks were comprised of many shared works, includinghistories, genealogies, poems, stories, and treatises on a broad range of subjects; they also included the readers, listeners, authors, translators, and scribes who created the texts, translated and transmitted them, and engaged with them in various ways, thusfacilitating the networks, enhancing their reach and significance. Beyond particular texts and individuals, thinking about literary networks also means exploring the multilayered histories of contacts, selection, interpretation and serendipity that shaped the networks as we have come to know them. (For further development of these relations, see Ricci 2010, on which the present essay is partially based). The literary works I consider were told and retold in local languages which wereprofoundly influenced and shaped by the influx of Arabic, a language whose significance for Muslim individuals and societies cannot be overstated, on account of its association with divine revelation and the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims in Southeast Asia proved no exception in their reverence towards, and various uses of, Arabic and Arabicized forms of language. In exploring the literary networks, Arabic is defined broadly as the bearer of new stories, ideas, beliefs, scripts, and linguistic and literary forms which, along with oral sources, poetics, and genres, were to a large extent shared by Muslims across a linguistically and culturally diverse Southeast Asia. These contributed to the rise of a common repository of images, memories, and meaning that in turn fostered a consciousness of belonging to a trans-local community.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to World Literature
    Editors Theo D'haen, David Damrosch, Djelal Kadir
    Place of PublicationOxford UK
    PublisherRoutledge, Taylor & Francis Group
    ISBN (Print)9780415570220
    Publication statusPublished - 2012


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