(9) Discovering Islam – From Malay words to Islamic words: Why the shift?

From Malay words to Islamic words: Why the shift?

Recently, during the July 2015 Eid ul-Fitr (Celebration of Charity), or commonly referred among the Malay Muslims as Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, a non-Muslim friend of mine, in an email to me, commented: “Somewhere along the way, the term Aidilfitr replaced “Puasa”… From a non-Muslim point of view, i felt that the replacement marked a small shift in thinking:  from a “Malay-muslim” culture to Islam. It seemed too foreign for my liking.” (sic)

This is a good, sincere comment, and I take this opportunity to provide an explanation in this article for sharing of knowledge with all the readers of my blog as to the reason for the “shift in thinking”.

The query focuses on the Malay word “puasa” which means “fasting”. However, although there are numerous “Malay words to Islamic words” shift, I take the “Puasa” query as well as just three more other common Malay words to explain for better understanding.  The words are:

  • Selamat pagi
  • Tuhan
  • Sembahyang
  • Hari Raya Puasa

It is to be noted that Islam’s Holy Book, the Quran, is in Arabic – the very language spoken by Prophet Muhammad with its contents revealed by God (through the Angel Gabriel) to the Prophet for delivery to mankind.  In other words, the Prophet knew the words, phrases, verses, chapters and the entire instruction, guidance, wisdom in the Quran, including the words, “Quran”, “Islam” and “Muslim”, as all these came from his mouth for verbatim recording (in Arabic) by a scribe upon his instruction as and when each Revelation was received over 23 years of his mission.

The Prophet, then, requested his Companions and other followers to memorise the verses and chapters. This tradition of memorising the chapters has continued in an unbroken chain since the Prophet’s time right to this day.  Millions of Muslims across the globe at any point in time could recite the entire Quran (without looking at the text) and almost all the others could recite many of the chapters. They memorise various chapters for spiritual benefits as well as for recitation during their solat (prayers). Indeed the Quranic chapters could be easily memorised and the sound of the verses read is always enchanting to hear.

A translation of the Quran in any language is not called the Quran but only a translation or interpretation of the Quran; only the original in Arabic is called the Quran.

Indeed, in the homes of Muslims and mosque, we find copies of the Quran (in Arabic, of course).  Muslims are always proud to have the original Quran – in Arabic, the language spoken by Prophet Muhammad, and whose contents were acknowledged by him – holding in their hands to read.

Let’s now resurface the five Malay words/phrases mentioned above as examples for some brief explanation and analysis:

(1)  Selamat pagi (equivalent to “Good morning” and literally means “Safe morning”)

In reality, the other greetings of the day, such as “Selamat petang” (Good afternoon/Good evening) in Malay or English are seldom used in the afternoon or evening. However, the phrase “Assalamu-alaikum” (Peace be on you) is always used at any time of the day or night by Muslims across the globe among any one race or among various races

Let’s take this remote example: If 20 different races are in the audience and none of them understands Japanese, and a Japanese host comes on stage and greets them, “Ohayo gozaimas”, nobody would understand what he says.  However, if the 20 different races in the audience were Muslims, and the host greets “Assalamu-alaikum” (Peace be upon you) everyone would understand him and each of them would softly reply “Wa-alaikum salam” or “Wa-alaikum salam wa-Rahmatullah (Peace and Allah’s Mercy be on you.)  You will notice that the second response has additional words, marked in bold.  This is according to an advice given by Allah in the Quran, thus: “When you are greeted with a greeting, greet in return with a greeting still more courteous, or (at least) return it with equal courtesy.” (Quran, 4:86)

Thus, you see that the greeting, “Assalamu-alaikum” has (1) a virtuous meaning, (2) can be used any time of the day or night, (3) not confined to one race but used by Muslims of all and across races and (4) it is an advice given by Allah in the Quran. Thus, an enlightened Malay Muslim would greet another Muslim with the Islamic greeting.

(Muslims believe that it is God who speaks in the Quran as evidenced from the Quran, and that the whole Quran is God’s Word revealed to Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel.)

(2) Tuhan (God)

When Malay Muslims use the word, Tuhan, they mean the One God as they know from Islam. However, Tuhan can refer to any god or goddest like the Goddest of the Sea or God of Mercy, both popular in Chinese mythology, or a man considered as god or even animals and objects considered as gods.

But, Muslims of any race in the world refer to God as Allah as defined in the shortest chapter in the Quran, Chapter 112, entitled Iklas or Purity of Faith.  It is a 4-verse chapter for easy location in the Quran for reference, easy reading, easy memorisation even by little children, easy recitation, and easy understanding. The four verses of the chapter are:

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful.

“Say: He is Allah, the One and Only;

Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;

He begetteth not, nor is He begotten;

And there is none like unto Him.” (Quran, 112:1-4)

The word “Allah” cannot be made into masculine or feminine unlike god-goddest nor made into plural.  Indeed it is One and Only God who is Eternal and Absolute. Allah was not born nor would give birth and cannot be seen by any human being – all these being the criteria for ascertaining God. So, if someone says he knows a particular man who is god, then that particular man is not Allah; if someone says that god looks like a giant tree, then it is not Allah.  Allah has no form, so He is non-imaginable and cannot be painted, sculptured or moulded.

Every page of the Quran contains the mention of Allah or its attributes at least once.  For example, every chapter of the Quran except Chapter 9 begins with the basmallah, also known by its incipit Bismillah (invocation), “In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful”.

Thus, you will see that in the very first line before each chapter of the Quran, there is the word, “Allah” and two of His attributes, the Gracious and the Merciful.  In Chapter 112 quoted above, there is the mention of “Allah” and two other attributes of Allah in the invocation and the mention of “Allah” and two other attributes, the Eternal and the Absolute, in the verses.  Therefore, as can be seen, even in this very short chapter, there is mention of Allah twice and four of His attributes – the Gracious, the Merciful, the Eternal and the Absolute.

In the first chapter of the Quran, called Fatiha or The opening Chapter (not quoted in this article to save space), which comprises seven verses, Allah is mentioned twice and His attributes five times.  Thus, “Allah” is a more appropriate and meaningful usage than “Tuhan” as even every page of the Quran is scattered with the word “Allah” and His attributes – a kind of approval stamping or signature – to show that the Quran is not the composition of a man or a group of men but the Word of Allah revealed to Prophet Muhammad.

(Please note that when mentioning “Allah” in the Quran (Arabic), no pronoun for Allah is used or required to be used but in English there is a problem, as the pronoun “He” is used.  For example, we say “Allah and His attributes” though Allah is neither male nor female as already indicated.)

(3) Sembahyang (prayer)

A prayer can be said at any time or not said at all for days and months.  A prayer is said for giving thanks to God for favours received or for asking favours from Him.  This kind of prayer is called doa (in Islam) which can be done any time or after the daily solat or at the spur of the moment when requesting for divine help.

However, the Muslim prayer, called solat or salaah, is unique.  Solat is performed and not merely said, and it is obligatory, not voluntary. It comprises both physical movement and mental concentration. The following are some of its main features:

  • It is performed five times a day at fixed period: Suboh or Fajr (dawn solat); Zohor (noon solat); Asar (afternoon solat), Maghrib (sunset solat), and Isyak (night solat). The Jumah solat or Friday noon congregational solat is obligatory; it replaces the Zohor solat.
  • Taking the ablution with clean water is necessary before performing the solat for spiritual purity. The ablution is taken in the following sequence: Wash the hands, rinse mouth and nose, wash the face and forearms, rub the head with wet fingers, clean the ears and finally wash the feet. Done five times a day just before the above-mentioned period for each solat, it would also sooth the wetted parts of the body and refresh the person.
  • Solat is performed facing towards the Ka’aba in Mecca and includes the postures of standing, deep bowing, touching the forehead on the ground and sitting in sets of raka’at (units) – for Fajar (2 units), Zohor (4 units), Asar (4 units), Maghrib (3 units) and Isyak (4 units). Each unit is performed with supplications in Arabic and reading of chapters of the Quran (which is in Arabic).
  • Each solat is to be performed after the azan (prayer call in Arabic) which comprises the Takbir (“God is Great”), the Shahadah (testimony of faith: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”) and an invitation to come “to success”, a noble invitation with a deep meaning harmonising the well-being of both this world and the next.

Thus, sembahyang (prayer) and solat are different but when a Malay Muslim uses the word “Sembahyang” it is a common word for the act of worship by Muslims and people of any religion but the term solat or salaah is used because of its unique features as briefly explained above as well as for its universal usage.  This makes Malay Muslims prefer to use solat instead of sembahyang.

(4) Hari Raya Puasa

Some Malay Muslims refer to the celebration that comes after Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, as Hari Raya Puasa.  Hari Raya means “Grand day” and puasa means “fasting”, thus Hari Raya Puasa would mean “Grand Day of Fasting”.  This is ridiculous as no Muslim fasts on that day (though the usage might be innocent without realising its nuance.)

The Islamic name for the celebration at end of Ramadan fasting is for having accomplished the rigours of observing fasting, a sort of victory celebration called Eid ul-Fitr (Celebration of Charity) or Aidil Fitri.  Therefore, “Hari Raya Puasa” is an improper usage.  However, to say “Hari Raya” (Grand Day) for this day is not wrong as it refers to the day of the Celebration of Charity which is celebrated on 1 Syawal, the tenth month.

Eid ul-Fitr starts with a congregational solat in the morning in the mosque and in large open spaces.  After the solat, Muslims go visiting for bonding of relationship with friends and relatives and seeking forgiveness for any erroneous or hurtful words that could have been inadvertently or unconsciously used during chatting in the past year.

The “shift in thinking” happens because of more and more Singapore Muslims becoming educated and knowing Islam better than before. This is a change for the better, a development in bringing Muslims closer to the Quran and Islam. This is inevitable.

At this juncture, I would like to explain another point which is more of a mistake than a “shift in thinking”. During this Hari Raya, my non-Muslim Chinese neighbour visited us and wished us “Happy New Year!”  The intention was good but the greeting was wrong. Hari Raya Aidil Fitri (1 Syawal) is not the Muslim New Year. Syawal is the tenth month in the Muslim calendar.  First Muharam is the Muslim New Year, two months after Syawal.  Unlike in Muslim countries, there is no public holiday for the Muslim New Year in Singapore as every religion is given two public holidays for its followers to enjoy. (Eid ul-Adha, that is, Festival of Sacrifice or Hari Raya Aidil Adha also referred to as Hari Raya Haji, is a public holiday.)

The correct way for a non-Muslim to greet a Malay Muslim on Hari Raya is “Selamat Hari Raya” (Happy Hari Raya) or “Eid Mubarak” (Blessed celebration), the latter being used internationally.

By: Shaik Kadir

22 July 2015

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