Nearly 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Muhammad and his small band of followers left Mecca, where the fledgling Muslim community was increasingly persecuted and oppressed, for Yathrib (later renamed Medina), a city 320km to the north.
This journey has come to be known as the Hijrah, an epochal event that not only marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar, but also the consolidation of the first Muslim community. It was from the success of this migration that the small community was able to grow and blossom into what it is today – representatives of the world’s second largest and fastest-growing religion.
Taken literally, hijrah means migration, the physical movement of people from one place to another. But hijrah also carries a spiritual and existential meaning, connoting a search for something better – be it to further one’s career, to develop one’s talent, to seek a better life and, in some cases, even for something as basic as survival. In other words, hijrah can be taken to mean a journey towards betterment, whether personal or collective.
Hijrah is not a concept removed from our own society and civilisation. South-East Asia is a maritime region consisting of 25,000 islands and with a peninsula peppered by vast riverine networks, and so our forefathers were constantly on the move. If today’s world is said to be borderless in the metaphorical sense, the Malay Archipelago could be said to be one in the literal sense.
The Inclusive Malay World
In fact, it would not be inaccurate to say that society back then had no historical need or cognisance of borders. This conclusion can be gleaned from studying the literary manuscripts of yore, such as Hikayat Hang Tuah, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, the Malay Annals and Misa Melayu, among others. There may have been a complex and mature network of international trade, and along with it constant interaction with sailors and merchants from all corners of the world, but nowhere in the writings is there a reference to the notion of orang asing, or foreigners – at least not in the way we understand it today.
Instead, the term used to describe migrants or people who had journeyed from other territories was orang dagang. While one may ascribe this expression to mean merchants, the classic texts actually use the term saudagar for that purpose. Thus, orang dagang refers not to transient traders, but travellers who, having settled in a new territory, assimilate themselves by contributing their work, energy and loyalty to the collective social and economic development of their new community. In short, migrants were very much embraced as part of society and not seen as outsiders or the proverbial “other”.
This concept has its modern parallel in what we would describe today as citizenship, albeit in a more progressive and encompassing way. A citizen after all is someone who, in addition to being an inhabitant of a particular state, is also a legally recognised member of that state and therefore subject to whatever incumbent rights and duties that are provided for. But as modern states did not exist then, recognition of the orang dagang was less legalistic and not so narrowly defined. Rather, they were simply accepted as productive members of the community.
Indeed, there were also no real political borders. While there did exist the concept of hamba raja, which refers to a ruler’s liege subjects, it was not a permanent relationship because people were free to shift their loyalties to another ruler, depending on where they happened to be. Kingdoms had no defined borders and a ruler’s territory only stretched as far as his influence.
Now, there was indeed a term used to describe outsiders, but it did not refer to foreign travellers or traders who offered their wares and services – these as we have established were the orang dagang. Instead, if we are to use Hikayat Hang Tuah as an example, the term orang luar is used in every instance to refer to invaders, namely the Portuguese who were also called the Ferringi. These orang luar were seen as arrogant and unwilling to honour local culture and customs. They were therefore cast in negative light, as the following excerpt shows:
“Seketika juga maka Feringgi itu pun habislah; yang ada hidup semuanya habis lari terbit keluar kota. Maka diturut bunuh oleh segala orang luar itu, habis mati semuanya Feringgi itu.” Hikayat Hang Tuah Tuah, 524:38
The passage above speaks of the defeat of the Ferringi (Portuguese), with survivors having fled the city of Malacca. The remaining orang luar (outsiders), who were the Portuguese, were then wiped out.
A Region of Migrants
It is also interesting to note that in the Malay language, people are central to the concept of territory. In fact, the Malay term for region or territory, i.e. rantau, includes elements of migration and mobility. When rantau is conjugated as a verb, merantau, it takes on the meaning of travelling. Hence, the word rantau refers to both geography and the movement of people – something that has no English equivalent.
Although the concept and practice of merantau is often said to be particular to the Minangkabau community of West Sumatra, in truth it was normal practice throughout the entire Malay Archipelago, as we have already explored through the etymology of the term orang dagang.
It should come then as no surprise that the establishment of the famed Malacca Sultanate had its origins in the migration of asylum seekers. If we recall our history lessons, the founder of Malacca, Parameswara, was in fact an exiled prince of Palembang who after failing to establish a safe haven in Temasek (now known as Singapore) had no choice but to merantau further to finally settle in Malacca.
Learning from History
History is full of lessons for us to draw from. To be sure, circumstances then and now differ vastly, and the borderless societies that fabled characters such as Hang Tuah and Parameswara lived in have long been replaced by modern nation-states with clear borders and complex legal regimes.
However, by deconstructing some of these key concepts, we find that the ancient Malay world was in fact a very inclusive one – a far cry from the narrow and shallow narratives that pervade our country today. Migrants or orang dagang were welcomed and accepted, so long as they chose to contribute to the society. The only people who were considered to be real outsiders were aggressive invaders who sought to impose foreign values at gunpoint.
Unfortunately, in Malaysia today there seems to be a renewed prejudice towards migrant communities, even those who have settled for generations and should no longer be considered anything other than part of Malaysian society. Instead of treating our fellow citizens as one of our own, there are efforts to ban Malay words from being used by non-Malays, as well as the unconstitutional suppression of rights of non-Malays to religious expression.
It must be stressed that these bigoted actions are not only wrong but also antithetical to Malay culture. In fact, it goes against the very grain of Malay history, which paints the Malay world to be a migrant one, where even the Malay identity itself is a very fluid concept. According to great scholars of Malay studies such as Anthony Milner, Malayness is not defined so much by descent or bloodline than it is by culture and civilisation. In other words, Malayness is not an ethnicity but a culture, and a very liberal and accommodative one at that.
A Never-ending Journey for Improvement
In the year 622 AD, the original Muslims who followed the Prophet Muhammad on the Hijrah did so to seek greener pastures. They did so for their own survival, and for better opportunities. But the Hijrah did not end when they settled in Medina. In fact, it can be argued that it has not really ended – that it is a continuous journey, a migration in search of improvement, be it physical or spiritual.
And so the journey goes on for us here in Malaysia. In keeping with the traditions of our forefathers, we should continue to derive strength from the ever-evolving diversity of our society. This fact should be celebrated and not exploited as a cause for division. Whatever our roots, whether we have indigenous ancestry or whether we are descended from migrants or orang dagang, we are all Malaysians.
NB: This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of the Penang Monthly.