Straits Muslims show diversity within Malays

Jawi Peranakan, or Straits Muslims, are a community with an outsized influence on Penang, but little is known about these people descended from mixed marriages between local Malays and the Muslim diaspora. Although the people are now largely identified as Malay, it shows the vast diversity found within ethnic groups. Race is not a monolithic entity. This is the seventh instalment of a nine-part series that brings to life the places and people of Malaysia many of us know little about.

The popular George Town Festival included a Boria performance, a typically Straits Muslim form of entertainment that used to be presented in public spaces a long time ago. Using parody, it pokes fun at modern life, while carrying a comedic moral mess
The popular George Town Festival included a Boria performance, a typically Straits Muslim form of entertainment that used to be presented in public spaces a long time ago. Using parody, it pokes fun at modern life, while carrying a comedic moral message. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF RAQIB KARIM

The island of Penang is virtually synonymous with the Peranakan community, or Straits Chinese.

From their furniture to dress and especially food, the Baba Nonya culture is a highly visible aspect of Penang heritage.

But the Jawi Peranakan, or Straits Muslims? Fewer people know about them, even those of Straits Muslim descent themselves, who often identify themselves as Malay. But things are changing.

Their heritage is gaining a little more prominence, thanks to the efforts of anthropologist Wazir Jahan Karim, who is from the community and has studied it extensively.

The Straits Muslims - descendants of Muslim traders who married the local Malays - have been an integral part of Penang since the British arrived in 1786 to turn the island into a regional trading port.

The rediscovery of the importance of the Jawi Peranakan has found some resonance, given today's political climate in Malaysia where race plays an inordinately large role in everyday affairs, from politics to social interaction.

Dr Wazir's studies led her to set up a restaurant offering Jawi food. But it's also a mini museum and gallery, and a gentle reminder of the Muslim contribution to the development of Penang.

The community had a major influence on the Islamic culture in Penang, notably in its philanthropist role and in developing a civil society.

"We should embrace our diversity, and we should see this as a source of strength," said Dr Wazir.

The Jawi Peranakan shows that ethnicity, far from being a monolithic grouping of people, is often an amalgamation of many cultures merged over time. There is vast diversity to be found within ethnic groups.

In Malaysia, race is seen as such an important predictor of political trends that Malaysians tend to be identified primarily by ethnic categories, each of which is assumed to have a fixed set of political values or way of thinking.

Some have begun to rebel against this, especially as the limited range of ethnic categories is deemed too rigid to suit the changing Malaysian demographic.

Some have chosen to call themselves just "Malaysians", while others search for a more nuanced identity.

"I'm lucky to be from Penang, where I can be a bit Malay, a bit Indian," said Mr Abdul Raqib Karim, 30. "My generation sees it as something to be appreciated."

He said knowing his ancestry made him realise people are always moving from place to place, and ethnic groups and identity are not static. Rather, they are dynamic.

Similar to the Straits Chinese, the Jawi Peranakan are descendants of marriages between the local Malay population with the Muslim diaspora who had come during Penang's heyday.

Their ancestors were the early Muslim traders, missionaries, farmers and labourers of Arab, Tamil, Punjabi, Bengali, Acehnese, Minang, Bugis and Rawa ancestry who settled in the ports along the Strait of Malacca.

They were Muslim, and adopted a lot of the Malay culture in their dress and food, and rite-of-passage ceremonies, such as weddings and feasts. They spoke Malay at home and, today, largely identify themselves as Malay with Malay as their mother tongue.

Dr Wazir said they are different from the Indian-Muslims, sometimes called mamak, in one key aspect. The Indian-Muslims often spoke Tamil or their original mother tongue at home or with one another, and maintained strong ties with India.

Similarly, while the Straits Chinese also adopted the Malay culture, they did not become Muslims. They kept their own faith, and many in the third generation onwards are now more closely linked with the Chinese due to marriages into Chinese families. Very few now use Malay as their home language.

All this may sound of interest only to anthropologists and historians. But it does point to how much of Malaysia is actually a melting pot of different cultures, and how hard it is to pick out one thread from the other.

In fact, Jawi Peranakan was an ethnic category on its own during the British colonial times but this vanished with independence in 1957. The people began to identify themselves as Malay.

Dr Wazir said it was an indication of the strength of the Malay culture as a political, social and cultural group, that it was able to embrace a wide range of cultures.

She noted that between the 11th and 15th centuries, the rise of Malay-Muslim sultanates in the Strait of Malacca gave greater significance to Islam as a political culture that can absorb diverse peoples.

"In anthropology, this is regarded as a strength, not a weakness," she said.

The Jawi Peranakan left a strong influence on the Penang Muslim community as they had a common political culture founded on the Islamic ideals of civil society and welfare.

Many became leaders of their community and, in later years, they led early political groups, such as the Malay Association of Penang. Many also became high-ranking civil servants.

Dr Wazir said their influence was so extensive that a large section of George Town's heritage heart was once called Malay Town.

"It's so important to revive this concept of Jawi Peranakan because of their massive contribution to Malaysia, not just in politics but also the culture, arts, food."

For ordinary Malaysians, it is the delicious food that leaves as great an impression on their minds as it does on their taste buds.

Jawi Peranakan food is characterised by the heavy use of spices from Arab and Indian cooking, a lot of cream and tomatoes. It is more mellow than fiery chilli hot. And then there's the herbal blue rice coloured with flowers that is so familiar in Nonya cooking.

Last year, for the first time, the hugely popular George Town Festival also included a Boria performance, a typically Straits Muslim form of entertainment that used to be presented in public spaces a long time ago.

Mr Sharnaz Abdul Shukor, 24, who helped out backstage, said it was well attended by foreigners and locals but mostly older people who remember it from their youth.

Boria includes sketches and dances, traditionally performed only by men. Using parody, it typically pokes fun at modern life, while carrying a comedic moral message. It is sometimes used as a form of conflict resolution by pointing out social problems without causing offence.

Mr Sharnaz, whose family is Jawi Peranakan, said it was only fairly recently that he became aware of his cultural background despite already knowing the story of his forefathers.

To him, heritage is so important that he made an effort to learn Penang's stories, including those of its famous temples and Chinese clans. He said it was important for people to know their origins.

"We lose something of value when we don't," he said.


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