The Malay Literary Scene (Part 1): The Influence of Syed Sheikh Al-Hadi

By Alicia Izharuddin

September 2022 FEATURE
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Syed Sheikh Al-Hadi (far right, standing) with his family outside their home on 410 Jelutong Road, Penang.

ON 410 Jelutong Road in Penang sits an imposing house on brick piles divided into tripartite sections in the style of a traditional Malay family home. In the middle part of the house, the rumah ibu, are tall bay windows with elegant wooden shutters that stretch from the floor upwards to the ornately-carved kerawang border that trails along the bottom of the roof. When the window shutters are pushed open to let the familiar wafts of the Penang breeze in, they can only suggest glimpses of the extraordinary life and work that once took place here.

One hundred years ago, the Muslim reformist and father of the modern Malay novel, Syed Sheikh Al-Hadi lived here. This was also where he ran the famous Jelutong Press, one of the earliest publishing companies in Penang. Al-Hadi moved his family to Penang in 1916, his final home after decades of peregrinations in the Middle East and around the Malay Archipelago.

Born in a small village in Melaka to a learned Arab family of Yemeni heritage, Al-Hadi’s family was said to be descendants of Prophet Muhammad, a lineage that bestowed sons and daughters with the titles Syed and Sharifah.

Al-Hadi’s precociousness as a boy was recognised by an aristocratic family who lived on Pulau Penyengat, a tiny island in the sub-archipelago of Riau, south of Singapore and a place of great literary import in the 19th-century Malay world. The family not only adopted him but granted him an informal education in Arabic and Islamic studies. It was an upbringing of patronage that later supported his life-transforming travels with his adoptive family to Mecca and Egypt. In Egypt, he met Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and Rachid Rida, the pioneers of Muslim reformist thought.

Upon Al-Hadi’s return to Malaya after these encounters, he had ambitious plans to spread his ideas of modern pan-Islamism by teaching in the Islamic schools he founded. For years, he supported these noble endeavours with income from the brickwork company passed on to him by his adoptive family.

Penang – A Refuge for Al-Hadi

Although Penang was better known for centuries as a global trading port, the Pearl of the Orient was also a vibrant cosmopolitan society that embraced cross-cultural exchange and hybridity. It began to attract religious reformers from the Dutch East Indies and the Middle East who sought to reconstruct a new Malay-Muslim society whose modernity and civilisation would be a gleaming model in the Islamic world. By the early 20th century, largely through the efforts of the Straits Chinese community, Penang had become a leader in Malay print publishing, second only to Singapore, and was a haven for dissenters. Many Malay publishers fled to Penang to escape the scourge of British censorship in Singapore.

Al-Hadi, like many pioneering reformers of his time, was drawn to Penang. With an educated and literate society receptive to new ideas and a thriving publishing scene perfect for their dissemination, Penang provided the necessary refuge for Al-Hadi’s then-radical ideas to purge Muslim society of what he saw as the degeneration of Islam by folk and superstitious elements. He saw himself as the guardian of Qur’anic truth, surrounded by an undereducated community during a period of growing nativist Malay nationalist fervour that did not welcome the disparagement from members of the privileged Hadrami-Arab community.

Seen through a contemporary lens, he was perhaps not much different from self-appointed authorities who condemned the everyday expressions of Islam practised by most Muslims in the archipelago. Although progressive for his day, Al-Hadi’s push for a more “authentic” Islam would be received less kindly today – who gets to decide what is “authentic” and what is not? Dressed in a smart two-piece suit, necktie, white trousers and a tall fez hat, he cut an elegant figure who embodied multiple cultures – Hadrami, Malay, Western – but of the elite register that was often out of touch with the masses.

The composing room at Jelutong Press where Saudara, al-Ikhwan, and the earliest editions of Hikayat Faridah Hanum were published. Al-Hadi stands on the right, in white trousers.

Through the Jelutong Press, Al-Hadi and his associates published the periodical al-Ikhwan (the Brotherhood, 1926 to 1931) and the newspaper Saudara (1928 to 1932), modelled after the pan-Muslim reformist newspapers al-Manar in Egypt. Jelutong Press was established in 1927 from the profits he made from writing the widely popular serialised novel Hikayat Faridah Hanum (1925 to 1926) – often regarded as the first modern Malay novel.

Hikayat Faridah Hanum is set in a world far removed from the general populace of Penang and mainland Malaya. The eponymous Faridah Hanum belongs to an affluent bourgeoisie Cairo family who enters a forbidden romance with a similarly well-to-do young man, Shafik Affandi, but she is already betrothed to her alcoholic cousin Badruddin who treats her poorly. Trapped in a forced marriage, she advances a compelling theological argument to escape it, a dramatic plot that scandalised religious authorities at the time. Faridah Hanum became a powerful avatar for Al-Hadi’s views about the importance of education for women, inspired as he was by Egyptian pro-women’s rights reformists like Qasim Amin.

The 1950 editions of Hikayat Faridah Hanum.

On 410 Jelutong Road was also where Al-Hadi met with the Tariqa Taslim, an early Muslim cult that was based in Kampung Seronok in Seberang Perai. Similar to other post-Muhamaddan sects, the Tariqa Taslim follows the teachings of self-styled prophets who claim to succeed the prophet Muhammad and submit themselves and their wealth to the cult leader and his biological male successors.

Based on the accounts of his grandson who witnessed this encounter, the leader of the Tariqa Taslim wished to settle once and for all the matter of Islamic “truth” and “authenticity” with Al-Hadi. In the end, they “agreed to disagree” and the theological showdown ended peacefully – something that is unlikely to occur in decades to come.

Al-Hadi’s Last Years

Al-Hadi was a well-known figure on the streets of Penang by the 1920s. But in his later years, his fame was less a boon than a bane. He was heckled as an eccentric old man and a has-been by passers-by. Nevertheless, his views about reforming Islam never wavered even when the zeitgeist shifted towards Malay nationalism in the 1930s.

In some ways, Al-Hadi’s pioneering vision doomed him to irrelevance before his time, hastened perhaps by the inconsistencies of his personal character and public persona. In private, it seemed as if his vociferous Islamic convictions did not apply. His son and grandchildren were urged to pursue a secular education, not in the bastions of Islam in the Middle East, but in the elite universities of England – and not to study Islam or Arabic, but law, history and science.

This Eurocentrism may be a reflection of Al-Hadi’s chosen abode – Penang, under colonial British rule, had long been Anglophile, and many of its residents in the early 20th century were British citizens and loyal to the imperial crown.

Sadly, the Great Depression in the late 1920s hit Penang hard, forcing Jelutong Press, which was already operating at a loss, to cease operations. Al-Hadi died of brain disease in 1934 in his home on 410 Jelutong Road, leaving his family to shoulder the financial burden.

A precarious life awaited those who survived him. Upon his death, Al-Hadi left little money to his family who was consequently forced to sell many valuable belongings and ultimately, their home on Jelutong Road. They moved to a much more modest abode that was best left unremembered. Ironically, Al-Hadi’s widow had few formal qualifications despite his insistence on women’s education and was only able to support the family with a job offered by a close associate. None of Al-Hadi’s many children went on to inherit his life’s work, ideology and ambitions.

In spite of the inglorious circumstances of his final years, Al-Hadi’s legacy remains. His mission to purify Islam from what he saw as backward local customs would have contrasting afterlives in the late 20th century. On the one hand, the modernisation of Islam in Malaysia evolved into corporate and bureaucratised expressions that departed from parochial traditionalism. Al-Hadi would have been pleased to see the secular norms of law, business, education, science and medicine converge seamlessly with sharia. But on the other hand, the source of his reformist inspiration would later develop into fundamentalist extremes and influence the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism.

As for his literary legacy, Al-Hadi leaves behind a reading public, irreversibly transformed by the combined ideals of romantic love, Islam and modernity, themes that continue to preoccupy Malay literature 100 years later. Unexpectedly, the baton of Al-Hadi’s literary achievements has been passed onto women writers who dominate the Malay writing scene in Malaysia, as we shall see in Part 2.

Alicia Izharuddin

is a Research Fellow in Asian Studies at Leiden University. From September 2022, she will be a lecturer in Gender Studies at Monash University Malaysia, and later from January 2023, a Senior Visiting Fellow in Gender and Sexuality at the Malay Studies Department of National University of Singapore. She was previously a Research Associate in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School and Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies at University of Malaya. She is completing a book on modern Malay romance.