Sunday, June 21, 2009

AL-ATTAS, S. M. (1970): The mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri

This book on the mystical teachings of a Malay mystic named Hamzah Fansuri is originally a doctoral thesis submitted in May 1966 to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. The thesis is published “in its original form, with the exception of a few additional footnotes and bibliographical citations, no other alterations have been made in the text of the book.”(p. ix)

Generally speaking the book presents Islamic philosophical mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri who lived in the sixteenth century A.C. in Barus on the west coast of north Sumatra. Sumatra is one of the islands in the Republic of Indonesia in the present political setting. Fansur is another named for Barus. Technically speaking the book is divided into parts, chapters, appendices and cited bibliography. Covering the first chapter up to the sixth chapter, Part One is the comprehensive presentation, exposition and commentary of Hamzah’s life, his main opponent and his mystical teachings based on his prose works and poetic verses or poems.

The first chapter presents the biography of Hamzah Fansuri, and Chapter II presents Nuruddin al-Raniri who opposed Hamzah Fansuri. Chapter III covers Hamzah’s mystical teachings and doctrines namely God’s oneness, the created things in the world, the perpetual creation, the fixed essences, the spirit and the soul or self, the divine attributes, and the meanings of extinction, gnosis and freedom in Islamic mysticism or Sufism. Chapter IV analyzes Hamzah’s concept of the divine will (God’s iradah), and semantically compares it with the Malay word hendak that means iradah in Arabic. Chapter Chapter V semantically analyzes Hamzah’s mystical key words. Chapter VI is the conclusion for the Part I.

The book Part II has six chapters and al-Attas explains that the Part II contains “An annotated Romanized Malay edition of Hamzah’s three prose works and an annotated English translation of the texts.” (p.203). The introduction for the Part II traces what has been done by the previous scholars to some of Hamzah’s works. For example, John Doorenbos of Holland worked on Hamzah’s works for his doctoral dissertation for the University of Leiden and it was later on published in 1933. Doorenbos’s published work has many problems. For al-Attas, “Doorenbos was not sufficiently familiar with the structure of the Malay language in general, and Hamzah’s individual use of it in particular, to be in a position to fulfil his task satisfactorily. This judgement is based on an examination of his edition which, in certain respects reveals much to be desired and in others is fraught with telling errors both trivial and grave.”(p. 205).

It seems that al-Attas has found some minor and grave mistakes in Doorenbos’s work on Hamzah Fansuri, and al-Attas’s work points out to those mistakes and makes corrections to those mistakes. Chapter VII is devoted to the work of Hamzah entitled Asrar al-arifin, and Chapter VIII is to his work named Sharb al-ashiqin, and Chapter IX is to his work named al-Muntahi. The titles of Hamzah’s works are written in Arabic but the texts are written in Malay of Arabic alphabets. For Chapter X, XI, and XII, they are devoted to Hamzah’s poetical works translated into English namely “The Secrets of the Gnosis”, “The drink of Lovers” and “The Adept”. There are seven appendices included in the book. The first appendix consists of short statements by Hamzah (pp. 475-477). The second, third and fourth appendices are the works of Raniri who opposed Hamzah (pp.478-489). The fifth and sixth appendices are works of Hamzah Fansuri (pp.490-526). The seventh appendix is “Alphabetical index of the semantic vocabulary in Hamzah’s mystical system”. The seventh appendix is from page 527 to 542. The last part of the book contains the cited bibliography (pp. 545-556).

Al-Attas claims that his work represents the first undertaking made “in terms of a comprehensive exposition and commentary” of the mystical ideas and teachings of Hamzah. The previous works on Hamzah’s teachings and ideas have not been so comprehensive but covered the small portions of his poetic verses. “Modern Orientalist scholars too—who have merely noticed him albeit only in connection with their bibliographical and historical interest in their notion of Malay literature— have understandably failed to recognize and evaluate positively the significant influence” of Hamzah “in the domain of the literary history of the Malays—in particular that aspect of it which bears close connection with the role of Islam in the cultural history of the Malay-Indonesian.”( p. ix). Al-Attas claim is most likely reasonable and acceptable since his work is from his doctoral thesis submitted to SOAS, the University of London. A doctoral thesis customarily and normally demands and emphasizes on the new academic contributions in the fields.

In this case, the field is the Malay Islamic philosophical mysticism as found and based on the prose and poetic works of Hamzah Fansuri. On the title page, it is stated about the author’s academic qualifications, professorship and academic positions. Academically al-Attas, the author, obtained his master degree from McGill University and his doctoral degree from the University of London. His professorship is in Malay language and literature and his academic and administrative positions are the Dean of Faculty of Arts, the National University of Malaysia, and the former Dean of the Faculty of Arts, the University of Malaya. From my viewpoint, this book is a very good academic work and its English is also very academic and fluent. It may be considered a classical work for the study of the contributions of Hamzah Fansuri in the Malay-Islamic mysticism and the Malay classical language and literature.


Anonymous said...

Thnx for providing this resource on your website.
Also see my web site - Clean and Green Washroom Products

Anonymous said...

Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if you knew of
any widgets I could add to my blog that automatically tweet my newest twitter
updates. I've been looking for a plug-in like this for quite some time and was hoping maybe you would have some experience with something like this. Please let me know if you run into anything. I truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new updates.

Look into my homepage smart circle directv Tickets