Friday, 27 April 2012

Arabs in Kedah Before Federation of Malaya 1948

Assalaamu'alaikum wa rahmatullah

Masjid al-Bukhari in Alor Setar dedicated by an Arab who is now known as a Malay entrepreneur, lol

This article is adapted from the working paper of Nazirah Lee. Only for educational purpose and personal record. Please mention Nazirah Lee and other writers as the owners of the sources if reproducing these data! Lee discussed about the role played by the Arabs in British administration in Kedah Sultanate before the formation of the Federation of Malaya in 1948. Just click on the Federation of Malaya to get more information. 

Urm, I just to clear more about the term Jawi Pekan or Jawi Peranakan as we are from Kedah Sultanate while the Jawi Pekan mentioned everywhere is about Northern Indian. Our ancestors were Arab tribes who were also stationed in India-Pakistan and we are not Indian. It's true that Jawi Pekan most of them were from North India and some from Southern India but those in Kedah Sultanate were strongly Arab descents in contrast to those in Straits Settlements like in Singapore or Penang. Some of these Arab descents also married North or South Indian women so their descents are associated with Indians and they only choosing the candidates who are related to Arab tribes. Please avoid mentioning us as Indian or Malay. We will be a little bit shocked especially when we have no political affiliation or interests in government but we consider both Malays and Indians as human-being like everyone also as our brothers in faith if they are Muslims, don't worry.

Nazirah Lee talks about the position of Arabs in Kedah Sultanate administration policy and the approach used by British officials in their relationship with Arab community of Kedah Sultanate. The definition of a person's racial background based on religion and language spoken by a person has given a big impact on the position of Arabs in British administration in Kedah Sultanate. It has given the Arabs of Kedah Sultanate more spaces and opportunity to serve the government in administration areas, judicial and legal areas in the Kedah Sultanate government during British period.


In her introduction for her working paper, Lee says that previous researches reflecting the importance and the contributions of Arab community toward Muslims in Malaya before the independence of Malay countries. Their contribution is more significant in religious and spirituality of the people. Her paperwork discussed the British administration policy and the role of the Arabs in British administration in Kedah Sultanate. How British view the position of Arabs among Muslim which determine them to practice positive approaches toward the community and in the same time they were also careful with the community.

Arabs in Kedah

Kedah was among the earliest settlements of Arab community in Malaysia. Their existence could be traced since 9th century (Syed Hasan, 2004). The Sultanate is not really new to Arabs since it is located at the trade route. Hourani mentions that it was the place where the Arabs and Chinese merchants meeting each other after the 9th century. Kedah was known in many names by the Arabs. Ishaq bin Imran for example refers Kedah as Kalah while Ya'aqubi refers it as Qaqulla (Tibbets, 1957). It was popular because it produced steel and bamboo.

The size of Arab community in Kedah was quite small as their population fluctuate in the period of researches conducted by researchers due to the immigration process by the Arabs is quite continuous. Some of them returned to their homeland in Middle East in some period of time. While some others came to Kedah to try their luck. According to the statistic done in 1911, the population of Kedah Sultanate who were classified as Arabs were 226 and the population decreased to 113 in 1931 (Nathan, 1922). The population of female in Arab community is smaller than of male and most of them were born in South East Asia and Malay countries. Following is their population according to gender and their origin:
Born in Arabia
Born in Arabia
                             Table 1: Population of Arabs according to gender and place of birth (Nathan, 1922)  

It is quite difficult to determine the real place of origin of these people who were classified as Arabs in the table from the Census of British Malaya for British Protected States (Kedah, Brunei, Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu and Johore), Straits Settlements, and Federated States. According to report in 1931, those who were classified as Arabs in Kedah in majority were originated from Hadramawt of Southern Yemen. Small division of Arabs were from Mecca, Medina and Egypt (Ramli, 1984). The table shows the majority of Arabs in Kedah were born in Malay countries. It refers also to Arabs who came from the area in today's Indonesian islands and those who locally born in Kedah. Arabs who were born in this region mostly came from mixed parentage. They have Malay mothers. Other than that, some of them were of Sayyid clans who only marry among Arabs as to make sure that they are not contaminated. We can see that cousins marrying cousins. And this is what happens in our community. Also the name of forefathers being recycled like their descents were the incarnation of forefathers just to make sure that forefathers won't be forgotten, lol.  

From the discussion, we could see that Arabs in Kedah were of different places of origin and family background. Not all of them were the Sayyids because this is what I always hear when we talk about the Yemeni Hadramis, hahahaha. Arab settlements could be found in almost all places in Kedah Sultanate of Kedah state today. Most of them were in Kota Setar and Kuala Muda.       

According to Paridah Ramli (1984) research from Malaysia National University mentions that many Arabs live in Kota Setar and Kuala Muda because these areas were the area closer to the capitals of Kedah. I had read some of the chronicles of our elders and they confirms it. There were also Arab settlements in Kubang Pasu and Yan districts but not as many as in Kota Setar and Kuala Muda districts.  

The map in the research by Paridah Ramli (1984) shows that Arab community in Kedah did not live in a specific area. Their settlements is all over the state and it shows that they mingled with natives. Previous researches related to the history of Arab community in Kedah shows that they assimilated themselves into the native society. However, Sharifah Zaleha explains that degree of assimilation with natives always changing according to the development in Muslim society. In the same time, Arab community struggled to maintain their identity as Arabs. In some Arab families, they used Arabic terms such as family hierarchy term to address their family member or using surname. In our case also we use Arabic words more than English words in our spoken Malay. In most cases, Arab community in Kedah speak in Kedah Malay and local dialects. They also adapted local cultural traits into their life so it is very difficult now to determine who are they unless if they talk about themselves in detail in which I think not all of them realize about it especially youngsters.        

In Kedah, the Arab community there is quite different in the matter of marriage related to female family member. Just like other typical Arabs in other areas in Malay countries in Malaysia and Indonesian islands, those with Sharifah title were not allowed to marry others who are not with the title Sayyid. I think this is so out-dated but I agree that we need to check our spouse background especially their religion background and piety. What concerns me is religion, not the money, lordship status or racial background. For this, those Arabs of Shafi'ie madzhab using the principle of kafaah in marriage. But I also know few of these people who marry Malay noble men and they are not Arabs such as the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Malaysian first prime minister. He was the son of our beloved 26th Sultan, Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah. Our 26th Sultan was also married to Arab women with Sharifah title. Most of patriotic Kedahan will keep a picture of this sultan. I keep one with me too and many Kedahan who live outside of the state also keeping it with them as our symbol of patriotism and love toward our sultanate no matter of what racial background we are. Don't be surprised if non-Kedahan fellow Malaysians could see this sultan picture in our premises such as in Chinese or Indian shops and etc, hahaha.

However, this matter has no effect on the relationship between Arabs of Kedah with other Muslims although many critics being directed toward their status and position around 1930's. Tunku Abdul Rahman as an example urged Malay society to reckon the contribution of Arab community because they were also involved in defending the sultanate during the war between Kedah sultanate and the Siam empire. Paridah Ramli (1984) mentions that he refers it to the sacrifice made by Sayyid Zainal Abiddin (posthumous name Tengku Kudin) who lead the Kedah army to attack the Siam empire and he was finally killed. In this matter, Arab community was regarded as a respected community and considered as aristocrats by native Malays of Kedah.

This is also influenced by the view of local society at that time who assumed that all Arabs were the family of prophet Muhammad s.a.w. Ok, now I am laughing, hahahaa. Many people will refer to Arabs in term of religion. I also see this tendency by some non-Arabs to view Arabs should act according to Islamic rites even if they consume non-halal food. Not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Arabs are religious. There are also Jew Arabs and Christian Arabs and it is true some of them even those Christians and Jews were also connected to prophet family before they become apostates. Arabs are not holy people or angels and Arabs are not demons too. Arabs are just human-being like other nations. When we see an Arab behaved like sh*t, we should not generalize all Arabs because there are civilized and uncivilized Arabs. The same thing also to other nations like Malay, Chinese, Africans, Indians or Caucasians. I personally don't like the mentions about prophet Muhammad s.a.w was sent to Arab nation because they were so barbaric by Malay ustazs and ustazas. Arab nations had exist since after Semitic era even before the existence of Hebrews. Muhammad s.a.w is a sign of Mercy from Allah Azza wa Jall to all nations in this period. Many of his descents through Ali k.w and his daughter Fatimah r.a has spread out of the Arabian Peninsula.     

Paridah Ramli (1984) shows that Arabs also playing important role in transmitting religious teaching to people in Kedah. Traditionally, Kedah sultans will invite Arabs to the sultanate and teaching Islam. They also appointed Arab scholars specialized in religious sciences as muftis to serve the sultanate in term of religious guidelines and rituals. It also happened during British administration era. The Sheikhul Islam of Kedah in 1334 H (1916) was invited from Arabia to serve the state and he actually knows no Malay words at all. This is among the reason why Arab community in Kedah were closely related to ruling class of the state.

Other than the role in religious teaching, Arabs in Kedah also being seen as apart of nobility because the relationship among royal family. Sultan Zainal Rashid Muazam Shah II (1880-1881) for example is a son of an Arab mother who were born in Patani Sultanate in Southern Thailand (Mohammad & Othman, 2001). 

Other than acting as missionaries, Arabs in Kedah were also merchants and traders. There were also Arabs who were involved in agricultural activities. Mohamad Redzuan Othman had discussed about the involvement of Hadrami Arabs from al-Idrus, Barakbah and Jamalullail clans in agricultural activities. Sayyid Alwi bin Sayyid Ahmad al-Habshee as an example was an entrepreneur who owned a rubber plantation in Yan district. Sayyid Abdul Rahman al-Junied was an Arab businessman who was also involved in the petrol industry in Kedah. He had made an appeal to British government to build a gas station in Kulim. Sayyid Abdullah bin Mohsin al-Attas was an Arab who involved in the trade of sugar in Penang and Kedah.

In a simple word, Arabs in Kedah mostly enjoyed good social and economy status. Their life was comfortable. There were also records about some Arabs who lived a difficult life in Kedah Sultanate. The record says that an Arab originated from Medina was arrested by British police in Alor Setar, the capital of Kedah. The man was known as Abdul Karim and he was classified as a vagrant living in the masjid as an example of poor Arab in Kedah. Other example is Sayyid Omar bin Sheikh Shahabuddin who worked as  British clerk II in Padang Terap District Office was prosecuted on the charge owing an Indian creditor known as Muthuya in the Alor Setar Court. He failed to pay his debt in total of $226.51 until he died in January of 1932.   

As the conclusion for this part, among Muslims in Kedah Sultanate, Arab community had played their role in religious field. They were seen as administrator supporting groups due to their relatively good social and economy status. However, not all of Arabs in Kedah contributed toward the society. There were also proves that Arabs and Malays having misunderstanding and Arabs who lived poor life. As an example, the rubber plantation owner Sayyid Alwi of Yan district that was just mentioned in few paragraphs had some quarrels with a Malay or perhaps Achehnese known as Nyak Abdullah bin Ku Bak Usop. Nyak Abdullah said that he was cheated by Sayyid Alwi in the contract of land selling that they had agreed before.    

Urm, I don't like any exaggeration about whatever role of Arab community anywhere in the world because people may say that we are boasting and etc or thinking that we are holy creature. I don't even care about it and I never think myself as a holy creature because I have low-self esteem when I am with other Muslim nations. I can't even look at people face because I think I am filthy and inferior as compared to Malays or any other nations. This is just what has been written in the working paper of the seminar about Arab community in Kedah state, Malaysia. I guess it is enough we are known according to our ethnicity like Chinese or Indian and being recognized as natives like other natives like Malay or Siamese. I didn't get native privilege like textbooks and others because my father was not government servant and I was treated badly by Malay kids and teachers last time because I refused to be one but there are many other hypocrite Arabs who were racists not marrying people of non-Sayyid ancestry but in the same time using Malay privileges. This is not right, isn't it?!!

Gratitude to Researchers

Special thanks to researchers who had conducted researches about our community in Kedah sultanate. Your assistance and help hopefully will be rewarded and I wish others could also trace their origin from researches conducted by researchers. Next we will see the Arab community of Kedah in British administration period. My paternal grandpa was one of the British government servant. He was a clerk for British official in Kubang Pasu and also used to deal with the royal family in Kota Setar. I get the information from elders in Kota Setar. They mentioned that he has lands even in Penang Island. He also possessed horses when he was young but sadly he passed away as a poor man in Kodiang town when my father was 12 years old. He has many children and most of my cousins were old the same age as my father because they were from previous marriage, hahaha. I never see him so it was very difficult for me to get access from our elders that made me contacting people in Kedah, India and Pakistan to get information beside accessing data about local South East Asian Arabs. At least now I know why I am different from others and I could proceed with my religion, traditions and customs without doubt like others. 


Mills, J.V. (1974). “Arab and Chinese Navigators in Malaysian Waters in About A.D.1500” in Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 47 (II)

Tibbets, G.R. 1957. “Early Muslim Traders in Southeast Asia” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 1(1)

Sharifah Zaleha bte Syed Hasan. (2004). History and Indigenization of the Arabs in Kedah Malaysia in Asian Journal of Social Science (29)1

Mohamad Redzuan Othman. (2009). Sumbangan Usahawan keturunan Arab dalam perkembangan ekonomi Tanah Melayu sebelum Perang Dunia Kedua”. Kertas Kerja di Seminar Sejarah Keusahawanan: Pelajaran untuk MAsa depan. 9 January 2009. UM KL.

Muzaffar Mohamad and Suhana Othman. 2001. Ahli Bait (Keluarga) Rasulullah saw dan Raja-raja Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Al-Wasilah Enterprise

Paridah Romly. (1984). Orang Arab di Kedah. Undergraduate Thesis at the Department of History‚ National University of Malaysia
Sealed with prayers for mercy, peace and love amin!   

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