Individual Imaginings: The Religio-Nationalist Pilgrimages of Haji Sulong Abdulkadir Al-Fatani

By Ockey, James | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Individual Imaginings: The Religio-Nationalist Pilgrimages of Haji Sulong Abdulkadir Al-Fatani


Ockey, James, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Just after the turn of the twentieth century, young Muhammad Sulong went on a pilgrimage. Sulong's pilgrimage was not simply a matter of going to Mecca for the Haj; it followed a form in use as a rite of passage for a small, select group of young men from Pattani. Muhammad Sulong was bound for Mecca to study Islam, learning from the teachers at the spiritual centre of his religion, in the original sacred --Arabic language. There he would study, as did other young Muslim men from Southeast Asia and other parts of the Muslim world. After suitable learning and preparation he would also perform the Haj. Then a decision would be made: to stay on as a member of the Jawi community at Mecca, or return to Pattani as a respected teacher, to share his experience and the accumulated wisdom with others from his community. So his pilgrimage began.

In his Imagined Communities (1991), Benedict Anderson argued that pilgrimages were crucial to the development of shared identities for both the older religious communities and for the younger national communities:

   It is not simply that in the minds of Christians, Muslims or Hindus
   the cities of Rome, Mecca, or Benares were the centres of sacred
   geographies, but that their centrality was experienced, 'realized'
   (in the stagecraft sense) by the constant flow of pilgrims moving
   towards them from remote and otherwise unrelated localities ... the
   strange physical juxtaposition of Malays, Persians, Indians,
   Berbers and Turks in Mecca is something incomprehensible without an
   idea of their community in some form. The Berber encountering the
   Malay before the Kaaba must, as it were, ask himself: 'Why is this
   man doing what I am doing, uttering the words I am uttering, even
   though we cannot talk to one another?' There is only one answer,
   once one has learnt it: 'Because we ... are Muslims.' (2)

The educated played a crucial role in this process:

   The literati were adepts, strategic strata in a cosmological
   hierarchy of which the apex was divine ... the bilingual
   intelligentsia, by mediating between vernacular and [sacred
   language], mediated between earth and heaven. (3)

Thus the small group of pilgrims, especially the literate ones, were able to influence the identity of the larger community around them.

Nationalist pilgrimages, argued Anderson, (4) were initially the province of bureaucratic functionaries. Their pilgrimages were lifelong, realised in their progress through the colonial bureaucracies as they wended their way around the colony, from municipality to province, gradually working their way upward to the higher positions at the capital, the 'spiritual' centre of the pilgrimage. Along the way, they met fellow functionaries with whom they shared little except this grand lifelong progression. These bureaucratic pilgrimages became nationalist in the colonies because of the different centres imposed on functionaries due to their place of birth. While those born in the metropole had the opportunity to rotate through a variety of colonies and even advance to positions in the capital city of the metropole, those born in the colonies found their pilgrimages circumscribed to the colony of their birthplace, their upward movement centred on the colonial capital city. Consequently, they came to identify with those following a similar path to the same centre, identifying with fellow 'nationals' in their new 'nation'.

In later years in places such as Southeast Asia these nationalist pilgrimages extended downward, into the educational system:

   The twentieth century colonial-school system brought into being
   pilgrimages which paralleled longer-established functionary
   journeys.... From all over the vast colony, but from nowhere
   outside it, the tender pilgrims made their inward, upward way,
   meeting fellow-pilgrims from different, perhaps once hostile,
   villages in primary school; from different ethnolinguistic groups
   in middle-school; and from every part of the realm in the tertiary
   institutions of the capital . … 

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