Why I “mengaji” (study) Malay? :Discussing the latest developments of Malay culture in South Thailand

Abdulroya Panaemalae

The word ‘mengaji’ – meaning to learn – has the highest value and status in the obsession and mentality of Malay society in South Thailand (after this referred to as Patani). Normally, the word ‘mengaji’ is used only for learning activities in a religious or spiritual context. The value and status of the word itself is also high in its general perception. This word cannot be used together with other vocabulary that has worldly meaning.


This word is commonly used only in situations where an individual is engaged in religious activities or is trying to learn a religion. In the end, people perceive a close relationship between the word “mengaji” and the Koran. It is not common to use the word “belajar”, which actually also means study, in relation to studying the Koran. The word “belajar” is more commonly used for non-religious activities, such as general academic study. This shows the high value, which Patani Malay society extends to the word “mengaji”.

In this short paper I would like to talk about the perception that Patani Malay society has of their national culture heritage. The focus of discussion will be on perceptions among modern and religious groups. It will try to describe how deeply they understand and implement the Malay culture in their life. And between Islam and Malay, which one they use as their way of life. In this journey to the afterlife, do they set aside Malay culture and traditions, which are more likely to be of a non-Islamic culture?


Before going further, I should briefly go into the background of Patani Malay society. In general, it is known that social structure of Patani Malay society is based on religion. Patani is one of the main gates of Islam dissemination in this region. Patani once was a center of Islamic sermons. Until today, we can still find some evidence and feel the atmosphere of when this place was a sister city of Mecca. For example, a traditional system of learning the Koran known as “sistem pondok” is still practiced in this place even if it is not as active as it was. However, this system is still continued presently and is still acting as a religious institution that has a significant role in preserving religious values within the society. Another example that strongly reflects Islamic Malay characteristics in Patani is the existence of a number of Muslim scholars such as Syeikh Daud al-Fathoni, Syeikh Wan Ahmad Mohd. Zein al Fathoni and some others. These scholars are not only well known in the region but also internationally, especially in the Islamic/Arab world.

In other words, if we mention Patani, the thought of a religious, sincere, and low profile society will enter our minds. Images of Sufism emerge among Patani Malay people as a result of religious learning, forming the Muslim individual based on true Islam (Quranic Identity). Their life is influenced by constantly repeated religious teachings provided by teachers from the mosques. Whether they want to or not, little by little the lessons that are constantly repeated to their ear will start influencing their minds. Unconsciously, they put themselves inside a secured environment guarded by religious norms. It is therefore reasonable to say that in general Patani Malay have a way of life, which is influenced by religious (Islamic) dimensions.

In another words, they are not so eager for, and impressed by shiny worldly things. They are satisfied simply by living as common villagers who can practice their religious activities well without any disturbance from foreign influence. For that reason, if anything appears, – especially related to worldly matters, it will be ignored and won’t receive any attention. For example crisis in market prices of agricultural products e.g. latex, rice, dokong (Lansium domesticum Corr.), rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum), etc., won’t draw any demonstrations or protests from them addressing the matter. This is the climax of their belief that it is all a matter of faith bestowed upon them by God, or they perhaps consider the fortune they gain, whether it is a little or a lot, as decided by God. So there is no point for them to make a fuss about it. On the other hand, if there is an issue touching their principles and the religion of Islam, they will become very sensitive immediately. They will immediately rise up and defend the purity of Islam to the end. For example they strongly resisted a law of the Thai Kingdom justifying the placing of a statue of worship in every Thai school in every village. Another is the case of demanding the right of covering/wearing a veil among women. These incidents received a wide response among Patani Malay.

What I want to say here is that the Islamic foundation in South Thailand is very strong. The development process toward stability of Islam in the South of Thailand cannot be doubted. Furthermore, under the umbrella of Thai political institutions of old, it has already been written that all religions existing in Thailand are protected.

This situation is supported by the characteristic of Patani Malay themselves, who strongly hold to their religious teaching of Islam. As proof of this, we can observe that religious learning still remains the first choice among Patani Malay society for their children. Boarding schools with Islamic teaching as the focus (known as Madrasah), even tough they are often behind in aquiring modern tools and facilities, have always had the greatest attention in Patani Malay society when compared to the Royal middle schools that have more complete infrastructure and better technological educational tools. The Islamic boarding schools remain the first choice of most in Patani Malay society.

The main reason for this is clearly to ensure that their children receive enough religious education.

So the survival of the Muslim identity of Patani Malay society will not be a worrying and daunting fact. It will be well guarded. Even if sometimes, individuals will be surprised by the syndrome of arguing/questioning when trying to understand religious doctrine; what Prof. Dr. Yusuf al-Qadarwiy, a great Islamic intellectual, named ‘mind crisis’ among modern Islam society. However, this crisis is only limited to daily activities, and the principle of belief remains the same. Their principle belief is the teaching originating from al Qur’an and Sunnah (the Prophet Mohammads’ teachings). Therefore, it is very rare to find a Patani Malay who has converted to another religion or has become “murtad”. As Dr. Sidek Fadhil has said; “If there is a Malay leaving Islam, it will create big news (Dr. Siddiq Fadhil, 1992: 35). Their belief is impossible to shake by the wind of Siamisation and modernization. A new problem appeared recently, how will they respond to the process of preserving the Malay’s cultural heritage? Will they stand cold, not eager like the response they give to a threat to Islam?

As an observer, I have doubt and am hesitant about the status of Malay culture, which is getting more and more vulnerable, has no spirit and is diving deeper and deeper. To record this phenomenon, I once joked about this hesitance in the form of a story with the title “Kehilangan” (Lost) 1. What I mean by lost here is the loss of Malay identity.  I picture that in the next 30 years the Malay identity will fade away and in time will vanish. They will not allow speaking in their mother tongue, which is Malay. The values of Malay culture will then not immediately appear among individuals who reside in Patani. To recognize a Malay will be difficult, as they cannot speak in Malay. Perhaps the saying ‘language is the spirit of the nation, the vanishing of a language is the vanishing of a nation’ is true. On the other hand the identity of Islamic cultural heritage is well preserved.

In the story I joked on the reality observed among Patani Malay that day to day they tend to speak in Thai language even among Malay. This condition can mainly be observed clearly among the Malay elite and people who reside in big market towns and cities. There is a middle class family whose children do not speak Malay anymore. When there is a conversation using Malay, it will only be on the level of understanding, and when they try to answer they will use Thai instead. Their Thai vocabulary is much greater than their Malay vocabulary.

Meanwhile, another phenomenon that makes me uncertain and unhappy with the status of Malay culture nowadays is that the level of understanding the importance of Malay culture is very low, even it won’t be too much if I say that it is at a critical level. For example, in general they will object and disagree with me if I try to establish a group of dikir barat among the college students of the Malay-Islam University Prince of Songkla. These reactions will not only come from the religious leaders but also from the ivory tower of the Malay intellectual group. They do not agree with the activity of dikir barat. Their reasoning is that this art performance conflicts with Islam teachings and is considered to be immoral. But on the other hand they will not show opposition to seeing Malay children shouting cheerfully when watching a football match on television in the middle of the night. Clubs supporting the world greatest football-teams, such as Manchester United, Liverpool F.C, Arsenal, Real Madrid and so on, grow like mushroom after the rain in every corner of villages and cities in South Thailand. They are ignored as this phenomenon is considered a common phenomenon. Isn’t this global culture actually threatening the local culture? But if it is tried to establish an art heritage club, various speculations will appear. The saddest thing is that the opposition mainly comes from the Malay intellectual leaders.

What is the difference between a football game and dikir barat? Why does the society respond coldly to the syndrome of  ‘football madness’? Even if it does not mean that the sport is actually showing advantages, while at the same time also giving not just a small threat to the position of Islam.

They get suspicious of the activities in local art culture. Actually the first reason for doing dikir barat and other similar activities is just to draw the attention of the youth and Malay society to their own art culture, which psychologically is more practical to Malay taste.

As a normal human being, we may not need art. But this art should be based on Islamic principles. Concerning this matter, a famous Islamic intellectual, Prof. Dr. Yusuf Qardhawi stated:

Undoubtedly art is a matter of importance as it is related to the heart and feelings of a human being. Art tries to form a tendency and feeling for the human soul with various and alluring tools; the tools for hearing, reading, watching, feeling, or thinking. Undoubtedly art is also just like science. It can be used for good and improvement, or for evil and destruction. This is the great influencial power of art.(2000: 13)

Patani Malay people still do not understand the concept of literature as a medium for preaching with a big impact on its fans. In certain circumstances, the role of literature can even be put in front, performing the mission of spreading Islam. The status of poets is equal to the community of preachers.

Based on the argument here, I try to use an entertaining medium in the form of dikir barat to educate the youth to be more sensitive and realize their responsibilities as young Muslims. One of the approaches that I thought would be more suitable for the youth was a form of performance that gives priority to entertainment and pleasure. So they will not feel a strong, firm, forcing and bribing sensation when receiving the education. In the art of wording of dikir barat, I inserted the essence of education and not the essence of the obscene (please look at the attachment). So what is wrong in using another way in arriving at the destination? People say try to drink some water while diving.

Another reason is to draw them closer to their cultural heritage, which is getting more and more forgotten. Meanwhile, foreign culture is influencing our life-style more and more.

This statement doesn’t mean that all Patani Malay do not realize the importance of their own cultural heritage. The awareness of this matter still exists, even if it is in a small amount and vulnerable. Their numbers are so few that they can easily be dominated by bigger numbers.  The bigger group is more practical and has a greater impact.


In their passion to form an ideal society based on Islam, Patani Malay society seem to have forgotten and do not give enough attention to Malay culture. In the Malay context, Islam and Malay culture have united, and complement each other like aur dan tebing (bamboo and the riverbank).  This is why if we mention Malay, it will bring with it the connotation of Islam at the same time. Islam has given colour to, and become the identity of Malay people with the sibghatullah (coloring) of God that makes them Muslim, mu’min and muhsin” (Hashim Musa, 2000 :1). Or as Shahnon Ahmad said, ‘the unique characteristic of Malay people is in their soul or in their spirit, as Islam has inspired who we call the Malay people’ (Baharudin Ahmad, 1992: 70). For that reason appears a famous phrase “Live based on tradition, a tradition based on law, and law based on the book (Koran)”. With this, Islam is practiced at several levels: the spiritual, the intellectual, society, and even civilization and culture, without putting aside the existence of those side-elements which are not in harmony with nature, science and the new value (Muhammad ‘Uthman El-Muhammady, 2002:2). This phenomenon is mentioned by Sidek Fadzil (also known as Dr. Siddiq Fadhil): ‘in facing local culture, Islam shows enough flexibility for positive traditional heritage to be preserved.” (Sidek Fadzil: 2002)

 I agree with a concept that once has been delivered by a Malay scholar. He said: ‘Malay is another part of Islam’. To explain this concept, I like to quote Dr. Siddiq Fadhil’s from his book “Minda Melayu Baru” (1992). He argued:

“It is true that Islam is not a culture. Islam as ad-din (light) are words of God, which are universal and will not change; meanwhile culture is a human creation that can change and differ according to time and environment. But Islam can create a culture. A culture that is re-educated by Islam is called an Islamic culture, a culture that grows and develops based on Islamic principles. The culture created by Malay people within the Malay region, is still guarded by the framework of Islamic principles. This culture is a type of Islamic culture even if it may show some differences with Islamic culture found in Arab, Persia or Africa. These differences are characteristics of the Malay and make the Malay region a special Islamic culture zone of its own”.
(page 34)


The demeanor of Patani Malay society to fight for Islam and their efforts to conserve its prestige deserves a compliment. Malay people from other regions acknowledge this fact. Each time they visit Patani, most of them are satisfied with the purity and existence of Islam there.  Some even comment that the Islam people of Patani are very good, even after just arriving in Patany, they won’t feel foreign here, and Islamic values are very exposed. These are some of the remarks made by Malay people from other regions about the development of Islam in Patani. But at the same time we also heard some Malaysians complain that talks can go on and on whenever they visit Patani. They stated it is difficult to communicate with Patani people. To find a book written in Malay is also difficult. Once a group of tourists from Malaysia came by bus and got lost in the Patany Malay area. On the other hand, there are also Patani who complain often about how difficult it is to have a conversation with Malaysians.

The sketches of the incidents mentioned above, are to a more or lesser extend a reflection of how Patani Malay society is unsensitive and lacking the attention towards the development of their own culture. Malay culture is unconsciously vanishing little by little.

The saddest thing is that the mentality of the educated or intellectual group among Malay people is very poor. We can see this phenomenom when we observe how the Malay elite living in big cities eagerly put their children in schools or institutions which offer science, Mathematic, English, etc. They want their children to have a better chance academically and a good job in the future. Why they do not think to put their children in institutions, which offer the Malay language. It is because they already understand that the ability for speaking Malay among their children is limited and in critical condition, so it’s not convincing anymore to see Malay as an equal to other languanges such as Thai. Some are not even allowed to study Malay anymore. This shows at least how poor the conscious mentality among Malay people is.

This phenomenon is actually not only happening within the elite group, it is also happening in the minds of rural society, the only difference is that the rural people do not seek out academic education but prefer religious education. To study religion is not part of this discussion, because as we all know to study is part of the religious duties in Islam. And Islam strongly requires the follower to study.  A problem appears when the number of religious teachers continues to increase until most of them don’t have a job since there are no schools to accommodate them as teachers. On the other hand, to find a teacher for the Malay language is very difficult. A religious school in Narathiwat put an advertisement to search for a Malay language teacher, but they could not find any qualified applicants for months. Meanwhile, for English, Math, Thai, etc. teachers they received many qualified Malay applicants in a short time.

This is again evidence that shows local children/youths don’t have any expertise when it comes to Malay language and literature. The same condition also indicates how poor and weak the Malay language is in a region where Malay people form the majority. This is happening, perhaps, since they believe that the Malay language doesn’t have as high a commercial value as other languages or religious teaching. Maybe almost no one wants to “mengaji Melayu” (studi Malay). Children of Patani Malay are crossing the sea to study in Malaysia and Indonesia in great numbers, but how many of them chose to study the Malay language and literature? As far as I know, most of them chose to study Islam (mengaji Islam) and not to study Malay (mengaji Melayu).  The result is that there are abundant numbers of scholars and experts in Usuluddin and Syariah in South Thailand, so much so that there is no place left to accommodate them. Some of them chose to reside in Malaysia where they believe they will have better opportunities in seeking a job rather than staying as a graduate without being certain of a future in any of the religious institutions in South Thailand.

 Another reason perhaps, relates to their idea that they do not need to study Malay as they are already Malay. Once a teacher, who happened to be a Malay decendant, asked me: ‘why do we need to learn Malay? What is the content of this teaching? And if we graduate, what kind of decent job can a graduate of the Malay language occupy? These kinds of questions still come up often and take up the Patani Malay’s mind when they meet a graduate in the Malay language or Pengajian Melayu. May be the word ‘mengaji’, as I mentioned earlier, is only appropriate for Islamic activities; and not for things that are Malay.

 After seeing these phenomena in the social and cultural development of Malay, which is in critical condition, static, and not convincing maybe even degrading, in 1999 I decided to walk against the stream by moving to Malaysia to study Malay (mengaji Melayu) at the Malay Studies Academy of Malaya University (Akademu Pengajian Melayu, Universiti Malaya), with the hope to fill up some of the emptiness and try to restore the sluggishness of Malay culture in South Thailand. I also try to contribute to efforts in preserving the sustainability of the Malay culture.

 Abdulroya Panaemalae
Walailak University, Thailand

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 8-9 (March 2007). Culture and Literature


Baharudin Ahmad, 1992. Sastera Sufi, Kuala Lumpur: The Board of Language and Literature
Hashim Musa, Prof.,Dr., 2000. “Agama Islam, Falsafah dan Pemikiran Melayu Sebagai Bidang Akademik dalam Pengajian Melayu”. Proceedings of the International Meeting on Pengajian Melayu, August 24-25, 2000, sponsored by The Board of Language and Literature  / UPSI / PNM in the National Library of Malaysia.
Muhammad ‘Uthman El-Muhammady, 2002. “Agama Sebagai Pendorong Atau Pembentuk Pertembungan Tamadun.
Prof.Dr.Yusuf al-Qardhawiy, 2000. Islam dan Seni. Jakarta: Pustaka Al-Hidayah.
Siddiq Fadhil, Dr., 1992. Minda Melayu Baru. Kuala Lumpur: Institute of Basic Studies (Institut Kajian Dasar)
_____________, 2002. “Minda Muslim: Ketegaran dan Keluwesannya”, Proceedings of the meeting: The Content and Process of Opening the Mind of Islam Malay Society, January 29 – 31, 2002, at Hotel Crown Princess, Kuala Lumpur, sponsored by DBP.


  1. The story was published in Jendela Timur, April 2004