By Ku Aminah

History has witnessed that Malay culture had been influenced by Indian and Arab, especially in terms of literature. For instance, Sanskrit words like neraka, syurga and agama are still used in modern Malay literature. Ramayana, the Indian epic is also was translated into Jawi script and named as “Hikayat Seri Rama.” It is important to note here that the blending of diverse foreign cultures and literature into Malay made it more colourful.

Penglipor-lara or story-tellers became important in Malay villages. They entertained villagers with tales such as about the journeys of heroes to fight with monsters, and stories of good looking princesses like the moonlight, Pak Pandir, Pak Belalang, and Sang Kancil. Penglipor-lara was an expert in arts of lying to attract villagers to listen to his story. The setting for tale was in touch with local places, but the main characters were from other countries like Rawana from India, Mat Jenin and Abu Nawas from Arabia and Persia.  There are also epics that were adopted from India like “Hikayat Sang Boma,” which is actually the story of Bima. The significant lesson from storytelling is related to spreading of the good values that can be learned from the tale.

Besides, Islamic literature was very popular around 1600 AD, especially “Hikayat Nabi Yusuf” which is considered as one of the oldest texts in Malay language. Among other stories are the narratives of “Hikayat Nabi Wafat” and “Hikayat Bulan Berbelah.” “Kitab Tajul Muluk” and “Kitab Mujarrabat” are the examples of classical Islamic books that still exist until today. Other than that, the romantic hikayats such as “Hikayat Marakarma,” “Hikayat Jaya Langkara” and “Hikayat Indera Putera” were derived from India.

Syair or poetry also was very important in Malay literature. The syair is a literary effort of an individual that made up of four line stanzas and it is recited aloud with certain tune. It is crucial to noted here that syair can be a narrative poem because of its continuous idea from the beginning to the last stanza.

Satukan hangat dan dingin,

Tinggalkan loba dan ingin,

Hancur hendak seperti lilin,

Mangkanya dapat kerjanya licin.

This syair (poem) narrated above is one of the earliest classical manuscripts which survived until today. Hamzah Fansuri’s syair had been translated by Sir Richards Winstedt into English accordingly:

When heat and cold have become the same,

with greed and desire each an idle name,

and yourself is the wax resolved in the flame,

and smooth in the end you will find life’s game.

The popularity of syair (poetry) continued until the Second World War, however, later, people tend to choose sajak as a medium to express their emotions and thoughts. It was also prominent among Malay scholars to describe historical events, philosophy and religious teachings through syair. “Perang Makasar” (1666) and “Inggeris Menyerang Kota” (1811) are best examples.

Accordingly, poetry and literature were very important for people in the previous times in order to convey the good values and virtue. Then, with the coming of British to Penang, Malacca and Singapore, the Malay literature moved to the second phase of literature starting approximately in the middle twentieth century.

Writer is a final year student at the Department of History and Civilization, International Islamic University Malaysia

In picture, a book in Jawi