#AsiaNow Speaks with James Rush

James Rush is Professor of History at Arizona State University and author of Hamka’s Great Story: A Master Writer’s Vision of Islam for Modern Indonesia, published by the University of Wisconsin Press and awarded Honorable Mention for the 2019 AAS George McT. Kahin Book Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

The book is about the discourse of Islam and modernity in the formative years of Indonesia. From the 1930s through the 1970s, Hamka, aka Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, engaged actively (one might say hyperactively) in public discussions about the role of Islam in shaping the new society then emerging in late-colonial Indonesia and the early years of independence. An autodidact writing in multiple popular genres and an avowed Islamic modernist, Hamka envisioned a society that simultaneously embraced modern Western learning, the nation of Indonesia, and the abiding Truth and guiding moral compass of Islam—to him a liberating religion that embraced human agency. His master narrative, or Great Story, wove these themes together in a stream of short stories, novels, newspaper columns, religious essays, and self help booklets plus histories, travel books, biographies, memoirs, and theologies over a period of fifty years and became embedded in public thinking. Hamka became a leading discourse-shaper of 20th century Indonesia. He also played a public role, courting controversy as a writer (an accused plagiarist); prominent anticommunist, avid Muslim proselytizer, civil society leader, and founding chair of Indonesia’s Ulama Council. The book emphasizes Hamka’s ideas but also recounts his rather remarkable life as a public figure.

What inspired you to research this topic?

In the beginning, I was drawn to Hamka’s novels of the 1930s. These colonial-era dramas led me eventually into the vast realm of his other writing and the complex evolving world of Indonesia it addressed—a world I could now see through his eyes. For an American outsider like me, this was revelatory, all the more so because of the extraordinary volume, range, and candor of Hamka’s writing. What inspired me to explore all of this deeply was Islam. I realized that seeing Indonesia through Hamka’s eyes could help us better understand not only how Islam inspired anti-colonial nationalism—the subject of much prior scholarship—but also how it inspired optimism and hope about the national project of Indonesia itself and the new modern society that was taking shape within it, a national society filled with Islam. Hamka played a large role in propagating this hopeful view, but it was not his alone. It was shared by legions of other modernists who filled the ranks of Muhammadiyah, Masyumi, and similar organizations. The positive power of this body of ideas underlay the surge in Muslim activism in the 1960s and helps to explain the passion behind the bitter culture wars that pitted the modernists against surging Communists in the years leading to 1965. Hamka himself was a political prisoner for a year and a half prior to Gestapu and remained so during the massacres that swept the country as the army annihilated the Party and seized power. He did not inflame his followers to kill communists, as some have suggested. But afterwards, he did embrace the outcome as just, despite its ugliness: the communists were to blame and they had been crushed. In the final years of his life he wove the defeat of communism into his hopeful narrative of Indonesia. Seeing these traumatic events through Hamka’s eyes can be disturbing. Yet he was framing a point of view embraced by millions of people. If we sincerely seek to understand Indonesia, we need to pay sincere attention to it.             

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

I began the research for this project decades ago by scouring the libraries and used bookshops of Jakarta for Hamka’s books. A few were easy to find, with fresh editions appearing every few years. (His famous Tasawuf Modern, Modern Sufism, for example, and his thirty-volume Qur’an commentary, Tafsir Al Azhar.) But some of his earlier books seemed to have disappeared altogether. A breakthrough occurred when I discovered the H.B. Jassin Literary Archive. H.B. Jassin was Indonesia’s first modern literary critic and a man with a passion for literature. By the 1980s his huge private collection of early edition Indonesian books and manuscripts had been established as a public archive. It was there that I found a treasure trove of Hamka’s early work plus manuscripts, news clippings, and early drafts of articles by and about him: this extraordinary cache made this project possible. Another boon of this discovery was meeting Jassin himself. Jassin collected the works of all Indonesian writers but, as it happens, he had played a signal role in Hamka’s life during the early 1960s. At the height of the era’s culture wars, the literary page of the Left-leaning newspaper Bintang Timur accused Hamka of plagiarizing his most famous novel, Tenggalamnya Kapal van der Wijk, The Sinking of the van der Wijk. Jassin was called upon to judge. He argued that even though the plot of Hamka’s novel leaned heavily upon the plot of another one, everything else about it—the contemporary Indonesian setting, the characterizations, the social and religious crises, certain autobiographical elements—was original. Hamka had created something new, he said.  

Although I never met Hamka, a real pleasure of my early research about him was meeting and interviewing many of his friends, colleagues, and family members. Among those who opened their doors to me at the time were Mohammad Natsir, Mohammad Roem, M. Yunan Nasution, Abdul Haris Nasution, Abdul Karim Oey, Sutan Mansur, and Rusydi Hamka. I also first met Pramoedya Ananta Toer at this time. He had been a great culture-war rival of Hamka’s in the 1960s and had edited the Bintang Timur literary page that accused Hamka of plagiarism. In 1982, he was still under house arrest after his release from Buru Penal Colony. His opinion of Hamka had not mellowed.  

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

Many scholars of Indonesian Islam made this work possible, from Taufik Abdullah, Alfian, and Deliar Noer to M.C.Ricklefs, Robert Hefner, Mark Woodward, Karel Steenbrink, and John Sidel. Jeffrey Hadler, a fellow Hamka aficionado, was a constant source of ideas and enlightenment. A model for biographical writing (built upon the subject’s own words) that I have long admired is Emperor of China by Jonathan Spence, an early mentor of mine.

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

From Jeffrey Hadler, I learned that one of Hamka’s (step) brothers, Abdul Wadud, had migrated to the United States and become an evangelical Christian pastor in California called Willy Amrull.

What are you working on now?

I’m very interested in the late years of the Dutch East Indies. My new project will take me there.