#AsiaNow Speaks with Sumit Mandal

Sumit Mandal is Associate Professor at University of Nottingham Malaysia and author of Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World, published by Cambridge University Press and winner of the 2020 AAS Harry J. Benda Book Prize.

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

Becoming Arab examines the impact on ethnic identities of the great change brought about by the rise of colonial states in Southeast Asia. The scholarship has tended to assume that categories of ethnicity remained stable before, during, and after colonialism. When change has been acknowledged, the racialization of ethnic identities has been highlighted and assumed to have been paramount. My book recognizes the lasting impact of the rigid boundaries put in place through colonial-era racialization. However, it considers these boundaries neither totalizing nor immutable. Older forms of ethnic identification were never completely erased; creole Arab communities and the intermixing they represented persisted. The book’s objective is not to idealize creole histories or to suggest that these were a simple counterpoint to racialization. Rather it proposes that these histories did not come to an abrupt end and have remained significant and shaped communities until the present time. If nothing else, they serve as a repository of memories of porous boundaries and hybrid identities.

What inspired you to research this topic?

The claims made in the name of exclusivist, racial identifications do not necessarily represent social realities. This has been something I felt when I was growing up in Malaysia but it became a well-formed idea during my doctoral studies in the United States and when I returned to Malaysia to work. I found the racialized lens through which many—in Malaysia and beyond—saw the country to be lacking. I think this inspired me to grapple with the reach as well as the limits of racialization in Becoming Arab.

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

The biggest challenge for me was seeing through the writing following a decades-long gap from its initial formulation as a dissertation until its manifestation as a thoroughly revised and reframed book. The prospects of revising the text and ensuring its relevance to the ongoing scholarship seemed practically impossible. I was happy and relieved when I found that the research remained relevant and the growth in my own thinking, as I immersed myself in transnational history, only improved the original framing of the work.

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

I enjoy recalling an anecdote by Abdullah Misri, an early nineteenth-century creole Arab writer. He describes how Baba Midun, a Chinese Muslim suitor of a Madurese princess, is spurned by her because the former is of unequal status to her. Everything changes, however, when a forceful claim is made in favor of equality between the two parties because they are Muslim. Once Baba Midun was married to the princess, not only did he acquire greater esteem but so too did the fellow Chinese in the area. All the Chinese rose in stature, including alcohol distillers and pork butchers, both of whom dealt in items proscribed in Islam.

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?

The works of Joel Kahn, Henk Maier, and Engseng Ho were perhaps the biggest influences on me while working on the book. I would recommend the following in particular: Kahn’s Other Malays: Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in the Modern Malay World (NUS Press, 2006); Maier’s We Are Playing Relatives: A Survey of Malay Writing (KITLV Press, 2004), and Ho’s The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean (University of California Press, 2006).

What are you working on now?

I am doing the research and writing for a book that is tentatively titled “Saints of the Southern Indian Ocean: Sacred Geographies, Popular Faith Practices, and the Politics of Islam from Jakarta to Cape Town.” I learned about keramat, or the gravesite-shrines of notable Muslims, in the course of my research for Becoming Arab and have been fascinated by them ever since. I view them as inscriptions on the landscape of lesser-known histories as well as sites of cosmopolitan historical interaction, hybrid beliefs, and contestations over the nature of Islam. I have published a few articles related to this longstanding interest and am now working on a book.