Hamka's Great Story

A Master Writer's Vision of Islam for Modern Indonesia

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James R. Rush
New Perspectives in Se Asian Studies
  • Madison, WI: 
    University of Wisconsin Press
    , June
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The life story of Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, known as Hamka (d. 1981) and his contribution to the development of modern Islam across Indonesia have already been widely written on in a variety of languages, but James R. Rush’s English-language Hamka’s Great Story: A Master Writer's Vision of Islam for Modern Indonesia presents the most comprehensive and detailed version of his story to date. 

In contrast to earlier works in which Hamka’s biography is looked at in light of Indonesia’s reformed Islam, Rush uses Hamka’s vision as a basis for understanding modern Indonesia. Whatever claim to originality Hamka’s works may have—controversial for some of his commentators—Rush believes that Hamka, for whom a linked triad of political, spiritual, and religious concerns led to his work toward religious reform, should be seen as one of the main leaders of modern Islam in Indonesia. Of course, this is a fairly common view held by scholars who point out that Hamka’s religious and political agendas were shaped by Arab-language Egyptian literature such as that produced by Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905) and his fellows. Rush differs from this common view in contending that Hamka’s specific experience of Dutch colonial rule was the main impetus for his emphasis on the necessity of a revitalized Islam within an independent Indonesia. 

A Master Writer’s Vision of Islam for Modern Indonesia is divided into six chapters which include a variety of lesser-known stories. Chapter 1 deals with an Islamic weekly, Pedoman Masjarakat (“Society’s Compass”), under Hamka’s supervision in the early 20th century which was widely “read in towns and cities throughout Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, and Maluku.” Pedoman Masjarakat covered news and analyses related to other parts of the world, including, among others, Ataturk’s Young Turk movement, the rise of Fascism in Europe, and the issue of Palestine in 1930s. 

According to Rush, “Hamka subtly used language to imply kinship between Indonesians and Palestinians” (16); both nations, in his opinion were occupied and ruled by colonial armies. Hamka, as Rush shows, may be one of the first Muslim thinkers who believed that there is a distinction between Jews and Zionists. Hamka saw “Jews” as those threatened by Hitler’s genocidal anti-Semitism, and “Zionists” as “wealthy American Jews … the true movers behind the creation of the Jewish homeland in Palestine” (16-17). 

Readers of the bookare invited to re-examine earlier political, literary, and social commentaries made by some post-1960s scholars who relied on European colonial officers’ reports in order to interpret the Orient, but practically ignored the way Orientals, themselves, viewed the Orient and Orientals. Unlike Edward W. Said (d. 2003) who defined the Orient as only the Arab World (i.e., his birthplace), Rush demonstrates that Hamka and other significant Indonesian figures had a wider perspective. They saw the Orient as connecting the Mediterranean to Java, whose people shared a common religion, thought, and, more importantly, the pain of imposed cultural and social inferiority. Chapter 2, “Father and Son,” draws the attention of readers to untold stories about Hamka’s life and that how he, for example, became acquainted with Qur’anic exegesis. Hamka’s contribution to the study of Islam, Qur’an, HadithTafsir, and Sufism in Indonesia are carefully displayed in other chapters, too. 

This book is a valuable source of information about Islam in Indonesia. It ends with a comprehensive bibliography of works produced by Hamka as well as a detailed list of source newspapers and periodicals for Indonesian thinking in the period.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Majid Daneshgar is Research Associate at the Orientalisches Seminar at the University of Frieburg, Germany.

Date of Review: 
February 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James R. Rush is an associate professor of history at Arizona State University. He is the author of Opium to Java: Revenue Farming and Chinese Enterprise in Colonial Indonesia, 1860–1910The Last Tree: Reclaiming the Environment in Tropical Asia, and numerous biographical essays about contemporary Asian activists, humanitarians, and public intellectuals in the Ramon Magsaysay Awards book series and website.



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