Sunday, December 29, 2013

Arab culture, a culture that is Deeply Loved by Americans and Europeans

By: Helmi Junaidi

There are some people in Indonesia who want to make Islam in Indonesia entirely native by removing all the things that they perceive as Arab culture. However, they often misunderstand it. Everythings that they don't agree immediately branded as Arab culture. Certainly that is not always the case. I consider them careless. I wonder why they become fervently anti Arab culture. They always call themselves pluralists, and of course it means honoring and respecting all cultures. However, in reality they are not tolerant to all existing cultures.

The problem is, if they really want to get rid of Arab culture, a lot of sciences and musical instruments would be lost, including Javanese and European instruments. For example is rebab, the Javanese fiddle. This is originally an Arab instrument. Its original name is rabab, after entering Indonesia it is called rebab. In Europe it is called rebec, which gradually evolved into a variety of bowed instruments, including the violin. Are we going to discard the violin, a beautiful Arab instrument? Well, Paganini, Mozart, Stradivarius and his friends would be furious. Meanwhile, in Java since long ago rebab has become an integral part of gamelan orchestra. Should we get rid the rebab as well? Well, our dalangs would be furious.

Okay, I'll give three references about the violin and
rebec, violin ancestor which came from the Middle East. From Encarta, Britannica and Wikipedia. See also The RebecProject.
1). The viola, which evolved from unstandardized medieval fiddles, is first depicted in early 16th-century pictures. Like most other instruments of the Renaissance, it was built in a range of sizes that, together, made up a consort. Small violas (violins), large ones held between the knees (violoncellos; see Cello), and even larger ones played standing up (violones) were the specialty of Italian artisans such as the Amati family and Antonio Stradivari. The pochette or kit, a miniature violin-type instrument played by dancing masters, often had a one-piece body and neck carved from a block of wood; it thus resembled the medieval rebec, the name and shape of which were in turn derived from the Middle Eastern rabab. (“Musical Instruments”, Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2002).

2). Rebec: bowed, stringed musical instrument of European medieval and early Renaissance music. It was originally called a rubebe, developed about the 11th century from the similar Arab rabāb, and was carried to Spain with Muslim culture. ("rebec." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010).

The word lira, a misapplication of lyra, the ancient Greek lyre played with a plectrum, had appeared by the 9th century for the Byzantine form of the Arab rabāb, the ancestor of all European bowed instruments. ("lira." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010).

3). The rebec (sometimes rebecha, rebeckha, and originally various other spellings, pronounced /ˈriːbɛk/ or /ˈrɛbɛk/) is a bowed string musical instrument. In its most common form, it has a narrow boat-shaped body and 1-5 strings and is played on the arm or under the chin, like a violin. It is also an ancestor of the violin.

The instrument did remain in use by dance masters until the 18th century, however, often being used for the same purpose as the kit, a small pocket-sized violin. The rebec also continued to be used in folk music, especially in eastern Europe and Spain. Andalusi nubah, a genre of music from North Africa, often includes the rebec. (Rebec - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).

The lute (al-'ud) was another Arab instrument that also very popular in Europe. Many famous composers in Europe composed songs for lute, including Johann Sebastian Bach. While in Europe it is called the lute, in Indonesia it is called gambus, which is also very popular here. After I explain it, now you understand why gambus and qasidah always include the violin in its performance. Because the violin is an Arab instrument. Islam influence entered Europe  from  Spain, then surely no coincidence that one variant of the lute, the guitar, is also from Spain, so there is a term "Spanish guitar".

The compositions for lute also can be played with guitar. It certainly shows that both instruments are closely related. For example you can see on youtube the work of Johann Sebastian Bach for the lute, the
Prelude from Lute Suite no. 4 played with guitar by John Williams, and he perform it at Alhambra palace. Certainly we already know the beauty of the Alhambra Palace, build by the Arabs.

So, it is very difficult to get rid of the Arab culture because J.S. Bach and his friends were also al-'ud lovers and their works are still played by many classical musicians around the world. Because many people don’t know about it, they become anti-Arab and want to get rid of Arab culture. Due to their lack of knowledge.

And surprised!! The banjo, a country music instrument that is considered a native  instrument of rural America, also descended from that Arab instrument, the lute (al-'ud). It brought by black people from West Africa. Banjo ancestor in West Africa is a variant of the lute. See history of the banjo at
Banjo Ancestors.

It's worth noting that the griot phenomenon is not now nor has it ever been as widespread as once thought. As stated earlier, it is actually confined to specific Muslim peoples in only a few West African countries-- primarily Mali, Senegal, Gambia and Guinea, the heartlands of the griot tradition-- and, to a lesser extant, among the extended branches of those peoples in neighboring countries like Burkina Faso, Niger, and Guinea Bissau, where the traditional caste distinctions have waned.

The Griot are traditional lute players in the countries mentioned above. The West African tribes that have traditional lute are only Muslim tribes. If such instrument is native West Africa or derived from non-Islam cultures such as ancient Egypt or others, the instrument would already existed before Islam and had been adopted by all tribes in the West Africa, both Muslims and non-Muslims. But, in fact the lute only can be found in Muslim tribes.
Arab culture have influenced West Africa long before the arrival of the Europeans. The ancestor of banjo came from Senegal, Gambia and Guinea, the majority of their population are Muslim. Senegal 92%, Gambia 90%, and Guinea 85%. Guinea Bissau is often included because it has significant Muslim population, 35%. But, the largest country is Senegal (Gambia and Guinea Bissau are only tiny countries) so most expert prefer to associate the banjo with Senegal. Guinea is also a large country, but it located rather inland. On youtube there is a banjo performance
From Senegal to Seeger. You may watch it. Seeger is an American banjo player. Here is a brief description of the show.
Protest, passion, politics, poetry - the banjo is the voice of the people, and 'From Senegal to Seeger' unshackles that voice. 'From Senegal to Seeger' is a journey into Americana - a social and political portrait of America through the eyes of the banjo.

In this 90 minute tour-de-force Michael plays music that spans 300 years and charts the transformation of the banjo from an African instrument to the quintessential expression of the American voice. (From Senegal to Seeger - Stories of the American Banjo)

So, if we see cowboys dancing accompanied with  violin and banjo, they actually enjoy the Arab culture. They would be really angy if you want to get rid of Arab culture, they would lynch you and shoot you. :D

So, we can't blame Cassius Clay when he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Or Karim Abdul Jabbar and other blacks. Because many black people ancestors are Muslims, those who brought the banjo to the American continent. But Malcolm X simply remove his last name, changed it to X, to cut his association with his forefather's master.

In science, the contribution of Muslim scientists among others is in mathematics, which we know as algebra and algorisme, which are compulsory subjects at school throughout the world. Actually it is not the work of an Arab because Al-Khwarizmi was a Persian, from Khwarizm, which is now part of Uzbekistan. So, it is more appropriately if we call it Islamic science. However, Al-Khwarizmi lived in Arab land. He was born during the rule of Harun Ar-Rashid, the legendary caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. When he was a child he moved with his parents to Baghdad, Iraq, an Arab country. Then he served at the court of Caliph Al-Ma'mun, the son of Harun Ar-Rashid. He wrote all his works in Arabic, the official language of the Abbasid empire. Al-Khwarizmi also introduced Hindu-Arabic numbers to Europe, so we called it Arabic numerals. Arabic numerals is 1,2,3 .... the figures that we use in modern mathematics. Modern mathematics does not use Roman numerals. That's impossible, it would be very difficult. Another Muslim mathematician was Omar Khayyam, although now he is more famous as a poet. Of course there are many more other Muslim scientists. You may googling it yourself.

Western Europeans also did not study Greek philosophy in Athens, the academy in Athens had long been in ruin. They also did not study it in Rome because Rome had long been in ruin as well. Western Europeans studied Greek philosophy, mathematics and other sciences to Arab professors, especially in the universities in Spain and Sicily.
Islamic Contributions to Medieval Europe were numerous, affecting such varied areas as art, architecture, medicine, agriculture, music, language, and technology. From the 11th to 13th centuries, Europe Absorbed knowledge from the Islamic civilization. Of particular importance was the rediscovery of the ancient classic texts, most Notably the work of the Greek natural philosopher Aristotle, through retranslations from Arabic.

During the 11th and 12th centuries, many Christian scholars travelled to Muslim lands to learn sciences. Notable examples include, Leonardo Fibonacci, Adelard of Bath and Constantine the African. Also, from the 11th to the 14th centuries, numerous European Muslim students attended centers of higher learning (which the author calls "universities") to study medicine, philosophy, mathematics, cosmography and other subjects. ("Islamic Contributions to Medieval Europe", Wikipedia)

After European students
graduated, they returned to their countries and brought with them Arab culture and sciences that they had learned in Arab land. And before long Europe awakened, the Renaissance then began. The Renaissance is impossible without transfering sciences from Arab professors to their students from Western Europe. Beside wikipedia, all history books also state that Western Europeans studied Greek philosophy, mathematics and other sciences from Arab professors. There are thousands books about it. You may read those books as well.

Arabs themselves still considered themselves superior over Europe until early 18th century, when Napoleon conquered Egypt. Then the Arabs realized the progress in science and technology that has been achieved by Europe. Previously they despised Europe and considered it still as backward as during Crusaders era. Only after Napoleon counquering Egypt the Arabs realized they need to learn from Europe.

If we trace it
back further, some Arabic-Islamic science and culture came from many other regions, such as from Persia, India, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Central Asia and others. However, scientists and artists of Arab-Islam who developed it, refined and spread it all over the world, both to the West and to the East. From the Atlantic coast of Western Europe and  Western Africa to the Pacific Ocean. And of course along thousands miles of the silk road. Before the era of Western dominance, the culture that dominated the world about a thousand years was Arab culture. A very long period indeed. So, don't be surprised if Arab culture took rooted everywhere, all over the world. For a thousand years the Arabs travelled everywhere, bringing with them their culture and science. It is certainly different from Greco-Roman culture because their influence only limited in the Mediterranean. The Greeks and the Romans never travelled to sub-Saharan, exploring the silk road, and certainly never sailed to the Pacific Ocean.

So, it would be difficult if we intend to discard Arab culture. It has been so pervasive and spread throughout the world, both to the West and to the East, and its origin often forgotten and many people consider it as local culture, such as rebab and kebaya in Indonesia (from Arabic abaya). Even the Chinese fiddle certainly have Arabic origin. If you want to know further about Arab contributions to the world, please browse the internet. Perhaps the people who anti-Arab think that the Arab culture are only a turban and robe. Thats wrong, brothers. I think you need to learn more about Arab culture.

How about Indonesian culture? Will they someday able to influence the development of the world culture as the Arab culture? Indonesian are rich in culture and have good talent in music and some other fields, but mostly lack of confident to introduce them abroad. But, the most unfortunate are the people whose work only berate Arab culture, but they never contribute anything to the development of the world culture, let alone the world sciences. Nil.


When I was still in college I was asked by
a lecturer from ISI (Institut Seni Indonesia = Indonesia Institute of Arts) about foreign cultures that flow incessantly into Indonesia. He is my brother's friend. All my brothers are ISI graduate, they studied classical music there. Now it is located in Sewon, Bantul, D.I. Yogyakarta. Therefore, I know history and origin of some classical instruments because sometime I read their textbooks. Only myself who is not an artist. I am just a good audience. :D 

Well, after thinking for a moment I answered that it is inevitable. Both in former time and present. However, as time goes by, there will be a process of acculturation, a blending of local and foreign cultures. Eventually, foreign cultures will be adapted by the locals, even regarded them as their own culture. For example keroncong, a Portuguese music, lenso dance which also brought by the Portuguese, wayang from India, and rebab from Arabia and many others. Now we regard all those foreign cultures as our own national culture. The same would happen to many cultures that now we consider them "foreigners". Eventually, it will enrich our culture that already exist today.

we have adopt a lot of foreign cultures in our daily life. Even in food, such as bakso, tofu and noodles from China, Italian pizza, martabak India and many others. In clothing we know that our everyday clothes all come from abroad, such as trousers, shirts, T-shirts, shorts, hats and our formal clothing. But, we have accept them and do not complains about them and don't want to forbid people to eat or wear them. It has been regarded as our national food and clothing.

Sometimes a foreign music that is considered very "dangerous" and offensive, threatening young people such as rock music, did not last for long. It cannot survive for centuries such as wayang and keroncong. Until the late 80s, on the walls and in the streets, on the sticker, or school textbooks there is often the phrase "Rock Will Never Die", and at the time it looks like so because rock music was very popular. Everywhere there were graffiti of Hellowen, Metallica, Scorpion, GnR, Rush, Van Halen, Mick Jagger's tongue and so on. At that time the ears of older generation became very miserable. The teachers not only brought textbooks, but also brought scissors to cut students long hair. However, now we can safely say that "Rock Nearly Die". 

By the mid-90's, pictures of unkemp long-haired musicians were taken down and replaced by boys band, such as NKOTB and others, whose personnels introduced clean-cut appearance. Rock was also replaced by grunge music such as Nirvana. Even Metallica personnels cut their hair short, their songs also became more calm, to adapt to the changing market, which was already bored with rock music and looking for an alternative music. Arguably teenagers of 1980s and early 1990s were the last generation who saw rock music as mainstream music. After this generation, rock music presumably would also gone forever, and become only a nostagia music of a gone-by era. The rock generation then replaced by Korean music generation and Gangnam style fans.

So, why should we fear the invasion of a foreign culture? That is too narrow-minded. Moreover, it don't necessarily long-lasting. Foreign cultures that can survive until modern time their origins had long been forgotten and now is considered as local culture, and enriching our local culture such as wayang, rebab and keroncong. Therefore, I always oppose cultural puritanism/Wahhabism that wants to get rid all foreign cultures. Why? We eat foreign foods everyday such as cassava (from South America), rice (from mainland Asia) and corn (from South America). And of course bread and supermie, obviously not native Indonesia, even wheat is never planted in Indonesia. But all people in Indonesia, even who is fervently anti-foreign culture love to eat all those foreign foods. Not consistent. And our native food, sago, had been abandoned altogether long ago, except in eastern Indonesia. But, all those foreign foods are now considered Indonesia traditional food and enriching our local diet. So, why should we fear the invasion of foreign cultures? Of course it must bring benefit, and not destuctive. Eventually, foreign cultures that are now still considered "foreigners" will become part of our national culture and must be conserved as well.

18 November 2010