Khat, Jawi, Chinese calligraphy: nothing religious or racial about learning them

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”

It is beneficial if one is willing to acquire another language, whether in written or spoken form.

As for learning khat, Jawi or Chinese calligraphy in school, there is nothing religious or racial about it. Unfortunately, in Malaysia’s polarised society, matters of this nature can easily be politicised.

There’s obviously a difference between khat and Jawi. It’s quite strange that khat has to be introduced in the Malay language syllabus for primary schools and not as a component in the art syllabus.

In the Malaysian context, and from the academic perspective, introducing easy-to-learn Jawi in Bahasa lessons is more relevant than making students learn khat.

Khat has a more aesthetic value to it. Not all students will have the aptitude for an artistic task of this nature.

In contrast, Jawi is more of a culturally and linguistically accepted genre in the Malay archipelago.

Khat or Islamic calligraphy is an artistic practice of handwriting and calligraphy, based on the alphabets in countries sharing a common Islamic cultural heritage.

However, Islamic calligraphy is not strictly limited to religious themes. Like all Islamic art, it embraces an assorted range of works created in an eclectic context. This form of writing has played a significant iconographic role in Islamic art.

Exposing students of all races to these artistic expressions and values, if they wish to learn them, is a non-issue.

Jawi, on the other hand, is more localised though it has its roots in the Arabic language. It has been used for written communication in the Malay archipelago and was practised long before and during the colonial days. It has also become an intrinsic part of the Malay language and culture.

The Malay language, unlike Mandarin or Tamil, has no original alphabet of its own. The Jawi version of writing is derived from Arabic influence and, in the local context, is much older than the Romanised version. The Romanised version of writing is due to a colonial influence, when the colonialists administrated the Malay archipelago.

The Malay language of today is generally written using the Latin script (Rumi) and the Arabic script called Jawi. Rumi, for that matter, is official in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

Jawi, on the other hand, is widely used in religious schools and also for official and informal purposes. Students even have the option of answering questions using Jawi in Malay language examinations in Malaysia.

The use of Jawi script was a key factor in the advent of Malay as the lingua franca of this region. Jawi was used not only by the ruling class, but by the commoners as well. Palace correspondence, decrees, local laws and manuscripts were written in Jawi at one time.

It was widely understood by traders as the main means of communication. It was also the medium of expression of the nobility and scholars of literature and religion. In fact, it is the traditional symbol of Malay culture and civilisation.

Jawi was even the official script for the Unfederated Malay States when they were British protectorates.

Starting from the 17th century, under Dutch and British rule, Jawi was gradually replaced by the Rumi script. Nevertheless, Jawi is an integral part of the Malay language and many of the old Malay manuscripts available in libraries overseas and locally are written in Jawi.

The Orientalists took the trouble to master Jawi to understand the culture of the Malays. If one were to claim to be a scholar of the Malay language, he would have to have an in-depth knowledge of this script.

No doubt, Arabic is the language of the Quran but the language is spoken and understood by almost all non-Muslim Arabs and Jews living in regions where Arabic and its variations have become the lingua franca.

In fact, Jawi is not difficult to learn as compared to Arabic. Jawi is read in Malay whereas Arabic is read in Arabic. Many Arabic characters are never used in Jawi as they are not pronounced in the Malay language.

Learning khat or Jawi or, for that matter, Arabic as a language will not be a threat to non-Muslims. Many local non-Muslim academics and even ordinary folk in Kelantan and Terengganu know how to read and write Jawi.

Internationally, many reputed non-Muslim academics speak and write in Arabic. Thus, the perception that introducing khat or Jawi in school is going to proselytise the non-Muslims into Muslims is not justified.

For certain, a Malay learning how to write and speak Mandarin will not make him a lesser Malay. A Chinese learning khat or Jawi will not make him a lesser Chinese.

Acquiring these subjects is not going to dilute one’s faith or race, what more when there are no religious undertones whatsoever, as in this context.

If there is enough interest, schools can introduce Jawi in the Bahasa syllabus or as an extracurricular activity.

As for khat, let it be part of the art lesson that can involve Chinese calligraphy as well.

Whatever else is said, educationists have no doubt recommended the practice of not over-stretching young students with too many subjects in schools so that they can cherish school life.

The quality of education in the country leaves much to be desired, as there are many other more important issues that have to be prioritised.

As such, it’s imperative to make learning in school relevant, easy and more enjoyable to students.

Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.