A review of Forests of Islam: Territory, Environment, and Holy War in Teregganu, Malaya, 1928, by Amrita Malhi.
Amrita Malhi sets out to investigate the 1928 uprising, led by shifting cultivators in the upriver (hulu) sections of the Terengganu river, as a case of interwoven political and environmental subjectivities, in which Islamic politics and environmental rights each have their own sphere of action: “it was not an environmental struggle which instrumentalized religiosity and religious identity. It was a religious struggle [and] it was also an environmental struggle” (p. 18). Most notably, she points to a “global cacophony [that] reverberated through Terengganu” (p. 215), to the extent that “in 1928, it was therefore logical that a Holy War against the British should be waged under the flag of the Turkish Caliphate” (p. 211).
In previous literature, the Terengganu uprising had been treated either as a case of “epochal transitions created by outside forces” via British colonization (pp. 5-6), or “in terms of proto-national or national significance” (p. 7). Another discourse this thesis takes distance from, is that of Malays as “non-market peasants” (pp. 8 and 37-38).
Set on the limited stage of Terengganu’s forest, this rebellion did not exist just as an example of local history, nor as part and parcel of Malaya’s nationalist history. Rather, Malhi skillfully extols the universal dimension of the Muslim umma’s fight for land rights by pointing at the rebels’ hoisting of the Ottoman Caliphate’s flag, making spatial references to the wider Muslim world, and by using a religious language when fighting colonial (kafir) officers in court and on the battlefield.
In Chapter 1 the reader is thrown into the midst of action, as on 21 May 1928 representatives of the colonial government are faced by rebels in white robes invoking a holy war. The roots of this uprisings are then to be found in “the rakyat’s discontent [towards] a set of new regulations for managing land tenures and forest access, introduced by the colonial government” beginning in 1922 (p. 24), even though the hulu’s emerging resistance had began as early as 1914 (p. 78).
The chapter explains the gradual increment of British control over the Malay states in the 17th-20th centuries, the reasons for land reforms, the shaping of an “Islamist” component in local society, and the socio-economic outlook of the rebels. Identifying “the diversity of interests, origins and practices existing in Terengganu” and embodied by the rebels (p. 29), Malhi retains her focus on the rakyat’s participation in the world economy through their interests in rubber. It is from this consideration, on the hulu forest rakyat’s globalize position — both religiously and economically — that her ensuing argument springs out.
Chapter 2 sets the stage for the contestation over forest land, illustrating how dynamics changed between the 1910s and the 1920s. The key element emerging from this chapter is how before 1919 the struggle over land control was played at the elite level (the British Land Office and the Sultan), while the formalization of British presence changed the locus of contestation from “landscape” (i.e. the definition of the colonial government’s territorial agency) to “state-subject relations”. In this new paradigm the relationship between the rakyat hulu and the forest was regulated on two parallel systems: royal concessions and British regulations. Caught in the middle, the rakyat hulu and the Islamists built and voiced their claims — the former seeking livelihood and the latter affirming sharia law — skillfully: as the royal family initiated Terengganu’s internal territorialization, the rakyat complained to the British; as the British created obstacles with their regulations, the rakyat appealed to the Sultan. By 1929, then, this was a “three-way contest between the British, the royal family and the movement of rakyat and the Islamists” (p. 106).
Chapter 3 returns to the historical circumstances that created the context for the rebellion to arise. Titled “Territory and Mobility”, Malhi explains how the political games between Siam, the Malay Sultan, and the British resulted in shaping Terengganu’s socio-political attitudes to authority and boundaries; drawing from these reflections over the lack of defined boundaries and separate territorialities, it emerges that in the early 1910s Terengganu was left as the only space on the Malay Peninsula not formally under the control of Britain or Siam, and which the Sultan had determined to be a Malay Islamic State. Connecting the histories of Patani and Terengganu, Malhi singles out the religio-cultural ecumene created by Islamic networks of learning and Arab genealogies , stretching across the Indian Ocean and to the Middle East. In addition to this, and re-connecting to the previous chapter, the formalization of colonial rule is pointed to as the breaking point in local power relations, as Islamic scholars were now relegated to administrative roles. This chapter and the following one are a valuable contribution to the studies of Islamic connections between Southeast Asia and the Middle East, further undermining the discourse of a “center” and “periphery” of Islam.
Chapter 4, then, looks into the political aspirations of Terengganu’s Islamic community of becoming part of the Ottoman Caliphate, which until 1924 had been centered in Istanbul, and was now de-territorialized: “as the rebels were confronted by a globally-constituted regime of power — the British Empire [… ] Terengganu Islamists translated their forest and land claims into a global Islamist idiom under the Ottoman flag” (p. 222). Throughout a detailed reconstruction of the rebellion of May 1928, Malhi illustrates the Islamization of the struggle and the emergence of religious patterns of non-cooperation in the hulu forest. It thus emerges clearly that this was not a straightforward forest conflict, as next to the problem of livelihood was a longing for a new government, in which a new Sultan would share his powers and authority with Islamic scholars. Those involved in the leadership of the rebellion made clear their (aspired) connection to the Ottomans by raising a “red flag”, a “standard of war”, “the flag of Stamboul” (pp. 195-196). And the Stamboul connection is here spelled out in details, from mythical times to “Turkish” traders across Southeast Asia, to being the symbol of anti-European resistance.
As the rebellion was quashed, universalist claims had to be set aside, and the rakyat hulu had to face once again the colonial government and local police forces. Chapter 5 looks into the multiple narratives of the uprisings, re-constructed at the aftermath of the events as fragmented information circulated in more or less formal networks. From the analysis of a large body of documents, it is here made clear that the “flood” of (often contradictory) reports revealed the variety of the rebels’ intents, as much as the authorities’ confusion on ongoing developments. Eventually, reports and evidence all fed into an official inquiry, and the creation of an official narrative of the uprising, which organization was tied to a secret “Syarikat Islam”, possibly connected to the Dutch East Indies’ Sarikat Islam.
In her concluding section, Malhi assesses the consequences and legacy of the rebellion. And, provocatively, states: “British officials who quashed this creative, connected movement never fully appreciated the importance of the challenge it voiced against their technocratic rationality of government. Convinced they were dealing only with rustics led by fanatics, the archive they compiled both reveals and obscures the political life of the rakyat” (p. 277).
Department of Asian and International Studies
City University of Hong Kong
Terengganu Government Secretariat, 1919-1930
Terengganu Supreme Court, Terengganu Chief Minister, 1919-1930
Commissioner of Lands, Terengganu, 1919-1930
Office of the High Commissioner for the Straits Settlements, Singapore, 1910-1930
Straits Settlements Original Correspondence, 1910-1930
Federated Malay States Original Correspondence, 1920-1930
The Australian National University. 2010. 288 pp. Primary Advisors: Robert Cribb and Craig Reynolds.
Image: A turban belonging to Haji Drahman, photograph by Amrita Malhi with thanks to the National History Museum, Kuala Lumpur; and the Malaysian Ministry of Education for their award of a Malaysia-Australia Fellowship for PhD research in 2004.