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Mobility and Senses of Belonging among the Fatani People


A review of Be-longing: Fatanis in Makkah and Jawi, by Muhammad Arafat bin Mohamad.

Muhammad Arafat bin Mohamad offers an intriguing and perceptive study on the lives of Fatani people—descendants of migrants from the Sultanate of Patani (today comprising parts of southern Thailand and northern Malaysia) who settled in Makkah (Mecca) between the late eighteenth century, when their ancestral homeland was annexed by the expanding Siamese empire, and the present. The focus of this study is the Fatanis’ connection to places and communities, real or imagined, or as the author states it, belonging. Thus the dissertation stands as a product of the transnational wave of scholarship that has emerged in recent years and is an examination not only of boundaries and mobility, but also of the evolving legacies of these have had for people who remain in such settings. Set within the context of Makkah, among the world’s most visited cities through history, and the desired destination of the world’s Muslim community for religious, spiritual, and educational purposes, Arafat’s thesis is a groundbreaking step forward in our understanding of both Fatanis and the city that they call home in the Arabian Peninsula.

Arafat is contributing to a growing body of literature examining the connection between Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and the role of Patani people in facilitating those connections in particular. The intellectual genealogy of this project can be traced back to the colonialist-scholar Snouck Hurgronje’s, Mekka in the Latter Part of the 19th Century, but more readily connects with recent work such as Michael Laffan’s groundbreaking book, Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma below the Winds (2003) and my recent book, Forging Islamic Power and Place: The Legacy of Shaykh Da’ud bin ‘Abd Allah al-Fatani in Mecca and Southeast Asia (2015).

In the opening chapter, “Fatanis in-between Home and the Homeland,” Arafat outlines his problem: the seemingly relentless challenges facing Fatanis in Makkah, many of whom come from families that have resided there for generations. Through the course of the chapter, he discusses issues of citizenship, access to education and employment, property ownership, and coming of age in a Saudi-centric social and political environment. The theme Arafat introduces is the fragility of Fatanis’ lives in Makkah, but while doing so, he manages to draw a complex and diverse picture. Some have managed to obtain citizenship, while for most it remains elusive, and even for those who have been naturalized, obstacles remain for living social and culturally fulfilling lives. By the conclusion of the chapter, the reader is left with a clear understanding of the plight of Fatanis’ situation such that the chapters that unfold thereafter each contribute to understanding how they came to be and how they have responded to the challenges before them.

Chapter 2, “The Turbulent Homeland,” examines the historical origins of Makkah’s Fatani community. In a brief overview, Arafat depicts the strained relationship between the Sultanate of Patani and Ayutthaya/Siam from the sixteenth century, through Patani’s peak of power in the seventeenth century, and its political decline, defeat, and subjugation in the period 1785-1839. Then, the chapter turns to addressing proactive Southeast Asian Muslim scholars that traveled to the Haramayn (Makkah and Madinah) with special focus for the Fatanis that joined this milieu most prominently Daud bin Abdullah al-Fatani (1769-1847) and Ahmad bin Muhammad Zain al-Fatani (1856-1908). Then the author discusses political connections between Pattani and Makkah forged in the twentieth century by the region’s esteemed leader and political martyr, Haji Sulong (1895-1954).

By the third chapter, Arafat begins to illustrate the multiple layers of mobility and senses of belonging. Here the author deals with mobility most of all—from Jawi to Makkah in the mid-nineteenth century, with a discussion of the well-known hajj of Munsyi Abdullah, and then a comparison with the post-World War II period. One of the most interesting claims that Arafat makes is how the role of Makkah as a destination changed so dramatically after the war. Previously, Makkah had primarily been a destination for Muslim scholars intent upon training as ‘ulama, but from the mid-twentieth century onwards, Makkah also became a place for work, for people to reform themselves, or to escape legal prosecution or political marginalization. The author delicately describes the myriad reasons why people either felt compelled to leave or felt drawn to Makkah, thus shaping the character and the culture of the community of Fatanis there. Chapter 4, “For God and Money” then concentrates on the centrality of the hajj to Islamic religious practice, to Fatanis economically and socially, and the impact the pilgrimage has had upon the social life of the city and its inhabitants.

The implications of Arafat’s arguments concerning the nature of belonging as “structurally unstable, often incomplete, and contingent owing to the dynamic quality of social life,” (p. 4) become wholly realized in the concluding chapter, “Retrospection, Introspection, and Prospection.” Arafat examines the reactions among Fatanis who return to Jawi either temporarily or permanently and how their experiences are often mired in disappointment or degrees of social and cultural disorientation and dislocation. The author finally settles on this idea of “in-betweenness” along the lines of cultural practice, language, gender, and even religious practice.

Arafat’s work is an important contribution to what one hopes is the emergence of a body of scholarship on Makkah’s many diaspora populations as well as focused studies on some of the most sustained and influential, such as the Fatanis. He has provided us with a focused, transnational study of a people who have remained largely invisible in scholarly debates. But more than filling a gap in existing knowledge, Arafat has illuminated his theory of belonging that dwells in a liminal zone between both Makkah and Jawi, between Malay and Arabic, insider and outsider, Saudi and non-Saudi, and so many other distinctions. In many ways, the author illustrates something of a broader phenomenon—the movement of peoples, ideas, religions, and cultural practices that are a hallmark of the recent centuries of human activity, so brilliantly keyed into the specifics of the Fatani experience. I can only hope the author is pursuing a published version in book form to bring this monumental accomplishment to a broader audience.

Francis R. Bradley
Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies
Pratt Institute

Primary Sources

This work is primarily based upon ethnographic research conducted in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in Singapore, and in the southern provinces of Thailand of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat.

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2013. 225 pp. Primary Advisor: Steven Caton.

Image: The Hikayat Patani chronicle of the Patani Kingdom. Wikimedia Commons.

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