The Ottoman state and the rest of the Muslim world were far more interconnected than we realise today. What lessons do those connections hold?
As an Ottoman historian of the 19th century, I often think to myself that after all that I read and teach regarding the Ottomans that there is very little that can surprise me, only to be surprised over and over again.
I’ve just returned from a three-month trip from Malaysia, where I thought that I would be in a part of the world where the word Ottoman would only be found in university libraries or select bookshops. But how wrong I was, as I came to learn that Ottoman influences in the Malay Archipelago continue to exist even today without much awareness from the local population.
My journey, which started in Kuala Lumpur, was for a break from the usual hustle and bustle of the imperial city of Istanbul, little did I know that I would find traces of the old imperial capital in Malaysia and three months in I would be having lunch with the Her Majesty Raja Zarith Sofiah binti Almarhum Sultan Idris Shah otherwise known as the Queen of Johor.
This story is about a journey, in which I learnt much, in particular, that there is still ample knowledge to acquire regarding 19th-century formulations of Muslim connectivity, that we continue to live our lives that emanate from that past, but very little knowledge is known even though it’s practised.
This, in particular, is about how the most southern state of Malaysia — Johor, represents more Ottoman forms than many ex-provinces of the Ottoman domains.
I remember sitting in a coffee shop in the hipster Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur talking away to a friend, while taking sips for my newfound love of iced-Matcha latte, about all things Malaysian.
We discussed food, culture, its politics and naturally about its history. I posed a question of the symbolism of the Malaysian flag, asking how it was designed and whether it had Ottoman influences.
I have a thing for symbols of nation-states and informed my friend that the Pakistani flag drew its inspiration from the Ottomans, such was the Muslim communities’ attachment in the Asian-subcontinent regarding the late Ottoman Caliphate, in which a movement had emerged called the Khilafat (Caliphate) committee that tried to save the Ottoman government during WWI.
After the Caliphate’s abolishment, the daughter of the last caliph and the nizam of Hyderabad were married in the hope that the once most powerful ruler of the Muslim world and the wealthiest ruler of the Muslim world would be able to revive the previously revered political institution, however, it wasn’t meant to be.
In 1926 a Caliphate conference was held in Cairo, without success of course, but what surprised me was not simply that the Muslims of India or the ex-Arab provinces had attended in number but that Sultan Ibrahim of Johor (1895-1959) had sent his Grand Mufti Sayyid Hasan bin Ahmad al Attas as a representative in hopes of resolving the question. The Muslims in the Malay Archipelago were far more connected to the ‘Ummah’ question than I had realised.
It was from this moment that the historian in me became curious, what impact did the Ottomans have in the Malaysian Archipelago? Was I having a conversation on urban myths and legends or was there something to the Johorian state resembling the Ottomans?
I decided to investigate, and indeed Johor had cultural links to the Ottomans, far closer than I had imagined, and so I decided to give a small talk to a few academics about my findings.
Little was I to know that my poster would somehow make its way to the Queen of Johor, and within two days a small talk that was designed for the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science, and Civilisation (CASIS) would now become a royal event.
Sultan Abu Bakr of Johor — The first constitutional Muslim ruler in the region
The connection between the Ottomans and the Malay Archipelago in the 19th century can be first seen in Aceh. However, by the 1880s it was the sultan of Johor who was the first leader in the region to make his way to Istanbul.
The first sultan of the Johor state, Abu Bakar (1886-1895), is popularly known as an Anglophile, named Albert Baker by the English.
There is no doubting that Abu Bakar had close relations with the British, but Abu Bakar wasn’t attempting to become a vessel state for the British Crown, he had other ambitions trying to find ways of outmanoeuvring the British to maintain Johor’s independence from colonial rule.
Just like the Ottoman state, the Johor state was not colonised, and so Abu Bakar looked towards Istanbul to establish legal forms that could replicate the Ottoman experience of resistance.
Abu Bakar was known as an avid traveller by sea, visiting both London and Japan. But my interest was in Abu Bakar’s visits to Istanbul between possibly 1879-1893. Abu Bakar, with his close confidant Sayyid Muhammad al Sagoff had visited Cairo, where they met the British ambassador.
Abu Bakar was more interested in meeting the local Muslims and pressed the ambassador to connect him with the more indigenous peoples of Cairo. The ambassador organised a meeting with the thinker and Mufti of Al Azhar, Muhammad Abdou.
It was via Abdou that Abu Bakar would have the opportunity to meet the activist Jamaluddin Afghani, and possibly via Afghani, Abu Bakar along with Sagoff would have the company of the Ottoman Caliph and pious Sultan Abdulhamid II. It’s difficult to know the details of these meetings but what is clear is that Abu Bakar was much inspired by his time in the Ottoman domains and their reforms.
After his meeting with the caliph, two sisters of possibly Circassian origin, Hatice and Rukiye Hanim were offered in marriage to fashion bonds between Istanbul and Johor. These women have left a lasting legacy in modern Malaysia and undoubtedly require their narrative to be told; such is their journey.
By 1895 Johor was to proclaim itself a sultanate, adopt a constitution, that borrowed from Japanese and Ottoman forms, that was initially written in Jawi (Malay in the Arabic script), then Malay and then two versions in English.
A few years earlier, the Ottoman-inspired civil law known as the Mecelle (Majallah) was also adopted.
Not only that but the main sultanic mosque of Abu Bakar began construction in 1895 and amalgamated many 19th-century Ottoman, Malay and British architectural forms. Sultan Abdulhamid II specifically sent the mihrab, a niche in the wall of the mosque to indicate the direction of the Kaaba, made from iron and painted gold as a gift.
As Istanbul was the centre of the Muslim world it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it wasn’t only through architecture that the Johor state replicated all things Ottoman.
The Johor state was also socially re-engineering its society to resemble the Ottoman world, which must have reflected positively as a multi-ethnic domain. The Johor Sonkgot became a Malay version of the Ottoman Fez.
If one were to take a step back from the established narratives of the state of Johor attempting to Westernise, what one sees is a state that was attempting to probably Islamise and reform at the same time, perhaps.
Constitutionalism, the Mecelle, the establishment of new dress codes and imperial practices pointed towards social and political trends in Istanbul and London, that reflected global and regional undertones.
It would be a mistake to reduce the state of Johor as simply replicating Ottoman forms without its cultural integrity. What I noticed in Johor was an ability to mesh, distil and negotiate with various cultural forms, that drew its inspiration from the British, the local Malay customs and of course, the Ottomans.
Further still on closer inspection, I started to notice that the Johor state also reflected forms that were Arab, suggesting that the narrative of the Malay region as merely being a negotiation of three races, Malay, Chinese and Indian, might somewhat be a reduction of how modern nation-states have reduced complex narratives to simplified caricatures.
The Arab influence on Johor cannot be understated.
The Hadhrami impact
Most Arab settlements took place in the Malay Archipelago from the region of what is known as Hadramaut (Yemen). The migration had begun long before the nineteenth century, but after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, a renewed migration of Muslims from Yemen made their way to the port city of Singapore.
These travellers were of two types, the first were traders and the second were men of religion, who had moved to the region in the hope to spread the message of Islam.
Arab migration had not only impacted social and commercial life, since there was an immersion of Arabs in the region from the 15th century, with their introduction there was a shift in intellectual production in which Jawi had become the language of religion and intellectualism.
The learning of Arabic and Jawi were an indication of both nobility and intelligence, and Jawi is still institutionalised in Johor today.
From the 19th century onward, two leading families of Arab descent, in particular, also impacted the region of Johor – the al Attas family and the al Sagoff family, with one reflecting a scholarly class and the other nobility.
Sayyid Ahmad al Attas would first become Grand Mufti and then Sheikh ul Islam of Johor, and Sayyid Muhammad al Sagoff was known to have become a close confidante and advisor to Sultan Abu Bakar as they travelled together.
It would be no surprise that Abu Bakar’s attempt to Islamise the Johor state most probably was due to the influence and advise of the al Attas and al Sogoff families.
In both Singapore and Johor the al Attas and al Sogoff families built madrassas, mosques and established foundations in support of the local Muslim communities, especially in Singapore, suggesting that the history of Johor is also a closely linked history of Singapore too.
The centres of learning brought students from the region to these areas, making them vibrant centres of multi-cultural interaction, something that feels lacking in contemporary narratives.
The nineteenth-century migration and interaction with a globalised Muslim world indicate a lasting impression that was left on Johor, subsequently the Malay Archipelago and the region by and large.
Whether via the Arab connections or Istanbul, the Sultanate of Johor during its formation looked closely to the Ottoman domains to remain connected to the Muslim world, choosing not to remain local.
There is one thing reading and researching about connections, and there is another thing seeing history being practised as a lived experience.
After meeting the Queen of Johor, I started to imagine the nature of the imperial Ottoman past, as much of the imaginations were still formalised in practice. I began to notice Ottoman forms in the state of Johor, as it felt like I was walking down a suburb of Istanbul.
More significantly, it was the trip to the museum where many of the royal artefacts were on display that I was able to see how the royalty of Johor projected itself.
What I noticed was that the history of the Johor state was indeed Malay, it was indeed a relationship of the three races, it was indeed a history of intervening colonialism, but when one scratches the surface, it was also a history of resistance to colonialism, of 19th century attempts of Islamisation that remain within the fabric of both the ruler and the ruled, it was as much Ottoman imperial as well as Arab.
This also resonates with the debates of multiculturalism in the Malay Archipelago which require far more vigorous debate and that the region requires an interest in the history of the 19th century, its history, lest it becomes disconnected from its past by merely living in the now.
My lasting impression was that I’m well aware that there are complexities and nuances yet to be unearthed. But what I noticed was a relationship that was not linear but reciprocal, a far better connected Muslim world than we often realise and a history that continues to be viewed as myths and legends – but requires a better historical treatment.