History is Never a Closed Text
by: Farish Ahmad Noor*
Let us conclude by re-stating some of the premises that we began with: History, it has to be remembered, is never a closed text and the writing of history – despite its political considerations – is never a totalised enterprise that can bring us to any degree of hermetic closure. The open-ended nature of historical narratives means that all events that have and will happen in the course of time will be exposed to a myriad of contesting perspectives and interpretations, which in turn ensures that the discursive terrain of history and history-writing remains likewise open and unsutured.
This historian might, of course, wish to close the text so that some degree of sedimentation and consensus can be reached albeit momentarily and where conclusions can be drawn. A snapshot of the past offers us such a momentary escape from contingency, and we quickly draw from the well of historical data whatever tentative conclusions that can be drawn at the moment. But these conclusions can only be, at best, tentative and momentary; for with the future discovery and revelation of more and more data, the historian is once again recalled to his/her task and made to work upon the terrain of historical facts yet again.
Rather than view this state of affairs as a constant irritant in the side of the historian, we should seize upon it as an instance of productive ambiguity that allows us to critically revise and perhaps even deconstruct and reconstruct our accounts of the past with an open-minded and inclusive frame of mind. Our contention in the earlier part of this paper was that the writing of South and Southeast Asian history has, for too long, been an enterprise limited by the overriding concerns of nationalism and national history-writing, that in turn compels the historian to write a national history that is somehow meant to cater to the subjective needs and interests of his national audience.
Revisiting the shared and complex histories of South and Southeast Asia during the period of Islamisation between the 13th century to the present allows us to interject the somewhat staid narrative of Islamisation that has over the past decades gained some degree of currency in our midst: By emphasising and re-foregrounding the dimension of cultural continuity during this period of transmigration of ideas, we effectively succeed in doing several things.
Firstly, we can and should de-bunk the notion of a linear development of national history that somehow leads us to the conclusion that the modern postcolonial nation-state was a determined fact of history. The period of transcultural migration and transoceanic transfer of ideas would suggest to us that no community or nation had a monopoly on the values and symbols of cultural and religious identity, and that our forebears once lived in a world that was far more cosmopolitan, opened and exposed as it was to the external variable factors of trade and the traffic of ideas. Islamisation between South and Southeast Asia took place at precisely such a moment in our history, long before the peoples of both regions were limited by the circumstances and demands of modern citizenship and national belonging. It was an era where individuals could entertain and harbour multiple identities at the same time, long before this became a trend associated with the current wave of post-structuralist and post-modern identity politics.
Secondly, the long period of Islamisation was and should be seen in the context of a longer process of Indianisation of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, which in turn reminds us of the long shared cultural, religious, linguistic and economic legacy that bound the two regions together. Islam’s arrival to Southeast Asia, as we mentioned above, was rendered all the more easy because it came in the guise of the familiar; and this in turn should remind us of the fact that during the pre-colonial era both parts of the world were hardly strangers to each other.
Thirdly, contemporary historians of Southeast Asia should take this episode as a case of fluid history in motion and reconsider how our ‘national’ histories can be written in the future. To date, there are few attempts to write a comprehensive history of South and Southeast Asia that centres the Indian Ocean as the conduit and transit point for ideas, goods and cultural-religious praxis that it really was. It is as if history requires solid ground as the basis of its writing, and we forget to note the vital importance that the Indian Ocean played as the interface of ideas and beliefs. In itself, the Indian Ocean was the centre of this greater transoceanic civilisation and consequently deserves to be studies as an oceanscape in its own right. Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam all thrived and prospered across the maritime lanes and routes of this oceanscape, and the Indian Ocean played as important a role in the development of all the peripheral cultures and societies that stood on both sides of its shores as any other actor on the stage of history.
Assessing the continuity and development of both South and Southeast Asian societies and cultures during this long period of cultural and religious conversion will therefore have to be a new historical project that rejects some of the more exclusive and limiting premises of conventional, linear and determinist history while adapting alternative notions of space, time and identity instead.
Can such an endeavour meet with any degree of success? One should hope so, and to that question we can add one final observation: Writing history in the post-modern era has become a rather trendy enterprise where the wheel is invented time and again to demonstrate the permanence of the obvious and mundane. Yet at the same time, such an enterprise is still needed for it is also through such repetitive deconstruction of the narratives we use to describe our past that we can reach to some rather important observations about the present.
Re-Appraising the Arrival of Islam to Southeast Asia as a Case of Continuity Rather than Dislocation is a moot point that needs to be stated again and again in the context of the geo-political realities of today. The mundane-ness of the Islamisation process that took place between South and Southeast Asia from the 13th to 19th centuries may strike the historian as an instance of stating the obvious once too many times. Yet by emphasising the shared history between nations and communities and the commonality of fluid, open identities we are still engaged in the perennial struggle to keep the pages of history open and to prevent the monopoly and sedimentation of history-writing lest it falls into the hands of demagogic forces bent on rendering our histories absolute, total and exclusive.
At a time where the rise of ethno-nationalism across many parts of the world has led to the casual murder of history for the sake of exclusive nationalist agendas, and when instances of cultural continuity, overlap and cross-fertilisation are deemed anathema for exclusive nationalists and communitarians, such an effort to reconnect our shared histories is not simply an academic endeavour, but a political one as well. For this sake, and for the sake of keeping history alive, such a critical and deconstructive reading and writing of history can never be abandoned.
(*Note: This is the concluding section of a paper I wrote for a conference in India that looks at the long process of inter-cultural transmission of ideas and cultural economies. The paper addresses the long process of Islamisation of Southeast Asia that came via India and Indian Muslim missionaries from the 13th to 19th centuries.) (Source)
*Farish Ahmad Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian and is presently a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He received his B.A. in Philosophy & Literature from the University of Sussex in 1989, before studying for an M.A. in Philosophy at the same University in 1990, an M.A. in South-East Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, before completing his Ph.D. at the University of Essex in 1997 in the field of governance and politics.