He was an intellectual giant. But, apart from Southeast Asia, his thought and works are little known. His full name was Haji Abdul Malik bin Abdul Karim Amrullah (1908–1981), but he was more popularly known as ‘Hamka’. He belonged to a genealogy of thinkers and reformers whose intellectual formations and reformist visions were linked to the wider world of Islam and whose tireless efforts left an enduring mark on the history of Southeast Asian Islam.
One of Hamka’s paternal ancestors was Tuanku Nan Tuo (1723–1830), a respected Sumatran scholar who returned to Minangkabau after years of studying in Mecca to lead the ‘Padri movement’ in the early nineteenth century. The movement aimed at ridding heterodoxies that were rampant in Malay society then and, in the process, endeavoured to end Dutch dominance in many sectors of the local economy. Hamka’s grandfather, Muhammad Amrullah (1840–1909), was the leader of the Naqshabandiyyah Brotherhood in Sumatra; his followers came from many parts of the Malay world. He was a known expert on Qur’anic exegesis, Islamic jurisprudence, Sufism, and Arabic linguistics. His son, Abdul Karim Amrullah (1879–1945), chose a different, reformist path. Also educated in Mecca, he, however, shunned Sufi practices and mystical beliefs. Like his grandfather Tuanku Nan Tuo, Abdul Karim was a fiery orator, a fearless polemicist, and a combative writer. He promoted freedom of thought and expression among his followers and espoused modernist interpretations of Islam. Active in reformist organisations such as the Muhammadiyah, Abdul Karim’s ardent critiques of the traditional ulama and conservative elites had earned him imprisonment on a few occasions. Hamka was certainly moved by the efforts of his forebears, and more so, by the steadfastness of his father. He saw that amidst their differences, they were all devoted to uprooting one fundamental cause of Muslim backwardness: ignorance.
Indeed, the will to undo the effects of ignorance in Muslim societies became Hamka’s lifetime passion and promotion. In the span of five decades, he authored more than a hundred novels, Islamic books, and thousands of essays as well as opinion pieces, covering a wide range of topics, including history, theology, philosophy, Islamic jurisprudence, and spirituality. Most of these works have been republished and a number have been popularised in the form of stage plays and movies. Hamka was more than a writer. Father of ten children, he joined many Indonesians in the revolutionary struggle against the Dutch during the Indonesian Revolution (1945–1949). He was, at the same time, actively involved in a few Muslim institutions and parties such as the Masjid Agung Kebayoran Baru, Muhammadiyah, and the Parti Islam Masyumi. In 1958, in recognition of his intellectual and grassroots activism, Hamka was conferred an honorary doctorate by Al-Azhar University; among the few Indonesians other than his father to have received such a prestigious award. After he was appointed, in 1975, the first chairman of the Majilis Ulama Indonesia (MUI, the Indonesian Ulama Council), his views were solicited by politicians and scholars alike. Lectures and interviews with radio and television channels were almost daily ritual for him up until his dying years. By the time he died, on 24 July 1981, several books and articles had already been published discussing and honouring Hamka’s contributions in so many areas of Muslim life. It is not unwarranted to claim that the history of Muslim thought in Southeast Asia cannot be properly articulated or presented without, at least, a passing reference to Hamka. His commitment to exposing the ramifications of ignorance among Muslims, and the avenues that could take Muslims out of that conundrum, was phenomenal and is rightly remembered.