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Hamzah Fansuri: a Man of Literature and Religion

After the death of Prophet Muhammad SAW, Islam spread rapidly

throughout the countries on the eastern part of Arabia. The first Islamic
kingdom era, which lasted until half of the seventh century and governed by
the Ummayah dynasty, was marked by wars and glorious victories over the
surrounding kingdoms in order to expand the Islamic territory. During the
times of Islamization, various cultures assimilated with Arabian culture
brought by the soldiers. These acculturations and assimilations were the root
of Islam civilization. The next dynasty, the Abbasiyah, consolidated their
power and in 750 AD, Islamic civilization had spread to the outer territory of
the Abbasiyyah (Schimmel, 1986: 30).
One of the biggest countries ruled by Islam was Persia. As one of the
kingdoms with the oldest culture in the world and a much higher civilization
than Arabia, Persian culture gave a tremendously deep influence in Islamic
civilization, especially in the fields of ethics, aesthetics, spiritual, and
material. Moreover, these Persian elements had perfectly been an integral
part of Islam civilization.
After spreading throughout the east to India, Islam spread its wings to
Southeast Asia. Here it also penetrated almost every aspect of cultural life.
In its journey exploring Indonesia, Islam also introduced the Persian culture
which later gave permanent colors to local archipelago cultures (Liaw, 1991).
One of the important parts of Islamic culture in Indonesia with strong Persian
influence is literature. Through India, which at that time was ruled by the
Mughal dynasty, Malayan, Javanese, and Sundanese literature took the
Persian elements as their own.
In Sejarah Melayu, a local historiography of the Malacca Kingdom, the
family tree of the dynasty was written on the introduction to legitimate the
dynasty as the ruler of the Kingdom. Among the names of the ancestors,
beside Alexander the Great who was considered the par excellence of King
Nursiwan Adil, there was a famous Persian King named Khosru Anursyirwan
(Sejarah Melayu, 1952: 25). Anusyirwan’s name could be found again as
Nursewan in Javanese literature which was a part of Hikayat Amir Hamzah.
This hero in Javanese literature written by Yasadipura entitled Serat Menak
was named Amir Ambyah or Wong Agung Menak Jayengrana. The Amir
Hamzah tale has been told in various Indonesian literatures and contains
many Persian names in it. According to a research by Van Ronkel, the
Malayan tale was actually an adaptation of the original Persian source, and
then it was converted to Javanese. (Van Ronkel, 1895)
The same thing happened to Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyyah (The
Story of Muhammad Hanafiyyah), which told the battle between Husein,
Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, and Yazid, son of Muawiyah from the
Umayyah Dynasty, in the beginning of Islam history that had cost Husein his
life. To this day, an annual ceremony is held in some areas in Indonesia
every 10th of Muharam to commemorate the event (Baried, 1980, and
Brakel, 1975). These stories were written in a Persian romance model
(Braginsky, 1993: 23).
Alexander the Great, king of the famous Macedonia, in Malayan and Javanese
literature had been transformed into an Islamic king who conquered the
kingdoms in Maghrib and Masyrik in order to spread the religion to those
kings. Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain (The Story of Alexander the Great) was
written based on his biography, and was combined with other element from
the Syahnameh or The Book of Kings written by Firdausi, the famous Persian
There are many themes in these hikayat—the Malayan romantic
tales—which were taken from Persian literature as in the Hikayat Indraputra
(The Tale of Indraputra), a well-known story in the archipelago.
A literary text that has become the center of attention for scholars since the
19th century is Taj al-Salatin (the Crown of Kings), which also has a strong
Persian influence. This didactic literature contains a part which states the
terms of a good king in the Persian model. Some says that the text was a
translation from the Persian language, but some other researchers declined
this statement. The poem inside the text was written in the form of mathawi,
ruba’i, and ghazal; those which were the Persian poetry forms (Liaw,
1991:70). It seems that the influence of Persia in governmental and political
science was still powerful in the 19th century. We can see this in the writing
of Raja Ali Haji, entitled Thammarat al-Muhimmah, which also described the
characteristics and obligations of an ideal king according to the basics of old
Persian Kingdom.
Above is a little description of how the Persian nuances affected
Indonesian literature. It is obviously clear that these nuances can also be
found in other parts of Indonesian cultural artifacts. Among them are the
calligraphy arts with Farisi style as an example of the stylish flexible forms
like those of the great Persian arts. (Akbar, unpublished).

Hamzah Fansuri and the Sufi Lyrics

The enormous number of Sufi poems written by Hamzah Fansuri, has
made his name often connected with the tasawuf, especially in the tasawuf
school of Wahdat Al-Wujud. Moreover, he is also well known for his lyrical
poems as a form of Malayan literature. This poetry form was adapted by
Hamzah from the ruba’i, a chain of poems with four lines in every stanza
similar to those of the Arabian-Persian literature (Teeuw, 1966: xi). The form
of literature, which at first was used to spread religious themes, was
expanded to other fields such as history, narrative-lyric, didactic lyric, and
other themes.
Although common people knew Hamzah Fansuri as a writer of tasawuf
lyrics, he actually had written several prose in the form of teachings. Three
prose which are still preserved are:
1. Asrar al-Arifin or ‘The Secrets of the Wise’.
2. Syarab al-Asyiqin or ‘The Drinks of Lovers’.
3. Al-Muntahi or ‘The Believer’.
Meanwhile, 42 poems which are believed as his works have different
variations of stanzas, from 9 to more than 30 (Drewes, 986: 142-143).
There are no direct sources to inform us of Hamzah’s life story. But
according to Drewes, we can infer a lot of his personal experience in his
struggle to find God from his poetry (Drewes, 1986: 3).
The tasawuf school or movement also had a deep influence from the
Persian thoughts and their spiritual life. In his poetry, we can see that
Hamzah is quite familiar with Persian poem. For example, below is his poem
about avian:
Tayr al-‘uryan unggas sultaniBangsanya nur al-rahmaniTasbihnya Allah
subhaniGila dan mabok akan rabbani Arsy Allah akan pangkalannyaHabib
Allah akan taulannyaBayt Allah akan sangkarannyaMenghadap Tuhan dengan
sopannya Dhikir Allah kiri-kanannyaFikir Allah rupa badannyaSyurbat tawhid
akan minumannyaDa’im bertemu dengan Tuhannya.
The poem shows an influence of a Persian poem called Mantiq at-tayr
written by Attar, a Persian poet. Mantiq at-tayr tells about a long and painful
journey of a group of birds who want to find Simurgh, the King of Birds to
lead them. In the verses above, avian or tayr al-uryan (the featherless bird,
naked bird) is a description of a perfect Sufi who has let himself free from all
worldly-bounding and gain the unio mystica. It is also a metaphor of human
in the state of death to the world and to his own ego and, therefore, has
been absorbed by the transcendent.
Many Islamic researchers have noticed that Islam was easily accepted
by Indonesian because the tasawuf nuances it brought in spreading its
teachings. It is known that from the beginning of Islam development,
tasawuf tendency had given colors to Islamic teachings even before Prophet
Muhammad declared that it was part of the religion. At that time, there were
people who spent their life by praying, and guided only by The Almighty
blessings. These people thought that heaven and hell are obstacles to attain
God, because by wanting heaven and not wanting hell human is still bounded
with desires. This concept was described by the words of Rabi’ah al
Adawiyah, a female Sufi in the 9th century:
“My Love, I worship Thee neither out of fear for Thy hell nor out of
desire for Thy heaven, but only for my love to Thee!”
Hamzah Fansuri’s verses described the world as a dangerous place and
advised the reader to devote their life completely to God. Drewes, who
earlier analyzed that the poems recorded Hamzah’s life, noted that in his
poetry, Hamzah called himself as Hamzah, Hamzah Fansuri, or Hamzah
Syahrinawi, depending on the context of the poem’s atmosphere. Hamzah’s
confession of his search for God can be seen in the verse below:
Hamzah Syahrnawi zahirnya JawiBatinnya cahaya Ahmad yang
safiSungguhpun ia terhina jatiAsyiqnya da’im akan Dhat al-Bari
On the other poem, he admitted that he had thought wrongfully:
Hamzah Fansuri terlalu bebalDisangka dunia nin manisnya kekalTerlalu ghafil
mencari bekalTiada syak esok akan menyesal
The way Hamzah called himself Syahrinawi as a part of his name
signified that the city of Syahrinawi was bound to him as the place he visited
in his journey to find God.
Hamzah nin asalnya Fansuri Mendapat wujud di tanah Syahr Nawi
We can infer Hamzah’s success in his struggle to find God from this
famous poem:
Hamzah Fansuri di dalam MekahMencari Tuhan di bayt al-Ka’bahDi Barus ke
Kudus terlalu payahAkhirnya dapat di dalam rumah
According to Drewes that was where Hamzah found what he was
looking for, which was ‘wujud’ (God). The opinion of Al-Attas that ‘wujud’ has
to be interpreted as ‘lahir’ [born/being] contradicts the first line.
The event described in the poem happened in Syahrnawi, or Ayuthya,
the capital city of old Siam which had many Moslems, although most of the
citizens were Buddhists. The city was a meeting point for Moslems from all
nations under the reign of the Siamese Kingdom. Persian language was a
Lingua Franca there, as in the Islamic part of India. Tasawuf poetry are
commonly written in Persian, Turkish, and, of course, Arabic languages. The
latter was definitely mastered by Hamzah, as can be seen in his works which
for most readers are difficult to understand due to the use of Arabic words in
One of the main themes in Hamzah’s poems is a persuasion to leave
the worldly desires and seek infinite happiness in His blessings.
Tuhan kita itu tiada bermakanZahirnya nyata dengan rupa insan’Man ‘arafa
nafsahu’ suatu burhan‘Fa qad ‘arafa rabbahu’ terlalu bayan Riwayat ini
daripada Qur’an al-majidAkan ahl al-dunya tiada sempurna sa’idBanyaknya
sangat terlalu syadidManakan ada ilmunya yazid Mencari dunia berulang-
ulangBerbuat ‘ibadat terlalu kurangTiada kaupikirkan nini dan moyang
Dengan sehelai kain sekaliannya pulang Aho segala kita ummat rasulTuntuti
ilmu haqiqat al wusulKarena ilmu itu pada Allah qabulI’tiqadmu jangan
ittihad dan hulul Ma’rifat itu ilmu yang mudahBarang mendapat dia mengenal
sudahCitamu daripada tempat jangan kauubahSupaya wasil tiada dengan
susah Aho segala kita yang bernama awwamYogya kauturut ma’rifat yang
tamamKarena ma’rifat itu hakikat kalamMenyampaikan kita ke dar al-salam
In describing God, his words had been chosen beautifully. Subhana ‘llah
terlalu kamilMenjadikan insan alim dan jahilDengan hambanya da’im Iya
wasilItulah mahbub bernama adil Mahbubmu itu tiada berlawanLagi Iya alim
lagi bangsawanKasihnya banyak lagi gunawanOlehnya itu beta tertawan
Bersunting bunga lagi bermalaiKainnya warna berbagai-bagaiTahu berbunyi
di dalam sakaiOlehnya itu orang terlalai In other poem, Hamzah described
the substances of Allah: Bahr al-Butun tiada bermulaOmbaknya makhful
tiada bernamaOlehnya Ahad belum terbukaAdanya quddus suatu juga Kuntu
kanzan mulanya nyataHakikat ombak di sana adaAdanya itu tiada
bernamaMajnun dan Layla ada di sana Dhat dan sifat bersama-
samaKeduanya itu tiada berantaraDatang tawfan ombaknya nyataPada ‘kun
fa yakunu’ bangatlah kata Bahr al-qadim hening sendirinyaDatang tawfan
jadilah gilaAnak Adam jua sekalian kitaDi mana berbangsa di mana hina
However, human never realized that they have to get back to the calm
ocean, the beginning of us all. Sayangnya engkau terlalu lupaAkan laut yang
tiada berupaTandamu tuli lagi dan butaMabuk dang hijab lain mota Asalmu
itu terlalu nyataTiada jauh dang citarasaAhad jua baharu dan lamaNini dan
moyang ibu dan bapa(Taken from G.W.J. Drewes, The Poems of Hamzah
Hamzah’s was well-known as a pious man, as reflected in his prose.
Syed Naguib al-Attas, among the Islam researchers, had dug Hamzah’s
characters and teachings in his book, The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri.
Hamzah’s teachings—reflected in his poem Wahdat al-wujud—has
spread in many writings and Islamic schools in Indonesia, because his works
cannot be separated from the schools which practice the discipline mentioned
above. From the religious writings in Indonesia, as described by a study
conducted by Oman Fathurahman and continued by Fakhriyati, we can
observe the ups and downs of Wahdat al-Wujud school which was connected
with al Syaikh al-Akbar Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi. It is said that the teachings
of this school had gained an Indian influence, and then it softened in
Indonesia in order to adapt to local culture. For example in Minangkabau,
especially Ulakan (Fathurahman, 1999); West Java, in Pamijahan
(Christomy, 1994), Aceh (Fakhriyati), and other Islamic centers with their
own adaptation characteristics until today. The importance of this school in
Aceh through Syamsudin and its later controversy must be emphasized.
In conclusion, Hamzah Fansuri’s thoughts and concept of God has
been a big influence for a long time for many religious schools and their
practice until today.

Glossary Ahad oneBangat amazingBayan clear, brightBurhan evidenceDar

al-salam place of peaceDa’im alwaysGhafil wrongHaqiqat al-wusul oneness
Hulul incarnationIttihad unificationYazid increaseKalam Religious ScienceKun,
fa yakun be, then shall beKuntu kanzan I am ghazanahMahbub Loved
oneMakan, bermakan tempat, knowing a placeMota thick garmentQabul
permittingSa’id perfectSyadid full of desireSharbat tawhid the drink of
onenessSultani kingdomTamam perfectTasbih complimentWasil together,
unifiedYazid increase, meningkat

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