An overview of Jawi's origins in Brunei


JAWI is intimately connected with the Malay people and the Malay language.

Where do Malays originate from? It has been theorised that the Malays belong to the Austronesia group who migrated out of Yunan in China in several waves and eventually settled in Southeast Asia. The first wave was known as the Proto-Malays and the migration happened about 2,500 BC.

About a thousand years later, a second wave known as Deutro-Malays settled in the fertile lands along the beaches and in the valleys. The Proto-Malays were pushed out and moved further inland. It is the Deutro-Malays which called themselves Malays nowadays.

The Malay language itself is the largest group among the four languages of the Austronesian languages — the others being Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanisian.

The earliest Malay language is very different from the current modern Malay language. Most research indicated that prior to the Islamisation of the region, the nation states were heavily influenced by the Indian languages and based on Sanskrit. Even today some of Brunei's words are derived from Sanskrit.

Based on historical evidence, there was a Srivijayan Empire, one which governed as far as Sri Lanka. There are several theories as to where the governing city was and Brunei was theorised as a candidate. The Malay language was used as the official language and, no doubt, the empire helped to spread the language.

They most likely used a script called "rencong script" written on bamboo stems and leaves. This script was later followed by two more Indian scripts — the "kawi" and "pallava" scripts. The remnants of "Kawi" are still being used in Lombok, Indonesia.

The earliest discovered writing of the Malay language dated back more than 1,600 years, around the 4th century. It was based on the Kutai Inscription of East Kalimantan written in Sanskrit with Indian scripts deriving from the Pallava scripts. This Pallava-based script is commonly considered to be the oldest form of Malay writing, and it continued in the Old Malay writing system.

There are other evidences of Old Malay. As many as four stone inscriptions had been found written in Old Malay with most of them written around the 7th century which were found in Kedukan Bukit, Talang Tuwo, Kota Kapur and Karang Brahi, all in Palembang.

The definition "Malay" itself was first found in Chinese writings in 644 CE. The writings mentioned a group of "Mo-Lo-Yue" which sent a tribute to the Chinese Emperor, though it was not stated where Mo-Lo-Yue was located.

Between the 7th and 13th centuries, the Malay language started evolving. These were found among stone inscriptions found in Gandasuli in Central Java, Bangkahulu, Padang Lawas and Padang Rocore. In the last one, the word "Malaya" or "Malay" was found inscribed.

The 13th century was the main period of change with the coming of Islam to the region. The Indian influences were replaced by the Arabic ones.

The Malaccan Empire and later the Brunei Empire, both embracing Islam, have managed to spread further the Malay language. The Malay language became the language of commerce as well as the vehicle for spreading the Islamic religion.

The earliest Europeans who came to the region adopted the language and even prepared dictionaries for use by Europeans. Pigafetta, the Italian chronicler wrote a Malay-Italian Dictionary with about 400 commonly used words. Jan Hugen Van Linschotten, a Dutch who lived in Indonesia in the late 15th century wrote that the Malay language was the most respected language in the region.

With the coming of Islam, the Malays tried to use the pallava or kawi characters to write about Islam. These were found to be unsuitable as they could not properly pronounce the verses of the Quran and words of Hadith.

The Malays experimented with Arabic characters and, in the process, invented the Jawi script. Additional letters had to be added in to the Arabic scripts to conform to the Malay syllables. These included che, nge, pa, ge and nye.

The earliest evidence of the existence of the Jawi script was the discovery of inscriptions on a stone dated 702H (1303 CE) where Sanskrit words could still be seen on the inscribed stone.

Letters and documents were written in Jawi. Among the earliest still surviving included the letters of a number of Sultans — Sultan Acheh to an English Captain, James Lancester written in 1601, to Harry Middleton in 1602 and to King James in 1612.

In Brunei too, the letters written by the various Sultans too were written in Jawi. One letter in particular survived, written by Sultan Muhammad Kanzul Alam to William Farquhar in Singapore in 1821. Replies by William Farquhar were also written in Jawi, as were agreements between Brunei and Britain.

One of the earliest usage of Jawi was on grave stones. The earliest in Brunei was traced to a grave in 1048 CE. Jawi must have been widely used. Brunei's coins too, by the 15th and 16th centuries, were minted with inscriptions in Jawi. The earliest known was Sultan Nasaruddin who issued coins with his name inscribed as Sultan Nasaruddin Malik Al Dzahir.

Brunei's Batu Tarsilah — the stone tablet containing the genealogical lineage of the Brunei Sultanate was written in Jawi. This tablet was inscribed in 1804.

The Malay language and Jawi came under the influence of the Europeans by the 18th century. Although Malay continued to be in use even by the British Colonial Officers, Jawi was not. It remained written in most paper currencies issued by the Straits Settlement government but the romanised Malay, "rumi", slowly took over.

The Malay language received more influence from English but retained more Arabic words, while the Indonesian counterpart received more influence from Dutch and retained more Javanese and Jakarta Malay.

Throughout the 20th century, in Brunei, there were many efforts to revive Jawi as a script. When a newspaper called Berita Brunei appeared in 1957, it was partly written in Jawi, although the Jawi was dropped when it became Berita Borneo in 1958. Another publication in Jawi took over in 1958, called Malaysia, which also did not survive.

By the 1950s, a government ruling ensured that Jawi script would remain widely used in Brunei as shop signs are required to be written in Jawi, with the Jawi characters to be much larger than the other words on the signage. Jawi is now taught in schools as well as used throughout the religious schools. At first, Jawi was dropped because it was said that children could not focus; but when the religious schools started, many Bruneians could not read their textbooks.

Realising the problem, His Majesty the late Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien, made Jawi the official writing medium in Brunei.

His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam in 2001 had also called for renewed efforts to ensure that Muslims in the country would be proficient in Jawi writing. Without such skills, he said, they would not be able to read the Holy Quran.

Jawi as a written script has survived the onslaught of the Romanised version of the Malay language. Its further survival depends on many factors. However, we have to be careful: even when we give due importance to Jawi, it is important to avoid the mistake of confusing it with Arabic especially when it comes to the Al-Quran, remembering that Jawi is but a derivation of Arabic.

The author runs a website on Brunei at

The Brunei Times
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