The Malay Heritage Foundation

The Evolution of Jawi

Looking Back and Looking Forward

by Radhiah Binti Ramli, translated by Syed Imad Alatas

The sight of students from Madrasah Al-Sagoff is one of them tip toeing by the fence. Dressed in yellow, they gather around the flag pole compound.

As a supplication is being recited, Mrs Saripah binti Saripi, who was unseen at the back of her office room heads for class. ”If you want to be acquainted with the Malay history, we need to study Jawi script”, she says.


Figure 1: Learning Jawi- Students queuing up outside their classrooms after recess time. Photo taken by Radhiah Ramli.

With her bag on her shoulder, she simultaneously holds up the iPad on top of her desk. As she prepares herself while pressing the buttons on her iPad, the seven year old students press their own technological devices that have been prepared on their desks.

Mrs Saripah has taught in this school for 24 years. Jawi is just one of the subjects she teaches.

Only one out of six Madrasahs (full-time religious schools) continues to include the study of Jawi in their curriculum. Ever since the system of writing Jawi was officially romanized in the 1960s, various initiatives to rejuvenate an interest in Jawi have been undertaken.

With regards to ensuring the relevance of Jawi under a more demanding school syllabus, a group of teachers from Al-Sagoff have devised a strategy to pursue studies in Jawi. In sum, to use iPads and I-books which they themselves have invented.


Figure 2: Innovation in Jawi- Learning Jawi by using IPads makes it more appealing to children. Photo taken by Radhiah Ramli.

Also involved in this effort, the principal of the school, Syed Mustafa bin Syed Ja’afar Alsagoff, looks back at the meeting of teachers that discussed the issue of the future of the Jawi script.

“Our purpose in preserving the language is not merely for tradition’s sake”, says the teacher, “but so that the future generation is aware that Jawi was part of history as it was created for the Malay race.


Figure 3: The generation of reformers- Students swipe across their iPads while Mrs Saripah explains in class. Photo taken by Radhiah Ramli.

Continuing the Legacy while Leading the Development

“Ga! Pa! Nya!” as the students imitate Mrs Saripah. “Ga! Pa! Nya!”, as the teacher asks those students to swipe across their ipads.


Figure 4: Jawi is easy- Mrs Saripah Bte Saripi teaches her students six letters in Jawi that do not exist in the Arabic script. Photo taken by Radhiah Ramli

Mrs Saripah and Mr Mustafa concur that a combination of Arabic and Malay has facilitated the process of studying Jawi script. By emphasizing on the letters that do not exist in the Arabic script such as “ݢ “ (ga),” ڤ ” (pa), “ ڽ ” (nya) at the first level of instruction, the process of teaching can be quickened, they add.

Just because the water is calm does not mean that there is no tide- preserving Jawi is not necessarily easy. Suitable Jawi textbooks are seldom found. Also, might the students not like writing Jawi?

The unique Jawi font is not usually supported by the Apple application, adds Mr Mustafa. Madrasah Al-Sagoff takes an alternative approach by using jpac and producing their own books in the form of an I-book. He adds: “We do not view this challenge as an obstacle; our teachers pioneered this initiative and continue to improve”.

Mr Mustafa straightens his black Songkok along with a Baju Melayu. Referring back to the ASAS 50 memorandum that was signed on the 27th of March, 1954, Latin was seen as seen as a practical alphabet for developing Malay language and literature.

Continuing the Legacy while Developing the Discourse

Apart from Jawi manuscripts that were discovered from centuries ago, texts of the royal family such as Sulalatus Salatin as early as the 15th or 16th century is a classic example. Bustan Arifin and Qalam Magazine are also platforms set up by the Malay community in 1950s. The region is also filled with books on religion written in Jawi.

Mr Mustafa talks about the misfortune of the Malay Muslims who had to shoulder a burden because of not learning Jawi. “The writing style of Fatani theologians known as “yellow book” is still in Jawi script. There needs to be an effort to study them”, says Mr Mustafa.

In deciding to revitalise Jawi, Hirman Mohamed Khamis, aged 45 and a post graduate candidate in University Putra Malaysia is doing his PH.D about the preservation of Jawi script in Singapore.

< Text Box: Figure 5: Discoursing- Hirman did a presentation in Pahang on the 30th of March 2016 as part of his PHD training. Photo courtesy from Hirman.

According to him, the shift in interest towards the heritage of his race and the relationship between religion and identity has proven to be the spark for continuing this struggle. “Knowing Jawi is the first step in understanding the religiosity of the Malay world”, he says.

The academic world is the chosen stage to develop the potential of Jawi. According to him, it is a challenge that is satisfying. Although married and with two children, he is not preoccupied though busy. He is worried that the trend of sidelining Jawi might continue.

Hirman carefully examines his thesis draft while being flanked by different collections of manuscripts from the National Library. Apart from being accompanied by a collection of old novels and Jawi manuscripts, Hirman also spends time in an institution other than the school that has continued the legacy of learning Jawi.

Patience relieves tiredness, persistence brings gain-for months he studies the progress of Jawi taught in Andalus institute.

“Even if Jawi is thought at the most basic level, at least it is taught,” he adds.

In narrating his experience, he shows a chart of positive responses from a group of students who study Jawi in the abovementioned institute.

Just by one glance, one cannot predict the future of Jawi. In the field of education and learning, Jawi still has a value that cannot be replaced. “The learning of Jawi can be developed to a higher standard so as to familiarize oneself with the history of writing and usage of Jawi in the archipelago”, says Mr Mustafa.

While holding their pencils and papers firmly, the Alsagoff children continue to pay attention to the teacher. They open a new tab. This time, the students have to write on the iPad screen. The students wait for their turn to be called.


Figure 6: Jawi is interesting- Students are showing their answers which they wrote on their IPads to Mrs Saripah. Photo taken by Radhiah Ramli.

Continuing the Legacy while Fighting for the Arts

The art of handwriting in Madrasah Al-Sagoff and Andalus Institute is not given prime importance. The urge to think about the survival strategy plays a greater role.
Nonetheless, the Jawi script is not separated from the arts culture that has been increasingly important today.

The atmosphere in the class where students practice calligraphy every Friday is quiet and peaceful. Students, aged 20 and above, hold their ‘Qalam’-pens firmly.

Ms Nur Fathiah Binte A’bdussamad, 28 years of age and a teacher in Arabic calligraphy tutors her student, Nur Afiqah Bte Agus who pioneered “Calligraphy Project” in 2014 at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Afiqah is touched by the warm reception of people since the inception of the project. According to her, Arabic calligraphy has the ability to attract interest from people. “I preach through calligraphy”, says Nur Afiqah. “When verses of the Quran are written neatly, users will be reminded of the word of God”.


figure 7: Refining the skill of Calligraphy – Nur Afiqah Bte Agus , 22, attends Calligraphy classes once a week, ‘Even though I am a student of Architecture, learning Calligraphy requires the guidance of a teacher as he or she will reveal the unseen gems in the process of learning’. Photo taken by Radhiah Ramli.

Be it the thuluth, naskhi or any other calligraphic style, Fadzillah binte A. Rahim feels that calligraphy illustrates the ingenuity of the Malay people in blending different forms of calligraphy that have been inherited from the great world of Islamic civilisation. This is the uniqueness of Malay calligraphy.

Apart from notebooks and bookmarks, ‘Calligraphy Project’ also takes orders for wedding gifts.

“Orders for writings in Jawi are not a lot, though they are a handful. Maybe people are more interested in arabic calligraphy,” says Afiqah.

People are more attracted to the visual arts as compared to the history and development of calligraphy. This view is echoed by Mr Mustafa who thinks that the appreciation for calligraphy is a positive development.

Other than Afiqah Agus, Faizal Somadi, the founder of the Faddho Company which provides services for graphic arts and conducts research on Arabic calligraphy feels that most people are not interested in the development of calligraphy.

“If the history of calligraphy is not learned, we will fall into an abyss of decline,” says Faizal.

Although Faizal does not study Jawi, he is an expert in calligraphy writing. His commitment to this art has inspired him to be involved in the field of Arabic calligraphy from 2002 till now. However, calligraphy for him is not simply writing that is beautiful.

As Faizal stresses: “If someone trains himself to be a calligrapher, then the knowledge and skills gained by him is not just to serve his intellect in writing beautifully, but to write so as to refine the contents of his mind-writing as an intelelctual journalistic development”.

Figure 9: Intimate while practicing- Ms Nur Fathiah (Left) reviewes Nur Afiqah’s (right) work. Photo taken by Radhiah Ramli.

Writing unites two people that are involved. The teacher and the student. The expert and his protégé. That is in fact the relationship between Mrs Saripah and her student, between Afiqah Agus and her teacher and between Faizal and his Sheikh. He adds that “The values and culture in the relationship between a student and its teacher has to be preserved”.


Figure 10: Jawi exudes affection- Mrs Saripah observes her students while they practice writing in Jawi on their iPads. Photo taken by Radhiah Ramli.

Continuing the Legacy while Shaping Man

“Kriing!!” The children quickly switch off their iPads. Tired, Mrs Saripah straight away returns to her office. The students say goodbye and then disperse.

She agrees that teaching Jawi is an easy process. The similarities in the vocal sounds between the Malay language and Jawi eases the teaching process. Her interest in and memory of Jawi remains strong.

Amidst a bit of laughter, Mrs Saripah describes the situation. “Before, my father could not even understand Rumi. Everything was in Jawi”.

From the efforts towards preserving Jawi to the inclination towards the arts, each individual has their unique experience on the effects of Jawi on their personal identity.

While speaking to Mrs Saripah, Mr Mustafa watches over his students jumping in front of the meeting room. The sliding door is opened and he returns to his office.

“Jawi is a religious symbol in the Malay community; without it, we would lose the Malay Muslim identity”.

Dapatkan terjemahan artikel ini dalam bahasa Melayu di: https://mhf.org.sg/newsletter/evolusi-jawi-17134.html
English (UK)
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