Neighbor Day at the Surau

As I’m sure is universal among muslim communities, Ramadan represents the high water mark of religious devotion, the time when the greatest number of people turn up for daily prayers. That’s followed by a Eid crash, when numbers plummet back down to, or even below, average levels, as everyone becomes distracted with the holidays. In a bid to remind the neighborhood that the musallah was still open for business, our musallah hosted a Majlis Silaturrahim or Hari Ramah-tamah, a glorified block party the week following Hari Raya. The overt agenda was to welcome new residents to the neighborhood, of which there are many since new homes are still being built in our area, and to recognize members of the community who helped to enliven the musallah during the fasting month.

If you’ve ever been involved in neighborhood politics, then you’ll know that it is extremely hard to motivate people to break from their routine to actively support neighborhood initiatives. Even ensuring a decent turnout is no easy feat. The sure-fire way to get the neighborhood to turn out is to pander to their children, and that’s exactly what we did. Two elderly ladies from the sisters committee rounded up a group of young kids and spent a week’s worth of afternoons teaching them a selection of nasheeds. Sure enough, turnout was high that night, with mothers with kids in the show forming a solid block in the ladies’ section. That evening, after the opening speeches from the e-board dignitaries, the kids took the stage for their performance. It was karaoke’d, but at least it wasn’t lip synched; you could still hear the kids singing. My two eldest were in the show, so of course I was entertained. They sang the lovely Sepohon Kayu, as well as some other songs I didn’t recognize.
Sepohon Kayu is a lovely song, and one that I had been meaning to translate for a long time. I suppose this is my chance.

Sepohon Kayu

A solitary tree lush with leaves
Hanging low and heavy with flowers and fruit
If one lives a life of a thousand years
Without prayer what would it all mean?

Sepohon kayu, daunnya rimbun
Lebat bunganya serta buahnya
Walaupun hidup seribu tahun
Kalau tak sembahyang apa gunanya

We go off to work day by day
In order that we have homes of our own
If one lives a life of a thousand years
Without prayer what would it all mean?

Kami bekerja sehari-hari
Untuk belanja rumah sendiri
Walaupun hidup seribu tahun
Kalau tak sembahyang apa gunanya

We pray to God the daily prayers
While keeping the Prophet’s holy way
So that we may find the good pleasure of God
We work all day with happy hearts

Kami sembahyang fardu sembahyang
Sunatpun ada bukan sembarang
Supaya Allah menjadi sayang
Kami bekerja hatilah riang

We offer up the five daily prayers
Through night and day we surely pray
We are orphans in the life of the grave
Tortured, tormented, all alone

Kami sembahyang limalah waktu
Siang dan malam sudahlah tentu
Hidup dikubur yatim piatu
Tinggalah seorang dipukul dipalu

Beaten and chastised day by day
Only then does he begin to realise
A meaningless life in this world
Leads to utter loss in the life to come

Dipukul dipalu sehari-hari
Barulah dia sedarkan diri
Hidup didunia tiada berarti
Akhirat disana sangatlah rugi

I’ve taken a bit of license with the translation to come up with something that approximates the rhythm of the original. I think with a little pushing and pulling you could sing my English lyrics to the same tune.

Anyway, that was followed by a much more talented presentation by Kumpulan Muhibbah, an aspiring teenage nasheed group from Kuching. They came in matching outfits and with a complement of quality instruments, including a set of congos. I missed taking pictures of most of the performance since I had to take a little one back to the house for bedtime. Still, they were more than happy to pose for a photo after the show. The last event of the evening was the giving of small gifts to recognize those involved in the Ramadan meals and in the reciting of Quran during the holy month. Alhamdulillah, our musallah was able to khatam Quran during Ramadan, with an average of 10 men and boys and 5 women separately reciting a juz each night. My son was lucky enough to score a new pencil box despite only coming with me a couple times. It was a pleasant enough evening, and I met some people from the neighborhood who I hadn’t seen before. In that sense the evening was successful. But sad to say, since the event it has gone back to just the regulars for the daily five again.

Maulid Daiba’i

I had lamented previously that I can’t seem to find any translations of Maulid Diba’i on the web. I do have a translation that was published as part of the wonderful CD performed by the Royal Malaysian Haqqani Ensemble. I used to link to the CD using this scan of the cover art.
mawlid diba'i
Unfortunately stocks of the CD must have run out and it is no longer available. The translation booklet was already long out of stock. I thought I had lost my copy, and that’s why I attempted to translate a few lines myself last I wrote. Happily, I found a backup photostat a few weeks back.

Then, thanks to a kind brother who wants to remain anonymous, I received last week a copy of a wonderful new edition of the Maulid Diba’i called “Maulid Eulogy”. I didn’t find it when googling around before because the author’s name is transliterated as Shaikh ad-Daiba’i. That’s arabic for you, a hundred ways to transliterate any one word: Deebai, Diybaee, mawlid maulud maulid mevlood etc. The book is a fairly new production by our brothers in Singapore, led by Sidi Abdulkader Ali Esa Alhadad, may Allah reward him for his effort. There’s no date of publication inside, but the forward mentions Shaykh Hamzah Yusuf’s 2002 Burda translation, so it must be quite recent. It is published by the good people at Warid Press.

Mashallah, it’s a great book! It has Arabic and translation side by side, with each line of text numbered on both sides for easy reference. The Arabic is large enough to be read easily, which is a big plus. I have at least two Quran translations with microscopic Arabic text, Muhammad Asad’s being the biggest (smallest?) culprit.

It is a complete translation. The RMHE version left out a few sections (on purpose: it was called Part 1). Maulid Eulogy also has a lot of added material. There is a section on the history of the author, Al-Hafiz Shaikh Abdul Rahman bin Ali ad-Daiba’i. He was Yemeni, which I didn’t know. That explains it’s prevalence here in Malaysia. There is also a section explaining and defending the practice of Maulid and clarifying references in the text that might by unclear to the reader. There are even lovely pictures of the Shaikh’s home town of Zabid and some architectural notes.

One thing I’ve come to know about the Maulid is that the parts attributable to Shaykh ad-Diba’i are only the spoken poetry, not the nasheeds that are interspersed with it. I’ve now encountered at least four different versions; in each, the spoken portion is the same, but the nasheeds are often very different, or are sung with very different melodies.

The book is available from Wardah Books in Singapore. I highly recommend it.

If there is anything disappointing about the book, it is that the English translation doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the Arabic. I don’t think this is the fault of the translation team. There just isn’t any way to render the English that would keep the rhythm and flow and force of the original. The text must be fairly tough to translate too due to its poetical nature, because the two translations are sometimes so different you can hardly believe they are translating the same lines. Once you add my amatuer attempts in there it really gets silly. Here are three translations of a verse from the nasheed that begins “Salatullahi malahat kawakib”:

“Falaw anna sa’ayna kulla heenin/
‘Alal Ahdaqi la fawqan najaib/
Walaw anna ‘amilna kulla yawmin/
Li Ahmada mawlidan qad kana wajib”

“And verily though we rushed to do it at every moment/
We could see around us nothing more noble/
And verily, even if we did it every day/
For Ahmad celebrating his birth is nigh unto obligatory”

“If only we could visit him every day/
with physical eyes and not the eye of the heart/
And if every moment we celebrate in his remembrance/
It might even be said to be obligatory”

Maulid Eulogy:
“If every day we seek him/
Searching in our minds and not on a vehicle/
And if every day we do this deed/
This maulid as a reminder of him, it is like a duty”

You can see where relying on translators gets you. An incentive to go out and learn some Arabic for yourself if ever there was one! All joking aside though, Maulid Eulogy has the better credentials even if the english is sometimes awkward, since they had a whole team of translators and even sent it back to Yemen for vetting, according to the introduction. The Arabic version is also impeccable I’m sure, since the Arabic manuscript on which it was based was also vetted and a list of non-standard usages found in the manuscript is included amongst the many appendices. I’m including a graphic link to the Wardah Books listing in my sidebar. Just click on the Gubba…


Previous entries related to Mawlid Nabi:

Mawlid ar-Rasul: Surau Darul Rahman

Darul Rahman

Prophet Muhammad’s birth was commemorated last wednesday night throughout the muslim world. The tiny corner of it that I inhabit was no exception. Surau Darul Rahman held an evening of learning and celebration. I feel extremely fortunate to live two blocks from our neighborhood surau.

      This one does not enlarge

A surau is a prayer hall just like a masjid except that it does not hold the Friday congregational prayer. Our surau could probably hold about 200 people maximum. It is a fairly new building, about 10 years old, built around the same time that my subdivision was developed. Prior to that, the area only had a few clusters of kampung-style homes sprinkled through the woods at fairly low density. Like most suraus and masjids throughout the country, ours was built in part by government funds and its activities are nominally overseen by the religious department. Often, large planned unit developments will include a surau as part of the basic infrastructure, just like pocket parks.

You may wonder why there is no dome. Well, the traditional masajid of Malaysia were built of timber and had no dome but rather a set of square tiered roofs. The grand masjids with huge domes that have been built in recent times are often gorgeous but are not really classically malay in form. I’m not saying our humble surau was built with a hipped roof as some kind of architectural statement: it’s a fairly homely building really. It’s just that the dome is not a necessary part of mosque-building around here. But I digress.

For this special night, a guest was invited to come and speak after maghrib prayers. Our guest was an ustaz from Indonesia who has been teaching Arabic and Religion at a religious school in Kuching for the last ten years. He came to us from the pesantren of East Java, an area reknowned throughout the nusantara for the high level of scholarship they maintain and the da’is they have produced. He gave a wonderful talk, touching briefly on the the fatwa of Sayyid Muhammad Alawi Al-Maliki concerning mawlid from which he read for us excerpts in Arabic and translated on the fly into Malay. There is great good in gathering together, beautifying the masjid, remembering the Prophet and praising him to the best of our ability, though we can hardly praise him as he deserves to be praised. Our only transgression, as the ustaz reminded us, is that we don’t do it everyday.

Following the cerama, the congregation broke for a meal, to be followed by zikr and nasheed. Some of us ran off with the ustaz instead to another gathering, where we recited the Ratib al-Haddad and the Mawlid Diba’i late into the evening until our throats were raw. I can’t find translations of the Mawlid Diba’i anywhere online, but you can listen to it here.

“Falaw anna sa’ayna kulla heenin/
‘Alal ahdaqi la fawqan naja’ib/
Wa law anna ‘amilna kulla yawmin/
Li Ahmada mawlidan qad kana wajib”

“And verily though we rushed to do it at every moment/
We could see around us nothing more noble/
And verily, even if we did it every day/
For Ahmad celebrating his birth is nigh unto obligatory”

[Forgive my poor Arabic. It’s just me and Hans Wehr working alone. Corrections welcome.]

[My coverage of Mawlid Nabi, Kuching 2003 is here]

Hidupnya Insan

Wak Som in the doorway

My favorite definition of poetry is “Compact Emotion”. So when I found that my translations are mulitiplying the word count at least three or five times, I knew right there I’m losing something. This is the last of the lyrical pieces on the “Pelita Hidup” album, and for me it was the hardest. I think I’ll go back to nursery rhymes after this; it’s more at my level. Anyone know where to get lyrics for “Bangau O Bangau”?

Hijjaz – Hidupnya Insan

Hidupnya insan
Tiada yang abadi
Menunggu saat panggilan azali
Hilanglah nafas tak bergerak lagi
Tanah perkuburan kita bersemadi

This worldly life
Is not forever
Waiting for the moment of the call to eternity
Lose your breath, no more movement
In the cemetery soil we rest

Continue reading “Hidupnya Insan”

More Nasyid Translations

Continuing on with translations from Hijjaz’s wonderful Pelita Hidup album, here is the next in the series, Kala Subuh:

Hijjaz – Kala Subuh

Kala subuh telah bersinar
Daku datang untuk berdoa
Kala sang suria bersinar memancar
Daku datang sujud dan memuja

When dawn has begun to gleam
I come to supplicate
When the sun is pouring out its radiance
I come to worship and prostrate

Continue reading “More Nasyid Translations”

Mata Hati

Mawlana Shaykh Nazim al-Haqqani

Hijjaz – Mata Hati

Pandangan mata selalu menipu
Pandangan akal selalu tersalah
Pandangan nafsu selalu melulu
Pandangan hati itu yang hakiki
Kalau hati itu bersih

The vision of the eye always lies
The vision of the intellect always errs
The vision of the ego always strays
The vision of the heart will be true
If that heart is pure

Continue reading “Mata Hati”

Pelita Hidup


One of my favorite Nasheed albums is called Pelita Hidup, by the Malaysian group Hijjaz. It is filled with beautiful duas, zikr, and nasheeds, very much a meditative album. Many of the songs deal with the certainty of death and the life of the grave. I’ve translated them and passed them on to Nasheed World. I will reproduce them here as well.

Hijjaz – Pelita Hidup

Hidup ini bagai lampu dinding
Yang dinyalakan dimalam hari
Apabila minyak sudah kering
Ia kan pasti padam sendiri

This life is like the lantern
That burns through the night
When the oil has dried out
It must surely extinguish itself

Demikian juga hidup manusia
Selama hidup di dunia ini
Bila dah cukup umur usia
Putuslah hubungan disana sini

So also the life of Man
As long as he lives in this world
When enough of his lifetime has passed
Every relationship is severed

Setelah kita tinggalkan dunia
Alam yang lain pula menanti
Apakah kita dapat kurnia
Itu melihat amal danbakti

After we leave this world
Lo! Another world awaits us
What will get us good favor
That we show our good work and devotion

Di sana insan cemas dan bimbang
Tak dapat lagi buat alasan
Buruk dan baik akan ditimbang
Kedua-duanya dapat balasan

There Man is fearful and nervous
No more excuses can be made
The bad and the good will be weighed
Together they give the answer

Mawlid Parade

12 Rabi’ul Awwal, the day our beloved Prophet Muhammad (saws) was born, is a national holiday in Malaysia as it is in every muslim country on earth except one. In the city of Kuching, Sarawak, to where I had just moved from America, there was to be a large parade that morning as there is every year. It was held at the Padang Merdeka or Independence Square, the parade ground in the heart of Kuching’s historic district. Padang Merdeka is ringed by huge spreading shade trees that are reminiscent of our American Elms. A stage had been erected to allow government ministers to speak to the crowds.

My son and I arrived too early, and so we had to stand for a good deal of speechifying from the assembled dignitaries. Although politicians’ speeches are much the same the world over, it was nonetheless impressive to see them gather at such an occasion to praise Allah’s Praised One. Not catching much of the speech, we wandered through the crowd. All the contingents preparing to march stood with their banners and decorations. Many were splendidly dressed in loud colorful matching uniforms of pinks, reds, blues, and greens. Many gentlemen were wearing songkit, a fancy sarong woven with gold or silver threads that is worn over Baju Melayu on formal occasions. So many different patterns were on display! My son caught sight of a neighborhood friend and was soon weaving in and out of the colorful throngs, giving chase to his friends.

The day started to drizzle as the speeches ended and the various contingents from the public schools, villages, neighborhood mosques and government offices began to march. Soon the air was filled with sounds of praise for RasulAllah. The gathering gloom of rainclouds was enlivened by the colorful uniforms, and the nasheed and salawat sung out accompanied by kompang. The kompang is a hand drum about the size of a tambourine. It is always played as a group, with one half playing half the rhythm, the other half, the other. The full rhythm is heard as one when played well in unison. The love and devotion of the crowd was evident as they marched on, singing and drumming even as the rains thickened. Although our city is not a big one, I had the distinct feeling while standing there that, just as in salat, I was joining together with our muslim brothers and sisters around the world to please Allah (swt). Does not Allah (swt) say, “Verily, Allah and His angels are sending prayers upon the Prophet; O you who believe, send prayers upon him and blessings of peace.”

Soon it began to pour, and, stowing my camera, my son and I dashed back to our parking garage. From the top level of the garage, we could see that the paraders had stuck to their route despite the downpour, and we soon heard them approaching the end of the route far below.

Following the parade, many people would retire back to more private gatherings in people’s homes, where the evening would be spent commemorating Prophet Muhammad’s life through recitation of the Mawlid Diba’i or the Mawlid Barzanji, interspersed with nasheed. We carry love for the Prophet, the Best of Creation, in our hearts throughout the year. How fitting it is to gather together and reaffirm our love publicly at every possible opportunity, not least on the blessed day of his birth!

“Khayral barriyah, nathrah illayah/

Ma anta illa kanzul attiyah”

[Revised and Updated, 17/2/2007]