For people who are fascinated with words, how we borrow them from other cultures and how the meanings of a word changes through time and circumstances, I’m adding an addendum to a discussion in my previous essay.
It has to do with Musyawarah, a word I heard in Java in the 1980s and met again in reading about the decision-making process villagers in Bali use for organizing their many and complex community activities. It reminded me of my first cross-cultural experience with a community organization where I quickly learned my Anglo-American approach to organizing a meeting did not work in a Mexican-American community. The approach that did work was closer to Musyawarah, a word that has come into my personal vocabulary to replace phrases describing a complex process for group decision-making. I discussed that here.
Yesterday, talking with a friend about Musyawarah, he said that although he had never used the word, Arabic has Mushawara, and we wondered if the meanings were the same. Surely the word in Javanese derives from Arabic. As early as the 8th century, Arab merchants had sailed to the Indonesian islands to trade and often to marry and settle in, bringing Islam and Arabic with them, establishing Muslim communities, converting the royalty until finally, by the early 16th century, Islam had replaced the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit dominance. Mushawara as a word entered the Indonesian languages and was used, somewhat changed, for already existing behaviors the Indonesians had not as yet named.
I went on-line, searching for Mushawara, its meaning and how it is used. This is what I found –
— The Virtual Mosque defines Mushāwara as Consultation. Their translation from the Koran on the meaning of Consultation in private and public life is well worth reading. I summarize, briefly and in secular terms, this view on Consultation — A leader’s consulting with followers should be a standard practice within the family and the community. Consulting with followers makes them feel important and respected, generates good feeling toward the leader, gives the leader information and additional perspectives, allows the leader to better know his followers, and makes followers feel responsible for actions taken.
— In Kerala, India, the Muslim community, about a quarter of Kerala’s population, has an organization of Sunni scholars and clerics called the Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama. (Ulama is Arabic for a body of scholars with specialist knowledge of Islamic sacred law and theology.) They call their supreme body and working committee The Mushawara, The Consulate Body. It consists of 40 eminent scholars who are drawn purely on the basis of their Islamic scholarship, religious piety, faithfulness and devotion.
— The Tablighi Jamaat is a Sunni Islamic organization (Tabligh is Urdu for mission or to preach. Jamaat is Arabic for a Muslim religious assembly) that originated in India and has most of its adherents, numbering in the many millions, in South Asia but is increasingly global. It is a proselytizing and revivalist movement that focuses on urging Muslims to return to orthodox Sunni Islam, particularly in matters of ritual, dress, and personal behavior. It has been called “one of the most influential religious movements in 20th century Islam.” For a Tablighi Jamat congregation, during a Mushawara (discussion or Consultation), the Shura (consultative committee) decides on all matters, large and small. A Mushawara is held daily. (taken from “Islamic Revivalism: Encounter the Modern World, A Study of the Tabligh Jama‘at” by Jan A. Ali)
— Quoting the Muslim chaplain in a major U.S. Midwestern university — In Muslim tradition, there is a deeply rooted sense of Mushawara (seeking counsel), and Naseeha (advice). Chaplaincy aims to advise and lead a community, which indeed is the concept of seeking Naseeha and Mushawara. In essence, chaplaincy is an integral part of service to our faith community and while we may not have the same name for the profession, we do have a similar practice in our faith tradition.
— The website of an Islamic financial advisory firm includes a Mushawara meeting in its services, as well as a meeting with Shariah Auditors and guidance from Shariah-Scholars.
And what are my thoughts on this? Apparently, for these Muslims, certain words are so central to their belief system that they must be expressed in Arabic in an otherwise English text. Clearly, Mushawara is one of those words; it is defined, illustrated and explained in the Koran. Nasheeha is less clearly defined.
“Consultation,” their translation of Mushawara, has a number of meanings in English. One part of the definition in my Webster’s dictionary has consultation being the act of consulting. To consult means to deliberate, to consider. Interestingly, though, in old English the meaning was more concrete; it meant to call together, as in gathering the senate (supreme council of the Roman republic) and asking it for advice. I like to search in my etymological dictionary for the origin of words. Consult, and related words such as Consul and council, originated in ancient Rome and had to do with government and formal organizations.
Given this original meaning, Consultation seems a reasonable translation for Mushawara in the Koran. The book is sacred but the activities described for Mushawara are secular; they relate to family and political relationships. They are of the wise patriarch calling upon his subordinates for information and for keeping them engaged as faithful followers.
A later meaning of Consultation was a conference of specialists, e.g. lawyers and medical practitioners, to discuss, decide, plan. Generally, when I use the words consult or consultation, it means seeking the advice of an expert on a particular matter. I wonder how the Muslim groups using Mushawara and calling it Consultation would describe the process of what they actually do and how they interact in their meetings. Is it in the patriarchal mode described in the Koran, or is it in the mode of a leader guiding a consensus-building, free-flowing discussion that includes an exchange of information and ideas?
In Indonesia, to suit the Indonesian culture, “Mushawara” was transformed into “Musyawarah.” In Bali it is a method of decision-making for a system of food production that evolved over the centuries in that particular environment, discussed here. No one individual or family controls the rice irrigation system; it is owned by all the communities and is managed by the landowning families talking to consensus when they gather at the temples to keep informed, make decisions and do the work required.
I had thought of Musyawarah as an effective approach to decision-making for small groups in small communities, but doubted it could be adapted to decision-making for large, complex organizations. In a paper in the Social Science Research Network Kawamur Koichi argues otherwise.
“This paper analyzes customary practices of consensus decision-making, called Musyawarah-mufakat, as a basis of democratic stability in Indonesia. Musyawarah and mufakat (deliberation and consensus) are a traditional decision-making rule in Indonesia which has often been observed in village meetings. This paper argues that this traditional decision-making rule is still employed even in a modernized and democratized Indonesia, not only at rural assemblies but in the national parliament as well. Furthermore, this consensus way of decision-making provides an institutional basis for democratic stability by giving every parliamentary player, whether big or small, an equal opportunity to express his/her interests. On the other hand, this system of Musyawarah-mufakat decreases political efficiency in the sense that it takes a long time to deliberate drafted laws in the parliament.”
Hmmm. The word Mufakat – Is it Arabic or Indonesia? — — but enough for now. I could go on forever thinking about the origins of words, and more importantly, about decision-making in modern, democratic societies — but haven’t finished thinking and writing about my time in Bali and what I learned there.
The friend who said Musyawarah could be from the Arabic Mushawara saw in the paragraph above Mufakat being defined as deliberation and consensus. He suggested I find out if Mufakat is also spelled Muwafakat. And it is. I found on-line “A Dictionary of the Sunda Language of Java” by Jonathan Rigg.
In the dictionary — Mupakat, Arabic, Properly Muwafakat, also Mufakat, to agree, to be on one mind, to unite efforts, to form a joint resolution