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Sacrifices Of Ulama In Pre-merdeka Era Forgotten With Passage Of Time

05/09/2022 10:49 AM

By Shuhaida Mohd Said

KUALA TERENGGANU (Bernama) – Malay blockbuster film “Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan” not only succeeded in starting a new chapter in Malaysia’s movie industry but also revealed the role of the ulama (Islamic religious teachers or scholars) in the struggle against the colonialists during the pre-independence period.

Mat Kilau, the lead character in the movie which became the highest grossing film in Malaysia in the local and international categories after “Munafik 2” and “Avengers: End Game”, is depicted as a deeply religious man whilst the film’s dialogue is loaded with messages upholding Islam as the binding force uniting the Malays in liberating Pahang from colonial rule.

Mat Kilau or Mat Kilau bin Iman Rasu was a prominent Malay warrior who stood up against British colonialism in Pahang at the end of the 19th century. While much has been written about his bravery, his religious background was rarely highlighted in history books or discourses, according to experts.    

In fact, they said, many Malay warriors of that era who fought against foreign dominion were religious scholars as well, a fact not many people were aware of. Sadly, their sacrifices failed to garner the attention they deserved and went largely forgotten.




Commenting on this, Terengganu State Museum Board director Che Muhamad Azmi Ngah said the ulama did play a crucial role during the Malay sultanate and even the British had admitted it was hard to subdue a state that was under the rule of a Sultan in company with wise scholars.    

He said this was evident in historical records where names such as Muhammad Yusof Ahmad, better known as Tok Kenali; Mat Hassan Panglima Munas or Tok Janggut; and Kiyai Haji Salleh or Haji Mohd Salleh Abdul Karim were mentioned as among the well-known religious personalities who helped to defend the nation’s sovereignty.

The east coast states such as Terengganu had their own ulama who also served as freedom fighters, among them being Abdul Rahman Limbong, Tok Ku Tuan Besar and Tok Ku Paloh whose struggles earned them a place in the hearts of the people, placing them in the same league as Mat Kilau.

“The ulama were the Sultan’s main advisors. The Sultan would rule wisely by adhering to the tenets of Islam. In fact, in those days, the Sultan himself was (a member of the) ulama,” Che Muhamad Azmi related to Bernama.

He said during the reign of Sultan Zainal Abidin III in Terengganu, Tok Ku Paloh, a renowned scholar, was the ruler’s advisor on matters pertaining to protecting the state against western invasion. This was said to be one of the reasons why Terengganu was the last state in the peninsula to be colonised by the British.


Interestingly, Tok Ku Paloh’s role in resisting the British forces was not only limited to Terengganu but extended to Pahang as well as he lent a helping hand to its warriors Datuk Bahaman, Tok Gajah and Mat Kilau when they sought refuge in Terengganu.

“When the British went after the Pahang Malay freedom fighters, it was Tok Ku Paloh who protected them. In fact, Mat Kilau gained knowledge (in various skills) from Tok Ku Paloh,” said Che Muhamad Azmi, adding that the protection was granted on the basis of their common religion and race.

 “The then British Resident in Pahang, Hugh Clifford, had an audience with the Sultan of Terengganu and told the ruler he had information that the Pahang rebels were in Terengganu. To this, the Sultan replied that he was not sure (of the rebels’ presence in his state). The ruler protected the freedom fighters, the unsung heroes who played a part in resisting the colonialists.”



However, after the demise of Sultan Zainal Abidin III, his successor Sultan Muhammad Shah II had to sign an agreement forcing him to accept British advisors, thus paving the way for the colonisation of Terengganu in mid-1919.

As with the other states, the colonisation had a severe impact on the well-being of the people of Terengganu, leading to an uprising – dubbed the Farmers’ Movement – against the British administration in 1928.


According to a senior lecturer at the Faculty of General Studies and Advanced Education at Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin, Associate Prof Dr Abdullah Ibrahim, the movement was led by Abdul Rahman Abdul Hamid, better known as Abdul Rahman Limbong.

“Abdul Rahman Limbong was a Malay warrior as well as an ulama. He had pursued religious studies in Makkah and upon his return to Terengganu, he became a religious teacher.

“He led the Farmers’ Movement to protest against, among others, the unfair tax laws imposed on farmers,” said Abdullah.  

Aided by his good character and outstanding knowledge of Islam, Abdul Rahman Limbong succeeded in influencing the people of Terengganu to rise against the British.  

“Historians have described him as a student of Tok Ku Paloh, who was himself an eminent scholar in Terengganu,” Abdullah said, adding that the National Day celebration was an opportune moment for Malaysians to recollect and appreciate the struggles of the Malay scholars who fought for independence.


The contributions of the scholars of the past can be a source of inspiration for the present-day preachers, Abdullah said, adding that the latter should continue the legacy of their predecessors by being the agents of unification for the Muslim community.  

“Like their predecessors, today’s scholars must also prioritise religion, race and nation building without expecting any (financial) reward,” he added.


Translated by Rema Nambiar








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