Johar Buang (b. 1958)



Johar Buang: Dancing to the Poetic Verses of Mysticism

Written by Annaliza Bakri
Dated 17 Apr 2018

Sufism has come a long way since the Syair Perahu, a lyrical doctrine of Islamic mysticism, was written by 16th-century Acehnese writer Hamzah Fansuri. Today, Johar Buang is widely recognised as the Sufi poet of the region. Although asceticism is a trait of Sufism, this does not undermine the call for humanity in Johar’s poetry, as he delves into the innermost emotions of the human heart, and touches on the vertical and horizontal relationships that blossom in the human spirit. The ‘horizontal relationship’ refers to wordly human-to-human interactions, whereas the ‘vertical relationship’ refers to one’s spiritual connection with the Divine. Johar succinctly articulates the purification of self and the transmission of divine light in his poetry. It can also be argued that the subtlety of the Sufistic heart has influenced his use of allegory and metaphor, where qalb (heart) and ruh (spirit) are in tandem when the aqidah (creed) is embraced in solitude and silence. 

In “Tulang-tulang Ikan,” Johar exemplifies the Sufistic teachings of isolating oneself from all preoccupations that are inflicted upon the heart by abandoning one's nafs, egos, or personal desires to focus on Oneness with the Divine by ensuring one’s existence is a journey of doing good and mending one’s ways to be closer to the Divine. Johar reminds readers that the body will disintegrate and what is left will be insignificant:

The body disintegrates
until what remains
are like the bones of fish [ . . . ]

The ‘sea’ portrays the Greatness and Vastness of the Beloved who one is able to depend on to explore his own existence. The Beloved is the source of all truths. Only a strong conviction—instead of blind faith—will allow one to return to the Beloved in spirit.

the source where elegant truths
exact a singular conviction
on what existence means [ . . . ]

Johar reminds readers to reflect inwards and recognise the faults within, instead of pushing the blame onto others, when struggling to overcome challenges. “Tulang-tulang Ikan” looks at the Sufistic journey that emphasises self-reflection and rational thinking when exploring one’s spiritual path.

Or is it we who fail time and again
at perfecting ourselves
answering a vocation of a different strand
a fraternity that is without end [ . . . ]

“Cinta di Bukit Palmer” is an important poem that narrates how a nation that values progress and pragmatism forces other aspects of life to take a back seat. The Scriptural references are juxtaposed with Makam Habib Noh, one of the most sacred sites in Singapore. One could also refer to the connection made to Mount Judi, also regarded as the Place of Descent, the location where the Ark came to rest after the Great Flood.

Noah, like your ship anchored at the peak of
Mount Judi, now I am the friend of the messenger dove,
coming from a far-away land, seeking the empathy of enlightened souls
on the small piece of land at the edge of a hill that was almost
destroyed and ravaged by bulldozers of development
and isolated from the screams of a mirage-city.
I climbed the ladder to visit
the tomb site of asceticism and love.

The poem highlights one of the most sacred religious sites in Singapore, Makam Habib Noh or the Shrine of Habib Noh, located on Mount Palmer. Set on a hill, the shrine of a faithful soul provides solace for a multicultural and multireligious society where the pursuit of success and wealth is depicted by many skyscrapers which bear the names of banks, and houses an extensive list of major economic stakeholders. 

between Mount Palmer and Mount Judi exists a sky dome
and, like Columbus invading love’s berth,
slowly my ship anchors in the sea
no longer turbulent and full of rolling waves
towards the coast there looms a deserted horizon
golden carpet forms stockbroking buildings
skyscrapers, citizens drunk and busy
tackling traffic, hunting for the fighting cock
that strayed off the path of the historical village.

In portraying the Sufi tradition that is the guiding principle of Johar’s life and writings, Mount Palmer provides both solace and solitude as one devotes himself to the Beloved. Johar makes a conscious effort to reference the literary masterpiece, The Conference of the Birds, by Farid ud-Din Attar. Similar to the Persian masterwork, Johar requests for a gathering of the birds, each of whom represents various human faults. This time, however, the gathering is not to decide who will be king, but to remember the Day of Ashura, the day when Moses and his people were saved by the creation of a path across the Red Sea:

[ . . . ] the tomb site of asceticism and love. At the rest-place,
pinnacle of Mount Palmer, I hear the echo of eternal charm
from the verses of prayer and supplication
connecting the watch list of my love’s canticle
to the birds of Attar, come here for a while—
for a conference in the secluded hallway outside Beloved’s shrine
and together we commemorate the Day of Ashura.

As mentioned earlier, the path of Sufism requires relentless effort, total conviction and love for the Beloved. This is expressed through one of the important episodes in Islam where the Red Sea was split for Moses and his people to escape from Pharaoh. After crossing the Red Sea, Moses and his people based themselves at Mount Sinai, the same place where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

It’s like being on top of the stunning Mount Sinai
expressing longing for Moses while
approaching the draped light of your Face
when will mirrors reflect the heart of The One?

Progress is often arduous and competitive; some things must be sacrificed. One wonders then where race, religion and language stand beyond the national pledge. This poem transcends the subliminal realm of faith to seek refuge in one’s identity and physical existence on this earth. One feels the evocativeness of the words the poet has used, breaking silences that enable one to reconcile the past and present. 

Should this hill of Sufi heritage
and the other historical hills
be preserved from the tide of development
to become the fort that saves this country
say, when this world is overwhelmed by the great Tsunami?

Poetry is a realm of invocation and this reverberates strongly in Johar’s stirring writings. It is through poetry that the poet “can wander to wherever the Lover wishes to bring my soul within His Universe”. It is thus not surprising for Johar to paint his relationship with poetry as “the central harbour of life”, where the vessels of ideas and thoughts are aligned with human emotions and spiritual faith. 

In “Cheng Ho 1,” Johar depicts the arduous journey of Sufism or spiritual enlightenment, which takes a long time before one can savour the sweet taste of success, or in this instance, falling into the Lover’s embrace. Johar reminds readers not to be easily distracted by the superficial desires and distractions but to remain sturdy and rooted in religious fervour:

Is your sea voyage more appealing than viewing
the boundary of divine knowledge?

The use of the Sahara in this poem is a perfect allegory of the spiritual journey. One has to tread through the dry and sandy terrain akin to the struggles that one has to go through before meeting the Lover. It is also possible that Johar has painted the picture of the Sahara to depict the final gathering of men at the end of time, also known as the day of Judgment at Arafah to signify the end of the sacred journey to meet Him.

A hot climate and the aridity of sand dust.
you too have
Not sent the water here, while I am
Sahara who spreads love.

As one who writes Sufistic poems that are rooted in a humanistic tradition, it is interesting to note that Johar regards poetry as a form of sustenance, a blessing from the Lover. In fact, the role of a poet is mentioned in the verse Asy-Syu’araa and this affirms the importance of carrying out responsibilities, should one choose to take up the task of writing poems. In fact, lines 224-227 of that verse remind poets to not be “drunk in their own lyrical fantasy and imagination” but to act upon the words they have crafted. These words will continue to speak of the Lover’s Greatness and shine the divine light on the people long after the poet has departed. That is the mark of an excellent poem.

Works cited

Johar Buang. Arriving at the Throne of Love. Trans. by Fazidah Abu Baker and Nur Aisha Rahmat. Singapore: Johar Buang, 2011.

Pasar Diri. Singapore: Johar Buang, 2012.

Sahara. Singapore: Johar Buang, 2014.

Sampai di Singgahsana Cinta. Malaysia: Pustaka Islamiyah, 2009.

Yang Menjadi Sufi: Kumpulan Puisi. Malaysia: Pustaka Kanzun Mahfiyyan, 2015.