Networks of travel and trade have often been viewed as pivotal to understanding interactions among Muslims in various regions of South and Southeast Asia. What if we thought of language and literature as an additional network, one that crisscrossed these regions over centuries and provided a powerful site of interaction and exchange facilitated by the dissemination of stories, ideas and beliefs?
This article presents a history of such networks in Southeast India and the Indonesian–Malay world, drawing on sources in Javanese, Malay and Tamil.
Among Muslim communities in these regions practices of reading, learning, translation, adaptation and transmission helped shape a cosmopolitan sphere which was both closely connected with the broader, universal Muslim community and rooted in local and regional identities. Circulating shared stories, beliefs and citations of prior works created a space that allowed those with similar convictions to connect over great distances by virtue of a common technology.
In previous centuries the technology was one of copying, translating and disseminating texts in local languages infused with Arabic words, idioms, syntax and literary forms. For example, the famous Book of One Thousand Questions, composed in Arabic around the tenth century, was translated—among other languages—into Persian, Urdu, Tamil, Javanese, Malay and Bugis. Such translations—in their myriad variations—point to interactions not only among particular people but also to interactions between and among languages and scripts, between the cosmopolitan Arabic and vernaculars like Javanese or Tamil.
Drawing on Pollock's theory of the ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ of 300–1300 ad I argue for a later, partially overlapping ‘Arabic cosmopolis’ in some of the same regions. Literary networks within this cosmopolis contributed to the rise of Islamic educational institutions, life cycle rites, and the adoption of modes of expression and creativity common across a great geographical and cultural space.