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Sulong, Haji

Joseph Chinyong Liow
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Sulong, Haji

(1895–1954), Islamic cleric and leader of Patani movement for self-determination.

Haji Sulong was born in 1895 in Kampung Anak Ru (now a thriving commercial district serving as a gateway to Pattani town in the southern Thai border province of Pattani). He came from a line of eminent ʿālim (scholars), the most renowned of whom was his grandfather, Syeikh Zainal Abidin bin Ahmad al-Fatani, who is even today fondly remembered by the Malay-Muslims in southern Thailand as “Tok Minal.” Haji Sulong’s lineage was not only one that was religiously influential––his family was also comparatively wealthy. According to James Ockey, Haji Sulong’s family had been wealthy enough to send many members to Mecca for the ḥajj. His father, Haji Abdulqadir, was also able to support three wives and to send his son to the best schools. Haji Sulong was born to Abdulqadir’s first wife, Sarifah.

In the family tradition, Haji Sulong was schooled in Arabic and Islamic texts. Kamal Zaman notes that Haji Sulong was a gifted and intelligent student who had memorized the entire Qurʾān by the tender age of eight. Haji Sulong attended Pondok Haji Abdul Rashid in Kampung Sungei Pandang, Pattani, for his early education before proceeding to Mecca Maʾahad Dar al-Ulum, a well-known institution popular among Malay-speaking students in the vicinity of the Holy Kaʿbah.

The years that followed were the most consequential and formative for Haji Sulong in terms of his pursuit of Islamic knowledge and his subsequent emergence as the progenitor of reformist and modernist Islamic education and thought in southern Thailand. It was during these early years in Mecca that Haji Sulong established a firm grounding in formal religious studies, particularly in the classical texts. At Maʾahad Dar al-Ulum, Haji Sulong was trained in the traditional science of tafsīr (Qurʾānic exegesis), ḥadīth, uṣūl al-fiqh (principles of jurisprudence), and nahwi (Arabic grammar). It was also during this time that he began to explore reformist ideas as a result of his encounters with eminent Arab ulamā who were the followers of Muhammad Abduh.

With the outbreak of the First World War (1914–1918) and its expansion into the Arab world, Haji Sulong decided to return to Pattani toward the end of 1915. On his overland journey home, he made a stopover at Kampung Cham in Cambodia and spent time with the local Muslim community. He was arrested by the French colonial administration in Indochina on suspicions that he was a Turkish spy. Though the charges quickly proved unfounded and he was released a few days later, the incident may well have had a profound effect on his political outlook and probably ignited in him strong anticolonial sentiments. Such sentiments resonated with his interest in the reformist religio-political thought of ʿAbduh and Rashīd Riḍā, both renowned scholars of Islam and staunch anticolonialists.

Following his brief arrest, Haji Sulong worked in Cambodia for three months as a religious teacher. He then returned to his native Patani, but made stops along the way in Bangkok, Aceh, and British Malaya. It was during this journey across the Malay world which he undertook as part of his tablīgh (Islamic missionary effort) as a musafir (a traveler) that Haji Sulong acquainted himself with the anticolonial struggles of his fellow Muslims, especially in Aceh and the Malay Peninsula. This experience had a profound influence on him, especially as Malay nationalism of this era had a strong religious dimension and was dominated by Islamic ideologues with a reformist-modernist intellectual bent. As noted earlier, it was reformist followers of ʿAbduh’s teachings who had launched the anticolonial tabloid Al-Imam in colonial Singapore, while in Indonesia several modernist movements merged, such as the Sarekat Islam in 1911 and Muhammadiyah in 1912, which sought to challenge Dutch colonial authority in the archipelago.

Haji Sulong’s return to Patani was short-lived and he returned to Mecca in 1916. There he was introduced by Malay alim to the Malay-speaking halaqah (scholastic circles) in the Masjid Al-Haram. Among the alim closest to Haji Sulong were Syeikh Wan Ahmad bin Mohamed Zain al-Fatani, a famous Patani scholar, and Tok Kenali, a renowned Islamic scholar from the northern Malayan state of Kelantan which bordered Patani. Both Syeikh Wan Ahmad and Tok Kenali were known in the circle of Muslim scholars in Mecca as “Ulama Jawi,” a title that reflected their stature as distinguished scholars of Islam from the Malay world. In 1927, Haji Sulong joined the ranks of his distinguished mentors and became a junior lecturer on the Islamic jurisprudence of the Shāfiʿī school. As a teacher, Haji Sulong became a beneficiary of the wealth, influence, and privileges accorded to the religious elite in Meccan circles. At age twenty-seven, he married Sabiya, a local, and obtained a new house for his family. His marriage to a local who was also a daughter of a respected teacher in Mecca brought with it further status in Meccan circles. As Ockey describes: “he was in a position to broker deals, to ease social relations, and consequently to gain considerable respect” (Ockey 2011: p. 105). At twenty-nine years old, after the death of his first wife, he married Khadijah, who came from this elite circle. Khadijah was the daughter of Haji Ibrahim and sister of Haji Mohammad Nor, who would later become Mufti of Kelantan. This second marriage must have helped to tighten Sulong’s links with the Jawi community back in Southeast Asia. These relationships with leading Malaysian Muslims enhanced Sulong’s influence both at Mecca and, later, back in Southeast Asia.

While participating in the Malay halaqah circles of Mecca, Haji Sulong also came into contact with Egyptian scholars, many of whom were prominent reformists and modernists. He became interested in the Arab nationalism that was at the time sweeping across the Arabian Peninsula and which was distinctly captured in the Islamist thinking emanating from Egypt. He became intimately acquainted with reformist ideas through exchanges with Egyptian Islamists and intellectuals, and saw on a daily basis how ʿulamāʾled the struggle to bring justice to the ummah on the Arab sociopolitical scene. Haji Sulong began increasingly to see his role extending beyond the mere teaching of religion into the sociopolitical sphere. He developed an abiding interest in political and social activism that was to preoccupy him for the rest of his life and that catapulted him to prominence as a leader of southern Thailand’s Malay-Muslim community.

Haji Sulong’s early activism in Patani was focused on guiding the community back to the path of “pristine” Islam from which it had “strayed.” To him, Islam was not just a spiritual obligation built around the five pillars of faith but rather a total ideological orientation that encompassed both personal and public spheres, governing every aspect of Muslim life. Haji Sulong apparently saw in the local Muslim community a people who were poor and backward, akin to the jāhilīyah society in pre-Islamic Arabia. Patani, once the cradle of Islam in Southeast Asia, was to his mind now plagued with religious decline and (from his perspective) an alarming dilution of faith and piety.

Driven by the Islamic modernist ideals of Middle Eastern reformers, Haji Sulong set about transforming the stagnant pondok education system, which he identified as a root cause for the socio-religious backwardness of the Malays in Patani. Haji Sulong combined his revivalism and his goal of modernization, both influenced by his encounters with the teachings of Muhammad ʿAbduh, through Islamic-based education and development. He set out to raise the money to build a new Islamic school in Pattani through donations. The fact that it was the period of the Great Depression, which did not spare Siam, meant that fund-raising was immensely difficult. Haji Sulong approached the former sultan of Yaring, Phrayaphiphitsenamat, and convinced him to match the donations of the villagers for the building of the school. In return, the school would bear his name. After construction began, Haji Sulong apparently had a sign bearing the name of Phrayaphiphitsenamat made for the school. However, Phrayaphiphitsenamat passed away shortly thereafter, and after his death, his son, Phraphiphitphakdi, then district officer of Mayo, objected to the use of his father’s name and appealed to the provincial governor to have it removed. In the end, the name of the school was changed, the donation was not made, and construction had to be halted for a time. As his school approached completion, however, it met with resistance from the traditional religious elite who did not share Haji Sulong’s modernist and revivalist vision. Despite attempts by Haji Sulong to win them over, their misgivings, no doubt born of a perception of threat, remained. The traditional elite discredited Haji Sulong in the eyes of officials with vivid descriptions of his “megalomania,” and lobbied for his school to be closed. This lobbying eventually bore fruit, and Haji Sulong’s Islamic school––now called Madrasah Al-Maʾarif Al-Wattaniah Fatani, was closed down in 1935 on suspicions that it was in fact a political organization that encaouraged Patani separatism.

Ironically, the act of closing down the school only served to rally the Patani people and entrench the Islamic school as a symbol of the Malay struggle against Siamese authority. Soon after its closure, the school’s premises became the covert base for meetings and assemblies among Haji Sulong’s supporters in the Malay political leadership. The most significant event was the meeting of Malay elders convened by Haji Sulong that culminated in the drafting of the historic seven-point demands for autonomy that was presented to the Thai government in July 1947. With this document, Haji Sulong and his Madrasah Al-Maʾarif became the symbols of resistance. At the same time, it also drew the attention of the state to Haji Sulong, as concerns mounted that he was agitating the local population. Subsequently, when Haji Sulong disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1954 after being arrested by government officials, his memory quickly passed into folklore.


  • Aphornsuvan, Thanet. Origins of Malay Muslim “Separatism” in Southern Thailand. Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series No. 32. Singapore: Asia Research Institute, 2004.
  • Hayimasae, Numan. Hj Sulong Abdul Kadir (1895–1954): Perjuangan dan Sumbangan Beliau Kepada Masyarakat Melayu Patani [Haji Sulong Abdul Kadir (1895–1954: Struggle and Contributions to the Patani Malay], M.Sc. diss., Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2002.
  • Liow, Joseph Chinyong. Islam, Education, and Reform in Southern Thailand: Tradition and Transformation. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009.
  • Ockey, James. “Individual Imaginings: The Religio-Nationalist Pilgrimages of Haji Sulong Abdulkadir al-Fatani,” Journal of Southeast Asia, Vol.42, No.1, 2011.
  • Pitsuwan, Surin. Islam and Malay Nationalism: A Case Study of the Malay-Muslims of Southern Thailand. Bangkok: Thai Khadi Research Institute, 1985.
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