an interview with Faizah Binte Zakaria
This week, morethanhumanworlds interviews Faizah Binte Zakaria, Assistant Professor in the School of Humanities at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Faizah's scholarship centers on religion and ecology in maritime Southeast Asia. Her book, titled The Camphor Tree and the Elephant: Religion and Ecological Change in Maritime Southeast Asia is forthcoming in January 2023 with Washington University Press. In this project, she uses the North Sumatran highlands as a lens to examine how mass religious conversions from animism to monotheism were catalyzed by environmental transformations. In NTU, Faizah teaches courses on the Muslim World, the Malay World, heritage medicine and environmental history. She is co-coordinator of the school's Southeast Asian Studies research cluster and is a member of the Environmental Humanities as well as Religion, Society and Trust research clusters. Faizah also co-directs a digital humanities project on comparative heritage medicine with Michael Stanley-Baker and Francesco Perono Cacciafoco.
Hello, Faizah, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. To get us started, could you tell us how you
came to be interested in the intersections of environmental sustainability, religious and environmental history,
Indigeneity, and ecological justice in Southeast Asia, personally and/or professionally?
Hi Sophie! I love your blog/podcasting and really appreciate this opportunity to share about my work through your platform!
My journey to thinking about religion and ecology has been long and winding – it was not something I started out to study when I began postgraduate work! My initial research was on mass violence in 1960s Indonesia, from which I became interested in the history of the political left in the region. I was researching on the life history of Amir Sjarifuddin Harahap – Indonesia’s Prime Minister in 1947-8 who was executed for his support for a botched communist-led uprising in Madiun – when I was struck by how rich the religious life of his family was, with multiple conversions from animism to Islam to Christianity and back again. These conversions happened in the context of political upheaval, landscape transformation and a growing rural-urban environmental divide. It seemed to me that there was an untold history there about how our spiritual connections with the divine, the natural and the supernatural is a form of adaptation to these changes; instrumental in making sense of environmental vulnerability, crisis and loss.
So, I put aside Amir Sjarifuddin the person and looked more broadly and deeply into the North Sumatran uplands where his family was from. But I kept family history as a central approach to understand the intimacy of environmental change – if we think of environmental histories only in terms of broad patterns of soil composition, sea level changes and material factors that impacted political life, we are losing the particularities of what nature means to us. It was through looking into family history that I found a family manuscript containing a ‘perabun’ mantra for elephants, essentially a charm used to prevent elephants from seeing the human using it in the forest. To me, the mantra captured the power of ecological conversation. Digging into the history of elephants helped me glimpse a past with delicate more-than-human negotiations and an acute awareness of risk that has since been lost to anthropocentric dominance, unheeding of hazard. Moreover, that past is entangled with a loss of rights and displacement of communities who maintain an inclusive ecological imagination, at least in part.
In short, I started with thinking about the rights of the immiserated and gradually realized that class disempowerment is a story of religion and ecology.
You’re currently working on a book titled “Spiritual Anthropocene: Religious Conversions in Maritime Southeast Asian
Uplands” (University of Washington Press, 2023). Could you share some insights into this work’s empirical and
conceptual contributions, and the methods and theories that the work engages with?
I actually ended up retitling the book ‘The Camphor Tree and the Elephant: Religion and Ecological Change in Maritime Southeast Asia,’ because the press thought the working title was too clunky. And I agree! “Spiritual Anthropocene” is useful to start with, though, because the book aims to show that that the world of spirits is central, not peripheral to the Anthropocene. Religious life and spiritual bonds with nature that are cultivated through it allow us access to an environmental history that is attentive to place and stress the relative empowerment and disempowerment among different human groups; something that the broadness of the term “Anthropocene” obscures. Conversions in this religious life is central to the book. I frame it less as a personal decision stemming from a moment of enlightenment than as the collective transformation of self-perception with respect to a physical environment, generated by a dis-equilibrium in the notion of how a higher power works on that environment.
A religious life that centers conversations with the natural world is inherently syncretic. It is performed in mundane rather than sacral spaces; it is more preoccupied with the benefits of the present world than the next; it pays spotty attention to texts and scriptures; it enables embodied creativity from multiple traditions. Also, it is imbricated with material concerns about production as well as reproduction. Conversion and reform that emphasize the Word as written often seek to limit that fluidity by limiting dialogue, whether among humans or non-humans.
I found myself thinking a lot with Weber about the disenchantment or “unmagicking” of the world and the rationalization of charisma. In some ways, I agree with him that these religious developments permeated everyday life and are even expansive enough to be applicable to contexts beyond modernist Protestantism. However, looking back from the standpoint of the 2020s in a recently decolonized part of the world, rather than from 1920s Germany, it seems that a Weberian framework of disenchantment lacks attention to two things – first, how the personal religious lives and social institutions make each other and second, how power is exercised to make human domination of the non-human seem natural. From the perspective of maritime Southeast Asia, a region where the experience of colonialism changed not only economies and landscapes, but also minds - there is more room to explore disenchantment of the natural world was first perceived as progress, and then as loss.
A core argument in this book, therefore, is that conversions to world religions such as Christianity and Islam became yoked to an imperial vision of progress during the long nineteenth century. Specifically, the process in which religious conversions occurred during this era helped to shape a socio-political ecology that voided the natural world of enchantment, ushered in a cash economy that emphasized transaction rather than kinship, and relocated power to remake local landscapes into the hands of an elite estranged from these places. By the twentieth century, institutions linked to modernist Islam and Christianity became increasingly impotent to cultivate the ethics and social will to protect the environment in the region.
Your academic trajectory is remarkably diverse, traversing the fields of history, English, Southeast Asian Studies, and \
mathematics. What, in your view, does an interdisciplinary approach offer for contemporary understandings of
human-environment relations, and what challenges does putting such an approach into practice entail?
This is a really difficult question that I have not yet figured out! My experience with interdisciplinarity feels more like trying on many pairs of glasses in order to see things in different ways. Having those pairs of glasses on hand when confronting a historical question are useful in order to be able to read sources from various approaches, while being aware of their limitations. Even mathematical data which is usually seen as the pinnacle of objective data, have their distortions that are easier to see when we understand how the data is derived. Contemporary discourse about the environment is often captured in mathematical language as if they are self-explanatory – zero waste, 2 degrees of warming etc. – but we can’t understand what that means without history to give us a past as prologue, with languages to imagine and articulate the experience of living in such worlds, without area studies to show that diversity of experience.
That said, I personally think interdisciplinarity is better served through collaboration and respectful conversation than by one person attempting to master multiple disciplines. I am definitely not a mathematician or a literary scholar even though I am conversant with these approaches. The richest articles that I have read about the environment of region tend to be collaborative works eg. Victor Lieberman and Brendan Buckley’s survey of climate and early states in mainland Southeast Asia. I really like interdisciplinary edited volumes for the same reason eg. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. I’d love to collaborate more with people with different expertise in future.
As assistant professor of history at Nanyang Technological University, what kinds of environment-focused questions,
interests, or concerns have you identified among your student cohorts?
Having taught in NTU for a few years, I quickly realized how very aware students today are about environmental issues. No one needs convincing that we are facing a crisis, that we need immediate action to maintain Earth as a livable place and that the fundamental obstacle we are facing is finding the collective political and social will to implement as well as finance change. What they are most concerned with is what we can do about it, on an individual and national level. What are good environmental policies and ethics? How can different groups be mobilized for this common interest? How do we see past misleading rhetoric, and push past self-interest?
In Singapore - and many other parts of the world with a political culture unamenable to advocacy - discussing what we can do now is very tricky. I think our classroom became into a space to reflect and process their personal awareness and desire for action stepwise by studying different contexts around the world, past and present. The learning is mutual – they pushed me to think about what it means to be a degrowth academic too and question my own actions, not all of which has been exemplary. If we all come away feeling just a little less defeated by the enormity of the problem and with a little more energy to invest in this cause, then that’s something. All the groups that I have taught have been amazing; some of them are translating their thoughts into concrete action already.
Finally, Faizah, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying morethanhuman worlds?
Wow, I am not sure I am qualified to give advice. I am not even sure if academia as we know it should be maintained in this form. Thinking about history in more than human ways provided me with two lessons though – to pay attention to the microcosmos, the personal stories, the little everyday connections and to listen without judgement. What helps us become a better person will help us become better scholars.
"The book aims to show that the world of spirits is central, not peripheral to the Anthropocene."
"If we all come away feeling just a little less defeated by the enormity of the problem and with a little more energy to invest in this cause, then that’s something. "