About the Author(s)

Muhammad Y. Anis Email symbol
Department of Arabic Literature, Faculty of Cultural Science, Universitas Sebelas Maret, Surakarta, Indonesia

Mangatur Nababan symbol
Department of English, Faculty of Cultural Science, Universitas Sebelas Maret, Surakarta, Indonesia

Riyadi Santosa symbol
Department of English, Faculty of Cultural Science, Universitas Sebelas Maret, Surakarta, Indonesia

Mohammad Masrukhi symbol
Arabic Literature Study Program, Faculty of Cultural Science, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, Indonesia


Anis, M.Y., Nababan, M., Santosa, R. & Masrukhi, M., 2022, ‘The thematic system in the construction of Arabic Sufism communities and Islamic identity’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 78(1), a7469. https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v78i1.7469

Original Research

The thematic system in the construction of Arabic Sufism communities and Islamic identity

Muhammad Y. Anis, Mangatur Nababan, Riyadi Santosa, Mohammad Masrukhi

Received: 24 Feb. 2022; Accepted: 14 Apr. 2022; Published: 06 June 2022

Copyright: © 2022. The Author(s). Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


This research aims to investigate the thematic system (theme and rheme) of Arabic texts, especially Arabic Sufi texts related to al-Hikam aphorisms. Thematic structure is defined as the set of options relating to ‘information structure’, the linguistic representation of extralinguistic experience and how a Sufi constructs an information structure in al-Hikam aphorisms. In this case, the extralinguistic experience is focused on the Arabic Sufi communities (Tarekat Syadziliyah community). The first problem of this research, about thematic system in al-Hikam aphorism related to Arabic Sufi communities and Islamic identities, is elaborated comprehensively. The elaboration process can be classified into a number of thematic systems such as (1) unmarked topical, (2) marked topical, (3) interpersonal and (4) textual. The thematic analysis becomes the base foundation to elaborate the construction of Arabic Sufi communities and Islamic identities. A thematic model shows how language users in Arabic Sufi communities encode language from their mental picture of reality. By capturing the al-Hikam aphorism through the thematic system, it can be concluded that communication is pivotal in making Islamic Sufi identities.

Contribution: Contextually, this research contributes to the study of cross-language and cross-culture. Language as a reflection of a certain culture can be seen both in terms of the product and the translation process.

Keywords: thematic system; Arabic Sufi communities; social identity; al-Hikam aphorisms; language and identity.


Everyone can modify the way they speak depending on whom they are talking to or in what situation (Meyerhoff 2006). Every locutor changes the way they speak depending on the interlocutor, and more importantly depending on the situation. Sociolinguistics can be understood as a comprehensive study of language, especially the elements of language (phonemes, morphemes, words and sentences) and the relationship between these elements (structure), in relation to speakers of that language as members of society. Sociolinguistics also examines the relationship and interplay between language behaviour and social behaviour (Kridalaksana 2009; Nababan 1993). Sociolinguists utilise a certain level of methods to analyse linguistic patterns and the speaker’s attitudes towards language use itself. Some of the patterns can be analysed systematically by conducting an in-depth examination of several recorded speeches and schemata about the speaker’s or a particular community’s background (Meyerhoff 2006). This study discusses more specifically about the register of kyai [Islamic religious leader] in conveying the noble values contained in the Arabic book, al-Hikam. Studies related to sociolinguistics in Arabic have been comprehensively reviewed by Bassiouney (2020), while studies about register have been conducted by Purnanto (2020). In this study, register is understood as a variety of languages. Language variety (register, manner of discourse and keyword) itself is the variation of language according to usage, which depends on the topic being discussed, the intimacy among the locutor, the interlocutor and the person being discussed, and the medium of conversation (Kridalaksana 2009:206; Purnanto 2020:12; Wardhaugh & Fuller 2015:52). This study discusses more specifically on how the kyai conveys his da’wah [inviting others to Islam] to the ummah. The da’wah material is sourced from al-Hikam aphorisms. The book contains pearls of wisdom regarding the noble teachings of Islamic religious values, especially in the field of Islamic Sufism (Islamic mysticism).

Sheikh Ibn Atha’illah, a profilic Islamic scholar, was the first to collect teachings, messages, prayers and a biography of the founder of the Tarekat Syadziliyah community. In this research, tarekat or ṭarīqa is defined as a path or generic name for Sufi order (Renard 2009:276). Sheikh Ibn Atha’illah himself has produced no less than 20 written works, covering multiple fields such as Sufism, tafseer, hadith, aqidah, nahwu and fiqh; however, his seminal work is the al-Hikam, which was written in 1259–1310 AD. This book is very popular in the Islamic world for centuries, even until today. This book is also the main reference for the study of Islamic Sufism in almost all Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia (Fikr 2020; Pustaka 2016). This study examines the relationship between the information structure (thematic system) within al-Hikam aphorisms and its relation with the Sufi community (ṭarīqa). The Sufi community has a distinctive character that needs to be studied. This study seeks to find the relationship between the text of al-Hikam aphorisms and the extralinguistic elements: how a religious leader conveys the teachings of al-Hikam in the midst of society or Sufi communities in Indonesia.

Al-Hikam aphorisms is one of the most legendary books in the spiritual world of Islam. The beauty of the language and the depth of meaning of this book undoubtedly mesmerise anyone who reads it. Several studies related to al-Hikam aphorisms and Islamic mystical approach have been studied by experts (Abdullah 2018; Almirzanah 2020; Anis et al. 2021; Băiaş 2015; Elmi 2019; Hui 2019; Meiring 2021; Rahem 2017; Sakhok, Munandar & Ladzidzah 2019). However, these studies have not used a thematic system model, the basis for genre studies, as a part of cultural analysis. The term ‘genre’ itself, in this case, is defined as a social process, which is the realisation of cultural values and norms. The genre is still a rule that must be followed in carrying out a social process (Santosa 2011:69). Pre-existing studies are still focused on how to convey al-Hikam aphorisms to listeners (jama’ah) carried out by Islamic scholars (ulama, kyai), for example, K.H. Soleh Darat, a scholar whose role in spreading Islam was influential especially on the North Coast of Java and specifically on Semarang. There have been no previous studies that specifically examined the Sufi community altogether with a thematic system. This concern creates a big gap for future researchers. This research begins with the analysis of the al-Hikam aphorisms text. The analysis of the text starts from the analysis of the informational structure. This is important to do because this study elaborates the relationship between textual elements and extralinguistic elements. The extralingual element in this study is focused on studying the register of a kyai in conveying the moral values of Sufism of al-Hikam aphorisms. After being observed in detail, this study finds a similar pattern in the al-Hikam text with the communication strategy of a Sufi or kyai in conveying al-Hikam aphorisms to their jama’ah.


The main data in this study were the clauses in al-Hikam aphorisms. Meanwhile, to elaborate the extralingual structure of al-Hikam aphorisms, the data used were the transcriptions of the Mp3 recording of al-Hikam’s study from Kyai Imron Jamil (Soemarsono 2004). In al-Hikam aphorisms, the reader can find the variant clause in Arabic language. A clause is a grammatical unit of a group of words consisting of at least a subject and a predicate with the potential of becoming a sentence (Kridalaksana 2009). In Arabic, the term ‘clause’ is equal to the terms ‘ibārah [phrase], jumlah shughrā or jumailah [clause] (Baalbaki 1990).

This study was based on Halliday’s theory of functional systemic linguistics (FSL) (Halliday & Matthiessen 2014). The main foundation of FSL is that language is used to ‘express meaning’ and that language is ‘functional’. Language cannot be separated from context because language actually reflects attitudes, opinions, values and ideologies (Wiratno 2018:40). In FSL a clause contains three dimensions of meaning at once: textual, interpersonal and ideational meaning. In this study, the focus is on ‘textual meaning’. The dimension of textual meaning elaborates a clause as a tool to convey a message (clause as message) (Halliday & Matthiessen 2014). Based on this study, probably, a model for delivering the message of a Sufi as a form of representation of community identity can be found. In each clause there are four kinds of information compilers: (1) unmarked topical, (2) marked topical, (3) interpersonal and (4) textual.

Unmarked topical theme is a theme functioning as a subject in a clause, while a marked topical theme is a theme determined by the information preceding the subject in the form of circumstances surrounding the clause (Bloor & Bloor 2004; Halliday & Matthiessen 2014). The interpersonal theme has two functions: (1) to determine the intimacy (closeness and formality) of interpersonal relationship between participants, especially the vocative form, and (2) to determine interpersonal transactions of giving and requesting information or giving and requesting goods or services; in this case is the form of interpersonal adjuncts (Santosa 2003). Interpersonal function is the function of language in exchanging experiences. It refers to activities carried out between the locutor and interlocutor and between the writer and the reader, which is called the communicative function of communication. Textual theme is useful for connecting one clause to another, marked by the use of conjunction. By paying attention to these types of themes (unmarked topical, marked topical, textual and interpersonal) in al-Hikam aphorisms, it was expected to understand the relationship between the language of Sufism and Islamic identity. The distribution of each element of information in al-Hikam aphorisms is presented in Table 1.

TABLE 1: Distribution of thematic system in al-Hikam.

The high percentage of unmarked topical theme shows that the distribution of information on Arabic-Indonesian aphorisms is textually organised in a coherent and systematic manner through placing the subject in front of the clause as a tool to emphasise the main issues discussed within it.

Data analysis

In al-Hikam aphorisms it is found that unmarked topical themes dominate compared to the other types. It can be concluded that the organisation of information in the al-Hikam aphorisms in Arabic – Bahasa Indonesia is well organised and systematic. Two hundred and five types of unmarked topical themes (54.6%) were found in al-Hikam aphorisms. Topical themes that occupy the position of the subject are also called unmarked topical themes. An example of unmarked topical theme is presented in Tables 2 and 3.

TABLE 2: The unmarked topical theme (SVO) in al-Hikam.
TABLE 3: The unmarked topical theme (VSO) in al-Hikam.

It needs to be taken into account that theme in declarative clauses is usually combined with a subject. This is in accordance with the opinion (Halliday & Matthiessen 2014) that theme is conflated with subject. Themes that are in the subject position in declarative clauses are grouped under unmarked topical theme (Santosa 2003; Saragih 2007). However, there are some topics that are not subjects but are adjuncts, for example, ‘after that’ and ‘until now’. Besides adverb of time, adverb of place and complement can also take this marked topical theme. Marked topical themes can be determined by the circumstance preceding the subject or if the theme is in the ‘non-subject’ form (Emilia 2014). In al-Hikam aphorisms, this type of theme is rarely found. Thirteen types of marked topical themes (3.46%) were found in al-Hikam aphorisms. This further emphasises that in distributing information, Sufis attach importance to the position of the subject at the beginning of the clause as a starting point. An example of marked topical theme is presented in Table 4.

TABLE 4: The textual theme in al-Hikam.

Besides marked and unmarked topical themes, textual theme is also found in al-Hikam aphorisms. Textual theme is useful for connecting one clause to the previous one, which is marked by the use of conjunction in front of the clause. Textual functions cover the following: (1) continuative, (2) conjunction (structural theme) and (3) conjunctive adjunct. There are 117 textual themes (31.2%) found in al-Hikam aphorisms. Table 5 presents examples of textual themes in al-Hikam aphorism.

TABLE 5: The textual theme in al-Hikam.

Besides textual theme, al-Hikam aphorisms also contain interpersonal theme. Based on data from Table 6, it can be concluded that Arabic uses vocative and nominal sentence (jumlah ismiyyah). The vocative becomes the main marker of interpersonal theme. This vocative shows to the readers that there is an interaction between the people and the God. In Table 6, it is found that the theme is used to realise interpersonal meaning. Interactional matter realised in the vocative form is a call to God (ilāhiy/ in Arabic).

TABLE 6: The interpersonal theme in al-Hikam.

In al-Hikam aphorisms, the use of textual theme and interpersonal theme is far fewer compared with topical theme because interpersonal theme and textual theme are not the basis for developing the theme. Religious leaders use one of the patterns in conveying the teachings of al-Hikam. One of the Islamic religious leaders used in this research data is Kyai Imron Jamil. He is the caretaker of pesantren [boarding school] Kyai Mojo Islamic, Jombang, East Java. This pesantren is barely known among the people just before Kyai Imron broadcasted his recitations and sermons through Radio Mayangkara FM, Blitar, East Java. The recitations and sermons were even recorded and transcribed by Soemarsono (2004). The data in this study were taken from this transcription. One of the lectures taken as data in this research is entitled Tanamlah Akumu di dalam Bumi Kesamaran.

In delivering the al-Hikam material, Kyai Imron Jamil maintains the integrity of the theme. The integrity of theme is used by kyai so that the listener (jama’ah) can easily understand the concept of al-Hikam. This can be seen from the example of how Kyia Imron Jamil explains the concept of ikhlas as part of the material from the book al-Hikam (see Table 7).

TABLE 7: Thematic progression pattern of Kyai when explaining Kitab al-Hikam.

From Table 7, it can be seen how Kyai Imron Jamil is able to, at the same time, explain a concept to the jama’ah and maintain the unity and coherence of meaning, so that the congregation (jama’ah thariqah Syadiliyyah) can understand well in a fairly simple logical unity. The data in Table 7 are taken from Kyai Imron Jamil’s lecture explaining the relationship between charity (‘amal) and sincerity (ikhlas). In this case, the charity occupies the position of theme (old information), information conveyed by locutors to their interlocutors. Meanwhile, the new information from clause 1 is an explanation that charity is part of sincerity. This new information is called rheme. Then, rheme is developed by Kyai Imron Jamil to the next new clause 2 (Sincerity is without mixture). This pattern ultimately makes it easier for listeners (jama’ah) to grasp the moral message being conveyed by Kyai Imron Jamil.

The data in Table 7 were taken from Kyai Imron Jamil’s mp3 recording in explaining al-Hikam aphorisms (Soemarsono 2004). The book is entitled ‘Efforts to Understand and Practice al-Hikam 1 and 2’, a book containing recitation and lectures from Kyai Imron Jamil, broadcasted live on Mayangkara FM Radio, Blitar, East Java. Soemarsono has transcribed the contents of the lecture and rewritten it in the books al-Hikam 1 and al-Hikam 2, which were reproduced by the Al-Hidayah Foundation, Malang (Soemarsono 2004).

In terms of thematic progression pattern, this pattern is called linear pattern. The development of this type is characterised by the fact that the rheme (new information) in the first sentence becomes the theme (old information) in the second sentence. The information development in this model clause is a simple ‘linear’ progression. Saragih (2007) defined this pattern as ‘the progression from rheme to theme’ as opposed to the progression pattern from theme to theme (from old information to old information), indicating that from rheme the first clause develops a number of themes in the third, fourth and so on.

In addition, Kyai uses analogy to make his lecture easier for the listener (jama’ah) Jika amal tanpa ikhlas sama sekali ibaratnya seperti jasmani tanpa roh, dan seperti gambar tanpa makna [If charity without sincerity is like a body without a spirit, and like an image without meaning] (Soemarsono 2004:1).

Data 8a (the explanation of al-Hikam by Kyai Imron Jamil about the Sincerity):

Inti orang yang akan sowan kepada Allah itu harus mengenolkan diri. Selama engkau masih muncul aku yang mempunyai kekuasaan, aku yang punya kemampuan, aku yang punya kekuatan, maka Allah masih terhijab. Kamu masih terhijab untuk mendekatkan diri kepada Allah. Apa hijabnya? Ya pengakuanmu itu sendiri. Padahal tidak ada hijab yang paling dekat, misalkan klilip yang paling rapat menutup mata hati. Karena kalau sudah menjadi kepentingan aku itu apa bisa mengelak (Indonesian – Javanese). (Soemarsono 2004:3)

[One has to show zeroness of their heart first before coming to Allah. As long as the ego is there, their eyes are still covered to see Allah. You are still veiled to get closer to the God. What kind of veil? It’s your own selfness, which covers your very own heart.]

Data 8b (the explanation of al-Hikam by Kyai Imron Jamil):

Mudahnya bicara hanya dua jengkingan atau empat ubengan. Tetapi mengapa menjadi terasa berat? Yang berat bukan soal bentuknya, tetapi karena sulitnya meninggalkan kepentingan aku yang mengantuk dan ingin tidur. Disuruh meninggalkan ngantuk, meninggalkan tidur, meninggalkan bantal, meninggalkan kesenangannya, hanya perlu untuk menjalankan rong jengkingan itu. Itu yang menyebabkan berat (Indonesian – Javanese). (Soemarsono 2004:3)

[It’s easy to say that fajr prayer is just doing bowing twice or four rounds. But why is it still heavy to do? The problem is that one cannot resist their sleepiness and their mindset that why should I leave my sleep, my bed, my pillow; just for bowing and kneeing. Those make things difficult.]

In data 8a and data 8b, there is a phrase ‘mengenolkan diri’, which is non-standard in Indonesian grammar. The word ‘nol’ (zero) is a number symbolised by 0. The phrase ‘mengenolkan diri’ can be categorised into the group of grammatical interference. Kyai Imron Jamil tries to make a new word by making the word ‘nol’ as a verb ‘meng-enol-kan’. Likewise, the word ‘hijab’, which was originally a noun, is modified into /terhijab/. In data 9, it is also found that the code mixing must be performed by the Kyai because they have to explain certain concepts in Islamic Sufism. The code mixing in the form of words and phrases comes from the Javanese language, such as Jengkingan = menungging (bowing). Ubengan = putaran (round) (menjalankan rong jengkingan).

In this study, more specifically, it will be discussed regarding how the domains of the kyai convey their da’wah material. The da’wah material is sourced from the al-Hikam aphorisms. The book contains pearls of wisdom regarding the noble teachings of Islamic religious values, especially in the field of Islamic Sufism (Islamic mysticism). Kyai Imron Djamil conveys the teachings of al-Hikam aphorisms using special words (Arabic loanwords) that are only understood by speakers and listeners within the community. The community is often referred to as the ‘congregation of the tarekat’, which is a group of people who specifically have special rituals and deeds to get closer to Allah SWT. These special words are the use of abror and muqarrabin. The word al-abrār comes from Arabic, which is equivalent to /those who do good/. The word has basically been borrowed by Bahasa Indonesia into /abrar/, which means ‘pious’ (a lot of good deeds).

Furthermore, it is also found that a loanword comes from Arabic, namely /muqorrobin/ which means ‘people who are close’ (to Allah SWT). From data 10 it can be concluded that Kyai uses several loanwords from Arabic in their sermon as a strategy to grasp and aspire the jama’ah to become an abrar [a pious person] and belong to muqorrobin [people who are close to Allah SWT]. It can be concluded that in delivering the material from al-Hikam aphorisms, Kyai had been used code mixing between Bahasa Indonesia and Arabic to introduce the Arab Sufism tradition to the Indonesian people, known as foreignisation. In addition, from data 1, it is also found that there is phonetic interference in the word hakekat [verily] and the word ruh [soul]. In standard language rules, the word hakekat is pronounced as /hakikat/. The word ruh is pronounced as /roh/ in Bahasa Indonesia. However, kyai sometimes pronounces /ruh/ and sometimes /roh/ inconsistently. This happens because the speaker spontaneously utters it in an oral lecture. The delivery of this al-Hikam recitation can be said to use non-standard language, so that a close relationship can be established between the Kyai and his jama’ah. Standard variety refers to benchmarks that apply to quantity and quality and which are applied based on agreement (Sumarsono 2010:27). Interference of one language’s vocabulary into another language can occur in various ways and it has the dominant form of Arabic vocabulary interference, as shown in the following data:

Itu salah satu bentuk penyakitnya orang yang ingin wusul kepada Allah. (Soemarsono 2004:4)

That’s one of the forms of illness for people who want to reach Allah (wusul).

From the word wusul above, it is found that there is an interference use of the word wusul in Arabic, which comes from the verb /wa-sha-la/, which means ‘until’. Wusul to Allah means ‘reaching Allah SWT’. The verb /wa-sha-la/ undergoes an inflectional form so that it becomes /wushūl/ with a long vowel /u/, which lexically means ‘access’, ‘achievements’, ‘arrival’, and ‘reaching’, but Kyai pronounces the word /wushūl/ with a short vowel /u/ into /wusul/; this happens because neither Indonesian nor Javanese can find long vowels as in Arabic.


Based on the data analysis and findings of this study, it can be concluded that al-Hikam aphorisms has various forms of themes: marked topical theme, unmarked topical theme, interpersonal theme and textual theme. Each of these types carries out their respective roles in a text, especially aphorism genre. By looking at the number of unmarked topical themes that are quite dominant, it can be concluded that the Sufis construct self-identity by making the subject of the clause as the starting point of an utterance. Then the topical theme is developed in a certain pattern, one of them is linear theme. This pattern is used by the kyai to explain about the values of Sufism in al-Hikam aphorisms to their jama’ah. In addition, to form an identity for the Sufi community, the kyai uses an analogy to explain the values of Sufism.

The domain register of kyai in conveying noble values uses Arabic-originated loanwords, where the vocabulary can only be understood by a certain community (jama’ah tarekat). This study clarifies that textual equivalence has a fairly important role, especially when a religious leader (kyai – lama’) conveys Arabic texts to the jama’ah. The textual equivalence must be elaborated based on the structure of the information and the thematic progression pattern (Halliday & Matthiessen 2014). The structure of this information should be determined so that the messages in Arabic texts can be easily received by the jama’ah in foreign languages (especially Bahasa Indonesia and Javanese).


This research is part of a doctoral dissertation of the first author (M.Y.A.) supervised by M.N., R.S. and M.M. at Sebelas Maret University.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors’ contributions

M.Y.A. made a substantial contribution to the conception and design of the study and acquisition, analysis and interpretation of data. M.Y.A. also drafted the manuscript and critically revised it for important intellectual content and approved the final version to be published. M.N., R.S. and M.M. were involved in the supervision of this article.

Ethical considerations

This article followed all ethical standards for research without direct contact with human or animal subjects.

Funding information

This research was funded by PTNBH Sebelas Maret University’s RKAT for Fiscal Year 2021 through a doctoral dissertation research scheme (Penelitian Disertasi Doktor Universitas Sebelas Marets) with Contract Number: 260/UN27.22/HK.07.00/2021.

Data availability

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analysed in this study.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position any affiliated agency of the authors.


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