Islam: Islam in Southeast Asia

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Southeast Asia is in some respects a forgotten world of Islam, for much the same reasons as its counterparts in West and East Africa. Neither its arrival nor its development there was spectacular, and the languages of the local Muslim communities did not become vehicles for works of universal and commanding stature as had Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and some of the vernaculars of the Indian subcontinent. Yet, Islam in Southeast Asia has its own styles and its own temper and intellectual traditions. It merits full recognition as a major cultural zone of the domain of Islam in its own right. Its sacral practices and folk beliefs that color and live alongside the profession of Islam no more invalidate that basic allegiance than do the sacral practices and folk beliefs of Muslims elsewhere, including those in the Middle East. Indeed, Southeast Asia is the home of at least one-fifth of the world's Muslims. Indonesia alone, with over 130 million Muslims, is the largest such community in the world.

Historical Geography

Southeast Asia is best described as a great archipelago, a huge land mass that juts southward between the Indian subcontinent and China and then fragments at its extremity into a complex of thousands of islands, the largest of which are Sumatra, Borneo (Kalimantan), Java, and Mindanao, while the smallest hardly registers on the map. Today this region is identified with the modern nation-states of Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, and the Philippines. All of these nation-states have Muslim communities. In Myanmar, Kampuchea, and Vietnam they are insignificant minorities. In Thailand, the Muslim community, though still a minority, has a distinct profile. In Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, on the other hand, Islam has an imposing position. Farther to the east, in the Philippines, it constitutes a significant cultural minority that is in some respects a part of the Philippine nation, but in others, the nucleus of a national entity attempting in various ways to establish its autonomy, if not independence.

Structures in transition

In seeking to understand the historical evolution and contemporary significance of these communities, it is necessary to distinguish between the modern nation-states of the contemporary world, and the traditional distribution of centers of power in Southeast Asia. These new nation-states, emerging in the wake of decolonization, were largely set within the borders established by the colonial powers that had created them. The capital cities of such states, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta for example, are a focus of the national personality of the political entities in which they are set. They are the gateway, the immediate point of identification, the seat of government, to which their inhabitants turn. They have a status that defines the other parts of the nation as provinces.

Nevertheless, and although it might seem, from a contemporary perspective, that these nations have always existed in some form or another and that their present role derives simply from the expulsion of colonial powers and the recovery of a national sovereignty that has been lost, the reality is far more complex and the results of decolonization more radical. In fact, the creation of such states has turned the traditional world of Southeast Asia on its head. The role of such capital cities with a strong central authority dominating the political, economic, and religious life of the region is very recent.

Traditionally, centers of political power in Southeast Asia were distributed among a wide range of focal points that served as harbors for the exchange and transshipment of goods; these points became the sites of port cities, which from time to time grew strong enough to wield an extensive political authority. Such sites were diverse, discrete, numerous, scattered, and largely unstable centers of activity; they had relations with each other on the basis of rivalry and self-interest, without the direct hegemony of a central authority or any stable and continuing point of reference. Unlike the great cities of the Middle East and South Asia, which enjoyed stability over centuries, if not millennia (one need only mention Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus, Baghdad, or Delhi), centers of power in traditional Southeast Asia rarely maintained their position for more than a century, and the authority they enjoyed was very different from that of the modern capital cities in the region. The historiography of the region, in its many languages, reflects this character in the emphasis that it lays on genealogy of founders and traditional rulers in its accounts of the origins of settlements.

These circumstances have important implications for an understanding of Islam and the processes of Islamization in the region. On the one hand, its origins need to be seen in the planting of numerous local traditions of Islam at focal points in the archipelago. In the course of time, these traditions coalesced and emerged for a while as Islamic city-states or fissiparated and disappeared as significant entities, to be succeeded by new ones. On the other hand, the establishment of modern nation-states with single centers of authority has laid the foundation for a new kind of Islamic tradition with a national character, and these centers in turn have exercised a normative influence on the development of such traditions.

The diversity of Southeast Asia

From earliest times, Southeast Asia has been a region with a variety of peoples, social structures, means of livelihood, cultures, and religions. Denys Lombard, admittedly writing of the modern period, puts it this way:

We are in fact dealing with several levels of mentality. The thought processes of fringe societies in which "potlatch" is a prevailing custom (the Toraja); those of concentric agrarian societies (the Javanese states and their off-shoots at Jogja and Surakarta); those of trading societies (Malay towns, pasisir [Javanese coastal centers]); those of the societies living in large modern towns, and above all, the interplay of these various processes on each other, and their inter-relationships.

If the first broad distinction to be made is temporal and political, between the constellation of modern nation-states and that of the traditional period, another is geographical: between continental (excluding the Malay Peninsula) and insular Southeast Asia. The former includes the states of Vietnam, Kampuchea, and Thailand; the latter, the Malay Peninsula and the islands of what are now Indonesia and the southern Philippines.

To be sure, each has economic and social elements in commonsettled rice cultivation, slash-and-burn shifting cultivation, fishing and seafaring, trading and piracy, gold mining, along with elements of megalithic culture, ancestor worship, and the numerous rituals and beliefs associated with rice cultivation. Yet they are separated by a division into two great language familiesthe Austronesian, of which the most important representatives are Malay and Javanese, and the Mon Khmer, of which the most important are Thai and Burmeseand the communications barrier between these language families is much greater than that between related members within one family or the other. Equally important, both parts of the great archipelago responded vigorously to religious traditions stemming from the Indian subcontinent long before the birth of Islam. In continental Southeast Asia, Theravāda Buddhism became dominant, whereas Mahāyāna Buddhism in one form or another flourished in Sumatra and Java, in particular, in the empire of Srivijaya (seventh to fourteenth centuries) based on South Sumatra, and in Mataram (Central) and Majapahit (East) East Java (seventh to sixteenth centuries). These great divisions correspond to those regions in which Islam secured a dominant position and those in which it did not.


Southeast Asia is an area of great linguistic diversity: There are over three hundred languages in the Indonesian area alone. Of these languages, Malay was known throughout the region as a lingua franca as early as the sixteenth century. During the period already discussed, it had also been established as a vernacular of Islam and as a language of the court for areas as far afield and diverse as Malacca, Aceh, and Makassar. It is this very early diffusion of the language, with its religious, economic, cultural, and chancellery roles, that led to its adoption in the twentieth century, in slightly different forms, as the national language of both Malaysia and Indonesia, where it became known as Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia, respectively. Of course, other languages of the same family were to become vehicles of Muslim learning and culture, in particular Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese, and some of the languages of southern Sulawesi (the Celebes). Although Javanese had a far richer literary tradition than did Malay, none had the latter's widespread social and geographical diffusion, and none could challenge its authority as the ideal medium for the vernacularization of Islam.

Its role as a language of Islam is also made evident by the well-nigh universal use of a form of the Arabic script for its written transmission up to modern times, supplanting a script of Indic derivation that had been used for inscriptions before the coming of Islam. Other languages that accepted the Arabic script include Taosug and Maranouw from the southern Philippines, and it was also used alongside (but never supplanted) scripts derived from Indian syllabaries for writing Javanese and Sundanese.

There is only one example of the use of an Indic script for an already Islamized Malay. This is found on a tombstone from Minye Tujuh in Aceh marking the grave of a Queen Alalah, daughter of a Sultan Malik al-Zahir, who was a khan and a son of a khan (the title suggests a foreign origin). Dated in the equivalent of 1389 ce, it is written in an Indian script, and possibly in an Indian meter; if this is so, it shows a remarkable skill, even at this early period, in using Arabic loanwords within the requirements of Indic meters. The Malay inscription on the Trengganu stone, it will be recalled, was written in the Arabic script. The fact that there is a gap of almost two centuries between this tombstone and the earliest surviving manuscripts simply emphasizes how arbitrary are the constellations of chance that provide material for knowledge of the progress and forms of Islam in the region.

By the seventeenth century Malay had absorbed a rich stratum of Arabic loanwords and the acceptance of Arabic structures, along with some elements of Arabic morphology, provides striking evidence of the permeation of the region by an Islamic ethos and its modulation to the expression of Islamic ideas. Many of these ideas relate to religious matters, for example, those relating to the ritual prayer, marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Some Arabic words have undergone a narrowing: that is to say, they have lost a general meaning and kept only a religious one. Others range from technical terms, relating to religious matters and the administration of religious law, or terms of medicine, architecture, and the sciences, to the most common everyday expressions. Sometimes the words are so thoroughly assimilated that they would pass unrecognized unless one were able to identify them as Arabic by following through the patterns of sound change that Malay imposes on the loanwords it absorbs. Most remarkable is the adoption of an Arabic word to refer to local systems of culture, law, and traditional usage: adat (Arab., ʾadah ). In fact, the concept identified by the word is so characteristically Malay that it would not be recognized as an Arabic word unless its origin were pointed out. The number of common Arabic words in Malaywhether borrowed directly from Arabic or indirectly from other languages such as Persianis well over a thousand. With the growing intensity of Islamic awareness since the 1980s, the number continues to increase as individuals respond to an increasing need to demonstrate their Muslim identity.

It is not only Malay that has received a large corpus of Arabic loanwords; the same is true of many of the Malay-related languages in Sumatra, Java, and Borneo, notably Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese, Acehnese, and Minangkabau. The establishment of Muslim communities in the Philippines likewise brought numbers of loanwords to various Philippine languages. In Tagalog the number is relatively small, but in the southern Philippines, where Muslim communities are concentrated, they are more numerous.

Southeast Asia in world trade

The great archipelago of Southeast Asia lies across the sea routes between the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. In both divisions of the region there were some points open to a range of contacts with the outside world, and others where access was more difficult and where a lifestyle conditioned by such remoteness was preserved.

For centuries before the Christian era, the trading system of the Indian Ocean had been dominated by the Yemenis, who traded in gold, gums, spices, rhinoceros horn, and ivory from the east coast of Africa. For this early period, it is not possible to identify place names accurately, but it is known that the Yemenis brought their goods to the land of gold, suvarna bhumi, the term by which Southeast Asia was referred to in some Sanskrit texts.

In the beginning of the Christian era, both continental and insular Southeast Asia reacted to, and in a remarkable way were fecundated by, contact with Indian cultural influences carried to the focal trading centers referred to earlier, which were to be creative for over a millennium. A constant succession of Hindu and Buddhist influences was established in particular regions, with various phases carrying the different traditions, schools, and artistic styles of these great religions and modifying each other as they were adapted to the new environment.

The Coming of Islam

Up to the tenth century ce there is very little evidence of the presence of Islam in Southeast Asia. Indeed, although the Portuguese conquerors of Malacca in 1511 give us some important information about the progress of Islam in the region, apart from a few archaeological remains, reports by Chinese merchants, and the records of individual travelers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Bauah, both of whom give descriptions of North Sumatra, there is little concrete documentation until the sixteenth century. By that time, however, with the appearance of the Dutch and British trading companies in the region, the evidence of widespread Islamization is considerable. The territories of the Islamic commonwealth in Southeast Asia were so vast that the process of their creation has been called "the second expansion of Islam," alluding to the original expansion from Arabia into North Africa and the Fertile Crescent. Unlike that first period of extraordinary growth in the seventh century, however, the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia was hesitant, modest, and discreet: what was achieved in one century in the Middle East took at least half a millennium in Southeast Asia.

There is too little evidence to document in detail the beginnings of this process, yet a reasonable working hypothesis may be formulated as follows: as soon as there were Muslim sailors aboard ships sailing under whatever flag in the Indian Ocean trading system and disembarking goods or individuals at points in Southeast Asia, there was the possibility of a Muslim presence at those points with a concern for the implementation of the norms of Islamic community life. This could have been as early as the end of the eighth century. Hardly anything is known of the history of trading settlements along the littoral of Southeast Asia during this period; however, reliable evidence for the presence of Muslims in China from the beginning of the eighth century, suggests that Muslim seamen and merchants were already breaking their long voyages at one or another of the numerous natural harbors along the coasts of Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, and northern Java, the Celebes and the southern Philippines. The unloading of goods to await transshipment with the change of the monsoon, the establishment of warehouses and semipermanent settlements, and trading and intermarriageand other relationshipswith the local peoples were all factors that could combine to establish small, viable and possibly stable Muslim communities.

Given the diversity and discontinuities of the region, the provenance of Southeast Asian Islam is not a practical topic for discussion, although hypotheses have located it anywhere from Egypt to Bengal. Some Indonesian writers have sought to discover for it an Arabian origin that can be dated as early as the eighth century. One thing is certain: all movement of ideas and peoples from West and South Asia to Southeast Asia is related to the maritime history of the Indian Ocean (although it is possible that some communities included those who had made part of the journey by land across the Indian subcontinent, or even the "great circle" route via the Silk Road through Central Asia, and then by sea from Canton to the islands). The greater the number of Muslims involved in the trading system, the greater the diversity of the Muslim tradition that became diffused, and the greater the probability of Muslims coming together in sufficient numbers to generate a critical massa Muslim community that could become stable, put down roots through intermarriage with local women who embraced Islam, and play a distinctive role on equal terms with other local communities. Such Muslim communities may have included Arabs from what may be called an Arab diaspora in the early years of the Islamic commonwealth; but from that era, very little direct information has survived. The process of consolidation was however slow. It is not until the thirteenth century that Islamic communities appear with a political profile, as port city-states ruled by sultans. The earliest of these sultanates was that of Pasai, on the east coast of North Sumatra; it was succeeded by others. The appearance of such city-states must be seen as the culmination of a long period of Muslim presence with a low profile, a circumstance that has made the ethnic mix of the communitieswhether local, Indian, Persian, Arab or even Chinesedifficult to determine.

Once Islam achieved a political presence in the region, further growth and the exercise of political power became possible. By this time the trading system of the Indian Ocean was largely in Muslim hands; this assured economic power to Muslims, and Muslim mercantile law served to generate business confidence. The power and self-confidence of the Muslim states gave them a position as power brokers and allies. Marriage alliances that required a profession of Islam doubtless had a role as well.

First traces

The earliest archaeological evidence is slight: a lone pillar in the region of Phanrang on the mid-east coast of Vietnam, inscribed in Arabic and dating from the tenth century. The French scholar Ravaisse (quoted by S. Q. Fatimi in Islam Comes to Asia ) believes it to indicate that

there existed there in the eleventh century an urban population of whom we know little. They were very different from the indigenous people in race, belief and habits. Their ancestors must have come about a century earlier, and must have married native women. They were merchants and craftsmen living in a perfectly well-organized society mixing more and more with the natives. They asked one of themselves to act as their representative and defender with respect to the authorities of the place. He was called Shaikh al-Suq ["master of the market"], and was assisted by the Naqib (a merchant or craftsman in charge of the management of the community to which he belonged). Along with him were "notables who, enriched by their commerce, occupied an important place."

Another piece of evidence from roughly the same period suggests that there was a Muslim presence at Leren on the north coast of Java. This is a tombstone with a date corresponding to 1082 ce, marking the grave of a merchant's daughter. It provides no certain evidence of a Muslim community; even the date cannot be taken for granted since tombstones were frequently imported long after a burial. Near Jolo (southern Philippines) is the venerated grave of a foreign Muslim with a date corresponding to 1310 ce, the site of which has been used for the coronation of a number of the sultans of Sulu. In Trengganu, an east-coast state on the Malay Peninsula, a fragment of a stone pillar inscribed in Malay in Arabic script which may be dated between 1321 and 1380a fragment of the inscription is missingmarks the presence of a Muslim community. By the fifteenth century there is sporadic but more substantial evidence of Muslims in the East Javanese empire of Majapahit, again from gravestones. Probably they belonged to communities of merchants, but this too is hardly more than surmise. Just as there were Muslims in Java, there is evidence that there were Muslims in the great Buddhist empire of Srivijaya (seventh to thirteenth centuries) based on South Sumatra, an empire that thrived on trade and maintained close relations with China and India.

The earliest evidence that substantiates not simply the presence of Muslims in the region but the existence of an Islamic maritime sultanate dates from the thirteenth century. This is a tombstone of Malik al-Saleh, the first Muslim ruler of Pasai, in North Sumatra, the date given for his death corresponding to 1297. Reports of foreign travelers confirm that many of his subjects were Muslims. What circumstances enabled the Muslim community to achieve a critical mass and generate a state in which the ruler could style himself sultan, and what processes led to this event, we cannot tell. Likewise there is little evidence as to the ethnic composition of this state: to what extent was it local, to what extent foreign? (And even the term foreign at this time begs a number of questions.) Many of the titles and names attributed to the personalities of this sultanate in a local chronicle have a South Indian ring to them.

Nonetheless, from this point on, the documentation of Islam at the political level is relatively straightforward, and it is possible to chronicle the emergence of states with Islamic rulers. Even though internal records are sparse and their human and cultural dynamics remain in the shadows, at the very least their names are recorded by foreign visitors.

The sultanates

It has been posited that Pasai is the earliest Muslim state in the Malay world and its ruler as the first sultan there. The only evidence of his life comes from his tombstone. It is however striking that his name is eponymous with that of the Ayyubid ruler al-Malik al-Saleh (r. 12401249) who restored Jerusalem to Islamic rule in 1244. But Pasai was at least referred to by Marco Polo and Ibn Bauah in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although the extent of its political authority is not known, it occupied a strategic position at the entrance to the straits of Malacca and was a convenient point for exchanging goods and taking on board supplies of water and firewood. Moreover, by making alliances with either pirates or nascent states on the other side of the straits, it was able to ensure that shipping did not go elsewhere, and that port taxes were paid.


Malacca, on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, inherited the mantle of Pasai. Far more is known of its history than that of Pasai, from both local and foreign sources. It became Muslim shortly after its foundation around 1400, and via its dependencies, both on the Malay Peninsula, where it established the dynasties of the Malay sultanates, and on the east coast of Sumatra, it served as a conduit for Muslim influence to other parts of the archipelago. Various factors were involved here: local traders from Thailand to the north and the neighboring islands were attracted to its emporium, Muslim traders from Bengal, India, and further afield found scope for business activities opened up in its trading partners and dependencies, and it attracted foreign ʿulamāʾ (religious scholars; sg., ʿālim ), principally from the Indian subcontinent, although many of them may have had Arab blood and used this Arab descent to their advantage. Although Malacca held an important position, however, it was not unique. There were many smaller states that played an analogous role along the littoral of East Sumatra, the north coast of Java, Borneo, Sulawesi (Celebes), and later the Spice Islands (Moluccas) and the southern Philippines. In every case the same kind of processes that were illustrated at Malacca were taking place, perhaps on a smaller scale, perhaps on a larger scale, and they had been happening even before the birth of Malacca. It must be stressed that there is no "big bang" explanation for the coming of Islam to Southeast Asia; such claims as the Portuguese statement that Java was converted from Malacca must be regarded as hyperbole.

Successor states

After Malacca fell to the Portuguese in 1511, it was such smaller states that were to grow in stature: Aceh, Palembang, Banten, Ceribon, Demak, Surabaya, and Makassar, as well as smaller centers in the Spice Islands and Mindanao. Each of them became integrated into the Muslim trading system, each became a center of Islamic learning, and each, by a continuing process of osmosis, attracted people from the interior into contact with these cities. In every case, networks of family, ūfī order (arīqah), guild, and trade association relationships gradually served to diffuse Islam back into the interior, although it was transmitted at different levels of intensity and perceived in rather different ways according to the cultural backgrounds of the various com-munities.

Special attention should be drawn to Aceh, which first came to prominence in the 1520s and reached its apogee during the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda (16071636). During the first half of the seventeenth century it was the dominant economic and political power of the region. It conquered the northern half of the Malay Peninsula and northern and parts of central Sumatra, gaining control of the pepper areas and enforcing a trading monopoly. Aceh was the first Muslim state in the region to have extended intercourse with Europe, and European dignitaries, including James I of Britain, as well as the Ottoman Empire. It is also noteworthy for a surviving legacy of Islamic learning: for the first time we have historical information about a state in the region generating works of Islamic scholarship that remain accessible to us, some of which are used in schools throughout the Malay world even today. In addition, experts are able to identify individual Acehnese scholars, both in Aceh and in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and the teachers with whom they studied. Indeed, one of the great ministers of state between 1600 and 1630, Shams al-Dīn was a noted ʿālim and bore the title Shaikh al-Islam. There are eyewitness reports from British, Dutch, and French sailors on the celebration of the conclusion of the fast of Ramaān (ʿĪd al-Fir) and the festival of the sacrifice marking the climax of the pilgrimage rites in Mecca. It is also possible to establish and describe some of the relations between Aceh, the Mughal court, and the Ottoman Empire.

The Islamic history of Aceh during this period is better known than that of any of its neighbors, but analogous centers of lesser political power played a major role elsewhere in the region as Islam moved inland during the seventeenth century. In Sumatra, for example, the inland highlands of the Minangkabau region, territories rich in gold and pepper and which for centuries had established this part of the island in a network of trading systems, became Muslim. This area was to put a distinctive stamp on its interpretation and realization of Islam by maintaining a matrilineal social structure alongside a commitment to Islam that was among the staunchest in the archipelago.

Another inland region where Islam became established was the state of Mataram in Central Java, which was, until its defeat by the United Dutch East India Company in 1629, the largest single state on the island. Even after the defeat, it maintained this status, a status that added special significance to the fact that its ruler, Susuhunan Agung (16131645), assumed the title of sultan and in 1633 established the Islamic calendrical system in Java.

Beginnings of the colonial era

From the early sixteenth century, European powers, or trading companies representing them began an increasing encroachment on the region, establishing themselves as participants in its economic and political life. Early in the sixteenth century (1511), the Portuguese captured Malacca; in the second half of the sixteenth century, the Spanish established their rule in the Philippines; at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Dutch East India Company took the first steps toward acquiring an empire in the East Indies, fighting a war of attrition against the Portuguese as it did so. In the eighteenth century, British East India Company began to establish trading posts in Sumatra, and on the Malay Peninsula. Islamization nevertheless continued. Throughout the region more people were gradually drawn into the new religion, to the basic recognition of transcendence implicit in the confession "There is no god but God." To be sure, numerous cults survived alongside this confession, together with practices and rituals and the use of spells and magical formulas that derived from the Indic and even megalithic traditions. Nevertheless there was a continuing momentum toward the subordination and finally the subsuming of the spiritual concepts of such traditions into the terminology of Islam: thus numerous Javanese spirits were largely included within the Islamic category of spiritual beings, the jinn. Doubtless the intensity of response to the more exclusive demands of Islam waxed and waned, yet amid all these communities where Islam had been planted, some degree of formal recognition was given to positive Islamic law, particularly in relation to diet, to burial of the dead, to marriage, to circumcision, and to the fast, even though the performance of the daily prayer might be lax. Indeed it is striking how the pre-Islamic cult of the dead reflected in the building of great mausolea for the Javanese god-kings, and the extravagant sacrifices of buffalo still carried on today in non-Muslim areas such as the Torajas (Central Sulawesi), faded away with the acceptance of Islam.

The ājj played an important role; some individuals who made it stayed to study for years in the holy cities of Mecca and Madina, or elsewhere in the Middle East; the ūfī orders also played a role, and religious teachers, traversing the Muslim world, gave fresh life to communities and religious schools and often held the ear of local rulers. The constant retelling of stories of the prophets and the heroes of Islam and the cultural adaptation of these stories to local conditions gradually created a unitary and universalistic frame of reference for local and world history and established Islamic conceptsof the creation, of the sending of God's messengers culminating in Muammad, of the community, and eventually of the resurrection of the bodyas the norm and benchmark by which all competing systems of ideas were to be measured and into which they were largely to be assimilated.

Spiritual and Cultural Dimensions

The modalities by which islamization progressed throughout the region and the cultural achievements it set in train are far richer in character than a political survey can communicate, although it can establish a framework within which these dimensions can be situated. Discussion of these achievements is inevitably centered on the territories that now constitute Malaysia and Indonesia, due to the weight of population. By comparison, within the framework of this article, despite their intrinsic interest and importance, Thailand, the other mainland states, Singapore, Brunei, and the Philippines can only receive passing mention.

Let us consider in a little more detail some of the cases we have mentioned. The community at Phanrang lived and governed itself apart from its neighbors. Typologically this situation is difficult to account for. Thus the hypothesis that it was founded by descendants of a community of Shīʿī refugees who fled from a persecution by the Umayyad governor al-ajjāj (d. 714) is plausible. It will be noted later that although today the region is Sunnī, there are some rem-nants of Shīʿī influence from the past, such as the commemoration of the martyrdom of asan and usayn in a coastal region of western Sumatraalbeit only as popular entertainment, not grief and self-flagellation.

Processes of Islamization

The descriptions of the sultanate of Pasai referred to earlier make a clear distinction between the Muslim community of the city itself and those people of the hinterland who were still unbelievers. This distinction suggests that an originally foreign community became settled over a number of years, and that an individual with sufficient charisma at one point proclaimed himself sultan. The coastal port of Malacca on the other hand presents an example of a mercantile state whose ruler professed Islam soon after its foundation. The case of Aceh is different again, in that it appears to have arisen after the amalgamation of two small Muslim states in the north of Sumatra into a single state that was to dominate the straits of Malacca for the greater part of the seventeenth century.

The importance of Aceh cannot be exaggerated. It was known in popular parlance as the Veranda of the Holy Land (Arabia). Aspiring pilgrims and scholars from all parts of the archipelago would make the journey in stages over a period of years. Aceh was the last port of work and residence and study that they would encounter before leaving their own region of the world and heading out across the Bay of Bengal. It was also the first place of call on their return journey. And the intensity of religious education, debate, and teaching in Aceh, as well as the constant movement of peoples of diverse ethnic groups, ensured a wide dissemination of religious ideas and, to some extent, a normalization of religious life through the distribution of networks of religious affiliations. (arīqah s can be identified in north Sumatra since at least the second half of the sixteenth century).

The acceptance of Islam by Sultan Agung of Mataram (r. 16131646) is a special case. His kingdom was not a port-state but was located in the interior and was based more on wet rice cultivation than commerce. It was the prestigious heir to the great Śiva Buddha tradition of East Java and included in its territories the sites of the great Buddhist stupa, the Borobudur, and other Hindu and Buddhist shrines built during the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries. Yet for Agung, this history was not enough, nor was his title of susuhunan. To all this he added the title of sultan, purchased from Mecca; thus he assumed a dignity which, although largely symbolic, had a major role in elevating the status of Islam in Java (although not necessarily the conversion of Java to Islam).

As C. C. Berg points out in a seminal article (1955), kings and princes operated as factors of acceleration and deceleration of the Islamization process in Java. In this instance, Agung played a role of acceleration, paradoxically in the wake of his defeat by the Dutch East India Company in 1629. This event turned him toward whatever enemies of the Dutch could be found in the seas and islands of the archipelago: the Portuguese and communities of Muslim merchants. As a Muslim by profession, if not by passion until 1629, he soon became a Muslim in search of authority and power. Whatever his psychological motivations, he changed the face of his kingdom and its cultural character by introducing the Muslim calendar with the announcement that from 1 Muarram 1043 ah, a date corresponding to July 8, 1633 ce, this calendrical system should operate in Java alongside the traditional Javanese system of Saka years. Symbolically this was an act of great importance, because it meant that the Islamic calendar based on the date of the hijra, became the global, universalistic event in relation to which events in Javanese society and history were to be recorded.

In the last analysis, however, the creative achievement of a religion is to be seen in the lives of the individuals it inspires, the intellectual activity it generates, and the dimensions it adds to spiritual, cultural, and social life. But one of the difficulties in coping with the early story of Islam in Southeast Asia is the absence of historical figures to whom one can attribute the early spread of the religion.

It is striking that, in the Malay texts at least, there are no historical figures to whom the primal conversion of a state to Islam can be attributed. The same holds true for the preaching of Islam in Java as presented by Javanese court chronicles. This is not to say that such figures are always nameless, or that they may not be based on individuals who did once exist, but certainly in the way they are presented, there is little that could be described as a personality base. In his contribution to Nehemia Levtzion's Conversion to Islam (1980), Jones gives an account of ten conversion myths from different parts of the archipelago. The account from the Sejarah Malayu (Malay Annals) is typical: the ruler of Malacca had a dream in which he saw Muammad, who ordered him to recite the Muslim Shahādah ("witnessing"): "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger." The prophet then told him that the following day, at the time of the afternoon prayer, a ship would arrive from Jidda with a religious teacher on board whom he was to obey. When the king awoke, he found he had been circumcised. At the time foretold on the following day the ship arrived, and the religious teacher came down from it. There and then he performed the afternoon prayer on the beach, and the bystanders gathered round asking: what is this bobbing up and down. The king, on hearing what was happening went down to the beach to welcome him, and together with all his courtiers and subjects embraced Islam.

An intriguing feature of this work is that many of the religious teachers described in its pages are presented as figures of fun. There is the eccentric who takes sling shots at kites flown over his house, and there is the religious teacher who is teased by a tipsy court officer because he cannot pronounce Malay words correctly. There is also the mystically inclined teacher who refused to accept the sultan as a religious disciple unless he left his elephant behind at the palace and came to him humbly on foot.

Of these figures, one may possibly be identified: Sadar Jahan, the religious adviser to Sultan Ahmad Shah of Malacca. When Ahmad Shah came out on his elephant to face the Portuguese attack that destroyed the city in 1511, Sadar Jahan accompanied the sultan. Under a hail of musket shots he begged his master to retreat to a safer position with the words: "This is no place to discuss tawīd (mystical union)." He has been identified with a scholar-jurist-diplomat Fayd Allah Bambari, known as Sadr-i Jahan, who was sent by King Ayaz from Gujarat via Jidda to negotiate a defensive wall from Hormuz to Malacca against the Portuguese incursion into the Indian Ocean. He arrived in Malacca by ship in 1509 to stiffen Malaccan resistance to the Portuguese and is presumed to have been killed during the sack of the city. The identification is not wholly certain. Nevertheless, the evidence is sufficient to show that as early as the fifteenth century, religious teachers from various parts of the Muslim world took part in the religious life of the Southeast Asian sultanates.

The propagation of Islam in Java is traditionally attributed to wali songo (nine saints) who made their debut between thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The number nine probably has more to do with cosmology than arithmetic, since this figure subsumes the eight points of the compass and the center. Each is associated with a different region of Java. They are associated with the origin of elements of Javanese culture such as the Javanese shadow theater and gamelan orchestra, which existed long before Islam. All are presented as figures with a mystical insight into the reality of things; they have a role in the founding of dynasties and are not subject to the laws of nature. One of them, Siti Jenar, was executed for uttering words that claimed identity between himself and God. It has been conjectured, in my view with little foundation, that this eventif indeed it occurredis a doublet of the al-allāj story.

It is only from the late sixteenth century that it becomes possible to identify individuals among religious teachers, gain access to the works they wrote, and so lay the foundations for an intellectual and spiritual history of Islam in this region, a task pioneered by Peter G. Riddell (2001). However, since the information available about such figures is very sparsethere is little evidence available in the form of biographical or autobiographical writingit is not possible to do much more than situate them within a general framework of the intellectual and spiritual life of the region to the degree that this can be established.

Local scholarship

This absorption of Arabic words in large measure derived from the study of Arabic works on the fundamental Islamic disciplines of Qurʾanic exegesis, traditions, and jurisprudence, as well as ūfī practice and spirituality (i.e., tafsīr, adīth, fiqh, and taawwuf). There is no documentation of the early stages of the development of these studies, although there is no reason to doubt that the seeds from which they grew were planted at least as early as the thirteenth century. Indeed, it should be stressed again that there were Islamic communities in the region long before the earliest evidence for Islamic states.

It is only from the late sixteenth century that manuscripts from these traditions survive, whether in Arabic (mostly representing key works from the Islamic tradition) or in Malay or other regional languages such as Javanese. The Arabic manuscripts, some doubtless copied on the instructions of, or at least the permission of, a teacher in the Muslim Holy Land are of various levels of difficulty. Of works of tafsīr, that known as Al-Jalālayn is the most popular. Van Ronkel (1913) lists a significant number of manuscripts from various parts of the archipelago, some with interlinear translations, or at least annotations, in Malay or Javanese, sometimes with a dedication to a local ruler. There may be a temptation to look down on Al-Jalalayn. In fact it contains multum in parvo and is an excellent work for early levels of study, ideally suited for students who, though trained in an Islamic school, are not native speakers of Arabic. After Al-Jalālayn, al-Bayāwī's Anwār al-tanzīl takes pride of place, followed by al-Khāzin's Lubāb al-taʾwīl fī maʿānī al-tanzīl. There are in addition fragments of ūfī commentaries, including al-Bayhaqī's Kitāb al-tahdhīb fī al-tafsīr copied in 1652, which for a manuscript with a Southeast Asian provenance is very early indeed. There is even a work by al-Dānī on the seven recitations (qirāʾat ) of the Qurʾān. It should be stressed that these manuscripts represent the tip of the iceberg in relation to the number of those unknown from that period, or simply lost.

Collections of adīth, especially those of al-Bukhārī, are numerous, and with them commentaries; the same collections of forty adīth (Al-arbāʿīn), especially that of al-Nawawī, were also popular. To these may be added a selection of works on history and biography, jurisprudence, astronomy, and taawwuf. A ūfī text that appears to have been popular, on the basis of the number of surviving manuscripts, is Al-ikam al-ʿAāʾīyah of Ibn ʿAāʾ Allāh; this work too is often accompanied by commentaries. There are treatises on the Shādhilī, Naqshbandī, and ʿAlawī orders and a sprinkling of works in the Ibn al-ʿArabī tradition, both by Ibn al-ʿArabī himself and by his great commentator, al-Kāshānī. Of such manuscripts, one of the most striking contains the introduction to the commentary on Ibn al-Fāri's poem Al-tāʾīyah al-kubrā by Saʿīd ibn ʿAlī al-Farghānī (d. 1299).

Given how heterogenous and arbitrary such a listing is, it is clear that these manuscripts have only survived by chance. What has been lost begs the imagination. Nevertheless, the evidence is enough to show that many basic Arabic works were accessible to scholars in this region, and that a variety of traditions was represented.

Pioneers of vernacularization

We have already mentioned interlinear translations, glosses, and annotations on Arabic manuscripts. These represent in embryonic form beginnings of the vernacularization of Islam and the Islamic disciplines into Malay and the other regional languages. How early this began it is not possible to determine. The manuscripts that are extant, surviving as they do largely by chance, are not a sure guide as to the kind of works that were first achieved in local languages.

amzah Fanūrī

The earliest Malay author known is amzah Fanūrī (d. c. 1593). Few details of his life are known, but a significant number of his writings have survived. Apart from the ravages of a tropical climate, many were destroyed by a later ʿālim who accused him of heresy. Those that do remain however show him to have been a great religious poet. From them it is clear that he made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and that he embraced a particular formulation of ūfī theosophy, apparently an Arabo-Iranian one based on the Ibn al-ʿArabī tradition as it was reformulated and extended by al-Jīlī, and may have included Shīʿī elements. If it had, this would at least be consistent with the stories of Shīʿī heroes in Malay discovered in Aceh early in the seventeenth century.

A verse from one of his syaʾir (poems made up of end rhyming quatrains) gives a good example of the ascetic theology of the Ibn al-ʿArabī school of mysticism:

Regard heat and cold as one and the same; Abandon greed and avarice; Let your self will melt like wax, Then your elusive goal you will gain.

It should not be supposed that this is the earliest instance of original Islamic writing in Malay. The technical skill in which religious ideas are handled in his quotations suggests that he represents a culminating point in a long tradition.

Shams al-Dīn

Another major figure is Shams al-Dīn, the guide and teacher of Iskandar Muda, sultan of Aceh from 1607 to 1636. Shams al-Dīn reflects a tradition from North India, in which the manifold self-manifestations of the Divinity, the supreme Reality (al-Haqq) characteristic of the Ibn al-ʿArabī tradition was reduced to a convenient seven, and this framework, which was rapidly adopted by the Naqshbandī, Shādhilī and Shaārī orders, soon became part of the stock-in-trade of the mystical tradition in all parts of the archipelago. An important figure of state, Shams al-Dīn was the author of a significant corpus of writings in both Arabic and Malay. He is in fact the first local author known to have written original works in Arabic, a tradition which was long to continue. The single most important work that he used as the basis for his teaching was a summary of the key ideas of Ibn al-ʿArabī's system set out in a framework of seven grades of being proceeding from the undifferentiated Absolute through six manifestations to the Perfect Man first formulated by the Indian ʿālim Muammad ibn Fadl Allah (d. 1590) and effectively displaced that of al-Jīlī, which had been used by amzah Fanūrī.

ʿAbd al-Raʾūf

By the second half of the seventeenth century, ʿAbd al-Raʾūf (16151690) had prepared a full rendering of the Jalālayn tafsīr in Malay. It was extended by one of his students, Dāwūd al-Rūmī, by selections from the qirāʾāt literature and citations from the tafsīr s of al-Khāzin and al-Bayāwī. It is still reprinted with the misattribution on the cover title Tafsīr al-Bayāwī. This rendering into Malay of the Jalālayn means in effect that there was a full vernacularization of the Qurʾān in Malay, albeit embedded in an authoritative commentary before the end of the seventeenth century.

In addition to these works, others written in Malay include, for example, simple summaries of the Muslim creed, such as al-Sanūsī's Umm al-barāhīn (Mother of proofs), and hundreds of works on topics such as the mystical practice of various arīqahs (the Naqshbandīyah, Shaārīyah, and Shādhilīyah in particular), the twenty attributes of God, tawīd (the unity of God), the application of Islamic law on various topics, and eschatology. One example is a four-volume abridgement of al-Ghazālīʾs Iyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (The revivification of the religious sciences) by an expatriate scholar, ʿAbd al-amad of Palembang, who compiled it around 1780 in āʾif, Arabia. It is still reprinted in various parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, and although there are now more academically prepared translations of the full work in Indonesian published in the Roman script, they have not totally supplanted the earlier version.

Progress from the study of the foundation texts of Islam together with the religious disciplines deriving from them, and vernacularizing their content, to the generation of original works reflecting the needs of the new environment was at first slow. In the premodern period, there is little in Malay that can stand beside the literary and intellectual achievements of Islam in Arabic, Persian or Turkish. In part this is due to an extended dominance of the oral tradition in the transmission of knowledge. But in any case the cultural achievements of Islam in Southeast Asia are different in character to those of the Middle East. This is only to be expected given the tremendous differences in the human ecology of monsoon Southeast Asia and the wide range of traditions and forms of social organization that had their home there from conditions prevailing in the Arab world.

Literary activities fecundated by Islamization

These are of various kinds. Important among them is a historiography. Certainly there is an influence of both Arabic and Persian historiography on the writing of Malay court chronicles. Such works were given an Islamic flavor by the use of Arabic words such as sejarah (Arab., shajara [t al-nasab]), meaning family line, chronicle, or history, and silsilah, or lineage, in the titles to indicate a genealogy or succession of rulers. The Malay chronicle of the kingdom of Malacca that purports to give an account of the antecedents and genealogy of the Malaccan sultanate (14001511), for example, is known as the Sejarah Melayu. Although popularly known in English as The Malay Annals, the title really means a genealogy of the Malays, by which is meant the Malay rulers of Malacca. The work, it may be noted, although it spans a century, and presents vivid vignettes of court life, has no dates.

There are a number of similar court and dynasty based histories of the states of the Malay peninsula. Despite Arabic words in their titles, however, many of them have more in common with the Malay folk tradition than of Arabo-Persian historiography. In fact, up to the late nineteenth century only in a few cases did works of this kind develop with the concern for date and fact that characterizes Muslim historiography as a whole. One is the historical writing of Nūr al-Dīn al-Rānīrī, an itinerant scholar of Gujarati origin (an illustration of the significant role expatriate ʿulamā ʾ played in the religious life of the region). Although only in Aceh between 1637 and 1642, he wrote in Malay the Bustan al-Salatin (The garden of kings), a universal history, including a book on the history of Aceh, which is one of the most important and reliable sources for the history of the sultanate. (Aside from his importance as a historian, he was a vicious polemicist, who while he enjoyed the patronage of the Acehnese court, had many of the writing of amzah Fanūrī and Shams al-Dīn burnt, and their followers executed.) Another example of historical writing in the Islamic tradition is the Tuhfat al-nafis (Dedication to the noble endeavour), a history of the Riau archipelago, by Raja Haji Ali of Riau, written in the wake of an Islamic revival in the late nineteenth century.

In addition there are works literary in character, some of them based on the prophets of the pre-Muslim era, on events in the life of the prophet Muammad and his companions, and on the heroes of Islam. Some of these are extant in manuscripts from the beginning of the seventeenth century. Early stories that have been discovered include Malay renderings of the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife, possibly from a Persian source, was copied in 1604, and alongside it versions of the story of Iskandar Dhu al-Qarnayn (Alexander the Great) and other stories of the prophets of Islam. The 1612 rescension of The Malay Annals opens with a version of the story of Alexander's invasion of India and presents him as the ultimate ancestor of the Malacca dynasty. This story then was well known, and the name Alexander popular. Iskandar it may also be remarked, was the name of the greatest ruler of Aceh (Iskandar Muda, r. 16071636).

Other stories that became popular from this period centered on the Prophet's uncle Amīr amzah and the Shīʿī hero Muammad ibn al-anafīyah. The Malay Annals suggests that versions of these stories were preserved in the Malacca library and as of 1511 were held in great esteem. The reference to them may be apocryphal: it indicates that they were to be recited to the Malaccan soldiers to give them courage for battle against the Portuguese on the following day, a battle that was to end in the Portuguese occupation of Malacca. Nevertheless, their symbolic role was well known at the time that the 1612 rescension of The Malay Annals was compiled. Equally important, the popularity of such works suggests at least the presence of a Shīʿī flavor to Islam in Aceh during this period. Shīʿī or not, there is certainly a strong Persian flavor in the literary works that were rendered into Malay, the most outstanding of which at this early period is a version of the ūīnāmah (Book of the parrot) known in Malay as Hikayat bayan budiman (Story of the wise parrot).

There is in addition a wholesale collection of stories of Islamic provenance that has found its way into Malay and Javanese and other related languages. Such stories derive more from the popular than the belletristic traditions, and more of them have come via the Indian subcontinent than directly from the Arab Middle East, although even here the distinction is not absolute. Stories and fables in Arabic have been rendered into a variety of local vernaculars, and thence passed on to reappear in the languages of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago.

It must be remembered that stories about the heroes of Islam, while having a role as religious instruction, were equally important as entertainment and became widely popular. As a result, these heroes became part of community education for all levels of society and all ages, and thus, by allowing popular audiences to share in the experience of other communities of these heroes, they served to create a general pan-Islamic consciousness. Manuscript catalogues include numerous copies of stories of Muammad ibn al-anafīyah and Amīr amzah; there are collections of stories of the prophets and tales of the individual prophets including Adam, Abraham, Noah, and Moses. In Java, the story of Joseph was especially popular.

To these, however, should be added stories quite divorced from these religious figures, but which derive from Islamic sources and which have an Islamic ethos. These include many tales that appear in collections such as The 1,001 Nights, and classics such as the ūīnāmah referred to earlier. Among other collections of stories are the Kalīlah and Dimnah, which was known as early as 1736, and the Bakhtiyār-nāmah (Book of Bakhtiyār), a kind of reversal of the 1,001 Nights that is a grand story of a young prince who is accused by ten viziers of having an affair with a chambermaid, but who postpones his execution by telling stories until the truth is discovered. This theme, it may be noted, was famous in Persian and Turkish popular literature, as well as in medieval Latin.

How these tales were first rendered into Malay is not known: They may have been carried by the oral tradition and set down in writing by court scribes, according to established literary conventions, to be recited on royal occasions, or there may have been some kind of committee composed of reader, oral translator, and scribe. It is certain, however, that such stories were preserved in court libraries, that access to them was restricted to senior court officials, and that the sultan had the authority to declare which might be read.

This composite Islamic tradition, whether formed directly from Arabic sources or mediated through Indian vernaculars, remains popular throughout Muslim Southeast Asia in numerous retellings, adaptations, and even dramatizations. In West Java, a cycle of Amīr amzah stories has become part of the repertory of the puppet theater. Evidence of this past and present popularity, apart from observation, can be gleaned from the catalogues of Malay, Javanese, and Sundanese manuscripts, to mention only a few.

Revival and reform movements

Islamicized Southeast Asia was an integral part of the Muslim world. In consequence there was a sensitivity to and identification with an Islamic ethos, which although at times not totally unequivocal, rendered such Muslim communities responsive to movements that caught the imagination and fired the enthusiasm of their coreligionists in other parts of the Muslim world. One such movement was the Wahhābī uprising in Arabia during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Inspired by the ideal of cleansing Islam from accretions and practices that were held to be incompatible with tawīd, the unity of God, it resorted to force to put Islamic law and ritual observances into effect. A group of Sumatran scholars in Arabia when the Wahhābīs conquered Mecca in 1803, returning home filled with enthusiasm for the ideals of the movement led to the rise of the Padri movement in the Minangkabau area of Central Sumatra. This movement set itself against the traditional elite, which it regarded as compromising with non-Islamic practices and values, whether reflected in the lifestyle of the traditional rulers or in the matrilineal descent system of the region. Their reaction was to lead to a civil war that gave the Dutch government an opportunity to intervene on the part of the traditionalists and to defeat the leader of the revolt, Imām Bondjol, in 1842.

It may well have been also that the Java War (18261830) between rival members of the royal court likewise took part of its energy from this ferment in Islam. It should not be imagined that the expansion of Islam was always peaceful, or that even the relationships among different traditions of Islam were without conflict. One need only recall the persecution and book burning in Aceh between 1637 and 1642, sometimes referred to as an attempt by the so-called Shuhūdīyah ("unity of witness") school of mysticism to suppress the Wujūdīyah ("unity of being") tradition; the wars waged by Sultan Agung's successor, Amangkurat I, in the 1660s against the more shariʿa minded Muslim communities of the north coast of Java; and the scatological and even obscene diatribes written in Javanese to make fun of the professional ʿulamāʾ in the nineteenth century.

It must be emphasized however that the modes of participation of Southeast ʿulamāʾ in the wider world of Islam were complex and diverse. They were certainly not limited to the transmissions of varying forms of Islamic radicalism. Much of their work and thinking was conveyed in treatises they wrote in Arabic. The Indonesian scholar Azyumardi Azra has made a detailed study of the networks of religious teachers binding together the geographically separate zone of the Muslim world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They continued and continue. Some of the works they produced are minor tracts devoted to issues that became shibboleths, for example, whether the commencement of the fasting month was to be decided by the sighting of the moon or by calculation, or whether the formulation of intention before beginning a ritual prayer should be made aloud or mentally. Such material has only a local and historical importance. Occasionally, however, a substantial work appears and wins an established position. One such text was Marah labid (Rich pasture), a two-volume Qurʾān commentary of about one thousand pages by a Muammad Nawawi al-Jawi, scholar from Banten, on the north coast of West Java. He was born in 1815, went to study in the Muslim Holy Land in 1830, and died in Mecca in 1893. Published in Cairo by the well-known firm of Halabi in 1887, Marah labid is still available in the Middle East and remains popular as an intermediate-level work in religious schools in many regions of Malaysia and Indonesia. His Arabic style is fluent and lucid, and the great scholar, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī's (d.1210) Mafatih al-ghayb is among his primary authorities. The work is accordingly rich in its spirituality and the sheer humanistic values that it expresses. It is also worth drawing attention to a large (thousand-page) commentary on al-Ghazali's Minhaj al-ʿabidin ila jannat rabb al-ʿalamin by an East Javanese scholar from the region of Kediri, recently republished in Surabaya. In addition to such major works, there are hundreds of minor ones issuing from Arabic printing presses scattered over Sumatra, Java, the Malay Peninsula, and Borneo, where both private and state supported madrasah abound.

Al-Afghānī ʿAbduh and the reformist movement

It was these same networks that were to bring the reformist movement inspired by Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Muammad ʿAbduh from the Middle East to Sumatra, Java, and the Malay Peninsula, to be diffused from there to southern Thailand, and paradoxically, from Hadrami communities in Java back to southern Arabia.

It soon fecundated a vigorous counterpart in Southeast Asia. In particular, students from the Malay world in the Middle East, especially those studying at al-Azhar University in Cairo, were inspired by ʿAbduh, Rashīd Riā, and their followers, and as they returned to Malaya and the Indies, they carried the new ideas with them. It coincided with a growing sense of national identity and resentment to Dutch and British rule. ʿAbduh's reformist program was based on four main points: the purification of Islam from corrupting influences and practices; the reformation of Muslim education; the reformation of Islamic doctrine in the light of modern thought; and the defence of Islam. The establishment of the reformist journal Al-manār (The lighthouse), published between 1898 and 1936 under the editorship of ʿAbduh and later that of Rashīd Riā, directly inspired two counterparts in the Malay world. Al-imām (The imām), published in Singapore between 1906 and 1908, transmitted the views of Al-manār and ʿAbduh's earlier journal, Al-ʿurwah al-wuthqā (The indissoluble bond), and published translations of their articles into Malay. Its layout followed that of Al-manār. Al-munīr (Illumination), established in the major West Sumatran port town of Padang, was published between 1911 and 1916; it too referred regularly to Al-manār and published translations from the Egyptian journal.

Al-manār in turn reflected the interest that it generated in Southeast Asia: from the very year of its founding, it included articles, in Arabic, either written by Southeast Asian Muslims studying in Cairo or contributed by ʿulamāʾ from a wide range of places in the Indies, including Singapore, Batavia, Malang, Palembang, Surabaya, and Sambas (Borneo), some on a range of Southeast Asiarelated topic. An 1898 article, for example, reports on a request by some Javanese Muslims to the Dutch colonial government for them to be allowed to acquire Ottoman citizenship; other articles address complaints of Dutch harassment of Muslims, problems of marriages between sayyid s (the Muslim elite) and Muslim commoners, and the humiliations of quarantine regulations imposed on Muslims making the pilgrimage. A 1909 article from Palembang tells how Al-manār had inspired the Muslims of the region to form associations and financial unions to support Islamic schools to teach Arabic, the religious disciplines, and secular subjects. Two years later, another interesting entry praises the periodical for creating an intellectual movement among Muslims and describes how a school director had been inspired by Al-manār to introduce the Berlitz method of teaching foreign languages in his school. A 1930 communication from Sambas was particularly important, for it requested Rashīd Riā to put to the famous writer Shakīb Arslān certain questions relating to reasons for the backwardness of Muslims and the progress of other peoples. The response to this request, first published in three parts in Al-manār, was to become Arslān's well-known book Limādhā taʾakhkhara al-Muslimūn wa-taqaddama al-ākharūn (Why do the Muslims lag behind and the others progress?), which was in due course to be translated into Malay. The episode is important because it indicates the seriousness and care of the response of Egyptian scholars to the queries and difficulties of their Southeast Asian coreli-gionists.

The educational dimension of the reform program quickly made itself felt. Here a few examples will suffice. The work of ToʾKenali (18661933), a scholar from Kelantan, an east-coast state of the Malay Peninsula, is representative of many, including some who became famous in Patani and Cambodia (Kampuchea) at the turn of the century. He went to Mecca at the age of twenty and stayed in the Middle East for twenty-two years before returning to Kelantan in 1908. In 1903 he traveled to Egypt to visit al-Azhar and other educational institutions. It is possible that he met ʿAbduh on this occasion. There is no doubt, however, that he had absorbed the educational ideals of the movement. He quickly became famous as a teacher was appointed assistant to the muftī in Kelantan with responsibility for Islamic education in the state, and set up a network of schools. He introduced Malay textbooks in religious knowledge and devised a system of graded instruction in Arabic grammar. Indeed, one of his students (born in Mecca of Malay parents in 1895), on returning to Kelantan in 1910, was inspired by him to compile an Arabic-Malay dictionary with entries and definitions in part based on the famous and widely respected Lebanese Arabic-Arabic dictionary Al-munjid. His work was first published in 1927, and is still available.

The reform, however, was reflected not only in text-books, but also in classroom organization. The traditional method of teaching was known as the alaqah ("study circle"), where students, irrespective of age, would sit in a circle around the teacher, who would present material to be learned by rote. The introduction of the classroom method, where the students sat in rows and used graded texts, together with the encouragement of active class participation, was a remarkable change of style. No less remarkable was the inclusion of secular subjects in the curriculum. Schools inspired by the reform movement multiplied in various parts of the archipelago, sometimes identified with individuals, sometimes initiated within the framework of an organization. Many sprang up and disappeared like mushrooms.

Of those founded by individuals, one that became important was the Sumatra Thawalib school founded in 1918. Another was the Sekolah Diniyah Putri in Padang Panjang, a religious school for girls founded in 1921 by a woman named Rahmah al-Yunusiyah. Designed to train students in the basic rules and practices of Islam and in the understanding of the principles and applications of Islamic law, particularly in matters of special concern to women, the school also set out to give girls an education in those matters that would enable them to run their homes efficiently and care for the health and education of their children. While from one standpoint the discipline of the institution was strict and the scope for individual development narrow, it won the confidence of isolated village communities, and in fact, its students gained wider horizons than those girls who remained in the interior. In fact it played an important role in advancing the status and self-respect of women in the community.

This school was, in fact, a strikingly original institution (and was to inspire the founding of the Kullīyat al-Banāt within al-Azhar in 1957). Yet it was based on simple premises: a universalistic presentation of Islamic teaching in combination with secular subjectshistory, geography, book-keeping, domestic science and the likeand the founder's determination to establish an institution that would present itself in every respect as an alternative to the Dutch system, from curriculum to the yearly cycle of festivals and the Islamic calendar (Friday was the day off) to student dress. It guarded its independence and refused offers of subsidy from the Dutch government. It still flourishes today and during the 1930s had branches in Java and the Malay Peninsula.

The Muhammadiyah

The most famous and long-lived of all socioreligious reformist movements in the Indies was the Muhammadiyah, founded in 1912 in Yogyakarta (Central Java) by Kiai H. A. Dahlan. At first it was an exclusively male organization, but before long it had as an affiliate a parallel women's organization called ʿAʾisyiyah, through which women could play an independent role in furthering its ideals. These included improving the basic observance of the norms of Islamic life, and a vigorous dedication to tabligh (religious instruction). But its goals went further than this. The organization was determined to propagate the ideas of the reformists concerning the purification of Islam from traditional accretions, in particular from the animistic beliefs that were so much part of the world view of the Javanese peasantry, and from the religious attitudes and values of the upper classes, for whom the Hindu-Buddhist traditions of the pre-Islamic periodtraditions embodied in the Javanese shadow theaterwere still very much alive. A special target for attack was the cult of saints' tombs.

The organization consciously adopted the institutional structures of the Dutch, and its members made a careful study of the techniques of Christian missionary organizations. Carrying on vigorous missionary activities, it expanded into journalism and publishing and established mosques, religious endowments, orphanages, and clinics. But its central role was in education, where it set up an entire system from primary school to teacher training colleges. Like ToʾKenali in Kelantan on the Malay Peninsula, the Muhammadiyah together with ʿAʾisyiyah carried on the impulse generated by Muammad ʿAbduh to reform the traditional Islamic educational systemby grading teaching materials and classes, by sitting students at desks faced by teachers with blackboards, and by assessing their progress with formal examinations and the award of individual marks that determined when they could move from one grade to the next.

The Muhammadiyah's strict and responsible methods of organization and financial management ensured its stability, and by the 1930s it had established branches as far afield as North, Central, and South Sumatra, Borneo, and Sulawesi, thus taking on a protonational character.

Another aspect of the reformist movement was its campaign against the ūfī arīqah. For the reformers the arīqah represented the one element in traditional Islam that most contributed to the backwardness of Muslims and the lack of respect they had in the world. They held that the arīqah promoted a passive otherworldliness, that it discouraged initiative, and that the dedication to the shaykh, the head of the branch, overshadowed devotion to the Prophet and God himself. In addition, the ascetic exercises of members and their fondness for reciting sacred formulas were considered intellectually harmful, often paving the way for the absorption of non-Islamic practices. In short, the reformists took over and applied all the arguments marshaled against the arīqah by the Al-manār tradition. There is a reasonable documentation of debates between the two sides on the issue. Conventional wisdom is that the ūfī orders in the Dutch East Indies, were almost a spent force by the 1930s, with their followers to be found only in the remoter rural areas. Rumors of their demise have long been exaggerated, often by the Reformists. Certainly on the Malay Peninsula they continued to fare well, and maintained a social role there, as they still do. Indeed, one of the leading figures of religious reform and revival in Kelantan was Wan Musa, who, when he studied in Mecca with his father, was introduced to the theosophy of Muyī al-Dīn ibn al-ʿArabī and inducted into the Shādhilīyah arīqah. He introduced the reforms of ʿAbduh and Rashīd Ridā into Kelantan and rejected taqlīd, or unquestioning acceptance of precedent, yet defended the institutional role of the arīqah and preserved the content of ūfī doctrine, stressing in his instruction the role of intellect, intuition, and emotion.

Some idea of the continuing role of the Indonesian arīqah at a public level by 1955 can be gained from the fact that an attempt to obtain representation for these movements in the national parliament at the first general election resulted in the election of one member, a Naqshbandī. This, of course, is not necessarily an index of the relative strength of arīqah, only that many arīqah members did not see the national parliament as an appropriate forum for arīqah activity.

The Nahdlatul Ulama

The Reformist movement as represented by Muhammadiyah (today an estimated membership of 20,000,000) and other organizations did not go unchallenged, and there has been a tendency to exaggerate its successes. The traditionalists had their own support base and intellectual resources. They too developed their own organizations in response to the challenge presented by the reformists. Of them, the most important was the Nahdlatul Ulama (lit., "revival of the ʿulamāʾ "), founded in 1926, which is today (2003) the largest religious organization in Indonesia with an estimated membership of thirty million, It stood for the traditional role of the ʿulamāʾ. It accepted the realities of development and history, and was tolerant of many of the religious practices in religious life that the Reformists condemned. Thus it opposed the puritanical neo-Hanbalism implicit in the Reformists' reliance on the Qurʾān and sunnah alone. One of its basic principles was the requirement to adhere to one or another of the four schools of law as the basis for the application of fiqh, and in Indonesia this meant, in practice, the Shāfiʿi school. Although defense of the arīqah was not a formal part of its program, in practice, as a result of its cultural tolerance, it did so, and provided a wide space for the mystical tradition.

The Japanese interregnum and beyond

By the end of the 1930s there was a rich and diverse tapestry of Islamic thought, activity and aspiration in the region, although under colonial rule, these did not have a high profile, nor any direct or decisive role in government. The Japanese occupation hastened the development of national self-awareness and laid the groundwork for the organization and development of movements that would undermine attempts to restore colonial authority after the war. This was to have implications for the role of Islamic movements in the newly independent states of Indonesia (proclaimed August 17, 1945) and Malaya (established 1957, becoming the Federation of Malaysia in 1963). In each of these nations there have been differences in the articulation of Islamic movements, and hence a different story that continues in progress.


The current dominant political party at the national level, is the United Malay National Organisation, generally identified by its acronym UMNO. It was founded in 1946 in the wake of British constitutional proposals for the territory after the Japanese surrender.

In Malaya (after 1963 Malaysia), up to the time of independence in 1957 religious parties did not have a high political profile: to be a Malay is, by definition, to be a Muslim, to live by Malay custom, and to speak the Malay language. At this time the Malays comprised little more than half the total population of the territory they shared with Chinese and Indians. Their urban presence and participation in economic was limited. They could only manifest their identity in the persons and ceremonial role of the sultans of the nine states on the peninsula and in the profession of Islam. The situation was one in which in which the Malay language and even survival of the Malay race was at stake. At first there was little scope for a competing religious party. In any case, to be a Malay was to be a Muslim, and the sultans were the ultimate authorities over religion and Malay custom in their states. Nevertheless, a dedicated religious party was founded in 1951, the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (PMIP). Its concern was that the constitution of an independent Malaya be built on Islamic structures and institutions. At this stage it had little direct influence on the outcome of policy, and in 1957, Malay became essentially a secular state, with Islam as the national religion, and thus part of the state structure, but with guarantees of freedom for other religions. Race riots in 1969 resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency. Constitutional rule was restored in 1971 with the swearing in of a National Front coalition government, in which the PMIP took part. In 1973 it changed its name to Partai Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), and in 1977 was forced to withdraw from the National Front government. PAS was from then on an opposition party, its program based on a radical Islamization of the nation. Its influence has since waxed and waned. In the wake of the economic crisis of the 1990s and the dismissal and imprisonment of the deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, it drew a significant measure of the support of Malay voters away from UMNO. It is however more important than its parliamentary representation at the national level suggests. On the one hand it functions as a kind of Islamic ginger group. By claiming to be more Islamic than UMNO, it can impel UMNO towards more Islamic policies at the national level. But more seriously, it has a significant influence at state level, and the lines between federal and state authority are not clearly drawn. PAS currently holds power in the two northern states of Kelantan and Trengganu, and has influence in a number of others. It urges a full implementation of Islamic law, and is concerned with the active promotion of what is deemed good, and the prohibition of evil. The result is that at state level aspects of what is deemed to be Islamic law is imposed on Muslims: the sale of alcohol banned, social relations between the sexes restricted, and offences such as taking food during the daylight hours of the month of Ramaān, or failing to attend the Friday prayer are punishable by religious courts. Malay translations of the Bible are not allowed to include words such as Allāh, imān and rasūl that are deemed to be Islamically specific. A high profile is accorded to Islam in the way the nation presents itself to the world, although not much more than 50 percent of the population is Muslim. Considerable funds from the public purse are devoted to daʾwa, which can be understood as presenting Islam to the non-Muslim population, or making those who are Muslims better Muslims, or both. By these means, the government is trying to cut the ground from under the feet of radicals. At the same time it is supporting programs that inculcate a broader understanding of religion. There are sophisticated programs in Islamic studies at university level, and in 1983 was founded the International Islamic University it Kuala Lumpur. It has established itself as a high quality institution with faculties across the disciplines alongside Islamic revealed knowledge and human sciences, Arabic, fiqh and uūl al-fiqh. It has a highly trained and internationally qualified staff, and over ten thousand students. Languages of instruction are Arabic and English.


The role of Islam and Islamic movements in postcolonial Indonesia has been far more directly involved in the political process, on a far greater scale, and at times to much greater dramatic effect. With the Japanese occupation, all Muslim associations were dissolved and then reconstituted into an umbrella organization encompassing both reformists and traditionalists, the Majlis Shura Muslimin Indonesia, or Consultative Assembly of Indonesian Muslims, known widely by its acronym Masyumi. After the war, the organization broke up into two main wings: the one that kept the name Masyumi became the political wing of the reformist movement and drew most of its strength from Sumatra and the large towns in Java, while the other, Nahdlatul Ulama, now took a public role as a political party and derived most of its strength from the rural areas of East Java. An index to the standing of the parties, and therefore the distribution of attitudes, is furnished by the results of the 1955 elections, in which the Masyumi won 57 seats and the Nahdlatul Ulama won 45 out of a total of more than 250. Even taking into account the seats held by minor religious parties, this meant that more than half of the Muslim electorate had cast its vote for nonreligious parties.

With the proclamation of Indonesian independence on August 17, 1945, two days after the Japanese surrender, and with the transfer of sovereignty by the Dutch in 1950, Muslim groups exerted considerable pressure to have Indonesia declared an Islamic state, with the provisions of Muslim law binding on Muslims.

It was only after long and bitter debates between religious factions and the secular nationalists in the few months prior to the Japanese surrender that a compromise was reached, and the Pancasila ("five pillars"), a set of five principles formulated by Sukarno, first president of the republic, were with certain qualifications accepted as the basis of the new state. Since the first of these principles was belief in one God, this formula made Indonesia a nonconfessional state without making it a secular one. A corollary of this charter was the establishment of a ministry of religion early in the republic's history. This ministry was to take care of the needs and interests of every religious community in the country (although later there were to be difficulties as to the terms under which the Hindu Balinese and the Javanese mystical groups might be included within its terms of reference).

Religious revolts

The compromise, however, did not last long. After the proclamation of independence, the secular nationalists dropped the references to the position of Islam in the state agreed to in it. For the hard-line Muslims, this was a confirmation of their worst fears. The disillusion and bitterness generated on the Muslim side led to three major risings against the republican government. The first and most dangerous broke out before independence from the Dutch had been secured. After several months of guerrilla activity, Kartosuwirjo (19231962), a former medical student, proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic state of Indonesia on August 7, 1949, in the mountainous regions of West Java and was inaugurated as imām of the state. He and his movement conducted a guerrilla war, the Darul Islam revolt, against the government until 1962, when Kartosuwirjo was captured, and he and five of his associates were executed. The movement, while at first idealistic and attracting at least tacit support among some members of the Muslim political parties, gradually degenerated into a terrorist group that caused great human and material damage over West Java for more than ten years. It plundered and destroyed farms and peasant holdings to get financial resources and was behind several attempts to assassinate President Sukarno.

Two other major religious revolts inspired by the ideal of making Indonesia an Islamic state and realizing in it a dār al-Islām (Arab., "abode of Islam"; Indon., darul Islam ) were to break out. One was on the island of Sulawesi in 1952, with the leader of the movement, Kahar Muzakkar, accepting a commission from Kartosuwirjo in West Java as commander of the fourth division of the Islamic army of Indonesia. With varying levels of success he managed to maintain his movement until early 1965, when he was encircled and shot by republican forces. The other revolt, in late 1953, was led by Daud Beureuʾeh in Aceh, a region already referred to on several occasions for the strength of its Islamic traditions. This rising too was associated with the West Javanese movement. Daud Beureuʾeh proclaimed an Islamic state of Aceh and styled himself "Commander of the Faithful" (Amīr al-Muʾminīn, the historic title of the Muslim caliphs), but after nine years of struggle he made his peace with the central government in 1962. The details of these struggles belong more to political history than to that of Islam. It is important to observe, however, that these three very serious uprisings, costly in human lives and property, were put down by Muslim soldiers under a Muslim president of a national state based on an ideology, the Pancasila, that did not recognize exclusive claims on the part of any one religious tradition. Also that radical Islam on such a scale made its debut in Southeast Asia many years before the Iranian revolution.

Islamic policies in opposition

On a predominantly political level, the years between 1950 and 1965 saw continued but decreasingly successful efforts by the Muslim parties to gain by political means the power required to make Indonesia an Islamic state. They were never sufficiently strong to outnumber or wily enough to outmaneuver the alliance between the "secular" nationalists and the radical left-wing parties. In the last resort they could claim loyalty to the Indonesian state by recognizing the Pancasila as the state ideology. And this they did by claiming that only Islamic theology could supply an adequate content to the first of these five principles: belief in one God.

The elimination of Sukarno as a political force in 1965 in the wake of an attempted communist coup, and the destruction of the Communist Party, led to a revival of Muslim expectations of a positive Islamic stance in government. These expectations were again disappointed, although Muslim mass action had one spectacular success in blocking a proposed marriage law which would have undercut the authority of religious courts, and allowed civil marriage in 1973. The position of the Suharto government was that Islam had no place in politics. Its role was spiritual and cultural, and in the political arena it represented as much a danger to the integrity of the state as had the Communist Party. In 1973 the number of parties eligible to contest parliamentary elections was reduced to four, and none was permitted to campaign in the name of a religion, or to use religious symbols, such as the Crescent Moon, or the Kaʿbah. Toward the end of the decade, the government began to insist that every organization within the state accepted the Pancasila as its sole ideological foundation, and in 1984 the Nahdlatul Ulamanow a social religious and not a political body, accepted this stipulation.

During the 1980s, the former Muslim parties though in secular garb were able to provide a significant measure of dissent to the increasingly authoritarian and corrupt Suharto government. If, during the 1950s their goal had been Indonesia as an Islamic state, their role now was to raise a voice of protest against corruption, secularism, consumerism, and the excesses of an open economy. At the same time the Islamic resurgence and ferment that began with the Arab-Israel war in 1973 and shifted in high gear with the Iranian revolution, did not bypass Southeast Asia.

In Malaysia there have been waves of Islamic enthusiasm since the early 1970s, and there is considerable pressure to Islamize life in the country. This has taken the form of moves to introduce Islamic banking; promulgation of rules for social behavior, especially in the form of khalwat laws, which prohibit situations of "suspicious proximity" between the sexes. There was a heightened concern that all products handled should be alāl, not just those concerned with food. Often Malays were reluctant to eat in non-Muslim households in case non-alāl material had touched the crockery. Such concerns resulted in conditions being imposed on the handling and selling of pork that virtually excluded it from the menus of international hotels.

People thus were becoming aware of their Muslim heritage and identity. Increasingly women wore the Islamic head-covering. There was a growing preoccupation with the observance of the prayer times and the Ramaān fast. Islamic schools saw a surge in enrollments, and Islamic symbols and motifs were used even in the commercial advertising of everyday products.

During this period observers have noted a marked increase in religious fervor. This is particularly evident in the university campuses and among civil servants: it is reflected in the observance of daily prayers and the fast, in the numbers of Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca, and in women's dress. In addition, various religious associations have sprung up, all dedicated to spreading Islamic teachings, but with different emphases.

In response to this developing situation, President Suharto, in Riddell's phrase, became a born-again Muslim. He made the pilgrimage with a fanfare of publicity in 1991. He presided over the establishment of a state Islamic Bank, and the launch of a government sponsored Islamic newspaper, Republika. The vice-president, B. J. Habibie played a major role in founding the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI), designed to develop a sophisticated and modern understanding and practice of Islam among professionally qualified people.

These attempts to harness a growing commitment to Islam were not sufficient to save Suharto from a groundswell of discontent. In 1998 he was forced to resign. The then vice-president (Habibie) succeeded him, and one of his first decisions was to permit the formation of new political parties. Ninety were formed, of which twenty-nine were Islamic based (although not all qualified to stand for election). When general elections were held the following year, secular parties gained 58.3 percent of the vote, and the five principal Islamic based parties, 38.5 percent. And of the Islamic parties contesting the election, only three, representing no more than 14.5 percent of the electorate, had Indonesia as an Islamic state as part of their program. In the wake of these elections, Abdurrahman Wahid, a former leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama was appointed president, and Megawati Sukarno Putri of a secular party became vice president. In 2001, Abdurrahman Wahid was impeached. Sukarno Putri thereupon became president, and Hamzah Haz, leader of the other major Islamic party became vice president.

At a macro-level, the most striking result of this election is the drop in support for the idea of an Islamic state. In 1955, the two principal parties campaigning on the program of an Islamic state gained around 42 percent of the vote. In 1999, those in favor of an Islamic state gained around 14.5 percent. In light of the high profile of Islamic radicals in the region, these figures are significant. Relatively few Indonesian Muslims support Islamic political movements. The majority is content to live and work within the status quo, Javanese dominated though it is, and with Islamic styles of behavior and forms of worship tacitly accepted as religious norm of social life.


In a sense, no conclusion is possible, for the story is open-ended. An account of such events at what one might call the macro-level gives very little sense of Islam as it is lived, its dynamics, values, aspirations, frustrations, and the challenges it faces in a rapidly changing world among the Muslims of the region. Among them is great variety, and a wide range of emphases.

To the superficial observer, there is at first sight little outward evidence of Southeast Asia's widespread Islamic allegiance. There is little of the exuberant architecture that so characterizes Muslim civilization in South and West Asia. Traditional forms of music and the dance, styles of dress, social structures, systems of inheritance, and personal and family law all suggest a complex of cultures that owes little to Islam. Observers coming from the Middle East, taking as a norm outward manifestations of Islam in the Arab world, where so much that was local custom at the time of the Prophet is now inseparable from the Islamic tradition, may be perplexed at the variety and distinctiveness of Southeast Asian Islam. They may even regard much of what they see there as non-Islamic, forgetting that in the early years of Islam, much in Middle Eastern culture was non-Islamic, but with the passage of time was transmuted and given an Islamic meaning and identity.

In each of the nation-states of the region, Islam has a different profile. In Thailand, it is represented by a minority, ethnically Thai, but in general geographically limited to the southeast of the country. In Malaysia Muslims are today up to 60 percent of the population. Islam is to a high degree an emblem of Malay ethnicity and Malay kingship. To be a Malay is to be a Muslim, and it is through their profession of Islam that the Malays define their identity in relation to other races in their multiracial nation, notably the Chinese. In Singapore, Muslims are a small minority in what is essentially a Chinese state, and almost all are ethnically Malay. In Indonesia, Muslims are an overwhelming majority, almost 90 percent of the population, but are distributed among a variety of (related) ethnicities which while having an individual ethnic region as a point of origin, are widely dispersed, and share in taking part in national civic life on equal terms in the professions and the instrumentalities of government. In the Philippines, Muslims are a minority, largely defined by ethnicity, and geographically concentrated in the south.

For the great majority of Muslims in all these regions, being a Muslim is as natural, as unreflective as breathing, whether a particular community places a high or low value on external observances such as the fast and the ritual prayer and whatever the regional observances it chooses to decorate and enhance its Islamic practice at rites of passage. Religion then has to do primarily with personal devotion, morality, and events in the life cycle. To the superficial observer, many of the Javanese peasantry, for example, might not appear to be Muslims at all. Yet relatively few claim exclusive allegiance either to Buddhism, which is enjoying a revival, or to the mystical sects. For the great majority, what perception they have of transcendence is of Islamic transcendence. Even if this is the limit of their commitment, it is sufficient for them to be identified as Muslims.

The governments of both Malaysia and Indonesia have invested a great deal of effort and funding in Islamization projects, projects designed to raise the level of Islamic consciousness, and strengthen belief and practice within the framework of constitutional government and civil administration. In so doing, they are attempting to cut the ground from under the feet of the Muslim radicals for whom any formal recognition of religious pluralism is anathema. The inevitable result is that despite good intentions, non-Muslim religious communities, though tolerated and even respected, do not have the same right to present themselves in public life as have Muslims.

Islamic education at tertiary level has an important contribution to make. Reference has already been made to the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur. Indonesia has established IAIN (State Universities of Islamic Studies) in virtually every province which combine training in the religious disciplines with secular subjects. They are designed to produce graduates in Islamic law, education, and preaching, and to produce graduates with a well-rounded education qualified to serve in the various departments of religious administration in the public service.

Alongside the government system there is a large number of smaller institutions that teach in Arabic and graduate hundreds of students who travel overseas for higher learning; sometimes these students attend secular institutes in Australia, Britain, and Canada, for example, but of course they go more often to religious ones in India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Indeed, students from Indonesia and Malaysia have a very high profile at al-Azhar in Cairo, and at the celebration of the millennium of al-Azhar in April 1983, Southeast Asian students were the most prominent community of foreigners studying at the institution, as indeed they are on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Nevertheless, the diffusion of graduates of these institutions is uneven, and there is a significant number of Muslim thinkers who have developed an intellectual interest in the role of religion in the modern world, outside of the traditional Islamic disciplines of fiqh and kalām, some under the influence of the minority Lahore Amadiyah, who have a small presence in Indonesia.

Thus there is a deep reservoir of concern for and expertise in religious matters that study clubs, workshops and associations can draw on vigorously to debate religious issues. Such issues include the validity of traditional procedures of Qurʾān interpretation, the status of many of the positive prescriptions of fiqh, and the authority religious institutions should exercise in society. Riddell gives an account of these debates in Islam and the Malay-Indonesian World. Striking are the words of Abdurrahman Wahid, former president of Indonesia, speaking of why he declined to join ICMI, "As long as they think Islam is an ideology, then I will not participate. Islam is a way of life. Its adherents should follow it voluntarily, not needing any legislation from the state." There is however in the region as much as in the wider world of Islam a simmering cauldron of ideas on the realization and rethinking of Islam in the contemporary world, that has generated a baffling range of terms to designate various tendenciestraditionalists, modernists, neo-modernists, reformists without even coming to the usual catalogue of terms of abuse and mutual recrimination among such groups.

Events such as the September 11, 2001, outrages in the United States, the consequent American-led invasion of Afghanistan, the increasing bitterness between Israelis and Palestinians, the Bali bombing in October 2002, and finally the invasion of Iraq in 2003, have heightened the sensitivities of many exposed nerves among numbers of Muslims. In our region, as elsewhere, there are groups of radicals inspired by the ideas of asan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mawdudi, and the writings of Sayyid Qutbreadily available in Indonesian/Malay translation.

The mentality exemplified by the Egyptian Takfir wa al-Hijra (Denounce and Abandon) groups, and in turn al-Qāʿidah, has its representatives in Southeast Asia. It is represented in the Jamaʾa Islamiyya (al-Jamaʿatuʾl-Islamiyya) associated with the Bali bombings in October 2002, itself an heir of the Darul Islam movement that terrorized large areas of Indonesia in the 1950s. It is expressed in the activities of the Abu Sayyaf movement in the Philippines, and likewise in the violence of the virtual civil war with Christians in the Moluccas, and the bombing of churches in different parts of the country in Christmas 2000.

The leaders of such fringe groups, with international backing, can draw on latent resentment at past wrongs, and the frustrations and despairs attending much of daily life in Indonesia, to create a turmoil, totally disproportionate to their numbers.

It is clear that virtually every movement in the Islamic world and every emphasis and school has found a counterpart in Southeast Asia alongside local responses to them. Even in the architecture of the mosque, there is a distinctive regional style alongside the domes and minarets and arched masonry imported from the Middle East: splendid timber structures with rising tiers of tapering hipped roofs supported on multiple columns. I have referred to the long tradition of local ʿulamā ʾ settling as expatriates in the Middle East, either permanently or on a long-term basis. Indonesian and Malaysian Muslims have not gone to the Middle East only to study. Numbers of them have gone west as volunteers to fight for what they perceived as the defense of Islam, whether in Bosnia, Afghanistan, or Iraq. There is likewise the continuing tradition of ʿulamā ʾ from the Middle East and South Asia becoming domiciled in Southeast Asia. There is a strength and vitality in Islamic life expressed in a wide range of religious perceptions and enthusiasms both at individual and community levels. The region is not simply a passive, partial and selective recipient of Islam. It has its traditionalists, it has its jihadi warriors, but also among its scholars are pioneers of new ways of acculturating Islam in the modern world and facing its challenges. Every issue is faced, not least those to do with the position of women in society. They are faced with an outspokenness and courage that would not be tolerated in many other areas of the Islamic world. How the balance of the various elements will shift for good or for ill in the years ahead is an unanswerable question. Whatever the future holds, Southeast Asia is a distinctive and vibrant cultural zone of the Islamic world, which in some areas gives leadership to it. Further consideration of it merely as a periphery of that world (sadly still fashionable in some quarters) should be put to rest.

See Also

Acehnese Religion; Javanese Religion; Modernism, article on Islamic Modernism; Southeast Asian Religions, article on Insular Cultures; arīqah.


Unfortunately no single basic work on Islam in Southeast Asia yet exists. What follows should serve as a guide to the general reader and not as an exhaustive list. For the historical context within which Islam plays its various roles in Southeast Asia, John Sturgus Bastin and Harry J. Benda's exquisitely written and lucid A History of Modern Southeast Asia: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Decolonization (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1968) makes sense of the region as a whole, from Burma to the Philippines. D. G. E. Hall's A History of South-East Asia, 4th ed. (London, 1981), is still the basic work for a historical survey of Southeast Asia as a whole from the earliest times up to 1950. A very useful source book is Readings on Islam in Southeast Asia, edited by Ahmad Ibrahim (Singapore, 1985). See also Barbara Andaya and Leonard Andaya's A History of Malaysia (London, 1982) and M. C. Ricklefs's A History of Modern Indonesia, c. 1300 to the Present (Bloomington, Ind., 1981).

The Modern Period

C. van Dijk's Rebellion under the Banner of Islam: The Darul Islam in Indonesia (The Hague, 1981) is an admirably lucid analysis of revolts against the republican government in Indonesia between 1950 and 1965 directed toward the transformation of the nation into an Islamic state. Clifford Geertz's The Religion of Java (Chicago, 1976) is a masterpiece of sensitive ethnographic description, despite its somewhat mechanistic division of Javanese society into Santri (Muslim), abangan (peasant), and Prijayi (aristocratic bureaucrat), and its lack of depth in understanding the historical context of Javanese religion. Peter G. Gowing's Muslim Filipinos: Heritage and Horizon (Quezon City, Philippines, 1979), an excellent survey of the Muslim communities in the Philippines from the earliest days up to the 1970s, has a particularly useful bibliography. The Crescent in the East: Islam in Asia Major, edited by Raphael Israeli (London, 1982), includes chapters on Islam in Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Islam in Public Life, edited by John L. Esposito (New York, 1986), includes chapters on Islam in public life in Malaysia and Indonesia that give a reasonable account of the state of play in each nation. See also B. J. Boland's The Struggle of Islam in Modern Indonesia (The Hague, 1982); G. W. J. Drewes's "Indonesia: Mysticism and Activism," in Unity and Variety in Muslim Civilization, edited by Gustave E. von Grunebaum (Chicago, 1955), pp. 284310; my "An Islamic System or Islamic Values?: Nucleus of a Debate in Contemporary Indonesia," in Islam and the Political Economy of Meaning: Comparative Studies in Muslim Discourse, edited by W. R. Roff (Berkeley, 1986); and Astri Suhrke's "The Thai Muslims: Some Aspects of Minority Integration," Pacific Affairs 43 (Winter 19701971): 531547.

Specialized Studies

S. Q. Fatimi's Islam Comes to Malaysia (Singapore, 1963) is a short, provocative, but delightfully written book that elaborates a role attributed to ūfīs in the preaching of Islam in Southeast Asia, with a particularly interesting analysis of the inscribed pillar discovered at Phanrang. Islam in South-East Asia, edited by M. B. Hooker (Leiden, 1983), a collection of seven essays that add up to a fresh and vigorous approach to Islam in Southeast Asia, brings together perspectives derived from studies in ethnography, Islamic philosophy and law, and literature. Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje's The Achehnese, 2 vols., translated by A. W. S. O'Sullivan (Leiden, 1906), is a classic work of description of what from many aspects is the single most important Muslim community in Southeast Asia. Islam in Asia, vol. 2, Southeast and East Asia, edited by Raphael Israeli and myself (Boulder, Colo., 1984), includes such topics as a sociological analysis of Islamization in Java, Qurʾanic exegesis in Malaysia and Indonesia, and the reciprocal relationships between Islamic Southeast Asia and the heartlands of Islam. Clive S. Kessler's Islam and Politics in a Malay State: Kelantan 18381969 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1978) is an excellent microstudy of a small town in a Malay state that has wide implications for all Malaysia. Conversion to Islam, edited by Nehemia Levtzion (New York, 1979), is a very useful collection of essays providing a foundation for a comparative study of conversion to Islam. Kelantan: Religion, Society, and Politics in a Malay State, edited by W. R. Roff (Kuala Lumpur, 1974), is a most useful collection of material on Islamic life and movements in Kelantan that also presents a convincing paradigm for other regions. See also Muhammed Abdul Jabbar Beg's Arabic Loan-Words in Malay: A Comparative Study (Kuala Lumpur, 1982); C. C. Berg's "The Islamisation of Java," Studia Islamica 4 (1955): 11142; Christine E. Dobbin's Islamic Revivalism in a Changing Peasant Economy: Central Sumatra, 17841847 (London, 1983); my "Islam in Southeast Asia: Reflections on New Directions," Indonesia, no. 19 (April 1975): 3355; and Deliar Noer's The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia, 19001942 (Singapore, 1973).

Esposito, John L., ed. Islam in Asia: Religion Politics and Society. Oxford, 1987. This includes chapters on Malaysia and Indonesia giving a competent and lucid account of developments in both countries up to the date of publication.

Hefner, Robert W. Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton, N.J., 2000. A general and sympathetic account of the adaptation of Islamic movements in Indonesia in coming to terms with civil society.

Hooker, Virginia, and Norani Othman, eds. Malaysia: Islam, Society and Politics. Singapore, 2003. A collection of essays taking as a point of departure the work of Clive S. Kessler, a sociologist who has specialized in the role of PAS in the northern states of the Malay Peninsula.

Laffan, Michael Francis. Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma below the Winds. London, 2003. A study of the contribution of study in the Middle East (Egypt, Mecca, and Madina) by southeast Asian students towards the end of the nineteenth century to the evolution of Indonesian (and Malaysian) nationalism.

Riddell, Peter G. Islam and the Malay-Indonesian World Transmission and Responses, London, 2001. A recent, important, pioneering work with an emphasis on intellectual development from primary sources, up to the year of publication.

Riddell, Peter G. "The Diverse Voices of Political Islam in Post-Suharto Indonesia." Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 13, no. 1 (2002): 6584. A lucid and succinct account of rapid changes taking place in the Muslim political scene after the resignation of President Suharto.

Salim, Arskal, and Azumardi Azra, eds. Shariʿa and Politics in Modern Indonesia. Singapore, 2003. An account of debates concerning the feasibility of implementing Shariʿa law in Indonesia.


For an introduction to Islamic writing in the regional vernaculars, C. C. Brown's Sĕjarah Mĕlayu; or, Malay Annals (Kuala Lumpur, 1970) is a somewhat mannered but readable translation of the 1612 rescension of the Sejarah Melayu. G. W. J. Drewes's The Admonitions of Seh Bari (The Hague, 1969) is an edition and translation of a manuscript of a Javanese Primbon (student notebook) brought back to Europe around 1598; his Directions for Travellers on the Mystic Path (The Hague, 1977) includes a very valuable index and bibliography. Richard Winstedt's A History of Classical Malay Literature (Kuala Lumpur, 1969) is a difficult book to read, in a number of ways insensitive and obtuse, but nevertheless deserving sympathetic, careful study. See especially those chapters dealing with Muslim legends, cycles of tales from Muslim sources, and Islamic theology, jurisprudence, and history. See also L. F. Brakel's The Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyyah (The Hague, 1975).

A. H. Johns (1987 and 2005)

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