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Islam: Southeast Asia

Islam: Southeast Asia

The Muslim population of Southeast Asia is in excess of 250 million. It is the religion of the majority in Indonesia and Malaysia, with significant minorities in Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Islam has a five-hundred-year history in this region. Importantly, it was not imposed by conquest but freely adopted, initially by royal and upper classes and then percolating down to the masses. Of course its progress has been uneven, despite organized missionary efforts that began in the seventeenth century and continue into the early twenty-first century. However, the result has been that Islam in Southeast Asia is expressed in local idioms reflecting local cultural norms. These variations do not mean that the basics of revelation are or have been abandoned but that localized expressions incorporating indigenous philosophies are primary. To "know Islam" is thus to know the local forms.

Literature and Philosophy

The tradition of writing on these subjects dates from the seventeenth century. It is firmly within the Islamic tradition and consists of translation and commentary on the fundamentals of doctrine, accounts of the life of the Prophet, and, most important, speculative work on the outer limits of the permissible in doctrinesometimes subsumed under the rubric of "Sufi" texts. This speculative work is the major distinctive feature of Southeast Asian Islam and is often explained as a reaction to or accommodation with preexisting Hindu or Buddhist religious philosophies. Whatever the reason, this way of thinking about religion has persisted into the twenty-first century. The Arabic texts are mediated through the languages of the area (Malay, Indonesian, and cognates) and have become intensely localized.

One example of this distinctive development of Islam is the idea of gnosis originally expressed by Hamzah Fansuri, who taught in the seventeenth century that the believer could be one with God. That idea resonates in the early twenty-first century in Aceh in Sumatra (as well as other places), where something like 15 to 20 percent of state fatwas concern "heresy," in this case gnosis. This is an incredibly high figure, and the texts involved take us back to the seventeenth century. But a reaction to this idea began in the 1850s and continues in the twenty-first century; "purity" of doctrine has become a priority, inspiring a return to the uncontaminated sources, the Koran and the sunna. The literature and philosophy deriving from these sources, especially since the 1920s and 1930s, is minimalist or, some would say, "scripturalist." Its main characteristic is rejection of cultural complexity combined with a (perhaps) excessive respect for literal translations from the original Arabic. While this may be conducive to "purity," it is also impractical in daily life. The tension between culture and purity is ongoing and, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, largely unmediated. Increasingly the proponents from each side are becoming disengaged from each other; there is little communication, let alone attempts at mutual understanding. Each side produces its own literature and each claims its own authenticity.


Before the establishment of Dutch and British rule (from about 1800), the Muslims of Southeast Asia had sophisticated polities based on Muslim state practice in the Middle East. From thence were derived theories and practices of sovereignty, legitimacy of rule, public order and duty, and the distribution and exercise of power. However, the European powers replaced this tradition with colonial ("Western") principles, chief among which was the conviction that God was not necessary to validate government. Islam, and Islamic law and government, was reduced in status. From being the foundation of the state it became just a religion like any other. It had no public presence.

The Dutch in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) saw Islam as a political and military threat. Their solution was to deny the religion any credible public presence, and an important aspect of this effort was to deny shari'a (Islamic law) by subordinating it to custom (adat ), thus reducing its status to just a personal law. In time, however, the shari'a did receive limited recognition, which it retains in contemporary Indonesia. It is now a state-sponsored Compilation of Islamic Law (1991) administered through religious courts. Together these changes have successfully secularized the classical shari'a, which is now in a form unrecognizable to a classical scholar.

The same result has been achieved in Malaysia (formally British Malaya). Here a few selected rules of family law and trusts have been incorporated into English law precedents and statutes. These are a direct colonial legacy, and in contemporary Malaysia they are the shari'a that is administered in religious courts of restricted jurisdiction. Because Malaysia is a federation, each state has its own legislation, and thus shari'a varies from place to place, but the variations are not major. The main point to understand is that anyone trained in Anglo-American law can read and understand the shari'a in this form, whereas a classically trained qadi (judge) would be completely at a loss.

In short, for Southeast Asia, the shari'a has been redefined in secular terms, for administration by the state. It is not now necessary to know Arabic or the classical texts.

Islam and the State

With the ending of colonial repression in the 1950s, it became possible once more for Islam to have a public face in Indonesia and Malaysia. As well as establishing the religious courts and statutes of shari'a, both states introduced ministries or departments of religion and councils of muftis or ulema (authorities in Islamic law) and, most importantly, permitted political parties that promoted Islam as an ideology suitable for the nation-state. Religion became and remains an alternative to secular constitutionalism, although it has never been clear what an "Islamic state" would be, except that God's revealed truth would be fundamental. Neither Indonesia nor Malaysia describes itself as "Islamic" but rather as states populated by "a Muslim majority."

The Malaysian constitution says that "Islam is the religion of the Federation" (Article 3), but it also establishes freedom of religious belief and observance (Article 11). In practice there is no compulsion in religion. At the same time, a significant Islamic political party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, centered in the northeastern Malay Peninsula, a quite poor area, has been locally successful in elections. It appeals to "Islam," but this is not defined; the reason for the party's success is a justifiable resentment against lack of development. The religious card is hence quite potent for a Muslim audience, though it can be overplayed. For example, draft Islamic criminal law bills have been produced in the provinces of Kelantan and Trengganu that seek to introduce the seventh-century Arabian punishments (amputations, stoning) into modern Malaysia. They are unconstitutional, and they represent a definition of Islam that, as the 2004 elections showed, is soundly rejected. The present and future of Islam does not lie in these barbarisms, but such theologically illiterate interpretations remain potent justifications of extremism.

In Indonesia, Islam has no place as such in the constitution but is subsumed into the "belief in one God" principle, which encompasses all religions. The years since independence have seen debate between secular and religious interests regarding the status of Islam, and it remains unresolved. However, unlike Malaysia, Indonesia does have many (over eighty) mass movement organizations founded on Islam. The largest, the Nahdlatul Ulama, based in East and Central Java, represents a "traditionalist" (Arabic-based) interpretation of religion. The smaller Muhammadiyah promotes a "modernistic" agenda through which the individual, by an effort of rational thought, can find the true meaning of religion. Neither of these movements, founded in the early twentieth century, is directly affiliated with any political party, but both are immensely influential because they own and run kindergartens, schools, universities, hospitals and clinics, and a wide variety of social outreach programs. There are other, smaller groups that perform similar functions.

Both Malaysia and Indonesia have a huge publishing industry devoted to Islam. Quality is highly variable and ranges from short, simple texts (mostly addressed to women on religious duty to husband and family) to complex expositions of law, philosophy, and the relation between Islam and the state. Books on the latter topic have increased greatly in number since the mid-1990s. The important point is that this vibrant literature has come to form a new, local "Southeast Asian Islam." It is written by locals for a local audience and both reflects and adds to an Islam that is distinct in its politics, laws, and social and literary expressions.

Muslim societies in Southeast Asia are agrarian, rapidly modernizing, and engaging in democratic forms of government. Huge social and intellectual tensions are widespread in the twenty-first century, and Islam is at the heart of these tensions in all of Southeast Asia. As a consequence, one must be time-and place-specific in defining Islam; there is no simplistic monolith to be accepted or rejected.

See also Law, Islamic ; Mysticism: Islamic Mysticism in Asia ; Religion: East and Southeast Asia ; Sufism ; Westernization: Southeast Asia .


Hefner, Robert. W., and Patricia Horvatich, eds. Islam in an Era of Nation-States. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Hooker, M. B. Indonesian Islam: Social Change through Contemporary Fatawa. Sydney, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 2003.

Hooker, M. B., ed. Islam in South-East Asia. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1983.

M. B. Hooker

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