Reform: Southeast Asia

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In Islamic Southeast Asia the concept of "reform" is the subject of a highly contested discourse. Self-proclaimed "reformists" range from the Malaysian feminist organization Sisters in Islam, which advocates changes in Islamic family law that increase the rights and power of women, to the Indonesian Lakshar Jihad, which advocates the establishment of a conservative form of Islamic law to act as the basis of an Islamic state combining Indonesia, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines.

Reformist movements in Southeast Asia emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century as responses to British, Dutch, and American colonial rule. They were also responses to intellectual developments in the broader Muslim world. Early reformists were influenced by the writings of the Egyptian reformers Muhammad ˓Abduh and Rashid Rida and by the Wahhabi movement in Arabia. They attributed the decline of Muslim political and economic power to the impure state of early twentieth-century Islam. The rejection of Sufism and elements of popular religion—including the veneration of the tombs of saints, ritual meals, and the celebration of the birth of the prophet Muhammad—are among the hallmarks of Southeast Asian reformism. These and other aspects of popular Islam were (and are) denounced as innovation and unbelief by these reformists. In Indonesia reformists argued that the prayers of traditional Muslims were invalid because supplicants face directly west instead of northwest, which is the actual direction of Mecca.

The reformists advocated strict enforcement of shari˓a. They denied the authority of classical legal texts that formed the core of the curriculum in traditional Islamic schools. Like salafiyya reformers elsewhere, they maintained that the Qur˒an and hadith are the only allowable sources of legal decisions. This presented a major challenge to the traditional ulema. Throughout the twentieth century disputes between modernists and reformists were extremely bitter. Because of the profound implications of these religious disputes—each party describes the other as heretics bound for hell—it is unlikely that the cavernous divide between traditional and reformist communities can be closed.

Early reformists combined this religious agenda with calls for social and educational reform. They argued that the acquisition of technical and scientific knowledge is a religious obligation. The Javanese scholar Ahmad Dahlan and the Malay Tahir Jalal al-Din wrote and preached that there is an important link between the two components of the reform agenda. They taught that Islam is the religion of rationality and that the acquisition of modern skills and knowledge is a religious duty. They also encouraged participation in the emerging modern economic system. Reformists adopted strategies similar to those of Christian missionaries. Organizations such as Muhammadiyya in Indonesia and al-Islam in Malaya established schools that combined a salafiyya understanding of Islam with modern (Western) subjects. They established schools for girls as well as women's and youth organizations. Muhammadiyya and other reformist organizations now maintain extensive systems of schools, universities, and hospitals. The provision of social and educational services contributed significantly to the spread of modernism, especially in urban areas.

In Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore a basic distinction can be drawn between reformist movements that seek to transform culture and society and those that seek to employ the political process to establish Islamic states. In the Philippines the distinction is that between those who would establish a Muslim state in the southern region and others who envision the Muslim community as a component of a pluralistic state. Muslims in southern Thailand have been influenced by Malaysian reformists and have organized to protect and expand the rights of Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist society. In Southeast Asian states where Muslims are small minorities—Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam—Islamic reformism did not emerge until after the Second World War. In these countries reformism is a religious movement of little political significance.

In the colonial era reformist movements advocating the establishment of Islamic states were subject to serious repression. Postcolonial governments have continued these policies, but have also attempted to include reformist Muslims in the political process. In Malaysia reformist political parties compete in parliamentary elections and govern in several states. In Indonesia there has been a constant tension between traditionalist Muslims, who have generally avoided political action, reformists who have attempted to establish Indonesia as an Islamic state, and other reformists, including the majority of the Muhammadiya community, who seek to build a salafiyya-oriented Muslim community while avoiding overt political activity. The collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998 contributed to the repoliticization of Indonesian reformism. Political parties based on reformist ideologies emerged as important voices in Indonesia's new democracy. Other, more radical, groups reject the democratic orientation of the political parties and advocate the use of force to establish a salafiyya state.

In Southeast Asia, and particularly in Indonesia, there have also been attempts to develop Islamic theologies emphasizing tolerance, interreligious discourse, and democratic politics. This variety of reformism differs fundamentally from earlier salafiyya movements. This variety of reformism began to develop in the 1980s and has come to be known as liberal Islam. In Indonesia it was initially sponsored by the government as an antidote for fundamentalism. Most of the participants in this course come from traditionalist backgrounds and are conversant with classic Arabic theological, legal, and mystical texts. The central institutional location of Islamic liberalism is the State Islamic Studies Institute. Many graduates from these programs continue their studies abroad. In the 1990s, liberalism emerged as a major force for political, social, and economic change. Liberal reformists reject the notion of an Islamic state. They are active in developmentoriented NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), promote interfaith understanding and cooperation, and are advocates for human rights and gender equality. In Indonesia they played a major role in the Reformasi (reformation) movement that brought an end to the "New Order" regime of President Suharto.

See alsoReform: Arab Middle East and North Africa ; Reform: Iran .


Bowen, John. Muslims Through Discourse: Religion and Ritual in Gayo Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Nagata, Judith. The Reflowering of Malaysian Islam: Modern Religious Radicals and Their Roots. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1984.

Noer, Deliar. The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973.

Woodward, Mark, ed. Towards a New Paradigm: Recent Developments in Indonesian Islamic Thought. Tempe: Arizona State University, 1996.

Mark R. Woodward

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Reform: Southeast Asia

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