Southeast Asia, Islam in

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Island Southeast Asia, that is, the Malay world, has one of the heaviest concentrations of Muslim peoples on earth. This "Muslim archipelago" encompasses Malaysia (around 55% of 22 million people are Muslim), Indonesia (87% of 200 million), Brunei (68% of 330,700), and the Philippines, where Muslims are concentrated in the western and central parts of the Mindanao island and the Sulu archipelago (4 to 7% of 74 million).

The Era of Islamization

Islam was first brought to the "lands below the winds" around the eighth century by Arab Muslim traders. Not until the thirteenth century did the process of society-wide Islamization start with the kingdom of Aceh in northern Sumatra, situated at what used to be Indonesia's gateway to India and the Middle East. In the next one hundred years, local communities of Muslims sprang up in port towns.

Between the fifteenth and the seventeenth century Islamic kingdoms replaced the Hindu-Buddhist states and Islam spread rapidly throughout the Malay world due to intense commercial activity. Muslim merchants, religious scholars, and mystics, West Indians from Gujarat and Malabar, and Arabs from Hadramaut carried the message of Islam with them along the main trade routes. Islamic sultanates encroached on the power of the Hindu-Buddhist empires. The most formidable one of Majapahit on Java collapsed in 1525 and was replaced by the Muslim dynasty of Mataram. Islam was both a religion and an ideology of rule. The prevailing model was "raja-centered": When local rulers (rajas, later sultans) embraced Islam, their subjects followed, accepting them as worldly and spiritual leaders. Islam provided the theocratic and political base for the Islamic sultanates of the Malayan peninsula, Sumatra, Java, the southern Philippines, and Borneo. The flourishing commerce led to cultural innovation comparable to Europe's Renaissance while Islam created a sense of shared identity among the peoples living throughout the archipelago.

The Islam received was pluralistic and mostly tolerant of other religious traditions. Cultural influences from the Hindu-Buddhist era were tolerated or incorporated into Islamic rituals. In certain pockets of the area (the north and northeast coasts of Java) a legalistic Islamic tradition prevailed. Existing religious traditions facilitated the reception of mystical Sufi practices. Seeking unity with God through meditation was part of Hindu-Buddhist religious beliefs. Inspired by the works of the great Islamic scholar al-Ghazali, a tradition of Islamic learning emerged that combined fiqh (jurisprudence), kalam (philosophy), and Sufism.

The Era of Colonialism

Island Southeast Asia was the major source of spices and other natural resources that Europeans sought to control. In 1511 the commercial empire of Melaka fell to the Portuguese. In the 1570s, Spain began colonizing the Philippines with the three Muslim principalities of Sulu, Maguindanao, and Buayan. The Dutch started trade missions to Indonesia's spice islands in the seventeenth century, gradually colonizing Indonesia. By 1841, British rule started in Malaysia while Brunei became a British protectorate (1888).

Initially, European colonization changed the outwardlooking, vibrant profile of Islam during the age of commerce into an inward-looking conservatism. Islam became regulated by colonial rules, bureaucratized, and suppressed. The Dutch tried to deny Indonesian Islam by ignoring its deep roots in society, stressing local traditions and European law instead. Local custom (adat, Ar. ˓adat) was made the basis of laws for the indigenous population. Personal matters normally regulated by the Islamic shari˓a, such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and almsgiving, were under the jurisdiction of adat laws. Recourse to Islamic law was only allowed when the rules overlapped the adat.

The British curtailed the political role of Malay sultans but allowed them a degree of authority as heads of religion in their states. They misrepresented Islam by incorporating within it local traditions yet left the application of Islamic law to the sultans.

By the 1570s, Spanish incursions halted the Islamization process in the islands of the Philippines. The colonizers called the Muslims in the Philippines Moros (because they had the same religion as the Moors of Spain). For over four centuries the Moros tried to defend their Islamic identity in the "Moro Wars" against the colonial forces of Spain and the United States. Moros could not identify themselves with the majority of Christian Filipinos but failed to be excluded from the Philippine state when it gained independence in 1946.

During the colonial era, Sunni Islam of the Shafi˓ite school continued to grow in Southeast Asia. Rural Islamic boarding schools called pesantren became the heart of orthodox Islam in Indonesia where students studied religious subjects combined with mystical practices.

Contact between the area and the heartlands of Islam in the Middle East grew after the Suez canal opened in 1869. The growing number of pilgrims making the Hajj to Mecca led to deepened Islamic learning and a growing tendency toward Islamic orthodoxy. Teachers of Islam and Arabic studied for years with shaykhs (sheikhs) in Mecca and upon return contributed to the reform of Sufism and orthodox Islam.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Islam became a rallying banner to resist colonialism. Mild successes of Christian missions caused a decline of confidence in Islamic authorities. Resistance arose among reform-seeking Muslims and among the ulema who led the traditional pesantren. The first Islamic reform movements started in the nineteenth century in Sumatra. Reformist ideas were brought to Indonesia by religious teachers returning from the hajj and via journals published in Singapore and Egypt. Reformists urged Muslims to return to a simple lifestyle, renew the moral basis of Islam, return to the original scripture, and purify Islam from unlawful innovations. Inspired by the teachings of the famous Egyptian Islamic scholar Muhammad ˓Abduh, they advocated an accommodation with modern thought and technology. In 1912, Indonesian reformers strengthened their movement by creating Muhammadiyah. This social-religious organization aimed at purifying Islam from indigenous and Sufi practices. It built schools that combined an Islamic and secular curriculum for the majority of Muslims who did not have access to the Dutch school systems. The movement was unique in its concern for women who were trained as preachers for women. The traditionalist Muslims based at the pesantren furthered Muslim piety through activities in the mosques and by bringing local village rituals in conformity with Islam. In 1926, these ulema grouped together in the Nahdlatul Ulama movement (NU).

In Malaysia, the reform movement drew educated, urban Muslims who gathered around journalistic enterprises. A student of Muhammad ˓Abduh founded the periodical al-Iman in 1906 to spread the reformist message. Hindered by the British colonial regime and opposed by traditionalists and Malay secular elites, reformism in Malaysia remained less diverse and socially effective than its counterpart in Indonesia.

The Era of Independence

Indonesia. Upon gaining independence, the newly formed nation-states had to redefine the position of Islam in their governments. Indonesia chose a nonconfessional government over an Islamic state in order to unite some six thousand inhabited islands that hold a variety of cultures and religions. The founding fathers promoted the state ideology of Pancasila, the concept of unity in plurality—one God worshiped in separate ways by Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists. Muslim aspirations to an Islamic state regularly led to uprisings in Sumatra, West Java, and Sulawesi. The Suharto regime (1966–1998) curbed the political power of Islam. The state established a ministry of religion to monitor religious matters such as the hajj, religious education, and the judicial administration. In 1973 the government tried to introduce a marriage bill that would give precedence to civil authority in cases of marriage and divorce, rather than to the religious Muslim courts. The bill was modified when Muslim leaders protested vigorously.

Leading intellectuals such as Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid advocated focusing on a "cultural" Islam as opposed to a "political" Islam. The goal was Muslim renewal—spiritual, intellectual, and economic. This led to a strong revival of Indonesian Islam during the 1980s, and the Suharto government realized that Islam was becoming a force to reckon with. Non-Muslims started to worry when in 1990 the government established the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals' Association (ICMI) to promote Islamization of state and society.

Differences of opinions among Indonesian Muslims still run along the spectrum of reformist Muhammadiyah and traditionalist NU. Reformists wish to purify Islam from all indigenous culture. They consider Islamic scripture to be complete and self-sufficient, and support the use of ijtihad (independent reasoning) and personal study. At the conservative end of the reformist spectrum are those who are against religious pluralism and who lobby for an Islamic state. After independence the Masyumi political party represented reformist aspirations in the national government of President Sukarno (1945–1965). One of their concerns was the growing communist movement. They were banned after rebellions in Sumatra and Sulawesi demanding Islamization of the state. When political aspirations were denied to all Muslims, in 1967, theologically conservative ex-Masyumi reformists formed Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (DDII), an organization for Muslim proselytization.

NU is the umbrella for Muslims tolerant of local culture that does not interfere with Islamic teachings. They stress the study of fiqh because it espouses the views of generations of scholars starting from the prophet Muhammad. They only exercise ijtihad in the context of this historic body of teachings, preferring taqlid, following traditional opinions. The political aspirations of its ulema were represented by the NU party until the Suharto government forced all Islamic parties to unite into one government-supervised Islamic party, the Partei Persatuan Pembangunan (Party for Unity and Development, or PPP). When the Suharto government demanded that all mass organizations affirm Pancasila as their ideology, the NU dropped its political aspirations and focused on religious, social, and economic development instead. This shift away from politics has resulted in increased piety among Indonesian Muslims and a steady strengthening of a democratic-minded civil society.

After Suharto stepped down in May 1998, the structure that repressed religion and society collapsed. Political parties representing Muslims of various affiliations were set up, religious organizations were free to have Islam as their sole constitution, and Muslims are fully represented in the democratically elected Parliament. Freedom of religion also led to the emergence of extreme groups such as Lashkar Jihad in 2000 that called for holy war against the Christian population in the Malaccan islands.

Malaysia and Brunei. In 1946, conservative, nationalist Malaysians aspiring for independence formed the United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO). In 1955 the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (Partai Islam Se-Malaysia, PAS) registered to press the establishment of an Islamic state in British Malaysia. When in 1957 Malaysia became independent, UMNO was committed to a secularist vision of the new nation. Challenged by PAS, UMNO became more committed to Islam as Malaysia's religion. After the 1969 clashes with the Chinese population, "Malayness" came to be defined in terms of the three pillars: Muslim religion (agama), Malay language, or bahasa (not English, Chinese, or Indian), and the government of the sultans (raja). The Malay rulers of each state serve as guardians of Islamic religion and Malay custom. The constitution requires Malaysians (55% of the population) to be Muslim. Islam and Malayness are identified with political dominance. Islam is coordinated through the state, rather than through independent socio-religious organizations as is the case in Indonesia. Being Malay permits access to affirmative action programs that are part of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was created to allow Malaysians to compete with the wealthy Chinese population. The goal is to transform Malaysia into an industrialized nation by the year 2020.

During the 1970s the revivalist Dakwah (Ar. da˓wa) movement emerged among urban, middle-class youth organizations that faced the influences of modernization and globalization. It reiterated the reformist themes, seeking to implement Islam as a holistic way of life in society through religious renewal. It made Islam the main pillar of society and challenged the state led by prime minister Mahathir Mohamed to adopt its own Islamization strategy to "out-Islamicize" the opposition. The result was the Islamization of government bodies, the arts, the press, and institutes for learning. The Malay population became more devoutly Islamic. PAS continued its demands for an Islamic state and managed to implement shari˓a in the state of Kelantan. Through the new ethnic definition, increased Islamization, and economic benefit, the Malay community has been transformed in what is called the "new Malay."

In Brunei Islam is the national religion. The wealthy country is ruled by an Islamic monarchy, the original raja-centered model. The sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah (r. 1968– ), is head of the faith and responsible for upholding the Islamic way of life. One of the main issues in Brunei public religious life is the disagreement between those who advocate a theocratic Islamic state, and those who are secularly oriented.

Philippines. Philippine Muslims, the Moros, live in the only Christian-dominated country in Southeast Asia. Moros do not identify themselves as Filipinos and have been marginalized within the institution of the nation-state. Since the 1950s Moro Islam has witnessed a revival in Islamic piety. Moro Muslims have received assistance to build mosques and educate religious leaders from other Muslim countries. Marginalization and the increasing influx of Christian Filipino immigrants into the Muslim regions gave rise to armed secession movements. The most popularly supported of these movements is the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Its actions caused the Filipino government to implement affirmative action programs for the benefit of the Moros such as building religious schools, and scholarships for Moro students. The administration of Corazon Aquino (l986–1992) granted autonomy to four provinces in Mindinao. Armed struggle continues in the twenty-first century with groups such as the extremist Abu Sayyaf pressing its claim for independence.

See alsoMuhammadiyya (Muhammadiyah) ; Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) ; Reform: South Asia ; Southeast Asian Culture and Islam .


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Nelly van Doorn-Harder

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