Southeast Asian Culture and Islam

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The rich tradition of Islam in Southeast Asia is characterized by a variety of local practices and beliefs. Unifying this colorful spectrum are the basic precepts of Islam, the Malay language, and sets of shared cultural characteristics, many of which are shaped by pre-Islamic cultural systems. Concepts of power and spirituality, respect for ancestors, belief in spirits, and the local understanding of gender relations owe much to the pre-Islamic beliefs. Key concepts of pre-Islamic ethics are fused with Islamic ethical teachings. Southeast Asians stress concepts such as the maintenance of social and religious harmony (rukun), respect toward those whose position in society demands it, and sincerity in one's actions (ikhlas).

Islam, however, is not just a veneer painted over Hindu-Buddhist notions. Islam became vibrant by accommodating core elements of the traditions present in the area at the time of Islamization through patterns of interpenetration and local variation. Over time, acceptance was increasingly measured against the scale of compatibility with Islamic teachings. How far Islam should coincide with Arab culture became a recurrent topic of debate.

When considering elements of culture and Islam in the region, the past and the present, the local and the global, intersect. There are many stages of commitment to normative Islam in local expressions of Islam. Nowadays, local cultures are also changing rapidly under the influence of modernization and globalization. With increasingly higher levels of education and knowledge of Western and Arab culture transmitted via the modern media, rituals held sacred for centuries can fade within one generation. Reformists altogether condemn indigenous rituals deemed inconsistent with Islam. "Purifying the faith" has been their rallying cry since the beginning of the twentieth century. Traditionalist Muslims incorporated local rituals, purging them of beliefs or practices forbidden by Islam. This entry discusses some of the main ideas that have governed religious rituals practiced by indigenous Southeast Asian Muslims, and the debates and interpretations generated by these practices.

Hierarchy and Power

Pre-Islamic understandings of hierarchy and power shape many cultural practices. In many places the king was the defender of the faithful and the mystical anchor of the religious community. Power is considered a quality that can be obtained through inheritance or by divine favor. Many became Muslim when the king accepted Islam. The king, and later the sultan, protected this power by performing ceremonies and rituals and by possessing certain artifacts that were said to be laden with mystical power, such as the kris, a dagger that was a symbol of manhood, honor, and ethnic identity. Religious and worldly power are preferably combined with various mystical powers (kasekten). Power is stratified according to rank and generation: elders are higher than juniors, and aristocrats are higher than commoners. Peoples (and spirits) live in a more or less clearly defined hierarchical structure. This hierarchy is expressed during important festivities. Before marriage the bride and groom will ask forgiveness for wrongs done against the parents. During the ˓Id al-Fitri feast that completes Ramadan, Indonesians honor those ranking above them in a ritual called halal bi-halal when they visit them, in the family, the neighborhood, or their work, to show respect, seek reconciliation, and preserve or restore harmonious relations.

Some sultans, for example on Java, still organize large traditional celebrations such as the Sekaten and the Gerebeg. The Sekaten is a month-long fair held prior to the Mawlid al-Nabi (Prophet's birthday), one of the most popular feasts in Southeast Asia. This festivity used to be the prime tool of conversion to Islam: Peasants coming from the surrounding villages were moved to pronounce the shahada, thus nominally converting to Islam. The Gerebeg is a parade between the sultan's palace and a nearby mosque where a mount of fruits laden with blessings from the sultan's palace is divided among the people.

A variety of specialists from the earlier traditions (many of them called dukun) became incorporated in Islam. Among them are healers, spirit mediums, shamans, specialists in certain agricultural rituals, and midwives. They combine Islamic and customary or adat ceremonies, using incense, offerings to spirits, and prayers. They preserve their spiritual power by fasting, ascetic practices, and communication with guardian spirits. Many consider the spirits to be unacceptable to Islam. Their prayers contain Islamic elements and start with the invocation of Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim (In the name of God, the Compassionate, the most Merciful). Shadow-play puppeteers (dalang) belong to these specialists. They preserve one of the most popular art forms in Southeast Asia, the wayang plays, performing the Javanese versions of Indian epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. To many these plays convey the picture of a proper social and spiritual order. Dalangs are of high moral character and spiritual potency. Part of their potency is the word; their voice expresses the realm of the inner or mystical world. Traditions were invented to defend some of these practices by crediting early Muslim saints with creating them. Indonesians believe that nine holy men, wali songo, converted its population. The first wali songo, Sunan Kalijaga, is said to have invented the shadow plays.

Slametan/Kenduri: Meals of Blessing

A meal called slametan on Java and kenduri in other parts of Indonesia and Malaysia is a meal of blessing that forms the central rite of popular religion. The purpose for holding a slametan is to obtain slamet: well-being, safety, social and spiritual harmony. The meal is held for a variety of events ranging from pregnancy and birth, circumcision, marriage, life crises and death, and occasions such as starting a long trip, finishing a house, or to resolve a dispute. Slametan are subject to a wide range of interpretations. Some believe they please the spirits of deceased ancestors (roh), or local spirits (jinn) who are sometimes given special dishes called sajen (offerings). Foods served at the meal have ritual meanings and are presented in symbolic arrangements of four, seven, or forty-four. Some believe that the use of incense facilitates communication with ancestral spirits. Prayers said during the slametan are a mix of Arabic and local language. When held in orthodox Muslim families, only Qur˒anic verses are used and the participants refrain from speech or symbolic acts that refer to spirits. Many Islamic feast days and life-cycle rituals are celebrated with a slametan. The framework for interpreting the slametan depends on the Islamic or indigenous orientation of the participants.

Ancestors and Caring for the Dead

Many in Southeast Asia consider death a transition. In order to help the deceased on their way in the afterlife special slametan (called sedekah for the Arabic sadaqa, alms) are held at certain intervals after death: on the first, third, seventh, fortieth, and one hundredth day, followed by one year, two years, and a thousand days. Combined with the meal are recitations from the Qur˒an in the forms of praise, prayers, dhikr or tahlil (repetitions of "there is no god but God"), and requests for forgiveness. The foods, in combination with the prayers, help to ask the deceased for forgiveness for outstanding offenses and create merit transferable to the dead that will aid the spirit's passage from the world of the living to the afterlife.

Remembering the dead prior to important events is crucial. Often people gather at the graves for prayer and cleaning. Especially at the beginning and end of Ramadan, people will visit the graves in masses to include those who passed on in the spiritual and physical purification during the month of fasting.

Spiritual Authority

The Islamic equivalent of the charismatic person endowed with spiritual potency are the Muslim saints (wali) who are remembered and honored by traditionalist Muslims. In this same tradition the kiyais, leaders of Islamic boarding schools called pesantren, are considered links in a chain of sacred knowledge that reaches back to the prophet Muhammad. They are not only religious, but also social and political leaders. Spiritual and physical power are linked together when students are trained in fasting, meditation (dhikr), and martial arts (pencak silat). Developing ikhlas, an inner attitude of resignation that moves a person to do good deeds for the sake of good and not for self-promotion, is part of this training.

Academic study in the pesantren concentrates on Qur˒an, Arabic, and fiqh (jurisprudence). Part of the curriculum used to be, and in some places still is, the practice of mysticism (tasawwuf) and asceticism. Some pesantren became centers for mystical orders (tarekat from Ar., tariqa). Mysticism here was closely connected to legal Islamic learning. Certain Sufi groups in Malaysia practice meditation combined with trance dancers. Some practice special veneration for their leaders. At times Messianic figures gain followings in their quest for a just and prosperous society.

Similar to the Sufi shaykh, a kiyai passes his charisma and position on to the son who is deemed most fit. After a spiritually potent kiyai has passed away, his students will visit his grave once a week in order to bring the "gift" of praise (tahlilan), and Qur˒an recitation. The popular practice of visiting graves of saints (ziyara) to perform rituals of prayer, praise, and meditation is shaped by the idea that their exemplary religious life brings some persons closer to God after death than others, which qualifies them to become intermediates for the living. Graves are found all over Lara; the most powerful of these are those of the wali songo. Some graves are believed potent enough that visiting them a certain number of times is considered equal to performing the hajj to Mecca. Graves shape a sacred landscape filled with male and female saints, teachers, kings, and princes. Reformist and legalistically minded Muslims have long vehemently opposed ziyara. In Malaysia, the reformist Dakwah movement has reduced the practice of ziyara, especially in urban areas, although local villagers continue to perform cherished rituals.


Recitation of Arabic verses from the Qur˒an is considered a powerful medium for healing, protection, to have a wish fulfilled, or to gain power. The words by themselves are purifying and uplifting. Many do not necessarily understand their meaning. When in 1998 Indonesia fell into a massive economic crisis with ensuing social unrest, mass prayers during dhikr meetings called istighosah were held all over the country to strengthen and heal the nation. Those who learn the Qur˒an by heart are obliged to guard the text the rest of their life. Forgetting will be their gravest sin. During the month of Ramadan, the use of holy words is intensified through tarawih prayers at night and nightly readings of the entire Qur˒an, or nightly recitation of one-thirtieth of the Qur an. Beliefs in the power of speech are inspired by the Sufi intellectual tradition that identifies material reality as emanating from God. This means that powerful speech can change this reality. Words from the Qur˒an are believed to have healing qualities when used in amulets or mantras. In Malaysia, shamans use Islamic stories, images, and texts to heal sickness caused by spirit possession. Spirits are identified as the jinn that are mentioned in the Qur˒an. Imbalance or impurity within the body also causes disease that can be healed by the pronunciation of formula.


Apart from Qur˒anic texts, a large body of Islam-inspired writings, poetry, and prose developed in the Malay language. The writings that reacted to Islamic mysticism became some of the richest in the world. The most famous are the seventeenth-century works of Hamzah Pansuri, Nuruddin ar-Raniri, and Samsuddin al-Sumatrani. Hamzah Pansuri created a form of written poetry called syair that became a major vehicle for Sufi poetry and that has inspired Malay poetry up to the present period. Ar-Raniri defended orthodox mysticism using the works of al-Ghazali. Tales (hikayat) about the Prophet and his Companions became a popular genre of writing. Poems and tales are meant to be sung and recited. Students in pesantren still chant the Barzanji (poetic eulogy) several times a week in honor of the prophet Muhammad.

Local genres of semi-Islamic literature are the chronicles (babad) that were composed in the courts of the early sultans to establish their Islamic legitimacy. Certain Javanese babad describe the sultan as a saint who has the power to fly.

After independence an Islamic literature developed that espouses Islamic values. Especially in Malaysia, edifying novels became popular. Contemporary Indonesian writings by writers like Emha Ainun Nadjib explore the relationship between the individual and God. Young activists have started to use the novel as a medium to teach concepts such as human rights to students in the pesantren and other Islamic schools.


Especially in Indonesia, women share the power of the word. Many women have memorized the Qur˒an to become a hafidha and go on to become finalists in the national Qur˒an reciting contests. In the past, international competition was not possible since contestants from other Muslim countries were only men. Nowadays women are allowed to compete in certain Muslim countries. Women also teach in the pesantren and make up more than half of the judges in Islamic Syari'a (Ar. shari˓a) courts.

Islam and Adat

Southeast Asian societies have developed local legal codes or practices called adat. This code existed and in many places still exists alongside the Syari'a. Adat complemented the Islamic law in many matters of tradition and custom. The two law systems collide regularly in evaluating the same problems: how to divide an estate, what position to assign to women. In general, adat allowed women a position equal to that of men. Orthodox Muslims took offense to these rules, for example, in the division of an estate where adat grants the woman a share equal to that of her male relatives. Syari˒a law applies the Islamic rule that gives only half a man's share. Through the activities of orthodox and Reformist Muslims, the tendency now is to stress Syari˒a rather than adat.

An image of a pupeteer at work appears in the volume two color insert.

See also˓Ada ; ˓Ibadat ; Southeast Asia, Islam in .


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Nelly van Doorn-Harder

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Southeast Asian Culture and Islam

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Southeast Asian Culture and Islam