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Islam in Southeast Asia: Reflections and New Directions

Anthony H. Johns

This article has been published in Indonesia, Volume 19, April 1975.

All articles and reviews published in Indonesia prior to April 2000 are available at no cost.

"The Study of Islam in Southeast Asia" is an expression with a compelling ring. It suggests a well defined field of research, a tradition of scholarship, adequate points of orientation, and an authoritative structure of monographs, articles in learned journals, and more general works. The reality however is more complex and at the same time more limited than the expression "Southeast Asia" suggests.

In practice it has generally meant a study of Islam in those areas which lie within the ambit of the new nation states of Indonesia and The Federation of Malaysia, although there are significant Muslim communities in Thailand, Burma and among the Chams in Cambodia. It is, however, only in Malaysia and Indonesia that Islam exists in any strength and is shared by a wide range of ethnic groups and social classes. And despite the very substantial volume of painstaking and important scholarly writing devoted to the subject, it is still not possible to present a definitive picture of the role of Islam in the past and present of the region.

There are various reasons why this is so. The most important are severe fragmentation of the Southeast Asian region; the absence of any central, stable core of Islamic civilization and learning in the region to which the further development of Islam can be referred, and the paucity of indigenous written records until the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Nevertheless two general works have appeared: Islam Comes of Malaysia, by S. Q. Fatimi, and Islam Observed by Clifford Geertz. Both are written with sweep and imagination. The subtitle of Geertz’s book is Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia. In fact the Indonesian component of the book is limited to Central Java, and Geertz writes with a poetic sensitivity to a particular Javanese view of Islam and of Islamization. Yet this Javanese view is no older than the eighteenth century and derives from the role and character accorded to Islam by the court culture of Central Java of this period. It has no relevance to the character of Islam as it was first preached in the Malay archipelago three or four centuries earlier, nor to Islamic belief and practice as it developed in other regions of the island world.

Fatimi’s book is concerned not so much with the specific spiritual character of Islam, but with the sources from which it came. He makes use of a wide range of Arabic and Persian sources and refers to certain Malay works. On this basis he develops two major hypotheses: that the principal source of Malaysian Islam was Bengal, and that Islam first appeared in "Malaysia" from the east in the course of the eleventh century via a Canton, Phan'rang, Trengganu and Leran (East Java) axis. Despite the fluency and verve of his exposition of these ideas, the reader is nonetheless left with a certain disquiet as to the validity of the arguments, and perhaps with more interest in arguing the strengths and weaknesses of the hypotheses than in seeking to discover the specific articulations of Islam in the status systems, structure of government, ideological concerns and international relations of those areas in which it became established.

In 1968 Drewes published a long and useful article, "New Light on the Coming of Islam to Indonesia?" (the question mark is an integral part of the title). In it he treats critically Fatimi's hypotheses in the framework of a general survey of the theories put forward by European scholar's concerning the place of origin of Islam in the East Indian Archipelago, from Crawford in 1820 who mentioned Arabs, but also referred to "intercourse with the Mahomedans of the Eastern coast of India," to Keyzer who proposed Egypt (1859), to Niemann (1861), de Hollander (1861), and Veth (1878), who spoke only of Arabs. New ground was broken by Pijnappel in 1872, who saw Islam brought to the Indies by Shaficite Arabs of the Gujerat and Malabar. This approach was developed by Snouck Hurgronje (1883), who saw the merchants of the port cities of the Deccan as the bearers of Islam to new territories. It was refined by Harrison in 1951, who attempted to specify the region of South India from which Muslim traders set out, and gave special attention to the Coromandel Coast.

For Drewes then, it is a study of Islam in South India that can offer a better understanding of the coming of Islam to the Indies, and he concludes his article: "Resumption of the archaeological research in North Sumatra and painstaking study of Islam in South India--for which a thorough knowledge of Tamil is indispensable--appear to be primary requirements."

It will be noted that although much has been written on the provenance of Southeast Asian Islam, comparatively little has been written on the modality of its spread and even less on the social and political effects of the new religion, and the subsequent character of the centers of political power where it developed. This is a difficult question because materials are so fragmentary. Such as they are, they are out of the reach of scholars concerned with the West Asian heartlands of Islam, who rarely, if ever, refer to Southeast Asia. For the scholar of both wings of the Muslim world then, a sense of perspective is missing: for in the sixteenth and seventeenth century constellation of global politics, Istanbul and Aceh were equally parts of the Muslim world.

As if these difficulties were not enough, they have been compounded by the "generalists" and social scientists of the twentieth century who only know the region as consisting of Indonesia and Malaysia, and address themselves to describing and "explaining" Indonesia and Malaysia without taking sufficiently into account the modalities of the existence of these states or their parvenu character. There is a tremendous pressure, for example, to use the term "Indonesia" anachronistically. And even a scholar as meticulous as Drewes writes of "Indonesia . . . her conversion to Islam set in when this religion had already achieved its definitive form. . . . Indonesia has shown great receptivity and an amazing faculty for adapting newly acquired ideas to her old basic pattern of thinking, but she has not displayed any creativeimpulse."

Even given the nature of a general paper in which these remarks are presented, it cannot be insisted too strongly that the personification of Indonesia in this way is misleading. What is now Indonesia and its neighbors include many peoples of different backgrounds, patterns of livelihood, and languages, not all of whom have been Islamicized in the same way and to the same degree. The only sense in which one can speak of Indonesian Islam is when one is describing the normative centralizing role of the Ministry of Religion. No further general statement is possible until some perception has been gained of the varieties and discontinuities in the history of Islam in the region before-the birth of Indonesia. The abuse of the term "Indonesian” then effectively masks the complex processes of the past, both because it leads to a confusion with Indonesia as a political entity, and suggests the stable existence of a particular center of authority, and a homogeneous continuing cultural identity.

It is unfortunately true that the term "Islam" has also been used with as little precision. This is in part because, as C. J. Adams points out, many social scientists, economists, sociologists and political scientists have done field work in the developing countries, some of which have been Muslim. They have to this extent been involved in Islamic Studies of a kind, but only to the extent that Islam has some bearing on their central disciplinary concern. But in part it is also because Islam itself is a polyvalent term, and to study its role in a community with any attempt at understanding its significance, it is necessary to have some idea of its functions.

For the Westerner, if the specific character of Islamic experience is to have any meaning for him at all, it must be seen as a technique of individual salvation which answers the question: what must I do to be saved? But it is at the same time a regulator of family relationships and the organizing principle of a state. From these aspects, it represents a system of law. It is further a tool of ontological analysis, a means of understanding the nature of existence, the meaning of the creation of the world, the character of the Creator, generating discussion as to the necessity or otherwise for human existence at all, and thus begetting systems of theology, philosophy and mysticism. In a more general sense it is used to characterize forms of artistic expression which are sufficiently identified if they are called Islamic. And yet more generally still, it is used simply as an expression of community identity.

Not all of these functions need exist together. A man may live as a Muslim, as an individual, in a part of the world in which he has no co-religionists. A family, nuclear or extended may live according to Muslim Law either with or without the umbrella of a Muslim State either to shield its members, or to apply sanctions for transgressions of that law. The number of individual Muslims who become legists, philosophers or mystics is few. But although specialized religious learning is not a requirement for every Muslim, it is a requirement for the cohesion of the Muslim community and for the furthering of the tradition of Islamic education. The physical hallmarks of Islamic civilization may remain where a Muslim community no longer exists; a community with tenuous links with Islam may identify itself as Muslim to distinguish itself from other communities which it dislikes.

It is possible to extend this analysis. But it should be clear from these examples that the blanket use of the word "Islam" conceals the fact that one is not coming to terms with an abstraction, but with people; that the term is complex: it cannot meaningfully be discussed as a tide, but rather as a web of dynamisms and tensions. Accordingly, any simplistic assertions about Islam being this or being that, doing this or doing that, coming from here or coming from there are fraught with horrendous limitations.

All of these functions of Islam are to be discovered in Southeast Asia, and their distribution testifies the great variety in the manifestations of Islam to be found there. This distribution and variety is not a constant. It has been shifting and changing with the political and cultural history of the Indies since the first sultanates were established at the end of the thirteenth century, in a region of a variety of peoples, social structures, means of livelihood, cultures and religions. Denys Lombard puts it well, when summarizing the range of ideologies in the region he says:

We are in fact dealing with several levels of mentality, and that in such cases the diachronic dimension is particularly necessary. The thought-processes of fringe societies in which "potlatch" is a prevailing custom (the Toraja); those of concentric agrarian societies(the Indo-Javanese states and their off-shoots at Jogja and Surakarta) those of trading societies (Malay towns, pasisίr) 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.

The types of society in the Indies that have to some extent or other been Islamicized are not less complex. It is therefore important to be clearly aware of what conceptual tools and disciplinary competences are going to be valid for any particular place and time. What the anthropologist is able to observe in surveying a village, or the types of analysis that he can produce will give a different picture than those of the economist who makes a survey of the business life of an entrepreneurial community, or the political scientist who attempts to understand the character of Islam as understood by the central government of a modern state, or a particular aspect of Islam articulated by a pressure group with particular social attitudes, or the power structure and attitudes of a particular court. Although the investigator into all these areas needs a particular knowledge of Islam, yet the discipline he needs to practice in each case is different.

At the same time it must be stressed that Islamology, too, is a discipline in its own right, distinct from anthropology, sociology or economics, even though these disciplines may contribute to it. Gaining an intellectual and sympathetic mastery of a religion is in some respects analogous to learning a language, for a religious tradition carries with it a view of the world in much the same way as a language; yet just as the knowledge of a language does not give a scholar an automatic mastery of particular disciplines, so the knowledge of a religion, while it may illuminate the workings of a society, cannotre place the study of a society through the social sciences.

Moreover, the student of a religion may make errors analogous to those of a student of a foreign language in misreading the value systems of the religion, or, as the foreign speaker of a language is influenced by his own speech habits, so the foreign student of a religion may impose upon it a wrong distribution of emphases and values.

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