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Worldwide Locations

Islam in Southeast Asia

Muslim women in Indonesia (vikz/flickr)

Muslim women in Indonesia (vikz/flickr)



Script and Identity

Alongside its major oral contribution to Southeast Asian Islamic identity, Arabic also has had a visual impact with the adoption of its script for many local languages, with modifications to suit local phonemes such as the sounds “p” and “ng.” By the time Hamzah Fansuri would compose his Malay poems, this phonetic form of writing had already been in use for some three centuries, whether for commemorative stones or for further Islamic propagation. This did not mean that the script displaced earlier methods of writing immediately or permanently. In some cases, local scripts have been maintained for both religious and non-religious texts. Even so, by the time that the Portuguese arrived in Southeast Asia in significant numbers at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Malay was being written primarily with Arabic letters and in a cursive form that is immediately identifiable as pertaining to the region.

In Indonesia, the Arabic script would only be displaced after the widespread popularization of newspapers and school texts in roman script starting in the late nineteenth century, and ever more so in the twentieth when reformist Muslims founded schools to provide the opportunities for modern education largely denied by the Dutch and British. Arabic and Arabic script remain in use in many Islamic schools in Indonesia (now known broadly as pesantren), and both are still used on billboards and signs recommending certain behaviors as Islamic. For example, an advertising campaign in West Sumatra in the 1990s was accompanied by Arabic statements attributed to the Prophet such as “Love of cleanliness is a part of belief ” (Hubb al-nizafa min al-iman).

The Arabic script remains strongly linked to Muslim identity in neighboring Malaysia and Brunei. This is especially the case in Malaysia, with its prominent non-Malay minorities; and it is further discernible in southern Thailand, where the script serves to mark the Muslim community off from the Thai-Buddhist majority and remains the written medium for a considerable local Malay-language publishing industry.

The Study Circle and Its Absence

Whereas Arabic has long been studied by Muslims in Southeast Asia, due to its elevated status as the language of revelation and its importance for connection with the Middle East as the source of Islam, and even though it has made its contribution to the oral and written cultures of the region, the fact remains that Southeast Asians require the aid of teachers and glossaries to make the texts of Islam comprehensible and applicable in daily life. To this end, the months spent learning the Qur’an under the guidance of a teacher is often a crucial period in a child’s life. At the end of this period of study a celebration (known as khatm al-Qur’an) is held in the family home.

More advanced studies of Islam usually require the sort of in-depth education offered by traditional religious schools, such as Indonesia’s pesantrens. Here students learn the requisite texts concerning pronunciation and grammar by the use of glosses in their own languages and various mnemonics or songs. This will allow them to make sense of more advanced works concerning the formal rules laid out in Islamic law defining social interaction, as well as those pertaining to the inculcation of moral values (akhlaq). At all stages a teacher ensures that the individual student has properly mastered a text before advancing to any higher stage of learning. Still, even in these traditional schools—which may be found throughout Southeast Asia and which allow the movement of individuals across national borders— there is a blurring between global religious practice and indigenous cultural expressions. Even when they are in Arabic, many of the songs learned or the texts mastered are related to a specifically Southeast Asian source of inspiration, either from a creator born in the region who assumed a place of importance in Mecca, such as Nawawi of Banten (1813-97), or at the hands of a foreigner who once sojourned through its mosques and fields, such as Nur al-Din al-Raniri (d. 1656). Furthermore, in recent times students have begun to popularize and rephrase many of the popular poems sung in praise of the Prophet. Some musical groups have reached wide audiences by incorporating Arabic lyrics, and Arabic songs have been composed and sung in Southeast Asia with the aim of propagating certain messages among a broader community of Muslims—ranging from gender equity to jihad.

On the other hand, there are also a great many Southeast Asians who never receive such traditional Islamic schooling, who have not learned Arabic or mastered the Qur’an, and for whom such lyrics may be incomprehensible. Many still feel themselves to be full members of the Muslim community (umma), though. For, while they may not fully understand the literal rules of the provisions of Islamic law, they feel that the texts in which it is explained are part of their own Muslim cultural heritage, with which they might connect at rites of passage such as birth, marriage, and the commemoration of death.