Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Diversity and Unity

Islam in Southeast Asia

Monks at Angkor Wat (Beggs/Flickr)

Monks at Angkor Wat (Beggs/Flickr)

Islam in Southeast Asia


Islamic Law Concerning Gender and the Body, Food, and Fashion

The majority of Muslims in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, approximately 90 percent of the world’s total, belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. Most Sunni Muslims adhere to one or another of four different madhhab (schools or traditions of law), each of which developed in and is currently associated with a particular region of the world. The Shafi’i tradition prevails in Southeast Asia.

For the most part, the differences among the major maddhab in Sunni Islam are relatively minor. In some cases, moreover, elements of law from one tradition have been incorporated into one or more of the others, further reducing their distinctiveness. Some such “melding” occurred during the colonial era, when European colonial authorities and Southeast Asian legal specialists sought to resolve certain legal dilemmas by effecting solutions that involved borrowing from a legal tradition in another colonial jurisdiction (such as Pakistan or India). A more general point to note is that even in Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei), the legal systems are overwhelmingly secular, an enduring legacy of the colonial era. It is also important to bear in mind that Islamic law, which generally pertains only to Muslims, tends to be confined to a very limited range of Muslims’ lives and is for the most part restricted to personal status law (including matters of marriage and divorce, sexuality, etc.).

Many of the guidelines of Shafi’i law and the other major schools of Islamic law were fixed in legal text by the tenth century. But this does not mean that present-day Islamic judges (kadi) and others who interpret or administer the law are bound by centuries-old legal conventions or interpretations. In the first place, kadis are enjoined by Islam to render evaluations and judgments based on reasoning byanalogy (kias), consensus with fellow legal specialists (ijma), and/or“local custom” (adat). They are, moreover, equipped with various pamphlets and booklets published by the state that provide compilations of relevant enactments and other guidance. Most important, though, Islamic judges have broad powers of discretion, which they use to help ensure that the cases before them are dealt with in ways that are in keeping with their notions of “justice,” “equity,” and “due process” (Indo-Malay keadilan). These notions (like ours) are cultural, as are their (and our) understandings of “fact” and “truth.” Among the more controversial issues in many parts of the Muslim world today are laws and other formal standards bearing on gender, especially female attire and comportment, and interactions including marriage) between Muslims and non-Muslims. There is much debate, for example, concerning standards of modesty pertaining to girls and women, and whether Islam mandates that females cover their hair and faces in public. According to many readings of the Qur’an and other relevant sources, women are enjoined to dress and behave modestly (as are men) but are not required to cover their hair or faces in public settings. That said, in recent decades the wearing of headscarves and other headgear (but not complete veiling of the face) has become commonplace throughout Muslim Southeast Asia, especially in urban areas, which have seen a revival or resurgence of Islam and the adoption of various standards common in the Middle East.

Other controversial issues concern the acceptability from an Islamic point of view of women serving as judges in secular as well as religious courts, and more generally, whether women should be allowed to hold public office. Some “conservative” interpretations of religious laws and other relevant texts hold that Islam prohibits all such possibilities. But many (perhaps most) others disagree. Indeed, recent decades have seen women serving as judges in secular and religious courts in Indonesia and in secular (but not religious) courts in Malaysia. Beginning in 2001, Indonesia had its first female president (Megawati Sukarnoputri), thus joining the slender ranks of other Muslim countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey) where women have held the highest office in the land. More generally, as in most countries with Muslim majorities (Saudi Arabia is the mostprominent exception), Muslim women throughout Southeast Asia enjoy the same rights as men in areas such as voting, holding public office, and driving cars; they are, moreover, well represented in tertiary educational institutions and the professions, though they often encounter “glass ceilings” of the sort familiar to women in the West.

Recent advances in medical and other scientific technologies have raised a host of legal and ethical questions for Islamic theologians and jurists, as have new networks of communication and more encompassing processes of globalization. Some such questions concern the appropriateness for Muslims of contraception and other forms of birth control, blood transfusions, organ transplants, euthanasia, food additives, and certain types of cosmetics and other products used for the care of the body. These dilemmas have given rise to a spate of authoritative rulings or opinions on specific points of law or dogma, which are known as fatwas. Not generally in dispute, however, are Islamic prohibitions on gambling, pre- and extra-marital sex, as well as the consumption of alcohol, drugs, and pork. Observance of these prohibitions is an important symbol of being a Muslim, analogous in some ways to the performance of daily prayers and the adoption of certain styles of dress and moral demeanor.