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Islam in Southeast Asia

Muslim women in Indonesia (vikz/flickr)

Muslim women in Indonesia (vikz/flickr)

by Michael Laffan 

Asia is home of 65 percent of the world's Muslims, and Indonesia, in Southeast, is the world's most populous Muslim country. This essay looks at the spread of Islam into Southeast Asia and how religious belief and expression fit with extant and modern polictical and economic infrastructures.

It is difficult to determine where Islamic practice begins or ends in any Muslim society, especially as the teachings of Islam encourage Muslims to be mindful of God and their fellow believers at all times. Still, the absence of publicly demonstrated mindfulness of God—whether expressed in terms of the wearing of special dress, such as the many sorts of veils donned by Southeast Asian women, or by recourse to frequent enunciations invoking His name—need not be taken as meaning that the person is any less a Muslim. Indeed, one’s faith is not to be measured by outward acts alone, and Muslim tradition ascribes greater weight to the personal intention of the believer than to outward appearance. Even so, what follows is an explanation of some aspects of the outward expression of Islamic identity in Southeast Asia.

Unity and Diversity

Although the national motto of Indonesia, “Unity in diversity” (Bhinneka tunggal ika), was intended to be an explicitly national one, it is no less applicable to the community of Southeast Asian Muslims, as well as to Muslims the world over. When Muslims come together to worship in the mosque on Friday, or when they perform their daily prayers as individuals, they face the same direction. As such they participate in a unitary tradition. The same might be said of when Muslims greet each other with the traditional Arabic blessing “Peace be with you” (al-salam `alaykum), when they undertake the fast (sawm) during the month of Ramadan, or when they make the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca.

If asked about the core elements of their faith and practice, many Muslims will point to the five basic duties of Islam. These consist of the profession of faith (shahada), the daily prayers (salat), the hajj, fasting in Ramadan (sawm), and the giving of alms (zakat). However, there is a whole range of calendrical celebrations and rites of passage associated with Islam, not to mention the simple acts of piety that some perform before carrying out basic actions. This might include invoking God’s name before eating or washing one’s face and limbs before prayer. Once again, these acts are shared across Islamic time and space.

On the other hand, many distinctions between believers of different cultural and theological traditions remain in evidence. Even when the global community of the faithful gather in Mecca for the hajj and don the same simple costume of two unsewn sheets (known as ihram), they often travel together in tightly managed groups of fellow countrymen or linguistic communities—at times with tags displaying their national flags. By the same token, there are many specific local practices that are felt to be thoroughly Islamic in Southeast Asia, but these, on occasion, have been condemned by Muslims of different cultural backgrounds by virtue of their absence in, or displacement from, their own histories. Local practices include the use of drums (bedug) in place of the call to prayer (adhan), or the visitation of the tombs of the founding saints of Java.

Other such examples of distinct Southeast Asian practices might be linked to the wearing of the sarung (a practice shared with Muslims and non-Muslims throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean), the relatively late circumcision of young males (often celebrated as a major event in village life), the use of shadow puppets (believed by some communities to have been invented by one Muslim saint to explain Islam in the local idiom), or the many popular verse tales of the exploits of an uncle of the Prophet, Amir Hamzah, drawn from Persian and Arabic originals. Even if such practices are regionally distinct or viewed askance elsewhere, if not contested openly, such practices are nonetheless seen as ways of connecting to a faith that is global and egalitarian.