Daily Archives: 31 August 2007

Islam Marginalized in Southeast Asian Studies

From Robert W. Hefner’s introduction to Islam in an Era of Nation-States: Politics and Religious Renewal in Muslim Southeast Asia, ed. by Robert W. Hefner and Patricia Horvatich (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. pp. 11-12 (references omitted):

The other marginalization to which the study of Islam in Southeast Asia has long been subjected unwittingly reinforced this neglect. This marginalization occurred within the field of Southeast Asian studies, particularly the form that took shape in the United States in the aftermath of World War II. In this emerging academic field, it was not uncommon for Islam to be portrayed as an intrusive cultural force or, as another widely used metaphor would have it, a late-deposited cultural “layer.” The real Southeast Asia lay deeper and was somehow less Islamic.

This perspective on Islam in Southeast Asia had deep historical and, more specifically, colonial precedents. In colonial times, particularly in the Dutch East Indies, this notion of Islam as a “thin veneer” appealed to those who wished to justify the suppression of Islam on the grounds that it was a threat to colonial power. In Java, for example, nineteenth-century colonial administrators developed a “structure of not seeing,” overlooking Islamic influences in Javanese tradition, while exaggerating and essentializing the influence of non-Islamic ideals. In the aftermath of the brutal Java War (1825–1830), colonial scholars worked to create a canon of Javanese literature that romanticized pre-Islamic literature as a golden age and portrayed the coming of Islam as a civilizational disaster. These Dutch Orientalists conveniently overlooked the fact that the proportion of Islamic-oriented literature in modern court collections was vastly greater than the so-called renaissance literature (pre-Islamic classics rendered in modern Javanese verse) that colonial scholars portrayed as the essence of things Javanese.

Colonial law effected a similar essentialization. Under the direction of Cornelis van Vollenhoven, the “adat (customary) law school” worked under state directive to develop what amounted to a system of legal apartheid. A classic example of the colonial “invention of tradition,” European experts divided the native peoples of the Indies into nineteen distinct legal communities. Islamic law was acknowledged in each community’s legal traditions only to the extent that colonial scholars determined that local custom (adat) explicitly acknowledged Islamic law. In this manner, colonial authorities reified the distinction between customary adat and Islam. As James Siegel’s study of Aceh and Taufik Abdullah’s of Minangkabau both demonstrate, however, this distinction between endogenous “custom” and exogenous “Islam” imposed an artificial polarity on a relationship that had always been dynamic. In fact, in the decades preceding the European conquest, legal traditions in places like Malaya and Minangkabau (west Sumatra) had already begun to accord a greater role to textually based Islamic norms. It was precisely this growing Islamic influence that prompted anxious Dutch authorities to implement their adatrecht policy.

British legal policies in Malaya differed from those of the Dutch. Drawing on their experience with Muslims in India, the British at first regarded Malay Muslims as “unheretical members of some idealized and uniform civilization.” By treating adat as “custom that has no legal consequences” and allowing the Malay sultans a measure of jural authority, the British allowed the formation of institutional structures in which Islamic law had a substantial albeit circumscribed role. Nonetheless, lacking a framework for integrating the study of local traditions and Islam, British scholars of the colonial era fell into an “anecdotal empiricism” that failed to grasp the dynamics of religious change in Malay society as a whole.

Though there was a tradition of Islamic studies in colonial Southeast Asia, then, it suffered from the subordination of scholarship to the needs of the colonial political order.

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Southeast Asia Marginalized in Islamic Studies

From Robert W. Hefner’s introduction to Islam in an Era of Nation-States: Politics and Religious Renewal in Muslim Southeast Asia, ed. by Robert W. Hefner and Patricia Horvatich (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. pp. 8-9 (references omitted):

One of the most serious impediments to the development of a systematic understanding of Islam in Southeast Asia is the fact that the topic has long been marginalized in the fields of Islamic and Southeast Asian studies. In Islamic studies Western and Middle Eastern scholars alike have tended to place Southeast Asia at the intellectual periphery of the Islamic world. Still today in some overviews of Islamic history and civilization, Southeast Asian Muslims are mentioned briefly if at all. Though Southeast Asian Islam has almost two hundred million believers, it is not uncommon for observers, even learned specialists, to identify Islam with the Middle East and to regard Southeast Asia as, at best, intellectually and institutionally derivative of Middle Eastern Islam.

There is a larger and, in one sense, understandable logic to this neglect. By comparison to Persia and the Arabian heartland, in insular Southeast Asia Islam became a civilizational force relatively late in Islamic history. Though Arab-Muslim traders traveled through island Southeast Asia as early as the seventh and eighth centuries, there was little settlement until the late thirteenth, when a Muslim town, inhabited in part by Arab-speaking foreigners, was established in the Pasai region of north Sumatra, an entrepôt for the trade with Muslim India and Arabia. Shortly thereafter, a Muslim presence appears to have been established in port towns along Java’s north coast, territories still then under the control of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Majapahit. Ruling elites in the Malay peninsula were converted in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and those in coastal Sulawesi and much of the southern Philippines were won to the faith in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The primary impetus for this wave of conversion was not conquest or religious warfare, as had been the case in Islam’s early expansion in Arabia and North Africa, but trade and interethnic intercourse. Certainly, as Anthony Reid has noted, Muslim potentates (like their Theravada Buddhist counterparts in mainland Southeast Asia) regarded forcible conversion of neighbors as “an honourable motive for conquest,” and Muslim rulers periodically engaged in warfare with their Hindu-Buddhist, animist, or, in later times, Christian neighbors. However, as Thomas McKenna’s essay in this volume illustrates, the causes of these conflicts were as much commercial and dynastic as they were religious.

More decisively, the rapid and relatively uniform spread of Islam to the insular world’s maritime centers was related to broader historical developments, especially the growth of international commerce from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries and the movement of large numbers of people out of localized societies into a multiethnic and interregional macrocosm. Most of the map of modern Muslim Southeast Asia was laid out during this “age of commerce,” as Anthony Reid has so aptly described it. A few remote corners of Southeast Asia have been converted to Islam in this century, some even in the last decades. In general, however, the dynamism of Islam in contemporary times has had less to do with a new wave of conversion than with the reform and rationalization of religion among established Muslim populations.

By itself, the comparatively late arrival of Islam in Southeast Asia neither explains nor justifies this region’s marginalization within the field of Islamic studies. Given the genesis of what has come to be regarded as “classical” Islamic civilization within the Arabic- and Persian-speaking world, however, there was a tendency on the part of early Western Islamicists to devote their attention to regions where the classical tradition was first composed. This emphasis was reinforced by the focus of this early scholarship on Islamic “culture,” not in the modern, social-historical or anthropological sense of this term, but in its great-traditional sense, as in written literature, philosophy, art and architecture, and law. With several notable exceptions, the Orientalist commentaries that introduced Islamic civilization to a Western readership in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were concerned with high culture, not the everyday meaning of Islam for ordinary Muslims. The focus of this writing was leading thinkers and civilizationwide achievements, especially those preserved for time in the printed word.

As a result of this textual emphasis, Southeast Asia—and other areas marginalized in the Orientalist understanding of the Muslim world, such as Central Asia, Bengal, and West Africa—was accorded only a minor role in early accounts of Islamic civilization.

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