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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Filed under Islam, scholarship, Southeast Asia

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