Islam in Asia Research Paper

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Islam is often understood as a Middle Eastern and, even more narrowly, an Arab religion. While the origins and core scriptures of Islam are indeed Arabic, the majority of the world’s Muslim population is located in South, Southeast, and East Asia. This research paper concerns the Islamicate civilizations and societies of these regions. It examines theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of Islam in the region, the historical processes through which Islam came to be an Asian religion, relationships between ethnicity and religion in Asian societies, popular religion and vernacular literatures in Islamic Asia, the diverse roles played by Islam and Muslims in public life in contemporary Asian States, and the significance of Islamist or fundamentalist movements.

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1. ‘Islam’ And ‘Muslim’ Definitional And Theoretical Concerns

In both western and Muslim writing the terms ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ are used in various and often contradictory ways. Conflicts concerning their use and definition are apparent in, and have done much to shape, scholarly discourse about religion and culture in Muslim Asia. In a theological sense the term Islam means ‘submission to god.’ A Muslim is a person or jinn (spirit) who practices submission. Debates concerning the meaning of submission are a central feature of Islamic discourse. Muslim jurists define Islam as an all-encompassing behavioral code and do not distinguish between religious and other modes of social behavior. Mystics (Sufis) define Islam as an emotional or spiritual state and are less concerned with personal and social behavior. Proponents of both positions often describe their opponents as kafir (non-Muslim).

The line between social scientific and confessional scholarship in and about the Muslim world is a fine one. Many social scientific studies share the Muslim juristic assumption that Islam is first and foremost a legal tradition and that there is a universal and normative core against which the ‘Islamicness’ of particular cultures can be evaluated. The result has been that societies in which the influence of Muslim mysticism predominates have often been described as nominally and even trivially Muslim (see, for example, Snouck Hurgronje 1906 and Geertz 1960). Since the early twentieth century many of the basic reference works on Islam in European languages has been written by Muslim apologists whose definitions of ‘Islam’ are theological motivated (for a contemporary example see Rahman 1980). For the most part their works assume a legalistic understanding of Islam. To the extent that the social science literature has been shaped by these works, it employs Muslim theological categories. Muslim scholars have, in turn, begun to use social scientific works by Western scholars with whom they are inclined to agree, as authoritative references in overtly apologetic treatises.

Recent scholarship has challenged this approach and the related view that Arabs are the guardians of Muslim orthodoxy. Increasingly, social scientists and textualists have been concerned with the dynamic tension between textual and lived Islam in diverse cultural and historical settings. The textual tradition is now understood as the product of discursive practice. Recent scholars have examined the ways in which this tradition describes, and argues for, a variety of possible ‘Islams.’ This perspective attempts to capture both the variety of Islamic texts and cultures and historical and doctrine linkages among them. The term ‘Islamicate’ is now used in reference to societies and civilizations whose development has been shaped by the interaction of Islam, as a religion, and a variety of local cultures. The use of this term circumvents concerns with orthodoxy inherent in early scholarship.

The chief difficulty with this approach is that by privileging the local character of Muslim discourse, it runs the risk of accepting the local as normative. Progress in understanding the local Islams of Asia, and elsewhere, will require additional attention to the ways in which elements of the pan-Islamic textual tradition are interpreted, understood, and put into practice, and alternatively the ways in which specific histories and cultures constrain and limit the implementation of the social ideals described in universally recognized Muslim texts. There is also a need for comparative studies of the various Asian Islams.

2. Historical Background

Political, economic, and military factors all contributed to the establishment of Islam as an Asian religion and the foundation of Asian Islamicate civilizations. In the seventh and eighth centuries Arab Muslim armies carried Islam into central Asia and western India. Muslim military traditions resulted in the conquest of most of South Asia. Here, Muslim expansion was motivated as much by the religious conviction that Muslim rulers have an obligation to expand the Muslim world (dar al Islam) as by economic considerations. Commerce spread Islam further. Arab control of the western terminus of overland and maritime trade routes linking the Mediterranean basin and China led to the expansion and consolidation of Islam in Central, East, and Southeast Asia.

2.1 South Asia

There has been a prominent Muslim presence in what are now Afghanistan and Sind (western Pakistan) since the early eighth century. It was not, however, until approximately 1000 CE that the conquest of the plains of what is now India began in earnest. A long series of raids and invasions based in Afghanistan led to the establishment of Islamicate empires centered in the Gangetic plain. The expansion of Muslim polities continued until the establishment of British power early in the eighteenth century. The Central Asian origins of South Asian Islam account for Turkish and Persian influences on South Asian Muslim literature and popular religion and for the presence of a significant Shia minority not found elsewhere in Asia. British conquest of Burma in the nineteenth century (1825–85) led many South Asian Muslims to emigrate to this Southeast Asian nation. Arab Muslim traders reached the southwest coast of India and Sri Lanka in the eighth century. Here, trade, rather than conquest, was the primary factor facilitating the expansion of Islam. The Islamicate cultures of this region resemble those of Southeast Asia and southern China more closely than those of northern portions of the Indian subcontinent.

2.2 Southeast Asia

Islam came to Southeast Asia in the thirteenth century. It was brought to the Malay world by Arab and South Asian Muslim traders who dominated the Indian Ocean trade during that period. Muslim states were established on both sides of the straits of Malacca and later spread southward to Java and as far east as the southern Philippines. Largely owing to the power of coastal Sultanates it rapidly became the dominant religion in the Malay-speaking world. Muslim communities in Vietnam, Cambodia, southern Thailand, and Burma originated in similar ways, but never displaced the political dominance of Indianized and, in the case of Vietnam, Sinicized states. Islam came to Burma from two additional sources in the precolonial period, from Bengal in the west and from Southern China. During the period of British rule large numbers of south Asian Muslims migrated to Rangoon, Mandalay, and other Burmese urban centers. There are also scattered Chinese Muslim populations in northern regions of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.

2.3 China

Arab Muslim armies reached China’s western border in AD 714. Muslim control of the silk road stretching across central Asia to western China was the avenue through which Islam came to be the religion of the various Turkic-speaking communities of central Asia, and substantial portions of northwestern China. The Mongol conquest of China and the Islamic lands of central Asia promoted closer contacts between China and the Middle East. The Mongol conquest of Persia and the sack of Baghdad in 1258 CE was a devastating blow to Islamicate cultures. However, the subsequent conversion of the Mongol elite to Islam enhanced the position of Chinese Muslim communities and resulted in the Islamicization of most of central Asia.

Legends preserved by Muslims in Southeastern China speak of Muslim emissaries and traders arriving during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. While the veracity of these accounts is difficult to determine, Chinese records and archaeological evidence point to a significant Muslim presence in Southern China from the seventh century onwards. Muslims played a major role in Chinese international and internal commerce and politics from the eighth century until the establishment of the Ching dynasty in 1644. Muslims were a sizable and ‘convenient’ minority. Islam enabled them to establish and maintain relationships with the outside world that was both feared and belittled by the Chinese elite. At the same time Islam precluded its adherents from competition for political power within China. Javanese and other Southeast Asia chronicles mention China, as well as Arabia and India, as being among the sources of Islam. This speaks of the importance of the premodern Asiatic commercial system in the expansion of Islam in Asia.

3. Islam And Ethnicity In Asian Societies

Sociologically, religion and ethnicity are closely intertwined in the Asian Muslim world, though in complex and varied ways. In some instances Islam transcends ethnic distinctions, in others Muslim communities are divided along ethnic lines, despite the normative doctrine and political ideology of ‘Muslim brotherhood.’

In nation states with Muslim minorities ‘Muslim’ has become an ethnic, and often political category, even where Muslims themselves would not recognize it as such. In China, the Philippines, and the Buddhist societies of mainland Southeast Asia, majority populations and governments define Islam as an ethnic category, despite linguistic and religious differences within the Muslim community. Burma provides a clear example. As the result of the inclusion of Burma in the British Indian empire, the Muslim community is extremely diverse. In addition to communities with historical ties to many regions of India, there are Chinese and ethnic Burmese Muslim communities. Typically each of these communities has its own mosque and religious officials. Burmese Buddhists and the national government ignore these distinctions and categorize all of these diverse communities as simply ‘Muslim.’ In nation-states with Muslim majorities Islam is generally understood as a unifying force that transcends ethnic differences.

In colonial and postcolonial societies Islam has often been used as a unifying ideology. The use of Islam as an organizing principle contributed to the rise of nationalist movements in British India and Malaysia and the Dutch Indies (Indonesia). The effectiveness of Islam as a political principle has proved to be uneven. It was largely responsible for the division of British India into the states of India and Pakistan in 1949. It provided the basis for Malay nationalism in Malaysia, but also contributed to Singapore’s succession and for ongoing tension between Malay Muslim, South Asian Hindu, and Chinese communities.

3.1 South Asia

Religion and ethnicity have long been salient features of social and political discourse in South Asia. Pakistan was founded on the basis of a common religious identity, obscuring ethnic and cultural relationships between Hindus and Muslims in both the Northwest and Eastern regions as well as ethnic and linguist differences among Muslims. Pakistan subsequently split into Pakistan and Bangladesh, a division that reflects, geographic, ethnic, and linguistic differences. Bangladesh is an ethnic as well as a religious state. Pakistan is a multiethnic state that uses Islamic ideology to transcend ethnic divisions. The rise of militant Hindu nationalism as a potent political force in India has led to the identification of Islam and Muslims as an ethnically distinct and ‘foreign’ element of Indian society. Contemporary Indian Muslims are inclined to disregard sectarian and ethnic differences in the face of a mounting tide of Hindu religious nationalism.

3.2 Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is characterized by extreme ethnic and religious diversity. Islam is the dominant religion in Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia. There are important Muslim minorities in the Buddhist countries (Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia), Sinicized Vietnam, and the Christian Philippines.

The role of Islam in the political systems of the majority Muslim nations of the region, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei differs fundamentally. Malaysia is officially an Islamic state, although little more than 50 percent of its citizens are Muslims. Political parties compete to appear ‘more Islamic than each other.’ Despite the fact that it is the world’s most populous Islamic nation, Indonesia defines itself as being neither a religious or a secular state, but rather as one with the state ideology Panca Sila (the Five Principles) which comprise: belief in the one true God, a just and civilized humanity, national unity, democracy based on consensus of the people, and wise leadership and social justice for all of the Indonesian people. This ideology seeks to transcend religious differences in a Muslim state in which there are small, but important, Christian and Hindu minorities. Islamic political parties, several of which advocated the creation of an Islamic state, play significant roles in Indonesian politics. These groups understand Islam as an ideology that transcends ethnic distinctions. Other, more liberal, Muslim organizations have attempted to establish an Islamic theology of tolerance promoting ethnic and religious pluralism. Brunei is by far the smallest of the Muslim states of Southeast Asia. It is officially defined as a Malay Islamic Monarchy. Power is located with the Sultan and members of his immediate family. The current Sultan is known as a pragmatist and has sought to limit the influence of Muslim scholars and fundamentalists.

Other Southeast Asian nations have significant Muslim minorities. There is, however, considerable variation in the social and economic status of Muslim minority populations. There is a basic distinction between immigrant and native Muslim communities, that is, between those who define themselves in terms of ethnic categories indigenous to the region and those of Arab, Persian, and South Asian origin. The largest communities of native Muslims are found in the Southern Philippines and Southern Thailand. While Muslims make up less than 10 percent of the Philippine population, they are concentrated in the Sulu archipelago and the southern Island of Mindanao. Phillippino Muslims are culturally and linguistically related to those of eastern Indonesia and the Indonesian Malaysian island of Kalimantan (Borneo). They fiercely resisted both Spanish and US colonialism and have never been fully integrated into the modern Philippine state. The conquest of these territories was not completed until 1914. The modern state has continued the anti-Islamic policies of Spanish and US colonialists, and encouraged Christian immigration to Muslim majority areas. The result has been continued armed struggle between the army and the Moro National Liberation front. Muslims make up approximately 10 percent of the population of Thailand and are of diverse ethnic origin. Most of the Muslim population of the Southern provinces are Malay, although there are also significant Muslims of the Thai origin. Much of this area was not part of the Thai state until the mid-nineteenth century. There are still periodic outbreaks of resistance to Thai rule. In the vicinity of Bangkok there are diverse Muslim communities of Malay, Thai, Persian, and Cham (Cambodian) origin. In the northern region there is a substantial community of Chinese Muslims originating in Yunan. In general the Thai Muslim community is not well organized as it faces continuous pressure to assimilate Thai cultural norms and Theravada Buddhism. Prior to the Khmer Rouge persecutions there were approximately 500,000 Cambodian Muslims Most are the descendants of Muslim refugees from the kingdom of Champa which was destroyed by the Vietnamese in the fifteenth century. They retain distinct ethnic and linguistic identity. Very few survive.

3.3 China

Chinese Muslims (Hui ) are recognized by the People’s Republic as an official nationality, despite considerable cultural and religious differences within the community. Some southern Chinese communities that trace their descent to Arab Muslim traders have sought to be officially recognized as Hui to obtain economic benefits granted to minority nationalities. Descent and refusal to eat pork are the primary factors distinguishing them from the larger Han Chinese community. In northwest China Turkic Muslim communities employ a combination of ethnic and religious criteria to distinguish themselves from the Han majority. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to an Islamic revival among the Turkic people of central Asia. This has led to an increased concern with ethnic and Islamic identity among the Muslim peoples of northwest China. The Chinese Nationalist government of Taiwan views relationships between religion and ethnicity differently than the People’s Republic. It does not officially recognize the distinctiveness of Muslim Chinese. Nor does it limit or regulate expressions of Muslim religiosity.

4. Popular Religion And Vernacular Literatures

Arabic religious texts are known throughout Islamicate Asia. The Qur’an Hadith (traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), legal, mystical, and theological works are studied in theological academies throughout the region. There are also significant vernacular literatures in Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Javanese, and Malay. Vernacular literatures are often based on a combination of pan-Islamic and pre-Islamic components. Many recount tales of the spread of Islam and the exploits of local Muslim saints, kings, and warriors. Throughout the twentieth century there have been concerted efforts to translate Arabic theological texts into Asian languages. This has contributed to an increased awareness and appreciation of Islamic theology and law in almost every Asian Muslim society.

The ritual complex mandated by Islamic law—the five daily prayers, alms, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca—are known and practiced throughout the region. Other kinds of popular religion reflect the significant role played by Muslim mystics (Sufis) in the conversion process. These include pilgrimage to the tombs of saints, ritual recitation of the Qur’an, healing rites, and the celebration of the maulid or birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Sufi orders continue to play significant parts in social, religious, and political life in most Asian Islamicate societies. For many Asian Muslims Sufi devotionalism is more important than that required by Muslim law.

5. Islamist Movements

Islamist movements advocate the ‘purification’ of Muslim religious life. In general they seek to restrict devotional acts to those prescribed by Islamic law. They strongly oppose Sufism and rituals rooted in or associated with pre-Islamic traditions. They also seek to establish the Islamic law as the basis for social and political life. They are significant voices in intellectual, social, and political discourse throughout Islamicate Asia. Most have intellectual roots in the theology of the nineteenth century Egyptian modernist Muhammad Abduh. They emphasize a combination of modern education and religious zealotry. Many believe that the realization of the goals can be facilitated by the establishment of Islamic states. Support for these movements is found primarily among urban, middle-class movements. They are strongly opposed by traditional religious elites and in most instances ignored by rural populations.


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