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Southeast Asia

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Southeast Asia

    Southeast Asia is a large region located east of India and south of China. It consists of two parts—one located on the Asian mainland, and the other an archipelago (island chain) that extends into the South China Sea. Mainland Southeast Asia includes the countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Thailand, and Vietnam. The Malay Peninsula projects from the mainland into the South China Sea. It includes the small state of Singapore and the country of Malaysia. Malaysia also occupies part of the island of Borneo, along with the tiny nation of Brunei and a section of Indonesia. The other islands of the archipelago constitute the nations of Indonesia and the Philippines.

    Southeast Asians practice a wide variety of religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. Buddhism is the most popular faith on the mainland, but Islam dominates the southern half of the Malay Peninsula and the archipelago. Isolated pockets of Islam also exist in Cambodia and northern Thailand. Muslims account for around 40 percent of the Southeast Asian population, or some 220 million people.

    Spread of Islam in Southeast Asia

    Because of its strategic location, Southeast Asia does a thriving business in trade. The people of the region have frequent contact with foreigners and are exposed to cultures from all around the world. Arab traders from the Middle East first reached Southeast Asia around 1200 . They opened up a prosperous trade route and brought stories of powerful Islamic civilizations to the people there. Islam took on a mystique for Southeast Asian rulers. They learned the basic elements of the religion from the traders and quickly adopted it.

    Islam became the dominant religion in Southeast Asian society when the ruling class made it their official faith. The rulers imposed Islam on their subjects even though Hinduism and Buddhism already had deep roots in the region. Islam spread throughout the archipelago over the next few centuries. The history of Islam in Southeast Asia falls into three major periods—the 1400s to the 1700s, the 1800s to the mid-1900s, and the period from the mid-1900s to the present day.

    Role of the Early Sultans.

    Beginning around the 1400s, the Southeast Asian rulers who adopted Islam called themselves sultans. Following the Persian model of leadership, they believed they were accountable only to God. They obeyed his divine will and imposed it on their subjects. The sultans were absolute rulers who would not tolerate dissent. Some claimed to have descended from Islamic rulers, tracing their family lineage back to Constantinople and Persia. The sultans incorporated traditional Islamic law into their legal codes, although they still retained many elements of traditional Southeast Asian law. Opposition occasionally arose from non-Muslims, but Islam remained the dominant faith in the region.

    Islam Under Colonial Rule.

    During the colonial period between 1800 and the mid-1900s, the Dutch, British, and French took control of the archipelago and most of mainland Southeast Asia. Thailand was the only Southeast Asian country never ruled by a European power. The Europeans brought Christianity to the region, and Islam declined in status. Local Muslims organized uprisings against colonial rule, but the Asians remained unable to overthrow the Europeans.

    Under colonial rule, the sultanates gave way to secular governments. Islam became divorced from the state in every colony except British Malaya, where the sultans remained religious leaders. The Europeans, however, greatly restricted their activity so that they had no real power. Islam also became subject to control by the state. The Europeans passed laws regulating charity, the construction of mosques, the publication of Islamic literature, and religious instruction. In short, Islam went from existing as the foundation of the state to serving as just one of many institutions under the control of the government.

    Modern Southeast Asia.

    Malaysia and Indonesia have the largest Muslim populations in Southeast Asia. Neither nation, however, has modeled itself on the Islamic states of the early sultans. They instead take the form of European secular nations. They have constitutions, bureaucracies, and national economic and social policies. Both states allow for political parties based on Islam. They have also established Islamic banks that operate according to Muslim rules on interest and profit-sharing.

    Indonesia gained its independence in 1949 . Today it has the largest Muslim population in the world. Almost 90 percent of Indonesia's 231 million people are Muslims. The government has incorporated Islamic codes into family law and the educational system. Islamic political parties in Indonesia, however, have had many setbacks. Groups have formed and reformed, making shifting alliances with Islamic and secular parties. Some Muslims have organized in other ways to try to change the government. In the 1950s, the militant group Darul Islam caused considerable destruction in West Java in its attempts to overthrow the secular government. It disbanded in 1959 after negotiations with government leaders. In 1973 the government forced all Muslim political parties to unite in a single organization, the United Development Party. However, disagreements divided the party, and Muslim insurrections flared up from time to time. Some Muslim groups continued to fight for an Islamic state, and conflict increased between the Muslims and the Christians, who continued to grow in power.

    Malaysia was formed when the British merged the colony of Malaya with part of the island of Borneo. The country gained its independence in 1963 . About half of the population of Malaysia is Muslim, and the constitution recognizes Islam as the official religion of the country. Each of the 13 states has a Department of Religious Affairs, and the main government has a National Council for Religious Affairs. The federal government does not enforce an Islamic rule, but various states have a strong Muslim influence.

    Many Malaysian political parties recognize Islam and push for Muslim reforms. The United Malay National Organization accommodates Islamic needs but does not allow religion to determine policy. In rural areas of Malaysia, however, various Islamic parties have gained power. For example, the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party promotes a strict form of Islam that does not allow women to work at night and that sanctions traditional hudud punishments such as cutting off the hands of thieves. Although Islamic parties control certain states within Malaysia, they have never come close to forming a national government.

    Islamic Culture in Southeast Asia

    The contact of Southeast Asians with a wide variety of cultures and faiths has given a unique form to Islam in the region. Many Muslims blend Islam with older religions to create distinctive rituals. Some groups, however, discourage the mixing of Islam with other practices. They call for a stricter form of Islam and engage in da'wah (missionary) practices to spread the religion and teach existing Muslims better ways to practice their faith.

    Variations on the Faith.

    When the people of Southeast Asia adopted Islam, they molded it to fit in with preexisting cultures. Because the region possesses hundreds of different ethnic groups, numerous interpretations of Islam have emerged in Southeast Asia. Traditional customs have influenced marriage practices, financial agreements, and punishments for crimes. Southeast Asians also show a great deal of tolerance for diversity of religious practice.

    In Indonesia and Malaysia, most Muslims practice Sunni Islam. Some follow strict forms of Sunnism, and others mix Islam with elements of Hinduism, nature-based religions, and Sufism. They engage in ritual feasts, traditional medicinal practices, and spiritual ceremonies. In recent decades, however, the number of people attending Friday prayer and observing the fast during the holy month of Ramadan has increased. Muslims in Southeast Asia have also shown a greater interest in wearing traditional Islamic dress, making the pilgrimage to Mecca, and eating halal foods.

    Language and Literature.

    The Muslims of Southeast Asia have made important contributions to Islamic culture, especially in the field of literature. A large number of Southeast Asians speak the Malay language, and a version of Malay serves as the official language of Indonesia. When Arabs first introduced Islam to Southeast Asia, they transmitted the teachings in the Malay language. The close association between the Malay language and Islam has lasted to the present.

    Between the 1500s and 1800s, Southeast Asian Muslims produced a rich collection of writing in the Malay language. The works include histories of royal families, essays about faith, and simple guides for living. Writers also composed popular tales about the prophets of Islam and about other figures in the Qur'an. In addition, they translated and revised many original Arabic texts. Some of the outstanding contributions to Islamic Malay literature came from the poet Hamzah Fansuri. Best known for his writings on mysticism, Fansuri taught that “Man is but a puppet in God's shadow play,” invoking a popular form of entertainment in Southeast Asian culture. Muslims still study Fansuri's works, which remain very influential in the region. See also Brunei; Indonesia; Malaysia; Philippines.

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