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Islam in Asia

By Fr Thomas Michel, S.J.


Almost 2/3 of the Muslims in the world today live Asia. If one were to include the number of Muslims living in Arabic, Persian and Turkish speaking nations of the Middle East as part of the total number of Muslims in Asia, the percentage would be much higher. This paper does not directly treat Middle Eastern countries but considers only the countries of South Asia, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. Even so, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any single nation in the world, and over half the Muslims in the world live in one of four Asian countries: Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. By contrast, even though many people consider Islam to be mainly an Arab religion, less than 20% of the Muslims in the world live in Arabic-speaking countries.

Christian-Muslim relations in Asia are complicated by many contrasting and often contradictory elements. Demographic, political, economic, social and ethnic factors affect the ways in which Christians and Muslims relate, in both positive and negative ways. Imbalances in relationships of power can be a particular source of tension and even conflict. The group that lacks power feels vulnerable and at the mercy of the good will of those in positions of power.

One of the most obvious imbalances is that of demography. In Asia, Christians and Muslims relate in a variety of majority-minority relations.

1) Muslim majority, Christian minority (Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Central Asian republics).

2) Christian majority, Muslim minority (Philippines).

3) Both minorities (India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, China).

4) No clear majority (Malaysia).

Other imbalances arise from access to political power or economic strength. These two things do not always go together. In some countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and many Central Asia republics, Muslims control the political system, but Christians are generally in a much stronger economic position. While Christians may feel uneasy because of the political strength of Muslims, Muslims can often have negative feelings toward Christians whom they perceive to be controlling their lives by dominating the economic sphere.

Ethnic factors can play an important role in Christian-Muslim relations, particularly when one group identifies their Islamic or Christian faith as part of their ethnic identity. Malays throughout Southeast Asia or Maranao, Maguindanao and Tausug peoples of the Philippines often see Islam as part of what makes one belong to those ethnic groups, while Tagalog, Cebuano, and fongo peoples of the Philippines, or Florinese and Timorese peoples of Indonesia consider themselves Christian peoples. In those instances where the same ethnic group includes both Muslims and Protestant and Catholic Christians, relations are generally easier. Examples of this would be Batak or Javanese people of Indonesia or the Subanon in the Philippines.

In some places, such as in Pakistan, remnants of caste mentality can create problems for the Christian minority. Evidence that it is power relationships in the political, economic and social fields that underlie many of the tensions that sometimes arise between Christians and Muslims is the fact that wherever both communities are minorities in a region dominated by a third dominant group, relations between Muslims and Christians is always without problem, always at least correct and often cordial. This would be the case of the beleaguered Christian and Muslim communities in Hindu India, in Buddhist Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand, or in Confucian Singapore. In some cases, the common experience of marginalization and occasionally persecution brings the two communities together (as in Myanmar, India, and communist China).

The roots of radical Islam in Asia

Traditionally, Islam in Asia has had a pietist, interior, family-oriented orientation. This is largely the result of the early preachers of Islam, who were strongly influenced by a mystical Sufi interpretation of the religion. However, in more recent times, an aggressive, militant form of Islam has emerged with which Christians find relations more tense. Militant Muslims are everywhere a small but articulate minority among Muslims, and their societal and religious programs are not shared by the. majority of Muslims in Asia. To understand militant Islam in Asia today, one must recognize both the distant and proximate roots of this militant understanding of Islam.

One must remember that in Asia, Islam has a very long history, going back almost to the birth of the religion in the first century after the death of Muhammad. One might divide this history into four general periods of unequal length and discover the distant roots of Islamic revival in the particular nature of Islamic presence in Asia.

1. 8-13th centuries — Foreign commercial presence.

2. 13-16th centuries — Age of Expansion, first Muslim states, sultanates.

3.16-20th centuries — Colonial Period.

4. 1945-2002 — Independent modern national states.

Early period: the spread of Islam to Asia (800-1300)

Muslims arrived in Asia in the first century after the death of Muhammad. In some cases, it was Arab armies who brought Islamic rule through military conquest. This was the case among the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, in Sind in Pakistan and later on generally in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent: More often, Islam was introduced to Asia peacefully by Arab and Persian merchants. Following established pre-Islamic commercial routes, these traders set up foreign merchant communities of Muslims in the port cities of the Indian Ocean and along the famous "Silk Road" between China and the Mediterranean.

Because the sea voyage in the Indian Ocean and the land trip across the Silk Road took between 1.1/2-2 years, Muslim firms set up local offices to handle affairs. Some Muslims married local women and raised families, who were expected to adopt the Islamic faith. Local employees also frequently accepted Islam and in this way the local foreign communities began to include a limited number of local Muslims. In some places, these mixed communities of Muslim traders left the port cities to travel inland in small boats, along the canals of Myanmar and Thailand, and up the river system of modern-day Bangladesh.

Not all foreign Muslims remained in Asia by choice. Bankruptcies, confiscated vessels, shipwrecks, and the changeable policies of local rulers prevented some merchants and sailors from returning to the Middle East. Thus in the port cities of the Indian Ocean, the caravan stops along the overland routes, and along the inland waterways, small communities of local Muslims began to arise. In this early period, the instances of mass conversions of local inhabitants to Islam were few, although there were some notable exceptions, such as in Sind in modern Pakistan and among the Champa people of Cambodia.

The age of expansion: conversion of Asians to Islam (1300-1500)

In 1258, Baghdad, the religious, cultural, and political center of the Islamic world, was conquered and, destroyed by the Mongol armies.

Although the Calif and his whole family were killed, a distant relative escaped to Cairo and was set up as calif However; never again did the calif wield any real power and remained a figurehead until Ataturk's suppression of the califate in the 1920s. For many Muslims, the existence of a calif (khalifa, successor of Muhammad), was essential in Islam. Political awareness of Muslims in modern-day India and Pakistan grew sharply as a result of the Khalifa Movement, which sought to restore the califate and resulted in the formation of the World Muslim Congress (the Mu'tamar).

To fill the vacuum created by the destruction in 1258 of the most important political and educational institutions in Islam, new movements arose. The most important were the Sufi Orders. Mystically-inclined Muslims had been present in the Islamic community since its beginnings, but in the 14th Century, they gathered into brotherhoods and became the most dynamic force in Islam. Dedicated to achieving a union of love and will with God and possessing great missionary zeal, the Sufis began to accompany the merchants on their commercial trips to Asia. Through their preaching, many in Asia were attracted to Islam. The fact that most Asian peoples accepted Islam strongly marked by the mystical, inner-oriented interpretation of the Sufi preachers had important consequences on its subsequent development and history in Asia.

Islam in the colonial period: the Sufi revival (1550-1800)

The early Sufis did not place great emphasis on doctrinal formulation or political questions, but emphasized interior piety and submission to traditional Asian spirituality, a pantheistic nature religiosity centered on cosmic and interior harmony, the Sufis focused on a few basic principles of Islam — the oneness of God, the necessity of prayer and fasting, and prohibitions against pork and alcohol — and accommodated many traditional practices related to the spirit world and the cult of holy persons and places.

Islam was implanted in Asian societies for a relatively short time when most predominantly Muslim regions came to be conquered and governed by non-Muslim powers. In South and Southeast Asia it was European Christian powers — first the Portuguese, then Dutch, British, Spaniards, Americans, and Russians who came to dominate Muslim regions. In the same period, Buddhist Chinese, Thai, and Burmese incorporated Muslim regions into their domains.

During the 17-18th centuries, the early colonial period saw a reformist trend initiated by international Sufi brotherhoods, particularly the Naqshbandiyya and the Qadiriyya, who sought to bring about a deeper Islamic awareness based on better religious education. While not forbidding the traditional rites centered on cemeteries, local shrines of holy persons, healing practices, and the spirit world dwelling in caves, mountains, the sea, and banyan trees, the Sufi reformers worked to instill authentic Islamic practice among Muslims.

Islamic revival and the struggle for independence (1800-1945)

When Muslims looked around the world at the beginning of the 19th Century, many asked, "What went wrong?". From having, in previous centuries, the world's most powerful, advanced, and prosperous states in the Ottoman, Safavid and Moghul empires, they had almost everywhere succumbed to the rule of others. A radical response was provided by Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab in Arabia, who held that it was because they deviated from the true Islamic path that Muslim peoples arrived at their low state. He felt that nothing less than a return to the pure, original Islam would permit Muslims to achieve their past glory.

Those who took up these views were called Wahhabis. They wanted not only to purify Islam of all accretions and novelties that had wrongly been accepted as Islamic in the course of time, but they held that the Sufi preoccupation with Islam as a personal, spiritual path to God was in itself a distortion of the original intent of the religion. They claimed that Islam was meant to be a program for building a human society whose every aspect was to be lived in accord with the will of God. Islam was not simply, or even primarily, to be seen as a set of pious practices leading to mystical union. Many hajjis making the pilgrimage to Mecca encountered Wahhabi ideas in Arabia and brought these views back with them to their homelands in Asia.

The Wahhabi understanding of Islam had political implications. If God intended the Islamization of society in all its social, economic, and political aspects, it was felt that this could only be done if Muslims themselves were in control of the political systems. Their political theory held that the state existed to permit Muslims to foster the Islamization process and to forbid and punish wrongdoing. They felt that the Sufis, with their spiritual programs, ignored political realities and held Muslims back from the task of reforming society according to God's will.

The Muslim revival linked religious and political concerns. To pursue their societal ends, they sought to create a state that would favor and implement these goals. The first objective was to achieve liberation from non-Muslim rule. Revivalists began to work actively toward the overthrow of colonial regimes in order to create Islamic states, that would support the Islamization of society. Wahhabi ideas, although they developed in Arabia, spread quickly to Asia. When the Wahhabis, with their political allies of the family of Ibn Saud, conquered the Holy Cities of Mecca and Madina in the early 1800s, Muslim pilgrims on the hajj from all parts of Asia came into contact with the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and Islamic history. Many of these hajjis returned to their home countries convinced that it was the accommodation of Islam to local Asian cultures that kept Islam weak and prevented Islam from being what it should: a program for society.

In widely-spread parts of Asia, revolutionary Wahhabi views provoked both social reform movements and revolutions against colonial rule. In 1822-23, Sayyid Ahmed of Rae Bareli in northern India performed the Hajj. On his return, he launched a short-lived jihad against British influence in India. In 1803, three hajjis returning to Western Sumatra in Indonesia founded the Padri movement, which between 1821 and 1833 carried on an active rebellion against Dutch rule. The Padri rebellion was directed not only against the colonial power, but also against the traditional aristocratic families, and against customs that combined Islamic practice with pre-Islamic traditional law.

Islamic revival in the modern nation states (1945-1995)

In the years after World War II, when most Muslim regions achieved independence, two organizations emerged to articulate the concept of the Islamic state. In Egypt and other Arab countries, the Muslim Brotherhood, insisting that rule by Muslims did not ensure the creation of an Islamic state, worked to counter nationalist feelings that in their view divided rather than united the umma. The harsh repression of the Brotherhood in Egypt convinced many that the new Arab regimes were as opposed to the creation of an Islamic state as the colonial regimes had been.

On the Indian subcontinent, the Jamiati Islami held that Islam offered the world an Islamic solution to every modern problem. There was already an Islamic science, economics, politics, legal system, and educational program. Muslims had only to search in their own early tradition to rediscover the ingredients necessary to develop Islamic alternatives to these secular fields.

As one predominately Muslim nation after another achieved independence after 1945, the revivalists hoped that Islamic states would be set up. The actual Muslim rule that replaced the colonial regimes was, however, far from their ideals of the Islamic state. The new ruling class throughout the Muslim world generally adopted the principles of nationalism and created nation states on a European model. Legal codes were based on those of Western nations and were usually mere revisions of colonial law. On the grounds that it was more egalitarian and would prevent the abuses of uncontrolled capitalism, many of the ruling élites adopted socialist policies of a one-party state, state ownership of industries, and centrally planned economies. Cultural mores as well as development concepts were taken from the West.

The creation of Pakistan

In the first decades after World War II, many Muslims were enthusiastic about the creation of Pakistan, which they considered a model for the modem Islamic democracy. However, as the years passed, it became clear that Pakistan's Islamic identity did not enable the country to overcome ethnic clashes, economic mismanagement and corruption, military takeovers, and equitable distribution of wealth. Many Muslims claimed that the Pakistan model was a failed experiment and that a truly Islamic state would have to undergo a more revolutionary societal restructuring.

The Palestinian struggle

Shortly after the creation of Pakistan, in 1949, the emergence of the state of Israel had great influence on the thinking of militant Muslims. Seen as a state for European Jews created in the Arab heartland by the Western powers to assuage their guilt for Europe's treatment of its Jews, Israel was felt to be a continuation of colonial policies of forced implantation and ruthless land-grabbing. The Palestinian struggle became the symbol of oppressed Muslims striving to achieve, against all odds, liberation through armed rebellion. The Palestinian cause engendered a conviction that the West, despite its professed concern for the development of Muslim nations, was in fact opposed to Islam and that Muslims were victims of injustice perpetrated by Western powers.

The disastrous defeat of the Arab alliance by Israel in 1967 was a watershed. Egypt, the most populous and powerful Arab nation and its cultural capital, led by the charismatic Gamal Abd al-Nasser, with the financial support of other Arab countries, went down to quick and humiliating defeat by tiny Israel. It was not only Nasser and the rhetoric of pan-Arab nationalism that was discredited. The military, on which millions of dollars had been spent, showed itself inept and corrupt. Ineffective in its role of defending the nation, the military was often seen as existing primarily to preserve the internal status quo, enabling the ruling élites to govern by force, often against the will of the people. Hopes that the Western powers would provide necessary assistance were dashed when those states supported Israel both financially and in international diplomatic for a such as the United Nations. Many Muslims began to question the efficacy of nationalist thought and turned to religion to furnish more effective means to govern Muslim peoples.

The Iranian revolution

The 1979 Iranian revolution gave concrete shape to these grievances. The world was amazed when religious solidarity enabled Iranian Muslims to overthrow with apparent ease a wealthy but unpopular Muslim regime, one which had been presumed to be the model of strength and stability. The fact that the Shah's regime strongly promoted secularization in the name of modernization and was closely allied to the West was not lost on revivalist Muslims. The Islamic Republic of Iran replaced, in the minds of many, the failed Pakistan model of an Islamic state. All observers, whether sympathetic or not, agree that the government of Ayatollah Khomeini was truly revolutionary in rethinking and reorganizing every aspect of social life according to Islamic principles.

Later events in the Muslim world encouraged the growth and spread of revivalist ideals. The 1991 Gulf War and the continuing blockade against Iraq, along with economic and diplomatic measures taken against other outspoken Muslim nations, confirmed for many that the West, particularly the USA, intended to isolate Muslim countries much as communist states had previously been isolated. The electoral victory of the Front Islamique du Salut in Algeria in 1992 showed that a grass-roots Islamic political movement could succeed through democratic processes. The uncritical welcome granted by Western powers to the establishments of a repressive military dictatorship in Algeria confirmed to many Muslims the shallowness of European rhetoric about democracy as well as its implacable enmity towards Islam.

Revivalist critique of modernity

There are many factors underlying Muslim revival movements in Asia today. There is a criticism of the Sufi roots and a desire to reorient the inner-directed thrust of Sufism towards an activist program of social reform. Muslim revivalists propose a political philosophy that holds that the state should be an instrument to promote Islamic values and way of life. In many countries, revivalist Islam is an attractive alternative that promises to resolve the crises in existing institutions: the lack of effective and representative government, the wasteful yet ambiguous role of the military, the failure of socialist central planning and management of the economy, and the institutionalization of the traditional ulama which turned them into government servants rather than being spokespersons for the people.

This is accompanied by a harsh critique of modernity. By modernity is not meant technological advances in communications, transportation and consumer goods. Muslims are ready to accept and use all these to promote their cause. What they object to are the philosophical presuppositions of the modern way of life, its understanding of humankind and its place in the universe, and the values that derive from this philosophy of life.

A conflict of values

Muslims see a fundamental conflict of values in today's world. The liberal value system is anthropocentric, with the individuate at the center of the universe. This philosophy of life exalts human dignity, freedom, and rights. Fulfilling to the utmost one's potential, capabilities, and legitimate desires is considered the highest human goal, and modern people must be free to achieve these aspirations. The only limitation on human freedom is that in pursuing one's objectives, the individual must not violate the rights of others to pursue and achieve their own goals.

While liberalism does not deny the existence of God or reject religion, it is skeptical of the ability of any religious system to attain truth and is opposed to the role of religion in public life. Religion is admissible as the personal choice of some individuals who feel they need to give moral direction to their private and familial lives, but it has no place in public affairs. The marketplace, social interaction and, above all, government, are spheres that must exist and operate outside the influence of religious thought.

Against liberal values, Muslim revivalists propose a theocentric system. For them, God has revealed how humans should live and has laid down the principles on which society is to be built. They feel that Western values lay so much stress on the individual person that the rights of society are ignored or denied. They hold that the humanistic approach to morality espoused by Western modernity leads to dehumanization, where the person is viewed primarily as a consumer of goods, a prospective buyer to be reached by effective advertising, rather than as a creature of God called to live a simple, God-fearing, non-materialist life.

The emphasis on the individual divides the world into winners and losers. The winners are those who obtain the best university education, achieve good, steady jobs, and the privileges that come with wealth and status. The losers are driven to destructive activities such as crime, or self-destructive activities related to drugs, alcohol, gambling and sexual promiscuity. What people need, critics claim, are not new and better consumer goods, but rather a clear sense that human life finds meaning in the context of an obedient and joyful response to the demands of God. One of the most important arenas for Christian-Muslim dialogue at the present time is a critical evaluation of modernity to distinguish the obvious benefits that modernization brings to humanity from the anti-religious and ultimately destructive attitudes that often accompany it.


Roots of Islamic militancy in Asia

Distant roots:

1. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab's analysis of world in colonial times.

2. Sufis the cause of decadence, weakness.

3. Goal of Islam; build a society according to will of God.

4. Oppose traditional practices, local customs e.g., visiting tombs, bedug.

5. Apply shari'a.

6. Concept of the state: command what is right, forbid what is wrong.

7. To achieve this Muslims must govern themselves.

Proximate roots:

1. After 1945, almost every Muslim majority region arrived at independence.

2. Government by Muslims did not mean Islamic government.

  1. New Muslim rulers applied nationalist, secular principles to build nation.
  2. Colonial law accepted and adapted; shari'a not applied.
  3. Western models for law, development, education, health.
  4. Modernization seen as inevitable, unstoppable.
  5. Modernization, Westernization mainly benefitted élites. Masses remained in poverty.

f. Disappointment, frustration anger; promises proved empty.

Steps in the spread of salafi ideas in Asia:

1. Reformist Organizations

Jamiat-i Islami (Maududi), khalifa movement (Mu'tamar)1950s Muslim brothers 1950s Muhammadiyah (1912 lay movements (Ulama considered too inflexible, tied to tradition, colonial system).

2. Pakistan set up as first modem Muslim state.

3. Failure of nationalism resulted in widespread disillusion.

a. 1967: Arab coalition failed in war against Israel.

b. Military, into which much national budget was sunk, failed miserably.

c. Gamal Abd al-Nasr's nationalism seen as empty, ineffective rhetoric.

d. The West, which supported Israel militarily, financially and diplomatically, could not be trusted.

e. Geopolitical reality: although independent, Muslim countries still second-class states.

f. Socialism, centralized control and planning of economy, unsuccessful is producing prosperity.

g. Political systems corrupt, resisted change, ineffective. Democracy a tool to validate autocratic rule. Rulers supported by military, secret police, internal spies.

h. Development programs on Western model created privileged classes. Capitalism seen as benefitting foreign business interests and local elites.

i. Identity crisis. The west became the model: clothing, food, language, customs, education, recreation, social relations, family life.

4. The radical Islamic movement emerged out of the general discouragement after 1967.

a. With the fall of ideologies (socialism, nationalism, capitalism, pan-Arabism), religion was seen as offering a way out to build a more just, humane society.

b. 1973; Sadat preached the war against Israel as a jihad, with better results.

c. The oil boycott gave new hope. That the world's largest oil reserves were found on the Islamic Holy land was seen as a blessing from God.

d. But this vision remained theoretical; there was as yet no concrete model.

5. 1979: Islamic revolution in Iran.

a. Khomeini's revolution, which used network of mosques and madradas, opposed neo-colonialism, local elites, ofered hope that Islam would provide more just, humane society.

b. Iranian revolution, rejected "modernist" values, traditional norms, secular bases.

c. Iranian theoreticians saw selves as "post-modern", not fundamentalist.

d. With Iranian revolution, radical Islam moved from margins to center stage.

6. Islam seen as a realistic political project, better than corrupt governments and decadent behavior. Islam was God's project for humankind, based on revelation, divine law, morality, and a consistent way of life that followed

7. 1991: Gulf War proved that the West was the enemy that wanted to destroy Islam.

a. Boycott against Iraqi people — an open wound.

b. Military occupation of Islamic Holy Land of Arabia showed hypocrisy of rulers.

8. 1992: Success of (FIS) in Algeria.

a. Showed that Islam could be chosen by the people democratically

b. The military put-down, with support of Western powers, showed the falsity of Western commitment to democracy.

9. Suffering of Bosnian people showed that Europe would never permit a Muslim state, no matter how liberal, in Europe.

Radical Islam today:

1.Represents small, articulate minority.

2. Except for Algeria, has not won in electoral process (Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt, PAS).

3. Relationship of Islam to society and hence to politics is debated everywhere.

Effects on Christian-Muslim relations

1. Usually not anti-Christian in itself (exceptions, e.g., Laskar Jihad).

2. Anti-West, secular, liberal, modernist, anthropocentric.

3. Desire to apply shari'a causes tension/conflict with Christians.

4. When Muslims angry at Western actions, take it out on local Christians.

5. Some radical Muslims hold that Christian minorities will be better respected in shari'a states.

6. Question of violence. Islam and democracy. AMAN (Asian Muslim Action Network) Indonesia; troubles of recent years Legitimacy; representative government Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia democratic.

Ref.: OMNIS TERRA, n. 334, February 2003, pp. 57-81. (Inserted in SEDOS Homepage on April 2003).