Faithlines in the Muslim Ummah


The first panel session in the symposium "Islam in Southeast Asia and China: Regional Faithlines and Faultlines in the Global Ummah" focused on faithlines in the Islamic community, with particular reference to China and Southeast Asia. Speakers came from a range of disciplines, including sociology, theology, philosophy, political science, and history.

Social complexity

One of the main themes in the day's presentations was the social complexity in the realization of Islam. "Quite a lot of the things we say about Islam are comments about monotheism," said Dr Geoffrey Benjamin, Associate Professor from the General Studies Unit at Singapore's NanyangTechnologicalUniversity, during the open discussion. "Mainstream Islam is the monotheistic religion that sticks the closest to the monotheistic ideal." The implication of declaring that God is "unique and transcendentally different from anything else in God's creation" is that it results in the idea of egalitarianism among believers, he said. In his paper "The Fundamental Seamlessness Between Religions: the Problem of Understanding the Archetype and Symbols," Professor Nurcholish Madjid, Rector of the University of Paramadina in Jakarta, explored the idea of a pan-believing universalism within the monotheistic belief. He focused on two concepts: Islam and islam. Islam is something historical, something that has a sense of communalism-anywhere and any region. "This is not religion, this is communalism. Religion is a matter of truth, of the meaning of life," he said. The word "islam", however, is not the name of a religion but of an attitude of self-submission to God. It is associated with the Muslim greeting "salaam", which means peace, "the ultimate goal of this religion." It is a greeting not only from human to human, but from human to God and God to human.

The Qur'an reminds Muslims that they should respond to every salaam and should believe in all prophets and all holy books. It also insisted that God sent prophets to every nation or ummah and that Muslims should pursue knowledge "even if they should go to China," Professor Madjid said. "One thousand years ago, scholars insisted the Qur'an implied that they should recognize different sects and denominations, for example Confucius, as prophets. Muhammad said there were 124,000 prophets, around 300 being messengers, all over the world."

A return to implementing values as a matter of principle, respect for justice, and the toleration of, and respect for, the wisdom of all religions, as the Qur'an urges, is the challenge for every religion today, he believes. "This is something we need to instil and re-instil in all religions."

Other aspects of monotheistic beliefs include the fact that Islamic rules are explicit that secular authorities in Islamic society have the duty to maintain Islamic institutions, Dr Benjamin said. "Islam doesn't have any fundamental quarrel with the idea that there should be kings, or presidents, etc. It says if they exist, they must justify their position by, among other things, maintaining Islamic institutions." In effect, he pointed out, this gives an Islamic justification for hierarchy, indicating a potential opposition between the egalitarianism of the monotheistic ideal and the social hierarchy implied by the belief that Islamic society should maintain Islamic institutions.

Another aspect of monotheism is that the maintenance of this belief in individuals is difficult to achieve except through the maintenance of groups who all declare the same belief, Dr Benjamin argued. "Getting support from people all around you results in the very strong implication that a higher degree of the declaration of the singularity of God leads to tighter concern over group boundaries and solidarity."

Globalization and the Islamic Ummah

The formalization of this idea in Islam is the concept of ummah, the topic of Professor Riaz Hassan's paper: "Globalization and the Islamic Ummah: Challenge and Response." It is one of the foundational concepts of Islam, the Professor of Sociology from Flinders University in South Australia said. And as Islam expanded to different parts of the world, the concept of ummah in Islamic social and religious thought came to mean a community of believers, who shared a common religion. "One of the most important organizing, mobilizing principles of all Islamic organizations, particularly radical Islam, is to appeal to the notion of an Islamic ummah," he said. If ummah is a social reality, Professor Hassan argued, it has two possible frameworks: an identity that all Muslims believe is part of their being Muslim; and, if it is a community, then like all communities it is subject to human conditions.

After doing a five-year study of ummah consciousness among Muslims in Pakistan, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Iran, Turkey and Nigeria, Professor Hassan has concluded that while ummah consciousness exists, there are significant differences in belief between Muslims. One explanation for these differences could be that the Islamic ummah is fragmented, he said. "There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, of whom 800 million live in 45 Muslim-majority countries and 400 million live in 149 countries as minorities-and the largest minorities are in India and China." A further explanation for the differences, Professor Hassan believes, is the effects of globalization. He argued that in Islam the notion of one religion, one society, one culture-Arabian culture-is a myth because globalization, through communication and transport technology, has made the world a single space. Muslims are becoming more conscious of the fact that they are part of the global community and are also becoming more conscious of the social and cultural differences between them. He argued that there are two struggles developing in the Muslim world: common consciousness and differences, with Islamic scholars and Islamic radicals believing that the differences are a deviation from the true path. "One of the biggest struggles in the Islamic world is between hybridity and authenticity."

Professor Hassan believes that for the first time in history the Islamic world may become "decentred". He suggested five possible centres which could emerge in time: Islamic Southeast Asia; the Middle East; the non-Arabic Middle East; the African continent; and Muslim minorities in the West. He argued that such a regional Islamic ummah could be a great new development for the Islamic world, given that almost all the 45 Islamic countries are relatively underdeveloped, politically unstable and fragmented. The challenge to the Islamic world is not religious, he believes, but that the Islamic world is intellectually and technically backward. "Perhaps the answer lies in the evolution of not the unified ummah but the differentiated ummah. It may actually deliver to the Muslim world the promise of prosperity and intellectual vibrancy that it once enjoyed," Professor Hassan concluded.

Islam in China

Looking at the history of Islam in Southeast Asia, Dr Benjamin said there were two main socio-historical patterns of Islam in Southeast Asia: the trader-linked, urban rational, egalitarian variety, and the kingship-linked, loyalty-linked, mystical self-cultivating variety. The first pattern was explored by Professor Wu Yungui, Research Fellow at the Institute of World Religions in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in his paper "A Historical Overview of Islam in China".

It is believed that Islam first came to China during the Tang dynasty (AD618D907), with the arrival of a deputation sent by the third Caliph of Islam. Many Muslim businessmen and traders subsequently immigrated to China. "People then did not recognize Islam as a religion introduced from a foreign country; rather they thought it was a way of life that was different from theirs," Professor Wu said. However, when during the Tang dynasty all religions of foreign origin were banned, except for Islam, it indicated that Islam had been recognized as a religion. Muslim communities then were small and concentrated in southern coastal cities such as Guangzhou.

In the Five Dynasties from AD907 to 960, the only notable change was that people began referring to Muslims as "Muslim merchants coming from the north." Then in the Song dynasty (AD 960D1279) the name was changed again, this time to "Native born businessmen of the fifth generation." At this time, also, leaders of the Muslim community were appointed by the court to administer Muslim daily affairs, including civil affairs, with their own courts. And private schools for Muslim students were established.

During the Ming dynasty (AD 1368~1644), private Muslim schools developed to a higher level, Professor Wu said, and the Muslim population grew. "The people trained in those schools began to play an important role in Muslim religious and secular life. And Muslims were now felt as a social force in other sectors of society."

The Qing dynasty (AD 1644~1911) saw a further important development: Islamic schooling was conducted in Chinese. This was very important for the accommodation of Muslims in China, Professor Wu said. There were three dimensions to this process: political, social and cultural. According to the Qur'an, Muslims must obey God, the Prophet, and those charged with authority. For Muslims in China, the latter referred to the emperor and other authority figures. "In this way, traditional Islamic doctrine was reconciled with the traditional political doctrine of Confucius."

Socially, Muslims, although they preferred to separate themselves from other people, were still generally part of traditional Chinese society, doing business and exchanging ideas. "There was separation but also union between the different cultures, as Muslims adapted to the traditional ways of the Chinese," Professor Wu said. And culturally, although many Muslims understood Arabic, there were many who did not. Religious ceremonies were conducted in Chinese, particularly by the Hui Muslims (the descendants of the early settlers).

Currently, there are 21 million Muslims in China, particularly in the northwest. They belong to 10 minority ethnic groups, of which the largest are the Hui Muslims and Uighurs, who do not share the same language with the Han people. The general policy of the Chinese government is the implementation of the policy of religious freedom that is stipulated in the Chinese constitution, Professor Wu said. He argued that the government encourages dialogue between believers and non-believers. "I don't believe in the theory of the clash of civilizations," he concluded. "China is trying to bring about mutual understanding between religious and non-religious people and between people of different religions through peaceful, friendly dialogue."

Islam in Southeast Asia

The mystical, Sufi strand of Islam, was identified by Dr Benjamin as the other main socio-historical source of Islam in Southeast Asia. One of the major features of Southeast Asian history was the massive shift in the 14th century in state religions-which were either Mahayana Buddhism or Hinduism-to either Theravada Buddhism or Islam. It marked the change from court religion to transcendentalist, socially integrative religion, allowing the courts to maintain and integrate greater control over much larger bands of the population. In his paper, "Schools of Islamic Thought in Southeast Asia," Dr Peter Riddell, Director of the Centre for Islamic Studies at the London Bible College, focused on the different tensions at work throughout the course of Islamic history. They are connected, he believes, with how members of the global ummah approach their sacred texts. "There are three-way tensions, between scriptural literalists, rationalists, and Sufi mystics."

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the pre-colonial period in Southeast Asia, Sufism dominated, with scholars interacting with the Arab world through study visits. But there was also at this time a certain approach to Sufism which was to cause concern later. "The goal of these early Sufis was to actually seek communion, and even union, whatever that meant, with God," Professor Riddell said. "This came to be seen as something verging on the boundaries of heresy in these early years."

When in AD1637 a reformist Islamic scholar, also a Sufi, arrived in Indonesia and launched a campaign against the extremist early Sufis, the process of neo-Sufism, of revival, reform and purification was begun. The tension continued throughout the colonial period, with the debate between following Sharia, or forgetting it and going on a spiritual quest, occurring again and again. "There was real potential for tension between Sufi groups who neglected Sharia and scriptural literalists who came back with a vengeance later," Professor Riddell said.

The tradition of Islamic scholars from Indonesia and Malaysia going to study in the Middle East continued and through them reformist, revivalist ideas were fed back into Southeast Asian Islam. This process resulted in further reform which was to push Sufism further to the margins, he explained. "For the first time you start to find leading Malay scholars in either the Middle East or Southeast Asia advising students not to bother joining the Sufi order as there were other ways to live out their faith."

It was at the beginning of the 20th century that the age of reform hit the region, with debates between Sufis, scriptural literalists, rationalists, and other groups. Fuelled by the impact of colonialism, a social and theological revolution was taking place. The younger generation challenged the interpretations of the scholars and argued that people should return to primary texts to seek answers to their questions. So Sufism, which was particularly associated with the old order, was marginalized. "Its star had set, in a sense," Professor Riddell said.

Today, in the region, there are four dominant Islamic groups: the neo-modernists, who focus less on Sharia aspects of Islam and more on universal values agreed upon by not just Muslims but the whole community; the modernists, who are committed to consolidating Islam as a powerful political force but who are also committed to the political process; the traditionalists, who are committed to following local saints and are often scriptural in their orientation; and the Islamists, in small groups, driven by the desire to establish a scripturalist Islamic state in Indonesia.

Although the above labels are problematic and should not be considered as being cast in cement, "if we can use them to help us negotiate our way through a complex setting, such as Islam in Southeast Asia, they can help us understand some of the dynamics of what's taking place," Professor Riddell concluded. Finally, Dr Benjamin looked at the differences between various nation states in Southeast Asia as contexts for Islam: Malaysia is an explicitly Muslim country with Islam as the official religion, although only about 60% of the population is nominally Muslim; Indonesia declares no particular official religion but 90% of the population is nominally Muslim; Brunei is a sultanate with Islam playing its old role as the sustainer of royalty. The differences, he believes, result from different colonial histories. In Thailand, on the other hand, the Muslims in the south of the country are not regarded as indigenous people. And Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, with small Muslim populations, have little interest in the Middle East.

Southeast Asia and Middle East

"The Development of Recent Relations Between Southeast Asia and the Middle East" was the title of the paper given by Professor Fred R von der Mehden, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Rice University in the US. In examining the relationship between the two regions, Professor von der Mehden believes that it deepened in the 1970s beyond the traditional religious and educational contacts because of a variety of factors. "In looking at the forces which have framed Southeast Asian interest in the Middle East, I see four: economic, security, domestic politics and religious affinity," he said. There are four areas of economic interest, he said. In the first, investment and trade, while Middle Eastern countries have invested in Southeast Asia and vice versa, such trade relationships are not exclusive. Investors go to where they can get the best returns. In 1999, for instance, Saudi Arabia was the biggest investor in Indonesia, but 10 years before and after, this isn't so. "In fact, over a 10-year period, the Middle East does not show itself to be in the top 10 investors or traders with Southeast Asia. It is much more with other areas of the world, although it remains important for the region."

The second area of economic interest is foreign workers in the Middle East, who originally came from the Philippines and Thailand. Today, there are several thousand Muslim workers from Indonesia in the Middle East and this has resulted in tensions about their treatment in both Arab countries and Israel. Contributions from the Middle East for religious purposes are the third area. This has been going on for some time, Professor von der Mehden said, particularly since the Islamic revolution. "One of the striking things today is that the questions that provide the most publicity don't relate to government to government aid, or government aid to private sectors, but to the possibility of private aid and particularly that related to violent groups that might come into this region."

Finally, it is the interesting area of how Western aid influences relationships between Southeast Asian countries and the Middle East-that is, the extent to which governments may fashion their rhetoric and foreign policy so as not to endanger loans and investments from the West.

The second broad area is security, which in the past related to Middle Eastern support for Muslim minorities and the influence of deviant Islam. Today, it is issues related to foreign support for violent groups within Southeast Asia that attract attention.

The third element is domestic security. "It has long been argued that in the Malaysian case the government has seen support of Muslim issues as an important foundation of its foreign policy and an important element in the maintenance of support for the government and its position," Professor von der Mehden said. In Indonesia, the political reality is that President Megawati must take into account the wide range of opinion on issues relating to Afghanistan, Iraq and the treatment of so-called Muslim militants in Indonesia.

In terms of religious affinity, there is the long relationship of religious contact: the vitality of the Hajj for Indonesians, and agreement with regard to political issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the maintenance of sanctions on Iraq. "This can be seen not only in countries with Muslim majorities but also in the Philippines, Thailand and other countries in the region," he said.

Looking to the future, Professor von der Mehden believes globalization means economic relations between the two regions will continue, although the balance may change because of the economic stagnation in the Middle East. With regard to issues of religious affinity and support, they will continue to be important as long as the conflict between Israel and Palestine continues, and will become even more so if the US decides to invade Iraq. "Finally, what will be very interesting in terms of the above is that we are moving in Southeast Asia to a greater period of democratic development than I have seen in decades," he concluded.





Back to top