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Religious Practices and Cultural Expressions
by Michael Laffan
Unity and Diversity
Although the national motto of Indonesia, “Unity in diversity” (Bhinneka tunggal ika), was intended to be an explicitly national one, it is no less applicable to the community of Southeast Asian Muslims, as well as to Muslims the world over. When Muslims come together to worship in the mosque on Friday, or when they perform their daily prayers as individuals, they face the same direction. As such they participate in a unitary tradition. The same might be said of when Muslims greet each other with the traditional Arabic blessing “Peace be with you” (al-salam `alaykum), when they undertake the fast (sawm) during the month of Ramadan, or when they make the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca.
If asked about the core elements of their faith and practice, many
Muslims will point to the five basic duties of Islam. These consist
of the profession of faith (shahada), the daily prayers (salat), the hajj,
fasting in Ramadan (sawm), and the giving of alms (zakat). However,
there is a whole range of calendrical celebrations and rites of passage
associated with Islam, not to mention the simple acts of piety that some perform before carrying out basic actions. This
might include invoking God’s name before eating or
washing one’s face and limbs before prayer. Once again,
On the other hand, many distinctions between believers
of different cultural and theological traditions
remain in evidence. Even when the global community
of the faithful gather in Mecca for the hajj and don the
same simple costume of two unsewn sheets (known as
ihram), they often travel together in tightly managed
groups of fellow countrymen or linguistic communities—at times with tags displaying their national flags.
By the same token, there are many specific local practices
that are felt to be thoroughly Islamic in Southeast
Asia, but these, on occasion, have been condemned by
Muslims of different cultural backgrounds by virtue of
their absence in, or displacement from, their own histories.
Local practices include the use of drums (bedug) in
Other such examples of distinct Southeast Asian
practices might be linked to the wearing of the sarung
(a practice shared with Muslims and non-Muslims
throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean), the
relatively late circumcision of young males (often celebrated
as a major event in village life), the use of shadow
puppets (believed by some communities to have
Arabic and the Qur’an
One undeniably universal expression of religiosity is the recitation (qira’a) of the Qur’an, which all Muslims are enjoined to learn as soon as they are able. The Qur’an is understood to be the eternal expression of God’s will revealed through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, who is believed by Muslims to be the last messenger appointed to mediate between God and humanity. Indeed the Qur’an is also affirmed as the final validation of the messages of all the prophets before him, including those known in the Jewish and Christian traditions. These include Abraham, Joseph, and Jesus, though there are additional figures such as Iskandar (Alexander the Great) and the enigmatic Khidr.
The Qur’an contains stories of all these prophets
and many accounts of the difficulties that they—and
Muhammad in particular—had in being accepted by
their own people before winning them over and establishing
God’s law (shari`a) among them. It is further
replete with parables ranging over a broad range of
human experience, and its recitation brings feelings of
closeness to God and His Prophet, as well as solidarity
with Muslims all over the world. Some Southeast
Yet while the Qur’an may be recited as proficiently, and as often, in Jakarta and Pattani as in Mecca or Algiers, the fact remains that the Holy Text was revealed in Arabic, and in the Arabic of Muhammad’s day. As such all Muslims require explanation of its meanings and those of non-Arab traditions—whether in India, Central Asia or Southeast Asia—require the additional intervention of translation.
The task of the explanation of the divine text
is helped, in part, by the fact that Malay (both in its
Regardless of the presence of Arabic elements in the Malay vocabulary that are not specifically religious, Southeast Asian Muslims have long been mindful of the sacred role that Arabic has played in what has increasingly become their history as much as that of Arabs. Certainly, there is a long history of the translation and explication of the Qur’an in the region, although it is important to note that in the Islamic tradition a translation, being the result of human interpretation, may never be elevated to the status of the divine text itself.
This principle, along with heightened contacts with new forms of Islamic thought being propagated from British-occupied Egypt and India in the late nineteenth century, led to debates in the similarly-colonised entities of Indonesia (then the Netherlands Indies) and Malaysia about the legitimacy of attempting to produce a translation—particularly after the widespread availability of printing presses and heightened literacy made it a commercial possibility. Some even argued that written translation (as opposed to the glossing of words and fragments) had never been permitted by Islamic law.
Whether permitted or not, such translations have long been made. Indeed, among the Islamic books brought back to Europe from Southeast Asia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were Qur’anic texts, religious treatises, and works in verse that made use of holy scripture. These include the works of the mystical poet Hamzah Fansuri (d. 1527), who liberally infused his writings with Qur’anic verses, as well as more neutral Arabic, Persian, and Javanese terms, while stressing his distinct identity as a Malay of Fansur, a port-town of Sumatra.
Script and Identity
Alongside its major oral contribution to Southeast Asian
Islamic identity, Arabic also has had a visual impact with
the adoption of its script for many local languages, with
modifications to suit local phonemes such as the sounds
“p” and “ng.” By the time Hamzah Fansuri would compose
In Indonesia, the Arabic script would only be displaced
after the widespread popularization of newspapers
and school texts in roman script starting in the late
nineteenth century, and ever more so in the twentieth
when reformist Muslims founded schools to provide
the opportunities for modern education largely denied
by the Dutch and British. Arabic and Arabic script remain
The Arabic script remains strongly linked to Muslim identity in neighboring Malaysia and Brunei. This is especially the case in Malaysia, with its prominent non-Malay minorities; and it is further discernible in southern Thailand, where the script serves to mark the Muslim community off from the Thai-Buddhist majority and remains the written medium for a considerable local Malay-language publishing industry.
The Study Circle and Its Absence
Whereas Arabic has long been studied by Muslims in
Southeast Asia, due to its elevated status as the language
of revelation and its importance for connection with the
Middle East as the source of Islam, and even though
it has made its contribution to the oral and written cultures of the region, the fact remains that Southeast
Asians require the aid of teachers and glossaries to make
the texts of Islam comprehensible and applicable in
daily life. To this end, the months spent learning the
Qur’an under the guidance of a teacher is often a crucial
period in a child’s life. At the end of this period of study
a celebration (known as khatm al-Qur’an) is held in the
More advanced studies of Islam usually require the
sort of in-depth education offered by traditional religious
schools, such as Indonesia’s pesantrens. Here students
learn the requisite texts concerning pronunciation
and grammar by the use of glosses in their own languages
On the other hand, there are also a great many Southeast Asians who never receive such traditional Islamic schooling, who have not learned Arabic or mastered the Qur’an, and for whom such lyrics may be incomprehensible. Many still feel themselves to be full members of the Muslim community (umma), though. For, while they may not fully understand the literal rules of the provisions of Islamic law, they feel that the texts in which it is explained are part of their own Muslim cultural heritage, with which they might connect at rites of passage such as birth, marriage, and the commemoration of death.
Religio-Cultural Intersections and the Modern State
Just as the colonial regimes sought to monitor and regulate
the pilgrimage and Islamic schools, the modern
state often attempts to play a role in defining religious
and cultural practices at both the level of religious obligation
and as officially-sanctioned cultural expression.
The most obvious interventions may be seen in the specifically
national mobilizations for the Hajj. Each year,
for example, Indonesia supplies one of the largest contingents
of pilgrims (over 200,000 people) for the annual
series of ceremonies that take place in Mecca and its surroundings.
To get there on such a massive scale necessitates
a large degree of national coordination, including
the provision of financial support. Beyond finance and
coordination though, states also play a proactive role in
On the other hand there is the Indonesian national
museum for the Qur’an in Jakarta, with its showcase holy
text (Al-Qur’an Mushaf Istiqlal) that has one page decorated
in the style of each province of the Republic. But
while the illuminations of Aceh have a distinct pedigree,
many of the others are modern inventions designed to
help Indonesians to think of the history of their country
This is not to say, however, that this has always been the case, or that such increasingly Islamic views of history are universally accepted. Both Indonesia and Malaysia include substantial non-Muslim minorities, minorities that at times have become scapegoats during periods of economic uncertainty or because of the taint of imagined collaboration with colonial forces or even as fifth columnists for international communism. Indeed, Indonesia itself has a strong history as an avowedly secularist state, whose officials once placed more emphasis on the region’s pre-Islamic heritage in the form of temple remains. Its best-known author, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, even downplayed the role of Islam in the making of Indonesia and focussed instead on the powerful ideas of unity engendered by resistance to Dutch colonialism across the archipelago.
In either form of history, though, whether the view of
an Islamic or an areligious anti-colonial national past, it is important to see Southeast Asians placing themselves
in relation to a wider world, a world in which “Islam” offers
just one set of civilizational practices to draw upon
Certainly one gains a more intimate view of the inner spirituality of Southeast Asian Muslims in such expressions. Even so, while Muslims are joined to each other by the medium of a religious inheritance in their archipelagic homelands, as well as to the broader Muslim community, in the expression of that identity they are undeniably drawing at all times from the images and sounds of the wider, shared world.