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Islam and Modernity: A Reconciliation through Southeast Asian History

Ethan Hawkley

     In the minds of many, Islam and modernity are at odds. But this has not been the case in Southeast Asia, one of the Islamic world’s most important core regions. Though Islam is often considered Middle Eastern, Southeast Asia has a comparably large Islamic population, with more than 240 million believers. Indonesia alone is home to more Muslims than any other nation in the world, outnumbering Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia combined. For the past several hundred years, those 240 million people and their predecessors have not so much been crashing against the waves of modernity as they have been a driving force within those waves. In Southeast Asia, instead of being at odds, Islam and modernity have advanced together.1

     This paper traces the joint rise of Islam and modernity in Southeast Asia through the stories of three influential Muslims. Their lives illustrate how these two forces were combined in practice during different historical periods. The paper’s first section focuses on the age of commerce (c.1300-1800); the second covers the age of empires (c.1800-1945); and the last examines the age of nation-states (c.1945-the present).2 During the age of commerce, Muslims anchored the emerging early modern global system to the islands of Southeast Asia. Then in the age of empires, they were entangled in the modernizing governance of various colonial regimes. And Southeast Asian Muslims have since defined the central tenets of some of the region’s most consequential national and ethnic identities. Muslim adaptations to modernity did not weaken their faith. Their modernizing changes made the religion stronger. As Southeast Asia has become more modern, it has also become more Islamic.

The Age of Commerce, 1300-1800

     Southeast Asia is home to hundreds of ethnic groups, and religion has long played a central role in unifying and connecting these groups to regional and global networks. During medieval times, Hindu-Buddhist influences from India became a dominant cultural force across the region, and Confucian ideas from East Asia were likewise spreading.3 As early as the eighth century, Arab and Persian Muslims traveled through Southeast Asia on their way to China. Some settled in small foreign enclaves. 4Then global changes ushered in a religious revolution that fundamentally redefined the region. Beginning around 1300, Islam secured a permanent foothold in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago. Buddhism began deepening its authority over mainland kingdoms. Confucianism gradually overshadowed northern Vietnam. And later, Christianity was planted in the Philippines.5 As these religions interlinked local towns and villages with each other and with the emerging world economy, they sketched the region’s modern lines of devotional demarcation.

     The Sultan Malik as-Salih was among those who started this centuries-long revolution. His original name was Merah Silau, and he was the ruler of Samudra (aka Pasai), a port city on the northern tip of Sumatra (which is named for it). He probably converted sometime around 1282, when Samudra sent two emissaries with Arabic names to China. His gravestone is dated 1297.6 Brief mentions in Chinese writings and well-worn gravestones are among the few sources remaining from this early period, making it difficult to reconstruct the story of Islam’s arrival and initial proliferation. The story of Malik as-Salih’s conversion was nevertheless passed down for generations. The version we have today was first written down in 1815. Internal evidence suggests that some parts of the tale date back to the fourteenth century. Other portions were added later. As an artifact of public memory, the story can help us understand a lot about the five hundred years between the events it claims to describe and its publication.7

     Malik as-Salih’s conversion story begins with a prophecy. In the seventh century, Muhammad reportedly told his companions that they would someday hear of a city called Samudra. When this happened, they were to “make ready a ship and take to it the regalia and panoply of royalty. Guide its people into the religion of Islam. . . For in that city shall God (glory be to Him the Exalted) raise up saints in great number.”8 Sure enough, eventually the “Caliph of Mecca” heard of Samudra and sent out an expedition led by a teacher named Shaikh Ismail. On the way, Ismail stopped at Mengiri where the local Muslim ruler, Sultan Muhammad, was so inspired by the prophecy that he abdicated his throne to his son, dressed himself in the clothes of a Muslim ascetic (a fakir), and joined Shaikh Ismail’s voyage.

     Meanwhile at Samudra, the king Merah Silau had a dream. In it, the prophet Muhammad appeared to him. Muhammad covered the king’s eyes, grabbed his chin, and commanded him to recite the two statements of faith. When the ruler could not, because he did not know them, Muhammad told him to open his mouth, and the prophet spat rich and sweet tasting saliva into it. He then gave Merah Silau the name Malik as-Salih, told him that he was a Muslim, and explained that the king must thereafter abstain from unlawful meats. He said that in forty days a ship would arrive and told the ruler to obey the instructions of the men onboard. As Muhammad removed his hand from the king’s eyes, Malik as-Salih slowly woke up and looked down to find that he was now circumcised. He spontaneously declared the statements of faith (“I testify that there is no god but God, alone with no companion, and I testify that Muhammad is His servant and His Apostle”). The experience ended with Malik as-Salih reciting the entire Qur’an, in Arabic, by heart.

     Forty days later, Shaikh Ismail and the fakir Muhammad arrived. The fakir gave Malik as-Salih a copy of the Qur’an, which the ruler read in its entirety aloud, even though he had never formally learned Arabic script or pronunciation. Shortly thereafter, other regional chieftains were summoned to Samudra. There, they collectively recited the statements of faith and watched Shaikh Ismail bestow the caliph’s robes onto Malik as-Salih. These other chieftains then reverently chanted, “O King, Lord of the Realm, God’s Shadow on Earth, may you live forever.”9 After a time, Shaikh Ismail wanted to return home. Now a sultan, Malik as-Salih gave him spices and perfumes as tribute for the caliph. Shaikh Ismail departed with the gift, leaving Fakir Muhammad behind to continue teaching the people.

     In terms of literal truth, one problem with this story is that the caliphate could not have sponsored Shaikh Ismail’s expedition. The last caliph was killed by the Mongols in Abbasid Baghdad in 1258, many years before Malik as-Salih’s conversion. Still, the Mongols themselves may have played a part in the story. According to one theory, as they tore through the Middle East, overthrowing the political order and massacring millions, Muslim Sufis, called Shaikhs, fled to the Indian Ocean and its various ports. These Sufis on the run were among the first to preach Islam to the indigenous rulers of Southeast Asia.10 Later during the tumultuous decline of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the pattern was repeated. In 1366, with the empire in turmoil, a company of Shi’a soldiers took over Quanzhou, a rich Chinese port-city where many Muslim migrants lived and traded. Shi’a started massacring Sunnis who fled and resettled in Southeast Asia. 11 Other local Islamic conversion stories, like that of the Sultan of Brunei, hail from China. If Shaikh Ismail’s expedition to Samudra represents Sufis fleeing Mongol destruction to the west, these other tales may be echoes from a later wave of Muslim refugees fleeing persecution from the north.12

     Origin stories from China may also reflect a third wave of Islamic infusion. In the early fifteenth century, the Ming dynasty sent out its famous Treasure Fleet expeditions, led by Admiral Zheng He. Zheng He was born into a Hui (Chinese Muslim) family and came to be known as Ma He. The surname Zheng was later conferred upon him by the Emperor Yongle. As Admiral of the Treasure fleet, he brought other Muslims with him to serve as emissaries and translators. Like Shaikh Ismail, Zheng He conferred royal regalia on China’s new tributary allies, which similarly appears to have helped the spread of Islam.13 One of the Treasure Fleets’ frequent stops was Melaka, which grew rapidly, and the conversion of Melaka’s rulers coincided with Zheng He’s visits. By the middle of the fifteenth century, Muslim Melaka was in control of the primary passage between the Indian Ocean and the China Seas. Its position in between these two regions made it more powerful than Muslim Samudra, and Melaka grew into the most important port in early modern Southeast Asia.

     The presence of the fakir Sultan Muhammad in the story indicates another external source of Islamic influence. Mengiri almost certainly represents a place in India. By 1300, Muslim merchants were beginning to monopolize trade in the Indian Ocean world, and one of their most valuable products was Indian cotton. Cotton, like the robe gifted to Malik as-Salih, enhanced the status and authority of Southeast Asia’s elites. Conversion was one way to get more of it. Foreign Muslims were more likely to settle and trade their valuable wares in settlements ruled by local Islamic chieftains. In this context, Fakir Muhammad represents a religiously minded merchant, and it is significant that Shaikh Ismail left him behind when he returned home. Muslims from India were more directly involved in teaching Islam to Southeast Asians than were those from the Middle East. By 1500, Islamic enclaves had been established on the coasts of Sumatra and Malaya. They were also on Java, the Malukus, Jolo, Mindanao, Borneo, and reached even as far as Manila. In all these places, conversion increased one’s access to wealthy foreign economies, be they Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian, or all three.

     Just as the desire for foreign products brought Southeast Asians to Islam, outsiders’ desires for local goods brought Islam to Southeast Asia. These desires were reflected in the gift that Malik as-Salih sent to Mecca. His tribute included “ambergris, camphor, eaglewood, sandalwood, benzoin, perfume, cloves and nutmegs.” 14 Southeast Asian spices were used throughout the world, not only for cooking, but also for making medicines, potions, incense, and offerings to gods, and for embalming the dead.15 Cloves and nutmeg were especially valuable and were not grown anywhere else until the eighteenth century. Before 1500, most Southeast Asian spices were being exported to China, primarily through Muslim and Chinese merchants.16 After that, events to the west shifted the export trade. Those events may help explain how the “Caliph of Mecca” was first inserted into the story.

     When the Mongols ended the original line of caliphs in Baghdad, they cleared the way for a modern revival. A new caliphal line emerged among the Ottoman Turks during the fifteenth century, and it soon began to influence the development of Southeast Asian Islam. The Ottomans stabilized large swaths of the Middle East and North Africa, and they created a reliable trade route through the Red Sea, one that connected the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. Ottoman merchants formed lucrative partnerships with Venetians which enabled them to efficiently transport Indian Ocean spices into Europe. This in turn increased Southeast Asian exports to the West. After the Portuguese famously circumvented the Ottoman-Venice route by going around Africa in 1498, they too came to Southeast Asia for spices. They conquered Melaka in 1511. A few decades later, the Spanish Empire, similarly seeking spices, took Manila, another Muslim stronghold, by crossing the Pacific from colonial Mexico.

     These events polarized the region and fueled its ongoing religious revolution. The Portuguese conquest of the most powerful port in Southeast Asia scattered Muslim opposition into other nearby settlements. The greatest of these was Aceh, which replaced Malik as-Salih’s Samudra on the northern tip of Sumatra. As the sixteenth century progressed, Acehan rulers tried time and again to expel the Portuguese from Melaka, even appealing to the Ottoman caliph for help. The caliph may have been inserted into the story during this time, perhaps as a way to strengthen the perceived relationship between Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Meanwhile, after helping the Spaniards take Manila, many of that settlement’s Muslim families converted to Christianity, which spread throughout the Philippine islands. Christian-Muslim conflicts became increasingly common there, and these deepened the importance of Islamic identification on Borneo, Mindanao, Jolo, Ternate, and Tidore.17Villages across insular Southeast Asia aligned with either Christianity or Islam. By 1650, virtually the entire archipelago was associated with one or the other.

     Another Western power arrived on the heels of the Portuguese and Spanish. At the turn of the seventeenth century, the Netherlands was at war with the Iberians, leading Dutch explorers to seek their own independent channel to the Spice Islands. They founded the Dutch East India Company (VOC), which prioritized profits over the spread of Christianity. The VOC set up its colonial headquarters at Batavia (modern Jakarta) on Java and was able to eclipse the Portuguese, in part because they made no overt attempts to convert local Muslims. They instead allied with Islamic rulers against not only the Portuguese and Spanish, but also against indigenous resistance to their economic objectives. Through this method of strategic cooperation, the VOC became the most powerful economic force in the Indian Ocean.

     But Malik as-Salih’s conversion story is not just about foreign powers and the spread of Islam. It also suggests that Southeast Asians themselves played a major role in the proliferation of the new faith. In the story, other local chieftains chose to convert as they were gathered around the new sultan.18 Similarly, Southeast Asian elites residing in these rising Islamic trading centers, like Samudra, Aceh, Melaka, and Brunei, took the initiative to spread the religion into other settlements. This was done through preaching, trading partnerships, political alliances, and intermarriage, all of which tied Islam to insular Southeast Asia’s most influential families and clans.

     Southeast Asians wove Islam into the region’s political culture. Based on Hindu-Buddhist traditions, pre-Islamic rulers often claimed divine god-king status across the region. Malik as-Salih’s story shows how Muslim leaders maintained their spiritual preeminence. The story emphasizes that the king may have been a pupil of Shaikh Ismail and Fakir Muhammad, but neither of them was personally visited by the prophet himself, miraculously circumcised, or given the Islamic title “God’s shadow on earth.” Indeed, Malik as-Salih’s story echoed the life of the prophet. The Southeast Asian king received an angelic visitor, was commanded to recite, and then spoke the Qur’an out of pure inspiration. Other Southeast Asian conversion stories from this era similarly place the ruler at the pinnacle of devotion.19 This trope maintained that, though still in need of Islamic education, the king nevertheless remained spiritually superior to his Islamic advisers, holy men, and judges.

     Furthermore, the story tellingly blends two important components of Islam: the mystical and the legal. The prophecy, the prophet’s sweet tasting spittle, and the king’s miraculous recitations run parallel to Muhammad’s legalistic commands to recite the statements of faith (or the Shahada), to avoid unclean meats, and to obey the shaikh and the fakir. Legality and mysticism were both present in the king’s remarkable circumcision. It was a requirement of the law performed by an unseen divine power. This blending was likewise apparent in Southeast Asian Islamic practice. No requirement did more to set Muslims apart in Southeast Asia than the command to avoid pork, and Southeast Asians enshrouded this rule in mysticism. Villages that converted together sometimes rounded up all their pigs and slaughtered them at a final ritual feast,20 and leaders in Aceh and Muslim Demak refused to allow Portuguese burials in their domains because they believed the pork the dead had eaten would pollute their lands.21

     But the mystical and the legal did not always blend together so easily. In the beginning, mysticism enabled Southeast Asians to flexibly incorporate Sufi doctrines into their local cultures. They believed in an unseen world populated by numerous gods, demons, and ancestors—powerful spiritual beings that could inhabit mountains, trees, the sky, etc. Sufi teachings embraced the monist philosophies espoused by Muslim thinkers like Ibn Arabi. Monism promotes the idea that God is one with everything, which allows for a broad range of ritualistic worship. For instance, if God is in all of his creations, then people who make offerings to trees are in a sense honoring God.22 New Muslims could therefore continue affirming many of their prior beliefs even after conversion. The most famous early modern Southeast Asian monist was Hamzah Fansuri, a popular Sumatran poet who died in the sixteenth century.

     Legalistic pushback came with time. In the early seventeenth century, an Indian (Gujarati) theologian named Nuru’d-din ar-Raniri gained a high position in the Acehnese court, where he sought to enforce the dualism of the Persian Islamic philosopher al-Ghazali. Dualism posits that God is absolutely separate from his creation, making the worship of anything earthly strictly forbidden. On ar-Raniri’s advice, the sultan ordered the destruction of Fansuri’s writings. His books were burned in front of Aceh’s grand mosque, and anyone espousing monist beliefs was threatened with death. Ar-Raniri’s influence was short lived, as the subsequent sultan of Aceh restored the old order, but his brief tenure marks the origins of a tension that continues to divide Southeast Asian Muslims.23

     On the one side are the Traditionalists, who tend to blend local traditions with Islam in a more monist fashion. On the other are Reformists, who want to bring Southeast Asian Islam into conformity with dualist Middle Eastern orthodoxy. In early modern times, almost everyone would have been categorized as a Traditionalist. But then as now, individuals lived along a spectrum between the two poles. Many worshipped at the shrines of local holy men, like the nine legendary Wali saints credited with bringing Islam to Java. A few including Hamzah Fansuri were able to perform the hajj. A minority observed Ramadan.24 Some women began to wear Islamic clothing and remain at home.25Others became the ruling female Sultanas of Aceh.26

     By 1800, modernity had anchored itself permanently in Southeast Asia, in large part through Islam. Diverse Muslims had woven the religion into regional politics and trade. Wealthy rulers patronized Muslim advisers, judges, mosques, and merchants. Islam had become a vehicle that carried valuable foreign goods into villages and homes throughout the region, and it in turn exported their spices out into the world. The religion helped form the connective tissue that bound the archipelago together in overlapping constellations of authority and exchange. But the Southeast Asia of Malik as-Salih was about to be transformed, and local Islam would evolve right along with it. The age of commerce was giving way to an age of capital.

The Age of Empires, 1800-1945

     It began with the rise of industrial imperialism. New forces remade the region’s overlapping constellations of trade and power into a puzzle of colonial possessions and plantations, all bent on extracting local resources for maximum profit. Colonial governments seeking wealth and progress started tracking and studying their subjects more closely, and local communities went from being connected to the world economy to becoming dependent on it. But the high age of imperialism did not weaken Islam in Southeast Asia. In seemingly contradictory ways, it modernized and strengthened it. Islam was both energized by its resistance to modern empires and fortified by its incorporation into those empires.

     The tension between these developments is illustrated in the career of C. Snouck Hurgonje. Born in the Netherlands in 1857, Snouck was among the most notable orientalists of the nineteenth century. He began his studies at the University of Leiden, completing a dissertation on the hajj in 1880 entitled “The Meccan festival” (Het Mekkaansche feest). In 1884-85, he converted to Islam, taking the name Abd al-Ghaffar, and traveled to Mecca, where he gathered information for a more extensive ethnographic study. He was especially intent on understanding the Southeast Asian “Jawah” community there. After he published a two-volume compendium of his observations in 1889, the Dutch government sent Snouck to Batavia as a colonial advisor.27

     To his European friends, Snouck described his initial conversion and participation in Islam as acts of convenience, done for research purposes. His Muslim friends, however, attested strongly to the sincerity of his Islamic convictions. Scholars continue to debate the honesty of his conversion. Whatever the truth, he built an Islamic life for himself in the Dutch East Indies.28 Like other colonial officers, he married a Javanese woman, the daughter of a high-ranking Muslim judge. Tragically, she died in 1896, when she suffered a miscarriage of their fifth child. Two years later, Snouck remarried, again to the daughter of a prominent Southeast Asian Muslim. They had a son in 1905. In 1906, after making the necessary financial arrangements for the support of his wife and children, Snouck returned to the Netherlands without them.29 As a professor at the University of Leiden, he continued advising on colonial policy until 1933, eventually passing away in 1936.

     Snouck’s career in the Dutch East Indies was defined by two major issues: the Aceh war (1873-1912), and the need to reform colonial policy, especially as it related to Islam. These two initiatives left behind a mixed legacy. Through his reforms, Snouck was determined to better assimilate Islam into the Dutch colonial system. He wanted to make life easier for Muslims. But the war against Aceh also pitted him against the Muslim successors of Malik as-Salih on northern Sumatra. As a reformer, he helped strengthen Islam by fitting it to modern systems of governance. As a military adviser, Islam was strengthened in opposition to his efforts to subdue it.

     First and foremost, Snouck’s career represents the rise of European state power across Asia. During the previous age of commerce, most Western involvement in the region was mediated through joint stock companies. The rise of the powerful VOC in the seventeenth century was followed by the British East India Company (EIC) in the eighteenth. At the start of the nineteenth, the Dutch abolished the VOC and took direct control over the company’s former territories. As the century progressed, Western hegemony spread. The British defeated China in the Opium Wars. US gunboat diplomacy forced open a reclusive Japan. France began to meddle in Vietnamese politics. And the Spanish, fearing incursions from other European powers, tightened their grip on the Philippines, which included trying to take direct control over the Islamic sultanates on the southern islands of Mindanao and Sulu. The US later captured the Philippines from the Spanish. In the end, the Japanese Empire eclipsed the others when it conquered most of Southeast Asia during WWII.

     Industrial desires drove this imperial scramble for territory. Southeast Asia was a source of raw materials that could feed production chains and new global consumer tastes. Dutch, British, French, Spanish, US, and Japanese imperialists exported coffee (aka java), sugar, tea, pepper, tobacco, palm oil, and rubber from the region. 30 Meanwhile, they also undercut indigenous Asian markets with their surplus production. The global cotton market, for example, which had been dominated for centuries by Indian merchants, was overrun by cheaply produced British exports. The regional influence of South Asian Muslims, people like Fakir Muhammad, took a corresponding dive. 31 Industrial hunger for resources forced Southeast Asians into exploitative relationships, like the Dutch cultivation system, which demanded production quotas, and kept local peasants poor for the benefit of the rich. 32

     When Snouck arrived in the Dutch East Indies, the colonial government was in the process of trying to soften this system. He was tasked with reviewing their approach to Islam. Something dramatic was happening. The new wave of imperialism was altering Islam’s political position. During the age of commerce, local Muslim rulers had been interconnected, but still independent, sponsors of Islamic judges, holy men, and mosques. Now those leaders were subordinated under broad and invasive colonial systems. To maintain peace and continuity, European officials incorporated aspects of Islamic law into colonial governance. In the Dutch East Indies, Muslim legal councils, chaired by Islamic judges, were set up to hear cases on marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other religious concerns.33 A similar system was established in British Malaya, 34 and both France and Spain likewise governed their Islamic minorities through Muslim intermediaries.35

     But Islamic sultans did not accept this new arrangement without a fight, something Snouck learned firsthand in the Aceh War (1873-1912). The Aceh War was the third time the Dutch faced stern Islamic resistance on a large scale during the nineteenth century. The first, the Padri War (1821-1838), was started by a Wahhabi inspired group of pilgrims returning from the hajj. The second, the Java War (1825-1830), was led by a local prince chafing against colonial authority. The Aceh conflict began with imperial intrigues. When it became clear that Sumatra was a treasure trove of natural resources, the British agreed to relinquish their claims on the island to the Dutch in exchange for present-day Ghana. This made obvious the Dutch intention to take over independent Aceh. The sultan appealed to Ottoman Turkey and the US for help. The US was inclined to support Acehnese independence, but before an alliance could be made, the Netherlands launched a preemptive strike. The fighting dragged on for forty years.

     Snouck helped the Dutch prevail by promoting divide and conquer tactics. He advised the military to recruit allies from among the Traditionalist aristocracy, the uleebalang. This broke the bonds between the region’s highest leader—the successor to Malik as-Salih—and his subordinate chieftains. And Snouck didn’t stop there. Hoping to prop up Traditionalists throughout the colony, he applied this approach to the entire legal system. He promoted adat law, meaning customary law. Colonial scholars and students swept across the archipelago codifying traditional non-Islamic customs into dense volumes of adat regulations, which then formed the basis for local judicial rulings across the Dutch East Indies.36 By favoring adat over Islamic law, Snouck enshrined traditional non-Islamic customs into official legal rulings. Elevating adat gave Traditionalists a bulwark against a rising tide of Reformism.

     Resistance to imperial measures also strengthened Islam in Southeast Asia. Ongoing calls for Acehnese independence have long since made northern Sumatra a Reformist stronghold. It is now an autonomous province in Indonesia, where Sharia has become the law of the land. Beyond Indonesia, in the Philippines, Muslims similarly rallied against Spanish then US incursions into their homeland. Moreover, in Siam (now Thailand), Muslim insurgencies became more unified in opposition to repressive Buddhist policies of forced assimilation.37 These movements were part of a much larger Pan-Asian backlash against Western industrial hegemony. Losses of autonomy sparked outrage that fueled Islamic solidarity.38

     Islam was further strengthened by its assimilation into globalizing industrial economies. The spread of industrial capitalism and new waves of Chinese immigration combined to replace the interregional Islamic commercial networks of the previous era, and Muslims had to adapt. Sultans and merchants turned into colonial middlemen. 39 They became the intermediaries that connected their towns and villages to global capital. Snouck, for example, worked closely with local Muslim leaders, including various personal assistants.40 Despite their subordinate status, these Muslim colonial agents nevertheless managed to accumulate modest amounts of wealth, some of which they redirected toward religious ends, including education, the building of mosques, and going on the hajj.41

     Many European colonial administrators responded to these developments with fear, believing that increased Islamic piety might energize a larger Pan-Islamic conspiracy against their authority. These enacted policies designed to weaken Islam. After the Padri war, for instance, imperial powers monitored the hajj closely, believing that the pilgrimage might lead to rebellions. The Dutch put a limit on the number of hajjis allowed to leave their territory, a policy Snouck believed was counterproductive. He observed that short-term migrants to the Middle East were rarely radicalized, making the restrictions an unnecessary and unpopular burden on the colony’s Muslim majority.42 Furthermore, many were already circumventing the restrictions by traveling to Mecca via British Singapore. Snouck changed the policy, and the slow trickle of hajjis gradually widened into a giant river. In the 1850s, Indonesia sent out roughly 2,000 pilgrims each year. A decade after Snouck’s arrival, that number was close to 7,000. By 1926/27, it had increased to roughly 50,000.43 The journey to Mecca deepened hajjis spiritual ties to global Islam and also enhanced their social standing back home.44

     Direct contacts between the Middle East and Southeast Asia also increased through migrations in the opposite direction. Beginning in the eighteenth century, Yemeni Hadhrami Arab Muslims began coming in large numbers to Southeast Asia. The economic growth of the nineteenth century encouraged them all the more. Many of these claimed to be Sayyids, or descendants of the prophet, and their Arab ancestry endowed them with heightened status. They were given privileged employment opportunities in education and administration.45 One of Snouck’s close associates, for instance, a man he had befriended during his 1884/85 visit to Mecca, later moved to Brunei and became a political adviser to the sultan. 46 These migrants, coming from the Islamic heartland, strengthened the Reformists. Uniquely Southeast Asian monist forms of Islam were increasingly perceived as heretical deviations from the dualistic ideals of Middle Eastern orthodoxy.

     Western colonialism further deepened Islamic devotion by encouraging education. During the nineteenth century, Europeans increasingly saw education as a necessity for all, a view that spread into many of their colonies. The Netherlands, for instance, opened schools for its indigenous subjects in the Indies. In 1893, shortly after Snouck’s arrival, the colonial government divided those schools into two systems, one for elites and the other for agricultural workers. The system grew rapidly. By 1930 there were 9,600 colonial schools with 84,609 students. These schools taught traditional Western subjects and were often a means of social advancement.

     But the emphasis on education was not limited to the colonizers. Private Islamic schools, called pesantren in Indonesia, similarly spread during this period. In some places, pesantren multiplied twice as fast as government schools. 47 In 1800, there were 1,853 pesantren on Java with 16,556 students. A hundred years later, that number had increased to 15,000 schools with over 250,000 pupils. 48Meanwhile, similar private Muslim schools were also founded in other parts of Southeast Asia, especially in Malay majority areas. 49 Islamic schools emphasized the Qur’an and Arabic, with students memorizing Muslim texts in reading circles. Arabic was taught in one of two ways. In wealthier areas, students studied Arabic grammar and learned to translate for themselves. The poor simply memorized Qur’anic suras in Arabic and then learned their meanings in their own local tongue. Some wealthy students did their Islamic studies in the morning and Western subjects in the afternoon. 50 The nineteenth-century wave of education crashing over Southeast Asia advanced both science and religion.

     By the end of the era, differences within Islam had become more pronounced and meaningful. There remained, on the one side, Traditionalists, who continued to support the Sufi monist ideals that had long allowed Islam to blend into local culture. While on the other end of the spectrum, increased contact with the Middle East, opposition to the West, and the rise of education made Reformism a potent regional force all its own. The two sides manifested distinct forms of Islamic society. Traditionalists tended to live in the countryside, where women continued to work in the public realm, and where adat law reigned supreme. Reformists often lived in cities, where upper-class Muslim women were more likely to wear a headscarf or veil, remain at home, and raise children. Snouck’s policies encouraged the growth of both groups. His adat law initiative bolstered Traditionalists, while his stances on education and the hajj strengthened the Reformists.

     In the end, Snouck’s contradictory legacy outlived him. His career represented two ways that Islam grew stronger in Southeast Asia during the age of empires. One was through resistance. The other came by way of colonial support. The contradictions persisted under Japanese occupation. Muslim leaders were among those the Japanese courted with their ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ propaganda. But like others under occupation, many Muslims were unsettled by Japan’s brutality and ideas about racial superiority. For instance, they bristled against imperial decrees requiring them to bow to Tokyo and opposed the use of mosques to honor fallen Japanese soldiers. Many even fought openly in anti-Japanese battalions.51 The rise and collapse of Japan’s industrial empire marked another turning point in Asian and world history.

The Age of Nation-States, 1945-the Present

     As the Empire of the Sun retreated, dormant nationalisms bloomed, and a flurry of new states emerged in the shadows of the Cold War. Insular Southeast Asia was gradually incorporated into the US-backed capitalist sphere, while most of the new mainland nations eventually assimilated into the communist bloc. By the end of the era, the region was even more tightly woven into the global economy.No longer under colonial dominance, Muslims forged stronger connections with the Middle East, became more active in politics, and deepened their convictions. Islam demarcated majorities from minorities, and it shaped critical discussions of how nations would define themselves and act in the era of independence.

     The life of Abdurraham Wahid (also known as Gus Dur) was defined by the developments of this era. In turn, he and his family played a major part in it. Born in a pesantren in East Java in 1940, Gus Dur was the son and grandson of Javanese Muslim educators. Both of his grandfathers founded pesantren during the early twentieth century, and his paternal grandfather was among the founders of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), meaning “Revival of Religious Scholars,” the largest Islamic mass organization in the world. His father, Wahid Hashim, likewise taught at a pesantren and later became the leader of NU under the Japanese occupation.

     During Gus Dur’s childhood, his family and his country were fighting for national self-determination. After WWII, the Netherlands tried to reassert control over Indonesia. But a robust nationalist resistance, led by Sukarno, held them off and eventually won independence. In 1949, Sukarno became the founder and first president of the Republic of Indonesia. Both of Gus Dur’s grandfathers and his father were active in the anti-Dutch resistance. The nation and the child would grow up together.

     As a youth, Gus Dur attended government-run primary and secondary schools and then spent six years studying Arabic, the Qur’an, and Islamic law at various pesantren. Next, he went abroad to study at al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world’s oldest Islamic institution of higher learning. From Cairo, he transferred to the more secular University of Baghdad, where he became the chairman of the Association of Indonesian Students in the Middle East for six years. Through his studies, he further modernized Indonesia’s Traditionalist views. He aligned himself on the monist side of the theological spectrum and argued that there was no contradiction between Western humanist ideals and the original Islam. Later in life, his Sufi inclinations even carried him so far as to participate in the old Javanese rite of petitioning the goddess of the Southern Ocean, an act many would associate with polytheistic paganism. 52

     When Gus Dur returned home, there was a new power in Indonesia. Suharto had replaced Sukarno. Gus Dur married, started a family, moved back to his grandfather’s pesantren, and gave himself over to training other teachers. He joined several Islamic organizations and got involved with larger national initiatives to improve education. By the early 1980s, he was a well-known and influential public intellectual. In 1984, he was elected chairman of NU. In protest against one of Suharto’s anti-Muslim campaigns, Gus Dur pulled NU out of Suharto’s approved umbrella party for Muslims. He later became a leader in the anti-Suharto democracy movement. After Suharto was forced from power in 1998, Gus Dur became the nation’s president-elect in 1999. His tenure was cut short in 2001, when he was forced from office by a vote of no confidence. He passed away in 2009, not quite seventy years old53

     The map of Southeast Asia was completely redrawn during Gus Dur’s lifetime. Nearly every Southeast Asian nation gained their independence between 1945-1984. The only one that did not, Thailand, was never colonized, though it too underwent significant political reforms. Indonesia was not the only nation to resist recolonization efforts after the war. Beginning in 1945, Burma and Vietnam similarly fought against the return of European colonial power, and both eventually won their national sovereignty: Burma in 1948, and Vietnam in 1975. The Philippines was granted independence from the US in 1946, and Laos and Cambodia were released from French control in the 1950s.

     Britain’s Malay territories gained their independence gradually. After the war, the British returned and reorganized Malaya into a single colony. Malaysia became independent in 1957. Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963 but split off again as a self-governing city-state in 1965. Brunei considered joining Malaysia, but concerns over oil rights kept the Sultanate separate, and it was granted independence in 1984. Building on their colonial heritage, these new states all included departments that oversaw religion. In Muslim majority countries, ministries of religion expanded beyond the traditional realm of family law to encompass a much wider mission. They supervised Muslim education, set standards for worship, assisted with the hajj, and helped build and maintain mosques.54

     As the actions of Gus Dur’s father and grandfathers would suggest, Islam figured prominently in the founding of various Southeast Asian nation-states. Though Muslim leaders had revolted against colonial leadership during the nineteenth century, their movements had been focused on specific locales, not broader national independence. That began in 1912, with the organization of the Islamic Union or Sarekat Islam (SI) in Indonesia. Originally formed by Muslim merchants in reaction to growing Chinese competition, SI soon espoused independence from the Netherlands and quickly grew to 2 million members by 1919. 55 SI was among the first to treat the diverse peoples of the Dutch East Indies as a single nation. 56

     Later, other pro-independence Muslim organizations sprang up in Southeast Asia. Some in Malaysia wanted to join Indonesia to form a single Islamic state. Muslims in the Philippines formed the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and later the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). 57 In Thailand, Malay Muslims similarly organized the National Liberation Front of Patani (NLFP) and the Patani United Liberation Front (PULO).58 Though these groups did not achieve their ultimate objectives, most of them gained concessions from their governments. All embodied nationalist political action under the banner of Islam.

     In Muslim majority countries, faith fueled the formation of interest groups and political parties. Under the British re-occupation of Malaya, the All-Malaya High Islamic Council (MATA) was organized in the late 1940s to improve religious life, welfare, and education. MATA was succeeded by the Pan Malayan Islamic Party (PMIP) in 1951.59 In Indonesia, Muhammadiyah—which remains Indonesia’s mainstream Reformist party—was founded in 1912. 60 Gus Dur’s paternal grandfather, Hasyim Asy’ari helped form Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) in 1926. These organizations paved the way for a new kind of Islamic leadership. Once they were freed from colonial oversight, Muslims used these associations to become increasingly active in society and politics. Judges, scholars, and sultans were no longer the primary leaders of Southeast Asian Islam. Chairmen of mass organizations and political parties took control.

     These Islamic interest groups were created in competition with other more secular parties, which also had significant Muslim participation. In post-colonial Indonesia, for example, four parties became especially prominent. Two of these parties were secular (the nationalist party, led by Sukarno, and the communist party, known as the PKI) and two were Islamic (the Traditionalist NU, led by Wahid Hashim—Gus Dur’s father—and Masyumi, the Reformist branch). In Malaysia, the Malay Muslim majority used its political power to maintain supremacy over Chinese and Indian minorities. Muslim minorities in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines, likewise organized to express their collective interests against nationalist majorities.

     In Indonesia, the Reformists wanted Islamic law. The rest opposed it. Confronted with the nation’s dizzying array of cultures and peoples, Sukarno created Pancasila, a philosophy of pluralism, and adopted the motto “unity in diversity.” NU supported Indonesia’s new leader. As Wahid Hashim explained, “in our minds the important question is not, ‘What ultimately should be the place of Islam [in the State]?’ The important question rather should be, ‘By what means shall we assure the place of [our] religion in Free Indonesia?’” 61 In a nation with an eighty-percent Muslim majority, Wahid, Sukarno, and Pancasila placed Islam on equal legal footing with other religions. Independent Malaysia, a nation also defined by diversity, would later adopt a similar set of principles called Rukunegara, though Rukunegara proved to be more Islamic in tone and practice.62

     Under Sukarno, Reformists suffered a series of setbacks. Shortly after independence, a rebellion broke out in West Java with the intent of establishing an Islamic State, or Darul Islam (the abode of Islam), which was later joined by Aceh and eventually defeated in 1962. Meanwhile another Reformist secessionist movement rose up in the outer islands in 1958. 63 Furthermore, tensions mounted over the Indonesian Constitution. The Constitution affirmed a belief in God as a pillar of the state and society, with Reformists adding the following phrase to that clause, “with the obligation for adherents of Islam to carry out Islamic law.” What exactly that might mean in practice was never made clear. Would Muslims alone have to follow Islamic law? Or did those words apply to everyone? Sukarno did not want to find out. He removed the phrase in 1959. 64 Through these conflicts, Wahid and NU Traditionalists continued to side with Sukarno and the nationalist party. By 1960, the president was taking legal action against Reformists. Sukarno outlawed a few of their mass organizations and jailed some of their leaders.65

     During these formative years of early independence, Gus Dur was going through the formative years of his schooling. Under the new national government, the division between secular and religious education began to blur. The government took over and maintained the Western curriculum that had dominated Dutch colonial schools, and pesantren continued to function as independent private entities. But Western education became increasingly popular and many more children began attending government-run schools in the morning and religious schools in the afternoon. Various government initiatives, often promoted by large Islamic organizations, pushed Western learning into the pesantren system.66 Muslims in Malaysia and Brunei likewise added Western curriculum to their religious schooling, and states with Muslim minorities similarly reformed Islamic educational institutions. 67 Gus Dur’s blended education reflected this regional trend.

     His years in Egypt and Iraq also represented increased cooperation between Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian Muslims. As globalization intensified, traditional means of contact (e.g. migrations, the hajj, translation and publication, etc.) continued to increase. But with colonial power gone, Southeast Asian Islamic political movements were also now free to interact directly with Arab, Turkish, and Persian governments. The Muslim majority nations of Southeast Asia joined the Organization of Islam Conference (OIC), and an early secretary general of the OIC came from Malaysia. Funded by new oil money, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, all tried to increase their influence in Southeast Asia. They financed the building of mosques, schools, and the publication of Islamic literature; and they mediated political disputes involving Muslim minorities, especially those in the southern Philippines and Thailand. 68 For the most part, this outside involvement strengthened Reformism, but that was not the case with Gus Dur. His experiences in Egypt and Iraq only deepened his convictions that Traditionalist monist beliefs and practices were firmly Islamic.

     When Gus Dur returned to Southeast Asia in 1970, he found his homeland transformed by the Cold War. 1965 marked a point of no return. In that year, prompted by a failed coup attempt, the military and various vigilante groups sought out and massacred anyone allegedly associated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The death toll reached between five hundred thousand and a million people. In smaller villages, pesantren teachers rallied their students to locate and kill communist sympathizers, sometimes in the guise of exterminating atheists.69 Sukarno was removed from office and the more staunchly anti-communist Suharto took control. As with other Southeast Asian leaders, the Cold War enabled Suharto to maintain dictatorial control for decades. The strongly anti-Muslim President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines likewise kept himself in power for twenty-one years by declaring martial law in response to an alleged communist threat.

     For most of his tenure, Suharto tried to weaken and even secularize Islamic organizations. He forced them into a combined party, the United Development Party (the PPP), which tellingly had no reference to Islam in its title. Protesting government repression, Gus Dur pulled NU out of the PPP in 1984. Stripped of political power under Suharto, he and other Islamic leaders focused on what they could control: education. Gus Dur helped create the Committee for the Development of Pesantrens, which broadened the economic base and influence of Islamic schools. 70 Meanwhile, the prominent Reformist leader, Muhammad Natsir began a grassroots Islamic revival organization called the Indonesian Islamic Mission Council.71 The repression of the Suharto era helped radicalize Reformists. Inspired by Salafi fundamentalist links to the Middle East, some formed resistance cells reminiscent of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Unable to directly control politics in the present, Traditionalists and Reformists alike turned their attention toward deepening Islamic devotion as preparation for the future.72

     Traditionalists and Reformists nevertheless continued to clash over what made a proper Muslim, and gender was one of their primary battlegrounds. Both NU and Muhammadiyah include active women’s organizations. Gus Dur’s wife Nuriyah, for example, led an initiative to reinterpret orthodox Islamic legal rulings about women. This reflects NU’s commitment to encourage female pesantren students to master core Islamic texts and then to reinterpret those texts according to reason (ijtihad). Through this process female Islamic scholars in Indonesia have agitated for reforms in the practice of polygamy, the place of women in politics, and child marriage. Reformist women have been more likely to promote restrictive Middle Eastern norms. 73

     The future Gus Dur had been waiting for arrived in 1998, when a democratic movement and an Asian financial crisis toppled the Suharto regime. Gus Dur’s election the following year started a new era in Indonesian history, though it has not been one of comfort and ease. With Suharto gone, the lack of an authoritarian center sparked communal conflicts in Kalimantan, the Malukus, Sulawesi, Aceh, East Timor, and Papua, not to mention various incidents of terrorism connected to Salafi jihadist movements, the worst of those being the 2002 Bali bombings.74 The War on Terror at the turn of the century also increased unrest in other Southeast Asian Islamic communities. Islamist terrorist organizations in the Philippines, for example, began kidnappings and bombings during this period.


     Many common assumptions about Islam and modernity seem irreconcilable. Islam is Middle Eastern. Modernity is Western. Islam is religious. Modernity is secular. Islam is dogmatic. Modernity is cosmopolitan. The history of Southeast Asia helps us see past the blinding certainty of these false dichotomies. Neither Islam nor modernity are as rigid as we might expect. The people advancing modernity were often the same ones advancing Islam. Southeast Asian Muslims adapted their religion to the modern developments that they made possible. They incorporated Islam into a Hindu-Buddhist context, modernized Islamic education under foreign empires, and made their religion a core element of modern national and ethnic identities. At the same time, they anchored the global economy to Southeast Asia during the age of commerce. They played a defining role in the relationships between European overseers and indigenous peoples in the age of empires. And they are still shaping political initiatives in the age of nation-states. They modernized Islam and Islamicized modernity.

     The lives of Malik as-Salih, C. Snouck Hurgonje, and Abdurraham Wahid can help us understand how this reconciliation happened in practice. Like the history of most people, their actions did not conform to simplistic conceptual boundaries. Malik as-Salih was among the first of many Southeast Asian rulers to successfully meld cosmopolitan Sufi ideals with older Hindu-Buddhist traditions. C. Snouck Hurgonje challenged the views of other colonizers with his belief that secular governments need not associate Islam with radicalism. And Gus Dur contributed to a modern religious revival that helped topple an oppressive dictator through education and grassroots political organization. In each of their respective eras, these and millions of other Southeast Asians were not simply acting as Muslims. They were also acting as modernizers.

     Ethan Hawkley received his PhD from Northeastern University and specializes in world and Asian history. He teaches history at Great Basin College in Elko Nevada and can be reached at


1 I would like to thank the East-West Center for hosting and the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding the 2017 Islam in Asia Institute. My perspective and the perspectives of my students have been greatly enriched by the opportunity I had to attend, and I hope that this article will further pass those benefits on to others. I am grateful to all the presenters, participants, and support staff, and especially to the organizers, Dr. Nelly van Doorn-Harder and Dr. Peter Hershock.

For a useful and brief overview of Southeast Asian Islam see Michael Laffan, “Islam in Southeast Asia,” Center for Global Education, accessed July 1, 2018.

For Muslim population by country see “Interactive Data Table: World Muslim Population by Country,” PEW Research Center, November 17, 2017,

2As in most periodization schemes, these dates represent shifts that actually occurred over long periods.

3Anthony Reid, A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 30-56.

4M.C. Ricklefs, A History of Modern Indonesia since c. 1300, 2nd edition (London: MacMillan, 1993), 3.

5Reid (2015), 96-119.

6Ricklefs, 3-4.

7Russell Jones, “Ten Conversion Myths from Indonesia,” in Conversion to Islam, ed. Nehemia Levtzion (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1979), 133.

8Jones, 133.

9Jones, 135.

10Ricklefs, 12-13.

11Reid (2015), 102.

12Graham Saunders, A History of Brunei (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 1994), 36 and 40.

13Reid (2015), 70.

14Jones, 135.

15See Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (New York: Vintage Books, 2004).

16 Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450-1680, Volume Two Expansion and Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 144.

17Ethan Hawkley, “Reviving the Reconquista in Southeast Asia: Moros and the Making of the Philippines, 1565-1662,” Journal of World History 24, nos. 2 & 3 (2014): 285-310.

18Jones, 135.

19See Jones, 129-158.

20Reid (1993), 139-140.

21Reid (1993), 148.

22Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 28.

23Reid (2015), 159.

24Howard M. Federspiel,Sultans, Shamans, and Saints: Islam and Muslims in Southeast Asia (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007), 65-68.

25Barbara Watson Andaya, The Flaming Womb: Repositioning Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006), 85-86.

26See Sher Banu A.L. Khan, Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom: The Sultanahs of Aceh, 1641-1699 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2018); Reid (2015), 159-160.

27Jan Just Witkam, “Introduction: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje’s Description of Mecca,” in C. Snouck Hurgronje,Mekka in the Latter Part of the 19th Century: Daily Life, Customs and Learning, trans. J.H. Monahan (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 7.

28See Pieter Sjoerd van Koningsveld, “Conversion of European Intellectuals to Islam: The Case of Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje alias ‘Abd al-Ghaffar’,” in Muslims in Interwar Europe: A Transcultural Historical Perspective, edited by Bekim Agai, Umar Ryad, and Mehdi Sajid (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 88-104.

29van Koningsveld, 100-101.

30Craig A. Lockard,Southeast Asia in World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 101 and 121.

31Federspiel, 91.

32 Lockard, 93-94.

33Federspiel, 100.

34 Federspiel, 107.

35 Federspiel, 119.

36 Robert Pringle, Understanding Islam in Indonesia: Politics and Diversity (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2010), 48-49.

37 Federspiel, 114.

38Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia (New York: Picador, 2012), 88-95.

39Federspiel, 96-97.

40 van Koningsveld, 93-100.

41Pringle, 52-54.

42Pringle, 48-49; Eric Tagliacozzo, The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 157-176.

43Pringle, 51.

44 Tagliacozzo, 33, 286.

45 Federspiel, 29; Pringle, 53-54.

46van Koningsveld, 95.

47 Federspiel, 101.

48Federspiel, 129-130.

49 Federspiel, 109, 115, 116, 118, and 121.

50 Federspiel, 101-102 and 109-110.

51 Federspiel, 124-125.

51 Federspiel, 124-125.

51 Federspiel, 124-125.

52 Pringle, 105.

53 For fuller biography see John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, Makers of Contemporary Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 349-356.

54 Federspiel, 167-168.

55Pringle, 56.

56Milton Osborne, Southeast Asia: An Introductory History 11th ed. (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2013), 144-145.

57 Federspiel, 199.

58 Federspiel, 194.

59Federspiel, 177.

60Pringle, 57.

61 Quoted in Pringle, 63-64.

62Federspiel, 178-179.

63 Pringle, 72-74.

64 Pringle, 68-70.

65Pringle, 80.

66Federspiel, 176.

67Federspiel, 190 and 195.

68Federspiel, 160; Pringle, 97-99.

69Pringle, 82-83.

70Esposito and Voll, 153.

71Pringle, 90.

72Pringle, 96.

73Pringle, 139-142.

74Pringle, 143-164.

73Theodore Friend, “Abdurrahman Wahid, The Indonesian Republic, and Dynamics in Islam,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, published January 1, 2010, accessed July 1, 2018. .

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