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Vol. 7, No. 3, AHMAD FAUZI Abdul Hamid


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Shifting Trends of Islamism and Islamist Practices
in Malaysia, 1957–2017

Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid*

*School of Distance Education and Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti
Sains Malaysia, 11800 Penang, Malaysia
e-mail: afauzi[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.7.3_363

This article seeks to analyze the evolving development and contestations regarding the interplay of Islam and politics in Malaysia’s public space for a period of 60 years (1957–2017) since its independence as a nation-state. A crucial element in this discourse is the official position of Islam as the “religion of the federation” in the Malaysian Constitution, which simultaneously guarantees the freedom of other religions embraced by almost half of the country’s population. The population became even more diverse ethnically and religiously upon the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, which replaced Malaya, on September 16, 1963. Closely related to the discourse of political Islam in Malaysia, the evolving concepts of “religion” and “secularism” in Malaysia’s Islamic context have undergone considerable shifts as a result of constant public engagement by an assortment of politicians, commentators, scholars, bureaucrats, and civil society activists. As the argument develops, Malaysia’s interaction with Islam has been essentialized by political interests such that boundaries are hardened between what is considered Islamic and un-Islamic. The increasingly rigid positions adopted by Islamic stakeholders have arguably worsened both interreligious and intra-Muslim relations, with progressive Muslim voices increasingly finding themselves marginalized in the state-controlled political environment.

Keywords: Islam, Islamism, political Islam, Malaysia, secularism, Mahathir Mohamad, Federal Constitution, hudud, Salafi


A “plural society” par excellence (Rabushka and Shepsle 1972, 20), Malaysia1) gained independence from Britain on August 31, 1957 as the Federation of Malaya. The majority Malays, who are constitutionally defined as Muslims, consistently constitute between 50 percent and 60 percent of the total population, but their numerical dominance does not easily translate into political hegemony. Belying Malaysia’s reputation as a Muslim-majority stronghold of Islam in Southeast Asia, where the position of Islam is protected by the state, the country’s political positions on Islam, even among its Muslim populace, display a great deal of diversity in spite of state-orchestrated attempts to homogenize Islam in both theory and practice. Malaysia’s fragile ethnic composition has meant that ethno-religious demands in favor of greater Islamic input in governance have always faced challenges not only from the non-Muslim minorities but also from Muslims of varying orientations with respect to Islam.

In colonial Malaya, secularization, understood primarily in terms of enforced separation between religion and state in the British-administered body politic, acquired inexorable momentum with the signing of the Anglo-Perak Treaty in Pangkor in 1874. This Pangkor accord stipulated that Malay Sultans seek and act upon a British Resident’s advice on all matters except Malay religion and custom. A succession of legal, administrative, and educational reforms followed throughout Malaya as other Malay states concluded similar agreements with the colonial authorities, the net effect of which was to sideline the role of Islam in colonial governance (Ahmad Fauzi 2004, 22–30).

Promulgation of a Federal Constitution in 1957, by crystallizing such separation between religion and state, effectively established secularism as a governing principle despite no explicit verbal reference to it (Rosenthal 1965, 288). Although the word “secular” is not mentioned in the constitution, the secular basis of an independent Malaya was arguably affirmed by parties deliberating the drafting of the document. Tunku Abdul Rahman (1903–90), leader of the Alliance coalition and later the first prime minister of independent Malaya, assured fellow members among the Working Party who reviewed the draft prepared by the British-appointed Reid Commission that the whole exercise of framing the constitution was undertaken on the understanding that the resultant federation would be a secular state (Fernando 2006, 259–260, 265–266).

Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution pronounces that “Islam is the religion of the Federation but that other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation” (Malaysia 1998, 1). As clarified by a legislative white paper, however, such a declaration in no way affected Malaya’s position as a “secular state.” This status was later affirmed by serving chief justices’ statements and judgments qualifying the meaning of Islam’s formal status as pertaining to rituals and ceremonies on official occasions rather than being prioritized over the secular legislative framework (Suffian Hashim 1962, 8–11; Ahmad Ibrahim 1985, 213–216; Fernando 2006, 250, 262). Article 3(1), moreover, has to be read together with Article 3(4): “Nothing in this Article derogates from any other provision of this Constitution” (Malaysia 1998, 1). Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 11, according to which every individual has the right to profess, practice, and propagate his or her own religion although the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among Muslims may be legally controlled or restricted, and all religious groups possess authority to manage their own religious affairs, to establish and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes, and to acquire, possess, hold, and administer property in accordance with the law (ibid., 6–7).

Since the premiership of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (1981–2003), totally new contexts concerning the political role of Islam in defining Malaysia’s character and trajectory as a nation-state, with a special focus on the country’s purported transformation into an Islamic state and ramifications arising from the ascendancy of Islamism—referring to a political ideology that demands true Muslims seek to establish a juridical Islamic state governed by the sharia (Islamic law) in order to realize the ideals of Islam as a complete way of life (din al-hayah)—have appeared in Malaysia’s Islamic discourse. This article discusses the narrowing of the social space in the practice of Malaysian Islam as reflected in government policies and how interested parties constitutionally interpret them. It traces the ways and means of shifts in the understanding and practice of Islam in a more overtly politicized sense, with potentially devastating consequences on the sociocultural fabric of Malaysia’s plural society.

Political Islam in Postcolonial Malaysia: An Overview

In most postcolonial Muslim states, the delinking between Islam and governance of new nation-states was embodied in the subordination of the sharia to the broader national legal system. A residue of the sharia, catering for Muslim family and personal needs, was reformulated into and codified as a set of Muslim laws tailored to suit particularistic interests rather than all-encompassing Islamic requirements. The framework of reference for post-independence sharia-based Muslim lawyers was the nation-state, in which Islamic laws were subordinated to civil laws rather than the umma (global Muslim community) (Hooker 2004, 199).

Tacit collusion between the colonial masters and the “rightist” stream of Malay nationalists, overwhelmingly consisting of English-educated bureaucratic elites whose religio-political outlook was solidified in a secular environment, eventually delivered independence to Malaya (Ahmad Fauzi 2007a, 389). At the other end of the political spectrum was the “leftist” stream of Malay nationalists who had absorbed many facets of Islamic modernist-reformist discourse and whose take on religion and secularism was more sophisticated and less rigid. One such example was the consummate Malay politician-cum-thinker Dr. Burhanuddin Al-Helmy (1911–69), who saw Islamic political aspirations as blending both theocratic and secular ideals, “secular” insofar as they corresponded to Islamic doctrine that condones application of the rational faculty and democratic consultation known as syura (Kamarudin 1980, 209–210).

In the ethnically segmented society of pre-independence Malaya, Burhanuddin also adopted a less racialist and more open policy of absorbing non-Malays into the “Malay” category.2) This was vividly demonstrated in the 1947 People’s Constitutional Proposals, which he masterminded as leader of the Malay-dominated Pusat Tenaga Ra’ayat (Centre for People’s Power) in alliance with the non-Malay All-Malayan Council of Joint Action (Ahmad Fauzi 2011, 82). Unfortunately, despite having engendered a kind of pre-nationalism in the 1930s, by the 1940s modernism-reformism had lost most of its appeal among the lay Malay populace, eclipsed by the pressing need for political freedom under the general impression of an enveloping non-Malay threat to Malay hegemony (Ahmad Fauzi 2007a, 381). From 1956 until Burhanuddin’s death in 1969, his political talent was channeled to society in his capacity as president of the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party, later known as the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia).

Insofar as the secular relates to this world rather than the next one, the corporeal rather than the metaphysical realm, the Federal Constitution exhibits unabashedly secular characteristics. For instance, rather than being upheld for its intrinsic value as a faith that connects humans with God, Islam is foregrounded to serve a secular purpose, i.e., that of ethno-culturally determining the identity of a “Malay” as defined in Article 160(2): “a person who professes the Muslim religion, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom” (Malaysia 1998, 113). Through Article 153 Malays, together with natives of Sabah and Sarawak following the formation of Malaysia in 1963, are regarded as the indigenous Bumiputera (lit.: sons of the soil) group, who qualify for secular benefits under the “special position” clause (Means 1978, 393–394; Malaysia 1998, 107).

Under the “Bargain of 1957” the aforesaid privileges, together with provisions to ensure the position of Islam as the religion of the federation, of Malay Sultans as heads of the various states, and of Malay as the national language, were quid pro quos for non-Malay demands for relaxed conditions for citizenship, the continued use of the English language in official matters for 10 years, and the preservation of the free market economy (Milne and Mauzy 1986, 28–30). As with other temporal matters, the terms of the Bargain were understood by interested parties of the time to be temporary, i.e., not binding beyond prevailing circumstances where socioeconomic segmentation along ethnic lines was widespread (see Chapter 9). Buoyed, however, since the late 1970s by UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) calls for defending “Malay supremacy” (Ketuanan Melayu)—a notion that appeared only after the New Economic Policy (NEP) had institutionalized affirmative action to empower Bumiputera (Ariffin 2003), the Bargain acquired socio-psychological standing as a “social contract,” a transgression of which was considered to be betraying the terms and conditions on which the nation was supposed to have been founded (Puthucheary 2008, 12–23). This period when the NEP was nearing its end in 1990 coincided with the height of Islamic resurgence in Malaysia (Nagata 1984; Chandra 1987), so much so that Malay supremacy was often conflated as Islamic dominance in spite of the concept’s religiously spurious basis (Muhammad Haniff 2007, 294, 306).

In the immediate post-independence period, the position of Islam as amounting to no further than the country’s official religion was upheld by UMNO leaders such as Tunku Abdul Rahman, who asserted, “. . . this country is not an Islamic State as it is generally understood, we merely provide that Islam shall be the official religion of the State” (quoted in Ahmad Ibrahim 1985, 217; cf. Tunku Abdul Rahman 1977, 246). Jurisdiction over Islam was left to the various states that formed the federation, each of which instituted a Council of the Islamic Religion (Majlis Agama Islam) to aid and advise their Malay rulers in their capacity as heads of the Islamic religion,3) a Department of Religious Affairs (Jabatan Agama Islam) to handle daily affairs of Muslims, and sharia courts to adjudicate in Muslim matters (Ahmad Ibrahim 1985, 216). The authority of the sharia courts covers only Muslim personal law—a successor to the Muhammadan law of the colonial era, subsuming only family law, charitable property, religious revenue, places of worship, and religious offenses such as adultery and other forms of sexual misconduct, defamation, non-payment of alms, and consumption of liquor (Abdul Majeed 1985, 229–235). Even then, sharia courts can only mete out punishments that do not go beyond the stated maximum imprisonment or fine under federal law, making it impossible for them to impose the Quranic hudud4) code. The restrictions on sharia courts, collectively known as the 3-6-5 safeguards, ensure that punishments they impose do not exceed a maximum of three years’ imprisonment, six strokes of the cane, and RM5,000 in fines (Abdul Hadi 2002, 30).

On account of such limitations, Malaysia’s sharia doyen Ahmad Ibrahim held the view that “the provision that Islam is the religion of the Federation” was of little consequence (Ahmad Ibrahim 1974, 6–7, 11–13). In fact, prior to the onset of Islamic resurgence, the general consensus was that Malaysia’s politico-legal makeup was secular in intent even if not fully secular in practice by virtue of the various ways in which the powers that be applied Article 3(1) to their political advantage (Norani et al. 2008, xvi–xvii). Nowhere in the Federal Constitution is it mentioned that law in Malaysia is interpreted by recourse to sharia; on the contrary, Article 160(2) defines law as including “written law, the common law in so far as it is in operation in the Federation or any part thereof, and any custom or usage having the force of law in the Federation or any part thereof” (Malaysia 1998, 113). What Malaysia operates is a hybrid system in which there is a gray line between secularity and Islamicity.

However, as judges whose educational experience coincided with the period of Islamic resurgence gradually entered the judiciary, more court rulings departed from the traditional view of Islam’s constricted role within Malaysia’s constitutional framework, to the extent of compromising constitutionally guaranteed fundamental liberties (see Chapter 6). In his 2001 High Court ruling in Lina Joy v Majlis Agama Islam Wilayah & Anor, Justice Faiza Tamby Chik (2004, 128), despite acknowledging the existence of a previous case that established Malaysia as a secular state permitting the implementation of sharia laws insofar as they did not contradict the Federal Constitution, adopted the trailblazing view that

Article 3(4) does not have the effect of reinforcing the status of the Federation as a secular state. . . . Malaysia is not purely a secular state like India or Singapore but is a hybrid between the secular state and the theocratic state. The constitution of this hybrid model accord [sic] official or preferential status to Islam but does not create a theocratic state like Saudi Arabia or Iran. . . . Article 3(1) has a far wider and meaningful purpose than a mere fixation of the official religion. (Faiza 2004)

Faiza’s verdict opened the floodgates for a flurry of rulings that broadened the interpretation of Article 3(1) such that serious doubts were thrown on Malaysia’s “secular state” status. As the argument goes, although the Federal Constitution refrains from explicitly mentioning Malaysia as an Islamic state, the fact that it authorizes the setting up and management of Islamic institutions and the enactment of Islamic by-laws by state assemblies is proof that Malaysia cannot be categorized as a secular state (cf. Norizan 2007; Zainul Rijal and Nurhidayah 2007; Aidil 2014; Concerned Lawyers for Justice 2014). As the legal expert Shad Saleem Faruqi (2005, 270–275) notes, the existence of constitutional provisions that institutionally empower Islam, such as those that legitimize the posts of mufti5) and kadi6) and enable the federal government to disburse preferential funds toward the advancement of Islam, would be impossible in a secular state. Article 11(4) even mandates state legislatures and parliament in the case of federal territories to “control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam” (Malaysia 1998, 107). In 1988 a landmark decision was made by amending Article 121 so as to include clause (1A), which prevented federal courts from exercising any “jurisdiction in respect of any matter within the jurisdiction of the Syariah courts” (ibid., 79). Article 121(1A) effectively raised the status of sharia courts and judges to be on a par with their civil counterparts. However, within one decade it had caused disquiet among non-Muslims following a spate of high-profile court cases involving disputed conversions into and out of Islam and claims made by state Islamic authorities to bodies of the alleged converts upon their deaths, on which civil courts were reluctant to interfere, thus leaving non-Muslim litigants with no legal recourse (Ooi 2007, 184–186; Marzuki 2008, 162–169, 172–181).

The shift in legal thinking toward a more all-encompassing understanding of Islam as pertaining to the constitution appeared to have been triggered by greater political will on the part of ruling politicians. At the peak of his power in September 2001, having outflanked a determined challenge to his rule from his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim—whom he had dismissed from UMNO and the government three years earlier—Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad shockingly declared in front of delegates to the annual assembly of UMNO’s coalition partner Malaysian People’s Movement (GERAKAN, Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia) that Malaysia had, to all intents and purposes, already become an Islamic state. Astonishing as it was, one should not ignore the fact that immediate political calculations were foremost in Mahathir’s mind. Mahathir’s declaration was merely a direct response to PAS President Fadzil Noor’s challenge (Liew 2007, 112–113) and intended to pinch the Islamic state agenda away from PAS, whose collaboration with Anwar Ibrahim’s National Justice Party (KEADILAN, Parti Keadilan Nasional)7) and the non-Muslim dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) had eroded a huge chunk of Malay Muslim votes from UMNO and the National Front (BN, Barisan Nasional) ruling coalition in the 1999 general election (Maznah 2003, 75–79).8)

Indications that Mahathir was bracing for his Islamic state pronouncement may be found in an Islamic State Discussion (Muzakarah Daulah Islamiah) hastily convened slightly over a month earlier and chaired by his religious adviser, Dr. Abdul Hamid Othman. Gathering 70 religious scholars and notables, the Muzakarah concluded that Malaysia unequivocally qualified as an Islamic state on the basis that its administrative, political, and religious affairs were controlled by Muslims, regardless of whether hudud was implemented or not (Saifulizam 2001; JAKIM 2008). That Mahathir was being politically expedient more than anything else is underlined by his insistence that despite his declaration, non-Muslims had every right to continue to perceive Malaysia as being a secular state (Asuki and Nizam 2001). The Islamic state he had in mind, in other words, was not meant to be generically applied to all. Exploiting the Islamic sentiments of the Malay Muslims, it was a rhetorical device to convince them that Islam and their fate were safe in the hands of UMNO. In June 2002 Mahathir reinforced his stance by projecting Malaysia to be a “model Islamic fundamentalist state” rather than a “moderate Muslim state” (Ooi 2006, 176).

Nonetheless, Mahathir’s Islamic state pretensions emboldened a host of doctrinaire Islamists,9) many of whom were by now part of the Islamic bureaucracy which had expanded by leaps and bounds during his tenure in power (Norani et al. 2005, 90–91; Maznah 2013), to discursively essentialize Islam and secularism in bifurcated terms as binary opposites of one another. In the public space, concepts and ideologies such as “secularism,” “liberalism,” “humanism,” “capitalism,” and “pluralism” were being played out as antitheses to Islam, carrying similar “anti-religious” baggage (cf. Mohamed Elfie 2008; Soon 2008).

Amendments to extant statutory laws were justified by recourse to the sharia as the Grundnorm or “cardinal foundational principle” with supposed eternal authority over Malay Muslims (Norani 2008, 46–47). Islamism, referring to a political ideology that urges Muslims to erect a sharia-governed Islamic state in order for them to be able to comprehensively practice Islam as a way of life (din al-hayah), was bringing the two hitherto political foes, UMNO and PAS, closer together ideologically, in fact close enough to alarm non-Muslim civil society and political leaders into mobilizing openly against the very idea of an Islamic-oriented polity (Riddell 2005, 182–184). In defense of non-Muslim rights, religious Christians, for instance, were cornered into a position of unabashedly defending the secular state, as defined in contradistinction to an Islamic state (Yeoh 2011, 87–93). UMNO-PAS convergence on Islamist matters appeared in the form of a discursive shift from whether Malaysia should be an Islamic state, to when and how an Islamic state could be achieved to best serve the Malay Muslims (Kessler 2008, 63–64).

Mahathir’s successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s promotion of Islam Hadhari (civilizational Islam)10) during his premiership (2003–9) failed to defuse the polarizing polemic pitting the Islamist and secularist camps. Deprived of intellectual credibility and perennially suffering from poor implementation and weak infrastructural support from the government’s own Islamic officialdom, Islam Hadhari lost the discursive battle against an ascendant Islamist conservatism which perceived Islam Hadhari as a re-incarnation of “liberal Islam” (ibid., 71–76; Ahmad Fauzi and Muhamad Takiyuddin 2014). Haji Abdul Hadi Awang (hereafter Haji Hadi), who assumed the leadership of PAS in 2003, castigated Islam Hadhari as being a “hybrid religion” that permitted the simultaneous practice of compartmentalized Islam alongside un-Islamic elements and was thus a potentially deviant bid’ah (religious innovation) (Abdul Hadi 2005, 24–34, 50, 90, 130, 196). In response to Islam Hadhari, Haji Hadi outlined four defining features of an Islamic state that he claimed were derived from the Quran and Prophet Muhammad’s traditions: a congregation (jamaah) that upholds Islam as the state creed and internalizes it in individual and social lives; an independent and sovereign country; a constitution that exalts the sharia; and citizens administered by Islamic laws’ absolute justice regardless of their religious affiliation (ibid., 54–55). Haji Hadi’s Islamist vision manifestly rules out any legal dualism such as that which Malaysia has been practicing in some jurisdictional areas since independence.

Abdullah Badawi’s Western-educated deputy, Najib Razak, aggravated the developing tension by categorically affirming Malaysia’s Islamic state status to the point of denying that Malaysia had ever been—or would ever be—a secular state, igniting protests from non-Muslim religious and political leaders (Lim 2008; Norani 2008, 49–50; Tan 2008). While Abdullah quickly tried to mitigate the damage by repudiating both a theocratic and secular state designation for Malaysia (Vinesh 2007), the country’s chief justice and attorney general appeared more willing to act on Najib’s than Abdullah’s cue. The chief justice and attorney general floated the idea of a sharia-based code to supplant English common law as the basis of Malaysia’s legal system, triggering voices of disapprobation from the Bar Council, among others (Koshy 2007; Norila 2007; Star Online 2007). As the golden jubilee of Malaysia’s independence neared, Faruqi (2007) summed up the worrying state of affairs enveloping Malaysia’s legalscape:

. . . a critical mass of Muslim lawyers, judges and politicians has adopted the view that Islam is the core, central, overriding feature of the Constitution. . . . State Assemblies have been enacting laws and authorising administrative actions that violate the human rights guarantees of Articles 5–13, imposing penalties far beyond their powers, and trespassing on federal jurisdiction. Because all this is done in the name of religion, politicians look the other way. Most judges are reluctant to test these laws or actions on the yardstick of the Constitution. Painful dilemmas are arising in cases where one of the litigants is Muslim and the other non-Muslim. (Faruqi 2007)

Paradoxically, the Malaysian-style shariaization, understood here as the institutionalization of sharia-based values, norms, and categories in the discourse and practice of Malaysia’s legal corpus, was proceeding apace while the country’s sharia institutions were still very much part of the larger constitutionally mandated judicial framework (Ahmad Fauzi 2016a, 32). The gradual incorporation and codification of sharia-based statutes were dependent on secular structures, personnel, and rationalization, hence enabling one to question whether Malaysia’s sharia laws, having themselves been subjected to secularization, were fit to be accorded a hallowed status (Maznah 2010, 512). Seven years after Malaysia’s 50-year anniversary of independence, the situation took a turn for the worse in Faruqi’s view:

Article 3(1) on Islam is trumping all other provisions of the Constitution, including the chapter on fundamental rights. . . . Are syariah authorities subject to the Federal Constitution? Or is it the case that once they invoke the holy name of Islam, hukum syarah [sic], fatwa or a State Syariah Enactment, they have a blank-cheque power to do whatever is necessary to promote good and prevent evil? (Faruqi 2014)

Efforts undertaken by PAS to implement hudud in the states it controlled—Kelantan (since 1990) and Terengganu (1999–2004)—similarly involve human agency. Opinions have diverged, for instance, on the suitability and timing as well as the nature and quantum of punishments prescribed by hudud laws (cf. Kamali 1998; Ahmad Fauzi 2009, 170–176). Even though political dynamics have been more important than one would imagine for issues as central to Malay-Muslim religious lives as that of installing “Divine law” (Ahmad Fauzi 2015), skeptics of hudud were lampooned as diehard defenders of secularism. The question of the extent to which hudud was urgent in a multireligious polity like Malaysia caused a huge split within the ranks of PAS during its General Assembly in June 2015, leading to PAS’s professional faction leaving the party en masse and forming a splinter party, Parti Amanah Negara (AMANAH, National Trust Party). Of the many allegations levelled by PAS President Haji Hadi against these deserters who formed AMANAH, the most serious was that they wanted to transform PAS into a secular party (Khalid 2015). In Malaysian Islamists’ imagination, hudud has now become the definitive criterion of an Islamic state, with increasing overlapping perspectives between PAS, UMNO, and religious bureaucrats (Norshahril 2014, 54–59).

After several abortive attempts during Najib’s premiership (since 2009) to introduce private members’ bills to pave the way for the implementation of hudud in Kelantan (Ahmad Fauzi 2015, 209–213), in late May 2016 Haji Hadi managed to present in parliament a bill that would dispense with the 3-6-5 safeguards. Dubbed the “hudud Bill,” the Sharia Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Bill 355 (RUU355, Rang Undang-undang 355) seeks to amend Section 2 of the Sharia Courts Act (Criminal Jurisdiction) 1965 (Act 355), thereby empowering sharia courts to mete out heavier penalties than imposed at present against Muslim perpetrators of offenses listed under Schedule Nine of the Federal Constitution, except the death penalty. Although the debating of the bill was postponed to the next parliamentary session, the fact that it could make itself heard on the final day of the parliamentary session, jumping the queue over government bills listed in the Standing Order, was by itself unprecedented. Speculation had been rife for months that relations between Najib Razak and Haji Hadi had warmed to such an extent that PAS might cooperate with BN after the breakup of the People’s Pact (PR, Pakatan Rakyat) coalition, but their tacit collusion over the tabling of RUU355 still caught UMNO’s non-Muslim coalition partners by surprise (Chan and Mazwin 2016; Cheng et al. 2016).

The latest hudud affair has driven the wedge further between advocates of the secular state on one side of the religio-political divide and its opponents on the other, with non-Muslim members of Najib’s cabinet even threatening to resign should RUU355 be passed. This was despite Najib’s and PAS’s assurances that RUU355’s contents did not amount to hudud and would not affect non-Muslims (Adam 2016; Hanis 2016). As far as detractors of RUU355 are concerned, the whittling away of secularism implicit in RUU355’s breaching of constitutional guarantees for equal protection of citizens before the law would constitute a fundamental change to Malaysia’s politico-legal structure, thus paving the way for it to become a full-fledged Islamic state in the future (cf. Mohamad Siddiq and Fatihah 2016; Singh 2016; Star Online 2016).

Political Islam and Its Discontents: Shifts in Islamist Approaches and State-Led Practices of Islamism in Post-Mahathir Malaysia

Over the last two decades, religio-political discourse in Malaysia has ossified in a manner that pits Islam (read: Islamism) and secularism against each other as binary opposites, as institutionally represented in a juridical Islamic state and Malaysia’s extant federal state respectively. Society has been polarized along this line, with support for each camp cutting across partisan affiliations. If we take the two extremes of the opposite poles, the ideological positions of PAS under Haji Hadi’s leadership and the avowedly secular DAP have reached such irreconcilable proportions that the Anwar Ibrahim-led PR coalition, which both parties participated in and through which they contributed to the opposition’s electoral advances in the 2008 and 2013 general elections, broke up in June 2015.

To Haji Hadi, secularism is intimately connected to Christianity in deviant form, Freemasonry, a global Zionist conspiracy, and colonialism (Abdul Hadi 2007, 9–16). Tracing the origins of secularism in the umma to the colonial era, the separation of religion and state and the privatization of religion represent the most damaging aspects of secularism on Muslim lives (Abdul Hadi 2008, 173). Haji Hadi is the author of an infamous 1981 tract, Amanat Haji Hadi (Haji Hadi’s mandate), which has been blamed for causing rampant Malay-Muslim disunity by effectively apostatizing UMNO members for retaining an infidel constitution and separating religion from politics (Badlihisham 2009, 67–73). Despite receiving sustained rebukes over violence allegedly arising from the Amanat’s inflammatory message, Haji Hadi has never disowned it. In a treatise defending the Amanat, Haji Hadi lambasted secularism for dragging Muslims into committing greater idolatry (Arabic: shirk Akbar)—an unpardonable sin in Islam. It was obvious, though, that the secularism Haji Hadi had in mind was the hard anti-religion version practiced by Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938) in early-twentieth-century Turkey (Abdul Hadi 2002, 26–27). In his refutation of Islam Hadhari, Haji Hadi referred to the thoughts of, among others, the Indo-Pakistani Islamist thinker Abul A’la Maududi (1903–79), whose thinking has been influential in shaping the minds of generations of Malaysian Islamists (Kamal Hassan 2003, 430–440), and the Egyptian Ikhwan al-Muslimun (MB, Muslim Brotherhood) ideologue Sayyid Qutb (1906–66), who was himself ideologically influenced by Maududi (Abdul Hadi 2005, 20–21; Wiktorowicz 2005, 78).

It has been noted, however, that in Maududi’s worldview secularism is understood as a “religionless” ideology or one embodying “irreligiousness” and is thus but another expression of infidelity (Arabic: kufr) (Adams 1983, 103, 113–114; Mazhari 2012, 66–67). This Maududi-cum-Qutb strand of Islamism, embracing a Manichean worldview between good (read: Islam) and evil (read: ignorance [jahiliyyah], aka non-Islam) and elevating sharia as part of belief (aqida), opened the door for takfir—the excommunication of unobservant Muslims (Mohamad Fauzi 2007, 58, 102–109, 132–133). Qutb-cum-Maududi’s Islamist formulations dominated the agendas of usra11) sessions—frequently more powerful in impact than classroom-based religious lessons, in schools, colleges, and universities. Left uncontrolled, such radical Islamism could provoke rebellion and instigate violence, as when a group of PAS villagers in Memali, Kedah, ideologically driven by Amanat Haji Hadi, were involved in a bloody showdown with security forces in November 1985, resulting in 18 deaths (Ahmad Fauzi 2007b, 10–16).

Apart from the Qutb-cum-Maududi framework, another underlying influence behind the Amanat’s takfiri disposition came from the writings of Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz (1910–99), who became mufti of Saudi Arabia in 1993–99 (Abdul Rahman 1998, 363). It was at the hands of the growing numbers of Saudi alumni in Malaysia that Malaysian Islam became gradually Salafized, referring to the exclusivist trend closely connected to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi12) school, which seeks to emulate the pious salaf generations who lived within 300 years of the Prophet Muhammad’s demise. Powered by Saudi petro-dollars, the impact of Salafization has been deadly to the type of tolerant Islamic discourse that was once the distinctive feature of Malaysian Islam. The tenors of both interreligious and intra-Islamic relations have been marred as Salafi-centric ulama increasingly influenced policy making by penetrating UMNO and Malaysia’s Islamic bureaucracy (Mohamed Nawab 2014). At the grassroots level, Salafi discourse in contemporary Malaysia is propped up by such nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as the Ibn Qayyim Institute (IQ Malaysia n.d.), the Association of Malaysian Scholars (ILMU, Pertubuhan Ilmuan Malaysia) (ILMU n.d.), Al-Khaadem Association (Pertubuhan Al-Khaadem n.d.), and Al-Nida’ Welfare Organization (Pertubuhan Kebajikan Al-Nidaa’ Malaysia n.d.), and championed by such figures as the two-term Perlis mufti Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, prominent missionary of Chinese descent Hussain Yee, and UMNO Youth executive committee member Dr. Fathul Bahri Mat Jahaya (Ahmad Fauzi 2016b). Mohd Asri, Hussain and Fathul Bari effectively helm the Ibn Qayyim Institute, Al-Khaadem Association, and ILMU respectively.

While Qutb’s and Maududi’s visions dominated the mindsets of Malaysia’s mainstream Islamists in the 1970s–1980s, such as the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM, Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia), which Anwar Ibrahim led from 1974 to 1982 (Abdul Rahman 1998, 389), their radical perspectives were balanced by an eclectic reading of thoughts of other scholars such as Syed Naquib Al-Attas (b. 1931) and Ismail Raji Al-Faruqi (1921–86), both of whom laid rival claims as pioneers of the “Islamization of knowledge” project (Wan Mohd Nor 2005, 332–338). Both Al-Attas and Al-Faruqi towered above others as intellectual mentors who shaped Anwar Ibrahim’s Islamist outlook (Esposito and Voll 2001, 181; Allers 2013, 46–48), but it was the latter who purportedly convinced Anwar to join UMNO and Dr. Mahathir’s government in 1982 in a strategy to Islamize the state from within (Badlihisham 2009, 50).

In their examination of Al-Attas’s and Al-Faruqi’s rival schemes, Rosnani Hashim and Imron Rossidy (2000, 37) conclude that both are guilty of overgeneralizing “the West as though composing of a particular school of thought, in particular the logical positivist.” While still bearing exclusive connotations, Al-Attas’s paradigm vis-à-vis Al-Faruqi’s is philosophically “more elaborate and convincing” and his definition of Islamization of knowledge “more coherent and more rooted in the theory of Islamization in general”—not least due also to his methodological incorporation of the Islamic mystical tradition or Sufism (Arabic: tasawwuf). By contrast, Al-Faruqi and Maududi display antipathy toward such spirituality (Rosnani and Imron 2000, 33, 35–36). However, in practice, the educational principles of Al-Faruqi and Maududi rather than Al-Attas prevailed among Malaysian policy makers in the form of the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), founded in 1983 as a model Islamic university that promotes integrative knowledge interrogated through the prisms of Islamic values and epistemology (Moten 2006, 190–191). Al-Faruqi enjoyed close relations with both Anwar Ibrahim and Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, during whose premiership Malaysia co-opted Islamization as part of its national zeitgeist (Milne and Mauzy 1983; Allers 2013, 72; Schottmann 2013, 61).

As for Al-Attas, whose work Islam and Secularism—originally published in 1978 by ABIM—has reached iconic status in the worldview of Malaysia’s Islamist activists (Norshahril 2012, 109–110), he was given carte blanche in 1987 to develop his brainchild, the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), a research centre for excellence affiliated to IIUM. Such cordial relations with the government made him vulnerable to criticism of being an apologist for state-centric Islamism (Farish 2009, 215–216). Despite hardly making any direct reference to the concept of an Islamic state, Al-Attas’s epistemological deconstruction of such concepts as secularism and secularization has been cited time and again by Islamists as the intellectual justification for the erection of an Islamic moral and political order uniquely derived from Islamic, as opposed to secular, origins (Azhar 2016). Al-Attas’s discourse became a tool to legitimize the Islamist initiatives of the Malaysian state under Dr. Mahathir’s premiership (1981–2003), particularly during the years of Anwar Ibrahim as minister of education (1987–91) and deputy prime minister (1994–98). Decrying the misappropriation of his attacks on secularism and secularization for political purposes rather than as the philosophical program Islamization of knowledge was intended to be, Al-Attas (1993, xv) later admitted that Islam recognized no dichotomy between the sacred and profane and that an Islamic state could be neither wholly theocratic nor fully secular. Al-Attas’s version of Islamism was an attractive alternative to Maududi-Qutb’s scheme, which many Islamists had come to recognize as being way too radical for Malaysian Islam (Abdul Rahman 1998, 365), but it did not survive Anwar Ibrahim’s ejection from the ruling circle. In 2002 ISTAC’s autonomy within the IIUM structure was revoked and Al-Attas’s contract as ISTAC director was terminated, and in 2015 ISTAC effectively closed down following the absorption of all its programs by IIUM’s Faculty of Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences (Dalia 2016; IIUM n.d.a). Its replacement, the Ibnu Khaldun International Institute of Advanced Research, no longer adheres to Al-Attas’s lofty Islamist vision of producing a “good man” rather than merely a “good citizen” (Al-Attas 1984, 79–80; IIUM n.d.b).

At the other end of the political spectrum, in line with its post-2008 Malay outreach strategy, DAP revamped its political stance by dispensing with democratic socialism in favor of a more religion-friendly social democracy, and adopting a centrist “Middle Malaysia” posture that no longer questioned the constitutional positions of the Malays, Islam, and the national language (Lim 2010; Wan Hamidi 2011). While DAP remains vehemently opposed to an Islamic state as conventionally understood by Islamists (Lim 2002), it insists that it is far from being anti-Islam. The secular democratic governance that it espouses, long-time party supremo Lim Kit Siang explains, contrasts with typical notions of “secular”; it “is not atheist, anti-Islam, or anti-religion but trans-religion . . . a system of governance which upholds the spiritual and ethical values which are common to Islam and other great religions” (Lim 2001, 54, 73). Such a polity, claims Lim, would in fact be “morality-based and pro-Islam, pro-Christianity, pro-Buddhism, pro-Hinduism and pro-Sikhism in defending and enhancing the multi-religious characteristics and diversity of the Malaysian nation” (Lim 2012). While secularism à la DAP does not imply the relegation of religion to the private realm, it advocates state neutrality toward all religions—a notion that would incite protests from PAS, UMNO, and state-connected Islamists who demand that Islam be given a preferential position over other religions.

Importantly for the Malaysian context, DAP launched its own non-communalist vision of an Islamic polity by discursively engaging progressive Islamic intellectuals through the Penang Institute, a think tank of the Penang state government that DAP has controlled since March 2008 (Mustafa Kamal 2017). Although falling short of endorsing an Islamic state per se, DAP advances the idea of an Islam that is friendly to good governance, democracy, liberalism, and human rights, thus contesting the official state-sponsored discourse on Islam that often conflates Islamic sovereignty with Malay ethno-nationalist supremacy. As for its stance regarding hudud, DAP believes that its application in a modern context would be meaningless if higher objectives of the sharia (maqasid syariah)13) are not fulfilled (Zairil 2016). This position is in sync with the stance taken by Ismail Raji Al-Faruqi and Abdullah Badawi through his Islam Hadhari scheme (Ahmad Fauzi 2009, 178–179; 2016a, 36). In fact, DAP surmises that terms such as “secularism” and “liberalism,” unilaterally tagged to UMNO’s political rivals, have been deliberately made punching bags by ruling elites in a bid to frighten Malay Muslims from voting for opposition parties, for fear of getting entangled with “anti-Islamic” forces (Zairil 2014).

Interestingly, in adopting a maqasid-based approach to sharia, DAP has gravitated closer toward recent positions adopted by ABIM, AMANAH, and another professional-based Islamist movement, Pertubuhan IKRAM Malaysia—de facto successor of the Society for Islamic Reform (Jamaah Islah Malaysia), which effectively served as the channel through which student activists of the British-based Islamic Representative Council continued their Islamist struggle upon graduating and returning to Malaysia (Maszlee 2014; 2017). In line with the thought of veteran Tunisian thinker Rashid Ghannouchi, who recently announced his departure from Islamism and embrace of Muslim democracy (Ghannouchi 2016), a maqasid-oriented approach to upholding the sharia prioritizes such concepts as human dignity (karamah insaniyah), freedom (al-hurriyah), justice (al-‘adalah), good governance, democracy, and plural coexistence with non-Muslims within a citizenship (muwatanah) framework that recognizes equality (al-musawah). These ideas behind civil nationhood are regarded by second-generation Islamists to be as important as were the notions of hudud and the juridical Islamic state among first-generation Islamists (Rane 2011). PAS seems to be stuck with first-generation Islamism.

In the civil society realm, Muslim endorsement of the secular state has been forthcoming from the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), launched in December 2009 and led by the surgeon Ahmad Farouk Musa (Ahmad Fauzi and Che Hamdan 2016, 10). Together with the Muslim women’s rights group Sisters in Islam, IRF has become the standard-bearer of liberal Islam in contemporary Malaysia, much to the consternation of mainstream Islamists, both pro-state and anti-state, who see them as acting in complicity with enemies of Islam (Melati 2017). IRF cooperates closely with the Group of 25 (G25), a loose grouping of former high-ranking civil servants who were catapulted into the limelight by their public letter expressing concern over the encroachment of the sharia into areas where the Federal Constitution is supposed to hold supreme, such as inviolable fundamental liberties (Star Online 2014). Both IRF and G25 have been accused by the Department of the Advancement of Islam of Malaysia (JAKIM, Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia) of importing undesirable preachers whose liberal ideas are a threat to Malaysian Islam as rooted in orthodox Sunni traditionalism (Aina 2017). Both have had their recent publications banned (Amar Shah 2017; FMT Reporters 2017), which is not surprising in view of their open promotion of a neo-rationalist theology that questions the credibility of the whole Malay-Muslim religious worldview (Liber TV 2017). But both also cultivate a cordial understanding with Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, whom they regard as a progressive rather than conservative Salafi scholar (Oorjitham 2017). This has brought them at odds with traditionalist scholars, most of whom control Malaysia’s state-level Islamic bureaucracies except in Perlis, the Federal Territory, and Terengganu. Many of these traditionalists have organic linkages with resurgent conservative groups determined to defend a culturally conditioned Malay-Islamic kerajaan led by the various Sultans as heads of the Islamic religion. Among these new organizations are the Malaysian Association of Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah (ASWAJA, Pertubuhan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah Malaysia), led by Home Ministry official Dr. Zamihan Zin Al-Ghari; and the Association of Authoritative Sufi Orders of Malaysia (PERTAMA, Pertubuhan Tarekat Muktabar Malaysia), led by ex-civil servant As’ari Haji Ibrahim (Pertubuhan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah Malaysia n.d.; Pertubuhan Tarekat Muktabar Malaysia n.d.). Both ASWAJA and PERTAMA, with overlapping memberships,14) have come out strongly against what they see as an ongoing Salafi-cum-liberal onslaught against the fundamentals of Malaysian Islam (Anne 2016; Muhammad Saufi 2017).

Notwithstanding the existence of divergent and sometimes conflicting Islamist tendencies, it is fair to say that in the era of Najib as prime minister, conservative Wahhabi-Salafism has prevailed over other Islamist trends as the main plank of Malaysia’s Islamic policies (Ahmad Fauzi and Che Hamdan 2015, 312–321). Malaysia’s mainstreaming of Wahhabi-Salafism has effectively overtaken Malaysia’s wasatiyyah (moderation) agenda, even as Najib continues to tout Malaysia’s credentials as a moderate Muslim nation-state that reputedly renounces all forms and manifestations of extremism, as showcased, for example, in its patronage of the Kuala Lumpur-based Global Movement of Moderates (El-Muhammady 2015). Despite the existence of a national fatwa pronouncing Wahhabism as unsuitable for Malaysian society (Malay Mail Online 2015), the deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki (2016), defended Wahhabism in parliament as being part of mainstream Sunni Islam. Meanwhile, Najib himself launched a blistering attack on the ideologies of “human rights-ism,” “liberalism,” “secularism,” “humanism,” and “pluralism” as growing threats to Islam (Ahmad Fauzi 2016a, 31).

Najib’s administration fails to recognize that moderation and pluralism go hand in hand, and that tolerance of both interreligious and intra-religious differences—something alien to pretenders of Salafism, and its violence-legitimating Wahhabi version in particular (El Fadl 2005, 45–47, 51–53, 139–140, 199)—contributed to the flourishing of Islamic civilizations of the past. On the ground, the debilitating impact of Wahhabi-Salafi-driven Islamism shows in the steady decline of interfaith initiatives (Osman 2009, 69; Rahimin Affandi et al. 2011, 95–97). The lukewarm response of Malay Muslims toward calls for more social engagement with non-Muslims stems from a state-orchestrated discouragement of non-Muslims from participating in public discussion of Islam, further reinforcing the exclusionary character of the Islamist narrative (Hunt 2009, 588).

As Islamism spills over into Salafi-jihadism—a doctrine that traces its origins to Sayyid Qutb’s revolutionary thoughts that many Malay Muslims grew up admiring—since mid-2014 Malaysians have been jolted by the shocking news that once-“gentle” Malay Muslims are today joining terrorist groups, carrying out suicide attacks, and killing alleged apostates in the most gruesome manner (Tan 2014; El-Muhammady 2016; Utusan Malaysia 2016). These jihadists pose a threat via the “blowback effect” if they return to Malaysia and continue their violent ways closer to home. According to Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division Chief Ayob Khan, at the turn of 2017, 264 militants had been jailed for crimes connected to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the Daesh terrorist group, with a further 60 remaining in Iraq and Syria. The numbers of ISIS recruits from Malaysia, however, show an upward trend, with no ready solution in sight as religious authorities, private and public institutions of higher learning, NGOs, and government departments continue to patronize preachers with clear Wahhabi-Salafi sympathies (Farik 2017; Muzliza 2017).


Many developing Muslim countries look up to Malaysia as a model of a modern nation-state that has successfully synthesized Islam and modernity. In contrast with many post-World War II Arab governments that marginalized religion in policy making (Sharabi 1965), Malaysia accommodated it. Indeed, barring hiccups such as some racialist aspects of its nation building (Muhammad Haniff 2007), Malaysia has generally been presented as an exemplary success story of a rapidly developing Muslim-majority nation-state (Siddiqi 1995, 20–21, 24). Such claims are backed up by statistical figures. In the Islamicity indices developed by Hossein Askari and Scheherazade Rehman of George Washington University, for instance, Malaysia emerges top among Muslim-majority countries in internalizing Quranic values in spheres of real lives such as economic achievement, social progress, human rights, governance, and justice (Rehman and Askari 2010; McElroy 2014). The historian Cheah Boon Kheng (2003, 406) concedes that, despite its rather ethnically skewed approach toward preferential policies, “Malaysia is a striking example of a fairly successful dominant-ethnic model of nation-building.”

With increasing numbers of Malay Muslims gravitating toward exclusivist interpretations of Islam, leading to rising intolerance amidst the widespread belief that an Islamic state is a necessary condition for the comprehensive realization of the ideals of Islam, the rosy picture above is in serious danger of being overwhelmed by Islamist-driven imperatives, which should be differentiated from what has been traditionally understood as Islamic in the orthodox manner. Being constantly embattled by its slender majority, Najib’s government appears to have struck a bargain with Wahhabi-Salafi elements; this not only confers it Islamist legitimacy but also reifies Islam in a more rigid direction. For some time, the government has placed special importance on Malaysia’s bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, from whom Malaysia gets generous pilgrimage quotas and an array of other pecuniary benefits. This makes it unlikely that Wahhabi-Salafism will be banned despite increasing evidence of its association with terrorism (Husain 2014; Asmady 2015, 187, 192–195, 207–208). Of all people, Prime Minister Najib himself has made global headlines by willingly becoming a recipient of Saudi Arabia’s largesse (Coughlin 2016). Ironically, Malaysia even seeks to emulate Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization program of ISIS-related detainees (Bernama 2016), when it is clear that the Saudi state and ISIS share the same Wahhabi-Salafi ideology (Crooke 2015).

At the present juncture, Malaysia’s much-cherished multiculturalism and pluralism are gradually becoming inevitable victims of the country’s transformation from a rainbow nation to a Wahhabi-Salafi-driven polity that bases a significant degree of its policy making on the political ideology of Islamism rather than on Islam as a religious faith in all its manifestations. In the emerging Islamist body politic, the voices of non-Muslims and unorthodox Muslims are being systematically marginalized. The current phase of Islamization ostensibly still professes fealty to Islam, when it is really Islamism or Wahhabi-Salafi-driven political Islam that is being upheld, to which a little addition of jihadism could dangerously pave the way toward violent extremism. The whole scenario is not helped by the essentialization of contemporary Islamic discourse in a strongly politico-legal direction, thus consigning philosophical and spiritual aspects of Islam to the periphery of the Malay-Muslim religious worldview. Islam is defined, interrogated, and essentialized through thoroughly institutional lenses, invariably taking on a politico-legal color. Religion is internalized more as a series of physical injunctions and prohibitions, with the emphasis placed mostly on Islam’s legalistic rather than civilizational aspects. This is proven by ISTAC’s forcible closure in 2015, the increasingly peripheral positions occupied by Sufism and philosophy as tertiary-level academic disciplines in Malaysia (Che Zarrina 2007; Wan Suhaimi 2007), and the banning of neo-traditionalist groups such as Darul Arqam that seek to uphold a progressive and pluralist albeit Sufi-centric vision of an Islamic society (Ahmad Fauzi 2005; 2013).

Accepted: June 29, 2018


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1) On September 16, 1963, the nation-state of Malaysia was founded out of the merger between Malaya, known today as Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak—two states on Borneo island—and Singapore, forming a single federation. In August 1965, Singapore left the federation to establish an independent country of its own.

2) While it has been axiomatic to speak of Malaysia’s population in terms of the “Malay-Chinese-Indian” ethnic divisions, groups like the Eurasians and various Orang Asli (lit.: Original People) tribes have long been part of the country’s diverse racial makeup, predating independence in 1957. Upon the formation of Malaysia in September 1963, the Bumiputera (lit.: sons of the soil) category was created, subsuming the Malays, all of whom are legally Muslims; the Orang Asli, indigenous groups of Sabah and Sarawak—both Muslim and non-Muslim; and other non-Malay ethnic groups considered native to Malaysia, such as the Siamese of northern Peninsular Malaysia and the Portuguese of Malacca.

3) In the case of states without hereditary Sultans—Malacca, Penang, Sabah, Sarawak, and the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Labuan—the role of the head of the Islamic religion was assumed by the Yang diPertuan Agong, the constitutionally appointed monarch whose position is rotated every five years among the nine rulers.

4) Hudud punishments are criminal penalties instituted by the Quran and Sunna (exemplary traditions of Prophet Muhammad) after lawful conviction in a court of law, such as amputation of the hand for thieves, flogging of 80 lashes for consuming intoxicating liquor, flogging for libel, stoning to death for adultery, and flogging of 100 lashes for fornication.

5) A mufti is a religious scholar authorized by a government to issue fatwa—an authoritative legal opinion that provides guidance for Muslims. In Malaysia, however, a fatwa is more than just an opinion; it is binding upon Muslims of a particular state after being passed and gazetted by the state legislative assembly. Noncompliance with a fatwa is criminalized, leading to the possibility of being charged and convicted in a sharia court.

6) A kadi or qadi is a religious scholar qualified to be a judge or jurist or magistrate and based in sharia courts or religious offices that perform extrajudicial functions.

7) By 2001 Anwar Ibrahim was languishing in jail after having been found guilty of corruption and sodomy in 1999. In 2003 KEADILAN merged with the socialist-oriented People’s Party of Malaysia (PRM, Parti Rakyat Malaysia) to form the People’s Justice Party (PKR, Parti Keadilan Rakyat) led by Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, as president.

8) Since 1974 Malaysia’s federal government has been helmed by BN, a multiethnic coalition of 13 component parties whose precursor, the Alliance (Perikatan)—made up of UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC)—ruled the country from 1957 until the suspension of parliamentary democracy following racial riots in May 1969. Two former opposition parties, GERAKAN and PAS, which had defeated Perikatan in the states of Penang and Kelantan respectively in the 1969 general elections, were part of the original BN setup, but while GERAKAN remains in BN until today, PAS was expelled in 1977. In the wake of Anwar Ibrahim’s expulsion from UMNO and the government in 1998, BN was challenged in the 1999 general election by the Alternative Front (BA, Barisan Alternatif), comprising KEADILAN, DAP, PAS, and PRM. BA, however, lasted only until 2001. In 2008, immediately following the opposition parties’ success in denying BN a two-thirds parliamentary majority and wresting the state governments of four other states besides Kelantan, which had been under PAS’s control since 1990, the People’s Pact (PR, Pakatan Rakyat) was formed to unite DAP, PKR, and PAS. PR broke up in 2015 due to an internal rupture in PAS, whose progressive faction then founded the National Trust Party (AMANAH, Parti Amanah Negara), which continues to cooperate with DAP and PKR in a newly constituted coalition called the Pact of Hope (PH, Pakatan Harapan). Of the three opposition-ruled states in Malaysia today, Kelantan has been a solitary PAS administration since 2015, while Penang and Selangor are officially PH- and previously PR-led governments marshalled by DAP and PKR respectively.

9) “Islamist” is used here to refer to the political ideology of Islamism rather than to Islam per se as a religious faith. On Islamism, see the next paragraph.

10) Guided by 10 universal precepts, Islam Hadhari calls for values and principles of a state to be compatible with Islam, without necessarily forging a state that incorporates the Islamic legal framework, understood as being constantly prone to change and not fixed. In practice, Islam Hadhari necessitates a reappraisal of past judgments based on independent reasoning (ijtihads) so as to make them relevant to contemporary developments; see Ahmad Fauzi (2009, 178–179) and Ahmad Fauzi and Muhamad Takiyuddin (2014, 162–163).

11) Literally meaning “family” in Arabic, usra refers to MB-inherited cell-like groups to discuss ways and means of practicing Islam as a way of life, often conducted outside of official working hours. For details, see Nabisah et al. (2015).

12) Referring to the puritanical stream pioneered by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92) of Nejd in the Arabian Peninsula.

13) According to the medieval scholar Al-Ghazali (1058–1111), whose thought has been influential on Malaysian Islam, maqasid syariah, at its barest minimum, entails the protection of one’s faith (Arabic: din), life (Arabic: nafs), intellect (Arabic: aql), family (Arabic: nasl), and wealth (Arabic: mal); see Hasan (2015, 60–62).

14) For example, Zamihan Mat Zin also serves as a member of PERTAMA’s central executive committee; see Persatuan Tarekat Muktabar Malaysia (n.d.).


Vol. 4, No. 2, Feener

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

ʿAbd al-Samad in Arabia: The Yemeni Years of a Shaykh from Sumatra

R. Michael Feener*

* Department of History, National University of Singapore, 21 Lower Kent Ridge Road, Singapore 119077

e-mail: hisfm[at]

This paper provides an in-depth exploration of a previously under-utilized Arabic source for the history of Islam in Southeast Asia. This text, Al-Nafas al-Yamani was compiled in the Yemen by ʿAbd al-Rahman b. Sulayman al-Ahdal (d. 1250 H./1835 C.E.), and includes a biographical sketch of the Sumatran scholar ʿAbd al-Samad b. ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Jawi al-Palimbani. Through a close, annotated reading of that text this article develops new insights into the configuration of people and ideas populating specific nodes of trans-regional networks in Sumatra and Arabia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At the same time, it also brings to light important dimensions of Sufi belief and ritual practice during this important transitional period of Islamic history in Southeast Asia. This material is then further explored through a discussion of some ways in which documents of this type might be approached by historians working on the intellectual and cultural history of early modern Southeast Asia more broadly.

Keywords: Islam, Indonesia, Sumatra, Arabia, Sufism, history

This article aims to contribute to our understanding of the history of Islam in pre-modern Southeast Asia through the critical examination of previously under-utilized source material.1) In particular, it presents a translation and close examination of an excerpt from a work written in the tradition of Arabic “biographical dictionaries” (tabaqat) that may serve to supplement the source bases traditionally consulted for the history of Islam in Southeast Asia and its “inter-Asia connections” in the eighteenth century.2) The discussion begins with the contexts in which the Sufi scholar discussed in the text was born, focusing on the Sumatran city of Palembang and the Arab diaspora in the Indonesian Archipelago. I will then introduce the main character of our story, ʿAbd al-Samad al-Jawi “al-Palimbani,” with a focus on his scholarly pedigree, and the place of his work in the reconfiguration of Sufi thought and practice in Southeast Asia. From there the focus shifts to the site where his Arabic biography was composed, the “scholars’ city” of Zabid in the Yemen—and thence to a close reading of the text that reveals ʿAbd al-Samad’s position in contemporary debates on Sufi thought and practice that established his place in the global scholarly networks that came together in Arabia during his lifetime.

The article concludes with reflections on how documents like this tabaqat text might be approached by historians working on intellectual and cultural histories of early modern Southeast Asia. There attention turns to frameworks for the interpretation of such biographical texts of individual scholars, and how they might be read in relation to the magisterial macro-histories of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean world produced by scholars like K. N. Chaudhuri (1990), Anthony Reid (1993; 1988), and Denys Lombard (1990). These works have helped us immensely in identifying some of the most significant broad historical patterns across the region during the early modern period. Moving back and forth between such “oceanic” perspectives and the individual focus presented by documents like this Arabic biographical text can, I argue, help us to better appreciate the specific character of inter-personal network linkages crucial to developing more nuanced understandings of the intellectual and cultural history of early modern Southeast Asia. For that, however, a brief introduction to this genre of Arabic biographical texts is first necessary.

Arabic Biographical Dictionaries (Tabaqat)

Tabaqat are collections of individual biographical entries in a more or less standardized format, and arranged in one of a number of ways, including alphabetically, by generation, or chronologically by one’s year of death. Such works have long served historians of Muslim societies, particularly those focusing their work on the Arabicized “Central Lands” of Islam, as primary sources for intellectual and social history.3) Some scholars, though far fewer in number, have also turned to such texts as sources for the history of Islam in Southeast Asia.4) This paper presents a close reading of one such text with an eye to highlighting ways in which readings of works of this type may be integrated into discussions of various aspects of the history of early modern Southeast Asia. In doing this, however, I am not claiming that studies of such materials will completely solve the problem of sources facing historians working in this field. Rather I would like to more modestly suggest that their careful use may help us in glimpsing aspects of certain developments that feature less prominently, if at all, in contemporary documents in European and Southeast Asian languages from the early-modern period.5)

The text upon which I will focus here is entitled, Al-Nafas al-Yamani (al-Rahman 1979), has yet to receive such treatment.6) It was compiled by ʿAbd al-Rahman b. Sulayman al-Ahdal (d. 1250 H./1835 C.E.),7) a scholar who descended from a long line of South Arabian sayyids distinguished for their religious learning (Löfgren 1960 I, 255–256).8) While active mainly in the Tihama and the Hijaz, the al-Ahdal family were linked through scholarly circles in Arabia to extensive networks of scholars from all around the Indian Ocean world and beyond. The author of our text, ʿAbd al-Rahman b. Sulayman al-Ahdal, in particular is reported to have both received ijazas from, and issued the same to, scholars “from every corner of the Muslim world” (Haykel 2014). These connections are clearly reflected in the biographies of ʿAbd al-Samad “al-Jawi” (and others) discussed in our text. Since the fifteenth century, scholars of the Ahdal family produced works across a broad range of the Islamic religious sciences, with many of them devoting considerable attention to Sufism. Some of the most illustrious scholars of their line, however, also composed important works of history and biography (Voll 2014).

ʿAbd al-Rahman b. Sulayman al-Ahdal’s biographical dictionary contains entries on dozens of the most prominent figures in the Muslim scholarly networks of the eighteenth-century Yemen, and is thus a source with great potential value for research into this period of Southeast Asian Islamic history. The importance of al-Ahdal’s Nafas al-Yamani for the study of the world of Islamic scholarship during this dynamic period has been demonstrated by Stefan Reichmuth (1999) in his study of the great South Asian hadith transmitter and lexicographer, Murtada al-Zabidi (d. 1791). This paper will focus on this biographical dictionary’s entry on a figure more generally known through Malay-language sources: Shaykh ʿAbd al-Samad b. ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Jawi, often referred to in Southeast Asia as “al-Palimbani.”

Arabs and the Malay-Muslim World of Palembang

ʿAbd al-Samad hailed from Palembang, South Sumatra in the early eighteenth century and it is from this place he takes the name (nisba) by which he is most commonly referred to in Malay sources, al-Palimbani.9) However his Arabic biography neither supplies this name associating ʿAbd al-Samad with Palembang nor gives any information about his early years spent in Southeast Asia. Instead he is referred to by the Arabic nisba “al-Jawi”—signaling an association with the broader region of the Indonesian Archipelago.10) This Arabic source thus presents us with some new perspective on the life of this important figure that compliments the information known to us through sources in Malay and European languages.

Much has been written toward a biography of ʿAbd al-Samad, despite the fact that few contemporary sources have been available to reconstruct aspects of his life beyond his own surviving writings.11) ʿAbd al-Samad is known to be the author of a number of works in both Malay and Arabic, including works in the Islamic religious sciences and an influential invocation to jihad.12) The bilingual body of work that he produced reflects the cultural milieu that characterized his South Sumatran birthplace, as well as the cosmopolitan world of Islamic religious scholarship that linked Southeast Asia to the broader Muslim world at that time.13)

In the eighteenth century, Palembang was home to a number of prominent Muslim scholars and authors of Malay literature.14) The emergence of Palembang as a center of Islamicate culture in the region was significantly linked to the growing Arab community there and its role in facilitating increased contact between Southeast Asia and the Middle East (Syamsu As 1996, 36–46). The increased Arab, and especially Hadrami, immigration during ʿAbd al-Samad’s day was stimulated in part by the patronage offered by the contemporary rulers of Palembang. Attracted by such measures, Arab scholars migrated to the banks of the Musi River where they came to take prominent places in the local economy and religious hierarchy (B. W. Andaya, 1993, 204–241).

Such developments, however, were not peculiar to Palembang during that period, as Arab immigrants and their descendants in other port cities and towns of the Indonesian Archipelago became increasingly active in not only in the literary and cultural life, but also in the politics of sultanates across the region during the eighteenth century (Ho 2002). This may be seen partially as a result of changes that accompanied the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) consolidation as a territorial power in the archipelago and their concomitant withdrawal as a hegemonic naval force in the region. A number of historians have noted that this had the result of temporarily recreating something of the “open and pluralistic” patterns of commerce and communication on the sea routes that had been characteristic of earlier periods (Chandler et al. 1987, 57).

These developments mark the acceleration and proliferation of processes that had been at work across the broader region for some time. In the eastern isles of the Indonesian Archipelago, for example, Arabs and their descendants born in ports ringing the Indian Ocean were ascending to prominent local ranks, as attested to by the late seventeenth-century tomb of Shaykh ʿUmar Ba Mahsun in the royal cemetery at Bima, on the eastern Indonesian island of Sumbawa (Noorduyn 1987, 85, 109). This is one of the earliest recorded examples of patterns of close association between Arab immigrants and local elites that was reproduced with variation across the region in the centuries that followed. In Aceh, for instance, the descendants of an embassy of Meccan sayyids established itself as a new dynasty that ruled there from 1699–1726 (Crecelius and Beardow 1979). Soon thereafter, in 1737, a Javanese royal embassy to Batavia returned to the court of Pakubuwana II, bringing with them an Arab shaykh named Sayyid ʿAlawi. This new arrival at the central Javanese capital quickly rose to prominence, being granted one of the Sultan’s concubines for a wife and charge over religious affairs for the realm (Ricklefs 1998, 198–199).15) As a result of such collaborations, cosmopolitan Muslim immigrants came to assume primary leadership roles in numerous communities stretching across the archipelago, including Siak and Pontianak in the eighteenth century (Andaya and Andaya 1982, 93; Heidhues 1998). While ʿAbd al-Samad’s hometown was not governed by an “Arab” dynasty per se, the Palembang elite too came to include a number of migrant Arabs during his day—one of whom is known to have married the sultan’s sister in 1745 (Azra 2004, 112). Later, as the British established themselves in Batavia during their Napoleonic-era interregnum, news of that major shift in the power dynamics of the Indonesian Archipelago were communicated to the sultan of Palembang via Arab emissaries.16) As the life and work of ʿAbd al-Samad further demonstrate, movement between and among the ports and polities of the Middle East and Southeast Asia was complex and multi-vectored during the long eighteenth century.

Teachers and Texts

With this context established we can take up with the account of ʿAbd al-Samad’s life contained in our Arabic biographical text. The entry opens by noting the date of his arrival at the Yemeni town of Zabid in 1206 H./1791 C.E. The author then goes on to praise this Sumatran sojourner as, “the very learned friend of God, the deeply understanding and pious notable of Islam, [a] productive ulama and [one of the] masters of knowledge of many fields.” These accolades were due in no small part to his prestigious scholarly pedigree, which established ʿAbd al-Samad firmly within the Muslim scholarly elite of his day. As our text tells us:

He studied under the scholars of his age, from among the people of the two noble sanctuaries such as the learned Shaykh Ibrahim al-Rais . . .17) Shaykh ʿAta al-Misri . . .18) Shaykh al-ʾAlama Muhammad Jawhari . . .19) and Shaykh Muhammad b. Sulayman al-Kurdi,20) among others.

At Zabid, ʿAbd al-Samad was fully integrated into the heart of a network of Arabophone Muslim scholars that extended across the entire range of the Indian Ocean littoral and beyond, from West Africa to China. This is a milieu in which the author of our text, al-Ahdal, was fully at home—working as he did in that cosmopolitan center of Islamic learning during what has been characterized as “a period of intense and international scholarly interaction among Sunnis” (Haykel 2014).

In addition to an extensive listing of the people he studied with during his time at Zabid, this biographical entry on ʿAbd al-Samad moves on to highlight some of the subjects and, importantly, even mentions some of the specific Islamic texts, that he studied with those teachers:

. . . he turned toward Sufism and directed most of his work toward studying and teaching al-Ghazali’s Ihya ʿulum al-din. He called on people to occupy themselves with this book, and thus increased its prestige and maximized its benefits. . . .

Our text then goes on to emphasize, through reference to classical Arabic poetry and pious anecdotes, the exceptional qualities of Ghazali’s (d. 1111) work and the benefits which its study brings to those who pursue it.

It is told that one of those who occupied themselves with this work read a book entitled, Tanbih al-Ihya . . . and turned towards studying it, but when he was just about to finish it, he lost his sight. He wept and supplicated God. . . . He then turned toward God, Great and Exalted, in repentance, and God restored the man’s sight. Shaykh Husayn b. Abd Allah al-Hadrami21) says, “the Ihya treats against the poisons of forgetfulness; it arouses the exoteric ulama and extends the knowledge of the firmly established scholars.”

Al-Ghazali’s Ihya occupied an increasingly prominent place in the scholarship of reform-minded Sufis during ʿAbd al-Samad’s day. A number of scholars have commented on a perceived shift in orientation in Indonesian Islam in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—one that included a renewed appreciation of al-Ghazali’s work. Such developments have parallels extending well beyond Southeast Asia, for as John Voll has noted a resurgence of interest in al-Ghazali’s work was one of the hallmarks of Sufi reform movements in Arabia, Africa, India, and elsewhere during the eighteenth century (Voll 1982, 36, 58, et passim).22) Debates over the terminology used to refer to reformist trends among Sufi scholars of the period aside, it is clear that across the Muslim world major shifts in Islamic thought were taking place.23)

These complex developments were, moreover, by no means limited to Sufism, but were integrally related to the reorientation of work in other fields ranging from jurisprudence and hadith scholarship to historiography and lexicography. ʿAbd al-Samad himself was to become a major figure in this project of reforming Sufism in Southeast Asia during this period, as is clear from his most popular surviving works in the form of Malay-language interpretations of and elaborations upon al-Ghazali’s writings.24) The influence of these texts on the subsequent development of the Malay kitab curriculum of Southeast Asian circles of Muslim learning can be traced through the works of major Malay authors such as ʿAbd al-Samad’s younger colleague Daud al-Patani, who hailed from what is today southern Thailand and flourished in the early nineteenth century.25) Al-Patani spent most of his scholarly career at Mecca, which has long been recognized as an important center for Southeast Asian Muslims studying in the Arabian peninsula. However for earlier generations of such itinerant Islamic scholars, other cities also held considerable appeal. Prominent among such regional centers of scholarship in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was Zabid, located in the Tihama west coastal plain of the Yemen.

Zabid: A Southern Arabian Center of Islamic Learning

Zabid was founded in 820 CE when, in response to several local revolts, the Abbasids appointed Muhammad b. ʿAbdullah b. Ziyad as governor of the Tihama. Soon, however, this appointed official took advantage of the distance from Baghdad to establish his own dynasty, which continued to rule the region for over two centuries with Zabid as the capital (Wilson 1985). The city remained the center of administration under the Ayyubids (1173–1229), who expended great energy in reconstructing its walls and building a number of mosques and madrasas. By 1391, a survey conducted under the auspices of the Rasulid Sultan al-Ashraf documented some 230 such institutions in Zabid (Hibshi 1977). Over the centuries that followed the city came to develop a far-flung reputation as an important center of Muslim learning.26) In the seventeenth century, for example, Zabid attracted Southeast Asian Sufi scholars including Yusuf al-Maqassari, who spent his first years in Arabia there (Azra 2004, 89–91). Zabid continued to attract students from throughout the Muslim world until the early nineteenth century, as evidenced by various entries contained Nafas al-Yamani. Modern scholarship on ʿAbd al-Samad’s life and work have tended to repeat very similar remarks on the importance of his studies at Medina, and the composition of his most important works at Mecca and Taʾif.27) The time that this scholar spent at Zabid, on the other hand, has been largely neglected in earlier studies—although as our text makes clear it proved a formative part of ʿAbd al-Samad’s Arabian experience.28)

Our text gives us a valuable description of the time that ʿAbd al-Samad spent in Zabid, as well as an intimate view into some of the ways in which particular inter-personal bonds were formed and remembered between individuals across the expansive scholarly networks of the eighteenth century. In reading this account, furthermore, one cannot escape an impression of the admiration that the author of this text—an Arab sayyid from the prominent Yemeni family of al-Ahdal—held for this Jawi shaykh from Palembang, as we read that:

When our scholar arrived at Zabid, he continued to increase his exhortations toward the study of Ghazali’s Ihya, and I read under him, thanks be to God, the first quarter of every chapter. I asked him for an ijaza (document of certification) for the study of this book, to relate that which is good in it and to benefit from its knowledge. He wrote for me in his own noble hand a very long ijaza, it being his way that if a student came to him asking detailed questions and he saw something good in the student, he would lengthen his praise of the student in the ijaza. He would also explain to the student about law and literature to increase his adherence to it, and the student would see clearly that which was presented to him. The Shaykh continued to explain for me the literature of legal decisions and the requirements of a mufti: it is not enough only to inquire [into the facts of a certain case] but if he has knowledge of the situation he must call attention to it in the writing of his decision. . . .

Here our text opens a window on to the micro-dynamics of the specific ways in which Sufism and the study of Islamic law were integrally related for many of his contemporaries in the networks. This aspect of eighteenth-century Muslim intellectual culture contributed to various movements for religious reform and continued to influence developments throughout the Muslim world for at least two centuries. Beyond this, our text also provides a glimpse of the personal touch that ʿAbd al-Samad had as an inspiring teacher, and how he was remembered by his former students.

The intimacy and generosity highlighted in al-Ahdal’s account here testify to the importance of personal relationships in the construction and maintenance of scholarly networks—something that, while rarely glimpsed in surviving sources, is crucial to appreciate in developing our understanding of the broader processes through which the Indonesian Archipelago came to be a significant part of the global umma (Johns 1978, 471). Such passages in this Arabic biography of ʿAbd al-Samad also convey a sense of the respect that this Sumatran shaykh commanded from his Arabian co-religionists. The text then can serve as a point of critical reflection upon abiding, un-critical assumptions about Islamic religious authority that tend to view the Middle East as a place where Muslims from many parts of Asia and Africa came to learn from “Arab” masters. The relative positions of this scholar hailing from Palembang and his Arabian sayyid disciple presented in our text thus point to a far greater range of possibilities in the kinds of relationship formed between natives of the holy land and migrants from Southeast Asia (and elsewhere) during the pre-modern period.

Sufi Practice and Scholarly Polemic

The next section of the Arabic biography of ʿAbd al-Samad moves on to provide a detailed treatment of his place within the Sufi circles of his day. These passages elaborate ʿAbd al-Samad’s credentials in renouncing the vanities of this world, as well as his generosity in the sharing of his knowledge:

Our shaykh did not see any value in this world, and his magnanimity and generosity are regarded as a wonder of wonders. He was asked by one of his best students for a book . . . and our shaykh went to his book cabinet and said, “Please take from it what you like,” and the student took from it a number of precious books of great price.

However most of the “Sufi” material of this biographical entry is concerned not with hagiographic portraiture of the shaykh’s spiritual virtues, but rather with technical discussions of aspects of devotional practice that were being energetically debated across the Indian Ocean networks of Muslim scholarship during his day:

ʿAbd al-Samad took the [Sufi] way of dhikr (ritual “remembrance of God”) from his shaykh, the great saint Muhammad b. Abd al-Karim al-Samman al-Madani.29) He stayed with Shaykh al-Samman for a considerable time and took from him his way, as he in turn took it from the famous Shaykh Mustafa al-Bakri.30) Al-Samman and al-Hifni31) both had the same shaykh and their way is to pronounce the dhikr aloud, the recitation coming together [to a crescendo at its conclusion].32)

Over the paragraphs that follow in the entry it becomes clear that practices such as jahr (the audible pronunciation of Sufi dhikr) were the subject of considerable controversy among the original audience of this text:

It is clear that this [vocalized dhikr] is not forbidden or discouraged, as its detractors would have it, for a group of scholars including al-Jalal al-Suyuti33) and the very learned al-Kitan34) have written on the evidence for the permissibility of reciting the dhikr aloud. Among those who have written extensively on this subject is Shaykh Mulla Ibrahim al-Kurani35) who has a great treatise36) on the evidence for vocalized recitation (jahr). . . .37)

 Shaykh Ibrahim continues on to say, and this is clearly indicated in the hadith of Abi Musa al-Ashari, in the two sound collections, and elsewhere in the texts of Bukhari on jihad: “Abu Musa said that we were with the Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him) and when we approached a valley we pronounced the tahlil and takbir, raising our voices, and the Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him) said, ‘Oh people, stay your voices’.
 . . . The Prophet exhorted gently to abandon this practice of extreme shouting, but not to abandon jahr altogether. And among the evidence for this is the meaning of jahr in the Holy Qurʾan, “And you (O reader!) bring your Lord to remembrance in your very soul, with humility and in reverence without loudness in words. . . .”38) Thus that which must be abandoned is the loud shouting and not jahr altogether. This verse and the sound hadith indicate the legality of jahr in the recitation of dhikr and its thorough recommendation.

In this discussion of jahr included within his tabaqat entry on ʿAbd al-Samad, al-Ahdal goes to considerable lengths to contextualize and re-interpret texts of Qurʾan and hadith that were frequently deployed by critics of vocalized dhikr in his own attempts to defend the legitimacy of the practice. The fact that so much attention is given to debates on the permissibility of the practice of jahr in this short biography of ʿAbd al-Samad indicates something of the importance of this issue to him and those, like our author al-Ahdal, who studied under him in the Muslim scholarly networks of the period. It also enables us to delineate some of the significant fault lines that created internal divisions even among scholars who moved and assembled along the same network pathways across the Muslim world at that time.39)

Nodes in the Scholarly Networks

After this rather lengthy digression on the technical aspects of ʿAbd al-Samad’s devotional practice, and some notes of praise for ʿAbd al-Samad’s teacher Muhammad al-Samman, our text draws to a close with his authority for these practices being linked back once again to the specific teachers he studied with in the networks:

. . . among his shaykhs is the above-mentioned Shaykh Muhammad b. ʿAbd al-Karim al-Samman, and Shaykh al-Kabir al-Mustafa Bakri, [and] a group of them, al-Shaykh Muhammad al-Daqaq and al-Sayyid Ali al-ʿAttar,40) living in Mecca with their scholarly lineages reaching back to Nakhli41) and Basri.42)

With this last list of scholars in ʿAbd al-Samad’s lineage, we are once again reminded that the networks of this Sumatran-born scholar in southern Arabia had connections that extended from the most distant corners of the Muslim world to the very center of Mecca itself. As Azyumardi Azra’s work has so clearly mapped, Arabia was a site of productive encounter between scholars from widely diverse ethnic and geographical origins who had become integrated into a shared culture of Islamic learning (Azra 2004, 8–31). The life and work of the scholar as presented by texts like the tabaqat entry discussed here presents us with a focused look at the construction of a particular node in the networks that shaped the development of Islam in Southeast Asia and beyond until the early twentieth century. It must also be noted, however, that these networks were reconfigured in significant ways over this period. Indeed, what might strike modern readers as the conspicuous absence of any mention of either “ethnicity” or geographic origin in this biography of ʿAbd al-Samad highlights the fact that such concerns were not at the forefront of how this individual was configured within the cosmopolitan scholarly networks of his day—and should also caution us against attempting to view that period through the lenses of our own contemporary conceptions of “identity.” The Arabia of ʿAbd al-Samad was rather different from that of the “Jawi” scholars who settled in Arabia in far greater numbers a century later, who as a group were both identified, and increasingly self-identified as sharing a common identity based on their origins.43)

In conclusion, I’d like to comment a little more broadly on the use of previously under-utilized Arabic biographical sources for the history of Islam in Southeast Asia. Such texts hold the potential to highlight aspects of various sociological “subsets” of total history—especially the intellectual, the cultural, and the religious—that might otherwise escape our attention. Through the sweeping, synthetic works of scholars like Chaudhuri, Reid, and Lombard we have come to recognize the development of some of the most significant broad historical patterns across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean world during the early modern period.

Gazing at these wide horizons from within the textual confines of our entry on ʿAbd al-Samad, we might now be able to more clearly discern in the particulars recorded in this text, reflections of these broader trends as they made themselves felt in the specific times and places that he lived. These would include, inter alia, the rise of Islamic renewal and reform currents and the growth of regional cities, like Zabid and Palembang, during his day. Carefully contextualized readings of biographical materials such as the text explored here thus might be pursued as a way in which to view some of these macro-structures of la longue durée in relation to the micro-mechanics of continuity and change in a mutually informative way.

In contextualizing our readings of specific accounts of written lives we must of course acknowledge that historical structures involve more than just the sum total of innumerable individual biographies. At the same time, we should distinguish our use of such biographical sources from that of Romantic historians—and their post-modern avatars—with their pervasive penchant for particularism. In our reading of these texts we are not primarily looking for either “guiding personalities,” or the atomistic amplification of isolated, internally-verified narratives. Rather, what I would like to suggest is an approach to biographical materials that traces the paths of unique human lives with an eye toward viewing the ways in which interaction with various areas of society’s “set of sets” (Braudel 1982, 458-599) is integrated within the experience of individuals. Dilthey might see such an approach as enabling us to “apprehend . . . an historical whole in contrast to the lifeless abstractions which are usually drawn from the archives” (Dilthey 1989, 85). I would simply suggest that biographical texts such as the one discussed here comprise a potentially valuable source of detailed information for illustrating broader themes set forth in more synthetic, structuralist works of historical scholarship.

Braudel once framed his critique of histoire événementielle in relation to an anecdote about observing fireflies in Brazil:

I remember a night near Bahia, when I was enveloped in a firework display of phosphorescent fireflies; their pale lights glowed, went out, shone again, all without piercing the night with any true illumination. So it is with events, beyond their glow, darkness prevails. (Braudel 1980, 10–11)

In my approach to this Arabic biography of ʿAbd al-Samad, however, I have been concerned not with the “flash” of one individual life as “event” in the darkness of the uncharted past, but rather reading it in the somewhat brighter shadows of larger, more enduring, historical structures. Working in this way, readings of texts like al-Ahdal’s tabaqat could be seen as a process of simultaneously trying out different lenses to help in refining our field of vision; with the hope that some of them might manage to catch and magnify some of the warmer light of such firefly flashes in a way that may just give us a better view of the broader structures of “Inter-Asia” Islamic connections.

Accepted: October 2, 2014


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1) I would like to thank Merle Ricklefs, and the anonymous reviewers of the journal for their constructive comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

2) My thinking in these terms has benefitted much from my ongoing collaboration with Prasenjit Duara and colleagues at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute in our reading group on the “Historical Sociology of Asian Connections.”

3) For more on this genre of literature, see Gibb (1962); Hafsi (1976; 1977); al-Qadi (1995).

4) The most notable work in this direction has been that of Johns (1978); Azra (2004). For work tracing even earlier connections between Southeast Asia and the Arabian peninsula through Arabic language sources, see Feener and Laffan (2005).

5) For an overview of this earlier history of Islam in Southeast Asia, see Feener (2010).

6) In the preface to this print edition, the full title is given as: al-Nafas al-Yamani waʾl-ruh al-rahayni fi ijazat al-qudat baniʾl-Shawkani. Serjeant (1950, 587) refers to this text under the title of, al-Nafas al-yamani fi ijazat baniʾl-Shawkani. See also O’Fahey (1994). The use of the word nafas in the title plays upon a well-established Sufi trope in the form of a tradition in which the Prophet is believed to speak of Uways al-Qarani with the words, “The Breath of the Merciful (nafas al-Rahman) comes to me from the Yemen.”

7) He studied at both Zabid and Medina under several prominent shaykhs, including Muhammad b. ʿAlaʾuddin al-Mizjaji, Muhammad Murtada al-Zabidi, and Muhammad b. ʿAli b. Muhammad al-Shawkani. He eventually went on to become mufti of Zabid in 1197 H./ 1783 C.E., and was host to the Maghribi saint Ahmad b. Idris during his visit to this city in 1243 H./1827-28 C.E. See al-Shawkani (n.d., 267–268); al-Sanaʿi (1929, 30–31); and Brockelmann (1937–42, 1311)

8) Their line is traced back to the sixth Shiʿite Imam Jaʿfar al-Sadiq through such well-known saints as the miracle-working Abuʾl-Hasan ʿAli b. ʿUmar b. Muhammad al-Ahdal, whose tomb to the north of Bayt al-Faqih in the Tihama remains a pilgrimage site to this day. See al-Zabidi (1986, 195–198). Another work on this prominent family of Sufis and scholars, entitled al-Nasiha al-ʿalawiyya liʾl-sada al-ahdaliyya, is attributed to Muhammad al-Samman (Hunwick and O’Fahey 1994). Muhammad al-Samman is one of the scholars listed in al-Ahdal’s work as being active in the same Arabian Sufi circles as ʿAbd al-Samad.

9) From internal evidence from his surviving works we know, for example, that ʿAbd al-Samad dated his work entitled Hidayat al-Salikin at Mecca in 1192 H./1778 C.E., and the Sayr al-Salikin at Taʾif in 1203 H./1789 C.E. These dates are taken from the colophons of the Dar Ihya al-Kitab al-Arabiyya Indunisiyya letter-press edition of the Sayr al-Salikin, 4 vols. (Jakarta: n.d.), and the lithograph edition of the Hidayat al-Salikin published in Indonesia by Sharika Maktaba al-Madiniyya, 1354 H./1935 C.E.

10) On the use of “Jawa” and “Jawi” to refer to the Indonesian Archipelago, its people, and its products, see Feener and Laffan (2005); Laffan (2009a; 2009b).

11) Beyond ʿAbd al-Samad’s own writings, another source base that has been used by some in attempts to reconstruct his biography comes from later Malay-language texts such as the Tarikh Salasilah Negeri Kedah (1968); See Abdullah (1980, 95–107). The validity of such texts as reliable sources of information is, however, subject to question in light of such claims as their account of his death as a centenarian martyr in a jihad against the Buddhist Siamese. While there is no other information suggesting that ʿAbd al-Samad ever returned from Arabia to Southeast Asia, some local Muslims find support for this claim in sites regarded as his burial place in both Palembang and Patani (Southern Thailand). See, for example: Accessed June 1, 2015.

12) This last text is entitled Nasihat al-muslimin wa-tadhkirat al-muʾminin fadaʾil al-jihad fi sabil Allāh, and is regarded as having inspired the prolific genre of prang sabi (“holy war”) texts in nineteenth century Aceh. For more on this, see Hadi (2011). Aside from his formal treatise on the subject of jihad, ʿAbd al-Samad also wrote letters from Arabia to rulers in Java encouraging them to take up arms against the expansion of Dutch colonial power in 1772. See Ricklefs (1974, 134; 150–155).

13) Synopses of his works in both languages can be found in Drewes (1977, 222–224). There and elsewhere Drewes (1976) included in that list the Tuhfat al-raghibin fi bayan haqiqat iman al-muʾminin wa ma yufsiduhu fi riddat al-murtadin. More recently, however, Noorhaidi Hasan (2007) has demonstrated that this work is more likely attributed to ʿAbd al-Samad’s younger contemporary, Muhammad Arshad al-Banjari.

14) For more on this environment and the writings that were produced in it, see Drewes (1977, 219–237).

15) Michael Laffan has recently reconstructed the subsequent course of Sayyid Alawi’s life after his rapid ascent in Javanese court circles, and through his transportation, detention, and later career among the expanding Muslim community of Cape Town, see Laffan (2013).

16) The royal receptions of Said Zain Bafakih, Said Bakar Rum, and Syarif Muhammad are recorded in a Palembang Malay manuscript edited by Woelder (1975, 88–89).

17) Abu al-Fawz Ibrahim b. Muhammad al-Raʾis al-Zamzami al-Makki (1110–94 H./1698–1780 C.E.), a teacher of Murtada al-Zabidi and a student of al-Basri and ʿAta al-Misri who took an ijaza in the Khalwatiyya from Mustafa al-Bakri (see below). This scholar also had a number of important connections with the al-Ahdal and Mizjaji families in the Yemen (Azra 2004, 114).

18) ʿAtaʾAllah b. Ahmad al-Azhari al-Misri al-Makki, the renowned muhaddith and teacher of Ibrahim al-Raʾis and Murtada al-Zabidi. He also may have had some connection with the leading family of the Egyptian Tasqiyaniyya al-Ahmadiyya order, who continued their dominance of the organization into this century. See de Jong (1978).

19) Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Jawhari al-Misri (1132–86 H./1720–72 C.E.), a well-known Egyptian traditionist with a highly-regarded isnad who strengthened his connections to our networks of scholars through his extended study and teaching visits to the Haramayn (Azra 2004, 115).

20) Muhammad b. Sulayman al-Kurdi (1125–94 H./1713–80 C.E.), a Sufi and legal scholar who was a student of al-Bakri, al-Nakhli, and al-Basri (see below).

21) The published edition of the Arabic text has a footnote here that reads: “He is Husayn b. ʿAbd Allah Ba Fadl (d. 979 H./1571–72 C.E.). Please see our book Masadir al-fikr al-Islami, 286.”

22) For more on the dynamics of debates on and within Sufism during this period, see collected essays in de Jong and Radtke (1999) by Esther Peskes, Bernd Radtke, Kamel Filali, R. Sean O’Fahey, Marc Gaborieau, Jonathan N. Lipman, and Azyumardi Azra.

23) For a brief overview of these recent debates within Islamic Studies, see Reichmuth (2002).

24) Entitled Hidayat al-Salikin and Sayr al-Salikin, these works are still printed in Jawi script and available in kitab shops in various parts of the Southeast Asia. Drewes (1977, 222–223) mentions other editions of these texts that were published at Mecca, Bombay, Cairo, and Singapore. The Hidayat al-Salikin has generally served as a beginner’s introduction to Sufism, drawing in part on Ghazali’s Bidayat al-Hidaya (and other works), and arranged broadly along the Bidayat’s organizational scheme. More advanced students then continue with the larger, four-volume Sayr al-Salikin on a path that should lead adepts eventually to al-Ghazali’s Ihya itself (Kushimoto 2014).

25) Daud b. ʿAbd Allah b. Idris al-Patani was one of the most prolific authors of such books, and among his works are Malay adaptations of al-Ghazali’s Mihaj al-Abidin. Biographical material on this important Malay kitab author can be found, van Bruinessen (1998, 19–20); L. Y. Andaya (2012, 235). For more on the production of Islamic scholarship in his milieu, see: Matheson and Hooker (1988); Hassan Madmarn (2002); and Bradley (2010).

26) Attested to not only in the medieval texts of local histories (e.g. al-Dayba 1983, 47), but also in local historical memory today by drivers on the Tihama road whom I have heard shouting: “Zabid, madinat al-ʿulamaʾ!” (“Zabid, City of the Scholars!”) upon approaching the (now nearly ruined) town.

27) A popular recent example of this is found in the section on ʿAbd al-Samad in Iskandar (1996, 441–443).

28) The major exception to this is Azyumardi Azra’s groundbreaking work (2004). Unfortunately, however, he was unable to consult the text of the Nafas al-Yamani in preparing that study.

29) Muhammad b. ʿAbd al-Karim al-Samman al-Hashimi al-Madani al-Khlawati al-Qadiri al-Shadhili al-Shafiʿi (d. 1190 H./1776 C.E.) was a student of al-Hifni and Mahmud al-Kurdi (d. 1780), khalifa of Mustafa Kamal al-din al-Bakri in the Khalwatiyya order. He was born and died at Medina, 1132–89 H./1719–75 C.E. The listing of his works in Brockelmann (1937–42, SII, 535, 629) has been revised in Drewes (1992). Muhammad al-Samman is of particular importance here as the order he established at Medina gained considerable popularity in Muslim Southeast Asia, due to a considerable extent to the work of his “Jawi” pupil ʿAbd al-Samad and his contemporary Palembang countrymen including Muhammad Muhyiddin b. Shaykh Shihabuddin. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the order had established itself in several centers in the region, including the Dutch capital of Batavia (Drewes 1977, 224–225). By the late nineteenth century Sammaniyya practices came under considerable critique from a number of prominent members of the Arab community in Southeast Asia, including Salim b. ʿAbd Allah b. Sumayr and Sayyid ʿUthman b. ʿAbd Allah b. ʿAqil b. Yahya (Drewes 1992, 83–84). For more on his al-Samman and his students from Southeast Asia, see Muthalib (2007). The Sammaniyya order was also widely propagated in Ethiopia and the Sudan. See O’Fahey (1994, 91).

30) Mustafa b. Kamal al-Din b. ʿAli al-Siddiqi al-Hanafi al-Khalwati Muhyi al-Din al-Bakri (d. 1162 H./1749 C.E.) was an eighteenth-century khalifa of the Qarabashi branch of the Khalwatiyya order. He also issued the ijazat khilafa of the Khalwatiyya order to the later Egyptian founder of the al-Afifiyya branch of the Shadhiliyya order (Elger 2014).

31) Najm ad-Din Muhammad b. Salim b. Ahmad al-Shafiʿi al-Misri al-Hifni al-Husayni (d. 1181 H./1767–68 C.E.) was an author of Shafiʾi legal and devotional works (Brockelmann 1937–42, SII, 445) who was the Shaykh al-Azhar and head of the Khalwaityya order in Egypt during his day. See Marsot (1972, 150). For more on the sub-order founded by him (al-Hifniyya): de Jong (1978, 114–116). The networks he was involved in extend even further, as his brother Yusuf al-Hifnawi was a colleague of Muhammad Murtada al-Zabidi and his students included Jabril b. Umar, the foremost teacher of Uthman dan Fodio (Voll 1982, 81).

32) The interpolated rendering of the last sentence is based upon the practice of a Sammaniyya dhikr session as I have observed it at a session led by a Sudani shaykh and his disciples in Sanaʿa during early August, 1997.

33) i.e. Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti(d. 911 H./1505 C.E.). This renowned Egyptian scholar was the author of several works which have long been popular in Muslim Southeast Asia and continue to be used there today. For more on al-Suyuti, see Sartain (1975). For the adaptation of one of his more well-known works in Southeast Asia, see Riddell (1990).

The published edition of the al-Ahdal’s Arabic text has a footnote here that reads, “His book is entitled, Natija al-fikr fi al-jahr biʾl-dhikr.”

34) The published edition of the Arabic text has a footnote here that reads, “Perhaps this is the Sufi Muhammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahid al-Kitani (d. 1289 H./1872–73 C.E.).”

35) Ibrahim b. al-Sharazuri al-Hasan Shahrani al-Madani al-Kurani (d. 1101 H./1690 C.E.), the Kurdish scholar and mystic who studied throughout the Muslim world before settling in Medina where he succeeded his famous teacher al-Qushashi upon the latter’s death in 1071 H./1661 C.E. (EI2, V: 432b, 525b). This particular scholar had a profound effect on the development of Islam in Southeast Asia during the seventeenth century via the mediation of his Sumatran colleague ʿAbd al-Raʾuf al-Singkli. See Johns (1978).

36) The published edition of al-Ahdal’s Arabic text has a footnote here that reads, “Entitled al-Jawabat al-Ghurawiyyat.”

37) Kurani’s position on vocal dhikr had also influenced earlier generations of Muslim scholars from Southeast Asia, including the seventeenth-century Acehnese shaykh ʿAbd al-Raʾuf Singkili (Le Gall 2005, 101–102).

38) Qurʾan (7, al-Aʿraf, 205).

39) Polemics over the legitimacy of vocalized, as opposed to silent dhikr, pursued by Sufis involved in the scholarly circles of eighteenth-century Yemen came to be part of significant social and political cleavages in several parts of the Muslim world, including China. For more on this see Lipman (1997, 85–93).

40) This reference may be to al-Sayyid Ali al-ʿAttar (d. 1250 H./1834 C.E. or 1254 H./1838 C.E.), an Egyptian writer to whom several works of history and grammar are attributed (Brockelmann 1937–42, SII, 720).

41) Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Nakhli (1044–1130 H./1634–1718 C.E.), a hadith scholar resident in Medina who was a student of the prominent Egyptian Shaykh Muhammad b. ʿAla al-din al-Babili (d. 1077 H./1666–67 C.E.). See Voll (1980, 266).

42) ʿAbd Allah b. Salim al-Basri (1040–1134 H./1640–1722 C.E.), an important hadith scholar whose students included Mustafa al-Bakri and the South Asian muhaddith Muhammad Hayya al-Sindi (d. 1750). See Voll (1975, 38).

43) For more on the “Jawah colony” of Southeast Asian Muslim students and teachers at Mecca, see: Hurgronje (1970); Laffan (2003).


Vol. 3, No. 3, Mujiburrahman

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3


Islamic Theological Texts and Contexts in Banjarese Society: An Overview of the Existing Studies*


* I would like to thank Martin van Bruinessen for his valuable comments on the earlier draft. I also thank Syuan-Yuan Chiou for sending me some materials for this article. The first draft of this article was presented at the Fourth al-Jami’ah International Conference, State Islamic University, Yogyakarta, 14-16 December 2012.

** State Institute of Islamic Studies, Antasari, Jl. Jend. A. Yani KM. 4, 5 Banjarmasin 70235 Kalimantan Selatan, Indonesia

e-mail: mujib71[at]

This article will describe and analyze the continuities and changes of Islam in Banjarese society, Indonesia, by looking at the existing studies of theological texts produced and transmitted by the Banjarese ulama since the eighteenth century up to the early twenty-first century. There is a scholarly controversy on the authorship of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, but there is strong evidence that it was written by Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari in the eighteenth century. In this theological text, the author proposes a wider view of Sunnism, and at the same time attacks some local religious rituals considered opposed to Islamic monotheism. From the eighteenth to nineteenth century, the theological texts were written in Jawi. By the twentieth century, the ulama had also produced theological texts in Indonesian language, but the use and production of Arabic and Jawi texts still continued. From the early twentieth century, the Sanusi’s conception of Sunni theology has become the dominant among the Banjarese. However, since the 1920s, this dominant theology has been challenged by Salafism introduced by the reformist Muslim group, the Muhammadiyah. By the 1990s, some of the ulama had proposed the theology of God’s Beautiful Names as an alternative to the Sanusi’s conception. All of these theological conceptions, however, seem to pay too little attention to the challenges of the increasing religious plurality of Banjarese society.

Keywords: Islam, theology, Banjarese, Indonesia

According to the statistics compiled for the year 2000 on ethnic identities, the Banjarese ranked 10th among the largest ethnic groups in Indonesia (Suryadinata et al. 2003, 31–68).1) Most Banjarese live in South Kalimantan, and many of them live in Central and East Kalimantan, as well as in Sumatra, especially in Bangka Belitung, Riau, Jambi, and North Sumatra.2) The Banjarese are generally identified as Muslims. Starting around the sixteenth century, the Banjarese Kingdom was converted to Islam by the Javanese Sultanate, Demak, as a compensation for the latter’s military aid.3) The process of Islamization apparently became more intense by the eighteenth century after the return of Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari from his study in the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. During the Banjar war (1859–1905), and the revolutionary war in the first half of the twentieth century, the Islamic leaders and organizations also played an important role. Presently, Muslims constitute 97.3% in South Kalimantan.

Islamization is a continuing process, and probably would never end. One of the ways to see the development and dynamics of Islam among the Banjarese is to study Islamic theological texts written and taught by the ulama in the region. During the last three decades, there has been a number of studies on the subject, undertaken by Banjarese scholars, and most of whom are of the State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN), Antasari, Banjarmasin. Given the fact that most of these studies are largely unknown, unpublished, and simply sitting on the library shelves gathering dust, I am interested in investigating these texts, hoping that, through my own interpretation and analysis, we can find a general picture of change and continuity in Islamic theological thought in Banjarese society.

Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari’s Theological Text and Context

There is no doubt that Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari (1710–1812) is a very important figure in the Islamization of Banjarese society. At the age of 30, he was sent to Mecca by Sultan Tamjidillah (1734–59) to perform hajj and to study all branches of Islamic knowledge with the prominent ulama in Mecca and then Madina. After more than 30 years of study, he came back home, and then became the advisor to the Banjarese sultanate.4)

As an Islamic scholar, Arsyad al-Banjari wrote a number of works on Islamic teachings, including Islamic theology.5) There are at least two works of al-Banjari discussing the Islamic theological doctrines, namely al-Qawl al-Mukhtașar fî ’alâmât al-Imâm al-Mahdi al-Muntazhar (A short explanation on the signs of the expected Imam al-Mahdi), and Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn fî Bayâni Haqîqat Îmân al-Mu’minîn wa Mâ Yufsiduh min Riddat al-Murtaddîn (A gift to the seekers, explaining the essence of faith of the believers and its damages due to the apostasy of the apostates). The former is academically less studied than the latter.6) It is probably because al-Qawl al-Mukhtașar is only concerned with eschatological doctrines, while Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, besides describing basic Islamic theological doctrines, also attacks certain existing traditional rituals. In addition, its authorship also triggers a scholarly controversy.

Therefore, this section will only analyze the studies of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. The treatise was written in 1774, two years after al-Banjari’s return to the Banjarese Sultanate (1772). Like most works of the ulama of the archipelago in that period, this work by al-Banjari was written in the Malay language using Arabic script or the so-called Jawi script. The earliest print edition known to a researcher is the one published in 1887 by al-Mathba’ah al-Haj Muharram Affandi, Istambul (Hasan 2007, 71). The transliteration of the book into Latin script was carried out by Abu Daudi (2000) and M. Asywadie Syukur (2009). The existing research on this treatise raises the following questions: Is Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn the work of al-Palimbani or al-Banjari? What are the theological views presented in the work? What are the possible sources of al-Banjari’s theological views? Are these theological views relevant to our times? What influence does it have on Banjarese society?

The Author of Tufat al-Râghibîn: al-Palimbani or al-Banjari?

It seems that the question of whether Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of Abd al-Shamad al-Palimbani or Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari had emerged, particularly among the Banjarese intellectuals, after the publication of M. Chatib Quzwain’s dissertation in 1985. In his dissertation, with reference to two Dutch Scholars, P. Voorhoeve and Drewes, Chatib Quzwain argues that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Palimbani (Chatib Quzwain 1985, 14–25). This issue gave rise to serious discussion during the seminar on the research report on Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari, held at the IAIN Antasari on November 17, 1988, and another discussion attended by Banjarese intellectuals on December 25, 1988 (Analiansyah 1990). The question of the authorship of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is also analyzed in an undergraduate thesis written in the same year by a student of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari (Yusran 1988). M. Asywadie Syukur, a professor of Dakwah Faculty at IAIN Antasari also wrote a research report on the same controversy in 1990 (Asywadie Syukur 1990). Finally, 17 years later, it was to be discussed again by Noorhaidi Hasan, a Banjarese by origin and a lecturer at the State Islamic University (UIN) Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta (Hasan 2007).

All of the researchers agree that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Banjari, not al-Palimbani. Yusran, without any mention of the opposing view, proposes some arguments to prove that al-Banjari is the author of the treatise. First, Yusran indicates that there is a clear similar diction of the introduction, particularly the doxology, of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn with that of Sabîl al-Muhtadîn, another and most famous work of al-Banjari. Second, there are several Banjarese words found in the text. Third, the text mentions two Banjarese traditional rituals, namely manyanggar and mambuang pasilih. Fourth, some authoritative books on Arsyad al-Banjari’s biography also mention that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is one of his works. Fifth, some prominent Banjarese ulama and descendants of Arsyad al-Banjari also affirm that it is the work of al-Banjari.

Moreover, M. Asywadie Syukur, besides mentioning similar arguments, attempts to extend these arguments by examining the text in more detail, comparing it with the works of al-Palimbani and, refuting the arguments of Voorhoeve and Drewes (Asywadie Syukur 1990, 18–32). First, Asywadie Syukur does not only show the same dictions of the doxology between Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn and Sabîl al-Muhtadîn, but also indicates their differences from that of the works of al-Palimbani. He also finds that al-Banjari usually uses the personal pronoun of “aku” or “daku” (means “I”), while al-Palimbani uses “hamba” (which means “slave”). Likewise, to begin each chapter, and to indicate the year of writing of their respective works, al-Banjari and al-Palimbani use different phrases and style. Finally, unlike al-Palimbani, al-Banjari never mentions the place where his work was written.

Second, Asywadie Syukur also finds a number of Banjarese words in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. While Yusran draws attention to only two words, kasarungan (possessed by spirit) and manyarung (possessing), Asywadie Syukur adds the following words: simpun (concise), pataruhan (treasure), manyaru (to call), lamuhur (ancestor), disambur (being sprayed by water through mouth), mahangusakan (to burn), and lanjuran (trap). Asywadie Syukur particularly finds that al-Banjari also uses the word simpun in his two other works, namely Luqaṭ al-’Ajlân and al-Qawl al-Mukhtaşar.

Third, like Yusran, Asywadie Syukur argues that the rituals called manyanggar and mambuang pasilih mentioned in the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn are Banjarese traditional rituals. For Asywadie Syukur, manyanggar is a ritual in which people give certain offerings to evil spirits to appease them and to avoid their bad influences. The ritual is usually held when people suffer from natural disaster or moral troubles such as adultery and quarrel. In contrast, mambuang pasilih is a ritual held for a family who is believed to have a hidden brother or sister. It is believed that, the hidden person will do harm to the family if the ritual is not carried out. Like manyanggar, in mambuang pasilih, the family also gives certain offerings to the hidden brother/sister.

Moreover, in 1987, Asywadie Syukur observed the manyanggar ritual being held in Barikin village of Central Hulu Sungai District, South Kalimantan.7) He also found the mambuang pasilih ritual held in Banjarmasin and Barito Kuala of South Kalimantan. The evidence, argues Asywadie Syukur, indicates that Drewes’ assumption that the rituals are found in the hinterland of Palembang is weak. Moreover, Drewes only mentions the manyanggar ritual, not mambuang pasilih. The latter is clearly a Banjarese ritual because it is based on the local belief in the existence of hidden people (urang gaib), which nowadays can still be found in Banjarese society. In addition, the discussion on rituals in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is quite detailed. The author describes a dialogue (real or imagined) between himself and the participants of the rituals. This is certainly difficult to do for al-Palimbani who already left Palembang as a teenager, and never came back.

Fourth, in his introduction to Asywadie Syukur’s research report, Analiansyah cites a number of books which confirm that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Banjari. Most of the books are also mentioned by Yusran in his undergraduate thesis. Asywadie Syukur, however, makes no mention of them, but refers to another evidence, namely the second printing of the book, published by al-Ihsan Surabaya in 1929 based on the request of Abdurrahman Shiddiq (1857–1939), a Muslim scholar and a descendant of Arsyad al-Banjari. This edition clearly puts al-Banjari as the author of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. In contrast, the Voorhoeve manuscript, which is believed to be the work of al-Palimbani, does not mention the name of the author.

Fifth, Asywadie Syukur also refutes the arguments made by Voorhoeve and Drewes. Voorhoeve manuscript is a gift from Braginsky. It is written on the manuscript “Van Doorninck 1876,” the name of a Dutch official who worked in Palembang in 1873–75. It was, argues Voorhoeve, the period when Abd al-Shamad al-Palimbani produced a lot of writings. Moreover, this manuscript is also accompanied by a treatise on jihâd (holy war), which is, according to Voorhoeve, a special expertise of al-Palimbani. Drewes speculates that the work was written in Mecca based on the request of Sultan Najmuddin or Bahauddin, and was brought to Palembang by returning pilgrims. For Asywadie Syukur, all of these arguments are weak. The fact that Van Doorninck worked in Palembang does not necessarily mean that the manuscript is the work of al-Palimbani. Moreover, in that period, the Banjarese Sultanate was already abolished by the Dutch. It was not surprising, therefore, if many Ducth people came and forth to Banjarese region at that time. Regarding the treatise on jihâd, for Asywadie Syukur it is clearly another independent work, not part of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, because at the end of the manuscript, we find that it is closed by prayer which indicates that the work is already finished. In addition, the manuscript of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn and the treatise on jihâd are written in different fonts. Finally, like al-Palimbani, al-Banjari was also prolific in this period.

Sixth, Drewes argues that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn rejects the Sufi doctrine called wujûdiyyah which may indicate that this Sufi doctrine was found in Palembang, as it was also criticized by al-Raniri in seventeenth century Aceh. This argument, for Asywadie Syukur is not strong enough to support that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Palimbani because in Sair al-Sâlikîn, he accepts wujûdiyyah as the peak spiritual achievement. On the other hand, for Asywadie Syukur, al-Banjari opposes wujûdiyya doctrine and even gave a fatwa of capital punishment for Abdul Hamid Abulung, a Banjarese Sufi believed to embrace the wujûdiyyah doctrine. Asywadie Syukur assumes that the fatwa is expressed in the statement of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn: “. . . tiada syak pada wajib membunuh dia karena murtadnya, dan membunuh seumpama orang itu terlebih baik daripada seratus kafir yang asli” (there is no doubt about the necessity to kill him because of his apostasy, and killing such a person is better than killing a hundred of genuine unbelievers).

Those are the arguments put forward by Asywadie Syukur to affirm that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is truly the work of al-Banjari rather than al-Palimbani. It is noteworthy that almost all of the arguments analyzed in Noorhaidi Hasan’s work are the same as those in Asywadie Syukur’s work. It seems that the only new argument from Hasan is that, a Malaysian scholar, Wan Mohd. Shagir Abdullah wrote that Dawud al-Patani (1740–1847) mentioned Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn as the work of al-Banjari. If this information is true, argues Hasan, then it is an early piece of evidence that the author of the work is al-Banjari because Dawud al-Patani was al-Banjari’s friend when both studied at Mecca (Hasan 2007, 71–72).8) Moreover, in his article Hasan directly refers to the existing manuscripts, and the fact that he had communicated with V. I. Braginsky who gave the manuscript to Voorhoeve. Last but not least, Hasan successfully put the issue for the international scholarship, because his work was published in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (BKI).

All of the arguments proposed by the above researchers are apparently convincing, except Asywadie Syukur’s view that the execution of Abdul Hamid Abulung was based on al-Banjari’s fatwa in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. Did that truly happen? As far as I know, historical evidence for Abulung’s life is very scarce.9) Steenbrink maintains that Abulung’s story is very similar to that of Siti Jenar in Java. Since Banjar has close relationships with Java, it is possible that Abulung is a Banjarese version of Siti Jenar, and Siti Jenar is a Javanese version of al-Hallaj (Steenbrink 1984, 96). Moreover, Feener argues that, although Siti Jenar’s narrative (and Abulung) are similar to that of al-Hallaj, it does not mean that the teachings of al-Hallaj were already introduced to Southeast Asia. The narrative, he said, “may in fact be a reflection of an earlier indigenous or Hindu-Javanese motif recast in a Javanese Muslim setting” (Feener 1998, 578).

In addition, Asywadie Syukur’s quotation from the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn regarding the death penalty is not specifically related to Hallajian teachings, or to wujudiyyah as he claims, but to a false saint claiming to be beyond the shari’a law.

Kata Imam Ghazali, jikalau menyangka seorang wali akan bahwasanya ada antaranya dan antara Allah ta’ala martabat, dan hal yang menggugurkan wajib sembahyang, dan menghalalkan minum arak seperti disangka oleh kaum yang bersufi-sufi dirinya, maka tiadalah syak pada wajib membunuh dia karena murtadnya dan membunuh seumpama orang itu terlebih baik daripada membunuh seratus kafir asli. (Arsyad al-Banjari 1983, 32)

[Imam Ghazali said, if a saint assumes that there is a position between him and God that abolishes the obligation to perform daily prayers, and allows him to drink alcohol as it is believed by pretending Sufis, then there is no doubt about the necessity to kill him because of his apostacy, and killing such a person is better than killing a hundred of genuine unbelievers.]

In fact, only after those sentences al-Banjari starts describing the wujûdiyyah. In his description, he does not say that the followers of wujûdiyyah should be punished with the death penalty. He only said that the wujûdiyyah mulẖid is one form of kâfir zindîq (true unbeliever), without mentioning any punishment for the followers of this doctrine. Moreover, in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, al-Banjari said that there are two kinds of wujûdiyyah, mulẖid and muwaẖẖid. He only opposes the former, not the latter. In his explanation, the former seems to be the view that the entire universe, including human beings are God. However, he does not explain what wujûdiyyah muwaẖẖid is. Probably, for him, the wujûdiyyah muwaẖẖid is the teachings of Ibn al-’Arabi and his students, which strike a balance between God’s immanency and transcendency. In fact, this is also the position of ’Abd al-Shamad al-Palimbani which is probably shared by al-Banjari. Moreover, one of the important works of Banjarese ulama of the eighteenth century, al-Durr al-Nafîs by Muhammad Nafis al-Banjari, apparently follows the same line (Muthalib 1995). It seems, for Arsyad al-Banjari, al-Palimbani and Nafis al-Banjari, the works of al-Ghazali do not contradict those of Ibn ’Arabi and the like because they are aimed at different audiences. The works of al-Ghazali are for elementary and intermediate levels (mubtadi’ and mutawassi), while those of Ibn ’Arabi are for the muntahi, the advanced level.10)

The Tufat al-Râghibîn, Its Teachings, Relevance, and Influences

What are the theological teachings presented in the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn? If we compare this work with other popular Islamic theological texts in South Kalimantan or even in the archipelago, the structure of this work is obviously unique. The contents of the work are divided into three parts: on the essence of faith, on the things endangering faith, and finally on repentance. All researchers find that the work follows the line of Sunni theological thought of Ash’ariyyah and Maturidiyyah. In addition, the research team at the IAIN Antasari has discovered that the description in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn on deviant sects (based on the hadith which predicts that Muslims will be divided into 73 groups), is similar to that of al-Milal wa al-Niẖal by al-Shahrastani, although the latter describes them in more detail.11) In contrast, after careful investigation, Khairil Anwar finds that the names and classification of the deviant sects in the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn are not similar to those of al-Milal wa al-Niẖal, but to another theological book, namely Uşûl al-Dîn by al-Bazdawi (d. 1100) (Khairil Anwar 2009, 69–70).

As a follower of the Sunni theological school, al-Banjari explains in the first part of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn that the essence of faith is believing with one’s heart (taşdîq), while the oral confirmation (iqrâr) and its actualization through action (’amal) are not the essence but the perfection of faith (kamâl al-îmân). Al-Banjari, however, also quotes Abû Hanîfah and some Ash’arite figures, who argue that faith includes both believing and oral confirmation. The latter’s view, for al-Banjari, is also found in Sunnism, but it is not sanctioned (ghair mu’tamad). Moreover, to support his criticisms of those sects considered deviant, al-Banjari refers to al-Ghazali (an Ash’arite figure), ’Umar al-Nasafi (a Maturidite figure), and Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (a Salafi figure).

Scholars have different views of the relevance of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn’s theological viewpoints. Khairil Anwar, for instance, indicates that some ulama do not accept the authenticity of the hadith mentioned in the treatise, which predicts that the Muslim community will be divided into 73 groups, but only one will gain salvation.12) Khairil Anwar even notices another hadith with the opposite meaning quoted by the ulama, namely that 72 groups will go to heaven, and only one will go to hell. He argues that the prominent Indonesian Muslim scholars such as Quraish Shihab, M. Thalhah Hasan, and Nurcholish Madjid, prefer this hadith, because it is more inclusive and relevant to the present plurality of Muslim groups. Shihab and Thalhah Hasan quote ’Abd al-Halim Mahmud’s al-Tafkîr al-Falsafî fi al-Islâm in which the author said that the hadith is sahîh according to al-Hâkim, while Nurcholish Madjid refers to al-Ghazali’s Faishal al-Tafriqah which quotes the same hadith (ibid., 70–71).13)

On the other hand, as has been mentioned earlier, al-Banjari believes that the essence of faith is believing with one’s heart, while oral confirmation and its implementation are only the perfection of faith. This minimalist view of the essence of faith, according to the research team at the IAIN Antasari, is relevant to the present plurality of Muslim people. This view would enhance religious tolerance and inclusiveness because if the essence of faith is believing with one’s heart, then no one knows the quality of a person’s faith except God, and that a believer whose conducts do not accord to the teachings of Islam does not necessarily become an infidel. Moreover, the fact that al-Banjari refers to different figures of Sunni theological schools, namely of Asha’rite, Maturidite, and Salafi, indicates that he has a wider conception of Sunnism (Tim IAIN Antasari 1989, 49–50; Khairil Anwar 2009, 95). Al-Banjari’s view is actually wider than that of the Indonesian Muslim traditionalist organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which in theory follows the Ash’arite and the Maturidite, but in reality, only follows the Ash’arite. Similarly, as we shall see, the later dominant theological views in Banjarese society only follow the line of Ash’arite formulated by al-Sanusi.

Moreover, the research team at IAIN Antasari points out that, although al-Banjari has a minimalist view of the essence of faith and a wider view of Sunnism, he does not neglect the importance of making one’s faith functional in daily life. This is indicated by the fact that al-Banjari explains various beliefs and actions that may endanger one’s faith, and therefore, should be avoided. As has been alluded, al-Banjari also criticizes the traditional rituals called manyanggar and mambuang pasilih. For him, these rituals may lead to polytheism because they are based on beliefs that there are other unseen forces, rather than God alone, who have power over human life. In this regard, al-Banjari’s theological assessment is based on Asy’arite view regarding cause and effect relationship. He said, if the actors believe that the ritual itself can protect them from harm, then the actors are infidels. If the actors believe that only God, not the rituals, who can protect them from harm, then their action is heterodox innovation (bid’ah dhalâlah). Moreover, in the rituals, various cakes are given as offerings to the hidden people, and this for al-Banjari, represents a waste of food (tabdzîr), which is religiously forbidden (harâm). For the team at IAIN Antasari, al-Banjari’s criticisms of the traditional rituals, are still relevant today because some pre-Islamic rituals have been revived and supported by the government, partly for tourism (Tim IAIN Antasari 1989, 37–38, 41–44).

In contrast, in his MA thesis, M. Rusydi, an alumni of the Postgraduate Program of the State Islamic University, Yogyakarta, has more critical views of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn (Rusydi 2005, 93-133). With reference to the Egyptian philosopher, Hassan Hanafi, Rusydi argues that al-Banjari’s theology is based on faith and defense method. This type of theology is characterized by theocentric views, which glorifies God, while the position of human being is neglected. In the political realm, this type of theology tends to defend, and subject to, the rulers. For Rusydi, this is clearly indicated by the opening remarks of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn in which al-Banjari says that he was asked to write the treatise by the Sultan (namely, Sultan Tahmidillah). Likewise, the execution of Abdul Hamid Abulung who was considered heretic based on al-Banjari’s fatwa mentioned in this work, argues Rusydi, is another indication of how this theology operated through political power.

Moreover, for Rusydi, al-Banjari actually could not escape from the theological debates inherited from Muslims of the Middle Ages, and therefore, he was trapped in a defense of the Sunni views against other theological views. This becomes more obvious, says Rusydi, when al-Banjari strongly attacks the traditional rituals of mambuang pasilih and manyanggar. Al-Banjari’s attack on traditional rituals, is actually an attempt to defend the purity of Muslim beliefs. Thus, for Rusydi, al-Banjari’s minimalist view of the essence of faith, and his wider conception of Sunnism, did not lead him to be tolerant towards other theologies.

For Rusydi, therefore, al-Banjari’s theological views are not something to be maintained for the present society. This type of theology belongs in the past, not the present, nor the future. In other words, it is irrelevant to the problems of the twenty-first century. For Rusydi, in order to be relevant, Islamic theology, especially for the Banjarese people, should think of current problems of environmental destruction such as deforestation, excessive exploitation of natural resources, and the pollution of rivers. These problems, he said, are real problems for the Banjarese people in particular, and the people in Kalimantan in general.

The above conflicting views of the relevance of al-Banjari’s theology demonstrate the dynamics of Islamic theological thought among the Banjarese Muslim scholars. In this regard, I would like to make some comments. First, it is important that we do not view the past through the lens of contemporary beliefs and values, because if we do this, we may come to two extreme conclusions: we will either glorify the past, or condemn it as decadent and backward. Therefore, it is important for contemporary scholars who study history, including history of ideas, to depict the past in an objective historical and social context. This certainly demands us to find a relatively complete description of the past in question. In the case of al-Banjari’s Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, so far we have very scarce historical sources, and therefore, our description of the past is far from satisfying. For instance, is it historically true that al-Banjari wrote this treatise because the Sultan asked him to issue a fatwa for Abdul Hamid Abulung as a Sufi heretic? On the other hand, did al-Banjari’s minimalist view of the essence of faith, and his wider conception of Sunnism lead him to be tolerant towards theological differences? Honestly, if we rely on the available historical evidence, we cannot convincingly answer these questions.

Second, for believers, a religious tradition, including theological views contained in the works of the ulama in the past, is something that defines their lives at the present, and at the same time connects them with the past and the future (Asad 1986). In this regard, the Moroccan scholar, Muhammad ’Abid al-Jâbirî said that there are three approaches to studying religious tradition. First, reading the tradition within the framework of the tradition itself. This kind of study is usually ahistorical and simply intended to preserve the tradition. Second, reading the tradition as something of the past without any relevance to the present day. This is exemplified by the works of the orientalists. Third, reading the tradition with critical historical analysis, and at the same time, trying to find its relevance to the present and the future (Jâbirî 1986, 1–23). If we look at the contesting views of the researchers of al-Banjari’s theological heritage from al-Jâbiri’s framework, then we may say that the Muslim scholars actually try to do their best to find the relevance and irrelevance of the tradition for their present and future. Their studies, therefore, are engaged scholarships. The only problem for them, as has been said, is the limited historical evidence to support their respective views. Apart from this problem, the controversy indicates that theological studies at the IAIN are not very dogmatic, and therefore, even a young scholar like Rusydi has the courage to propose strong criticisms of the views of highly respected figure like al-Banjari.

Apart from the debates on the relevance and irrelevance of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, it is important to know whether the Banjarese society at large know and study this treatise. In 1988, Yusran interviewed a number of prominent ulama, and found that only 10 of them knew that the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn was one of the works of Arsyad al-Banjari (Yusran 1988, 62-63). Around the same period, the research team at IAIN Antasari interviewed 23 prominent ulama in six cities of South Kalimantan (Marabahan, Banjarmasin, Martapura, Kandangan, Negara, and Amuntai), and found some interesting facts. The interviewees generally knew of Arsyad al-Banjari not as a writer of religious texts, but as a saint imbued with the power to perform miracles, and whose tomb was frequently visited by pilgrims. Only a few of the ulama, most of whom were descendents of al-Banjari, used the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn for teaching Islamic theology. Most of the ulama did not know about al-Banjari’s theological views in the treatise either, including the fatwa on the heresy of the wujûdiyyah mulẖidah. On the other hand, they knew that al-Banjari opposes the traditional rituals of manyanggar and mambuang pasilih. The majority of the ulama also take the same stance as al-Banjari, in opposing any traditional rituals which may lead to polytheism, but they do not always succeed in stopping them. It is said that a strong attack is not effective, but a persuasive propagation is slow in achieving the goal. Some of the ulama tolerate certain traditional rituals because they have been Islamized, while others say that syncretism cannot be tolerated because it pollutes the purity of the Islamic faith (Tim IAIN Antasari 1989, 101–102).

These findings are very similar to those of the previous and subsequent studies. In the early 1980s, Alfani Daud found in the field that manyanggar ritual was not practiced anymore, but other rituals accompanying the passages of life, from birth to death, were still practiced by many. Alfani Daud, however, also found that the contents of the rituals have been Islamized (Alfani Daud 2000). Likewise, in 1985, the research team of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, found that many Banjarese Muslims in Martapura and Amuntai (both are known as the cities of ulama) still believe in certain taboos, and practice traditional rituals like tapung tawar,14) shower ritual for pregnant women or for bride and bridegroom. However, most of the Muslims no longer adhere to the beliefs underlying the ritual anymore. They perform these rituals simply to pay respect to the tradition of their elders (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1985). Another source of empirical evidence is found in the undergraduate theses of the students of the Ushuluddin Faculty from 1995 to 1999. The theses show that Banjarese Muslims believe in sacred places, times, goods, and symbols, and some of them are of pre-Islamic origins. Similarly, the Banjarese Muslims still practice certain traditional rituals in which pre-Islamic and Islamic elements are mixed.

The above empirical evidence indicates that the influence of Islamic theological views on traditional rituals has become increasingly stronger in society, and perhaps, this is partly because of al-Banjari’s attack on these rituals in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. On the other hand, one may ask, why many Banjarese ulama interviewed by the researchers in the late 1980s did not know about the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn? The research team at IAIN Antasari try to answer this question. First, the works of al-Banjari are written in Jawi which is difficult for younger generation to understand. Second, the economic malaise during the Japanese occupation forced people into a struggle for economic survival, which left them little time and energy for learning religious texts. In contrast, during the period of Dutch colonial rule, al-Banjari’s works were read in many religious gatherings by the ulama. This explains why the ulama who were familiar with al-Banjari’s works were at the age of 50 or older in 1988. Third, after independence (1945), formal education at schools was open for all the people, including religious education. In this educational system, texts used in religion classes are mostly in the Indonesian language, which is easier to understand for the younger generation. On the other hand, the students of Islamic boarding schools who are specialized in Islamic studies, would prefer Arabic to Jawi texts (Tim IAIN Antasari 1989, 98–105).

Islamic Theological Texts Taught in Banjarese Society

It would be naive to say that the development of Islam in the region, including the Banjarese Muslims’ theological views, simply depends on Arsyad al-Banjari’s influences. The social, political, and cultural changes from the nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century, undoubtedly exerted a great influence on their Islamic theological views. In this regard, there has been a number of studies carried out by the scholars of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, which provide empirical evidence of the development of Banjarese Muslim theological views following Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari’s period to the present. These studies explore various research questions, namely: What are the theological texts taught in Islamic study gatherings (pengajian)15) in South Kalimantan? What are the theological texts written by Banjarese ulama? What are the theological texts taught in Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) in South Kalimantan? What are the theological schools represented by the texts? What are the philosophical elements contained in the texts? What are their possible influences on Muslim daily life?

The Theological Texts Taught and Written by Banjarese Ulama

In 1982, a team of students of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari were assigned to study the theological texts taught in various pengajians in South Kalimantan. The scope of the research is quite impressive. The students investigate 109 pengajians in three districts, namely 51 pengajians in Hulu Sungai Utara district, 29 pengajians in Banjar district, and 29 pengajians in Banjarmasin City (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1982).

The findings of the research indicate that there are 24 titles of theological texts used in the pangajian, and Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is not one of them. Many of the pengajians use more than one theological texts, even though they are taught by the same ulama. However, most of the texts follow the Ash’arite school formulated by ’Abdullâh al-Sanûsi (d. 1490). The most widely used text is Kifâyat al-’Awâm, the work of Muhammad Syâfi’i al-Fudhâlî (d. 1821), which is used in 47 pengajians. It is followed by Hâshiyah ’ala Matn al-Sanûsiyyah by Ibrâhîm al-Bâjûri (d. 1861) used in 37 pengajians, and Hâshiyah al-Hudhudî ’alâ Umm al-Barâhîn by Abdullâh al-Sharqâwî (d. 1812), used in 29 pengajians. The work of al-Sanûsi, Umm al-Barâhîn is only used in 12 pengajians. This is probably because, al-Sanûsi’s work is very concise and difficult to understand. Therefore, the texts used are mostly commentaries on this work. Interestingly, the work of the founder of the Ash’arite school, Abu al-Hasan al-Asy’arî (d. 935), al-Ibânah ’an Uşûl al-Diyânah is only used in one pengajian in Banjarmasin. The text is taught by Gusti H. Abdul Muis (d. 1992), a prominent Muhammadiyah ulama.

Besides the Arabic texts, there are also nine texts in Jawi. If we look at the names of the authors and the publishers of the Jawi texts provided in the research report, we may conclude that they are mostly written by Banjarese ulama except the ’Aqîdat al-Nâjîn by Zain al-’Âbidîn Ibn Muhammad al-Pattâni, and the Sirâj al-Hudâ by Muhammad Zainuddin from Sumba. As we can see from Table 1, a significant number of Jawi texts are used. The use of Sirâj al-Hudâ is 18, ’Aqîdat al-Nâjîn is 17, Kifâyat al-Mubtadi’în and Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în, each of them is 16. In total, the use of the Jawi texts reaches 86. This is much lower than the use of the Arabic texts which reaches 170, but it is still a significant number. In other words, following the example of Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari, the Banjarese ulama of the twentieth century also wrote theological texts in Jawi, in order to help ordinary people to learn Islam.


Table 1 Theological Texts Used in Religious Gatherings (Pengajian)


The table clearly shows that some texts do not follow Sanusi’s Ash’arism, and some of them are written by modern ulama. The texts include Fatẖ al-Majîd Sharh Kitâb al-Tawîd by Abdurrahman Ibn Hasan, a commentary on the work of Muhammad Ibn ’Abd al-Wahhâb (the founder of Wahhabism), Al-’Aqîdah al-Islâmiyyah by Sayyid Sâbiq (d. 2000), Al-Hușûn al-Hamîdiyyah by Sayyid Husein Affandi al-Ṭarablusi (d. 1909), and Al-’Aqîdah al-Islâmiyyah by Bașri Ibn H. Marghubi. It is not surprising that these texts are mostly used by ulama in Banjarmasin, the capital city of the province, and in Amuntai where the theological contest between the reformist Muhammadiyah and the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama was strong.

In another research conducted in 1994, the team of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari found almost the same theological texts used in different pengajians in Banjarmasin and Hulu Sungai Utara. However, there are a few new titles found in the pengajians, namely Aqâid al-îmân by Abdurrahman Siddiq (d. 1939), Hidâyat al-Mubtadi’în by Muhammad Sarni, and Risâlah ’Ilm Tawîd by Ja’far Sabran, all of which are written in Jawi (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1995). There are other Banjarese ulama who wrote Islamic theological texts in Jawi, Indonesian, and even Arabic (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 2008). Among these texts are Risâlat al-Tawîd by Muhammad Kasyful Anwar (d. 1940), written in Arabic; Ibtidâ’ al-Tawîd by Abdul Qadir Noor (d. 1940), written in Jawi. Other texts are written in Indonesian, namely Sendi Iman, Risalah Ushuluddin, Ilmu Tauhid and Pengetahuan Agama Islam by Abdul Muthallib Muhyiddin (d. 1974); Iman dan Bahagia and Akidah dan Perkembangan Ilmu Kalam by Gusti Abdul Muis; and Pelajaran Ringkas Agama Islam, Majmu’ah Shuhuf Pelajaran Agama Islam, Simpanan yang Berguna, and Ilmu Ketuhanan dan Kenabian by Darkasi (d. 2003).16)

In 2004 and 2005, a research team of the Ushuluddin Faculty, tried to find out the theological texts taught in traditional and modern Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) in South Kalimantan (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 2004b; 2005). The traditional pesantrens include Darussalam in Martapura (founded in 1914), Ibn al-Amin in Pamangkih (founded in 1958), Darussalam in Muara Tapus (founded in 1967), and Arraudhah in Amuntai (founded in 1992). Although these four cannot represent all traditional pesantrens in the region, which number more than 200, they probably can give us a more general picture, particularly because, other traditional pesantrens follow the curriculum of Darussalam in Martapura, the oldest pesantren.17)

If we look at the findings of the research, we can see that only three theological texts are taught in pesantren but not in pengajian, namely the Sharah Tîjân al-Durari by Nawawi al-Bantani (d. 1897), the Kashf al-Asrâr by Abd al-Mu’ti Ibn Salim Ibn Umar al-Shibli, and the Tuẖfat al-Murîd ’alâ Jawharat al-Tawẖîd by Ibrâhîm al-Bâjûri. The texts found in the research are also in line with Martin van Bruinessen’s list of popular theological texts among Indonesian Islamic boarding schools. However, in the South Kalimantan case, Bruinessen does not include the Tîjân al-Durari (perhaps because in this region, the text used is its commentary), while the Kashf al-Asrâr is not mentioned by him at all (Bruinessen 2012, 175).

On the other hand, the modern pesantrens—mostly founded by the alumni of modern Pesantren Darussalam, Gontor, East Java—use different theological texts. There are four modern pesantrens studied in this research, namely Darul Hijrah (founded in 1986), Ibnu Mas’ud (founded in 1990), Darul Istiqamah (founded in 1990), and Darul Inabah (founded in 1995). All of these pesantrens use the theological texts taught in Pesantren Darussalam, Gontor, namely Uşûl al-Dîn by Imam Zarkasyi, and Kitâb al-Sa’âdah by Abd al-Rahîm Manâf. In addition, Pesantren Darul Istiqamah and Ibnu Mas’ud also use a text produced by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, namely al-’Aqîdah wa al-Akhlâq. The modern pesantrens also use theological texts of Salafi-Wahhabi leanings. For instance, Ibnu Mas’ud uses a text called al-Tawîd published by Yayasan al-Shofwa, Jakarta; Darul Inabah uses al-Ma’lûmât lâ Ya’lamuhâ Katsîr min al-Nâs by Muhammad Ibn Jamil; and Darul Hijrah uses al-’Aqîdah al-Wâsithiyyah by Ibnu Taimiyyah (d. 1328), and Ta’lîqât al-Mukhtaşar al-Mufîd by Șalih Ibn Fauzân, a commentary on Kitâb al-Tawîd by Muhammad Ibn ’Abd al-Wahhâb (d. 1792), the founder of Wahhabism.

The findings of the studies described above, highlight certain features of the development of Islam, especially in terms of theology, in Banjarese society. First, the studies conducted in the early 1980s and 1990s show us that the theological texts used in most pengajian follow the Ash’arite school conceptualized by ’Abdullâh al-Sanûsi. The same case is also found in traditional pesantrens, even up to the present time. On the other hand, certain pengajian use different kinds of theological text, either modern or classic, that do not follow the conception of al-Sanûsi. In the modern pesantrens, we find the theological texts with Salafi-Wahhabi leanings. Thus, we can see that the production of Islamic theological knowledge in Banjarese society has eventually become fragmented, and the dominant school of Sanusi-Ash’arism has been contested by Salafism/Wahhabism. This does not mean, however, that Salafism had only started developing by the late 1980s, because the reformist organization, Muhammadiyah, whose theology mostly follow the Salafi school, was already established in 1925 in this region.18) Apparently, what happened was that, previously the Salafi theological texts were only taught in various pengajians and schools of Muhammadiyah, but since the second half of the 1980s, they have been taught in modern pesantrens as well. It is noteworthy that, unlike religious education in pengajian and schools, religious teaching in pesantrens is given to students who are prepared to become ulama. Thus, we may say that the Salafi theological school has been strengthened in Banjarese society since the late 1980s.

Second, we can see from the findings of the above studies that the Islamic theological texts written by Banjarese ulama since the eighteenth century have been in Jawi or Arabic, but since the early 1970s, some Banjarese ulama have also published theological texts in the Indonesian language. The use of Indonesian is no doubt, due to educational developments. After the independence, the younger generation had more opportunities to study at schools where Indonesian language is used. Thus, the new generation of ulama and their students are more familiar with Indonesian texts. Moreover, if we look closely at the use of the texts in terms of their language, we find that Jawi texts is mostly used in pengajian, while the Arabic texts are mostly taught in pesantren and some in pengajian. Pesantren apparently prefers Arabic texts because they are intended for students who specialized in Islamic studies.19) On the other hand, at schools, including the state Islamic schools (madrasah negeri), the texts used in religious instruction are mostly in Indonesian.

The Contents and Relevance of the Theological Texts

As has been mentioned earlier, in 1982 the research team of students of the Ushuluddin Faculty found that the dominant school represented by the theological texts taught in pengajian was Ash’arism conceptualized by al-Sanusi, or we may call it, “Sanusi-Ash’arism.” The research team arrived at this conclusion by analyzing the contents of the texts, particularly those on major theological issues such as the relation between reason and revelation, and the attributes of God. These texts follow the Ash’arite’s view that reason is totally dependent on revelation for knowledge of the attributes of God, good and evil, and God’s commands and prohibitions. Likewise, following Ash’arism, the texts explain that God has certain attributes. The attributes are different from, but inherent in, God’s substance (dzât).

However, unlike the founder of Ash’arism, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari, ’Abdullâh al-Sanûsi classifies God’s attributes into three ontological categories, the necessity (wâjib), the impossible (mustaîl), and the possible (jâ’iz). In al-Sanûsi’s classification, God has 20 necessary attributes, and 20 impossible attributes (as the opposite of the necessary attributes), and 1 possible attribute. The 20 necessary attributes (and automatically the impossible attributes as their opposites) are then classified into four: (1) the selfness (nafsiyyah), namely the attribute of being and existence (wujûd); (2) the negative (salabiyyah) which includes: without beginning (qidam), without end (baqâ), the opposite of temporary beings (mukhâlafatuh li al-hawâdith), standing on Himself (qiyâmuh binafsih) and oneness (wahdaniyyah); (3) the potential attributes (ma’ânî) which include power (qudrah), will (irâdah), knowledge (’ilm), life (hayâh), hearing (sama), seeing (bașar), speaking (kalâm); and (4) the actualization of the potential attributes (ma’nawiyyah). Finally, the possible attribute of God is doing and not doing the possible. In the same line of reasoning, al-Sanûsi also classifies the attributes of God’s messenger (rasûl) into four necessary attributes, namely honest (şidq), trustworthy (amânah), delivering God’s messages (tablîgh), and intelligent (faanah), and four impossible attributes as their opposites. Moreover, a messenger has one possible attribute, namely possible weakness as a human being. In short, the total of God and His messenger’s attributes are 50, and these represent the Muslim confession: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His messenger.

The Sanusi’s conception known as “Sifat 20,” is actually very philosophical, but why is it very popular? Perhaps, there are at least two reasons for this. First, many ulama of the archipelago learned this conception of Islamic theology, particularly from the nineteenth century commentaries on al-Sanûsi’ treatise, with their masters in the Middle East, so when they returned home, they transferred it to the Muslims in the archipelago. The Jawi text called ’Aqîdat al-Nâjîn by Zain al-’Abidîn Ibn Muhammad al-Patani, which contains the Sanusi’s conception, was completed in 1308 H or 1891 CE (Patani no date, 139).20) Second, apart from its philosophical arguments, this conception is simple in terms of the number of God’s and His messenger’s attributes, 20 and 4 respectively. So, they can be easily memorized by ordinary people, including the illiterates. In fact, most teachers in pengajian encourage their audiences to memorize them.

On the other hand, the popularity of al-Sanûsi’s conception drew critical responses from the ulama, especially the Muslim scholars at IAIN Antasari. Many of them say that, because of this conception, people have had only a narrow understanding of Sunni theology, which is limited only to al-Sanusi. In fact, Sunni theology includes many important figures such as al-Ash’ari, al-Mâturidi, al-Ghazâli, al-Juwaini, al-Bâqillâni, and even Salafi figures like Aẖmad Ibn Hanbal. As has been mentioned earlier, Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari has this wider conception of Sunni theology, and does not refer to al-Sanûsi at all. Thus, from this perspective, the popularity of al-Sanûsi’s conception is somehow a regression (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1982, 25).

The Muslim scholars of the Ushuluddin Faculty also observed that because the philosophical arguments are not easily grasped by ordinary people, the teaching of Islamic theology eventually becomes very formal, i.e., memorizing doctrines without clearly understanding them. Therefore, it is difficult to expect that people can internalize Islamic values through learning this conception of theology (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1995, 100). Moreover, because the arguments are mostly rational, the experiential and spiritual dimensions of faith tend to be neglected. The scholars also observed that, in a number of pesantrens, the method of teaching is apparently ineffective because the teacher explains the meaning of the Arabic text without trying to find its relevance to daily life. Consequently, it would separate the discourse of theology from ethics (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 2004b, 104–107).

On the other hand, there are some studies undertaken by scholars who try to explore and appreciate the philosophical contents of the texts. In 1993, a lecturer of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, Bahran Noor Haira, attempted to understand the idea of ta’alluq (relation) developed in al-Sanûsi’s conception. For Bahran Noor Haira, this idea is apparently related to the Ash’arite’s view that God has eternal attributes different from, but inherent in His substance. The differentiation of God’s substance from His attributes, is important partly in explaining the relationship between the eternal and the temporal, the creator and creature. In other words, God’s attributes become the medium between the eternal and the temporal. For instance, God has the attributes of power (qudrah) and will (irâdah), and these attributes are related (ta’alluq) to the possible things. So, the eternal God creates the temporal world through the “mediation” of His will and power. This view is obviously conceptualized to oppose Mu’tazilite, who maintains that God, as a perfect being, has no attributes, and that God’s substance and attributes cannot be differentiated (Bahran Noor Haira 1993).

Besides Bahran Noor Haira’s explanation above, there is also another important reason behind the idea of ta’alluq. If we look at al-Sanûsi’s arguments, it is clear that this idea is related to his basic three ontological categories, namely the necessary, the impossible, and the possible. The idea of ta’alluq is set up in order that we will not fall into an inconsistent logic which may lead to confusion. For instance, God’s attribute of knowledge is related (ta’alluq) to the necessary, the impossible and the possible, but why God’s attribute of power is only related to the possible? This is set up to avoid inconsistent logic, like someone asking you: Can God by His power create another God? This question is absurd because it confuses the impossible with the possible. To avoid this, al-Sanûsi makes the idea of ta’alluq, namely that the relation of God’s power is only to the possible, not to the necessary or the impossible.

Another interesting research is by a professor of Islamic theology of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, M. Zurkani Jahja. He undertook a study of a theological text written in Jawi by a Banjarese ulama, Asy’ari Sulaiman (d. 1981) entitled Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în (Zurkani Jahja 1995). Zurkani Jahja concentrates on finding the philosophical elements contained in the text. Because this text is based on al-Sanûsi’s conception, it is actually a sample which represents a wide range of popular texts of the same line. In this study, he shows that al-Sanûsi’s conception is full of philosophical elements, drawn from Greek and Islamic philosophy, both in terms of material, as well as method of arguments.

Zurkani Jahja observes that Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în uses several philosophical terminologies such as șifah, dzât, jirm, jawhar, jins, nau’, and gerak. For him, dzât is actually an Arabic translation of substance and șifah of accident, originally from Aristotle. A substance is something whose existence is independent from something else, while accident is something whose existence is dependent on substance. If we look at a red hat, then the hat is substance, while red is accident. For Zurkani Jahja, the use of these philosophical terms was also found among Muslim theologians in the Middle Ages. Likewise, the term jirm was used by Muslim philosophers to refer to celestial bodies, jawhar to substance, jins to genus, and nau’ to species. The origin of these terms can also be traced back to Greek philosophy.

However, Zurkani Jahja finds that the meaning of the term gerak (harakah/movement) in Islamic theological texts, including the Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în, is different from that of Aristotle. In Islamic theology, according to Zurkani Jahja, the term harakah was initially introduced by Abu Hudzail al-Allâf (d. 784), and subsequently by other theologians. For them, gerak or movement simply means spatial change, as opposed to diam (sukûn/calm), while for Aristotle, movement means the change of potentiality into actuality. The wood has the potential to become a chair, so when it becomes a chair, there is a movement. On the other hand, the Muslim theologians, including Asy’ari Sulaiman in his Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în, follow Aristotelian cosmological argument that the movement is finally moved by the unmovable mover that is God. To support this argument, they reject the idea of infinite chain of causes (tasalsul) and infinite rotation of causes (dawr).

Another important philosophical issue discussed in Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în is causality. Zurkani Jahja explains that, according to Aristotle, knowledge is to know the causes behind an object. This idea leads to Aristotelian beliefs in the necessity of cause-effect relationships. In this regard, Muslim philosophers such as al-Kindi, al-Fârabi, and Ibn Sînâ follow Aristotle. However, the Ash’arite theologian, al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111), disagrees with them. For al-Ghazâlî, the relationship between cause and effect is not necessary. It is simply God’s custom to act in this world. In other words, the cause-effect relationship totally depends on the will and power of God. According to Zurkani Jahja, the Muslim theologians before al-Ghazâlî like al-Juwainî and al-Bâqillânî actually had a similar idea, but it was al-Ghazâlî who introduced it in more detailed manner. Again, Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în simply follows it.

In addition to the issue of causality, Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în also touches upon the problem of human freedom in the face of God’s absolute power, or the issue of determinism versus indeterminism. For Zurkani Jahja, Aristotle apparently was not interested in discussing this issue because for him, God as the unmovable mover is far away from events in this world. In contrast, following Ash’arism, Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în argues that a person does not create his/her own acts, but God creates them. This view, according to Zurkani Jahja, is in line with that of the Christian theologian, Augustine (d. 430). In this context, it is curious why Zurkani Jahja does not discuss the idea of kasb developed by Ash’arism, which explains that a person acquires his/her act when God agrees with his/her will.

In terms of method, Zurkani Jahja also finds some philosophical elements in this treatise. When the author of Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în starts introducing Islamic theology as a discipline, he follows what is called mabâdi’ ’asharah (10 foundations). The 10 foundations include its definition (adduh), its object (maudhû’h), its founder (wâdhi’h), its name (ismuh), its value (fadhluh), its religiously legal consequence (hukmuh), its fruit (tramaratuh), its sources (istimdâduh), its affiliation (nisbatuh), and its issues (masâiluh). For Zurkani Jahja, at least the idea of definition comes from Aristotle, while the 10 foundations as a whole apparently come from Muslim scholars. In this case, the author of Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în refers to a scholar named Ahmad Ibn Suhaimi who is quoted to say that the 10 foundations are necessary to identify a certain discipline. Zurkani Jahja argues that if we look at the common identification of three aspects of a discipline in modern philosophy of science, i.e., ontology, epistemology, and axiology, then we may say that the idea of 10 foundations is more comprehensive.

In addition, as one may rightly expect, like other Sanusi-Ash’arism texts, the Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în also bases its reasoning on three ontological categories called hukm al-’aql (which literally means rule of reason), namely the necessary (wâjib), the impossible (mustaîl), and the possible (jâ’iz). Each of the three is then divided into dharûrî (axiomatical), and nazharî (theoretical). According to Zurkani Jahja, the three ontological categories were created by the Muslim philosopher, Ibn Sînâ. The difference is only in the names, not in their meanings. Ibn Sînâ calls the impossible mumtani’ instead of mustaîl, and the possible mumkin instead of jâ’iz.

Zurkani Jahja also explores the way in which the author of Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în presents rational arguments. It is obvious, argues Zurkani Jahja, that this treatise follows the reasoning structure devised by Aristotle called syllogism. A simple syllogism starts with a general proposition, then followed by a specific case, and finally it comes to a conclusion. For instance, it is argued in this treatise that anything that changes is temporal, and the world is changing, then it is temporal. Aristotelian syllogism is known among the Muslim scholars since the Middle Ages, when the Aristotle Logic was translated into Arabic as Manṭiq. Thus, like other philosophical elements mentioned earlier, Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în and similar texts of Sanûsi-Ash’arism simply follow this classical Muslim heritage.

Having analyzed the philosophical elements in Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în, Zurkani Jahja poses this important question: What can we learn from this, to develop material and method of Islamic theology today? M. Zurkani Jahja then answers that, if the classical Muslim Scholars were able to keep an open mind towards Greek philosophy, and to use some of its elements in their explanation of Islamic theological doctrines, then we should adopt a similar attitude towards modern philosophy and scientific findings. By keeping an open mind, modern Muslim scholars can make Islamic theological terms and arguments familiar with, and relevant to, the contemporary society and culture.

Besides analyzing the texts of Sanûsi-Ash’arism, researchers also look at other texts of Salafi orientation as well as texts written in Indonesian language. The findings of their research indicate that the theological texts written in Indonesian apparently try to explain Islamic theological doctrines in terms familiar with, and relevant to, daily life. These texts generally do not use the intricate philosophical arguments, nor restrict themselves to explain the attributes of God and His messengers, but move on to the whole six pillars of the Muslim faith (the other four pillars are belief in angels, holy books, day of judgment, and God’s determinism). There is even a theological book in Indonesian entitled Iman dan Bahagia which explains how Islamic faith will bring happiness to people. This text is written by a Banjarese Muhammadiyah leader, Gusti Abdul Muis (1979). In addition, the theological texts with Salafi leanings taught in modern pesantren are generally written in a language easy to understand, and most of their arguments are taken directly from the Qur’an and the Hadith. Moreover, many of the Salafi theological texts are written by modern scholars. Because the impetus of the Salafi theology is the purification of the Muslim faith from allegedly un-Islamic elements, this type of theological texts are easily perceived as relevant to people’s daily life (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 2004b, 104–107).

The analysis of the contents and relevance of the theological texts by the researchers above may give us a picture of the development of theological thought in Banjarese society. In general, the researchers question the relevance of the outdated and complex philosophical arguments of the Sanusi-Ash’arism. However, there are still weaknesses in this criticism. First, the criticism is generally only based on textual evidence rather than direct experiences of the actual learning and teaching process in pengajian or pesantren. In fact, it is very possible that a good teacher will not only read the text to his students, but also explains the relevance of the text to daily life.21) At present, Guru Zuhdiannor is one of a few Banjarese ulama, who teaches a similar Sanusi-Ash’arism text in his pengajian, and with extraordinary skill explains the relevance of the text to Muslim ethics. This is why his pengajians are held regularly in two big mosques in Banjarmasin, and are usually attended by thousands of people. Besides, one must remember that in traditional Islam, the oral tradition is very important to understand the classical texts (Nasr 1992). Second, to say that the Sanusi-Ash’arism’s texts neglect the spiritual dimension of faith is not completely true. For instance, at the end of a commentary on Umm al-Barâhîn by al-Sanûsî himself, he introduces a Sufi model of invocation (dzikr) or remembrance of God, to internalize the Islamic theological values. In the same text, one finds an explanation of the Islamic Sufi ethics such as tawakkul (sincere trust to God), zuhd (ascetism), ayâ’ (shameness before God), faqr (spiritual poverty), and so on (Sanûsi n.d., 226–237).22) Third, sometimes, a Muslim scholar who teaches in pengajian, uses not only a theological text, but also a Sufi text. Therefore, it is very possible, in this case that the teacher would explain the relationships between theology and Islamic spirituality.

In any case, some scholars of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, have tried to offer an alternative in terms of material and method of Islamic theology. One of them is M. Zurkani Jahja. He wrote a dissertation on al-Ghazali’s metholodogy in theology, supervised by the two prominent Indonesian Muslim theologians, Harun Nasution and Nurcholish Madjid.23) From September 1998 to October 2000, Zurkani Jahja regularly wrote a column in the local weekly tabloid called Serambi Ummah. The column is concentrated on explaining the meaning of each of the 99 names of God (al-Asmâ’ al-Husna). For Zurkani Jahja, the theology of 99 names of God is a good alternative in terms of materials to Sanusi’s 20 attributes of God because it is relatively easier to understand, and it is easily related to Muslim daily life in terms of its ethical and spiritual implications. The weekly columns were then compiled and published in two volumes in 2000 by a local publisher, Grafika Wangi Kalimantan. In 2010, the book was republished in one volume by Pustaka Pesantren, Yogyakarta (a branch of LKiS publisher), and became widely distributed all over Indonesia (Zurkani Jahja 2002; 2010).24)

Certainly, a book on 99 names of God is not new at all, even in traditional Banjarese society. However, as Nurcholish Madjid wrote, the names were studied mostly not as materials of theology but as sources of “magical” power (Nurcholish Madjid 2012, 53–54). A Banjarese ulama, Husen Qadri (d. 1967), also wrote a short explanation on the 99 names of God in his Sanjata Mukmin (A believer’s weapon), a work written in Jawi. This work mostly concentrates on the spiritual power of each name that could be gained by any Muslim who recites it (Husin Qadri 1971). Zurkani Jahja’s work, however, is different. It is an attempt to explain Muslim understanding of God through His Names, and how they relate to Islamic ethics and spirituality. He also tries to use some western modern philosophical arguments to support his ideas, but at the same time, he still adheres to Sunni-Ash’arite theological views.

Another alternative theological material produced by a team of lecturers of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari is a book entitled Kitâb Uşûl al-Dîn (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 2004a). The book was distributed in some pengajians and sold in the market. It was not accidental that the book is written in Jawi. For traditionalist Muslims, especially in Banjarese society, the Arabic script is considered sacred. Thus, the ulama usually reads a text in pengajian if it is written in Jawi or Arabic, not in Indonesian. The contents of the book still discuss Sanusi’s formula of 20 attributes, but at the same time, it includes other pillars of faith such as the beliefs in angels, the day of judgment, and so on. The book has been used in some pengajians, but it probably will not replace the other popular texts.


We can see from the previous discussion that the existing studies on Islamic theological texts in Banjarese society may give us a clearer picture of the development of Islamic theological thought in that society. There have been continuities and changes in terms of texts, issues, and languages. The early theological text analyzed by researchers is the work of Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari in the eighteenth century, Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. In 1988, there was a controversy over the authorship of this work. Some scholars debated whether it was the work of Asryad al-Banjari or of Abd al-Samad al-Palimbani. However, based on strong textual evidence, some scholars have convincingly argued that the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Banjari. In addition to the controversy, this theological text illustrates the strong influence of Sunni-Ash’arism and its application in Banjarese socio-cultural contexts. Al-Banjari’s opposition to some pre-Islamic traditional rituals can be seen as his efforts to intensely Islamize his society. Al-Banjari’s antagonistic attitude is also evidence that the assumption that traditional Islam in Indonesia is always accommodative to local beliefs and rituals, is contentious (Feillard 2011).

By the early twentieth century, the most popular theological texts are those which follow the Sanusi-Ash’arism. This means that al-Banjari’s earlier text has a wider perspective of Sunnism than those written in the later period which limit themselves to the Sanusi conception. Moreover, due to the fact that the Sanusi theological conception is strongly based on rational philosophical arguments, researchers often assume that it is not easily understood and internalized by ordinary people. Partly because of this difficulty, since the early 1970s, some Banjarese ulama have begun writing Islamic theological texts in the Indonesian language, as well as developing more comprehensive materials and familiar arguments. Moreover, a few other Banjarese ulama, following Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari, also wrote theological texts in Jawi. Given the Banjarese Muslim perception of Arabic script as sacred, even a team of the Ushuluddin Faculty produced a similar Jawi text in 2004. On the other hand, there was also an effort in using the 99 Names of God as materials for learning Islamic theology. This was partly as a response to the inadequacy of the Sanusi conception, and an attempt to relate Islamic theological values to Islamic ethics and spirituality. Since the 1980s, some modern pesantrens have introduced Salafi theology which is simpler in terms of its arguments, and is clearly oriented toward purifying Muslim faith from pre-Islamic beliefs. This development is obviously a challenge to the dominant Ash’arism among the Banjarese. Unlike in the 1920s when the reformist Muhammadiyah—whose theology is a kind of Salafism—started its influence among the Banjarese mostly through pengajian and modern schools, since the 1980s, the salafi theology has been taught to students who are expected to become ulama.

With this development, one may ask if the traditional Sanusi-Ash’arism will soon decline? This question could be better answered by looking at the power behind the contesting theologies. To my observation, the production and transmission of traditional religious knowledge through pesantren and pengajian in Banjarese society remain strong. Most Banjarese Muslims, especially from the lower class, in terms of religious matters, still depend on what the traditionalist ulama say. This is very different from their attitudes towards Muslim intellectuals at the IAIN, even though some of them also become highly respected ulama. The influences of the intellectuals at the IAIN are apparently limited to the middle and educated class. On the other hand, Islamic sects such as Islam Jamaah and Ahmadiyah whose theologies are partly but significantly different from that of the Sunni majority, have also entered South Kalimantan, at least since 1990s. Moreover, since the Reformation Era (1998 onwards), the political theology of radical Islam, especially that of Hizbut Tahrir, has been strongly influential among university students, particularly at the secular university of Lambung Mangkurat. Daily reports on corruption, violence, sexual promiscuity, and so on, apparently make the younger generation dissatisfied with the traditionalist theology, and therefore, they become attracted to a religious utopian ideology offered by new movements like Hizbut Tahrir. Last but not least, the Banjarese society has become religiously more and more plural, both internally and externally (Mujiburrahman et al. 2011; Mujiburrahman 2012), and this certainly poses new important theological questions which probably cannot be answered by the classical theology of Sanusi-Asy’arism.

Accepted: March 26, 2014


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Bibliographical Notes

“Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin” means a team of researchers of the Faculty of Ushuluddin of the State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN), Antasari, Banjarmasin, while “Tim IAIN Antasari” means a team of researchers from different faculties of the Institute. Therefore, there are several names written in the bracket, following the Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin and the Tim IAIN Antasari as the authors. The first name mentioned in the bracket is the coordinator of the research.

1) The 10 largest ethnic groups in Indonesia are: Javanese (41.65%); Sundanese (15.41%); Malay (3.45%); Madurese (3.37%); Batak (3.02%); Minang (2.72%), Betawi (2.51%); Buginese (2.49%) Bantenese (2.05%); Banjarese (1.74%).

2) Alfani Daud maintains that, given the vast similarities between Malay and Banjarese language, the ancestors of the Banjarese probably came from Sumatra (Alfani Daud 1997, 1–4). In contrast, Noerid Haloei Radam (1995) argues for two possible hypotheses. The first is that the Banjarese were a hybrid of various ethnic groups who came to South Kalimantan. The second is that the Banjarese were the Dayak people who assimilated with the migrants, thereby cultivating their own unique culture. Moreover, Mary Hawkins argues that the Banjarese were not identified as an independent ethnic entity until the coming of the Dutch and later, the emergence of the Indonesian state (Hawkins 2000, 24–36). While these theories can be justified in one way or another, there is one important element of the Banjarese ethnicity that is very obvious, namely the Banjarese language. It is true that there are several words which are uniquely used by people of Banjar Hulu as opposed to Banjar Kuala, but both groups generally can understand each other.

3) The myth of the conversion is found in Ras (1968). For an analysis of the conversion myths to Islam in the archipelago, see Russell Jones (1979, 129–158).

4) For the studies of al-Banjari’s life, see Jusuf Halidi (1968), Zafri Zamzam (1979), and Abu Daudi (1980).

5) There are some terms used to refer to Islamic theology, such as ’ilm al-tawîd, ’ilm al-kalâm, or ’ilm al-’aqîdah. The main issues discussed in Islamic theology are the conception of monotheism, the prophethood, and life after death.

6) There are a few scholarly studies on al-Qawl al-Mukhtașar, two of them deserve to be mentioned, namely a small part of Chapter III of the research report by Tim IAIN Antasari (1989) and Khairil Anwar (2009, Ch.V). The last work is originally a PhD thesis at the State Islamic University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta, in 2007.

7) In addition to the manyanggar ritual, Asywadie Syukur also refers to a research report published in 1978 by the Provincial Government of South Kalimantan, regarding the mambuang pasilih ritual which took place in Candi Agung, a Hindu temple, in Amuntai. The actors were the descendants of an aristocratic family of the Banjarese court. The influence of Javanese culture in this ritual is obvious because it uses the Javanese traditional music, gamelan and gong (Asymadie Syukur 2009, 10–16).

8) Hasan refers to Wan Mohd. Shaghir Abdullah (1982, 106). In fact, this information is not found there but in the revised edition of the same work (Abdullah 1990, 106). As we can see in the latter, it was Abdurrahman, a Banjarese intellectual and currently a Supreme Judge, who suggests Wan Mohd. Shagir Abdullah to investigate the issue. In a letter sent to M. Chatib Quzwain, dated January 13, 1986, Abdurrahman argues that most Arsyad al-Banjari’s biographers say that the treatise is his work. Abdurrahman then sent a copy of the letter to Abdullah.

9) A recent research indicates the scarcity of such evidence, apart from the myth regarding the relocation of his grave (Mufidatun Nisa 2009).

10) This classification is found in al-Palimbani’s work, Sair al-Sâlikîn (Palimbani n.d., 176–187). However, the fact that Arsyad al-Banjari and Nafis al-Banjari had the same line of masters, it could be safe to argue that they have the same position as that of al-Palimbani.

11) The research team formally consists of 10 persons, but the theological section was probably written by M. Zurkani Jahja (d. 2004). See also Zurkani Jahja (2005, 157–158).

12) The authenticity of this hadith is controversial. Ibn Hibbân, al-Hâkim, and Ibn Taimiyah believe that the hadith is saẖîẖ li ghairih (authentic based on various similar reports), but Ibn Hajar and Tirmidzi consider it ẖasan (literally “good,” which is below the saẖîẖ), while Ibn Hazm and two modern Muslim scholars, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and ’Abd al-Rahmân Badawi put it as dha’îf (literally “weak”) (Khairil Anwar 2009, 90, 182). Another modern Muslim scholar, Fazlur Rahman, sets up a general principle to reject similar kinds of hadith. He says, “a Hadith which involves a prediction, directly or indirectly, cannot, on strict historical grounds, be accepted as genuinely emanating from the Prophet and must be referred to the relevant period of later history” (Rahman 1995, 46). Italics is original.

13) It is interesting that al-Ghazâlî tries to synchronize the two opposite hadiths. For al-Ghazâlî, the statement of the hadith that only one group will go to heaven refers to those Muslims who enter paradise without the process of interrogation (ẖisâb), while the only one group who will go to hell mentioned in the second version of the hadith refers to the zindîq (the unbelievers). So, for al-Ghazâlî, most Muslims will go to heaven, but some of them should pass through the interrogation, and some of them even should stay for a certain period of time (in accordance with their respective sins) in the hell (Mujiburrahman 2008, 358).

14) Tapung tawar is a ritual for making peace between two conflicting parties. In the ritual, coconut oil mixed with fragrant spices smeared on the heads of both persons in conflict. Sometimes, bapalas bidan ritual, which is believed to be a way to free a new born baby from magical power of the midwife, is also called tapung tawar (Alfani Daud 1997, 472–473).

15) Pengajian is an Islamic study gathering with regular meetings. It can be at the mosque, majelis taklim (a special place used for religious teaching and gathering), or a spacious home of an ulama or a rich person.

16) Of course, there are other theological texts written by Banjarese ulama which are not analyzed in the research. In the last notes of the 2008 research above, there are two other works which are not mentioned, namely Risalah Pengajian Ilmu Tauhid (in Indonesian) by Jafri bin Utuh and al-Durr al-Farîd fi Shar Jawharat al-Tawîd by Muhammad Kasyful Anwar (in Arabic). See Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin (2008, 135).

17) The official statistics of the Ministry of Religious Affairs of South Kalimantan indicate that the number of pesantrens in this region reaches 300, and certainly most of them of traditionalist type. However, one must also realize that many of the pesantrens are very small (Kementerian Agama 2011).

18) For a study of conflict between the traditionalists (NU) and the reformists (Muhammadiyah) in Banjarese society, see Achmad Fedyani Saifuddin (1986), and for a current and small case, see Ahmad Muhajir (2010).

19) In his careful research on “books in Arabic script” used in the pesantren mileu, Martin van Bruinessen calculates that around 55 percent of the books are in Arabic, and 22 percent are in Malay (Bruinessen 2012, 151).

20) Zain al-’Abidin Ibn Muhammad is “one of the four great Patani ulama in Mecca in the 19th century, the others being Shaykh Daud, Shayk Ahmad . . . and Muhammad bin Daud” (Matheson and Hooker 1988, 34).

21) Similarly, there is a significant difference between the written text and oral presentation in the reading ritual of Sufi anecdotes (Millie 2008).

22) It is noteworthy that the Muslim Banjarese traditional gathering for reciting Lâilâha illallâh (there is no god but God) 70,000 times called “dzikir tujuh laksa,” which is believed can save the dead person from hell, is probably based on this Sanûsi’s work as well. It is still practiced up to now.

23) The dissertation was defended in 1987 at IAIN (now UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta. It was published in 1996, and reprinted in 2009 (Zurkani Jahja 2009). Unlike most scholarly works on al-Ghazali, both in the Middle East and the West, Zurkani Jahja convincingly argues that there is no contradiction among al-Ghazali’s works written before and after he became a Sufi. They are simply different methods for different levels of theological views.

24) I edited both editions, and I wrote a preface to introduce Zurkani Jahja’s theological views. As his student, I was quite influenced by his ideas, so I wrote my undergraduate thesis in 1994 on the same subject (Mujiburrahman 2005).


Vol. 1, No. 3, Yasuko YOSHIMOTO

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

A Study of the Hồi giáo Religion in Vietnam:
With a Reference to Islamic Religious Practices of Cham Bani

Yasuko Yoshimoto*

* 吉本康子, National Museum of Ethnology, 10-1 Senri-Expo Park, Suita-city, Osaka 565-8511, Japan

e-mail: yoshimotoysk[at]

This paper examines Hồi giáo, a state-recognized religion translated as “Islam” in Vietnam, and will focus on the Islamic religious practices of the Cham Bani, one of two groups of Muslims in Vietnam. While it is recognized that diverse Islamic religious practices have taken root in various areas, there is a tendency to view religious practices such as the Quran recital, Ramadan, Salat, and so on, with a sweeping uniformity. As such, regardless of how “unorthodox” they are, the people who engage in such practices within society are regarded, or classified, as Muslim. The Cham Bani have also been described as an unorthodox Muslim sect, on the basis of its syncretic religious practices. However, the Cham Bani practitioners see themselves as neither Muslim nor members of the Islam community, and consider that they have experienced a different evolution of Islamic religious elements.

Is it possible to equate Hồi giáo with Islam and its followers with Muslim? This paper examines these questions through observations of the self-recognition, as well as the actual conditions of Islamic practices among the Cham Bani, especially the rituals that are observed during Ramadan. It reveals the possibility that Vietnam’s state-recognized religious sect of “Islam” and its “Muslim” followers are polythetic in nature and differ from the conventional definitions of Islam and Muslim, based on a monothetic classification.

Keywords: Cham Bani, Hồi giáo, Islam, Vietnam, polythetic classes, religious practice

I Introduction

Since the Doi Moi policy, religion has been discussed actively in Vietnam so as to maintain national unification as well as to construct a national identity in the country’s new period. In 2007, the White Paper on Religion and Policies was released with a special reference to the six state-recognized religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao (Vietnam, Government Committee for Religious Affairs (GCRA) 2006).1) In this paper, I examine the state-recognized Islam, Hồi giáo, in order to contribute to an understanding of a peripheral aspect of Muslim.

Table 1 “Muslims” in Vietnam

Source: Vietnam, GCRA (2006)

According to the official statistics in 2009, the number of “Muslims” in Vietnam is approximately 75,000, many of whom are part of the Cham ethnic group, believed to be the descendants of Champa.2) They are divided into two main groups: one, the Muslims living in Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces in south-central Vietnam, known as “the Old Islamic Group,” “Cham Bani,” or “Bani”; two, the Muslims living in An Giang, Tay Ninh, and Dong Nai provinces around the Mekong Delta, as well as in Ho Chi Minh City, known as “the New Islamic Group,” “Cham Islam,” or “Islam” (see Table 1). There are considerable differences between the two groups in terms of religious practices: the Cham Bani are strongly influenced by local and traditional customs and beliefs and have incorporated elements of Brahmanism and ancestor worship. They also have no contact with the wider Islamic world, while Cham Islam is Sunni Muslim and has maintained contact with the Islamic community through pilgrimages to Mecca or studies abroad in such countries as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia.3)

Ever since the French colonial period, contemporary academia has researched the religious situation of Cham Bani. Records left by missionaries and colonial administrators indicate that the Cham Bani, or “les Chams musulmans du Sud-Annam,” recite the Quran and believe in Allah, yet do not strictly follow the Islamic faith. They do not recite prayers five times a day; they believe in gods other than Allah; and during Ramadan, only monks fast. For these reasons, the Cham Bani are described variously as “Shiites” (Catabon 1901, 4; Durand 1903, 54) or “. . . musulmans, d’ailleurs peu orthodox” (Ner 1942, 154). The descriptions of the Cham Bani, based on the Western Christian concept of religion, have not changed greatly till today (Phan et al. 1991; Phan 1993; Phú 2004).

Indeed, not all of the people who are officially classified as “Islam” or Hồi giáo in Vietnam identify themselves as Muslim; the Cham Bani people especially do not have such self-identification. They usually say that they are the followers of Hồi giáo but not Islam; more specifically they identify themselves as Hồi giáo or Bani, but not as Muslims. This raises the question whether Hồi giáo can be translated as Muslim. Some of the Cham Bani villagers and intellectuals whom I approached claim that it is a mistake to view them as Muslims. As I will explore further below, they view Cham Bani as one branch of the “Cham religion,” rather than of Islam. While Cham Islam and Cham Bani are both ethnic Cham, the former tends to regard the latter as non-Muslims, and many Cham Bani intellectuals think of themselves as non-Muslims as well.

How did such a gap between the official/scholarly discourse and the practitioners’ perception emerge? Is Hồi giáo, a state-recognized religion translated as “Islam” in Vietnam, axiomatically the same as Islam, and are its followers Muslim? It should be noted that because of this gap, I differentiate between the Vietnamese state-recognized category of “Muslim” in this paper and Muslim as generally defined.

Perhaps this difference is caused by the method of classification of Islam or Muslim. In general, Islam and Muslim are defined in an essentialist way; indeed, faced with “the diversity of Islam,” there is a tendency, as numerous previous ethnographic descriptions have made clear, to view such practices as the recitation of the Quran, the Islamic prayer (salat), or fasting of Ramadan as having uniform meanings for Muslims worldwide. In addition, there is a tendency to view the various religious practices of Muslims in local societies as “a variation of Islam,” or else to categorically divide the local religious elements into “Islamic” or “non-Islamic.”4) The Cham Bani have been classified as Islam because of the presence of Islamic elements such as prayers to Allah or recitations of the Quran.

Meanwhile, the practitioners themselves do not necessarily subscribe to such categorizations. Most of the villagers in Cham Bani society do not distinguish between the “Islamic” and “non-Islamic” elements of their religion. In other words, the villagers’ Islamic religious practices are more similar to those of practical religion.5) Moreover, in Cham Bani society, Islamic religious practices vary depending on gender or social stratum. In fact, most of the villagers do not recite the Quran, and they even eat pork outside the village. Despite these “ambiguous” practices, the religion has been described as “Muslim,” and the religious elements have been described separately as Islamic/non- Islamic, or orthodox/non-orthodox in ethnographic writing or religious documents.

The conventional definition of Islam, or Muslim, is usually made on the assumption that the followers share certain practices or belief systems. However, among the Cham Bani, the Vietnamese “Muslim,” it is unclear whether its followers have common Islamic practices or belief systems.

Wittgenstein has shown that such a definition based on the idea that a concept has one essential common feature is unrealistic and advocates instead the concept of “family resemblance” (Wittgenstein 1967). The anthropologist Rodney Needham has incorporated his concept into anthropology and insists that such anthropological concepts of “family” and “marriage” cannot apply to the whole society. Additionally, he borrowed two classifications from natural sciences: monothetic and polythetic. The monothetic classification is one in which an individual of a certain class possesses at least one common feature. In the polythetic classification, an individual of a class does not share even one feature as a whole (Needham 1975).

Shirakawa applied this polythetic classification to the study of religion. Mentioning the policy of separation of Shintoism and Buddhism implemented by the Meiji government, he focused on the historical regional expansion of Jisha and Kenmitsu as ambiguous classes and reconsidered the syncretic fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan from the perspective of polythetic class (Shirakawa 2007). Examining the religious discourse in modern Japan, he points out the importance of describing a religious situation that is “natural” for the people who live inside of it, not as a variation of religious syncretism.

Using Needham’s polythetic classification and referring to Shirakawa’s work, this paper focuses on the dynamic evolution of Islamic religious practices that differ depending on gender or social strata among the Cham Bani. The paper then considers the possibility of understanding Hồi giáo or “Muslim” in Vietnam as a polythetic class.

II The Religious Situation in a Cham Bani Village

The Cham Bani live mainly in Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces, in south-central Vietnam. These provinces are where Panduranga, part of the kingdom of Champa, was found. Another religious group of the Cham exists here, usually referred to by Vietnamese scholars and officials as Cham Balamon, the followers of Bà la môn giáo.6) These two religious groups inhabit separate villages; intermarriage, although not explicitly forbidden, is rare and is, in fact, said to have been formerly taboo. The people of both groups are matrilineal and conform to the practice of matrilocal residence, with houses of the same descent group usually neighboring one another. The sphere dominated by members of the same descent group is called laga, and its members constitute fluid units on occasions of rituals, such as ancestor worshipping, while a unit of expenditure or the production of daily life is basically one household, which is composed of a husband, wife, and their children. Members of the same descent group recognize each other through the cemetery or gravesite of the group, and also through a lineage deity called achiet atau, who is worshipped in a basket and maintained by a woman called po atau (landlord of atau), of the descent group.

In the past, the Cham people of the region belonged to one of the two religious groups mentioned above; however, since the emergence of converts to Sunni Islam in the 1960s, another religious group has developed: Cham Islam. Cham Islam is usually described as followers of Hồi giáo mới in Vietnamese, which means “new Islam,” or Cham biraw in Cham, which means “New Cham.” According to previous studies, “New Islam” began to emerge in the 1960s, when some of the Cham Bani were exposed to the practice of Sunni Muslims in places such as Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Realizing that their own religious practices were not authentic, they began to aim for purer Islamic practices (Nguyễn 1974, 272; Nakamura 1999, 104). After their conversion, the converts abandoned ancestor worship and, with the aid of the Islam Community, built mosques in their villages (Dohamide 1965, 56; Yoshimoto 2010, 243).7)

Map 1“Muslim (Hồi giáo)” Residential Provinces and City in Vietnam

Today, there are approximately 100,000 Cham living in this region (see Table 2). As the table shows, the total population of the Bà la môn giáo is greater than that of the Hồi giáo (“Muslim”). The total “Muslim” population in both provinces is approximately 44,000. This number includes both the Cham Bani and Cham Islam; there are no statistics revealing the breakdown for each group. However, according to an official report in
2001, the population of the Cham Islam in Ninh Thuan province was 1,791, which counted four masjid. Thus the majority of the “Muslim” population in this region consists of the Cham Bani. The more than 40,000 Cham Bani of Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces are scattered over 20 villages. Each village of Cham Bani usually has one masjid called thang magik.

This paper focuses on the Cham Bani religious situation and practices in Y Village,
Bac Binh district, Binh Thuan province.8) The village has approximately 3,800 inhabitants and most are of Cham Bani origin. The majority of the villagers earn their living by growing paddy rice; however, since harvests are irregular because of the dry climate and poor soil, many villagers work on the side—making charcoal, collecting firewood, weaving, working as a housemaid in town, etc.—in order to supplement their income.

Table 2 “Muslim” and Bà la môn Population in Vietnam

Source: Vietnam, Central Population and Housing Census Steering Committee (CPHCSC) (2010)

Certain religious practices prevail in the village, such as worship of the village god called po yang or po palei at a place of worship called bimon; worship of po Auluah (Allah), which has roots in Islam, at the thang magik (masjid); worship of the dead such as ancestor worship, and worship of the lineage deity achiet atau as mentioned previously.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, villagers used to live on a hill at the foot of a mountain, but today they live on some flat land close to National Highway 1.9) Although the hill area is no longer the site of daily activities, there remain graves, fields, and a religious building for bimon worshipping, the mausoleum of a Champa king or his servant, Po Klong Sak. On the flat land can be found paddy fields and buildings, including the village office, a clinic, a post office, an elementary school, and a thang magik for worshipping po Auluah.

Structurally, the Cham society in this region is made up of two categories: hala Janan
(religious priests) and ghiheh (laity). I will set out the religious elements by focusing first on the types of religious priests. As shown in Table 3, there are different types of religious priests, who are, in turn, served by priests known as acar and po acar, and an elderly woman known as muk buh, who makes offerings in dishes for acar during the rituals. The main role of the aca is to oversee the worship of po Auluah and muk kei (ancestors), drawing on his knowledge of manuscripts, generically called kura’an (Quran), which are written in transformed Arabic letters called akhar bini 10) Rituals in thang magik are organized on set days according to the lunar calendar and seem to be the principal religious events for the villagers (see Table 4). The acar also leads rites of passage such as marriages, funerals, and so forth. In fact, the people do not consider the acar merely as the community’s priest but also as a representative of each descent group, as I describe in the next section. Bimon and achiet atau rituals are led by a priest called on muduon, guided by manuscripts written in akhar thrah, the traditional writing system of the Cham. These rituals, called rija, are meant to serve deities or po yang. They are not conducted in thang magik and are held according to the traditional sakawi calendar.11)

Table 3 Halau Janan (Religious Priests) in the Cham Bani Village

Source: Author’s research at Y Village in 2003.

Table 4 Main Annual Rituals Held in the Thang Magik

Source: Author’s research at Y Village in 2003.

In short, religious affairs are divided into two categories in the village. Rituals related to po Auluah thang magik, as well as the rites of passage, are served by aca who have knowledge of kura’an; rituals for po yang, the village god, and lineage deities are led by on muduon Po Auluah (Allah), thang magik (masjid), and kura’an are regarded as Islamic elements, having originated from Islam; however, they have been co-opted and practiced quite differently in the Cham Bani society such that describing them simply as examples of “the diversity among commodities of Islam” is limiting and possibly inaccurate. In the next section, I describe how these elements are practiced in the region.

III Islamic Religious Practices in the Village

In this section, I will focus on three Islamic elements of the Cham Bani village: the thang magik, the recitation of the kura’an, and rituals conducted during Ramadan, called Ramuwan.

In both official and scholarly literature, thang magik has been translated as “mosque” and is considered to be one element that demonstrates the “Islam-ness” of Cham Bani because it is where people offer their prayers to Allah. Observations in situ reveal the interesting process of local acceptance of Islam, which might not be entirely captured in the translation.12)

Photo 1 shows the exterior of a thang magik. Its front wall is encased in concrete, it lacks towers like minarets, and it is painted with a variety of decorations and words. In the middle, towards the top of the front pillars, the number “1993” is written in Cham traditional letters, flanked on both sides by yin-yang figures. On the front side of the roof is a honkan, a symbolic figure of dualism in Cham society (see details in Section IV). Inside, one finds a wooden box-like pulpit called minbar, from which the acar recites the kura’an during the Friday prayer ritual (Photo 2). For the villagers, this pulpit should be placed to the west—“the direction of the Maka (Makkah).” The frame of the pulpit is painted red, with pictures of dragons that resemble the holy snake, Naga, as well as a gai bhong, a red rod wrapped in a white cloth. The red rod is considered to be a symbol of po Mohamat, Muhammad.

The thang magik is unlike the Islamic mosque—it is closed most of the time and people do not enter for prayers five times a day—but like other Islamic religious centers, it is regarded as the main communal setting for rituals, which are administered on Fridays of certain months of the lunar calendar (Table 4).

As mentioned above, the Cham society in this region is composed of two categories—religious priests and the laity—so participants and practices at thang magik are
notably different. The villagers use different words for “pray”: for example, the prayer by the aca for po Auluah, with recitations from the kura’an and accompanied by special body movements, is called vat. On the other hand, the laity’s prayer, without any recitation, is described as lancan and tampah. These are dedicated to po Auluah, the village god and lineage deities. The laity can only connect to po Auluah or the deities through priests as their medium.13)

Photo 1 Exterior of a Thang Magik

Photo 2 A Minbar inside a Thang Magik

Photo 3 Textbook for Laypersons (Edited by Phuoc Nhon Village Doctrine Committee 1971)

The acar carry out Islamic religious practices on behalf of the villagers, such as recitation of the kura’an, but they do not follow Muslim duties strictly, not even the requisite prayers five times a day. In fact, they are not considered by the villagers as simply priests but also as representatives of each descent group because of the important role they play, particularly in funeral rituals and ancestor worship. Therefore the motivation to become an acar is usually explained by a desire to serve the descendant group.

In the Cham Bani society, studying the kura’an is the right—and obligation—of male
members, and is not reserved solely for the acar. Boys who reach the age of 12–13 years old must study Arabic text in the kura’an at the thang magik. When they are able to recite some phrases and pass an exam, they celebrate this rite of passage called talaik kalem,14) after which they are given the right to study the kura’an. Photo 3 shows a textbook for the laity that was edited by an acar living in Ninh Thuan province in 1971. Written in Vietnamese on the cover are the words: “the sacred phrases to serve your ancestors,” and in the preface the sentence: “akhar rah akhar mukey, akhar ta-a” (phrases of rah, phrases for ancestors, phrases for praying). These three phrases are effective in ancestor worship and must be studied by Bani males. The textbook also quotes four passages from the kura’an that the Cham Bani recite for ancestral service, when visiting a graveyard, and during a funeral. Thus it can be seen that in Cham Bani society, reciting from the kura’an serves as an offering to ancestral spirits and not as a Muslim duty.

Table 5 Main Events of Ramuwan in Y Village

Source: Author’s research in July and August 2011.

Next I will describe the ritual process in Ramadan. For the villagers, Ramadan, which they call Ramuwan, is the most important season in their religious life. It is a sacred month because it is the time when ancestors return home, and the acar stay at the thang magik for one month and adhere to a vegetarian diet. Although Ramuwan has been described as a distorted version of the Muslim fasting month, the people do not actually fast.

Table 5 shows the main ritual processes of Ramuwan. As we can see, many of the
rites are similar to a memorial service. Three days before the first day of the month of Ramuwan, people visit the graveyards of their matrilineal lineage and invite their ancestral spirits back to their houses. After the three-day graveyard visits, people make offerings to the ancestral spirits residing in their homes. First, they prepare a meal offering to every ancestral spirit, then they make individual offerings to descendant members who have passed away. These offerings are made by male members who recite the kura’an, and who are usually acar; however, the oldest woman of the household usually has the responsibility of remembering the names of the deceased over a span of approximately seven generations.15) After the offerings, a place for the ancestral spirits is set up in the house, and an individual is responsible for keeping this place clean at all times.

Table 6 Prayers during Ramuwan in Y Village

Source: Author’s research in July and August 2011.

On the first day of Ramadan, after sunset, the acar enter the thang magik. This marks the beginning of the holy month of Ramuwan. During this month, they stay in the thang magik, away from their families to serve Allah five times a day; however, as Table 6 shows, the names and times of prayers are different from Muslim prayers. Laywomen and elderly men, all dressed in white, watch and participate in these prayers, but they do not recite the kura’an. The main function of the females is to bring sets of betel nuts for the ancestral spirits and to pray for blessings.

Women’s participation in the religious ceremony is crucial and they play a significant role. The wife, or other female members of the descendant group, prepares special meals for the priests twice a day—before sunrise and after sunset. According to a woman of a house that I observed, the rice prepared by the women is eaten in the morning by the priests for ancestors, and in the evening, it is eaten for po Auluah.

While the priests fast for the first three days, laypeople do not observe the ritual of fasting at all; nevertheless, they are forbidden from eating meat for the first three days of the month, until the “red rod” is deposited.16) Women make special offerings for female spirits on the 15th, and for male spirits on the 20th. Offerings continue to be made for ancestral spirits at the mosque until the 27th, when they return to their world.


Photo 4 Offerings for Male Spirits in the Thang Magik

As I mentioned earlier, the acar and laypeople have different prayers. The prayers of the acar begin with a part called vat and finish with a section called mroi. Vat starts with ablutions, followed by a fixed sequence of movements: standing, prostrating, kneeling, and sitting, each conducted with a set reading from the kura’an, with the acar facing west all the time. After the vat, the acar sit up facing east and eat an offering for po Auluah or ancestors, then transition into the mroi, the closing ceremony that includes burning a piece of eagle wood.

The laity’s prayers, called lancan and tampah, do not include reading from the kura’an instead the people make individual wishes for health and prosperity—in short, worldly interests. They do not consume food offerings but bring some home as a food of grace.

As we have observed, people visit graveyards to bring ancestral spirits back home, make offerings to these spirits, and visit the thang magik with betel nuts offerings. They pray to po Auluah, but as we have seen, Ramuwan is mostly a month for memorial services and prayers for benefits.

IV The Cham Bani Discourse on Religion

As mentioned earlier, some argue that Cham Bani should not be considered as a form of Islam but as a branch or sect of a religious system. The ethnologist, Thanh Phan, who is of Cham Bani origin, explains Cham Bani as follows:

Chams used to have two religious sects Awal and Ahier. . . . In colloquial language Awal is called Bani. Chams see Awal as symbolizing women and Ahier as symbolizing men. These two are dia- metrically opposed to each other in a sense, yet also cannot exist one without the other. . . . People of the Bani sect adopted Islamic thoughts and culture but they did not accept them passively or mechanically; instead, by creatively and selectively adopting them, they assimilated the new religion into their own economic and cultural practices. This is why even today they do not worship only Allah but also other gods. (Thành 1996, 166)


Table 7 Examples of Awal-Ahier Attributions

Source: Nakamura (1999) and author’s research.

According to this explanation, Bani is one sect of a people divided into Awal and Ahier. These words can be traced to the Arabic words meaning “last” and “first” respectively, and supplemented with a religious connotation of “woman” and “man.”

Nakamura, based on her lengthy fieldwork, also traced the Cham religion from the perspective of Awal- Ahier (Nakamura 1999). According to Nakamura, all the phenomena of Cham society are constituted in the form of binary oppositions: for example, the relationship between Cham Balamon and Cham Bani achieves a harmony with the former belonging to Awal and the latter to Ahier sects. The religious elements in the Cham Bani village are drawn from a combination of Awal and Ahier elements (see Table 7).

Photo 5 is a honcan, a figure that illustrates the concept of Awal-Ahier dualism. As mentioned earlier, this figure, which resembles the Onkara of Balinese Hinduism, is painted on the roof of the thang magik in the village. Cham Bani is symbolized by the figure of the moon and the number 6 in traditional Cham letters, while Cham Balamon by the sun and the number 3. Together it demonstrates the fusion of the two.

Photo 5 A Honcan

This concept of Awal-Ahier is emphasized by Cham Bani intellectuals and ordained priests in discussions about Islam in Cham society, possibly as a means to validate the “authenticity” of the Cham Bani religion in the face of criticism by “orthodox” Islam and rejection of the indigenous elements within the Cham Bani religion. Awal-Ahier is understood as the syncretism that affirms the tolerance of Cham society. For these intellectuals, the Islamic religious practices of Cham Bani should be viewed through the Awal-Ahier perspective, rather than categorized as Islamic or non-Islamic. In my opinion, however, ordinary people are unfamiliar with these concepts and only understand that they are practicing their religion in the age-old, long-established manner.

V Conclusion

As mentioned in the first section, the Cham Bani have been considered as unorthodox Muslims because they recite the Quran and believe in Allah, yet do not strictly follow the Islamic faith. This perception is based on the idea that those who recite the Quran and fast during Ramadan are performing their Muslim duty and partake in the “commonality of Islam.” This is a perception based on essentialism.

Such classification is unrealistic. As we have seen, Islamic religious practices among the Cham Bani differ widely depending on gender or social strata. Members of the Cham Bani do not have a single feature in common across the board. In other words, it can be said that the Cham Bani is a polythetic class.

Hồi giáo in Vietnam, regardless of the criteria used in the classification, is indeed a polythetic class, as opposed to the conventional classification of Muslim. On the question of self-recognition, not all of those officially classified as “Muslim” or Hồi giáo identify themselves as Muslim. Cham Bani people actually identify themselves as followers of Hồi giáo, calling themselves tín đồ Hồi giáo or tín đồ đạo Hồi. This does not, however, mean that they accept to be identified with Islam. They describe themselves as not of the Islam sect but Bani. In other words, they subscribe to a Vietnamese religious category that includes Cham Islam and Cham Bani, but not one where Islam is connected with the wider Islam community. To put it another way, the word “Islam” has two meanings in Vietnam: the first is Islam in a broad sense as the English translation of Hồi giáo the second is Islam in a narrower sense as one of the groups of Hồi giáo—Cham Islam or Sunni Muslim.

This reality is not taken into account by the state and official classification is monothetic. Here I will discuss the state’s stance towards syncretic religions such as Cham Bani. Since the beginning of the Doi Moi period, there has been much debate on religions in Vietnam. The state has tended to consider cases such as Cham Bani, where foreign religion became “indigenized” (dân tộc hóa) as something positive.17) We can see this quite clearly in an excerpt from a government white paper of 2006:

Exogenous religions entering Vietnam have adapted to the cultural and religious complexions of the Vietnamese people. As a result, they have transformed from their original form; in other words, once these exogenous religions entered Vietnam, they were assimilated by Vietnamese culture. . . . Whether following exogenous or native religions, Vietnamese believers in general are influenced by polytheism, by a spirit of religious tolerance and of nationalism. (Vietnam, GCRA 2006, 9)

Incidentally, it has long used the term “religious syncretism” by anthropologists to explain the phenomenon in which a new or an exogenous religion, introduced to a specific society, either mixes or coexists with local religions as it is adopted. Within this framework, the debate was centered upon the question of whether the exogenous and local religions coexist without eliminating the border between them, or whether they blend together in a seamless form to create a new and coherent religious system. This idea, however, has been criticized from many directions (Leopold and Jensen 2004). For instance, some argued that all religions currently practiced are the products of syncretism, having incorporated elements from many different religious traditions. Others were concerned that because the idea of “authentic religion” is inherent in the idea of syncretism, it has imputed negative connotations such as “impure” and “inauthentic” to the real religious phenomena.

Anthropologists have focused on the discourses on syncretism or the processes through which different religions merge, examining how power is exercised in the process of legitimization or de-legitimization of certain religious practices (for example, Stewart and Shaw 1994). While some cultures embrace syncretism as evidence of their tolerance toward different cultures, others hold an “anti-syncretic” attitude, asserting their cultural “authenticity” by rejecting or erasing the “impure” cultural elements from their practices.

How then does religious assimilation occur in Vietnam? How does the foreign religion become “indigenized” (dân tộc hóa)? In the case of Cham Bani, this occurs by sustaining the worship of ancestors (muk kei) and deities (yang), including spirits of the members of each descendant group, village gods, and spirits of Champa kings or those who have served the kingdom. These are the local religious elements shared with the Cham Balamon, another religious group among the Cham. It is precisely in this way that Cham Bani differentiate themselves from Cham Islam by sustaining these elements.

From this perspective, it could be said that the Cham Bani might exist as Muslim only as recognized by the state. Perhaps, in a nation like Vietnam where a single religion does not constitute the glue of national unity, religious syncretism is linked to the idea of unique indigenous cultures that buttresses the image of a multi-ethnic Vietnam. It is precisely this religious syncretism that is held up as being “authentic.”


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1) The first statistics in 1999 identified six state-recognized religions; by 2011 there were 12 state- recognized religions, including Baha’i, Buu Son Ky Huong, etc.

2) Champa is one of the oldest kingdoms in Southeast Asia, having been established around the second century in what is today’s central Vietnam.

3) The presence of two groups of Muslims is regarded as a result of differences in the process of Islamization. The Islamization of Champa is believed to have occurred through contact with Islamic Arab merchants and the Persians, from the ninth to eleventh century, and through the Malays, from the sixteenth to seventeenth century. The Cham Bani could have been a group of people who stayed behind even after the country was deprived of maritime trade with Islam. The Cham Islam might be a group of people who moved to Cambodia and then the Mekong Delta whose practice of Islam was intensified through contact with the Malays (Nakamura 2000).

4) Other labels like “folk Islam” or “islam” in lowercase letters (Eickelman 1982; El-Zein 1977) have also emerged.

5) The meaning of practical religion here is that found in Dialectic in Practical Religion (1968) by Edmond Leach.

6) Bà la môn giáo has been described as indigenized Hinduism. For example, see Phan et al. (1991).

7) This caused clashes with other Cham Bani, who saw no contradictions with their traditional religious practices.

8) My fieldwork was carried out mainly among the Cham communities in Bac Binh district, Binh Thuan province in 2001, 2002, and 2011.

9) According to the elders in the village, the villagers were forced to move under the Strategic Hamlet Program in 1959.

10) There are several types of kura’an in Cham Bani: patar murat, janreng gar, etc. In any of these kura’an, phonetic transcriptions and explanations, written using the traditional writing system called akhar thrah, are inserted.

11) Villagers use the Western calendar and the Vietnamese lunisolar calendar on a daily basis while the traditional calendar, sakawi, is used for customary rituals. The sakawi plays no role in most people’s lives; only religious priests and intellectuals consult it for information and guidance in organizing rituals and annual events (Yoshimoto 2011).

12) According to Aymonier’s Cham-French dictionary, magik means “masjid” and thang means “house” (Aymonier 1906, 367).

13) There are no differences in the laity’s prayers no matter what rank. Laymen’s prayers for po Auluah are also no different from that for po yang; po Auluah is positioned as one of the deities. In this respect, po Auluah is manifestly not the same as the Islamic god Allah.

14) Talaik (open) kalem (a brush) means “begin writing.” This ritual consists mainly of boys reading aloud the Arabic alphabet called akhar Bini and bismillah (the phrase uttered before reciting each chapter of the Quran), following the acar’s direction.

15) In a house that I observed in 2010, in Ninh Thuan province, a woman around 52 years old said she invited about 50 spirits and members, both of matrilineal and patrilineal lineages. She said her deceased mother used to invite about 80 spirits and members, but she could not remember all of them so the number was reduced.

16) The length of abstention from meat depends on the area: for example, the Cham Bani in Ninh Thuan province are forbidden to eat meat for 15 days.

17) For example, Đặng (2004).