Shapers of Islam in Southeast Asia

Shapers of Islam in Southeast Asia

Prof Khairudin Aljunied.

Reviewed Abdul Hai

Malik ibn Anas (711 CE -795 CE), a distinguished jurist and founder of the Maliki school of jurisprudence, made a perceptive statement affirming that the reformation of the later portion of the Muslim nation, known as the Ummah, can only be achieved through the same means that rectified its initial phase.

The foundational Islamic scriptures, both explicitly and implicitly, indicate that the early generations of Muslims serve as a point of reference. This notion is conveyed in an authentic tradition attributed to the Holy Prophet, who stated, “The best people are those living in my generation, and then those who will follow them, and then those who will follow the latter.”

The reformation, progress, and development of the later Muslim generations must occur within the legal and social framework established by the early generation ( As-Siba’ee 2008). The advocacy for Islamic reformation and the modernization of Islamic traditions can be attributed primarily to external influences rather than inherent Islamic principles.

The call for an Islamic figure akin to Martin Luther (Aljunied, 2022) reverberates within contemporary Muslim society, aiming to discard the colonial roots that have deeply impacted it. The intellectual, psychological, and societal regression of the Muslim community can be traced back to the year 1608, when the East India Company made its incursion into Muslim territories (Dalrymple, 2019). Subsequently, several scholars and intellectuals, including late Shaykh of Al-Azhar Muhmmad Abdu, and Sayyid Ahmad Khan among others, emerged as advocates of the reform movement, embracing the notion of modernity.

The colonization undertaken by Western powers encompassed more than the acquisition of territories and resources from Muslim societies; It entailed a more profound aspect, namely the colonization of the collective consciousness, cultural dynamics, and social structures. This comprehensive colonial endeavor has resulted in some Muslim intellectuals adopting a stance that, in the words of Professor Wael Hallaq, renders them, even more Orientalist in their perspectives than the original Orientalists themselves. For example, Mohammaed Arkoun, a former professor specializing in the history of Islamic thought at the University of Paris II, in his book 0uvertures sur I’Islam interpreted Islam as a socio-cultural construct representative of the Muslim population. From Arkoun’s standpoint, Islam was perceived as a human endeavor attributed to the Arab community rather than an exclusively divine phenomenon (Gunny 2010).

The Islamization initiative in the Middle East has reached its culmination, with a shift in its self-perception from being the vanguard of Islamic identity. As expressed by Muhammad ibn Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the Middle East is now envisioning itself as the forthcoming Europe. However, it is noteworthy that in recent years, there has been an intellectual flourishing of Islam in various regions across the globe, particularly in Southeast Asia.

Khairudin Aljunied, an Associate Professor specializing in Islamic intellectual studies at the Universiti of Malaya, Malaysia, has undertaken the significant endeavor of elucidating the pivotal role played by Southeast Asia in revitalizing Islamic thought and fostering intellectual pursuits. In his latest publication titled “Shapers of Islam in Southeast Asia,” the book under discussion.  Aljunied sheds light on the contributions made by individuals and movements from the region towards the development and enrichment of Islamic discourse.

Aljunied’s  research aims to shed light on the progressive and pluralistic aspects of Islam in Southeast Asia, drawing upon the perspectives of diverse Muslim intellectuals (Aljunied, 2022). Within his study, he specifically focuses on seven prominent figures while excluding others. However, Aljunied does not provide a clear justification for the selection of these seven individuals over potentially more globally recognized figures beyond the Southeast Asian context. This lack of rationale in his selection process creates a gap in understanding for readers seeking a comprehensive grasp of his thesis. The seven figures examined by Aljunied, each accompanied by a distinctive sub-heading, are Naquilb Al-Attas, the desecularist; Osman Bakar, the epistemologist; Narun Nasution, the rationalist; Ahmad Ibrahim, the legalist; Kuntomwoyo, the historicist; Ceasr Adib Majui, the integrationist; and Zakiah Darardat, the moralist. The inclusion of distinctive sub-headings for each figure is of utmost significance within this study, as it actively engages the reader in examining the specific individual and their respective contributions. These sub-headings serve as essential markers, guiding readers to delve deeper into the analysis of each figure’s unique perspectives and intellectual achievements. By employing such sub-headings, the study facilitates a focused exploration of the distinctive contributions made by each individual, fostering a comprehensive understanding of their respective roles within the broader context of the research. Aljunied (2022, pp. 3) introduces the novel conceptual framework termed “Islamic reformist mosaic.” In his work, he offers a definition of this concept, highlighting its origins in a continuous lineage of productive intellectual and scholarships that is rooted in the fundamental sources of Islamic scripture, namely the Quran and Sunnah.” And with this definition Aljunied excluded ( 2022,p.3) “streams of thought that do not consider the sacred source of Islam as essential in making sense of Islamic reformism and intellectualism”.

Despite Aljunied’s failure to acknowledge other essential and fundamental sources of Islam, such as Ijma and, to a lesser extent, Qiyas (Kamali, 2003), it is imperative to recognize that these legal principles play a fundamental role in any endeavour related to Islamic reform.  Aljunied’s omission of these bodies of authorities, whose interpretations are traditionally cited as evidence, introduces a potential loophole that allows the possibility of including streams of thoughts that Aljunied himself desires to exclude.

The book constitutes a short examination of the seven above mentioned distinguished intellectuals hailing from Southeast Asia. These individuals, through their profound contemplation, written works, and active involvement in societal affairs, have significantly influenced the understanding of Islam within this particular region. Despite fundamental disparities in each of their methodologies, theoretical approaches, and subject areas, it is feasible to discern a unifying ideological framework encompassing these seven notable figures into few key points: Firstly, there is a recognition of the perceived notion that the Muslim world lags behind and necessitates reform and modernization. Secondly, there exists a compelling imperative to confront the challenges posed by the contemporary global landscape and present an alternative to the prevailing Western homogeneity. Lastly, there is a call to critically reassess Islamic tradition, history, and cultural narratives with the aim of aligning them with contemporary standards and expectations.

In relation to the first key point, several critical questions arise, including inquiries about the identification of backwardness, the criteria for determining what is considered backward, and who holds the authority to make such judgments. While the West has undoubtedly made significant technological advances, there are concerns about the moral and ethical fabric of Western society, which is perceived by some as being in a state of chaos. Thus, the Western world may not be regarded as a reliable reference point for assessing human development. Moreover, regarding modernism, it is essential to question whether Western society can truly be considered modern, or if it is undergoing a process of demodernization (Alexander 2013)  This raises the issue of whether the Muslim world should adopt a similar form of modernism or seek an alternative path. Notably, with the exception of Zakiah Daradjat, the book fails to extensively address the specific kind of modernism desired by the thinkers discussed in relation to the Muslim world.

The second proposition posits that the manifold challenges posed by the contemporary global landscape can be effectively addressed through the provision of an alternative to Western homogeneity. However, this assumption fails to acknowledge the true essence of Islam and its progress, which is measured by the level of devout commitment exhibited by Muslims, rather than merely offering an alternative argument. In this regard, Allah proclaims in the Quran, “Allah has promised those who have believed among you and performed righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth just as He granted it to those before them” (Quran 24:55). Lastly, the notion of reevaluating Islamic tradition, history, and culture to ensure their alignment with the modern world is often seen as a defeating proposition. Instead, it is crucial to undertake a comprehensive examination of Western culture, history, and traditions through a critical lens. By employing Islamic principles, traditions, and guidelines, an alternative narrative should be constructed and presented as a viable option.

The impact of colonization has profoundly unsettled the intrinsic essence of Eastern societies, resulting in a disoriented state. Consequently, there exists a desperate inclination to simultaneously reject and emulate the West. In their aspiration to resemble the West, certain individuals discussed in the book exhibit a willingness to adopt principles, methods, and arguments that are perceived as heterodox by the majority of the Muslim community ( Ansari 2000) . This adoption is primarily driven by the desire to be regarded at the same intellectual level as the West. As an illustrative instance, the rationalist thinker Harun Nasution demonstrates no hesitation in incorporating ideas from the Mu’tazilite school of thought to augment his proposals for reform (Aljunied, 2023). Similarly, the legalist, Ahmad Ibrahim exhibits a remarkable openness to integrating English Common Law and Shariah law, treating them as equals in significance. This approach challenges the notion of one legal system’s superiority over the other but also introduces a potential basis for subsequent ambiguity and perplexity.

Undoubtedly, there is a recognized necessity for reform; however, any such reform must remain firmly rooted within the framework of Islam’s primary sources. Any attempt at reform that disregards the spiritual, religious, and traditional Islamic worldview will, in actuality, give rise to a dysfunctional Muslim society, thereby diverting Muslims from the very principles that the scholars in this study aim to promote. In this regard, Osman Bakar’s epistemological perspective holds significant importance. He acknowledges that Islamic civilization is founded upon faith and emerges from the fundamental concept of pure Tawhid (Aljunied, 2023). Additionally, the concept of desecularization put forth by Naquib Al-Attas will shed light on a path forward for Muslims (Ahmad 2002)

The comprehension of history and civilization necessitates an understanding rooted in a Quranic and prophetic worldview, as emphasized by Kuntowijoyo. As a historian, he perceives history through the lens of its prophetic dimension (Aljunied, 2023). It is through this dimension that the notion of a pluralistic or integrationist society, as advocated by Caesar Adib Majul, can thrive and prosper.

My concurrence with Samuel Huntington’s book title, “Clash of Civilizations,” although not necessarily with the book’s content, holds some relevance in this context. I contend that there exists a clash between two civilizations. However, the clash is not as theorized by Huntington, but rather between a civilization that upholds moral integrity, possesses spiritual richness, and brings about benefits for all of humanity through divine guidance and prophetic traditions, and a civilization that is founded upon racism, dehumanization, and, most importantly, moral corruption. The individuals examined in this study, as presented by Aljunied, must acknowledge the fact that complete equality among individuals may not be attainable, but through the implementation of Divine laws and traditions, a sense of equality can be established.

Professor Aljunied undertook the task of writing, analyzing, and studying the contributions of significant Muslim thinkers in Southeast Asia, and he has largely succeeded in this endeavor, deserving congratulations. However, my critique of Professor Aljunied’s work does not lie in his inability to provide more comprehensive information on the aforementioned individuals. Rather, it pertains to the fact that he is an expert in this field, equipped with substantial knowledge and expertise to offer readers a thorough understanding, detailed information, and well-defined conclusions. The fact that he did not delve into greater depth remains a mystery, but I maintain my belief that his future publications will uncover those secrets and create a necessary platform for an in-depth study of the shapers of Islam within Southeast Asia.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

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