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One of the most important structural elements of Islamic society in Southeast Asia is adat (Ar., `adat), which denotes refined culture and more specifically local custom and indigenous law, established through practice and repeated precedent. In the Malay world adat should first of all be viewed as a cultural concept that can be understood only within the context of the historical process of islamization. During this process, largely oral traditions were written down and somewhat reformulated.

From the perspective of those within the culture, adat usually has two overlapping meanings. First, adat is perceived as an all-embracing term for the rules of behavior and social institutions that the society holds to be legitimate and right. Adat is “natural” because its basic foundation is consistent with sacred law. Attachment to Islam as a system of belief is an inseparable part of adat. This aspect of adat is revealed mostly in traditional historiographies, adat aphorisms, and popular sayings. It deals with questions of sacred permanency and unavoidable change.

The second meaning of adat refers to local traditions, rules and regulations, and institutional remnants from pre-Islamic times. Like `urf, it may be a valid legal foundation in Islamic jurisprudence as provided for in the Qur’an (7.199) and in a hadith narrated by Ibn ‘Abbas, to the effect that “those things that are considered good by the ummah are also good in the eyes of God.”

The numerous local sayings and codified adat regulations reflect not only attempts to harmonize the universal religion with local customs, but also the stages by which Islam has penetrated the social fabric of local communities. The early phase of the harmonizing process involved a separation of jurisdiction between secular rulers and religious authorities-as in the seventeenth-century sultanate of Aceh—or between spheres of social activities, as in the case of the matrilineal Minangkabau. The process was complete after a satisfactory principle of unification was found. Thus Acehnese tradition holds that “Adat and hukum (Ar., hukm; legal ruling) cannot be separated; their relationship is like the essence (dzat) and its characteristics.” As the Minangkabau and the Malay in theMalay Peninsulawould put it, “Adat is based on the religious law; the religious law is based on Kitabullah (Al, Kitab Allah; “the book of Allah,” i.e., the Qur’an).” Somewhat different utterances with similar meanings can be found in other communities. The unifying principle might also be found, as in Java, in the integrative power held by the king as the ruler and also the khalifah and the “regulator of religion.” In the final analysis, attachment to Islamic doctrine should take precedence over attachment to adat.

Structural changes, either originated from within or imposed from without, posed serious challenges to the concept of the integrated harmony of Islamic and adat laws and to the continuing validity of the latter regulations. Questions as to the locus of legitimate power in the community, the relationship between the kinship system and inherited property, and the legal right to ancestral and communal land-each with economic and political implications-have been the most crucial issues and the likeliest to be affected by any type of structural change.

The so-called “reception theory,” an inseparable part of colonial policy toward Islam, was introduced by the Orientalist Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje in what is now Indonesia. This policy not only sharply redivided jurisdictions between secular rulers and religious authorities but also rather artificially separated those elements of Islamic law that were thought to have been adapted by adat and those that remained as in the fiqh or jurisprudence books. This theory reached its maturity after “the discovery of adat-law” (the title of his book) by the legal scholar Cornelis van Vollenhoven. The “discovery” revealed that the Indonesian communities had always been living under their respective adat laws and that there were several adat groupings in the Indonesian archipelago. On the basis of these findings, the Dutch colonial government decided that the jurisdiction of the long-established religious court should be sharply curtailed and that the state courts should take adat law, instead of Islamic law, as the basis of judicial judgments in civil cases.

With one stroke the colonial government hoped to curb the ethnically integrative appeal of Islam and to slow the penetration of Islam into local communities. It also created a situation in which Indonesian communities continued to live under a multiplicity of legal systems, each with its own defenders and literati. This situation may have contributed to the deepening of the gap between the `ulama’ with their community of santri (religious students and, by extension, the devout social groups) and the bureaucratic aristocracy, the heirs of the kraton (the palace as the center of power). In Minangkabau, indigenous matriliny and devotion to Islam, with its patrilineal legal bias, have long constituted the two, often competing, pillars of society. On the practical level, the call to integrative harmony has thus had to face the attraction of whatever advantages the multiplicity of legal systems might offer. Despite an ideological attachment to the notion of Kitabullah as the overriding legal foundation, the major source of internal conflict has been the varying rules governing inherited property.

The British colonial government in the Malay Peninsulanever had a chance to “discover adat-law.” From the beginning it left “Malay religion and custom,” as stated by the Pangkor Agreement (1872) and successive agreements with other Malay rulers, in the hands of the Malay sultans. In theory, at least, the application of either the adat perpatih, the matrilineal inheritance law of Negri Sembilan, or the adat temenggong, the patrilineal inheritance law of other states, was left to the dynamics of interaction between the adat authorities and the changing economic and political realities. As a consequence of this legacy, adat may still become a sensitive issue in contemporary local politics.

[See also Indonesia; Islam, article on Islam in Southeast Asia and the Pacific; Law, article on Legal Thought and Jurisprudence;Malaysia; Popular Religion, article on Popular Religion in Southeast Asia.]


Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of java.Glencoe,Ill., 1960. Classic anthropological study on Java in the aftermath of the national revolution and during the young Indonesian republic’s experiments with Western-inspired parliamentary democracy. The empirical validity of Geertz’s classifications of Javanese cultural orientations as “priyayi,” “santri,” and “abangan” has been criticized, but because of its analytical rigor, the work remains influential in Indonesian studies.

Hooker, M. B. Adat Laws in ModernMalaya: Land Tenure, Traditional Government, and Religion.Kuala Lumpur, 1972. Thorough examination of the workings of adat law, dealing with not only all known adat digests and the history of respective adat communities, but also with the dynamics of the law as reflected in judicial cases. Josselin de Jong, P. E. de. “Islam versus Adat in Negri Sembilan (Malaya).” Bijdragen totTaal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 116 (1960): 158-203. Interesting study by an anthropologist on a political competition at the local level which took adat as the central issue.

Siegel, James T. The Rope of God.BerkeleyandLos Angeles, 1969. Anthropological study of Aceh, which takes the question of adat’s relationship to Islam as one of its central issues. Highly critical of C. Snouck Hurgronje’s classic study, The Achehnese (Leiden, 1906), on this crucial issue.

Taufik Abdullah. “Adat and Islam: An Examination of Conflict in Minangkabau.”Indonesia2 (1966): 1-24. Short introduction to the problems of adat and Islam in the Minangkabau region (West Sumatra).


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/adat/

  • writerPosted On: October 5, 2012
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