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BRUNEI. Islam is the national religion of the tiny but oil-rich sultanate of Brunei on the northwest coast of Borneo. An estimated 65 percent of the population of about 230,000 is Muslim, virtually all Sunnis of the Shafi’i school, with most of these being Brunei Malays (55 percent of the population). Most of the other Muslims are traditionally Muslim Kedayans, converted members of small indigenous tribal groups, and converts from among Chinese immigrants (the second largest ethnic group with about 25 percent of the population).


Brunei Malays adopted Islam during the fifteenth century, or possibly as early as the fourteenth, after one of their leaders was installed as sultan (according to oral traditions) by the sultan of Johore. As head of the faith, the sultan has always been responsible for upholding the Islamic way of life, but he has traditionally delegated this responsibility to appointed non-noble officials.

Islam provided a unifying theocratic and political base that allowed Brunei, a trading center for jungle produce, to attain the status of empire during the sixteenth century. However, internal dissension and European encroachment led to disintegration, and Brunei probably would have disappeared entirely had not the British taken it on as a protectorate in 1888. In 1906 Brunei yielded control of internal affairs to a British Resident, with the sultan retaining responsibility only for matters related to Islam.

During the nineteenth century and through the mid twentieth, the status and institutions of Islam continued to reflect traditions broadly shared with the sultanates of the Malay Peninsula. The available literature on this period contains little to suggest that there were any significant movements or events focusing on Islam. Brunei was truly a backwater, untouched by the religious controversies that occasionally flared elsewhere in the region. The British accepted Islam as the established way of life, while most Bruneians respected the British as akin to saviors of their country.

The situation began to change after World War II. The British promoted experimentation with democracy even as control of internal affairs was returned to the sultan with the adoption of the constitution of 1959. The socialist Brunei People’s Party (BPP) emerged as dominant by playing on the dis affections of commoners over the hereditary privileges of the nobility and by proposing Brunei as the power center of a new Pan-Islamic state that would recover territories in Borneo lost to private British interests during the nineteenth century. The BPP was never allowed a share of power and staged a short-lived rebellion in 1962, which proved so traumatic to the ruling elite that they reversed course on democracy. Revenues from oil exports, which began during the 1930s, were fortuitously climbing, allowing the late Sultan Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin to address the disaffection of his poorer subjects through an extensive social welfare system and the promotion of Islam. He built one of Asia’s largest mosques, greatly expanded the Department of Religious Affairs established in 1954, and subsidized performance of the hajj to make it the norm rather than the exception for Brunei Malays.

Sultan Omar abdicated in favor of his eldest son Hassanal Bolkiah (the twenty-ninth sultan) in 1967, but he remained the power behind the throne until his son began asserting himself in the early 1980s. The resulting power struggle between them was often played out along religious lines, reflecting a rift within the royal family and the government between what have been called “ideologues” who want a theocratic Islamic state and “pragmatists” who are secularly oriented and open to Western values.

Sir Omar, who died in 1986, was allied with the ideologues, many of whom attended Cairo’s al-Azhar University and hold top positions in the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Education (a ministerial form of government was introduced at full independence from Britain in 1984). Sultan and Prime Minister Hassanal, who often warns of the dangers of religious extremism, is considered a pragmatist. Yet, to the dismay of many pragmatists, he has promulgated the concept of Malay Islamic monarchy as a national ideology that would entrench what the pragmatists see as an anachronistic system of governance. Some believe the Islamic monarchy is meant to preclude demands for an Islamic theocracy by mollifying the ideologues and keeping the general populace focused on religion rather than politics. The most prominent pragmatists are Western educated and tend to come from wealthier, higher-ranking sectors of the nobility, which strongly suggests that the social class tensions underlying the 1962 rebellion remain unresolved and that the place of

Islam in Brunei society will continue to be contested for some time.

[See also Islam, article on Islam in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.]


Bartholomew, James. The Richest Man in the World: The Sultan of Brunei. London, 1989. Biography includes discussion of how Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has grappled with the sultanate’s most critical political issue: the relationship of Islam to government and society. Brown, Donald E. Brunei: The Structure and History of a Bornean Malay Sultanate. Bandar Seri Begawan, 1970. In-depth study of historical influences underlying the structure of modern Brunei Malay society.

Leake, David. Brunei: The Modern Southeast Asian Islamic Sultanate. Jefferson, N.C., 1989. The only comprehensive overview of Brunei’s history and current society.

Singh, D. S. Ranjit. Brunei, 1839-1983: The Problems of Political Survival. Oxford, 1984. Describes how Brunei sultans have used international diplomacy to maintain the sultanate as a distinct entity. Tarling, Nicholas. Britain, the Brookes, and Brunei. Kuala Lumpur, 1971. Highly detailed treatise on early British involvement in northern Borneo; Islam was rarely a contentious issue.

Weaver, Mary Anne. “In the Sultan’s Palace.” The New Yorker (7 October 1991): 56, 63-78, 8o-86, 88-9o, 92-93. Author’s conversations with Bruneians and officials up through the sultan provide rare insights into the ongoing rift between Islamic “ideologues” and “pragmatists.”


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

  • writerPosted On: November 3, 2012
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