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Popular Religion in Southeast Asia

Nearly all Muslims in Southeast Asia form part of the Malay cultural region. This Muslim community is the largest in the world. It includes about 85 percent of Indonesia’s 195 million people, about 1 i million people in Malaysia, and several million in the southern Philippines. Underlying the many local differences in practice and belief are certain shared cultural features, including the use of Malay or Indonesian as a language of religious communication, forms of dress, food, and art associated with Islam, and a conception of gender relations that is relatively balanced in comparison with the gender relations codified in shari`ah.

Since the late colonial period, Southeast Asian Muslims have also developed a Malay-language network of schools, publishing houses, and newspapers that crosses colonial and postcolonial boundaries throughout the archipelago. This network lends coherence to scholarly discussions occurring throughout the region, and these debates and exchanges among scholars have been brought into everyday dialogues about religious matters. For this reason, no clear line demarcates scholarly from popular forms of Islam in Southeast Asia, and “popular” henceforth is to be taken as meaning “as locally practiced.” This articles focuses on the main ideas that have animated religious practices, interpretations, and debates among Muslims in Southeast Asia.

Spirit Transactions and Ritual Meals. Many of the practices that have lent a distinctive shape to Southeast Asian Islam involve exchanges or transactions with spiritual agents, including place spirits, ancestors, prophets, and God. The debates taking place over the last century among Muslims in the area have often turned on the legitimacy of certain transactions: appeals to spirits to heal, bless, or protect; sacrifices or offerings made to strengthen these appeals; or innovations in worship practice that have been made in the interest of clearer communication with God or to induce a benefit from God.

This emphasis on communicating with God and with diverse spirits has historically been supported by Sufi teachings concerning the enduring ties between humans and God, by practices of meditation and the imitation of death, and by an emphasis on remembering spiritual ancestors. These ideas underlie the Sufi orders in the region, but they also shape popular ideas of the power of speech and contribute to certain general cultural orientations such as the Javanist or abangan practices in Indonesia.

Central to most Southeast Asia Muslim cultures is the ritual meal, called selametan on Java and kenduri elsewhere in Indonesia and Malaysia. Participants at these meals generally burn incense, set out special plates of food that symbolize values of spirituality and purity, and deliver petitionary prayers to God, the prophet Muhammad, and specific spiritual agents. Meals are held for a wide range of events, including life-crisis rituals of birth, circumcision, marriage, pregnancy, and death; annual celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday, the completion of the fasting month (`Id al-Fitr), and the Feast of Sacrifice (`Id al-Adha); and occasional events such as leaving home, erecting a house, completing a recital of the Qur’an, or resolving a dispute. Healing the sick and managing the agricultural cycle also involve special series of ritual meals.

Most such meals feature the recitation of one or more Qur’anic verses, most commonly al-Fatihah or al-Ikhlas. Special foods consumed at such meals include puffed rice (symbolizing the light qualities of spirituality), glutinous rice (symbolizing the strong ties among participants or with God), and small, flat pancakes called apam (usually associated with the dead). (Many of these elements are also found in South Asia.) Usually four, seven, or forty-four items are offered; the same numbers determine the intervals between the successive ritual meals held after a death.

Ritual meals give a religious meaning to a wide variety of events. They also provide a locally meaningful framework for interpreting broader Islamic ritual obligations, and many Southeast Asian societies observe Islamic feast-days and life-crisis rituals in the form of the kenduri or selamatan. [See also Rites of Passage; Islamic Calendar.]

The Power of Speech. Throughout the region Muslims have drawn on the powerful words of the Qur’an to shape the world. Whether we classify them as spells or prayers, the speech forms usually labeled doa (Ar., du’a’)-also called donga or jampi-are used to heal or ensorcel, to protect or attack, and to fortify or weaken other people, spirits, or objects. The substance of doa may range from the simple quotation of a Qur’anic verse to a combination of Arabic verse, vernacular instructions, and semantically opaque syllables. Doa may be accompanied by accounts of how they came to be effective; thus, the power of a commonly found doa designed to ward off iron is understood as resulting from an original compact between God and iron. Speakers may also invoke the special qualities of a prophet, as by mentioning David’s voice in a doa designed to attract a spouse. People may acquire the power to use a doa through meditation, possession, or visitation by a spirit or angel, or the words themselves may be sufficient to obtain the desired effect.

Many of the region’s Muslims have regular recourse to particular verses of the Qur’an as sources of help and strength in everyday life, but they may disagree about what reciting the verse does: does it bring about immediate, automatic aid? Or does it serve to strengthen one’s heart against a difficulty? These beliefs and questions about the power of speech are not simply preIslamic remnants; often they are the topic of local commentaries that draw on Sufi intellectual traditions identifying material reality as emanations from God and thus as susceptible to change through religiously inspired mental imaging and powerful speech.

The widespread use of Malay in the region also has meant that oral and written forms designed to transmit religious ideas have had wide distribution. These forms include historical works in verse or prose, such as the Hikayat Raja-Raja Pasai and the Sejarah Melayu; verse forms, especially the syair quatrain, which, born in sixteenth-century Aceh, became a major vehicle for the spread of Sufi writings; and didactic texts, until this century written in the Arabic script and used across the region as basic texts in religious education. These texts have supplemented basic training in reading and reciting chapters of the Qur’an. Children who complete their study of the Qur’an are in many areas recognized at a khatam Qur’an ceremony. [See Malay and Indonesian Literature.]

Popular Islam is not limited to oral means of learning, nor is it a fixed tradition. Muslims throughout the region have learned elements of Arabic, the Qur’an, Islamic history, and ritual practice from shifting combinations of oral traditions, handwritten books of prayer and knowledge, and published texts regarding ritual practice, spells and prayers, and esoteric topics.

Healing. Powerful speech is particularly important in activities of healing. Southeast Asian healing practices may draw on ideas of possession (or “shamanism”) or ideas of the susceptibility of spirits to direct control. Healers in many parts of Malaysia, for example, make frequent use of trance and spirit possession to investigate the nature of an illness. Malay seances are a form of public dramatic art in which shamans draw on Islamic prophets, spirits, and histories to explain an illness and to cure the patient of it. Although labeled non-Islamic (or pre-Islamic) by many Malay `ulama’, these practices draw on Islamic images and knowledge for their coherence and for their therapeutic effectiveness.

Other regional healing systems depend on the direct control of spirits. Sumatran Gayo healers, for example, speak directly to afflicting jinn and may then drive them out of the patient, but they never act as mediums. They expel spirits from persons by creating two parallel series of events: one series in the outer (lahir) world, where a rock smashes a citrus, and another in the inner (batin) world, in which the spirit has been captured in the citrus and is then expelled from it. Gayo reliance on a private form of exorcism, in contrast with Malay public seances, is consistent with their general social and cultural tendency to avoid public confrontations.

Most healing systems in the region share ideas of balance that derive from Islamic humoral theory. `inn are held responsible for a wide range of illnesses, and imbalance between external and internal jinn or between qualities in the body may cause illness. Prophets, in particular Khidr, are called on to remove impurities from the body, such as those resulting from childbirth. [See also Medicine, article on Traditional Practice.]

Caring for the Dead. Of all the life-crisis rituals, the ways of caring for the dead have been of the greatest importance for Southeast Asian Muslims, possibly because of the importance of secondary burial in Southeast Asia prior to the coming of Islam. The scholarly debates published in the regional press beginning in the 1920s reflect a sharp conflict between local emphases on continued communication with the spirit after death and objections to those practices by modernist scholars. Several Islamic practices have become focuses for these arguments. One is the talqin, the catechism read to the dead after burial; another is the set of recitation sessions held on successive evenings after a death.

Recitations feature forms of tasbih (prayers for the glory of God), salawat (prayers for blessings on the prophet Muhammad), dhikr or tahlil (repetitions of “there is no god but God”), and istighfar (requests for God’s pardon), along with the shorter Qur’anic verses. Recitation leaders may deliver long prayers that include sections of the Qur’an considered to be especially powerful, such as the Throne Verse (al-Baqarah, 255) or the chapter Ya Sin. They learn these prayers by studying the pamphlets on prayer available throughout the region and by learning from older adepts.

Recitations are intended to create merit that can be transferred to the dead and to aid the spirit’s passage from the community to the afterworld. Both objectives are shared with non-Islamic funeral practices in the region, and both Islamic and non-Islamic funerary ritual complexes feature a regular progression of feasts, with special weight placed on a feast held seven days after death. But the Islamic practices (especially the talqin and dhikr) are also found elsewhere in the Muslim world. It is thus likely that similarities between Islamic and non-Islamic practices in Southeast Asia are in part the result of a convergence around quasi-universal ideas of death as transition, and not the simple result of the survival of pre-Islamic practices into the Islamic present. [See also Funerary Rites; Qur’anic Recitation; Dhikr.]

Variations on Mainstream Rituals. Overreliance on an a priori distinction of official and popular religion risks obscuring the way in which mainstream religious forms become part of local religious systems. Worship ritual (salat), for example, although an obligation all Muslims share, is also used as a way of distinguishing particular religious orientations. Because worship is considered prescriptively open to all who wish to attend, attempts to use it to create boundaries invariably occasion protest. In the 1970s, Muslim groups in Jakarta that wished to maintain a higher degree of personal purity sought to exclude all others from their worship services; these attempts at exclusion (not any differences in ritual form) led to popular protests and suppression of the group. On a more everyday level, some stratified societies, such as the Bugis of South Sulawesi, assign places in the mosque rows by social rank, thus reproducing a set of local distinctions through the medium of a generalized ritual form.

There are important resemblances among the ways other mainstream rituals are carried out across diverse Southeast Asian societies, and these resemblances may serve broadly to distinguish the region as a whole from South Asia or the Middle East. In much of Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, the sermons and symbols associated with the `Id al-Adha emphasize the value of ihklas, sincerely giving away something, as the central meaning of the ritual, rather than the sacrificial killing stressed in some other Muslim societies. Also throughout the region, this feast day has historically been given much less emphasis than has either the `Id al-Fitr or the celebration (mawlid) of the birthday of the prophet Muhammad. The latter is celebrated in a wide variety of ways, from elaborate social visiting to royal processions. [See `Id al-Adha; `Id al-Fitr; Mawlid.]

Personal Authority. The social organization of much Islamic practice in Southeast Asia is shaped by the idea that some persons are closer to God and therefore serve as channels to the divine. The idea of closeness is conveyed by the general term wali (“saint”) but is realized in different forms. It is also shaped by older ideas of Malay and Javanese kingship, with the king at the ritual center of a sacred territory and at the highest point on a schema of social rank.

Religious orders (tarekat; Ar., tariqah) may be centered on a founding ancestor. Orders are found throughout the region. Frequently found are local orders identifying themselves as Naqshbandiyah, sometimes also as Qadiriyah or Khalidiyah. These orders may have a single ritual center and more or less tightly knit networks of founders and disciples. Babussalam in West Sumatra is an example. Founded in 1883 by Syaikh Abdul Wahab Rokan, the village now serves as the center for a network of eighteen syaikhs (Ar., shaykhs) throughout Sumatra and Malaysia. Their followers attend an annual celebration at the founder’s tomb. On Java orders may also be affiliated with the religious schools called pesantren; the important pesantren center Tebuireng in East Java, for example, is also the center for the Nagshbandlyah and Qadiriyah orders. The Javanese kiyai combines the prestige of the teacher with the spiritual authority associated with a genealogy, and prestigious kiyai offices are often handed down from father to son. [See Sufism, article on Sufi Orders; Pesantren j

Throughout the archipelago, graves or other sites associated with powerful ancestors define a sacred geography. Often these are the graves of men or women who founded a lineage or village, great healers, or teachers who founded religious orders. The sites may be the goal of regional pilgrimages or for regular visits by those seeking advice or assistance. (In this respect, Javanese practices of grave-visiting and meditation may be seen as accentuations of regionwide elements rather than constitutive of a distinct Javanist orientation.) Throughout Indonesia, the most powerful sacred gravesites are often those of men who brought Islam to the region, such as the Wall Songo on Java, or Syech Abdurrauf in Aceh.

These sites may become the center for quasi-orders, loosely organized networks of adepts who venerate the tomb of the founder and consider themselves affiliates with an established tarekat. For example, the tomb of the late nineteenth-century figure Habib Muda in West Aceh is considered by his followers to be the “pole” (qutb) for the west coast of the province. The founder’s tomb is circumambulated each year on the tenth of Dhu al-Hijjah, as a “little hajj.”

Messianic figures have occasionally surfaced throughout the region, particularly in Malaysia, where Sufi-like cults have combined meditation and trance dances with the veneration of a leader, sometimes referred to as the Mahdi. These cults may also encourage the practice of Malay martial arts (silat), an art form regionally associated with Islam that often incorporates worship or dhikr recitations.

Islam and Adat. Muslims everywhere conceive of a sphere of local custom designated by `urf or adat (Ar., `adat) or other terms. But it is especially in Southeast Asia that adat has been developed as an alternative set of rules alongside shari `ah. Adat is not merely local custom or practice; it is also worldview and culture, and in some places a legal code.

Southeast Asian Muslims by and large have constructed two perspectives from which to view the relation of adat to shari`ah. From one perspective adat and shari `ah. appear as distinct, complementary spheres of social life-as tradition or custom contrasted with religion. Ideal constructions of Minangkabau (Sumatra) and Negeri Sembilan (Malaysia) societies, for example, link adat to the values of community and matriliny, and shari `ah. to the values of individuality and patriliny. Such holistic constructions also characterize the many descriptive and prescriptive pamphlets published in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia on the adat of various Muslim peoples in the region, in which adat is typified by images of dress styles, marriage customs, and house forms.

From another perspective, however, adat and shad `ah. appear as providing distinct sets of norms regarding the same events: marriage, the transmission of property, and death ritual. Their relation may be complementary in some instances-shari `ah. stipulating the payment of a mahr at marriage, and adat elaborating on its form-but it may also be conflictual. Adat and shari`ah. may, in practice, provide conflicting ways of evaluating the same problem: how to divide an estate, how to celebrate a child’s coming of age, or how to carry out a wedding. Such conflicts are particularly evident in the Malaysian adat law codes, but they also persist beneath the formal accommodation of the two systems elsewhere in the region. Of special importance have been conflicts over the division of an estate. Local adat norms may stipulate that all children (or all children remaining in their natal village) receive equal shares, or that males (or females) receive all the agricultural land, and they may allot to the village or lineage residual rights over land. Accommodations between shari `ah. and adat over this issue include figuring some property transfer as a gift or as a kind of waqf, and thus as distinct from the estate shares. [See Adat.]

Whereas the scholarship of the 1940s and 1950s generally portrayed Southeast Asian Islam as an overlay on a distinct, pre-Islamic substratum, more recent work has emphasized the Islamic character of many local practices, including those labeled as “pre-Islamic” by local `ulama’. The central research activity has in effect shifted from distinguishing between Islam and nonIslam in popular religion to analyzing the debates within each society about the religious character of specific ideas and practices.

[See also Islam, article on Islam in Southeast Asia and the Pacific; and the articles on individual countries in the region. ]


Bowen, John R. Muslims through Discourse: Religion and Ritual in Gayo Society. Princeton, 1993. Detailed ethnography of rituals, and debates about their propriety in a Sumatran Muslim society.

Dobbin, Christine. Islamic Revivalism in a Changing Peasant Economy: Central Sumatra, 1784-1847. London, 1983. Superb history of religious and social change in an Indonesian society.

Ellen, Roy F. “Practical Islam in South-East Asia.” In Islam in SouthEast Asia, edited by M. B. Hooker, pp. 50-91. Leiden, 1983. Insightful overview of the history of Islam and of colonial policies toward Islam in Southeast Asia.

Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of Java. Chicago, 196o. Classic, detailed study of Islam, culture, and society in Java.

Hefner, Robert W. “Islamizing Java? Religion and Politics in Rural East Java.” Journal of Asian Studies 46 (1987): 533-554. Valuable update of Geertz’s account.

Ibrahim, Ahmad, Sharon Siddique, and Yasmin Hussain, eds. Readings on Islam in Southeast Asia. Singapore, 1985. Useful collection of readings from past and present.

Laderman, Carol. Taming the Wind of Desire: Psychology, Medicine, and Aesthetics in Malay Shamanistic Performance. Berkeley, 1991. Includes material on Islamic sources for shamanism.

Lombard, Denys. “Les tarekat en Insulinde.” In Les ordres mystiques dans L’Islam, edited by Alexandre Popovic and Gilles Veinstein, pp. 139-163. Paris, 1986. Insightful contrast of several orders in Indonesia.

Nagata, Judith. The Reflowering of Malaysian Islam. Vancouver, B.C., 1984. Good on older religious practices and the contemporary da`wah movement.

Siegel, James T.The Rope of God. Berkeley, 1969. Excellent study of changing social contexts for religious ideas in Aceh, Indonesia. Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan. The Achehnese (1893). Leiden, 1906. One of the best early accounts of religious life in a Muslim society. Woodward, Mark R. “The Slametan: Textual Knowledge and Ritual Performance in Central Javanese Islam.” History of Religions 28 (1988): 54-89


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/popular-religion-southeast-asia/

  • writerPosted On: June 27, 2017
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