Reflecting On Islam In The Asian Continent – Analysis


A law of physics states that the further you get away from the center of a given natural phenomenon of physics, the lesser the intensity. Indeed, physics is defined as: The branch of science concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy. 

However, Britannia gives a more thorough and precise definition to this important branch of science: (1)

“physics, science that deals with the structure of matter and the interactions between the fundamental constituents of the observable universe. In the broadest sense, physics (from the Greek physikos) is concerned with all aspects of nature on both the macroscopic and submicroscopic levels. Its scope of study encompasses not only the behaviour of objects under the action of given forces but also the nature and origin of gravitational, electromagnetic, and nuclear force fields. Its ultimate objective is the formulation of a few comprehensive principles that bring together and explain all such disparate phenomena.”

If a given spot is hit by an earthquake of a given intensity, the tremor’s force will be higher in the center than in the periphery because force and its energy will dwindle as it moves further away from the point of impact.

For faith, in general, the effect is reverse, the further one moves from the center, the stronger and purer it gets. Indeed, in Christianity the further one moved from the Vatican, in Rome, the more devout the people are, as is the case in Latin America and in the Philippines. This concept also applies to Islam, and thus the people of Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia are definitely very devout and pious in their Islam day in and day out, as a result. 

In the following work I will attempt to look at how Islam arrived in three differ regions of the Asian continent: South Asia in the case of Pakistan, Central Asia represented by Uzbekistan and South East Asia symbolized by Malaysia and Indonesia, and settled down with time and how it is perceived and lived by the local population. (2) A common denominator of these countries is the purity of their belief, meaning the strong identification they have towards the pure Islam. 

Unfortunately, this concept is expressed in Pakistan by a certain amount of violence towards the other. The other here, meaning anyone not Sunni. Thus, the Shiite and the Christians have been unduly victimized by the majority of people of Taliban obedience. (3)

In Uzbekistan, Islam has been muzzled and subdued over decades during the Soviet years and mosques were turned in youth centers like the famous Mir al-Arab one, and religion was made to become a mere folklore. (4) Today, there is in Uzbekistan a religious renewal, in spite of the fact that the regime in place is secular, not to say atheist and is a mere mirror image of the Soviet era, trying to keep religion at bay. (5)

On the actual status of Islam in Uzbekistan Henrik Ohlsson writes: (6)

‘’Islam, being the religion of 90% of the population, naturally has a privileged position. All mosques and Islamic education must be affiliated to the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan (MBU). The MBU was based on an old Soviet structure, the Spiritual Directorate for Central Asia and Kazakhstan (SADUM), founded in 1943 in a period of increased tolerance for religion during World War II. With independence SADUM was split into national bodies in all the five Central Asian Republics. The MBU is also responsible for the rebuilding and maintenance of mosques and sacred places such as the tombs and mausoleums of various Muslim saints. The official ideology of the MBU is Sunni Islam of the Hanafi School of Law (though it also encompasses a small minority of Ismaili Shiites). The MBU is headed by a mufti who is nominated by the Muslim Council of Uzbekistan (MCU), a representative body consisting of imams and elders from all regions of the country. The candidate must then be approved by the government.’’

In Malaysia and Indonesia, there is an interesting version of Islam: open, tolerant and progressive, worth studying and imitating. (7) Indeed, the constitutions of these countries have inscribed in gold freedom of belief and religion and equality before law to all citizens. As a result of that, these two countries are emerging and flourishing economies that have achieved a notable success in their area, and they are the home of millions of devout Muslims that practice pure and tolerant religion away from any extremism that has marred many other Muslim countries around the world. (8)

Arrival of Islam in Asia

At first view, one wonders how Islam, a religion starting in the Arabian Peninsula, a land far away and culturally different has been able to spread successfully in this continent so diverse and so different? One wonders quite rightly so, what actually caught the attention of the people of this vast continent to embrace this alien and austere religion: is it the magic of Qur’ân, the word of Allah, or the concept of monotheism التوحيد or the strength of faith in the God and only بالواحد الأوحدالايمان or merely the monotheist humanistic message?

According to UNESCO, Islam spread in the Asian continent through trade: (9)

“The Silk Roads are amongst some of the most important routes in our collective history. It was through these roads that relations between east and west were established, exposing diverse regions to different ideas and ways of life. Notably, these exchanges also included the diffusion of many of the world’s major religions including Islam.

After the advent of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century, Islam started its expansion towards eastern regions through trade encouraged by the development of the maritime Silk Roads. Muslims were known to have a commercial talent notably encouraged by Islam, as well as excellent sailing skills. Thus, they could monopolize the East-West trade of the maritime Silk Roads, connecting various major ports of eastern Asian regions together. Indeed, their commercial ships had to halt at various ports to be supplied with water and food, be repaired, or to wait for changes in wind direction.

These interactions resulted in further expansion of Islam to the people living in important coastal cities in the Indian Subcontinent, China, or in the more distant South-eastern islands of modern Indonesia or Philippines. It is believed that Islam first arrived in these South-eastern regions by the 7th century. Muslim merchants from the Arabian Peninsula had to pass through these islands of the south via the maritime Silk Roads to reach China’s ports.”

However, several orientlists and western intellectuals like to spread the false and culturally-insensitive message that Islam is a brutal religion, that converted people to its faith by the sword and by might. Even the last Pope Benedict XVI, regrettably went along this biased view, when he declared in the speech given at the University of Regensburg, Germany, on Sept. 12, 2006, indirectly that The Prophet Muhammad, spread the message of Islam by the violence and by the brutality of the sword: (10)

 “In the seventh conversation (*4V8,>4H – controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”. The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably (F×< 8`(T) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”.”

Many observers consider that the expression of this stark opinion by a person as important as the Pope, in an official and public engagement, as a direct and clear call for hatred against the Muslims and an encouragement for their ostracism and banishment on the international scene. This kind of declaration, in an activity as this, increases stereotypes about Islam and Muslims (11)  and feeds Islamophobia  that is sweeping the Western world, as wildly as never before. (12)

If the Asians of the early days of Islam, accepted this faith it was certainly not out of fear but out of personal identification with its precepts and teachings, the valid proof being, they are, today, among the most devout Muslims in existence through their strict adherence to the teachings of this religion ; and Indonesia is, undoubtedly, the biggest Muslim country, in terms of population: 231,000,000 (according to the figure provided by World Population Review for 2021). Islam is the dominant religion in this country, which also has the largest Muslim population than any other land in the world (88.2% of the total population) as of 2023.  (13)

The majority of Indonesians adhere to the Sunni Muslim tradition mainly of the shâfi’î madhhab. (14) In general, the Muslim community can be categorized in terms of two orientations: “modernists,” who closely adhere to orthodox theology while embracing modern learning; and “traditionalists,” who tend to follow the interpretations of local religious leaders (predominantly in Java) and religious teachers at Islamic boarding schools (pesantren). (15)

If Islam had, as some Westerners argue, spread by the sheer force of the sword, the population, like, in the case of colonialism, would have shown fierce resistance to this alien incomer and got rid of it. (16) Most of these countries got rid of colonialism, in the long run, after all, through either peaceful or armed resistance, but, on the other hand, they have never showed any form of repugnance or animosity towards Islam, when in fact they could have done it, at will, and returned to their initial faiths and no one could have stopped them, but they did not. Instead, Islam is alive and kicking in this continent and it is even flourishing and exhibiting an interesting humanistic philosophy and tolerant message.

Trade relations between Arabia and the sub-continent dated back to ancient times. Long before the advent of Islam in Arabia, the Arabs used to visit the coast of southern India, which then provided the link between the ports of South and South East Asia. In this regard, Hojjatollah Hezariyana and Ghaffar Pourbakhtiar argue:  (17)

“Trade relations between India and the Persian Gulf coasts and islands have had a very long history. Before the rise of Islam, economic relations with India and other territories were so important that intense rivalry arose between Iran and Rome. Iran and Rome had managed to bring much of the Indian Ocean and eastern Mediterranean markets out of the Arabs’ hands, but now they had reached the threshold of a war over it. In 525 AD. at the instigation of Rome, Abyssinia conquered Yemen located at the mouth of the Red Sea. The Romans aimed to have direct access to the Indian Ocean and Asian markets. Iran, which was fully controlling the Persian Gulf and establishing ports along its shores to Makran, sought to develop some economic goals and interests as Egypt and Syria were captured in 616 AD. When Egypt was conquered in 626 AD by Romans, Iran was dealt a harsh blow. Thus, the politicalmilitary conflict between Iran and Rome was accompanied by intense economic and trade rivalries, resulting in the weakening of both countries such that the Arabs misused their weakness for their own interests.”

After the Arab traders became Muslim, they brought Islam to South Asia. A number of local Indians living in the coastal areas embraced Islam. However, it was the Muslim conquests in Persia, including the provinces of Kirman and Makran, which brought the Arabs face to face with the then ruler of Sindh, who had allied with the ruler of Makran against the Muslims. But, it was not until the sea borne trade of the Arabs in the Indian Ocean was jeopardized that serious attempts were made to subjugate Sindh.

During the reign of the great Umayyad Caliph Walid bin Abdul Malik, Hajjaj bin Yousaf was appointed as the governor of the eastern provinces. At that time, Raja Dahir, a Brahman, ruled Sindh. (18) However, the majority of the people living in the region were Shudders or Buddhists. Dahir treated members of these denominations inhumanly. They were not allowed to ride horses or to wear a turban or shoes. Sindhi pirates, protected by Dahir, were active on the coastal areas and whenever they got a chance, they plundered the ships passing by Daibul.

In 712, Hajjaj sent 6,000 select Syrian and Iraqi soldiers, a camel corps of equal strength and a baggage train of 3,000 camels to Sindh under the command of his nephew and son in-law, Imad-ud-din Muhammad bin Qasim, a young boy of just seventeen years. He also had manjânîq مجانيق, or catapults, which were operated by 500 men and could throw large stones at a great distance. On his way the governor of Makran, who provided him with additional forces, joined him. Also, a good number of Jats and Meds, who had suffered at the hands of native rulers, joined the Arab forces. (19)

On the peaceful conquest of Sindh by Muhammad bin Qasim, Historia Islamica writes: (20)

“Part of the success of the Islamic conquest in Sind is due to the leniency of the Buddhists and the Dalits (lowest caste in Hinduism), who welcomed the Islamic conquerors with open arms, who saw the government of the Maharajah Chach and his kins as illegitimate who had usurped the power of the Rai Dynasty, being also greatly oppressed by the governments of the Brahmins.

After this great victory for Muhammad, other provincial capitals such as Brahmanabad, Alor and Multan would also be successfully conquered along with the nearby cities, all with few casualties on the Muslim side, proving to be other easy conquests for bin Qasim.

During the Arab conquests, the objective was generally to conquer the places with the fewest casualties and losses possible, seeking to preserve the local infrastructure and economy. Because of this, cities were usually offered the option of surrender, and the capture of many was even through agreements with some local parties and the guarantee of special privileges if the surrender was obtained successfully.

This time, when the conquest of the cities was carried out with the least number of casualties possible and through agreements (sulh), the conquerors used to treat the conquereds with mercy and compassion, however when they offered great resistance and consequently caused the death of many Muslims, there was retaliation by one army against the other after the actual conquest of the target city. Cities like Rawar, Brahmanabad, Multan and Iskalandah offered great resistance to Muslim conquerors, but other cities like Armabil, Nirun and Aror were conquered through the aforementioned sulh, that is, a peaceful and through agreement way of conquering territory, which proved to be the favorite and most used method by Muhammad bin Qasim in his conquests through Sind.”

Muhammad bin Qasim (695-715), preacher not predator

Muhammad bin Qasim first captured Daibul. He then turned towards Nirun, near modern Hyderabad, where he easily overwhelmed the inhabitants. (21) Dahir decided to oppose the Arabs at Raor. After a fierce struggle, Dahir was overpowered and killed. Raor fell into the hands of the Muslims. The Arab forces then occupied Alor and proceeded towards Multan. Along the way, the Sikka (Uch) fortress, situated on the bank of the Ravi, was also occupied. The Hindu ruler of Multan offered resistance for two months after which the Hindus were overpowered and defeated. Prior to this, Muhammad bin Qasim had taken Brahmanabad and a few other important towns of Sindh. Muhammad bin Qasim was planning to proceed forward when the new Caliph Suleman bin Abdul Malik recalled him. After the departure of Muhammad bin Qasim, different Muslim generals declared their independence at different areas. (22) 

The Muslim conquest of Sindh brought peace and prosperity to the region. Law and order were restored. The sea pirates of Sindh, who were protected by Rajah Dahir, were crushed. As a result of this, sea trade flourished. The port of Daibul became a very busy and prosperous commercial center.

When Muhammad bin Qasim conquered Sindh, the local people, who had been living a life of misery, breathed a sigh of relief. Qasim followed a lenient policy and treated the local population generously. Everyone had full religious freedom and even the spiritual leaders of local religions were given salaries from the government fund. No changes were made in the local administration and local people were allowed to hold offices – particularly in the revenue department. All taxes were abolished and Jizya جزية was imposed. (23) Everyone was treated equally. Poor people, especially Buddhists, were very impressed by his policies and many of them embraced Islam. A number of Mosques and Madrasas were constructed in important towns. In a short period of time Sindh became a center of Islamic learning. A number of religious scholars, writers and poets were emerged and they spread their knowledge. The Muslims learned Indian sciences like medicine, astronomy and mathematics. Sanskrit books on various subjects were translated into Arabic. During the reign of Haroon al Rasheed, a number of Hindu scholars were even invited to Baghdad. (24)

For Ahmad Reza Behniafar, this action led to the transmission of science to the Muslim world: (25)

‘’The India was the bright centers of science and civilization in the ancient world and with the spread of Islam, Muslims became familiar by various cultures and civilizations including the culture and civilization of India. The land that was advanced in terms of science and knowledge, especially medicine, mathematics, astronomy and art of architecture and not only Muslims but also other nations utilized the hoardings of Indian civilization. The main purpose of this article is to addressing of this issue that what was the impact of Indian civilization on the Islamic world. Research method, is the library relying on primary resources and study the effects and recent studies unsubject desired. Being religious civilization of India, and its priority in some respects overall other civilizations, Iranian important role in the transmission scientific of Indian civilization to the Muslim world and the impact of Indian in science of medicine, mathematics and astronomy to Muslims is from findings of the article and the final results that the revival of Islamic civilization in present is possible with inventing, initiative, innovation and creativity not pure imitation, so that the Muslims through this way achieved significant advances in the past.”

The establishment of Muslim rule also paved way for future propagation of Islam in Sindh and the adjoining regions. Later Sindh also attracted Ismaili missionaries who were so successful that Sindh passed under Ismaili rule. With the conquest of Lahore by Mahmud of Ghazni, missionary activity began again under the aegis of Sufis who were the main agents in the Islamization of the entire region. (26)

The opening of Central Asia and the implementation of Islam was completed in the eighth century A.D., and brought to the region a new belief and culture that until now continues to be dominant. The Muslims first entered Mawarannahr in the middle of the seventh century through raids during their conquest of Persia. (27) The Soghdians and other Iranian peoples of Central Asia were unable to defend their land against the Khilâfah because of internal divisions and the lack of strong indigenous leadership. The Muslims, on the other hand, were led by a brilliant general, Qutaybah ibn Muslim, and were highly motivated by the desire to spread the Islamic religion and civilization. Because of these factors, and the strength of the Islamic ‘aqîdah and the nature of the Sharî’ah, the population of Mawarannahr was easily liberated. (28)

The new way of life brought by the Muslims spread throughout the region. The native cultures were replaced in the ensuing centuries as Islam molded the people into a single umma   أمة  – the Islamic nation. However, the destiny of Central Asia as an Islamic region was firmly established by Caliph Abu’l-Abbas’ victory over the Chinese armies in 750 in a battle at the Talas River. (29) Under Islamic rule, Central Asia was an important center of culture and trade for centuries. The language of government, literature, and commerce, originally Persian became Arabic (however as the Abbasid Caliphate began to weaken and Arabic became neglected, the Persian language began to regain its pre-eminent role in the region as the language of literature and government). Mawarannahr continued to be an important political player in regional affairs. During the height of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth and the ninth centuries, Central Asia and Mawarannahr experienced a truly golden age. Bukhara became one of the leading centers of learning, culture, and art in the Muslim world, its magnificence rivaling contemporaneous cultural centers such as Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba. Some of the greatest historians, scientists, and geographers in the history of Islamic culture were natives of the region, and one of the copies of the Noble Quran originally prepared in the time of Caliph Uthman is kept in Tashkent (the capital of current Uzbekistan).

The new Islamic spiritual and political situation in Central Asia determined a new technological and cultural progress. It marked the production of the Samarkand paper (since the 8th century under the Chinese influence the people of Samarkand learned to manufacture paper from the rags), which supplanted papyrus and parchment in the Islamic countries at the end of the 10th century. Furthermore, scientists who were citizens of the Khilâfah such as al-Khawarezmi, Beiruni, Farabi, Abu Ali ibn Sina (Avicenna) brought fame to the area all over the world, generating respect across the world, and many scientific achievements of the epoch made a great impact on the European science (it is enough to mention the astronomical tables of Samarkand astronomers from Ulugh Beg’s observatory). During the comparatively peaceful era of Islamic rule, culture and the arts flourished in Central Asia. Jizya جزية was imposed upon all who refused to accept Islam and the Jewish historian Benjamin of Tudela noted during his travels in 1170 the existence of a Jewish community numbering 50,000 in nearby Samarkand. (30)

The actual timing and introduction of the Islamic religion and its practice to Southeast Asia is subject to debate. European historians have argued that it came through trading contacts with India whereas some Southeast Asian Muslim scholars claim it was brought to the region directly from Arabia in the Middle East. (31) Other scholars claim that Muslim Chinese who were engaged in trade introduced it. Whatever the source, scholars acknowledge that Muslim influence in Southeast Asia is at least six centuries old, or was present by 1400 A.D. Some argue for origins to at least 1100 A.D. in the earliest areas of Islamic influence, such as in Aceh, in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. (32)

Whatever exact dates and sources one chooses to support, there is no doubt that the Islamization of many peoples in present-day Malaysia, southern Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei and the southern Philippines occurred within a few hundred years. The process of religious conversion absorbed many pre-existing Southeast Asian beliefs (often referred to as ‘animism’, or the belief in the power of invisible spirits of people’s ancestors and the spirits of nature to influence the fortunes of humans on earth). The scholar Anthony Reid, Professor of History at the University of California Los Angeles,  argues (33) that this process of Islamization (and Christianization in the Philippines) occurred rapidly in Southeast Asia especially during the period of 1550-1650. (34)

For example, Islam became strong in eastern Indonesia, especially in the coastal kingdoms of Sulawesi, Lombok, Kalimantan, Sumbawa, Makassar, and in Sulu and Magindanao (Cotabato Province) in the southern Philippines from 1603-1612. This does not mean that rulers and their subjects in these areas were totally devoted to upholding all of the basic rules of Islam. It means that Islamic influence was present, as evidenced through ruling elites’ obligation to renounce the consumption of pork and to pronounce the daily five prayers. Some also practiced circumcision during this period.

Islam in South Asia: the Taliban experience

Islam is the official religion of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which has a population of about 240,959,915 (as of Monday, August 7, 2023, based on Worldometer elaboration of the latest United Nations data 190,291,129).  (35) The majority (95-97%) of the Pakistani people are Muslim while the remaining 3-5% are ChristianHindu, and others. Sunnis are the majority while the Shias make up between 5-20% of the total Muslim population of the country. Pakistan has the second largest number of Shias after Iran, which numbers between 16.5 million to as high as 30 million. (36)

Pakistan occupies a unique place in the Muslim world.  It is the only state explicitly established in the name of Islam, and yet fifty years after its independence, the role and place of Islam in the country remains unresolved.  The basic divide regarding the relationship between religion and the state pits those who see the existence of Pakistan as necessary to protect the social, political and economic rights of Muslims, and those who see it as an Islamic religious state.  During the past fifty years, the public has resoundingly rejected Islamic political parties in every general election. (37)

Nevertheless, religious parties are very strong in the Pakistani political scene as pointed out by Sumita Kumar in the following: (38)

Islamic parties in Pakistan have been a potent force to reckon with and can be counted among the elite groups that influence political processes and decision-making in Pakistan. These parties are affiliated to various terrorist organisations which foment trouble in Kashmir and elsewhere. These parties have a tremendous amount of street power, even though they have not done well in terms of votes in Pakistan’s elections over the years. 

‘’Islamic parties in Pakistan have been a powerful force to reckon with over the years. They have established a definite place for themselves among the various elite groups that determine political processes and decision-making in Pakistan, which include the military, bureaucratic, Punjabi, and business elite. They exercised influence not only during the years of the Afghan jehad, but also continue to play a role in present day politics through their affiliation to various terrorist organisations which foment trouble in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere. They have a significant influence on the politics of Pakistan and have a tremendous amount of street power, despite the fact that they have never been able to do well in terms of votes in Pakistan’s elections. The Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) and the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP) have never got more than six seats in all (combined) in the National Assembly. Yet these parties are at the forefront on issues like the establishment of Shariat Courts and legislation on subjects like ushr, zakat or blasphemy. The masses follow these parties, whether it is in denigrating Nawaz Sharif for a “sell-out” on Kargil, or in starting a campaign against the US attitude on various issues. This article seeks to examine the reasons for their considerable political influence which is disproportionate to their electoral support.’’

And goes on to say:

“That the religious parties have enough fire-power to get governments to change their decisions has been more than evident in the past year or so, an example being the Musharraf government’s capitulation in the face of protests by religious parties, on the blasphemy issue. At the same time, these religious parties were feeling threatened by what they perceived to be a change in the attitude of the army towards them due to the interior minister’s statement on the possibility of banning religious groups having militant wings, in April 2000, after the sectarian killings in Attock. Also, Islamabad called upon the Taliban government in Kabul to close down camps where members of Pakistani religious groups were being trained. Plans were also announced to regulate traffic along the Afghan border. This was followed by a campaign against smugglers and traders which form a core support group for religious parties. This was the reason why religious groups with links to the Taliban supported the traders in their bid to defy the government. Zahid Hussain states, “The unholy alliance between the country’s mullahs and the trading community presents the most serious challenge yet to the military leadership which is fast losing its goodwill and credibility.” Traditionally, the Islamists have a strong political base among shopkeepers and in the bazaars. In fact, the business community was encouraged to take on the government after it backtracked on its plan to crack down on smuggling. Another issue which gained the ire of the religious parties was the proposal floated by the Election Commission to restore the system of joint electorates, which the religious parties have opposed since 1988.” A combination of domestic and international developments over the past two decades, however, appears to be pushing Pakistan in the direction of a more explicitly religious state.  Just in the last year, for example, the government of Pakistan has introduced strict Sharî’ah laws and there has been a rise in Shia-Sunni violence.  Some analysts have even begun to consider the prospect of a Talibanized Pakistan.  The shift from liberalism to a more overt religious character for the country has been affected by developments in neighboring Iran, Afghanistan and India. (39)

Sufism has a strong tradition in Pakistan. The Muslim Sufi missionaries played a pivotal role in converting the millions of native people to Islam. As in other areas where Sufis introduced it, Islam to some extent syncretized with pre-Islamic influences, resulting in a religion with some traditions distinct from other parts of the Muslim world.

The Naqshbandiya, Qadiriya,  Chishtiya and Suhrawardiyya  silsas (Muslim Orders)  have a large following in Pakistan. Sufis whose shrines receive much national attention are Data Ganj Baksh (Ali Hajweri) in Lahore (ca. 11th century), Baha-ud-din Zakariya in Multan and Shahbaz Qalander in Sehwan (ca. 12th century) and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in BhitSindh and Rehman Baba in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. Popular Sufi culture is centered on Thursday night gatherings at shrines and annual festivals which feature Sufi music and dance. (40) Contemporary Islamic fundamentalists criticize its popular character, which in their view, does not accurately reflect the teachings and practice of the Prophet and his companions. (41)There have been terrorist attacks directed at Sufi shrines and festivals, 5 in 2010 that killed 64 people. (42)

Pakistan is wallowing in a real quagmire which encapsulates Pakistan’s current problems and their genesis. They are viral issues that occupy considerable space even outside Pakistan such as the army’s omnipresent role, the Islamists, the existential threat at the hands of al Qaeda and Tehrike Taliban Pakistan, and the persistent fears of an Islamist or military re-takeover in a realistic perspective. 

The contentious themes of democracy, development, and security in Pakistan today are closely interlinked, the political and economic experience of the past 50 years show that neither democracy nor capitalist development can survive without the other. (43)

In Pakistan, tradition and family life continue to contribute long term stability; the areas where very rapid changes are taking place are large population increase, urbanization, and economic development, and the nature of civil society and the state. Pakistan has wide range of ethnic groups, the countryside, religion and community, and popular culture and national identity. 

Since 2001, terrorism has grown to become the biggest security threat to Pakistan, although a range of other internal security threats are still present, due to enduring problems with sectarianism, religious extremism, drug and weapon smuggling, and violent ethnic and religious disputes.

The government is playing its role in addressing many of the security threats and conflicts faced by Pakistan but the role of civil society has been crucial. Some local and international NGOs and think-tanks have been executing projects to promote inter-faith harmony, women rights, and peace building within Pakistan. (44)

Internally, the wave of terrorism and religious extremism spearheaded by the Taliban has destabilized and polarized the country. The Taliban phenomenon in Pakistan also has important repercussions on the situation in Afghanistan and indirectly on its relations with the US because of the close links between TTP and the Afghan Taliban. The issues of the economy and the Taliban constitute the most serious challenges awaiting any Prime Minister’s attention. Who are the Talibans?

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the TTP) (Urdu/Pashto languageتحریکطالبان پاکستان; lit. Student Movement of Pakistan), alternatively referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, is an umbrella organization of various Islamist militant groups based in the northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border in Pakistan. Most, but not all, Pakistani Taliban groups coalesce under the TTP. (45) In December 2007 about 13 groups united under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud to form the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. (46) Among the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s stated objectives are resistance against the Pakistani state, enforcement of their interpretation of sharî’ah and a plan to unite against NATO-led forces in Afghanistan. (47)

For Rahimuallah Yusufzai, the Taliban are an important and strong force on both sides of Pakistan-Afghanistan border: (48)

‘’Militants operating in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) include both Taliban and non-Taliban forces. However, the Taliban militants are much larger in number and have a lot more influence in the region. The Pakistani Taliban have close links with the Afghan Taliban and operate on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, also known as the Durand Line after the British diplomat who demarcated the boundary in 1893, Sir Mortimer Durand. The non-Taliban militants, on the other hand, are often pro-government and enjoy cordial ties with the Pakistan authorities and security forces.’’

The TTP differs in structure to the Afghan Taliban in that it lacks a central command and is a much looser coalition of various militant groups, united by hostility towards the central government in Islamabad. Several analysts describe the TTP’s structure as a loose network of dispersed constituent groups that vary in size and in levels of coordination. The various factions of the TTP tend to be limited to their local areas of influence and often lack the ability to expand their operations beyond that territory. (49)

Nawaz Sharif, in his time, had clearly articulated his preference for dialogue with the Taliban to overcome the serious dangers that they pose to the country’s security and stability. He also called for an end to the drone attacks by the US in his speech in Parliament after his election as the Prime Minister. Nawaz Sharif’s willingness to resolve the Taliban issue through dialogue, if possible, had generated a heated debate in the country on its pros and cons. The liberals, on the whole, are opposed to the idea, while the conservative parties and groups seem to favor the dialogue option. 

Contrary to the fashionable view in Pakistan, the Taliban, as an organized group, emerged much after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989. It is true, however, that many of the leaders and members of the Taliban had played an active role in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation. The emergence of the Taliban as an organized group in Afghanistan under the leadership of Mullah Omer in 1994 was, in fact, a movement of protest against the lack of peace and stability, which prevailed in Afghanistan after the fall of the Najibullah regime and the alienation of the Afghan people because of the excesses of the various Afghan commanders.

This explains more than anything else the success of the Afghan Taliban in establishing their writ on most of Afghanistan under the leadership of Mullah Omer barring some small areas in north-eastern Afghanistan by 1998. But Pakistan’s help to the Taliban did play an important role in their successes against their opponents in Afghanistan. The fighting and instability in Afghanistan enabled al-Qaeda to establish its foothold in the country leading ultimately to 9/11 and the fall of the Taliban government following the US-led attack. This inevitably led to the expansion of the fighting by the Afghan Taliban against the US-led forces in Afghanistan because of the tribal links on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border. (50_

Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia: growth and repression 

In stark contrast to the popular “clash of civilizations” theory (51) that sees Islam inevitably in conflict with the West, Russia remarkably and aptly constructed an empire with broad Muslim support and succeeded in creating a fascinating relationship between an empire and its subjects. As America and Western Europe debated then and still debate today to no avail, how best to secure the allegiances of their Muslim populations. (52)

Central Asia has been unimaginably transformed by the long and arduous Soviet presence in the region and communist austere indoctrination that not only destroyed the local culture and belief but created subservient and docile elites believing strongly, and almost blindly, in the utopian Bolshevik project of remaking the world. This absurd project featured a sustained assault on Islam that destroyed patterns of Islamic learning and thoroughly de-Islamized public life. (53)

Islam became synonymous with tradition and was subordinated to powerful ethno-national identities that crystallized during the Soviet period. This legacy endures today and for the vast majority of the population, a return to Islam means the recovery of traditions destroyed under communism. The secularization of Islam in Central Asia compares greatly to experiences in Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, and other secular Muslim states.

Islam is by far the dominant religion in Uzbekistan, as Muslims constitute 90% of the population while 5% of the population follow Russian Orthodox Christianity . (54)

The population of Uzbekistan today is estimated at 35,052,934 (as of August 9, 2023) according to Country Meters website. (55)  However, a 2009 Pew Research Center report stated that Uzbekistan’s population is 96.3% Muslim. An estimated 93,000 Jews were once present but in the 2021 census, there were almost 9865 Jews in Uzbekistan, diffused over the country. Over 1,000 were in Bukhara, and almost 1,500 were in Samarkand; around 1,300 were in Fergana, and over 3,700 were in Tashkent. The remaining 2,300 were spread around the country in smaller numbers. (56) Despite its predominance, the practice of Islam is far from monolithic. Many versions of the faith have been practiced in Uzbekistan. The conflict of Islamic tradition with various agendas of reform or secularization throughout the 20th century has left the outside world with a confused notion of Islamic practices in Central Asia. In Uzbekistan the end of Soviet power did not bring an upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism, as many had predicted, but rather a gradual re-acquaintance with the precepts of the faith. However, after 2000, there seems to be a rise of support in favor of the Islamists, which is whipped up by the repressive measures of the authoritarian regime. (57)

On the subject of the rise of Islamism in Uzbekistan, Niginakhon Saida writes in The Diplomat: (58)

“The internet has played an increasing role in the present revival of Islam in Uzbekistan. After seven decades of atheist Soviet colonization, and three decades of stridently secular independence — a period in which President Islam Karimov maintained strict state control of Islam — Islam’s role in Uzbek society is again growing. The country’s leading religious scholars are using various internet platforms to promote state-sanctioned Islam in new ways.  

Unlike in the previous decades, under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s rule, public adherence to Islam has become more apparent and observable in society. Not only does it seem that more women are covered from head to toe, but increasingly women in Uzbekistan are covering their faces, leaving only their eyes visible. It’s important to note that under Hanafi Islam, which is practiced widely in the country, women are not obliged to hide their faces, though some choose to.

During the Karimov era, it was mostly elderly women who wore what locals call a “hijab” (generally a reference to any outfit that covers a woman’s body, including hair and neck). Young women essentially had to choose between pursuing an education and a prospective career or wearing a headscarf, as head coverings were not allowed in schools. In rare cases, women faced administrative charges for appearing “in a public place in prayer clothes.” Recently, Tashkent began to allow schoolgirls to cover their hair. One can see young people reading religious books on the streets, while Islamic literature and attire is sold even in the most random places. “

For the most part, however, in the first years of independence Uzbekistan is seeing a resurgence of a more secular Islam, and even that movement is in its very early stages. According to a public opinion survey conducted in 1994, interest in Islam is growing rapidly, but personal understanding of Islam by Uzbeks remains limited or distorted. For example, about half of ethnic Uzbek respondents professed belief in Islam when asked to identify their religious faith. Among that number, however, knowledge or practice of the main precepts of Islam was weak. Despite a reported spread of Islam among Uzbekistan’s younger population.

In post-Soviet Central Asia, ordinary Muslims in the region, focusing in particular on Uzbekistan, negotiate understandings of Islam as an important marker for identity, grounding for morality and as a tool for everyday problem-solving in the economically harsh, socially insecure and politically tense atmosphere of present-day Uzbekistan. In the historical Islamic city of Bukhara, the local forms of Sufism and saint veneration facilitate the pursuit of more modest goals of agency and belonging, as opposed to the utopian illusions of fundamentalist Muslim doctrines. (59)

In recent years, the Uzbekistan government has been criticized for its brutal suppression of its Muslim population. However, Muslims in this part of the world negotiate their religious practices despite the restraints of a stifling authoritarian regime. Fascinatingly, the restrictive atmosphere has actually helped shape the moral context of peoples’ lives, and understandings of what it means to be a Muslim emerge creatively out of lived experience. (60)

An estimated 6,500 people are in jail in Uzbekistan because of their religious or political beliefs. More than half are accused of being Hizbu Tahrir (HT) members, while most of the others are branded as Wahhabis, who practice the Saudi brand of Sunni Islamic extremism. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a great revival of religious activity in Central Asia. Mosques mushroomed, partly supported by Pakistani and Saudi money. A brand of radical, internationalist Islam gave birth to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In 1999 and 2000, fighters of the IMU in Tajikistan attempted incursions into Uzbekistan. Terrorist attacks in Tashkent in 1999 were attributed by the authorities to Islamic radicals, and were dealt with ruthlessly.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was formed in 1998 with the objective to create an Islamist state in Uzbekistan. In the following years, this organization expanded its goals, and now aims to create an Islamist state across Central Asia, in an area sometimes referred to as Turkistan. The theoretical Islamist state would encompass Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and the Xinxiang province of China. With this enlarged goal in mind, some members of the group began to refer to themselves as the Islamic Party of Turkistan.

IMU is comprised of Islamic militants from Uzbekistan and its Central Asian neighbors. The group was co-founded by a mullah in the Islamic underground and a former Soviet soldier who served in the Soviet-Afghan war. It was the co-founder’s experience in fighting against the mujahidin in Afghanistan that eventually led him to radical Islam and an alliance with Osama bin Laden. As the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan grew increasingly close to bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the group began to subscribe to the al-Qaeda ideology and objectives. Therefore, IMU’s attacks against Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance on behalf of al-Qaeda and Taliban, as well as their increasingly broad objectives to create a regional Islamic state, can be traced to its involvement with bin Laden. In return, IMU received money from bin Laden, safe haven from the Taliban, and a hand in the drug trafficking trade between Afghanistan and Central Asia. 

On the nature of IMU, Poonam Mann writes: (61)

“The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is a coalition of Islamic militants from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states who oppose the current Uzbek regime. They seek to overthrow the existing government of Uzbekistan by force and establish an Islamic state there. Since the Tashkent bombings of February 1999, the movement has been regarded as the key terrorist organisation operational in Central Asia and has posed the biggest threat to the region’s security. The movement was not only involved in the Tashkent bombings in 1999, which were targetted against Uzbek President Islam Karimov, but also in armed raids in Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken region, taking hostages and other violent activities.In 2000, the US government included the IMU in its list of terrorist organisations.Moreover, in his national address on September 20, 2001, the US President George W. Bush linked the IMU to Osama bin Laden, suggesting the IMU may be a target of US counter- terrorism efforts in the wake of the September 11 attacks.”

With IMU’s increased interest in a regional Islamic state, this entity shifted from attacking strictly Uzbek targets to attacking coalition forces in Afghanistan and U.S. diplomatic facilities in Central Asia. However, IMU’s repeated defeats in these anti-Coalition engagements have all but completely destroyed the group.

The TTP and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have a long history of collaboration. At one point prior to his appointment as TTP chief, Baitullah Mehsud lived with Tohir Yo’ldosh, the IMU’s former leader, who became an ideological inspiration and offered the services of his 2,500 fighters to Mehsud.  As a counterbalance to militant Islam in Uzbekistan and Central Asia, there is an interesting revival of Sufi Islam that preaches integral piety, love of the other, internal peace and fusion with the creator. (62)

Sufism—a mystical form of Islam that has flourished in the Muslim world for centuries—has enjoyed a strong revival in Central Asia.  In a Carnegie Paper entitled: Sufism in Central Asia: A Force for Moderation or a Cause of Politicization? Martha Brill Olcott explores Sufism’s potential to become a political movement in Central Asia by analyzing the movement’s history and current leaders in Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan. (63) The future role Sufism will play in Central Asia is dependent on both secular and religious circumstances.  Olcott contends that political leaders will require a political subtlety that has been lacking in recent decades in order to construct a reasonable balance between Sufis and fundamentalists. Olcott also argues that while Sufism currently poses little threat to the secular ideology of Central Asian states, there is potential for a dangerous backlash if governments openly try to use Sufi ideology as a way to gain support. (64)

Islam in Southeast Asia: openness and tolerance

Malaysia is a multi-confessional country of around 34,348,705 people, as of August 10, 2023, with Islam being the largest practiced religion, comprising approximately 61.4% Muslim adherents. (65) Article 3 of the Constitution of Malaysia establishes Islam as the “religion of the Federation”. However, Malaysia’s law and jurisprudence is based on the English common lawSharî’ah law is applicable only to Muslims, and is restricted to family law and religious observances. Therefore, there has been much debate on whether Malaysia is a secular state or an Islamic state.

Nine of the Malaysian states, namely KelantanTerengganuPahangKedahPerakPerlis,SelangorJohor and Negeri Sembilan have constitutional Malay monarchs (most of them styled as sultans). These Malay rulers still maintain authority over religious affairs in states. The states of PenangMalaccaSarawak and Sabah do not have any sultan, but the king (Yang di-Pertuan Agong) plays the role of head of Islam in each of those states as well as in each of the Federal Territories of Kuala LumpurLabuan and Putrajaya.

The Malay ethnic group has been divided politically, and therefore they require the support of either Chinese or Indians in order to gain political dominance.  This situation leads to a central fact in the country’s political life: Malay-Muslim dominance has always been negotiated amongst various forces. (66) Inter-ethnic and inter-religious coalition parties, whether in opposition or ruling parties, have dominated the country’s electoral politics in post-independence politics.

One complication is that the increased emphasis on Malay and Islamic identity in economic and public life has exacerbated the problematic of relations between Malay-Muslims and non-Malay non-Muslims.  The idea of Malaysia as a united nation-state, or Bangsa Malaysia, has been challenged. (67)  Still, most religious and ethnic minorities have decided to remain Malaysian and enjoy the benefits of the relatively strong economy of the country.  It is noteworthy, for example, that the recent economic crisis did not lead to an out-migration of Chinese and Indians as witnessed in some of the other countries hit by the financial crisis.  (68) In fact, these minorities have at times openly supported the troubled Mahathir government.  The main reason for this support may be a desire to assure a stable political system that will ensure the safety of their economic interests. (69)

The introduction of Islam in Indonesia dates back to the 7th century, but the real spread occured between the 12th and 13th centuries. Sources agree that Islam has its origins there in world trade, through the exchanges that the country carried out with Arab, Persian, Indian and Chinese Muslim merchants. The conversion of populations is therefore not the result of coercion exerted by external invaders. On the contrary, Islam was gradually integrated into a society where Buddhism and Hinduism already coexisted.

Indonesia, where nearly 90% of the populace is Muslim, is the world’s largest Islamic country. Its population is estimated at 277,785,094 as of August 10, 2023. (70)  However, Islam has never played a central role in the country’s politics.  Nevertheless, there has been a persistent tension between those advocates of a more prominent and formal role for Islam in the country, and those who resist making Islam an organized political actor.

In the late 1980s, under the now defunct New Order era of former President Suharto, there was an effort to reach out to Muslims and Islam in a more explicit way. (71) The main reason for this was President Suharto’s desire to widen his power base beyond the military and the secular ruling political party, Golkar.  A symbolic indication of this effort was President Suharto’s decision in 1990 to make his first trip or Hajj to Mecca.  Other steps on the path to Islamization of the New Order regime included reversing the ban on the wearing of hijab (head covering) for female students in state-run schools and the founding of the country’s first Islamic bank. (72)

Roughly a decade after Suharto’s attempt to encompass Islam in the political sphere, the New Order collapsed.  On 21 May 1998, President Suharto resigned.  In essence, the effort by Suharto to widen his political base by reaching out to Islam did not prevent the fall of his regime. While Suharto’s efforts in the preceding several years to cultivate Islam may have re-invigorated Islamic groups and organizations, the current evolving role of Islam in the politics and policy-making of post-Suharto Indonesia (73) is likely to be more sustainable then it was at the beginning of Suharto’s New Order era.  A major reason for this expectation is that there has been, over the past decades, a surge in religious consciousness among many circles within the Indonesian Muslim community. (74)

In Malaysia, for example, NGOs such as Sisters in Islam (SIS) (75) seek to assert the rights of Muslim women: education and legal assistance services for those concerned, drafting of memoranda in favor of legal reforms, etc. Despite the opposition by certain religious authorities, they have campaigned for example and obtained the presence of female judges in the Islamic courts. The particularity of these feminist organizations is that they do not advocate distancing themselves from religion in order to assert their rights, as is the case with other movements, but on the contrary draw them from Islamic sources, through a rereading free from patriarchal interpretations.

Islam has not been a monolithic force in the politics of Indonesia.  There have been divergent views amongst several Islamic organizations and movements, most prominently the NU and the Muhammadiyah.  The New Order government’s policy of diminishing the role of political parties combined with the military’s suspicion of Islam, led Islamic organizations to concentrate on religious, social and educational activities rather than politics.  This very shift in emphasis led to Indonesian society becoming more Islamicized, including the rise of a Muslim middle class that entered both the government and the military.  These changes in part led the military to reassess its view of Islam’s role in Indonesia.  Moreover, in the post-Suharto context of Indonesian politics, Islam has emerged as perhaps the most important force.  Islam is likely to be a major force in the politics of Indonesia for the foreseeable future. (76)

On the status of Islam in Indonesia, Neil Thompson writes in The Diplomat: (77)

“Since 1998 there has been a growth in hardline fundamentalist Islamist groups, which were brutally repressed under Suharto, the former military dictator who ran Indonesia with an iron fist for 32 years. While the implementation of some articles from Islam’s Sharia criminal code have so far been limited to the conservative northwestern province of Aceh, other areas of Indonesia have seen similar calls for Sharia law to be imposed on the multi-confessional country. Sectarian outfits like the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) openly say that they believe only Muslims should be allowed to serve as Indonesian leaders. Nor are their views uncommon among religious Indonesians; according to Reuters, a survey published last December by the Institute for the Study of Islam and Society, showed that “78 percent of 505 religious teachers in public schools supported implementing sharia law in Indonesia. The survey also found that 77 percent backed Islamist groups advocating this goal.””

The nature of today’s Islam in Asia

For centuries Islam in Asia was renowned for its adaptability to local practices and tolerance of other religions. Over the past three decades, however, fundamentalists have tried to homogenize Islam, introducing new tensions. More than any other factor, what has fueled conflicts and divided Muslims and others in otherwise tolerant and harmonious plural societies of Asia, is the slow but steady process of the transformation of Islam in the region, from a syncretic and inclusive Islam to a puritanical and exclusivist one under the influence of ideas, norms, practices, and finances flowing from the Arab world. (78)

Islam is an Asian religion. This assertion still surprises a few times, yet it is on this continent, and well beyond the Arab world, that the vast majority of followers of this religion are located today, born in the same space as Judaism and Christianity. (79)

The Indian subcontinent (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives) alone had 507.28 million Muslims in 2010). Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Burma) has 232.57 million, including 277 million in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world in terms of number of followers. 

However, Asian Islam is sometimes understated due to its geographical (holy places) and cultural (poor command of Arabic) remoteness, the significance of pre-Islamic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism) and syncretic practices. However, the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019, recall a major fact: the expansion of a radical vision on the continent where the majority of the Muslim population lives (62.1%), compared to Arab countries, which account for only 20%. (80)

Nevertheless, Asia overlaps with various situations: states where the Muslim population is a majority (Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh), those where it is a minority (India, Philippines), even insignificant (7,000 in Bhutan, i.e. 1% of the inhabitants in 2010), those in which the authorities practice terrible repression (Burma against the Rohingyas).  Others have managed to reconcile State and religion, such as Indonesia, which has made Islam an official religion while advocating a model of inter-religious tolerance, while Pakistan is an Islamic Republic.

Asia is the latest Islamized region of the world, through trade. Although Caliph Othman (644-656) sent an embassy to China for the first time around 650 to spread Islam, the heart of India was not reached until the 11th century by Arab merchants. This progressive diffusion is accompanied by the development of Sufi brotherhoods conveying a quietism and a tolerance with regard to other faiths and engendering a number of different practices. Often tinged with shamanism, Malay and Insulindian Islam does not rule out the ceremonies of the god-kings of India or the great Hindu epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana). Among the Hui of China, women take the place of ulema, lead the prayer and teach the Qur’ân.

But in the interwar period, Islam took on a major political role. The first major organizations claimed it to support their anti-colonial mobilizations, such as the Indonesian Sarekat Islam. Nowadays, in the province of Pattani, in the south of Thailand, or in Chinese Xinjiang, religion continues to be associated with a desire for autonomy. In these often-conflicting contexts, Islam serves as a vector of identity to assume an aspiration of resistance and emancipation in the face of a discriminatory central power.  The tensions become the ferment of confessional fractures between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma or Hindus in India, for example. The management of Islam is then central, and the religious question intersects with economic and geopolitical issues.

The “Islam of the desert” has made inroads across the Indian Ocean. This process of homogenization and regimentation—a process referred to as the “Arabization”  of Islam—puts greater emphasis on rituals and codes of conduct than on substance, through the Wahhabi and Salafi creeds, a rigidly puritanical branch of Islam exported from, and subsidized by, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The internationalization of Islam drew Asian Muslims to the desert and brought the desert to them. 

Such “globalization of political Islam” could threaten stability throughout Asia and the world. Unfortunately, too many proponents of any form of fundamentalism rely on it as a tool, not for inspiring spirituality, but for acquiring economic or political power.

The Muslims of Asia constitute the largest Muslim communities in the world – Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Central Asia. In recent years, bombings in Bali, separatist conflicts in Thailand and the Philippines, and opposition politics in Central Asia, all point to the strategic importance of Asian Islam. A global debate has emerged within Islam about how to coexist with democracy. Even in Asia, where such ideas have always been marginal, radical groups are taking the view that scriptural authority requires either Islamic rule (Dâr-ul-Islâm) or a state of war with the essentially illegitimate authority of non-Muslims or secularists. This book places the debate in a specifically Asian context. It draws attention to Asia (east of Afghanistan), as not only the home of the majority of the world’s Muslims but also Islam’s historic laboratory in dealing with religious pluralism. (84)

Nevertheless, it is believed among the majority of observers that Islam in Southeast Asia is offering a very attractive school of thought based on tolerance, acceptance of the other, intercultural communication, peace and development for all. In this regard, Bruce Vaughn, an analyst in Southeast and South Asian Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade, argues quite rightly: (85)

 “Islam in Southeast Asia is relatively more moderate in character than in much of the Middle East. This moderation stems in part from the way Islam evolved in Southeast Asia. Islam came to Southeast Asia with traders rather than through military conquest as it did in much of South Asia and the Arab Middle East. Islam also was overlaid on animist, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions in Indonesia, which are said to give it a more syncretic aspect. Islam spread throughout much of Southeast Asia by the end of the seventeenth century. Islam in Asia is more politically diverse than in the Middle East.”

Drawing a parallel between Islam in Morocco and Indonesia and Morocco and Pakistan

Indonesia, has always claimed to be a secular, non-faith-based state. Moreover, the Constitution makes no mention of Islam. However, the state officially recognizes six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Various academic works suggest that the Indonesian government advocates the plural identity of its nation, peaceful living together and great tolerance. This is evidenced by the five founding principles (Pancasila) of the Indonesian State, which are the belief in one God, a just and civilized humanity, the unity of Indonesia, a democracy guided by wisdom through deliberation and representation, and social justice for all Indonesian people. (86)

On the contrary, Morocco is an Islamic state but the Constitution provides for the freedom to practice of one’s own religion. Indeed, Islam is the official religion of the State and the King is the “Commander of the Faithful” amîr al-mu’minîn responsible for ensuring the “respect for Islam” in the country and the protection of other faiths. Foreign non-Muslim communities openly practice their beliefs. (87)

Morocco and Indonesia, according to the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, have some parallel with each other in terms of faith, in the cultural area. In his acclaimed work entitled: “Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia” , (88) which remains today one of the most authoritative works in comparative religion between two Muslim countries on the two edges of the geographical area of the Muslim world.

In this fascinating study, Clifford Geertz begins his argument by outlining the problem conceptually and providing an overview of the two countries. He then traces the evolution of their classical religious styles which, with disparate settings and unique histories, produced strikingly different spiritual climates. So, in Morocco, the Islamic conception of life came to mean activism, moralism, and intense individuality, while in Indonesia the same concept emphasized aestheticism, inwardness, and the radical dissolution of personality. In order to assess the significance of these interesting developments, Geertz sets forth a series of theoretical observations concerning the social role of religion.

In the preface of this interesting work, he sets out to define his approach to the matter and inherent philosophy: (89)

“I have attempted both to lay out a general framework for the comparative analysis of religion and to apply it to a study of the development of a supposedly single creed, Islam, in two quite contrasting civilizations, the Indonesian and the Moroccan.”

He explores the impact of local culture and “common sense” on Islam (and the reverse) by tracing the evolution of Indonesian and Moroccan classical religious styles, and manages to unravel theory into accessible threads and uses this final chapter to weave together the earlier chapters. This book is, essentially, an exploration of religion’s impact on collective consciousness in Indonesia and Morocco.

In essence, the book is primarily a comparative examination of how Indonesia and Morocco, both Muslim countries, have developed in religious belief and to some extent in political belief, according to their different geographical environment, economic structure and cultural history.

The author’s argument begins from the contrast between the tribesmen/townsmen symbiosis of Moroccan society, with its uncertain pastoral and agricultural base and the mature peasant society of the major part of Indonesia, with its highly productive wet rice civilization.

He argues quite forcefully, and with great amount of the assurance of a social scientist with tremendous experience: (90)

“In Morocco, civilization was built on nerve; in Indonesia on diligence”.

The turbulent Arab-Amazigh/Berber Moroccan background gave value to both visionary devoutness and self-assertion combined on occasion in the key figure of the warrior-saint; the classical Indic civilization stressed more aesthetic and philosophic values, seen over a much more complex syncretistic range.

Where Moroccan religious ideology developed a rigorous fundamentalism, Indonesian proliferated into more abstract symbolism, pragmatic in allowing much more scope for variation. But in both a basic problem, is not so much what to believe as how to believe it. Increasingly, people hold religious view rather than are held by them; there is a difference between being religious-minded and being religious.

In a similar work entitled:Islam in Tribal Societies: From the Atlas to the Indus, edited by Akbar S. Ahmed and David M. Hart, (91) these two prominent academics and anthropologists conducted a lively debate in the social sciences around the concepts of “tribe”, “segmentary societies” and “Islam in society”. This wide-ranging collection by thirteen distinguished anthropologists contributes to the debate by examining various segmentary Islamic tribal societies from Morocco to Pakistan.

Conclusions about Islam in Asia

It is necessary to first understand that the 4 largest Muslim countries in the world by population – Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – are not in North Africa or the Middle East (Arab world), but in Asia. More specifically, the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, a huge island state of 277 million inhabitants is located in Southeast Asia. This region of Asia is at the crossroads of Indian and Chinese areas. It stretches from West to East from Burma to the Philippines, passing through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Sultanate of Brunei and the 3 states of the Indochinese peninsula. In each of these countries, there are Muslim communities, majority, as in Indonesia or Malaysia, or more modest, but also old and vigorous. All have in common the use, not of the Arabic language, but of the Malay language. 

The presentation on the roles of Islam in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia suggests that Islam’s role in the politics, societies and economies has grown.  Despite the growing role of Islam and the rise of more activist and religious Muslim middle classes, there appear to be few signs of an Islamic fundamentalist trend in Asia.  (92) The point was made repeatedly that Islam in most of Asia must compete with other identities, most notably ethnicity.  Moreover, Islam in Asia generally is built on pre-Islamic influences such as Hinduism and Buddhism which still persist.  All of these factors tend to make Islam in Asia of a variety different from the more doctrinaire influences of the Arabian Peninsula. 

Only in one country, Pakistan, does it appear that Islam is threatening to take an extra-parliamentary role towards politics.  Islamic politics of the street intended to undermine Pakistan’s barely functioning democracy is possibly a real danger to the political stability of the country.  Just how serious a threat Islam poses to Pakistan’s political system, and how soon, is a matter of speculation.  But what is not beyond doubt is that factional fighting between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Pakistan has grown, and so too has intolerance against the country’s minority communities whether they be Christian, Hindu or Ahmadi. 

For Azhdar Kurtov, a Central Asia expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, the Uzbeks of Central Asia are the most populous ethnic group and most settled nation; they have a greater tradition of statehood than their neighbors, and greater claims to regional leadership. They haven’t achieved this leadership because they have fewer natural resources than Kazakhstan, and this has created certain conflicts. Also, the Uzbeks have much more of an Islamic doctrine than the Turkmen, Kazaks or Kyrgyz. He goes on to argue about the future of Islam in Uzbekistan in the following terms: (93)

“The IMU really has made itself evident, with terrorist acts on central Tashkent squares and attempts to infiltrate Uzbekistan via Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. These are indisputable facts. The IMU’s actual situation, though, remains opaque – we don’t know the numbers involved, their location, who the leaders are, whether the IMU is in contact with al-Qaeda and what that relationship looks like, or whether it wants to create a kind of caliphate in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan. No one knows for sure whether all this is true, or whether it’s been invented by Uzbekistan’s intelligence service. Because the Uzbek justice system is sui generis and the state is secretive and doesn’t allow freedom of speech, all these things need to be checked carefully.”

In Indonesia and Malaysia, where Islamic identity and activity in social, economic and political dimensions has been on the increase, political stability arising from Islam’s role is not the critical issue.  Rather, the compelling issues appear to be accommodating Islamic activism in the emerging politics of the two countries and protecting the rights of minorities.  “The New Order” of Suharto’s Indonesia did not collapse because of Islamic activism, and Islam is not behind the rough political dynamics of Malaysia during the past two years.  But, as both countries move through an era of political change, Islam will certainly be one if not the most critical of the many factors shaping the future. (94)

The role of Islam in Asian regional politics is extraordinarily complicated and differs from sub-region to sub-region not to mention across Asia.  In South Asia for example, Islam has not proved to be a tie that binds as indicated by the separation of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) from co-religionist West Pakistan in 1971. (The majority-Hindu states of India and Nepal certainly have not always had good relations either).  Intra-regional relations in South Asia are certainly complicated by religion (whether Islam or Hinduism, or for that matter Buddhism) but religion does not shape these relations.  Nationalism, power politics, and ethnic identities are much stronger factors in intra-regional relations. (95)

Nevertheless, it must be pointed out, with force, that Muslim minorities in Asia face increasing persecution. The numbers speak for themselves. In Burma, more than 700,000 Rohingyas (96) were forced to leave the country in 2017. In China, a million Uyghurs (97) are believed to be interned in re-education camps. Finally, in the Indian state of Assam, thousands of attacks against Muslims have been denounced since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. Socio-ethnic contexts and political agendas vary from country to country, but some questions are common: acculturation, deprivation of citizenship, and even ethnic cleansing. The objectives of these repressive policies are the pure annihilation of Islam in this continent.

Burma and the repression of the Rohingya

This Islam or rather “these Islams” of Asia do not escape the major current issues. How do they fit into democracy? How do they adapt to the gigantic economic boom of Asian countries? Why are certain Muslim minorities persecuted in China, India or Burma? Should we be alarmed by the terrorist threat in the Philippines, Indonesia or Sri Lanka?

All in all, it appears that none of the Asian countries considered in this work, with the possible exception or Pakistan, are in danger of being thrown into turmoil and instability due to an Islamic revolution.  There are ways in which the role of Islam may affect the stability of the some of these states, however; such as incorporating Islamic political parties in the new dispensation in Indonesia or ensuring the confidence and safety of non-Muslim minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia.  In India and Philippines, non-Muslim majorities must work to ensure that confidence and safety of the minority Muslim community.  There are also legitimate questions about the degree to which Islam will affect the definition of nationalism in Muslim-majority countries of the region. (98)


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Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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