The Hybridity of Malay Islam (1500-1800) Part I: Islamisation and Sufism as Key Elements of Identity

The integration of Islam into the Malay world occurred as a constant flux over time and its formulation across the Malay world was neither consistent nor constant. The religion, especially the Sufi school of Islam had a tremendous impact within those four centuries, altering the social and political fabric of the Malay ruled areas of Southeast Asia while also resulting in new Islamic developments that impacted the other kingdoms and societies in the Indian ocean. This two-part essay by Lhavanya Dharmalingam, a student of International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, discusses that the ideals and doctrines of Middle Eastern formulations of Islam was not adopted as a totality, but were being modified with complex innovations that manifested in different legal systems, systems of governance, societal arrangements and practices in the Malay world.

For the purposes of this essay the term ‘original Islam’ shall be used to refer to the manifestation of the culture and principles of Islam as it was practised in the Middle East. The modifications were made for various reasons, such as to further legitimise a ruler’s claim to rulership, or to encourage local conversion through either a religious syncretism (Kitiarsa, 2005) that gave concessions to indigenous/ Hindu-Buddhist religious practices or through an organic process of creolisation. Essentially, Islam was built on the existing religious and cultural practices, and Hindu-Buddhist systems of governance. The localisation of this religion manifests in the politics of trade, of governance, of society. The emergence of this new entity of ‘Malay Islam’ is significant because of its significant impact and role in the Malay political systems and its conflict with ‘original Islam’ because of the perceived syncretism. This essay will therefore aim to analyse the roles of Sufism and political facotrs in the localisation of Islam and the ideological conflict between ‘original Islam’ and ‘Malay Islam’ between the fifteenth to eighteenth century.

A snapshot of Islamisation

Muslims have been present in the Malay world since the first centuries of Islamic history (Feener, 2011, p.471). In the thirteenth century, Muslim trade across the Indian Ocean increased significantly, forming social, economic and political connections with locals. The first Islamic port city was the Sultanate of Pasai in the 13th century and it is towards the end of this century that documents show significant numbers of conversions (ibid, p.470) alongside an increasing Arab diaspora. By the fifteenth century, the small communities of Muslim migrants were evolving into significant local Muslim communities through processes of trade, intermarriage, shared economic interests and political alliances.

Over the 15th and 16th century the north coast of Java was developing a distinctive Islamic identity which subsequently spread east and west. Towards the late 16th century, Mataram rose as an agrarian Muslim kingdom (ibid, p.479). In the early 17th century, the Makassar and Bugis kings had converted to Islam while the major kings of South Sulawesi resisted because they feared it would decrease their supernatural status as well as interfere with their religious feasting on pork and palm wine (Reid, 2011, p.455). Upon conversion in 1605, Karaeng Matoaya proceeded to attack the Bugis states that resisted Islam and within a few years those states were won over (ibid, p.456). Under Sultan Iskandar Muda, Aceh became the leading regional centre of Islamic learning for that period and launched campaigns into neighbouring Gayo and Minangkabau (Feener, 2011, p.489). It was mainly during the 16th and the 17th century that the Malay world as a region became increasingly integrated with Islamic civilisational networks arising around the Indian ocean and developed increasingly self-conscious Islamic identities (ibid, p.488). Islamisation of the Malay world was a long drawn non-linear process.

Scholars frequently credit the traders and merchants and/or the Sufis for bringing Islam to the Malay world (Al-Attas, 1967; Johns, 1961). Morrison (1951) states that Arab, Persian and Indian traders, separately, brought Islam to this region and Alatas (1985) is convinced that there were non-Malay Muslims residing in the major ports of the Malay Archipelago as early as the ninth century. Drawing on textual evidence from that period he also stresses the significance of traders from the Hadhramaut region in the process of Islamisation. On the other hand, Arnold (1913) opines that while traders and settlements of Muslim merchants laid the political and social foundations for the regional embedding of Islam, it was the Sufis ‘using their superior intelligence and civilisation in the service of their religion’ who played the dominant role in spreading the faith as firm believers in it.

The Nature of Sufism

The nature of Sufism is a key factor in how these Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms managed to embrace Islam. In fact the contrast between the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of the Malay world and the doctrines of Islam was significant, where on the one hand there were fundamentally hierarchical polities with rulers claiming spiritual prowness and a multitude of gods and on the other hand a religion that stressed equality before the one god (Milner, 2008, p.40). Despite this, Islam managed to complement and amalgamate with the systems in place. Scholars like John (1961, p.19) point out the Sufi characteristic of accepting non-Islamic elements provided they were not contradictory to the Quranic verses and also argue that only the Sufis were capable and learned enough to face their Hindu/ Buddhist counterparts and engage in dialogue to successfully present their religion’s superiority. As Crawfurd (1967, p.266) eloquently puts forth:

“In most Mahomedan institutions of the Javanese, we discover marks of Hinduism. The institutions of the latter have been rather modified and built upon rather than destroyed, and in viewing them, we cannot withhold the tribute of our applause to the discreet and artful conduct of the first Mahomedan teachers, whose temperate zeal is always marked by a politic and wise forbearance.”

One of the reasons for the changed nature of Malay Islam that offends its critics and also contributes to the multiplicity in Sufi thought across the different localities and even within a single locality, perhaps lies in the permissive nature of Sufism. Sufis search for “new truths” that can be subsumed into the corpus of the Quran’s doctrines and each Sufi order developed its own rituals and devotional forms designed to “achieve direct contact with God and thereby obtain sublime salvation”(Means, 2009, p.22). One such ‘new truth’ arising out of the combination of the Javanese doctrines and Islamic doctrines was put forth by the Wujudiyyah in the 17th century. They were exponents of the Ibn al-Arabi school primarily based in Aceh, set up by Hamzah Fansuri a prominent scholar who localised aspects of Middle Eastern Sufi thought and developed a new genre of poetry, Syair (Feener, 2011, p.472). They sought to know and understand the relationship between god, man and the world from the ‘new’ Malay Islamic perspective that stemmed from the idea of the oneness or unity of god and they drew upon works of reputed scholars such as the aforementioned al-Arabi from the Middle East (Moris, 2011, p.109). Their metaphysical teachings on Being and Reality were highly controversial (Moris, 2011, p.110; Leaman, 2006, p.91). As Means explains:

“Javanese mystic doctrines view the temporal world as “unreal” but behind this temporal world lies the eternal reality of God, which is immanent in all creation. For the Sufi, the assumption is that Allah is everywhere and is in everything; he is concealed, unreachable and without equal. When combined with the doctrine of nonduality, Javanese Sufis concluded that man and God share the same identity and “ there is no difference between the worshiper and the worshiped” because the divinity of both are subject and object.”

Such teachings were condemned as heretical and supporting pantheism by scholars like Al-Raniri, writing from Aceh from when he was Chief Judge (Riddell, 2001, p.116). He represented the Aydarusiyya Sufi order, which did not originate in the Malay world and his criticisms were laid out in the Hujjat al-siddiq li-daf al-zindiq (ibid, p.119). Although he had been in Aceh for seven years on the behest of Sultan Iskandar Thani, he was born and spent most of his studies in Gujerat and the Hadhramaut (ibid, p.117) and therefore the clash between the teachings of Malay scholarship and scholarship representing ‘original Islam’ is evident here. Subsequently Al-Raniri’s teachings were disputed by Sayf al Rijal, a Minangkabau who successfully condemned his extremism and in 1643, Al-Raniri returned to Gujerat (Reid, 2011, p.460).

Additionally Sufis were more concerned with their direct experience of God rather than the doctrines and legal requirements of Sharia (ibid, p.24), a quality which manifested to varying degrees across the Malay world and arguably permitted the varied, selective implementation of the tenets of Islam. Additionally, because Sufis venerated individuals who purported to have achieved direct contact with god, this also permitted select individuals to be awarded the de facto authority to transmit their own transmutations of Islamic doctrines. One of the cornerstones of Islamic learning is this principle of authority. It is in the practice of Muslims to follow the teachings and opinions of teachers whose wisdom and appeal to learnedness convince them of his authority. The religious teachers are associated with various schools of learning that guarantee the standard of his learning and his doctrine’s legitimacy (Johns, 1975, p.46). This gives rise to different opinions and judgements as seen in the above example. Although, given that this is a trait of all types of Islam irrespective of locality, it cannot entirely be credited with the specific rise of ‘Malay’ Islam but to variations in Islam across the globe.

The Sufi doctrine of the ‘Perfect Man’ who achieves ‘essential oneness with God and guides his followers down the path he has trodden’ resonates strongly with the Buddhist ideal of the Bodhisattva which was also a concept used by rulers to portray themselves as divine representatives (Milner, 2008, p.41). Islam perceives the ruler as God’s representative on earth and protector of the one true faith and therefore as a ‘Perfect Man’. Relics such as old coins are seen to carry epithets such as ‘Shadow of God’ (Milner, 2008, p.42) depicting how rulers used a cloak of divine perfection and authority to legitimise themselves.

In the second part of Lhavanya’s essay, she will build up on the landscape of Islam in Malay identity to examine the polemics of Islam as a tool of politics and its inextricable relationship with ‘adat’. Find out what she has to say (as well as her bibliography) here.


What Really Caused the Philippine Revolution?

The batteries are gradually becoming charged, and if the prudence of the government does not provide an outlet for the currents that are accumulating, someday the spark will be generated.

 – Jose Rizal, The Philippines a Century Hence

The Philippine Revolution which begun in 1896 saw the rise of the demands and grievances of the people of the Philippines against the Spanish colonial rulers of that time. In studying the causes of the revolution, early historians have tended to attribute the events of that period mainly to the despotism of the Spanish. Afra Alatas, a student of History at the National University of Singapore, compares two articles that address the causes of the Philippine Revolution. They are complementary in nature in the sense that one article discusses issues which the other fails to address. The first will be ‘The Cause of the Philippine Revolution’ by Vincente Pilapil, while the second will be ‘The Enlightenment and the Philippine Revolution’ by Jose Arcilla. While Pilapil addresses a broad range of causes that led to the revolution, Arcilla addresses the Enlightenment in particular, and how it had an impact on the nationalist leaders and Rizal in particular. In analysing these articles, she seeks to argue that while Pilapil successfully challenges early historiography on the causes of the revolution, he appears to overlook the true significance of the Spanish. Furthermore, he lacks analysis on the significance of the Enlightenment; a factor which Arcilla discusses and argues for its influence in the nationalist movement and hence the revolution. 

The Awakening 

A professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles, Pilapil’s specialties included the Spanish colonial empire. In the above-mentioned article, Pilapil challenges early American historiography which ascribed Filipino uprisings to the oppression by the Spanish simply by selectively referring to revolutionary propaganda leaflets which were obviously anti-Spanish.

On the contrary, he highlights in another article that there are various sources which allude to the fact that the Spanish rule had provided many benefits for the natives of the islands and that this has been acknowledged by most Philippine historians (Pilapil, 1961:129). Instead, Pilapil argues in ‘The Cause of the Philippine Revolution’ that the revolution was the result of the forces of nationalism and liberalism which interacted with the “political maturation and the national awakening of the Philippine people”. In discussing this national awakening, he explains that in the late nineteenth century, Filipinos began to see themselves as one people and began to acquire a sense of individuality (Pilapil, 1965:249-50). He attributes this to factors such as the break from the barangay system and the formation of a centralised government, as well as the spiritual message of Catholicism. More importantly, education contributed to the emergence of such ideas which were adopted by the educated Filipinos, or the ilustrados, who would emerge to play a central role in the revolution. He reminds us that most of the nationalist leaders involved in the uprisings were actually educated, enlightened men, who had inevitably become inspired by the alternative ideas to which they were exposed to in university.

The importance of these factors was fuelled by factors such as the penetration of the ideas of liberalism and nationalism which in turn complemented the education that Filipinos were receiving. An example would be the ideas of Enlightenment from France which became prevalent in the Spanish constitution by 1812. More specifically, Pilapil’s discussion of the Enlightenment centres on the entry of Enlightenment ideas into the Spanish Constitution which were introduced to the Philippines. Such an idea was the “democratic principle that sovereignty is essentially vested in the nation”(Pilapil, 1965:254). However, this constitution was later suppressed.

Enlightened Propaganda 

Jose Arcilla is a Jesuit priest as well as a history professor at the Ateneo de Manli University. His areas of expertise include Philippine history and the history of Jesuits in the Philippines. In his article, Arcilla’s discussion revolves around the possibility of an impact of the Enlightenment on nationalist ideas in the Philippines, and if so, how. Like Pilapil, Arcilla also states that the idea of a Filipino people and the belief in human equality and human rights gave people more courage to assert their demands. This notion of human rights was reinforced by Enlightenment ideas which were introduced to the Philippines by its first bishop, Fray Domingo de Salazar. According to him and his belief in the gospel, the natives had the right to govern themselves.

He continues to discuss how Jose Rizal, the foremost symbol of the nationalist movement, was inspired by Voltaire and was exposed to ideas of liberalism and rationalism while he was in Spain. Inspired by Voltaire, a French Enlightenment thinker, Rizal believed that the more Filipinos were provoked, the more they would retaliate. The question was how they should retaliate, or rather what type of reforms they should demand. As a result, Rizal “advocated a total moral regeneration of his countrymen, without which they did not deserve self-rule” and believed that the movement for reform should not be violent (Arcilla, 1991:369).

With a firm belief in rationalism and anti-clerical liberalism, he believed that the friars should not have a say in the education or government of the people. This contributed to the fight against the clergy and friars that had eventually turned into a nationalistic campaign, which Pilapil also discussed.

In contrast to Pilapil however, Arcilla concludes that one of the most important factors in contributing to the revolution was the suffering of the Philippine people under harsh Spanish rule.

An Analysis 

Both articles essentially discuss the factors that contributed to the uprising in the Philippines and eventually to the outbreak of the Philippine Revolution. While Pilapil discusses a broad range of factors, Arcilla’s discussion focuses on the influence of the Enlightenment on the ideas of the nationalist leaders. Pilapil’s emphasis is mainly that it was the political maturation and national awakening of the Filipino people that ultimately resulted in the revolution.

He believed that early historiographical work which attributed the revolution to the Filipino people’s reaction to Spanish tyranny would be inaccurate and instead explains how other factors had emerged and developed to influence the Filipino people. In his conclusion, he questions why the demands for reform only arose towards the end of the nineteenth century and remarks that “if the people were groaning under the yoke of Spanish tyranny, the question why the leaders for reform, instead of originally fighting for separation from such a despotic power, asked for the assimilation of the Philippine colony with the mother country, would remain unanswerable” (Pilapil, 1965:264). However, as much as Pilapil is correct to say that we should not be swayed by the propaganda material against the Spanish colonials, it is a weakness of his argument that he tends to overlook the problems of the Spanish government. Pilapil’s work itself should therefore be studied with this critical eye since he seems to downplay the significance of imperfect Spanish rule.

While Pilapil’s article looks at the causes of the revolution from a broader perspective, Arcilla on the other hand focuses on the role of the Enlightenment in contributing to the revolution and how it aided in the development of education and the assertion of the belief in human rights and equality.

Most importantly, he discusses the heavy influence that the Enlightenment had on Rizal. The influence of the Enlightenment on Rizal’s thought has also been discussed by writers such as Bonoan (Bonoan, 1991:53-97). The main difference between both discussions on the Enlightenment is that Pilapil’s minimal discussion on the Enlightenment is only on its impact on politics. He fails to draw a link between the Enlightenment and the development of other factors such as the rise of the ilustrado and a more critical Filipino people. Including a discussion on the wider influence of the Enlightenment would have contributed to a deeper understanding of the various factors that he discussed. On the other hand, Arcilla’s discussion on the Enlightenment provides for a deeper understanding of its impact on the nationalist uprising.


Studying any historical event requires one to read broadly and to expose oneself to various perspectives. Through an analysis of Pilapil’s and Arcilla’s articles, one becomes aware of the need to corroborate and to complement sources with one another, as well as to adopt a more critical attitude towards dominant narratives; in this case, Spanish tyranny. It is also important to look out for the background and biases of an author. In the case of Pilapil, it is important to be aware of his tendency to downplay the harshness of Spanish rule which a reader can observe in his other works. In the case of Arcilla, his position as a Jesuit priest and his specialty in the history of Jesuits in the Philippines is striking.

This is in view of the fact that the Jesuits in the Philippines had liberal leanings and that there was tension between the Jesuits and the traditionalists. He might therefore resonate with the experiences of the enlightened nationalists. In the ultimate analysis, studying the various factors that led to a particular event certainly contributes to a broad understanding of that event. However, a deeper understanding can be achieved through a more in depth study of those individual factors. To read both Pilapil and Arcilla together and in this nature would therefore be fruitful.


  1. Arcilla, Jose S., “The Enlightenment and the Philippine Revolution,” Philippine Studies 39, no.3 (1991): 358-373.
  2. Bonoan, Raul J., “The Enlightenment, Deism, and Rizal,” Philippine Studies 40, no.1 (October 1992): 53-67
  3. Pilapil, Vincente R., “Nineteenth Century Philippines and the Friar Problem,” The Americas 18, no.2 (October 1961): 127-148.
  4. Pilapil, Vincente R., “The Cause of the Philippine Revolution,” Pacific Historical Review 34, no. 3 (August 1965): 249-264.

Between Tradition and Revolution: Nationalism in Malaya and Indonesia

“National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self-determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action”, said Woodrow Wilson in 1918 (GWPDA, 1997). In the case of Malaya and Indonesia, this would become a normative impetus to how its native intellectuals propagated the principle of national self-determination to its own people. Due to this, the language of nationalism can be seen as a positive force because it helped articulate the anticolonial struggle of Malayans and Indonesians. However, a comparative analysis shows how differently these two nationalisms are based on its leadership and representation in mass politics. Netusha Naidu explores the withstanding tensions between the traditionalism of the ascending ruling class and revolutionary streak of left-leaning groups in formulating national identities reveal the inherent complexities of anticolonial nationalism.

Onn Jaafar and Sukarno: A tale of two leaders
Datuk Onn Jaafar’s profound legacy legitimized the traditionalism that would preserve the interests of Malay ruling class, shaping the dynamics in the Malayan political sphere. His call for a total boycott of Malayan Union and strategy for its effectiveness, strengthened the construction of conservative politics. When he visited the rulers a day before the ceremony and warned their attendance would result in them being “overthrown immediately by the people”, Onn managed to capitulate himself as a representative of the Malay people as he had “severed” the meaning of the royal institution from its colonial context and given them the possibility of serving for the imagination of a postcolonial future (Amoroso, 2014:161-162). He had even appropriated the symbolism of the Left, sanitizing its radicalism so much so, its subtleness was merely sufficient to impress the aspirations of the Malays for independence while still retaining the privileges of the Malay ruling elite. For instance, the merah-putih (red-white) flag which was a powerful reminder of revolutionary Indonesia which was domesticated by Onn and the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) (Amoroso, 2014:194). To reinforce this, Onn “spoke darkly of the upheavals” in Indonesia, negatively representing the violence that transpired (Amoroso, 2014:196).

In contrast, Sukarno was completely obsessed with unifying all anti-colonial forces in the Dutch East Indies. He invoked inclusivity with his ideas of social justice as well as Islamic values that resounded among the diverse ethnic groups in Indonesia. To Sukarno, nationalism was the “common denominator of all anti-imperialist, anti-Western elements”. Unlike Onn who resorted to reinforced loyalty as a prime characteristic of Malay political convictions, Sukarno premised his nationalist ideas in clear opposition to the Dutch imperialists, who were guilty of “turning Indonesia into an area for the exploitation of foreign capital” (Knight and Heazle, 2011:89-90). He constantly toured the Javanese hinterland, “consolidating the mass support that would subsequently maintain him in power for a generation” (Anderson, 1972:124). His constant emphasis on a national revolution and democratic institutions, combined with the Pancasila, shaped the Indonesian worldview based on nationalism, internationalism, unanimity, well-being and a belief in God. In Sukarno’s imagination, the sovereign state of Indonesia was framed in the Javanese concept of power-concentration which would allow him to be the symbolic figurehead of a national collective will, seeking a sense of equality (Kreuzer, 2006:49-50).

Onn’s idea of nationalism was rooted in the conception of the Malay race and its culture so that he could preserve the continuity of the Malay bureaucrats by rearticulating Malay leadership with “historical resonance” (Amoroso, 2014:191). Sukarno, on the other hand, was more committed to a revolutionary restructuring of Indonesian society from the shackles of colonial powers through his inclusive, socialistic ideals. Thus, it is interesting to note how nationalism may be interpreted based on the advancement of a leader’s class interests and ideological roots.

“Postwar politics was mass politics”
In Malaya, the Japanese occupation had disrupted British colonial rule, legitimized a national conception of Malay society and introduced means of social organisation and action to advance this conception. Inevitably, “postwar politics was mass politics” that was “no longer restricted by class” in formerly occupied Malaya (Amoroso, 2014:169-70). Nonetheless, it did not prohibit UMNO’s elitism to strategize with the streaks of ethnocentrism and racism to advance their popularity in mass politics. References to essentialist figures like ‘Si Ah Chong’ and ‘Si Ramasamy’ in printed press “helped make the PKMM’s [Parti Kesatuan Melayu Muda] sporadic efforts at interethnic alliance a priori suspect endeavours”. Intriguingly, proponents of UMNO and political conservatism as expressed by Malay oral tradition, gave success to the transformation of a so-called progressive traditionalism and with the support of the British Military Administration (BMA), they garnered much public appeal (Amoroso, 2014:183). However, it could not be denied that UMNO faced stiff competition from the left-leaning PKMM and the its best bet to cripple their influence was a “mopping-up operation” during the Malayan Emergency which resulted in the crackdown on such movements to counter the communist insurgency (Kua, 2007:13).

Meanwhile in Indonesia, the Japanese political style presented the youth of Java a new mode of political life and action as it revived a certain collective memory of the precolonial past and evoked traditional resonances of a spiritual nature (Anderson, 1972: 32-33). The authority of the nation’s traditional ruling class, pangrèh pradja, was gravely undermined by repressive occupation policy. It was a “sophisticated servant of any well integrated, militarily powerful government but no substitute for one” (Anderson, 1972:108). Instead of conservatism, Indonesia witnessed the emergence of socialist ideology to complement political nationalism of young Javanese students. This would led to Sukarno’s snatch at independence upon Japanese surrender that can be perceived as necessary to prevent the restoration of colonial rule (Liow, 2005:60). As Anthony Reid noted, the fate of the Malay sultans in Eastern Sumatra would not be as fortunate as those in Malaya. Their strong association with Dutch colonialism fell into the zeal of a bloody revolution (Liow, 2005:82). The revolution in September 1945 destroyed Indonesia’s traditional feudal society by exterminating suspected collaborators with the Dutch colonial masters (Liow, 2005:60).

Yet, it would seem apt to ask – why was there a violent revolution overthrowing the Malay ruling class in Indonesia but not in Malaya? The answer could lie in the fact that their colonial experiences were very different. It would seem that Dutch colonialism had proven to be more excessive, brutal and combined with the mobilization of Japanese support, Indonesian revolutionaries had more opportunity to develop civic nationalism. Although similar in Malaya, the hegemonic political discourse and knowledge dissemination of the colonial sympathizing class left little room for dissent and whatever remnants of the Left would be crushed by state apparatuses devised by the BMA.

In instilling nationalistic sentiments in the hearts of people, the fate of the colonial organization of society would be a crucial determinant of how national leaders such as Datuk Onn Jaafar in Malaya and Sukarno in Indonesia conveyed the anticolonial struggle to their own people. Japanese wartime occupation during World War 2 was a defining moment in the modern history of Malaya and Indonesia. It had activated massive politicization of Malays and Indonesians, resulting in a tremendous discourse of nationalism that large groups of people could partake in. However, the path taken by the movements became rather distinct over time and eventually, bore lesser and lesser resemblance to each other as they move towards national self-determination. Hence, this suggests anticolonial nationalism, as a positive force it may be, embodies contingency in its outcome as these nations struggle to reconcile between traditionalism and revolutionary aspirations.

1. Anderson, B. R. O’G. (1972). Java in a Time of Revolution: Occupation and Resistance, 1944-1946. London: Cornell University Press.
2. Amoroso, D. J. (2014). Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class in Colonial Malaya. Petaling Jaya and Singapore City: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre (SIRD) and NUS Press Singapore.
3. GWPDA (1997). 11 February, 1918: President Wilson’s Address to Congress, Analyzing German and Austrian Peace Utterances (12/07/1997) -, date accessed 17/12/2016.
4. Knight, N. and Heazle, M. (2011). Understanding Australia’s Neighbours: An Introduction to East and Southeast Asia, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
5. Kreuzer, P. (2006). Violent civic nationalism versus civil ethnic nationalism: Contrasting Indonesia and Malay(si)a. National Identities, 8(1):41-59.
6. Kua, K.S. (2007). May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969. Petaling Jaya: Suaram Komunikasi.
7. Liow, J. C. (2005). The Politics of Indonesia-Malaysia Relations: One kin, two nations. New York: Routledge.


Transcending the Nation: Pan-Islamism in the 19th Century

In modern times, a person is seen to have a sense of belonging and identity to their nation. However, the rise of globalisation is said to shape belonging and identity that transcends our geographical boundaries so much so, we are rendered the question of – can one profess such a belonging while remaining loyal to their country?  According to Netusha Naidu, Pan Islamism in the nineteenth century is a real example of such identity. The historical events surrounding Pan-Islamism display how Islam promoted a sense of belonging in a wider region while being the driving force of nationalism and socio-political empowerment. Up to this date, the legacy of Pan Islamism is echoed in the form of contemporary global politics. Netusha presents and analyses the case for Pan-Islamism by investigating its possible origins, the history of its mobilization for these struggles through the intellectual legacies of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and his successor, Muhammad Abduh, the left-leaning nationalist politics in Malaya-Indonesia and how the Adaletve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) domestic and foreign policy serves as memory of Pan-Islamic values in contemporary Turkish politics.

Origins of Pan-Islamism: A Brief History

While it has been difficult to locate the origin of the Greco-Arabic word “Pan-Islamism”, the motive behind it has been known as an effort to revive the spiritual dimension of Islam which calls for the camaraderie of Muslims across the world by educating themselves about their past history and “bringing into play the mighty force of the Pen”, as written by the late S. M. H. Kidwai, honorary secretary of the Pan-Islamic Society in London. Kidwai suggests Pan-Islamism as a collective initiative to promote the moral, intellectual and social advancement of Islam as a counter-hegemonic discourse against “the force of blood thirsty weapons of warfare and other modern instruments of destruction” (Kidwai, 1908:1-4). It is important to highlight that in this period of time, Western imperialism was strongly developing in most parts of the East. This fundamental fear for the Islamic world that sees itself unprepared to resist an era of Western modernization would be the driving force of the Pan-Islamic movement.

The Mobilization of Pan-Islamism: The Intellectual Legacies of al-Afghānī and Abduh

Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī  played a vital role in formulating Pan-Islamism as an ideology that advocates rationalism, inherently demanding the people of the East to persistently express a sense of self-determination. Historian Nikki R. Keddie regarded him more of a secularist and rationalist who employed religious rhetoric (Olomi, 2014:6).  However, this myopic view excludes his philosophical undertakings that mobilize principles in Islam, setting up for modernization and unification of the Islamic world as a formidable resistance in a time of immense power struggle with Western nations.

Al-Afghānī reinterpreted two major concepts that would contribute to Pan-Islamism: taqlid and watan. He perceived taqlid (blind submission) as the heart of the plague in Islamic practices. He suggests that the Islamic world would be able to draw inspiration from its rich history and intellectual tradition which prioritized reason, while acknowledging it cannot hope to merely re-enact a once glorious empire (Olomi, 2014:30).  In addition to that, he often referred to watan. Traditionally, it meant one’s birthplace, but he eventually re-imagines it as motherland – a feminine counterpart to the French secular state, la patrie (Olomi, 2014:43).  Evidently, this would serve as an alternative, indigenous model to the nation-state. As al-Afghānī and other reformists like Midhat Pasha in the Tanzimat era would pursue, the Ottoman sultan was established as a strong caliph to not only protect the religion, but all oppressed Muslims in as far as India and Indonesia (Mishra, 2012:103; Keddie, 1969: 26-27; Lee, 1942: 282-3). The recognition of a supreme caliph would signify as a compass for the Muslim brotherhood in their national ambitions while following the current of Islamic discourse that were in vogue. Thus, it facilitated a mutually supporting power-relation between nationalist ambitions and regional empowerment for the East.

This philosophy would be continued by one of his followers, Muhammad Abduh who became a pioneer for Islamic reform in Egypt. His main aspiration was to challenge the rigid structures of Islamic culture (Amir, Shuriye and Ismail, 2012:169).  Abduh set the precedent on “a reformulation of systematic theology and doctrine with a gradual reintroduction of historical criticism into the study of tradition” (Vatikiotis, 1957:148).  In other words, Abduh’s sense of reformism aimed to destabilize Islam’s own discursive structure to enable the entrance of progressive ideas, promoting self-strengthening of both the religion and the anticolonial struggle. This would become highly relevant to the rest of the Islamic world as we will see in former Malaya.

The push for Islamic reformism had become widely accepted, aiding the construction of an imagined sovereignty among Muslims with a shared aspiration of self-determination. Pan-Islamism gave hopes of constructing a modern polity that would sufficiently compete with the Western imperialists (Olomi, 2014:44). It could not be that the “proto-nationalist” and anti-imperialist features that largely kept these ideas relevant (Keddie, 1969:26). Rather, it was the sense of permanence and universality in the appreciation of intellectual reasoning, drawing inspiration from Islamic culture that showcased an inherent spirit of collective effort and solidarity beyond a national agenda.

Islamic Socialism and the Quest of “Melayu Raya”

On the other hand, Islam in British Malaya was deliberately declining in influence, in spite of being a central element of the Malay identity. The colonial government had relegated Islam and Malay cultural affairs as secondary concerns to the traditional sultans and ulama whom were complicit with the degeneration of Islam in Malay public life. By 1925, these restrictions would reduce the role of Islam in Malay identity and governance to mere symbols and ceremony (Noor, 2014: 19-20). However, it was this very dismissal of Islam in Malay public life that would invent its own reactivation in politics.

Pan-Islamic revivalism would be seen more clearly when the Malayan-Islamic reform movement Kaum Muda’s left leaning thinker, Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy led the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) in 1956. Influenced by Kaum Muda‘s philosophy, Burhanuddin embarked on refining his own take of Islamic thought and was celebrated for it, transforming PAS into a “full-fledged Islamist-nationalist anti-colonial party”. He was one of the only leaders of that time to speak of “Islamic socialism” which was highly influenced by Sukarno’s NASAKOM coalition (nationalism-Islamism-socialism) (Noor, 2014:47 and Noor, 2009:200). Furthermore, he lauded Sukarno’s grand project of a united Melayu-Raya, encompassing of modern day Malaysia and Indonesia.

In this instance, “Islamic socialism” and Melayu-Raya would display how the representation of Islam in Malay society was salvaged by political action.  Islam, from being deemed the cause of backwardness had now become the path to salvation (Noor, 2014:24). The colonial experience of domination and servitude among Muslim subjects formed a universal, socio-cultural bond amongst them due to its equalised nature. It was upon this basis that Burhanuddin could merge Islam with socialism, permitting values propagated by Pan Islamism to be legitimized (Noor, 2014:50-51).

The Melayu-Raya project signified the plan for Islam to be source of reunion for the Malay diaspora which has been divided by colonial powers into rigid borders. His vision of an Islamic state was “modern and dynamic” and he viewed this struggle as that of a Muslim patriot (Noor, 2009:208-9). By basing the national liberation movement on the “high principles of Islamism”, this Pan-Islamic Malay bloc could have regained a sense of identity and actualization to reclaim Malay political participation (Noor, 2014:51-52).

Pan-Islamism’s history of reform and modernism provided a language for the radical left to articulate and convey their aspirations for the broader Malay-Muslim world. By attempting to explain the dilemma of Malayan society in terms of class struggle and Islamic reform, PAS under Burhanuddin’s leadership had gained strength and resilience to contest the neocolonial nature of the Alliance in the late 1950s. In other words, it was the legacy of Pan-Islamism that inspired the politicization of Islam, giving the Malay non-elites an opportunity to be socially and politically empowered to provide alternative, inclusive discourses in addressing the plight of the Malay community and at the same time, promoting a larger cultural and political entity reminiscent of pre-colonial times.

Pan-Islamism in 20th century Kemalism: The case of the AKP

When the young Ottoman Turks led by Mustafa Kemal abolished the Islamic caliphate and renounced their leadership of the ummah, the Ottoman Empire and its inhabitants were shocked into becoming part of a modern nation-state. Kemalism and its assertive secularism had replaced the Islamic kingdom as the new political order of Turkey. To Kemal, this was necessary as the caliphate was “an anachronism in a world of nation-states” (Sayyid, 1997:59). This episode is highly significant for the history of Pan-Islamism as its abolishment had completely disrupted the caliphate as the centre of the Muslim political life and the relationship of Islam to the State authority (Sayyid, 1997: 63).

By removing Islam from the centre of constructing Turkey’s socio-political order, Kemalism had “politicized it: unsettling it and disseminating it into general culture, where it became available for re-inscription”. The resurgence of Islamism found itself being articulated as a counter-hegemonic discourse to Kemalism due to the fact that the social order of Muslim societies had been so destabilized that Islam was needed to return it to equilibrium (Sayyid, 1997:73). This process would manifest itself in the rise of the AKP in its political agenda and foreign policy that contradicts and problematizes Turkish secularism.

For example, Ahmet Davutoğlu, former leader of the AKP was the first scholar to establish an Islamist foreign policy for Turkey. “You cannot build a future based on these states, which are at enmity with each other due to nationalism. We shall break the mould shaped for us by Sykes-Picot.”, he said in hopes of achieving Islamic unity with his doctrine of ‘stratejik derinlik’ (strategic depth).  He suggested that Turkey should adopt an “expansionist, Pan-Islamist stance” based on Western imperial geopolitical theories so that it could spearhead political transformation in the region (Ozkan, 2014:120-121). However, this was met with much dismay, given that his strategy was more inclined towards the likes of Lebensraum than the defensive front of the Ottoman Empire (Ozkan, 2014:126). It contradicted the idea of Pan-Islamism as a benign force that united the ummah.

The AKP described itself as ‘conservative democratic’ party and refrained from using the term ‘Muslim democrat’, as it was cautious of being banned for anti-secular activities like its predecessor, the Refah Partisi (RP) (Ozbudun and Hale, 2010:20).  The party became known for “its sensitivity to the religiously inspired conservative demands” of its voters such as on issues like the banning of the headscarf and improving the status of religious schools (Ozbudun and Hale, 2010:70-71) as well as for appreciating the ‘richness’ of cultural differences besides Turkish (Ozbudun and Hale, 2010:76).

The rise in popularity of Islamist parties has been attributed to the “culturally homogenizing effects of globalisation” but beyond this, it would seem that the AKP’s influence is drawn from the vacuum of Islamic narratives left by Kemalism (Ozbudun and Hale, 2010:20). As Turkey’s pre-modern political history is deeply intertwined with the progressiveness of Pan-Islamism, the political discourse of Islamism itself, takes on the availability of the religion to undermine the Kemalist ancien regime (Sayyid, 1997:76-77). This sporadic, uneven nature of Islamic discourse reflects on the power struggle between the modern nation-state and a not-too-distant caliphate past in contesting and negotiating the political identity of the Turkish people. Hence, these incidents serve as a testament that the sentiments of Pan-Islamism are a dominant memory in contemporary Turkish politics.


As we have seen, a similar pattern and characteristics of the emergence of Islamic discourse in these nations can be observed. Pan-Islamism was first mobilized as a political ideology by Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Muhammad Abduh, transforming Islam from the reason of backwardness of the East, into a source of inspiration for the anticolonial struggle in the nineteenth century. By locating the centrality of the ummah, the common colonial experience of Muslim societies would become a universally binding force that simultaneously invoked solidarity that transcended geographical boundaries, and nationalistic self-determination against the widespread influence of Western imperialism. As seen in the reactions of Muslim societies in Malaya and Turkey, the legacy of Pan-Islamism had given birth to social, political and cultural empowerment that would provide a religious framework for universal human rights – allowing a formidable resistance to articulate its aspirations to the masses effectively.

Hence, we return to the question posed in the beginning of the essay: can one profess such a belonging while remaining loyal to their country? It is indeed so. As Pan-Islamism showcases, a strong streak of nationalism seems to blend with this ideology that has spread across a wide region. It is certain that this pattern in historical events reveal Islam functions as a master signifier. This is because it holds a community, the ummah, together for as long as the members of ummah believe in it. The attempt of proponents of Pan-Islamism to transform Islam “from a nodal point in a variety of discourses” are a testament to how religious political identity can co-exist with an individual’s sense of belonging and identity to the nation (Sayyid, 1997:46).


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