The Hybridity of Malay Islam (1500-1800) Part 2: An Entanglement of ‘Adat’ and Politics

This is a two-part essay on the complex history of Islam in the Malay World by Lhavanya Dharmalingam, a student of International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. The first part of the essay outlines how the process of Islamisation took place in the region due to the openness of Malay cultural life which allowed for easy assimilation of Islamic practices and values. It also touches on the significance of Sufism, a form of Islam which was spread across the Malay world. In the second of the her essay, Lhavanya takes a look at the manifestations of Malay-Islam in modern politics, governance and social life.

Islam as a Political Tool

Legitimacy is seen in the people’s support of the King and this was a gradual process, the effect of persuasion rather than force (Marsden, 1812, xxxiv). And scholars opine that they were a dominant force in leading Islamisation (Milner, 2008, p.40) building upon a similar process that had occurred centuries earlier with Hindu-Buddhism. Once Islam became the preferred basis for rulers it was relatively straightforward and easy for their subjects to convert with the sanction and support of their leaders. The Melaka-Johor chronicle, narrates the decree the newly converted ruler of Melaka gives his people “whether of high or low degree” to convert (Milner, 2008, p.65).

Islam reinforces the concept of daulat, which in the Malay world refers to the mystical powers of rulership, by imparting to the ruler divine sanction to establish God’s ordained rule (Means, 2009, p.21). The ruler would be considered the head of the Ummah and at the apex of the system of moral authority. In the 17th century, the Sultan Agung of Mataram sought legitimacy by Islamicising local traditions and Javanising Islam, by marrying Ratu Kidul, a Goddess of indigenous Javanese tradition while also inaugurating the hybrid Saka calendrical system with the Islamic hijri calendar (Feener, 2011, p.479). Yet others sought to serve political agenda with appeals made to piety to reinforce legitimacy. In Mataram in the early 18th century, Ratu Pakubuwana, the grandmother of Pakubuwana II sponsored a series of pious Islamic works which praised her piety such as the Carita Sultan Iskandar which claims authentication as a text from exegesis of the Quran. Her following texts Carita Nabi Yusuf and Kitab Usulbiyah do the same (Feener, 2011).

Sultan La Maddaremmeng, the ruler of Bone during the 17th century, put in place a new rule appealing to the sharia to prohibit practices such as the third gender bissu priesthood and to emancipate slaves (Feener, 2011, p.482). Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa from Banten encouraged Islamic values such as the prohibition of opium and the adoption of popular perceptions of Arab forms of dress (ibid). Sultan Pakubuwana II from Mataram banned all forms of gambling except cock fighting in 1731. By adopting selective aspects of Islam, the claims to the religion could be made which would also be of benefit as it increased access to trading networks as seen in Melaka which established a system of favoured treatment for Muslims both involving trade agreements and payment of transit duties (Means, 2009, p.21). However in many cases rulers were selective in their implementation of Islam for fear of losing the popular support of the locals or engendering dissent over the abolishment of some of their practices. Arguably however, the selective adoption of aspects of Islamic principles, in some of these contexts, could be viewed in the reflection of the Quranic revelations on alcohol. There was a series of three revelations over time (2:219, 4:43 and 5:90-91) progressively dissuading the use of alcohol to finally outright prohibiting it because it was the best means to achieving this, perceived, moral outcome. Therefore this selective application, at least within the timeframe of a ruler’s reign could be a means to an end.

Whether rulers managed to successfully harness the support of the people through this means was not guaranteed however. Pakubuwana’s grandmother and himself did not manage to successfully cement themselves in their people’s good opinion (Feener, 2011). This could be because these rulers were not successful in convincing their people that they were truly pious Muslims as there was a cleavage between the ideal pattern of behaviour and their praxis. This can be seen in 1660 when Shaykh Yusuf unsuccessfully attempted to persuade rulers to impose Islamic principles like prohibiting gambling, cock fighting, arrack drinking and other habits that were frowned upon by Islam (Reid, 2011, p.456). In addition, in many situations Islamic teachings discriminated against female rulers therefore the case for the legitimising capabilities of Islam being a dominant factor in the Islamisation of the Malay world does not stand, although it does qualify as a significant factor. As Ricklefs (1997, p.252) comments on Java, the Islamic elite were something of an anomaly, with other Javanese courts seemingly indifferent to Islamic piety at best and its enemy at worst and between the two cultural streams, the Javanese one is dominant in court affairs between the period of the 17th century til 20th century.

At another level, there is reason for the conflict between ‘original’ Islam and ‘Malay’ Islam because as seen in many instances, the adoption of Islam by rulers was done for purely political rather than pious reasons. The somewhat piecemeal adoption of Islamic ideas and practices was a calculated approach to make claims to piety while still appealing to popularity and could very much be considered a syncretism and possibly not even Islamic. As an example of what could be perceived as a systemwide failure of Islam in the Malay world lies in its supposed egalitarian nature, removing the ascriptive social status of birth and caste and making all members of the Ummah socially equal, in praxis however the systems of patron-client linkages and hierarchical social systems were still maintained to a large extent across the Malay world with Islamic festivals such as Eid serving as opportunities to reinforce these relationships (Means, 2009, p.25).

Islam and Adat

The verdict on whether Islam and adat were conflicting or complementary has still yet to be made but we can assume there was some conflict but the differences were negotiated and an effective compromise reached and maintained in the 17th and 18th centuries. The example of Minangkabau as given by Abdullah (1966) will be used to illustrate the synthesis between adat and Islam.

In the late 17th century, records talk about the first religious teacher Sjech Burhanuddin in the region, from the town of Ulakan in 1704. He had been instrumental in setting up the first religious school (madrasah) from which later on many others grew out of. At the early stages of the Islamisation process, Sufi missionaries were more concerned with individual morality over the religious correctness of a person’s actions and also with the more pressing issue of the “re-structuralisation of adat in order to interpret the heterogenetic change as orthogenetic.” (Marsden, 1783, p.343). It must be noted that the Minangkabau attitude toward adat is one that recognises the imperative continuity of the system while also acknowledging the importance of change. Therefore the hybridisation of adat and Islam was a long drawn, subtle process. There are four classes of adat and the first, adaik nan sabana adaik (adat which is truly adat) is considered to be eternal, since it is also identical with natural law and it was to this, during the process of codification (which happened only after the Arabic script was adapted in the region) that a new category of supernatural law was added to contain and insert the Quran and the hadiths and these were collectively perceived as eternal principles that guide human spiritual and secular activities.

Abdullah posits that over the two centuries, the madrasahs grew in size and influence posing a threat to the royalty as a symbol of tradition as well as because the madrasahs also practised patrilineal inheritance of their leadership just like the royalty. The commoners on the other hand practised matrilineal inheritance. The influence and power of the royalty waned because of these madrasahs although there was no direct conflict and no direct impact on society till the end of the 18th century (p.13). At the turn of the 19th century adat is changed far more significantly and arguably, even hijacked and its original elements downgraded by the incoming Padri movement led by the “three hajis” who were influenced by the initial success of the Wahabi movement in Arabia (p.18).


Undoubtedly, in many parts of the Malay world and across the centuries, ‘Malay’ Islam was a syncretic rather than a creole synthesis, with many contradictions that would warrant the criticism of Muslims practicing ‘original’ Islam. Many of its amalgamations with the Hindu-Buddhist culture was deliberately done to serve a political agenda, either to reinforce legitimacy or to convince locals to convert to Islam. The nature of Sufism was particularly effective Islamising the Malay world because it permitted the fusing of Islam and Hindu-Buddhism. Arguably without that openess, the Malay world might not have taken Islam so successfully. This then paved the way for more rigid formulations of Islam to take hold in the Malay world after the 18th century.

The political machinations behind the adoption of Islam was also key in getting large numbers of Malays to declare themselves Muslims even if they did not follow all its principles. And it could be argued that not all of these machinations were purely political as many of these rulers could have truly believed in Islam, but simultaneously were aware of the reality that their people may not have welcomed the religion if it had been too restrictive. Therefore while ‘original’ Islam was valid in some of its criticisms of Islam, it is also unrealistic to expect a rigid fixed form of Islam to develop identical to it, especially when Islam itself is diverse and varied. The moral judgement passed on such a syncretic but rich creation is unwarranted. The diversity enriches the scholarship of Islam while also giving rise to conflicts that need to be dealt with rationally as do all conflicts of belief systems whether religious or otherwise.


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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.

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