Voices of Islam in Southeast Asia: A Contemporary Source Book

Greg Fealy and Virginia Hooker, eds., Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, 2006. 596 pages.

Voices of Islam in Southeast Asia is partly the outcome of a trend in the scholarship on Southeast Asian Islam that has gained momentum from the mid-1980s onwards: namely, a corrective of the tendency to regard Islam as a “thin veneer” (as the Dutch historian van Leur had described it) over much older and supposedly more profound cultural deposits from the Indian subcontinent. The tremendous influence of the late Clifford Geertz’s characterizations in his The Religion of Java (University of Chicago Press: 1976 [new ed.]) only seemed to confirm this. However, a younger generation of American anthropologists, among them John Bowen, Robert Hefner, and Mark Woodward, explicitly challenged that view when they began publishing their findings in the 1980s. These writings showed that there was a vibrant and truly “Islamic” cultural legacy in Indonesia and elsewhere.

The present volume also demonstrates the significance of the Australian academe’s role in furthering our understanding of Islam in Southeast Asia. Both editors are associated with the Australian National University (ANU), one of “Downunder’s” epicentres of Southeast Asian studies. Greg Fealy is a recognized authority on the Nahdlatul Ulama, the mass organization uniting more than 20 million of Indonesia’s traditionalist Muslims, while Virginia Hooker is a leading scholar in the field of Malay-Muslim literature and history. In fact, the pioneering research of two former ANU academics, Anthony Johns and his student Peter Riddell, provided important evidence of the close, long-standing, and sustained contacts of Muslim scholars from the “Lands below the Winds” with centers of Islamic learning in the Middle East.

Producing a work like Voices of Islam in Southeast Asia is a Herculean undertaking. This extends not only to surveying, compiling, and reviewing an enormous amount of available primary source material, but also begs the question of how to edit and present that material. In this respect, the team led by Fealy and Hooker has performed admirably. Although the work’s sheer scope reduces some voices to sound bites, the editors have succeeded in avoiding a cacophonous amalgam that would leave the reader confused instead of informed.

The extracts from primary sources have been arranged around six broad themes: “Personal Expressions of Faith”; “Sharia; Islam, State, and Governance”; “Gender and the Family”; “Jihad”; and “Interactions: Global and Local Islam”; “Muslims and non-Muslims.” Thus this book is a both source for large political issues (e.g., whether Indonesia should be defined as an Islamic country in its constitution) and matters that affect Muslims more immediately in their daily lives (e.g., questions pertaining to dress codes).The compilers have taken care to include a variety of often contrasting viewpoints on these topics, thereby ensuring that a broad cross-section of opinions expressed by Muslim thinkers of successive generations are represented.

The book contains excerpts from some of the most prominent intellectuals and political leaders in twentieth-century Muslim Southeast Asia, as well as budding young intellectuals who have just started making a name for themselves. Readers can discover what Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah (better known under the acronym “Hamka”) (1908-81), Muhammad Natsir (1908-93), Mohamad Roem (1908-83), Mahathir Mohamad (1925), Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005), Abdurrahman Wahid (1939 [sic]),* Amien Rais (1944), or Anwar Ibrahim (1947) have said on such diverse issues as Sufism’s significance for contemporary Muslims, Islam and globalization, and relations with non-Muslims.

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