The Muslims of Thailand

Michel Gilquin (tr. Michael Smithies), Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2005. 184 pages.

Thailand is about the last place one would associate with Muslims. One imagines Buddhist wats, saffron-robed monks, and fun-loving people. One does not imagine women in headscarves, minarets, and the call to prayer. Indeed, 90 percent of Thais are Buddhists. However, the majority of the remainder is Muslim (about 8 percent of the total population). In this slim volume, Gilquin provides a solid introduction to the Muslim communities of Thailand. It is a sweeping overview, and in that task it does its job very well. Personally, I would have preferred a more detailed analysis of the everyday lives of Thai Muslims. 

Gilquin calls Thailand’s Muslims a heterogeneous minority. Although one might imagine that Islam is limited to the provinces closest to Malaysia, the author demonstrates that this is far from true. However, 85 percent of the Muslim population lives in the south, and so their issues and concerns figure prominently in this account. Since the country’s Muslims have different national origins, legal/ritual schools, and levels of commitment or interest in Sufism, the only characteristic that seems to define them is their more reserved approach to socializing. He notes that in a country noted for its fun (sanuk) and merry-making outings, Muslims are conspicuously absent in public restaurants and bars because of dietary restrictions. Indeed, in other Muslim minority settings, such as among the Hui in China, dietary concerns also help to isolate the Muslim community.

The question of what to call these Muslims is a bit of a problem for scholars, the Thai, and the Muslims of Thailand as well. One Thai term meaning “guests” was originally used for Muslims of Malay, Indian, or Middle Eastern origin, even though some of them had been in Thailand longer than other groups (almost exclusively Buddhist) already considered Thai. Furthermore, a shift is taking place: “guests” is beginning to include Cham and Yunannese Muslims and thus is becoming a cover term for all Muslims. Linguistically, this demonstrates a fundamental difficulty: While the term Thai Muslim is commonly used, the logic described above suggests a necessary divide between being Thai and being Muslim. Despite this difficulty, Gilquin accepts this term for describing the general category of Muslims in Thailand.

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