The Origins of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia: Networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern `Ulama’ in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Ayzumardi Azra, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004. 254 pages.

This book, an extension of Azra’s doctoral dissertation, explores the transmission of Islamic knowledge from the Middle East to the Malay-Indonesian (Jawi) world. Making use of Arabic biographical dictionaries and scholarly texts, he produces a historical account arguing that the region’s Islamic renewal and reformism originated in crisscrossing networks of Islamic scholars based in the Haramayn (Makkah and Madinah) during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Azra’s detailed historical research substantiates an earlier intellectual transmission than previously thought. He contends that the main ideas transmitted comprised a “neo-Sufism” characterized by harmonizing the Shari`ah and tasawwuf (Sufism) and promoting a return to orthodoxy, purification, and activism. He makes these arguments in an introduction, seven chapters, and a brief epilogue.

The author introduces his study and discusses scholarly figures, social institutions, networks, and reformist discourses in the seventeenth-century Haramayn, pointing out that the flowering of Malay-Indonesian Muslim states in the late sixteenth century and their relations with Middle Eastern states contributed to a rise of Southeast Asian pilgrims and students seeking knowledge from the highly esteemed scholars of Makkah and Madinah. Traditional Islamic learning, as he describes it, was based in mosques, madrassahs, ribats, teacher’s homes, and the two Haram mosques. Officially, it was administered through the religious bureaucracy of the chief qadi (judge) and the directors of Islamic scholars, as well as of each Haram mosque. Scholars were linked through vertical and horizontal ties into complicated networks of hadith chains of authority and tariqah (Sufi order) genealogies.

In chapter 2, he describes the “rapprochement between the shari’ahoriented ‘ulama’ … and the sufis,” which reached its climax during this period (p. 33). He shows that the neo-Sufis sought to incorporate Sufism, which had captured the Muslim world’s imagination, within a Shari`ah-oriented perspective by combining it with hadith studies. Nevertheless, the neo-Sufis looked at hadith studies in an untraditional light, as a way of achieving such spiritual goals as higher levels of the mystical journey. Azra provides examples from the scholarly works of Ahmad al-Qushashi and Ibrahim al-Kurani, both of whom emphasized the importance of harmonizing Islam’s exoteric and esoteric aspects. Moreover, the significant presence of Jawi students in these networks is reflected by three major works of Haramayn scholars during this period, all of which sought the intellectual reform of “excessive Sufism” in the Jawi world (p. 43). In addition, the networks’ reformism also emphasized “the exercise of individual judgment (ijtihad) in religious matters” and activism in which Muslims cooperate “with other Muslims for the betterment of society” (p. 44).

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