interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

On One of the Islams

Robert Day McAmis. Malay Muslims: The History and Challenge of Resurgent Islam in Malay Southeast Asia. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002.
[An installment of the “Read Me” Project]

Malay Muslims ended up on the “Read Me” shelf via the religion section at Half Price Books. Eclectic, since the selection there always depends on who downsized their library yesterday. Educational, since that’s continuously continuing. Something I could tell myself I was buying “for work,” a book about the largest ethnic group in Islam, far from the erroneous zone of “Islam=Arabs and Arabs=Islam.” Even if it did take over a year to actually read it “for work.”

cover of Malay Muslims, showing worshippers at a mosque
McAmis’s monograph is solid, but no longer current

Malay Muslims aims to give a concise, objective overview of the current (as of 2002) situation of the ethnic Malay Muslim community, broadly speaking, in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines. McAmis reviews the religious history of the Southeast Asian islands in two succinct chapters. He notes that Islam found a ready and expanding welcome in the area, especially during the 14th century, entirely on the strength of commercial and social contacts. From the 15th and 16th centuries, European and Christian exchanges with the islands and their people come into the picture. These were far less benign, featuring in-fighting among the Christians and predatory practices vis-à-vis the indigenous people, culminating in full-scale colonial control over the areas. This has left the Muslims in the region with “an antipathetic view of Western Christianity” (39).

The form of Islam practiced in this area differs from the standard “world religions” presentation, with its five pillars and talk about orthopraxy. Islam means more than one thing, and what it means when someone from Indonesia or the southern Philippines says she or he is Muslim varies, especially by location: whether urban or rural, and what particular rural area, with its particular indigenous religious practices. In general, however, Muslim religious identity in the areas McAmis surveys will be wholeheartedly compatible with offerings made to local spirits, the reliance on adat (traditional or customary law) rather than shari’a in regulating daily life, and scant knowledge of Arabic or the words of the Qur’an. In other words, being “Muslim” seems to mean “being one of us” around “here” – as, indeed, it does everywhere, in every religion, just that what one has to do and say to “be one of us” in Malay Southeast Asia includes a lot of local knowledge that differs from the local knowledge one would need to “be one of us” in, say, Riyadh or Istanbul.

McAmis reports that the situation is changing in Southeast Asia as advocates of more organized and orthodox forms of Islam have undertaken revival activities in the area. He understands “resurgent Islam” to include stricter observance of religious practices like 5-times-daily prayer (salat) and Islamic dress (hijab), the publication and distribution of religious literature in local languages, building mosques, and increased participation in Muslim-identified charitable and political activities. How these activities articulate with the larger, national political environment varies widely from nation to nation.

The political front in particular, however, is an area where dates matter. In Indonesia, for instance, McAmis could say in 2002 that “Indonesia has no viable Islamic party and none has been allowed to be established” (76). This is evidently no longer the case, and in upcoming national elections scheduled for April, 2019, Indonesians’ electoral options include at least three parties identified as “Islamic,” ranging from “hard-line” to “moderate” (according to Muhammad Sinatra, writing in East Asia Forum). McAmis’s discussion of the situation in the southern Philippines focuses on the Moro National Liberation Front, and mentions in passing the formation of a new group, composed of MNLF members, “called Mujahedeen Commando Freedom Fighters (also known as Abu Sayyaf)” (95). Abu Sayyaf was the main actor in a months-long siege of the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines last year, that precipitated the imposition of martial law by the Duterte regime. (Marawi is still not inhabitable.)

Sadly, then, McAmis’s careful and scholarly treatment of his topic may be rapidly becoming useful mainly as the historical background for a changing contemporary situation. Sadly, because he ends the book with a generally optimistic treatment of the prospects for Muslim-Christian dialogue, which from his own experience in the southern Philippines were having positive outcomes.

The media continue to report the bad news of violence, bombings, and kidnappings in the southern Philippines. Dialogues, friendships, and goodwill between Muslims and Christians are not exciting to the newspapers. In the continuing search for peace in the southern Philippines, Muslim-Christian dialogue at all levels has demonstrated that it can produce better understanding and the hope for peace, development, and prosperity for all the people of the southern Philippines – and for all the Malays of Southeast Asia. (121)

His comment about media interest probably remains relevant. I read the mainstream news fairly regularly, and I don’t hear much about Southeast Asia from day to day. A cursory Google search (such as the one I had to undertake a few minutes ago, to dig up “what’s happening these days” for this write-up) raises the question: maybe the media’s readiest interpretive lens calls for scanning the horizon for worrisome news about Islam, and presenting upcoming events from the perspective of what they might contribute to our cache of knowledge along those lines. (Here’s an example of what I mean.)

Having just read Orientalism, I had Said’s comments about vocabulary and the options for talking about Islam, Asia, the Orient, and so on fresh in my mind while reading Malay Muslims. McAmis fares pretty well, if not perfectly, on that score. At least he is acutely aware of, and tries to correct, the notion that there is some single, monolithic “thing” we can call “Islam,” or that we can understand what actual people think and feel and do by consulting our knowledge of that Islam. And he only rarely brings out a statement from what Said would, I think, identify as the Orientalist commonplace book, such as that the “Malays of the Peninsula cling to their Islamic faith fanatically” (50). So, on the whole, McAmis’s work is a welcome corrective to more general and generalizing accounts, as well as some of the various versions of the “Islam is a name for the pursuit of world domination under the cover of religion by people other than Christians” narrative, which is perhaps the new form being taken by Orientalism.

Malay Muslims is substantively interesting reading, but not exactly quick or fun work, especially as McAmis gets into the details of the Southeast Asian political movements of the 70s and 80s. It’s a monograph, after all, so it assumes the reader’s interest rather than ginning it up with suspense-generating questions or personality-laden stories and anecdotes. This isn’t a criticism – McAmis does what he sets out to do very well. It just means that it reads a little like a book for work – not cardboard, by any means, but not juicy enough to recommend to a general reader just for fun, and a little too specialized to assign for an introductory class, but with sections (like his discussion of the spread of Islam after the 13th century) that could make good supplemental reading. So I was glad I’d found it, and even gladder that I finally read it.

More from the “Read Me” Project
interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

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