Religious Identity: Conversion as a Social Process
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The first arrival of Islam in Southeast Asia was gradual, borne not by the sword, but peacefully, by merchants, scholars, teachers, and Sufi mystics. Their influence was strongest in what are today Indonesia, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines. From the sixteenth to twentieth centuries, scholar gurus founded rural schools, spreading Islam and literacy to villagers of all ages. Even today, a number of Malay residential religious schools accommodate pupils of all generations; besides educating the youth, they may serve as homes for the aged, allowing the “grandparents” to tend to the kitchen, gardens, and supervision of the young students. Some schools were run by Sufis, known for their mysticism and meditation. Each residential religious school community was presided over by its own sheikh, who was simultaneously “father” or “grandfather” and leader, blending kinship and respect. Like merchants, religious teachers were often polygynous, marrying wives from different regions, thereby enlarging their social networks and influence; some teachers in Kedah, north Malaysia, had wives from Thailand, Sumatra, and Java. Bonding among students in schools, and later universities, has long provided pathways for spreading new ideas and influencing others (a principle exploited by missionaries of all faiths). Incorporation into the wider Muslim community (umma) brought Malays into a world civilization and economy. Intermarriage between Malays and Arab immigrants created families whose offspring were Malay, but who sometimes claimed Arab identity for the higher religious status and the prestige of connections with the Holy Land. Merchant communities were the main circuit for the diffusion of Islam in Southeast Asia and for new opportunities for trade with Arabs and Indians overseas. Muslims were skillful in diplomacy, effecting political alliances with local rulers and managing commercial law and disputes, all enhancing Islam’s appeal across the region (Federspiel 2007). Not wishing to lose their own markets and taxes, the region’s rulers became Muslims, transforming themselves from rajahs into sultans, although retaining much of their Indic royal ceremonial. Emulating their leaders and role models and joining public Muslim rituals became as necessary to the careers of ambitious commoners as religious knowledge. Initially, the economic and social rewards for being Muslim took precedence over mastery of doctrine. In Malay world, conversion was as much a matter of social and group conformity as of theology, which followed later (cf. Bulliet 1990). Lacking a word for conversion, “becoming Muslim” (masuk Islam) in the local context was popularly equated with “becoming Malay” (masuk Melayu). The Islamization of Malay culture did not erase all Indian traditions. Symbols of kingship, including the royal yellow umbrella and wedding rituals (notably the presentation of the bridal couple as “king and queen for a day”; rajah dan rani sehari—Sanskrit terms) sitting on a throne and dais (bersanding), garlanded with rose petals, henna, saffron, and incense, as well as many rituals of the spirits of the sea, and veneration of tombs of holy men, have all survived as reminders of a pre-Islamic era. Rather than being displaced, these were relabeled as “custom” (adat) and tolerated alongside the Muslim agama (religion), like Christian pagan adat at Easter and Christmas.

 

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