Book Review:

Islam and the Malay-Indonesian World: Transmission and Responses

By Peter G. Riddell. Horizon Books, Singapore 2003. 322 pages, plus Index, and Bibliography. ISBN 9810445636

This is a timely study. The author aims to provide an insight into Islamic thought in the Malay-Indonesian region over the last seven centuries. In some important ways Indonesian Islam has developed differently to that of the Middle East, and is at present undergoing further changes. This book traces some of the background to the present state of play in the region.

The book is in three parts: 1. Scriptural and Intellectual Foundations. 2. Malay Islamic Thinking to 1900. 3. Malay Islamic Thinking in the 20th Century.

The first part is a detailed study of the history and debates in the broader Islamic world concerning the Islamic scriptures (the Qur'an and Hadith), the development of commentaries, discussions of variant texts, and especially the rise of Sufism (a more mystical version of Islam). There is also an excellent discussion of the debates at a broader level, between traditionalists who wish to make the scriptures the absolute basis for all attitudes and practice; modernists who want human reason and rational thinking to be used in determining belief and action; and those who are much more interested in a spiritual quest.

Part 2 begins the story in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Sultanate of Aceh, which was home to a number of distinguished Islamic scholars and the source of the major texts which still remain from the early Islamic period in the region. In this early period it appears that Sufism was the majority stream, and theosophy (defined as basing knowledge of the world on knowledge of God so that if we know God we will know everything because God is everything, p137) the driving force with much of the input still coming from the Middle East. However the non-Sufi side was developed by various commentaries on the Qur'anic text. By the 18th and 19th centuries the conservatism of the sharia scholars becomes much more influential. It is in this period that Malay scholars travelled to Egypt and Arabia, and others migrated from the Middle East. According to Riddell, it was the rise of colonialism that forced new ways of thinking on Malay Islam and so led to the decline in influence of Sufism and the rise of reform along conservative lines.

Part 3 describes developments in the 20th century, some connected with a greater sense of identity in a pan-Islamic world. Modernist influences struggled with Sufism and conservative traditionalists. Riddell discusses some of these debates in terms of the development of nationalism in Indonesia and the debates which focussed on the 1945 constitution and the ideology of Pancasila. This last section has very helpful analyses based on the writings of scholars who represent the three major strands of influence in Indonesian Islam - Sufism, conservative/traditionalist, and modernist. The analysis is quite up to date with discussions of modernist scholars like Anwar Ibrahim and Abdurrahman Wahid who seek to understand how Islam can operate in a pluralist modern society. As well there is a helpful section on modern commentaries on the Qur'an, and another on the role of media and the arts and the key themes that are featured in television programs and the print media. This latter is of some importance given the large amount of Islamic content and themes on Indonesian television. Riddell suggests however that Malaysian TV may be more connected to Middle East and Arabic culture than its Indonesian version.

Riddell makes clear that there continues to be significant influence from, and a locus of authority in the Middle East. He also shows that the earlier influence of Sufism and its struggle with the traditionalist forces has been overtaken by the two main players on the stage now: traditionalists who look to the absolute authority of the revelation as providing all necessary guidance for life, and the modernists who claim that reason and rational thought has to be used to adapt the revelation to modern circumstances.

Islam and the Malay-Indonesian World, is a detailed book, with lots of analysis of many Islamic writings from the region. It is not an easy read but it does provide a very valuable source of understanding for the sometimes confusing cross-currents in modern South East-Asian Islam.  Peter Riddell designed the book to appeal to non-specialist readers as well as specialists, and I think he succeeded, but the non-specialists will have to be motivated. He says his primary goal is "to open various windows into Islamic religious thought of the Malay-Indonesian world" of the last seven centuries. The book opens some crucial windows, for example  into Qur'anic exegesis, the monism of Sufism, the attempts to modernise Islam, and the rationale behind the traditionalists who want to base all life on the absolute revelation of the Qur'an.

It is worth reading for those who want to gain a better understanding of where modern Islam in South East Asia has come from and how it has developed. It would also be helpful for those who generally want to understand some of the history of Qur'anic exegesis and textual criticism, or those who would like some help in seeing how the continuing influence of mysticism in popular culture has its roots both in Sufism and in the local traditional pre-Islamic Hindu and animistic culture.

Dale Appleby