Ibn al-Kalbi’s ‘Book of Idols’ depicts 6th c. Arabia (excluding Yemen) as dominated by paganism. But what do the Arabic inscriptions of 6th century Arabia tell us? day 2 ~AA @safaiticpic.twitter.com/HkcleuU88g
Today on Twitter there was something interesting and edifying posted. The account above reported the finding that 6th-century inscriptions of a religious character in Arabia seem to invariably be Christian, rather than pagan. This is interesting and surprising because Islamic tradition, and works such as the 8th-century Book of Idols, allude to a 6th-century Arabia which was aggressively pagan. Islamic tradition speaks of the city of Mecca as a center of public elite paganism; a pilgrimage site for Arabian pagans. This was the paganism that the prophet Muhammad rebuked and destroyed. The conventional narrative is that these newly converted Arabs burst out upon the world, conquering much of Byzantium, and swallowing Persia in toto, in their zeal.
Muslims believe that their religion is the primordial religion, the monotheism of Adam, the first man. Traditionally groups such as Christians and Jews were seen as reflecting some of that primordial religion, while beyond them were “polytheists,” whose religion was totally debased (modern liberal Muslims have adopted and expanded the idea attributed to Christians and Jews, and argue that religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism also contain fragments of the divine revelation). In contrast, most non-Muslims see in Islam an appropriation and refashioning of the monotheism of the Christians and Jews. Therefore, most non-Muslims accept that Muhammad converted pagan Arabs to a new religion, but it was a religion he and his followers invented from preexisting ideas borrowed and adapted from Christianity and Judaism. Read More
The author of The Map of Knowledge freely admits that her education was in Classics, so it was remiss in “non-Western” history. These gaps show up in the text of her book. For example:
It helped that Sassanian culture was one of the most sophisticated and impressive on earth, and that Arab culture was young and relatively primitive. Just a few generations earlier, Muhammad’s people had been Bedouins, wandering the deserts of Arabia….
This seems plausible and uncontroversial to most people at first glance. Even more so to those who read their Ferdowsi. The problem is that even minimal reflection will indicate that this is just not true.
I have an advantage because last week I was on a podcast with a scholar of pre-Islamic Arabian literary culture (it’s already on the patreon page for patrons), so many facts are fresh in my mind. The fact is that the Arabs tribes were liminal to Romans and Persians for many centuries, and exhibited various degrees of integration with these larger civilizations.
Vox‘s Worldly is a short (less than 30 minute) podcast on world-affairs. I listen to it because American politics is boring, and it’s not a major timesink. But, its brevity is something that has worried me, since this is not a long period of time, and it’s hard to address things in a subtle manner to a general audience in such a short segment.
The most recent one, Brunei just made gay sex punishable by death, illustrated to me a lot of the problems with trying to compress too much into 20 minutes. There are three hosts. A fair portion of the time they discussed Islam, and Islamic jurisprudence (shariah).
I am a social constructivist when it comes to religion. That is, I don’t have a religion, do not believe in gods, and am willing to accede to a consensus of the believers as to what their religion is, as well as instrumentally taking into account what religious believers as a whole seem to think about their religion.
To give an example of what I mean,
I am fine with someone with a non-binary gender identity who rejects a great deal of hadith and is totally fine with apostasy from Islam, calling themselves a Sunni Muslim. I’m not invested in the idea that being a Sunni Muslim means anything more than a particular self-identification. I’m not a Sunni Muslim. I don’t care if you call yourself a Sunni Muslim.
But, I also assume that acceptance of non-binary gender identity and apostasy in Islam is not normative among the majority of the world’s Muslims, and as an apostate from Islam I am very cautious about going to Muslim-majority countries and expressing my beliefs. Apostates are still killed by mobs, and it is still against the law in many Muslim-majority nations.
Readers of this weblog know that I have a peculiar relationship to the Salman Rushdie controversy in the late 1980s. When I first heard the name “Salman Rushdie” and book called The Satanic Verses I was by chance not in the United States. I happened to be spending my winter vacation in Bangladesh and was in a rural area of Comilla (near the eastern border with India) traveling with family, visiting shrines dedicated to Sufi ancestors of mine and such. To be frank, I was already skeptical of religion by that point, having realized years ago that people believed in supernatural beings in a deep and intuitive way that I never had. But, my cultural identity still remained nominally Muslim.
Somehow, in rural Bangladesh, word had gotten out that a writer of Indian and Muslim origin, and British national background, had written a blasphemous novel. A group of religious students approached my uncle, who was traveling with us, to have us “translate” some leaflets that were printed in English that they had gotten their hands on. My late uncle was by training a geologist, but his primary focus in life was as a member of the Tablighi Jamaat. These students trusted my uncle immediately and knew that we, his nephews, could speak English. But the pamphlets contained material that was totally inappropriate for children. I remember specifically lines to the effect that “Salman Rushdie claims that Muhammad’s wives and daughters were whores.” To be frank, I did not know the word for “whore” in Bengali, and I did not want to talk about the sexually explicit material that was printed in the leaflet in any case.
The reason I am telling you this is that some of the anger toward Rushdie can be explained by the simple fact that many of the angry people did not read The Satanic Verses, but like me, no doubt heard graphic and false descriptions of the material.
With some hindsight, this incident in the late 1980s illustrates the viral power of propaganda and lies. By the end of the process what Rushdie had written was immaterial. The truth was less important than the cause, and the cause was defending the honor of Islam against an irtidad.
To be entirely honest, the “truth being less important than the cause” is something that is much more prominent in public life from what I can tell today than it was then. When I went back to the United States our class had a discussion about the issue, and my very liberal teacher (she was a major supporter of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988) took a straightforward position in defense of free speech, despite the fact two of her students (myself and Egyptian boy) were from Muslim backgrounds. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, some American and European writers temporized. That is our age.
Basically, it seems Holland wants to do to Islam what has happened to Christianity over the past few centuries in the West: turn it into a natural phenomenon and not part of the numen of the cosmos. Though a fair number of traditionalist Christian believers exist, many people who say they are Christians are often quite aware of revisionist theories about their religion. It’s not taboo or shocking. It’s just the norm.
Consider Candida Moss’s book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. Moss is a Roman Catholic, who published The Myth of Persecution while a professor of the New Testament at Roman Catholic Notre Dame University. As the title indicates Moss challenges one of the foundational beliefs about the rise of early Christianity: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” And yet she remains identified as a Christian, a professor of the New Testament.
Most educated Christians are probably vaguely aware that the four gospels were written between 70 AD and 100 AD. And, because of the Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code many people are aware that the development of early Christianity was to some extent a cumulative process (even though Brown’s description is totally off base).
Before the 19th century, most Christians did not even comprehend that their religion could be viewed in such a critical-rationalist manner. They were not necessarily “fundamentalists” as we would understand them. Some apologists for Catholicism arguing against early scripturalist Reformers even pointed out inconsistencies within the Bible to illustrate the futility of sola scriptura. But, Christians accepted their traditions and beliefs in a relatively innocent manner (though the debunking of the Donation of Constantine occurred rather early).
The vast majority of Muslims today are where Christians were several centuries ago. Even liberal Muslims, or atheists from a Muslim background, tend to accept the traditional view as the view which they reject piecemeal or in totality. As for as the origins and rise of Islam and the Arab empires, Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests lays out the traditional received model.
Kennedy’s book focuses on the Umayyads, the first hereditary dynasty of the Islamic world (an earlier book was on the Abbasids-When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World). Kennedy does not write from the perspective of a Muslim historian, but a Western historian who takes the Muslim sources at face value (he acknowledges in the introduction that there is a revisionist view, though that is not his book).
The story is a simple one. Muhammad founds a new monotheistic religion in pagan Arabia, and after his death in 632 the tribes united in the faith explode out of their desolate peninsula. In 636 these forces defeat both the Romans and the Persians. Within a few decades the Muslims rule a vast swath of territory, and in 661 the Umayyad dynasty is inaugurated with the reign of Muawiya I, who reputation and fame would likely be greater if history had not been written by the enemies of his dynasty. One of the reasons that the Umayyads have a low reputation is that their interpretation of Islam was closely tied to their Arab tribal identity. Their religion was not quite the trans-ethnic one that would flourish under the Abbasids. Some Islamic scholars even called the Umayyads the “Arab Kingdom” (the title “king” is considered un-Islamic).
What is the revisionist story that Holland wants to tell? The outline is simple: in the first two generations after the Arab conquest, the Arabs were not Muslims as we, or they, would understand it. Holland specifically seems to believe that Islam as a religious ideology that bounds together the Arab ruling class of the Umayyad domains crystallized during the reign of Abd al-Malik in the 680s AD. This is fifty years after the death of Muhammed, and nearly four decades after the conquest of the Near East and Persia.
Do I believe it? Obviously, I don’t believe that Muhammad is a prophet of God, since I don’t believe in God. But, that doesn’t mean that Muhammad didn’t think he was a prophet of God and that his followers were insincere. The rise of Islam is a fundamentally material affair. There is no magic. That would come later with Sufi saints with miraculous powers.
One reason we can have this debate is that the sources are sparse and vague. This may sound strange to say, but as an example, we have very little written records that come down from pre-Islamic Persia. For our knowledge of the ancient and early medieval world we are faced with three major periods of massive literary production: in Baghdad in the 9th century, under Charlemagne in the 9th, in Constantinople in the 10th. The 7th century was a period of stress and deprivation in the East Roman Empire, as it lost massive territory to the Arabs. But one thing that seems clear is that these East Romans did not have a clear sense of the Arabs as practitioners of a new world religion that was not Christian. They were clear that they were ethnic Arabs, but not clear that they were anything but heretics or some sort.
The sparsity of “non-traditional” sources means that revisionists have to engage in deep philological analysis of the extant sources, an enterprise which is beyond the ken of non-specialists to evaluate. I have no strong opinions on whether Muhammad existed or not. Nor am I sure that Mecca and Medina as holy sites were later additions to the history of Islam (revisionists tend to believe that the Arabs emerged out of the Syrian desert, not from further south). I suspect in a lot of the details Holland is incorrect. But I do not think that the orthodox view is correct in the details either.
The Late Antique world was not as neatly sectarian as we might imagine. It was messily sectarian. The advance of Islam in the domains under the rule of the Arab Caliphates was uneven. Substantial regions of Iran proper remained under the rule of Zoroastrian kings as late as the 9th century, and Muslims were probably not a majority in Iran until the 10th century.
The Levant and Mesopotamia had a Christian majority for centuries under the rule of the Umayyads and Abbasids. In The Rise of Western Christendom Peter Brown claims that Islamicization in the Near East was associated with Arabicization. That is, once Christian populations switched to Arabic as their everyday language, conversion to Islam became much more feasible.
But knowing what we know about other religions it seems implausible to me that Islamic emerged out of the desert in the fully formed manner that Muslim tradition implies. The rise of Christianity is a clear case of debates, arguments, and gradual rough consensus over a period of decades and later centuries. When it comes to younger religions such as that of the Bahai or Mormonism, we can see in “real time” how religions can evolve after the death of their founders. The Bahai religion has its roots in Shia revivalism, but eventually, it transformed itself into a post-Muslim world religion. Though Mormons retain a Christian identity, their theology is extremely exotic in comparison to the Christian mainstream.
The Umayyad positive attitudes toward Late Antique Hellenism and their total co-option of the East Roman system is suggestive of a barbarian conquest elite, not an ideologically motivated one. The Rashidun period and the life of Muhammad may always be mysteries to us, but they almost certainly do point to unlikely events in the Arabian Peninsula (or its liminal zone) which resulted in the military mobilization of Arabs bent on conquest. Islam’s emergence in a form more recognizable to us in the late 7th century may have been an inevitable result of declining cohesion of the Arab conquest elite, and the necessity of an ideology to bind them together, along with notables from conquered populations.
And of course, we know that the 8th and 9th centuries saw the transformation of Islam in a deeper and more thoroughgoing manner, with the shift to the east of the Abbassids and the emergence of the ulema class and the marginalizations of philosophy. But that needed the ideology of empire, and that ideology did not emerge de novo from the desert. Islam did not create an empire, the empire necessitated the precipitation of Islam.
When people ask about my religion I usually just say I’m an atheist and I have no religion. If they continue, I usually give them what they want, and state my parents are Muslim, or I am from a Muslim background (most of the time the people asking for what it’s worth are themselves Muslims, or from a Muslim background, or, not American). I never say that I used to be a Muslim because that’s really not true.
This is a major way I’m very different from those who come from a similar background. Not only did I not believe in religion, unlike many people from a Muslim background, I never grew up in a Muslim milieu. Though my parents are moderately observant Muslims (e.g., though they don’t drink alcohol or eat pork, my mother does not wear a headscarf nor has my father ever grown a beard), they were never involved in the “Muslim community.” We went to the mosque on special holidays, and that was the extent of our participation in “organized religion.” Any religious instruction I had was from my father, who mostly did this when he felt guilty because a mutual acquaintance would comment on the religious ignorance of his children.
Both my parents come from rather religious families in a traditional sense. As my paternal grandfather was an ulem, all of his children, including my father, received extremely thorough religious educations. My mother has a brother who is an ulem, and her maternal grandfather was a very prominent ulem, whose lineage was involved in the Islamicization* of the peasantry in parts of Comilla and Noakhali in the 19th century.
When I say that my parents come from religious families in a “traditional sense,” I mean that neither of them come from families where people have to be “born again” to practice Islam. Rather, they were part of the tradition of middle and upper-class Sunni Muslims who adhered to and espoused a form of religious orthodoxy which was geographically broad, the Hanafi traditions which included the Turkic world and much of South Asia, and date back many centuries.
This personal history is relevant because unlike some people I have not taken a deep interest in the origin and development of Islam in the same way I have taken a deep interest in the origin and development of Christianity. How and why Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire is an interesting question for academic reasons. How and why Western Christianity fractured in the 16th century is an interesting question for reasons of understanding the geopolitics and history of modern European nation-states. I never believed in the Muslim religion, and matured into adulthood in a totally non-Muslim milieu, and my parents were outwardly nominal and complacent in their religiosity.
In contrast to Christianity, there is far less scholarship in English on the development of the Sunni-Shia schism, or conversion of Iran to Shia Islam in the 16th century. And of course, there is very little scholarship on the development of the religion which became Islam from a critical lens, aside from a small band of “revisionists.”
Some of this is due to fear. To be frank, many Muslims guard the sanctity of the orthodoxies which they promulgate with veiled and not so veiled threats of violence. Even if this is a minority of Muslims, it is sufficient to convince scholars who might take an interest in the topic that there is little personal profit in the enterprise.
This has curious knock-on consequences: many educated Muslims take certain orthodoxies of their religion for granted as unchallenged truths in a manner which is equivalent to the sort of insulation one only finds in ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity. To give an explicit example, when I was younger, and knew people from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, they would patiently explain to me that in actuality science had long disproved the basic tenets of evolutionary biology. They were speaking out of a certain ignorance, because of subcultural norms.
To a great extent, Muslims are the same. But in this case about the truths of their religion which they presume to be unchallenged and unrefuted. Educated and relatively secular Western Muslims take the historicity of Muhammad and the literal truth of the Quran for granted in a way that educated and more Christians do not. That is due to the fact that Christianity has been subject to robust criticism in scholarship and in the public space since the 19th century.
Basically, the upshot is that the standard educated Muslim narrative about the nature of the Quran is trivially easy to knock down. It does not require deep scholarly knowledge, simply an awareness of facts that for obvious reasons Islamic scholars have not put in front of the mass of believers.
An interesting aspect of the discussion is that it is not highly revisionist. That is, it takes the historicity of the standard Muslim narrative of the rise of Islam under Muhammad, and its expansion under his successors, for granted. But even accepting the “standard model”, a set of simple critiques can refute the consensus of educated Muslims on topics such as the nature of the origin of the Quran.
What will the consequence of this be? I doubt it will be a great apostasy. Just as with Christianity a modernist critique will give rise to a sophisticated subculture that insulates and debunks the critique. But a large number of Muslims will engage in conscious and subconscious revisionism of what it means to be Muslim, and what Islam is, in a more “root & branch” manner than has currently been the case. I do think for various reasons that will happen in the West, and not the core Muslim world.
* Islamicization here is probably indicative of reform of the practices and customs of nominally Muslim peasants.
It’s an interesting work with a lot of facts. Though so far no facts have been surprising to me, and, many facts were known to me. For example, the author talks about the reality that Muslims were subjects of the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. I happen to have read a book about the topic. Specifically, how the ulema in the Russian Empire adjusted to rule under an Orthodox Christian monarch. The author mentions that Protestants fought with the Ottomans at Vienna, and exhibited a cool attitude toward Indian Muslim nationalism against the British. Both of these facts, I knew.
The basic thesis seems to be similar to what I had inferred earlier: that the idea of a unitary Muslim world is a reaction to the European colonial experience, and not deeply rooted. The problem is that a lot of these assertions hinge on semantic interpretations. What does “unitary Muslim world” mean for example? The author, Cemil Ayden, seems to also suggest that both the “West” and the “Muslim world” are modern constructions. And they are. That does not mean these modern constructions don’t build upon and extend pre-modern self-conceptualizations which are very important. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Reading Ayden reminds me of encountering Bryan Catlos’ work on Muslim Spain years ago. Catlos’ publicity people at the university press tried to make it as if he was arguing that the line between Muslim and Christian was incredibly fluid and that his work refuted the “clash of civilizations.” But anyone, which includes me, who is aware of the large numbers of conversions of Christians to Islam and then back to Christianity, not to mention the Jews, knows that the categories are a bit more complex than the modern cartoon. Nevertheless, nothing in Catlos’ scholarship refutes the reality that religious identity was a critical, and perhaps the most important, building block of self-conceptualization in medieval Iberia.
One way to avoid the baggage around the word civilization is to rename it a “meta-ethnic” identity, as Peter Turchin does. A meta-ethnic identity allows people from different tribes and ethnicities to unite around something greater. Often, though not always, it is religion. The initial decades of the rise of Islam are complicated by the possibility that the religion wasn’t a meta-ethnic identity, but rather a tribal cult specific to a group of Arabs. This was not sustainable if Muslims were to maintain a multi-ethnic polity. Like the Mongols, they would have been absorbed by those whom they conquered. The rise of the Abbasids around 750 is often characterized as the revenge of the convert peoples, with Iranians in especially prominent in the early years of the dynasty.
Something similar happened with Christianity, which in its early centuries was fundamentally a Roman religion in Western Europe. Eventually, the expansion of the commonwealth of European kingdoms in the early medieval period occurred through the expansion of the Roman religion, and its transformation into something that was post-ethnic (during the medieval period in parts of pagan Eastern Europe Christianity was considered a “German” religion!).
There is certainly something commendable in Ayden’s work in situating current geopolitical tensions and alignments with their early modern precursors. But to the naive these arguments often erase the real deep roots of these configurations and their durability across the millennia. For example, I have stated, justifiably I think, that modern Iran was fundamentally and essentially shaped by the Safavid transformation of the region in the 16th century. That is, unifying the various Iranian and Turkic peoples in present-day Iran under the banner of Twelver Shia religion. But this is not to deny the reality that elements of Persian national self-conception predate the Safavids by thousands of years!
To bring it back to conflict, Christian cities such as Amalfi in southern Italy, often aligned themselves with Muslim pirates and corsairs in the first few centuries Islam. This does not mean that Amalfi was not Christian. Or that the distinction between Christianity and Islam meant nothing. Amalfi came under sharp criticism from Christian polities for its pragmatic alliances with Muslims. Similarly, France’s traditional friendly relations with the Turks due to the common Habsburg enemy came under criticism during the secondOttoman siege of Vienna.
Because of profit or in the exigencies of the moment, strange bedfellows often emerge. The Hungarian Protestants that marched with the Ottomans against the Habsburgs were marching for their cultural survival. The Habsburgs were suppressing and slowly extinguishing the Reformed movement in Hungary and had been doing so for decades. Hungarian Protestantism persisted only under Ottoman protection. This does not mean that Hungarian Protestants are not aligned with Christianity. But before their civilizational commitment could come into play, they had to safeguard their existence, which forced them into making a decision to march with the armies they had and not the ones they would have wished (Viktor Orban is a Hungarian Protestant).
What quantitative scholars like Turchin, and Azar Gat in War in Human Civilization, have shown is that conflicts across meta-ethnic or civilizational boundaries tend to be particularly brutal and characterized by the dehumanization of the enemy. On average. The fact that most Christian states in the pre-modern world bordered on Christian states means that most conflicts would occur between Christian states. But the conflicts at the civilizational boundary would be characterized by more extreme levels of brutality, coercion, and a lack of chivalry.
One might see in most conflicts that they occur within meta-ethnic groups, or that in a large number of cases the alliances cross meta-ethnic identities. For example, Pakistan today is under the grip of Sinophilia, despite China’s objective reality that it is an anti-Islamic state which oppresses Muslims, and Pakistan’s objective Islamic extremism. The fact on the ground currently though is that Pakistan as a nation-state benefits much more from being pro-China in its rivalry with India then rejecting Chinese entreaties on principle due to meta-ethnic solidarity with China’s Muslims. The pragmatic aspect of this alliance does not negate the reality that Pakistanis are sincere Muslims who have strong commitments to a trans-national Islamic identity, as evidenced by the fact that Pakistanis are often represented in trans-national Muslim movements.
Anyone who has read my thoughts knows I reject the idea that religions have fundamental clear and distinct essences. Religions are what people believe they are. What people practice. But people with particular confessions exhibit more solidity in their understanding of group identity than most post-colonial treatments seem to allow. Islam and Islamic identity do not exist only in contrast with Western Christians. In the east Islam interfaces with Indian traditions, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. Across all these interactions Muslims have a certain sense of self as distinct and can grade differences between various out-groups (e.g., Christians are not clearly idolaters, Jews are clearly monotheists, and Buddhists are idolaters).
It is simply a fact that post-colonial peoples had a pre-colonial history, and that pre-colonial history is just as important in their self-understanding as the post-colonial one.
I laugh when people take projections of the year 2100 seriously. That’s because we don’t have a good sense of what might occur over 70+ years (read social and demographic projections from the 1940s and you’ll understand what I mean). Thirty years though is different. In the year 2050 children born today, such as my youngest son, will be entering the peak of their powers.
First, one has to note that these statistics include a lot of people who are what some would term “Muslimish”. That is, they are not religious believers, but have some identification with Muslim culture. That’s explicitly noted in the methods.
The problem with this is that there is a wide range of religious commitment and identification across Europe’s Muslim communities. On the whole, they are more religiously observant than non-Muslims in their nations of residence, but, for example, British Muslims are consistently more religious than French Muslims on surveys (or express views constant with greater religious conservatism).
Here are the results of a 2006 survey:
Yes, Westerners are respectful of women
Yes, there is a conflict between being devout Muslim and living in modern society
Yes, sometimes violence against civilian targets in order to defend Islam can be justified
Did Arabs carry out 9/11? (yes)
People in Western countries are selfish (yes)
People in Western countries are arrogant (yes)
People in Western countries are violent (yes)
Do you consider yourself Muslim first? (yes)
In my country Muslims are perceived to adopt customs of nation
Numbers such as those above indicate even if France and the United Kingdom both have Muslim minorities on the order of 17% of the population, the nature of those populations differs to such an extent that that similarity in value may mislead.
In God’s Continent Philip Jenkins observes that public statistics of Christians often work to exclude cultural Christians, but those of Muslims include cultural Muslims. What many estimates of “Muslims” in the European context do is give a sense of the proportion of the population which is of Muslim background. This is especially true in a nation like France where religious survey data is not collected by government agencies.
Overall I think this data is important to consider, but there’s nothing really new in a qualitative sense. And, it is important to keep in mind the details. It is highly probable that the idea of a European superstate will have faltered by 2050, and each nation will its own Muslim minority, and engage with them differently depending on local values and context. Though Muslims, broadly construed, will form about the same proportion of the French and British general population, I suspect that in Britain the distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim will be much more obvious and strict than in France.
For a time, beginning in the 12th century, Sufism was a mainstay of the social order for Islamic civilization, and since that time it has spread throughout the Muslim world, and to China, West Africa and the United States. As Sufism spread, it adapted elements of local culture and belief, making it a popular practice.
Alexander D. Knysh, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Michigan and expert in modern Sufism, describes it as a “very wide, amorphous movement” practiced within both the Sunni and Shiite traditions.
Specific claims about Sufism beyond the most general fail because vast swaths of Islamic history and Muslim peoples and practice are Sufi. In the modern western media, there is an unfortunate tendency to dichotomize Islam into a harsh and fundamentalist form and a moderate and mystical Sufi variety. Though a small minority of Sufis have drifted toward very heterodox beliefs, the vast majority are orthodox Muslims who also adhere to a school of Islamic law.
And Sufis are not all pacific saints. In the 19th century Libya the Sensussi Sufi movement was critical in the continuation of the trans-Saharan slave trade, and later served as a major focal point for violent resistance against the Italian colonial project. The great anti-philosopher of the medieval period, Al-Ghazali, who is generally agreed to have ushered in the decline of philosophical thinking within orthodox Sunni Islam, was a Sufi.
The question should not be about Sufis. Sufis are not moderate or mystical Muslims, they are simply Muslims. That is, they’re the mainstream. Rather, the crux of the issue is that violent radicals have emerged from the soil of Salafism. Not all Salafis are violent. But violent Salafis are the ones who regularly target other Muslims and their holiest of sites.
Salafism is a modern movement of the past few centuries. Like Protestant Fundamentalism, it is a product of the engagement of traditional religion with the modern world. Self-consciously Salafist Muslims have never known a world where the West was not dominant. Therefore it is no surprise that they look to the accrued tradition of Islamic civilization and see in it failure and decay.
Like some Radical Protestants, the Salafists imagine that they are creating a community of Muslims who are true to the path of the religion in its earliest years before it became tainted with monarchy. Basically, Salafists wish to transform Islam from a religion of history to one of pure axiomatic abstractions.
Why do Salafi radicals attack Sufis? Their tendency to engage in takfir against other Muslims goes back to the proto-Salafi Wahhabists. And Sufi Islam, with a venerable history going back more than 1,000 years, is naturally going to be the target of Salafi rage because it was the Islam that failed to stem the tide of Western ascendancy, the Islam that witnessed the slow and gradual decline from the greatness of the 8th and 9th centuries. The children shall eat their own parents.
In the Indonesian market town of Cianjur, new rules require government workers to clock in with their thumb prints at a downtown mosque to confirm attendance at morning prayers. That’s on the order of district chief Irvan Rivano Muchtar, who also wants a 10 p.m. curfew for the town and is sending police to stop teenage girls and boys hanging out without parental supervision.
One one of the first things I wrote on the internet in 2002 was about Indonesian Islam (on a blog platform which is now gone). The reason for me writing on that topic was that the media representations of Southeast Asian Islam in the wake of 9/11 seemed excessively simple and reductive. For the West Indonesian Islam is often asserted to be moderate, and a counterpoint to the intolerance and exclusion which is the norm in the Middle East. In other words, Indonesia as the world’s most populous Muslim majority name plays a specific role in a broader narrative. A bit part in the grand narrative of moderation and radicalism. In the process, the textured uniqueness of Indonesia itself often gets lost.
First, let’s take a step back and frame the history of maritime Southeast Asia, what eventually became Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It is often stated that in Indonesia Islam spread peacefully through trade. This is supposedly in contrast to what occurred in the Middle East or South Asia, where military force was the dominant theme of Islamization. Superficially this is true.
But the reality is that forced conversion was likely a marginal phenomenon at any given time, and especially during the early centuries of Islam. The prominence of men such as Timothy, Patriarch of the Church of the East, under the Abbasids attests to the power of the non-Muslim majority (there was a similar eminence for the Zoroastrian community). But the conversion of Malays around Malacca in the early 15th century after the conversion of the king is not quite as different from what occurred in Persia after the Arabs arrived as one might think. The rapid shift of the Iranian nobility to Islam in provinces under Arab control seems to have triggered a gradual change among the masses (those regions, such as Tabaristan, where local elites maintained the old religion resisted Islamization until they were conquered and converted). It was not a matter of the sword or conversion.
Of course, religious wars were a necessary part of the expansion of Islam in the Middle East and South Asia, even if they did not effect much of the religious change which occurred later. But this is not a qualitative contrast with the Middle East and South Asia in comparison to Indonesia, though it is a quantitative one. Some polities, such as Malacca and Aceh, came to Islam through their integration into the maritime mercantile network of Muslims from Arabia to China. Centuries later the collapse of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, whose earlier hegemony served as some of the basis of broader Javanese-Indonesian claims to the whole archipelago, occurred due to attacks from Muslim sultanates who organized in part on the basis of religion. Majapahit fell because of jihad. It was not converted peacefully.
In sum, the history of what became Indonesia and its relationship to Islam is different from that of South Asia, or the Middle East, but that difference is one of degree, not kind. Second, one must also distinguish between Java and the rest of the archipelago. In the article above there is an reference to Aceh, a province where the practice of Islam aligns very strongly with that found in the Middle East. But Aceh is also culturally and historically very different from Java, Islam came to Aceh a the dominant religion at least two centuries before it did in Java, and probably earlier. On the map above Aceh is also geographically rather distant from the central islands, at the far northwest tip of Sumatra.
To a first approximation, orthodox Islam is a much more salient and central aspect of the identities of people from outlying islands than it is to Javanese. The complex indigenous-Hindu-Buddhist-Islamic synthesis which is said to characterize traditional Indonesian Islamic culture is actually a feature most evidently of Javanese culture. Parts of far western Indonesia came to Islam earlier, and integrated into the Muslim cultures of the Indian Ocean more thoroughly, so that earlier Buddhist affinities faded over time (Aceh at one point was aided by the Ottomans in fighting the Portuguese). In contrast, parts of eastern Indonesia, such as Sulawesi, were Islamicized after the fall of Majapahit, but the impact of Indic culture had been relatively superficial (though not trivial, as Indic influence is evidence as far east and north as the islands which became the Philippines).
At nearly 40% of the population of all of Indonesia the Javanese loom large in the identity of the nation-state. Most of the presidents of Indonesia have been Javanese (B. J. Habibie was raised in Sulawesi, where his father was from, but his mother was Javanese; Sukarno’s mother was Balinese, while his daughter’s mother was Sumatran, though both seem to have identified culturally as Javanese). Many of the things people say about Indonesian Islam are really about Javanese Islam, with the model implicitly derived clearly from Clifford Geertz’s tripartite division between santri, abangan and priyayi.
The santri are basically what we define as world normative orthodox Muslims. The priyayi are the Javanese aristocracy, who self-consciously explored mystical concepts and practices with an extra-Islamic origin. But the vast majority of Javanese are the abangan, rural peasants who practice an Islam which emphasizes custom and tradition as much as sharia. Because custom and tradition have deep organic roots within Java they naturally include many elements which are ‘pre-Islamic.’ In Java both the Mahabharata and Ramayana are still part of the living culture, for example.
It strikes me that the attitude of the Javanese may have analogs with that of the Persians in relation to their cultural history. By and large like the Persians the Javanese are Muslims without apology.* But like the Persians the Javanese take pride in a history before Islam, in particular Majapahit, whose writ tentatively spanned most of contemporary Indonesia. And Majapahit can not be separated from a Hindu-Buddhist synthesis which left massive cultural artifacts such as the Borbobudur temple complex (and the modern Balinese also serve as continuous cultural links with the Hinduism of Majapahit).
But the economic and social development of Java will naturally lead to a waxing in the santri tendency. Orthodox Muslims among the Javanese have not been part of the underclass, but rather outward facing portions of the traditional mercantile class or middle class urbanites. Santri Islam is portable, and commensurable with international Islam. Abangan Islam is rooted in the rural landscape of Java, and urbanization will inevitably erode its hold on future generations. Meanwhile, priyayi practices are structurally limited to a narrow class of elites.
Overall then the rise of ‘conservative Islam’ in Indonesia is a complex story with two primary threads. One is regionalism. The regulations introduced in the story above are in Cianjur, in western Java. This area is more Islamic than central or eastern Java, and the native people are not Javanese, but Sundanese.
As local identities were given more freedom of play after the New Order in the late 1990s it was reasonable to expect that more strikingly Islamic practices would become more public, as they were dampened earlier by the dominant Javanese orientation of the Suharto regime. Second, modernization within Javanese culture itself will likely lead to the emergence of a more numerous group of sharia compliant and world Islam oriented group of Muslims, as they can not rely upon community and adat in an urban landscape remote from their backgrounds of origin.
This is not to say that the standard chestnuts about Saudi funding are not important. But it is important to note that portions of Indonesian Islam have long been deeply connected to the Muslims of the Arabian Sea; this is not a function simply of the rise of petro-states, though their wealth has certainly allowed them to put their thumbs on the scale. Maritime Southeast Asia is the eastern segment of what is operationally a Shafi international of Sunni Muslims who ring much of the Indian Ocean. As Indonesia becomes globalized, it will gravitate to other nodes within the international network which it already has long-standing connections. This is probably inevitable in some ways, and the working out of the reality of contemporary Indonesian pluralism has to face the inevitable tensions that modernization will bring. A more universal and non-local Islam will probably also be more exclusive and culturally muscular.
* A minority are Christian or Hindu. A Hindu Javanese kingdom persisted in the east of the island until the 18th century.