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Southeast Asian Studies

Islamic Thought, Political Islam, and Government Policy in Southeast Asian Islam.

Islam in Political Affairs

In this essay, I will describe the crucial points of involvement of Islamic thought in Islamic politics and government policy from the experiences of Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia, the 1970s was a turning point in Islamic thought marked by three schools of thought influenced by the political situation. First, there is the idea that Muslims should involve in political parties after being “frozen” by Soekarno during the Old Order era. This thought can be seen in establishing the PPP (Bustamam-Ahmad, 2004).

Second, there is a view that Muslim political movements and parties are not involved in practical politics in Indonesia. This thought was developed by Nurcholish Madjid, who, in several ways, has become the embryo of the birth of liberal Islamic thought in Indonesia.

You may read: Islamic Thought in Malay World


 Third, there are thoughts that no longer want to be involved in practical politics but only in the world of da’wah. The role of Mohammad Natsir can be seen as an example of the actualization of Islamic values ​​in the da’wah.

The Intellectual Groups

In this era, the intellectual model that developed in the Malay world, according to Howard Federspiel (1999:41), there are two categories. First, the religious, educated class has continued to create outside the orbit of the Western educational system. This group can be said to be a traditional group. Their orientation is more towards the Middle East compared to the West. Second, the intellectual class has more or less traveled the westernization path (modernization), with educational and social backgrounds that are fully modern-Western influences.

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However, there has also been a shift in the meaning of ulama in the social order in this era. Ulama, who used to be understood as expert in classical traditions, living in huts, and mastering the yellow book, has turned into historical value. This is because few of them now have a Pesantren background. They have finally done westernization and supported ideas that emerged from the West. Likewise, the study of the yellow book became the keyword for Islamic studies in Islamic boarding schools and has been shifted to universities and academic forums or workshops. Therefore, understanding “who is the ulama?” needs our attention in this context.

The Influence of the West

In addition, the development of Islamic thought is no longer confined to the Middle East but also the West. This phenomenon gives the impression that Islamic thought learning Islam does not have to go to the Middle East and the West. Since the 1980s, the influence of scholars from America on the Malay World has increased. In this case, Osman Bakar (2003) says that the United States is about being “the second Mecca,” referring to Islam’s extraordinary ethnic, cultural, and theological diversity in this country. Undeniably, the impression of scholars from the United States can be seen in the Southeast Asian region, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. In this context, Osman Bakar lists several influences from scholars from the United States:


1. The number of their works recognized in the Southeast Asian region, both in original and in translation;

2. The number of their works used as teaching materials or references in universities in Southeast Asia;

3. The number of their students in the Masters and Doctorate of Philosophy levels in Southeast Asia. Particularly important is how important their students are in their respective countries;

4. Number of academic lectures or public lectures that have been given in Southeast Asia, including keynote speakers in seminars and conferences;

5. Frequency of their appearance in local media;

6. The amount of time they are assigned as external readers for doctoral dissertations and external assessors for the promotion of an academic rank in higher education;

7. The amount of time they have been selected as advisors to universities, government, and the private sector;

8. The amount of time they have been advisors to various NGO activities such as youth, religious, cultural, and educational organizations;

9. Number of works or writings about his life and work.


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The Types of Islamic Thought

Several things must be considered from some descriptions regarding the review of Islamic thought in the Malay World.

First, the internal dynamics of Muslims have forced Islamic thought to continue developing and sometimes cross the boundaries of traditionalism.

Second, the products of Islamic thought are more developed not only through formal channels but also informally.

The third is the influence of a thinker when they get a strategic position in an institution, either under or outside the government.

 Fourth, their publications are not limited to the local level but also nationally and internationally.

You may read: Western Scholar Networks in Indonesia

Government Policy

Islam and government policy are two coins that cannot be separated in Malaysia, where Islamic thought strongly supports government policy. As for Indonesia, after a paradigm shift in Islamic thought occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, since the 2000s, Islamic thought has not undergone significant changes, which can be seen in institutions and figures who play an essential role in Islamic thought. The transition from IAIN to UIN is a milestone in generating Islamic thought from campus in Indonesia. As for Malaysia, the establishment of IIUM and the recent emergence of several Islamic campuses have turned the dynamics of Islamic thought under the government’s umbrella. In addition, the emergence of ISTAC under the leadership of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas has also given a very dynamic of Islamic thought in Southeast Asia.

However, fragments of Islamic thought that are formalistic and symbolic can still be seen on the surface. This phenomenon has been getting stronger since the emergence of terrorism in Southeast Asia, which always involves the Muslim community in Indonesia and Malaysia, Southern Thailand, and Mindanao. In this regard, the issues developing in the Middle East and South Asia still greatly influence this model’s thinking dynamics. As a result, the government is too focused on reformulating Islamic education at educational institutions, so they cannot stem the flow of ‘hard-line’ thinking. This model of thought still dominates the thinking of Muslims at the grassroots level.

Kamaruzzaman Bustamam Ahmad

Kamaruzzaman Bustamam-Ahmad (KBA) has followed his curiosity throughout life, which has carried him into the fields of Sociology of Anthropology of Religion in Southeast Asia, Islamic Studies, Sufism, Cosmology, and Security, Geostrategy, Terrorism, and Geopolitics. KBA is the author of over 30 books and 50 academic and professional journal articles and book chapters. His academic training is in social anthropology at La Trobe University, Islamic Political Science at the University of Malaya, and Islamic Legal Studies at UIN Sunan Kalijaga Yogyakarta. He received many fellowships: Asian Public Intellectual (The Nippon Foundation), IVLP (American Government), Young Muslim Intellectual (Japan Foundation), and Islamic Studies from Within (Rockefeller Foundation). He is based in Banda Aceh and can be reached at ceninnets@yahoo.com.au

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