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Aspects of Islam in Asia – Part One

By Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

August 7, 2017

An in-depth analysis on how Islam arrived in three different regions of the Asian continent and is now perceived and lived by the local populations, with a common denominator being the purity of their belief and the strong identification they have towards Islam.

Part 1: Background

A law of physics states that the further you get away from the centre of a given natural phenomenon of physics, the lesser the intensity. Indeed, physics is defined as:  “The branch of science concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy.”

However, Wikipedia gives a more thorough and precise definition to this important branch of science:

“Physics (from Greek φυσική (πιστήμη),) i.e. “knowledge, science of nature”, from φύσις, physis, i.e. “nature” is a part of natural philosophy and a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through space and time, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.”i

If a given spot is hit by an earthquake of a given intensity, the tremor’s force will be higher in the centre than in the periphery because force and its energy will dwindle as it moves further away from the point of impact.

For faith, in general, the effect is reverse, the further one moves from the centre, the stronger and purer it gets. Indeed, in Christianity the further one moved from the Vatican, in Rome, the more devout the people are, as is the case in Latin America and in the Philippines. This concept also applies to Islam, and thus the people of Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia are definitely very devout and pious in their Islam day in and day out, as a result.

In the following paper I will attempt to look at how Islam arrived in three different regions of the Asian continent: South Asia in the case of Pakistan, Central Asia represented by Uzbekistan and South East Asia symbolized by Malaysia and Indonesia, and settled down with time and how it is perceived and lived by the local population. A common denominator of these countries is the purity of their belief, meaning the strong identification they have towards the pure Islam.

Unfortunately this concept is expressed in Pakistan by a certain amount of violence towards the other. The other here, meaning anyone not Sunni. Thus, the Shiite and the Christians have been unduly victimized by the majority of people of Taliban obedience.

In Uzbekistan, Islam has been muzzled and subdued over decades during the Soviet years and mosques were turned in youth centres like the famous Mir al-Arab one, and religion was made to become a mere folklore. Today, there is in Uzbekistan a religious renewal, in spite of the fact that the regime in place is secular and atheist and is a mere mirror image of the Soviet era, trying to keep religion at bay.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, there is an interesting version of Islam: open, tolerant and progressive, worth studying and imitating. Indeed, the constitutions of these countries have inscribed in gold freedom of belief and religion and equality before law to all citizens. As a result of that, these two countries are emerging and flourishing economies that have achieved a notable success in their area, and they are the home of millions of devout Muslims that practice pure and tolerant religion away from any extremism that has marred many other Muslim countries around the world.

Arrival of Islam in Asia

At first view, one wonders how Islam, a religion starting in the Arabian Peninsula, a land far away and culturally different has been able to spread successfully in this continent so diverse and so different? One wonders quite rightly so, what actually caught the attention of the people of this vast continent to embrace this alien and austere religion: is it the magic of Qur’an, the word of Allah, or the concept of monotheism التوحيد or the strength of faith in the God, one and only بالواحد الأوحد الايمان or merely the monotheist humanistic message?

Several orientalists and western intellectuals like to spread the false and culturally-insensitive message that Islam is a brutal religion that converted people to its faith by the sword and by might. Even the last Pope Benedict XVI, regrettably went along this biased view, when he declared in the speech given at the University of Regensburg, Germany, on Sept. 12, 2006, indirectly that The Prophet Mohammad, spread the message of Islam by the violence and by the brutality of the sword:ii

In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that Surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to the experts, this is one of the Surahs of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”. The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”

Many observers consider that the expression of this stark opinion by a person as important as the Pope, in an official and public engagement, is a direct and clear call for hatred against the Muslims and an encouragement for their ostracism and banishment on the international scene. This kind of declaration, in an activity as this, increases stereotypes about Islam and Muslims and feeds Islamophobia that is sweeping the Western world, as wildly as never before.

If the Asians of the early days of Islam, accepted this faith it was certainly not out of fear but out of personal identification with its precepts and teachings, the valid proof being, they are, today, among the most devout Muslims in existence through their strict adherence to the teachings of this religion; and Indonesia is, undoubtedly, the biggest Muslim country, in terms of population: 242.3 million (according to the census of 2011). Islam is the dominant religion in this country, which also has the largest Muslim population than any other land in the world, with approximately 202.9 million identified as Muslim (88.2% of the total population) as of 2009.iii

According to Wikipedia,iv the majority of Indonesians adhere to the Sunni Muslim tradition mainly of the Shafi’i Madhab. In general, the Muslim community can be categorized in terms of two orientations: “modernists,” who closely adhere to orthodox theology while embracing modern learning; and “traditionalists,” who tend to follow the interpretations of local religious leaders (predominantly in Java) and religious teachers at Islamic boarding schools (pesantren).

If Islam had, as some Westerners argue, spread by the sheer force of the sword, the population, like, in the case of colonialism, would have shown fierce resistance to this alien incomer and got rid of it. Most of these countries got rid of colonialism, in the long run, after all, through either peaceful or armed resistance, but, on the other hand, they have never showed any form of repugnance or animosity towards Islam, when in fact they could have done it at will and returned to their initial faiths and no one could have stopped them, but they did not. Instead, Islam is alive and kicking in this continent and it is even flourishing and exhibiting an interesting humanistic philosophy and tolerant message.

Islam Spreads in Asia

Trade relations between Arabia and the Sub-continent dated back to ancient times. Long before the advent of Islam in Arabia, the Arabs used to visit the coast of Southern India, which then provided the link between the ports of South and South East Asia. After the Arab traders became Muslim, they brought Islam to South Asia. A number of local Indians living in the coastal areas embraced Islam. However, it was the Muslim conquests in Persia, including the provinces of Kirman and Makran, which brought the Arabs face to face with the then ruler of Sindh, who had allied with the ruler of Makran against the Muslims. But, it was not until the sea borne trade of the Arabs in the Indian Ocean was jeopardized that serious attempts were made to subjugate Sindh.

During the reign of the great Umayyad Caliph Walid bin Abdul Malik, Hajjaj bin Yousaf was appointed as the governor of the Eastern Provinces. At that time, Raja Dahir, a Brahman, ruled Sindh. However, the majority of the people living in the region were Shudders or Buddhists. Dahir treated members of these denominations inhumanly. They were not allowed to ride horses or to wear a turban or shoes. Sindhi pirates, protected by Dahir, were active on the coastal areas and whenever they got a chance, they plundered the ships passing by Daibul.

In 712, Hajjaj sent 6,000 select Syrian and Iraqi soldiers, a camel corps of equal strength and a baggage train of 3,000 camels to Sindh under the command of his nephew and son in-law, Imad-ud-din Muhammad bin Qasim, a young boy of just seventeen years. He also had a ‘manjaniq’, or catapult, which was operated by 500 men and could throw large stones a great distance. On his way the governor of Makran, who provided him with additional forces, joined him. Also, a good number of Jats and Meds, who had suffered at the hands of native rulers, joined the Arab forces.

Muhammad bin Qasim first captured Daibul. He then turned towards Nirun, near modern Hyderabad, where he easily overwhelmed the inhabitants. Dahir decided to oppose the Arabs at Raor. After a fierce struggle, Dahir was overpowered and killed. Raor fell into the hands of the Muslims. The Arab forces then occupied Alor and proceeded towards Multan. Along the way, the Sikka (Uch) fortress, situated on the bank of the Ravi, was also occupied. The Hindu ruler of Multan offered resistance for two months after which the Hindus were overpowered and defeated. Prior to this, Muhammad bin Qasim had taken Brahmanabad and a few other important towns of Sindh. Muhammad bin Qasim was planning to proceed forward when the new Caliph Suleman bin Abdul Malik recalled him. After the departure of Muhammad bin Qasim, different Muslim generals declared their independence at different areas.

The Muslim conquest of Sindh brought peace and prosperity to the region. Law and order was restored. The sea pirates of Sindh, who were protected by Raja Dahir, were crushed. As a result of this, sea trade flourished. The port of Daibul became a very busy and prosperous commercial centre. When Muhammad bin Qasim conquered Sindh, the local people, who had been living a life of misery, breathed a sigh of relief. Qasim followed a lenient policy and treated the local population generously. Everyone had full religious freedom and even the spiritual leaders of local religions were given salaries from the government fund. No changes were made in the local administration and local people were allowed to hold offices – particularly in the revenue department. All taxes were abolished and Jaziah جزية was imposed. Everyone was treated equally. Poor people, especially Buddhists, were very impressed by his policies and many of them embraced Islam. A number of Mosques and madrasas were constructed in important towns. In a short period of time Sindh became a centre of Islamic learning. A number of religious scholars, writers and poets emerged and they spread their knowledge. The Muslims learned Indian sciences like medicine, astronomy and mathematics. Sanskrit books on various subjects were translated into Arabic. During the reign of Haroon al Rasheed, a number of Hindu scholars were even invited to Baghdad.

The establishment of Muslim rule also paved way for future propagation of Islam in Sindh and the adjoining regions. Later Sindh also attracted Ismaili missionaries who were so successful that Sindh passed under Ismaili rule. With the conquest of Lahore by Mahmud of Ghazni, missionary activity began again under the aegis of Sufis who were the main agents in the Islamisation of the entire region.

The opening of Central Asia and the implementation of Islam was completed in the eighth century A.D., and brought to the region a new belief and culture that until now continues to be dominant. The Muslims first entered Mawarannahr in the middle of the seventh century through raids during their conquest of Persia. The Soghdians and other Iranian peoples of Central Asia were unable to defend their land against the Khilafah because of internal divisions and the lack of strong indigenous leadership. The Muslims, on the other hand, were led by a brilliant general, Qutaybah ibn Muslim, and were highly motivated by the desire to spread the Islamic religion. Because of these factors, and the strength of the Islamic ‘Aqeedah and the nature of the shari’a, the population of Mawarannahr was easily liberated.

The new way of life brought by the Muslims spread throughout the region. The native cultures were replaced in the ensuing centuries as Islam molded the people into a single Ummah أمة – the Islamic ummah. Howeverة the destiny of Central Asia as an Islamic region was firmly established by the Khilafah’s (Caliph Abu’l-Abbas) victory over the Chinese armies in 750 in a battle at the Talas River.

Under Islamic rule, Central Asia was an important centre of culture and trade for centuries. The language of government, literature, and commerce, originally Persian became Arabic (however as the Abbasid Caliphate began to weaken and Arabic became neglected, the Persian language began to regain its pre-eminent role in the region as the language of literature and government).

Mawarannahr continued to be an important political player in regional affairs. During the height of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth and the ninth centuries, Central Asia and Mawarannahr experienced a truly golden age. Bukhara became one of the leading centers of learning, culture, and art in the Muslim world, its magnificence rivaling contemporaneous cultural centres such as Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba. Some of the greatest historians, scientists, and geographers in the history of Islamic culture were natives of the region, and one of the copies of the Quran originally prepared in the time of Caliph Uthman is kept in Tashkent.

The new Islamic spiritual and political situation in Central Asia determined a new technological and cultural progress. It marked the production of the Samarkand paper (since the 8th century under the Chinese influence the people of Samarkand learned to manufacture paper from the rags), which supplanted papyrus and parchment in the Islamic countries at the end of the 10th century. Furthermore scientists who were citizens of the Khilafah such as al-Khawarezmi, Beiruni, Farabi, Abu Ali ibn Sina (Avicenna) brought fame to the area all over the world, generating respect across the world, and many scientific achievements of the epoch made a great impact on the European science (it is enough to mention the astronomical tables of Samarkand astronomers from Ulughbeks observatory.)

During the comparatively peaceful era of Islamic rule, culture and the arts flourished in Central Asia. Jizya جزية was imposed upon all who refused to accept Islam and the Jewish historian Benjamin of Tudela noted during his travels in 1170 the existence of a Jewish community numbering 50,000 in nearby Samarkand.

The actual timing and introduction of the Islamic religion and its practice to Southeast Asia is subject to debate. European historians have argued that it came through trading contacts with India whereas some Southeast Asian Muslim scholars claim it was brought to the region directly from Arabia in the Middle East. Other scholars claim that Muslim Chinese who were engaged in trade introduced it.

Whatever the source, scholars acknowledge that Muslim influence in Southeast Asia is at least six centuries old, or was present by 1400 A.D. Some argue for origins to at least 1100 A.D. in the earliest areas of Islamic influence, such as in Aceh, northern Sumatra in Indonesia.

Islam in Southeast Asia

Whatever exact dates and sources one chooses to support; there is no doubt that Islamisation of many peoples in present-day Malaysia southern Thailand Indonesia Brunei and the southern Philippines occurred within a few hundred years. The process of religious conversion absorbed many pre-existing Southeast Asian beliefs (often referred to as ‘animism’, or the belief in the power of invisible spirits of people’s ancestors and the spirits of nature to influence the fortunes of humans on earth.)

The scholar Anthony Reid, Professor of History at the University of California Los Angeles, argues that this process of Islamisation (and Christianization in the Philippines) occurred rapidly in Southeast Asia especially during the period of 1550-1650.

For example, Islam became strong in eastern Indonesia, especially coastal kingdoms of Sulawesi, Lombok, Kalimantan, Sumbawa, Makassar, and in Sulu and Magindanao (Cotabato Province) in the southern Philippines from 1603-1612. This does not mean that rulers and their subjects in these areas were totally devoted to upholding all of the basic rules of Islam. It means that Islamic influence was present, as evidenced through ruling elites’ obligation to renounce the consumption of pork and to pronounce the daily five prayers. Some also practiced circumcision during this period.

Islam in South Asia: the Taliban experience

Islam is the official religion of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which has a population of about 190,291,129. The majority (95-97%) of the Pakistan people are Muslim while the remaining 3-5% is Christian, Hindu, and others. Sunnis are the majority while the Shias make up between 5-20% of the total Muslim population of the country. Pakistan has the second largest number of Shias after Iran, which numbers between 16.5 million to as high as 30 million.

Pakistan occupies a unique place in the Muslim world.  It is the only state explicitly established in the name of Islam, and yet fifty years after its independence, the role and place of Islam in the country remains unresolved.  The basic divide regarding the relationship between religion and the state pits those who see the existence of Pakistan as necessary to protect the social, political and economic rights of Muslims, and those who see it as an Islamic religious state.  During the past fifty years, the public has resoundingly rejected Islamic political parties in every general election.

A combination of domestic and international developments over the past two decades, however, appears to be pushing Pakistan in the direction of a more explicitly religious state.  Just in the last year, for example, the government of Pakistan has introduced strict shari’a laws and there has been a rise in Shia-Sunni violence.  Some analysts have even begun to consider the prospect of a Talibanized Pakistan.  The shift from liberalism to a more overt religious character for the country has been affected by developments in neighbouring Iran, Afghanistan and India.

Sufism has a strong tradition in Pakistan. The Muslim Sufi missionaries played a pivotal role in converting the millions of native people to Islam. As in other areas where Sufis introduced it, Islam to some extent syncretized with pre-Islamic influences, resulting in a religion with some traditions distinct from other parts of the Muslim world. The Naqshbandiya, Qadiriya, Chishtiya and Suhrawardiyya  silsas (Muslim Orders) have a large following in Pakistan.

Sufis whose shrines receive much national attention are Data Ganj Bakhsh (Ali Hajweri) in Lahore (ca. 11th century), Baha-ud-din Zakariya in Multan and Shahbaz Qalander in Sehwan (ca. 12th century) and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in Bhit,  Sindh and Rehman Baba in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Popular Sufi culture is centred on Thursday night gatherings at shrines and annual festivals which feature Sufi music and dance. Contemporary Islamic fundamentalists criticize its popular character, which in their view, does not accurately reflect the teachings and practice of the Prophet and his companions. v  There have been terrorist attacks directed at Sufi shrines and festivals, 5 in 2010 that killed 64 vii

Pakistan is wallowing in a real quagmire which encapsulates Pakistan’s current problems and their genesis. They are viral issues that occupy considerable space even outside Pakistan such as the army’s omnipresent role, the Islamists, the existential threat at the hands of al Qaeda and Tehrike Taliban Pakistan, and the persistent fears of an Islamist or military re-takeover in a realistic perspective.

The contentious themes of democracy, development, and security in Pakistan today are closely interlinked, the political and economic experience of the past 50 years show that neither democracy nor capitalist development can survive without the other.

In Pakistan, tradition and family life continue to contribute long term stability; the areas where very rapid changes are taking place are large population increase, urbanization, and economic development, and the nature of civil society and the state. Pakistan has wide range of ethnic groups and popular culture is strife.

Since 2001, terrorism has grown to become the biggest security threat to Pakistan, although a range of other internal security threats are still present, due to enduring problems with sectarianism, religious extremism, drug and weapon smuggling, and violent ethnic and religious disputes.

The government is playing its role in addressing many of the security threats and conflicts faced by Pakistan but the role of civil society has been crucial. Some local and international NGOs and think-tanks have been executing projects to promote inter-faith harmony, women rights, and peace building within Pakistan.

Internally, the wave of terrorism and religious extremism spearheaded by the Taliban has destabilized and polarized the country. The Taliban phenomenon in Pakistan has, also, important repercussions on the situation in Afghanistan and indirectly on its relations with the US because of the close links between Pakistan Taliban (TTP) and the Afghan Taliban. The issues of the economy and the Taliban constitute the most serious challenges awaiting the new Prime Minister’s attention. Who are the Talibans?

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the TTP) (Urdu/Pashto language: تحریک طالبان پاکستان; lit. Student Movement of Pakistan), alternatively referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, is an umbrella organization of various Islamist militant groups based in the north-western Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border in Pakistan. Most, but not all, Pakistani Taliban groups coalesce under the TTP. viii In December 2007 about 13 groups united under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud to form the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. ix  Among the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s stated objectives are resistance against the Pakistani state, enforcement of their interpretation of Shari’a and a plan to unite against NATO-led forces in Afghanistan’s

The TTP differs in structure to the Afghan Taliban in that it lacks a central command and is a much looser coalition of various militant groups, united by hostility towards the central government in Islamabad. Several analysts describe the TTP’s structure as a loose network of dispersed constituent groups that vary in size and in levels of coordination. The various factions of the TTP tend to be limited to their local areas of influence and often lack the ability to expand their operations beyond that territory.xi

Nawaz Sharif had clearly articulated his preference for dialogue with the Taliban to overcome the serious dangers that they pose to the country’s security and stability. He also called for an end to the drone attacks by the US in his speech in Parliament after his election as the Prime Minister.

Nawaz Sharif’s willingness to resolve the Taliban issue through dialogue, if possible, has generated a heated debate in the country on its pros and cons. The liberals, on the whole, are opposed to the idea, while the conservative parties and groups seem to favor the dialogue option.

Contrary to the fashionable view in Pakistan, the Taliban as an organized group emerged much after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989. It is true, however, that many of the leaders and members of the Taliban had played an active role in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation. The emergence of the Taliban as an organized group in Afghanistan under the leadership of Mullah Omer in 1994 was, in fact, a movement of protest against the lack of peace and stability, which prevailed in Afghanistan after the fall of the Najibullah regime and the alienation of the Afghan people because of the excesses of the various Afghan commanders.

This explains more than anything else the success of the Afghan Taliban in establishing their writ on most of Afghanistan under the leadership of Mullah Omer barring some small areas in north-eastern Afghanistan by 1998. But Pakistan’s help to the Taliban did play an important role in their successes against their opponents in Afghanistan. The fighting and instability in Afghanistan enabled al-Qaeda to establish its foothold in the country leading ultimately to 9/11 and the fall of the Taliban government following the US-led attack. This inevitably led to the expansion of the fighting by the Afghan Taliban against the US-led forces in Afghanistan because of the tribal links on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border.