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Islam and the Malay Civilizational Identity: Tension and Harmony Between Ethnicity and Religiosity

Bakar Osman


Born and raised in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, Osman bin Bakar was educated in Malaysia, at London University, where he obtained his B.Sc. and M.Sc. in mathematics and received his doctorate in Islamic philosophy from Temple University in America. He served as the Deputy Vice Chancellor/Vice President of Academics and the first (1992) holder of the Chair of the Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Malaya (Kuala Lumpur). From 2000 to 2005 he was the holder of the Malaysia Chair for the Study of Islam in Southeast Asia in the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Among his publications are The History and Philosophy of Islamic Science, Islam & Civilizational Dialogue, Tawhid & Science, and Classification of Knowledge in Islam: A Study of Islamic Philosophies of Science.

In this excerpt, the author notes that Malay civilization is the product of the contributions of many currents. As such, it represents in microcosm the theme of Qurān 49:13: “We made you into nations and tribes so that you may come to know one another.” In short, diversity is a necessary element of God’s design, and Malay identity is proof of the benefits such diversity brings to humankind. Bakar is aware that ethnic diversity among the world’s peoples may lead to excessive pride and even exclusiveness. To avoid this, one must realize that the main purpose of such diversity is understanding driven by—as well as in the service of—a divine purpose.


Following the fateful encounter centuries ago between an Islam that was globalizing itself to the furthest corners of the earth and the Malay race long known for its openness to cultural influences both from its east and its west, a new Malay civilizational identity was born. The objective of this inquiry is made necessary by the contemporary concern for the future of the world's multi-civilizational character. This concern is expressed in the form of questions that raise doubts about the direction in which our global order is presently moving. Are we reaffirming the principle of civilizational pluralism or are we abandoning it? Are we advocating dialogues of civilizations in pursuit of global peace or are we promoting clashes of civilizations that will lead to global chaos? Apparently, in the past several years there has been a lot of talk going on all over the globe on the subject of dialogues, conflicts and clashes of civilizations. But to the dismay of many people, one major consequence of the September 11 tragedy, itself advanced in certain circles in the West as convincing proof that a clash of civilizations has already taken place, the nascent global movement for dialogues of civilizations is losing momentum while the more localized movement in America for clashes of civilizations appears to be gaining momentum and dangerous influence in the corridors of power.

We maintain the position that dialogue of cultures and civilizations is a moral virtue worth pursuing and defending at all times and in all kinds of situations no matter what happens to the world. We may even venture to claim that dialogue of cultures and religions has become an imperative in our day. In Islamic religious terminology, such dialogues have become fardu kifayah, meaning a societal obligation to be fulfilled by individuals and groups capable of delivering success to these dialogues. If the study of Malay civilizational identity could contribute to the contemporary global discourse on dialogue of civilizations, it is because it affirms at least three things. Firstly, Malay civilization is a major world civilization in its own right. Secondly, it is a major branch of the global Muslim civilization. Thirdly, the historical shaping of the Malay identity contributed by many cultures and civilizations provided an excellent instance of Islam the religion fulfilling the very purpose of its existence, namely a civilizational synthesis out of diverse cultural elements guided by the principle of tawhid (unity).

A Spiritual Anthropology: The Place and Role of Ethnic identity

Certainly the Qur'an's spiritual anthropology is as much interested in the division of humans into spiritual types as in the division of the human species into racial and ethnic groups. In this discussion we are primarily interested in the later division but focusing on its civilizational significance. The Qur'an has emphasized this anthropological fact but with a spiritual bias in the following terms: “O humankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is acquainted (with all things).”1 The Qur'an, Chapter 49, Verse 13. In maintaining that there is a definite purpose to the diversity and pluralism in the ethnic composition of humankind, the Qur'an has accorded a religious legitimacy to the place and role for ethnic consciousness and identity in the organization of human society and the global community. Having an ethnic consciousness and identity is something natural to human beings. Because of the natural human tendencies to be attached to one's ethnic group, ethnicity is one of the natural principles of human social organization. Islam which claims to be regulating human life in conformity with the nature of things would be the last to say that ethnic loyalty is necessarily opposed to the universal goals of religion. Far from seeking to abolish ethnic feelings and identity from the human consciousness, which would be practically impossible, Islam prefers giving recognition to their usefulness in serving religion's higher spiritual and moral purpose as embodied in the above quoted Qur'anic verse.

Islamic perspectives on the meaning and function of ethnic identity are perhaps best summed up by the Qur'anic verse earlier cited. The verse rationalizes the existence of ethnic identities and proposes the only sane way they can coexist peacefully in the world. The main purpose of ethnic pluralism is not the cultivation and affirmation of ethnic particularism for its own sake and glory but the fostering of inter-ethnic and inter-cultural acquaintance and understanding directed to serve a universal purpose that is ultimately divine. By and through “knowing one another” as envisaged by the Qur'an, ethnic groups and nations would be moved to go beyond ethnocentrism to embracing a spiritual universalism. What does the Qur'an mean by “knowing one another”? The Qur'an does not explain, but the philosophical meaning of the verse helps us to grasp the intended objects of this mutual knowledge and understanding. Philosophically what the verse is telling us is that God has created multiplicity and diversity out of unity, and He wants to lead multiplicity and diversity back to unity. This is precisely the divine purpose in the creation of both the natural and human worlds. Originating from the first human couple, God has created the human family, which has grown into a large tree with a multitude of ethnic branches. Each ethnic branch possesses an identity of its own with its specific characteristics that distinguish it from other branches. Consequently, the ethnic branches, each possessing a kind of soul and collective consciousness, are able to know one another.

The Qur'an looks upon both languages and ethnic identities as among the wonders of creation. Further, the Qur'an maintains that God has sent a messenger to every nation and the divine message brought was always in the language of his folk. These teachings of the Qur'an make it quite clear that an Islamic anthropology worthy of its name would be interested not only in the scientific significance of the variety of human languages and ethnic groups but also in their spiritual significance. By knowing one another in the deepest sense of the word, the ethnic branches will come to understand the true purpose of them having ethnic identities. Their goals are to acknowledge both their commonalities and differences and to recognize what these signify for inter-ethnic living. The commonalities are the universals that need to be strengthened and the differences are the particulars that need to be respected. What are these commonalities? The Qur'anic verse under discussion mentions the most important of them. First, we have a common human ancestor. Second, in consequence of the first, all ethnic groups form branches of the same human family tree. Third, we are all God's creatures answerable to Him. Fourth, our worth and dignity as humans before God are evaluated on the basis of our piety and righteous-ness and not our ethnic origins. The science of anthropology would reveal many more commonalities, but this issue is not our concern here. If the Qur'an has mentioned only those commonalities, it is primarily because humans tend to forget easily or belittle those facts and thus need to be reminded of their importance and true significance.

What are the particulars that differentiate the ethnic branches from one another? The same Qur'anic verse mentions only one of them, namely as a broad category consisting of the specific characteristics that define their ethnic identity. Of course, if we are to itemize these characteristics, we may end up with a good number of them. Physical characteristics, language, customs, culture, and manners are to be counted among the most important of them. Even the religion an ethnic group has embraced may be domesticated by its defining characteristics so as to produce a new religious culture unique to its geographical region.

Ethnicity and religiosity in a Civilizational Marriage

Islam claims to be the last of the divinely revealed religions and also the only religion to have explicitly stated from its very beginning it has been sent to the whole of humankind. According to Prophet Muhammad, all prophets of God before him had been sent to specific peoples, meaning that their respective messages from Heaven have likewise been targeted at specific audiences. He alone had been given a universal message meant for the whole world. What actually happened in history had turned out to be quite different. A few religions like Judaism and Hinduism and Taoism continue to be identified exclusively with specific ethnicities, Judaism with the Jewish people alone, and Hinduism overwhelmingly with the Indian race and Taoism with the Chinese. Some others have grown to become world religions identified with many ethnic groups. Interestingly, religions in this category like Buddhism and Christianity have become minority religions in their own respective birthplaces but found their largest concentration of followers in far away lands, the former in the Far East and the latter in Europe and the Americas. From the point of view of ethnic complexity that characterizes the global demographic makeup of each of the world religions, Christianity and Islam stand out prominently above the rest. These two sister religions in the Abrahamic family are the only real world competitors for adherents. . . .

Religions which have adherents scattered in numerous ethnic groups have manifested themselves in a variety of forms producing all kinds of local cultures with a religious coloring. Conversely, an ethnic group that over time has overwhelmingly opted to embrace a new religion finds itself deeply immersed in the complex process of cultural fusion. The process involves all the things that usually go into the working of what I call a civilizational marriage between ethnicity and religiosity. In conformity with the ideals and the code of practical conduct favored by the new religion, an ethnicity may have to discard some of its old beliefs and practices deemed no longer reconcilable with the new. It is obvious that conversion always necessarily involves the acceptance of new beliefs and practices. However, for the most part the process is not about discarding the old for the new, but about reconciling the old with the new, reinterpreting the old in the light of the new with the view of producing a new cultural synthesis.

As all marriages go, it is about partnerships in the pursuit of certain goals in life. In the case of civilizational marriages of the kind with which we are interested here, the partners are an ethnic branch and a religion. This marriage between an ethnicity and a religiosity will have its cultural offspring. Clearly, the success of the marriage calls for the inter-play of two geniuses, an ethnic genius and a religious genius. The quality of such marriages tends to vary with ethnicities and religiosities. Talking about the performances of Christianity and Islam in such marriages in history, no less an authority than Arnold Toynbee, a leading modern authority on civiliz-ation studies, has made the observation that Islam had achieved a far greater success than Christianity. This essay does not permit us to go into a detailed discussion of this very important issue, especially in the light of many Christians in America depicting Islam as an evil religion. However, since the issue of success in question has relevance to our discussion of Malay Islam as a civilizational marriage between Malay ethnicity and Islamic religiosity, we will say a few words about the Islamic genius which we think explains Islam's relative success in overcoming racism and maintaining inter-ethnic harmony within its own cultural boundaries as well as in the preservation of indigenous cultures. A major portion of that genius has already been discussed at length when we talk about Islam's legitimization of ethnic identities. Another aspect of the Islamic genius pertains to its ability to produce orderly and peaceful cultural fusions and cultural synthesis as history has witnessed it in so many instances. One such instance, and indeed a major one by world standards, was the Southeast Asian his-torical phenomenon of a cultural synthesis between Malay ethnicity and Islamic religiosity that was to produce what may be legitimately called Malay Islam.

Malay Islam: The Marriage between Malay Ethnicity and Islamic Religiosity

A heavenly religion like Islam needs earthly instruments such as in the form of ethnicities in order to become a living reality in the lives of human beings and in the ordering of human societies. For that reason, Islam has come to sanctify the role of ethnicities in civilization building. It was the destiny of the Arabs to become the first ethnicity to enter into a civilizational marriage relationship with Islam. This is not to say that Islam has become completely Arabised to emerge into a purely Arab religion that somehow will later be followed by the non-Arabs. Two things have guaranteed that there will always be an objective and an ideal Islam that is not to be exhausted by one interpretation such as the Islam as understood and practiced by the Arabs. One is the Qur'an whose original content is preserved to every word and every letter until the end of the world. The other is the Prophet's own life or Sunnah which has an intrinsic value that transcends space and time in serving as a practical model to be emulated by every generation of Muslims anywhere on earth. The Prophet may be an Arab, but as a universal model for all believers coming from numerous ethnic branches, his Sunnah is one from which the elements of Arabness have been detached though the boundaries are not always clear to many people.

Apart from these two guarantees, the expansion of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula was swift like lightning as if in a hurry to dispel any illusion that it is purely an Arab religion. A new major ethnicity entering the fold of Islam was the Persians. The Malays were a later addition, more than six centuries after the Arab conversion to Islam. Like the Persians, the Malays had quite a rich pre-Islamic civilization as a result of extensive encounters and interactions with Hindu and Buddhist civilizations. Before Islam, the Malays had entered into a civilizational marriage with Hinduism and later Buddhism. Considering this fact, the Malays’ conversion to Islam entailed for them the complex process of re-evaluating their pre-Islamic heritage and establishing an ethical-legal system and socio-political order in the light of the new religion, and creating a new cultural synthesis. Syed Muhammad Naguib al-Attas has termed this process Islamization which he has divided into an earlier phase dominated by jurists and theologians and a later phase dominated by the Sufis.2 Syed Muhammad Naguib al-Attas, Preliminary Statement on a General Theory of the Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago (Kuala Lumpur, 1969). Al-Attas’ identification of the two phases of Islamization is of relevance to our discussion of the emerging Malay-Islamic civilizational identity.

An important question to ask in this connection pertains to the beginnings and the formative period of Malay-Islamic civilization. When can we identify the beginning of this new civilization, and what was the dominant element of Islam that shaped its formative period? It seems safe to say that there is some sort of a universal pattern according to which regionalized Islamic civilizations have been founded and developed in different parts of the world. Everywhere whenever Islam was to develop and grow into a distinct civilization, it began with the organization of its followers into a religious community in accordance with its revealed laws collectively termed the Shari’ah. The beginning of Islam as a civilization may be identified with the founding of the first Muslim community in Medina following the Prophet's hijrah to the city from Mecca. In Medina laws for the new community had been revealed in stages. The Prophet had also established a socio-political order with clear guidelines for inter-faith living and cooperation for the city-state's different religious communities who as fellow citizens were to have common rights and responsibilities. It was here that seeds of the new civilization were sown. It is therefore justifiable to identify the beginning and formative period of Islamic civilization with the establish-ment of the Shari’ah.

In the case of Malay-Islamic civilization, its beginning and formative period may be identified with the founding and growth of the first Malay-Muslim kingdom in Pasai at the turn of the thirteenth century. If jurists and theologians had flourished in the royal courts during this formative period as witnessed by the famous medieval world traveler Ibn Battutah and as asserted by al-Attas, it was because they were the experts in the much needed Shari’ah. Many things old and new—beliefs, practices, and institutions—had to conform to the requirements of the Shari’ah including the feudal system of kingship. Objections may be raised that the Shari’ah is hardly compatible with such a political system. But the traditional Malay ulama generally took the position that it was acceptable in the context of the time as long [as] nothing stood above the Shari’ah, the rulers included. Tensions between the new legal thought and the local adat needed to be resolved as well, and to a large extent harmonization had been achieved. When Islam spread to the other islands in the Archipelago and new centers of Muslim power were established, this phase of Islamization repeated itself to varying degrees of fervor and success.

A civilization is not complete until the cosmos, the arts and the sciences, and literature have also been cultivated in the light of its world-view, epistemology and value-system heralding the birth of a new intellectual tradition. Thus we have the later phase of Islamization that was to be domi-nated by the Sufis. They were mainly the ones who had undertaken the task of resolving the conceptual overlappings and confusions between the old and new ideas such as pertaining to cosmological and eschatological beliefs. The pre-Islamic Malay cosmos seen mainly through the prism of an Olympian Greek-type mythology in its decadent stage was gradually Islamized. Thanks to the metaphysical doctrines and a profound spiritual knowledge in their possession, the Sufis were intellectually and spiritually well equipped to deal effectively with the problems posed by pre-Islamic Malay mysticism. As was generally true of Sufism in the rest of the Muslim world during the period of Muslim history under consideration, the Malay Sufis also excelled in literature and dominated the cultivation of the tra-ditional arts and sciences. At the level of ideas, the center and the peak of the Malay-Islamic intellectual synthesis was the seventeenth century Aceh.

Tension and Harmony Between Ethnicity and Religiosity

Generally speaking, the traditional Malays under Islam had achieved considerable success in creating harmony between ethnicity and religiosity in practically every branch of civilization. Malay-Islamic civilization was very much a living reality with an identity that clearly distinguishes it from both the pre-Islamic Malay civilizational identity and other branches of the global Islamic civilization. It is an undeniable fact that tensions in one form or another have always existed between Malay ethnicity and Islamic religiosity during the past seven to eight centuries of their civilizational marriage. This is only to be expected since both ethnicity and religiosity have their demands and needs. However, it is to the credit of both the ethnic genius of the Malays and the spiritual genius of Islam that over the greater part of the civilizational domain, harmony has prevailed to this day.

Various factors may upset the delicate balance that a particular culture and civilization has attained between ethnicity and religiosity. Due to both external and internal factors, perceptions, understandings and appreciations of religiosity may change such as those brought about by new interpret-ations of the religion. In response to the various forces and phenomena that seem to challenge its civilizational identity, an ethnic-religious based culture may take various measures aimed at preserving and strengthening that identity. It is also possible that identity itself is thoroughly examined even to the point of unintentionally creating a civilizational crisis. In the modern period, we can see some of these factors at work such as the large-scale entry of Chinese and Indian immigrants to Malaysia under British colonial rule. It was under the perceived threat of this flooding of immigrants to the Malay-Islamic civilizational identity that the Malays sought a political protection through the Federal constitution upon the country's independence. The constitutional definition of Malay in Islamic terms needs to be understood in the light of the centuries old Malay-Islamic civilizational identity that is responding to the challenges of the modern world.

Bibliography references:

Reprinted by permission of the author.


1. The Qur'an, Chapter 49, Verse 13.

2. Syed Muhammad Naguib al-Attas, Preliminary Statement on a General Theory of the Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago (Kuala Lumpur, 1969).

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