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Southeast Asia, Islam and Buddhism in

Imtiyaz Yusuf
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Southeast Asia, Islam and Buddhism in

Islam and Buddhism have engaged in a religious interchange in the course of their encounters in Central, South, and Southeast Asia. Islam and Buddhism first met in Sind and Central Asia during the seventh and eighth centuries, respectively. Their early encounters were followed, in some instances, by conversion of Buddhists to Islam. Yet there are also regions where Buddhism and Islam have continued to exist side by side for long periods, as has happened in India and in Southeast Asia.

The first encounter between Islam and the Buddhist community took place in the middle of the seventh century in East Persia, Transoxiana, Afghanistan, and Sind. Historical evidence indicates that the early Muslims extended the Qur’anic category of ahl al-kitab (People of the Book or revealed religion) to Hindus and Buddhists.

South Asia also witnessed a violent meeting between Islam and Buddhism when Turkic warriors destroyed Buddhist universities and temples of Nalanda and Vikramshila in India in 1202. This event is etched in Buddhist history and memory as the main cause behind the demise of Buddhism in India. The encounter is contained in the Buddhist narrative of Kalachakra Tantra literature, which tells of killing the Muslims and preserving the dharma—teachings of the Buddha. Kalachakra Tantra continues to shape the Buddhist view of Islam and Muslims.

Buddha and Muhammad: The Prophetic Dimension.

From a Muslim perspective of the history of religions, God has from time immemorial raised up prophets among all nations, only some of whom are mentioned by name in the Qur’an. The Qur’an mentions twenty-five prophets, including Muhammad, and all of them belong to the Semitic religious tradition.

However, in the light of the Qur’an’s non-ambiguity that prophethood is a universal phenomenon, some Muslim scholars view the founders of Asian religions as prophets:

"And indeed, [O Muhammad], We have sent forth apostles before your time; some of them We have mentioned to thee, and some of them We have not mentioned to thee. (Qur’an 40:78; see also 4:164)"

The classical Muslim scholar of comparative religion, Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Karim al-Shahrastani (1086–1153), shows high regard for Buddhism and its richness in spirituality in the section entitled “Ara’ al-Hind” (The Views of the Indians) in his magnum opus, Kitab al-milal wa ’l-nihal (Book of Religious and Philosophical Sects). He identifies the Buddha with the Qur’anic figure of al-Khidr as a seeker of enlightenment.

More recently, the late Professor Muhammad Hamidullah (d. 2002) held that the Buddha was a prophet. He refers to the mention of the fig tree in the Qur’an 95:1. This, says Hamidullah, according to several old and new commentators of the Qur’an, may refer to the bodhi tree of the revelation of Buddha, and his birthplace, Kapila-Vastu, is supposed to have given the name of the prophet Dhu’l-Kifl. Since the Buddha attained nirvana (enlightenment) under a wild fig tree (ficus religiosa)—and as that fig tree does not figure prominently in the life of any of the prophets mentioned in the Qur’an—Hamidullah concludes that the Qur’anic verse refers to Gautama Buddha.

Buddhism and Islam in Southeast Asia.

Trade between India, Southeast Asia, and China led to the spread of Mahayana Buddhism in the maritime regions of Sumatra, the Malay peninsula, West Kalimantan, and Vietnam from the seventh century onward. Theravada Buddhism was established in Southeast Asia beginning in the eleventh century in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. In fact, Buddhism and Hinduism coexisted along with indigenous animist religions. Islam put down its roots in Southeast Asia during the fifteenth century. Initially, Islam came to Southeast Asia from Gujarat in India and from China. Even today, in spite of the current Islamic puritanical trends, Muslims and Buddhists in the region share many cross-cultural practices that do not clash with normative Islam. The Muslims who first brought Islam to Indonesia and then to Malaysia and southern Thailand between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries were largely Sufi mystics. The Islam that was introduced in this region had a conspicuously mystical orientation that had been largely shaped by the Persian and Indian traditions of Sufism. In religious terms, it was a meeting between the Hindu view of moksha (liberation) through the Hindu notion of monism, the Buddhist notion of nirvana (enlightenment) through the realization of sunyata (emptiness), and the Islamic concept of fana’ (the passing away of one’s identity by its merging into the Universal Being) as expounded in the monotheistic pantheism of the Sufis. Gradually there emerged a hybrid syncretic culture, particularly in Java and other parts of Southeast Asia, giving rise to a version of Islam that was mystical, fluid, and soft, one that nurtured a spiritualism peculiar to the region.

Southeast Asian societies have followed a common pattern of religious conversion. Before the coming of Islam, the conversion of the king to Hinduism or Buddhism was followed by the conversion of his community. Similarly, the conversion of a rajah to Islam was followed by that of his community. Since the meeting of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism in Southeast Asia was essentially a meeting of religious mysticisms, many Buddhist concepts acquired Islamic names. For example, rajahs adopted the title of “sultan” upon conversion, and belief in forest spirits became belief in jinns.

In terms of interreligious dialogue, the interchange between worldviews of Islam and Buddhism involves cross-cultural exchange between what is referred to as دين (deen) in Arabic, agama in Bahasa Indonesian-Malay and, शासना (sāsana) in Sanskrit and Pali. All of these terms refer to religion as a way of life, and all of them had local shades of meaning. Thus the interchange between Islam and Buddhism is not a simple two-way interaction between reified views of these two religions, but also involves their regional diversities.

Today Islam and Buddhism coexist in both majority and minority relations in Southeast Asia. In Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, Theravada Buddhism is the majority religion with Muslims as a minority. In Singapore and Vietnam, Islam coexists with Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions. In Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, Islam is the majority religion with Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism as minority traditions. The Buddhists in Southeast Asian Muslim countries are either locals, as in Indonesia, or immigrants, like the Thais in Malaysia and the Chinese everywhere.

From Bodhisattva Rajas to al-Insan al-Kamil Sultans: The Political-Religious Dimension of an Interchange between Buddhist and Muslim Concepts.

The sociopolitical and religious interchange between Islam and Buddhism is evident in the adoption of Islamic politico-religious titles by the rajas who converted to Islam.

Upon their arrival in Southeast Asia, the Muslims encountered the parallel presence of Hinduism and Buddhism, manifested in the worship of both Shiva and Buddha. The religion was composed of a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist religious doctrines and concepts. Both of these religions were seen as different but equal paths for attaining moksha and nirvana—liberation and enlightenment.

The Sufi propagators of Islam offered the ideal of al-insan al-kamil—the perfect human being—as an alternative Muslim concept to the Hindu-Buddhist Bodhisattva rajas. The Buddhist concept of Bodhisattva was employed by the Hindu-Buddhist rajas of Southeast Asia to identity themselves with the idealized personage of Buddha. Hence, the concept of al-insan al-kamil served as a medium for interreligious dialogue and conversion between Hindu-Buddhist syncretic religion and Islam. Indonesian and Malay kings appropriated the title of al-insan al-kamil upon conversion in order to legitimize their royal positions politically and religiously. The Hindu and Buddhist kings of Java, Sumatra, and Celebes, who had previously presented themselves as dev rajas (incarnations of Shiva) or dhammarajas (kings of Buddhist law), also adopted titles such as al-insan al-kamil or Arabic-Persian royal titles such as sultan, shah, or zillullah fil alam (God’s Shadow on Earth). The Sufi pantheistic poet Hamza Funsuri spoke of the sultan of Aceh in one of his poems as “one of Allah’s elect.” The Hindu kings of Patani were particularly interested in the Sufi doctrine of the al-insan al-kamil, and upon conversion to Islam used it as a way to hold together their complicated socio-cultural structures. The sultans of Patani claimed that they were al-insan al-kamil—one with God and blessed by Him. Hence, the new Islamic concept of al-insan al-kamil fitted well with their previous beliefs. In this way, the Muslim sultans of Southeast Asia sought to represent themselves as saints worthy of emulation, just as they had previously, leading to the conversion of their communities to Islam.

Sufi practices of asceticism, penitence, and meditation were seen as the means of attaining union with God. This fitted well with the goals of Hinduism and Buddhism of seeking union with Brahman or nirvana.

Soon there also appeared Malay Sufi interpretations of the concept of al-insan al-kamil that came to be associated with the idea of martabat tujuh—the idea of seven grades for attaining the state of al-insan al-kamil, which was the highest of the seven. This concept is attributed to Muhammad Fadl Allah al-Burhanpuri (d. 1590) and also to Southeast Asian wujudis—pantheists such as Hamzah al-Fansuri (d. 1599) and his disciple Shams al-Din al-Sumatrani (d. 1630).

The sultans also came to be seen as endowed with special powers capable of performing karamat (miracles) and also possessing berkah—spiritual gifts that they could pass on to others during their lifetime or after death. Such notions were not far from those of local Hinduism and Buddhism.

Thus the history of religions in Southeast Asia illustrates that the two mystically-oriented concepts of the al-insan al-kamil and the Bodhisattva became the ground for dialogue between Islam and Hinduism-Buddhism. During the Islamic phase of Southeast Asian history the concept of al-insan al-kamil replaced that of the Bodhisattva at the religious, political, and social levels, leading to the formation of interreligious communities marked by the moral value of religious tolerance. As a result of this phenomenon, the mystical dimension of Islam and the tolerant aspect of Buddhism played a significant role in forming the character of religious coexistence in Southeast Asia.

Thus the encounter between Islam and Hindu-Buddhist civilization that took place in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand was a sort of dialogue between a monotheistic and pantheistic form of Islam and the monistic and non-theistic religious traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Contemporary State of Relations between Islam and Buddhism.

Today Islam continues to coexist with Hinduism and Buddhism in Southeast Asia. The state of this relationship is varied and diverse, a fact that can be appreciated in the context of the regional and local histories of the various countries of the region.

The most devastating blow to Muslim–Buddhist relations in modern times was the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statue in Afghanistan in March 2001. It has left Buddhists with a lasting negative impression of Islam and Muslims, though this is not expressed publicly in Buddhist countries.

Muslim–Buddhist dialogue is largely marginal; the two religions coexist rather than entering into dialogue. There are few scholars committed to the study of Islam and Buddhism. The majority of them focus on history and historical relations, very few on the doctrinal and socio-political aspects of their relationship.

Muslim-Buddhist relations have both positive and negative aspects. The relationship between these two religious communities is largely one of mutual tolerance and peace. Yet there are still areas of conflict, such as the ongoing ethnic-religious conflict in southern Thailand and the discrimination and expulsion of the Arakanese Muslims from Myanmar. Similarly, Buddhist populations in Indonesia and Malaysia seek freedom of religion and protection from ethnic and religious discrimination.


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