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Chularajmontri (Shaikh al-Islam) and Islamic Administrative Committees in Thailand

Imtiyaz Yusuf
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

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Chularajmontri (Shaikh al-Islam) and Islamic Administrative Committees in Thailand

The institution of shaikh al-Islam was established during the medieval period of Islam. Its purpose was to streamline the Islamic religious hierarchy, or ulama, within the state by appointing one expert in Islamic religious sciences as the religious head of the community.

The shaikh al-Islam functioned as the chief mufti—the head jurisconsult, an expert on Islamic law and an advisor on religious matters, both public and private, of import to the state. His advice carried moral authority, but was not legally binding upon the political authorities. The intention was to give a bureaucratic status to the religious leadership within the political structure of the evolving and expanding state.

History of the Office.

The first office of the shaikh al-Islam was established in Khurasan in the tenth century, and it was soon adopted in others part of the Islamic world: Anatolia (Turkey), Egypt, Syria, Safavid Iran, Central Asia, the Delhi Sultanate, and China. Between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries the office served different functions in different countries. The shaikh al-Islam was the chief jurisconsult in Ottoman Turkey, a judicial official of some sort in Safavid Iran, one who distributed gifts to the Sufis in India, and an examiner of the religious credentials of Islamic teachers in Central Asia and China.

Turkey abolished the office of the shaikh al-Islam in 1922. Today, the position continues to exist in different formats—in the form of a ministry, a council, or an individual—in the Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bosnia, and Tanzania, as well as in certain Muslim-minority countries, such as Thailand.

The Office of Chularajmontri/ Shaikh al-Islam in Thailand until 1945.

The office of the chularajmontri or shaikh al-Islam of Siam came into existence during the Ayutthaya dynasty (1351–1767), which had a substantial population of Shia Muslims who had migrated from Iran. They lived alongside Sunni Muslim immigrants from Champa, Indonesia, and India. The local Persian Shia merchants and scholars in Ayutthaya not only engaged in trade but also served as ministers at the court of Ayutthaya. They managed the Ayutthayan navy and maritime trade as part of their professional expertise. There was also an exchange of embassies between the Persian and the Ayutthaya courts. Other foreign communities in Ayutthaya included the Chinese and the Portuguese.

The first chularajmontri or shaikh al-Islam of Siam, appointed by the Ayutthaya king Phrachao Songtham (r. 1620–28), was the Persian Shia scholar Shaikh Ahmad Qomi (1543–1631). He was entrusted with the task of overseeing Muslim community affairs, and also served as the king’s minister of foreign trade.

The first thirteen chularajmontris of Thailand were Shia Muslims who were descendants of Shaikh Qomi. During this period and up until 1934, which marked the end of the last Shia chularajmontri, their jurisdiction did not extend to the independent southern Malay kingdoms. But with the incorporation of the Malay kingdom of Patani in 1906, Islam became the largest minority religion in Thailand; this created the problem of integrating the southern Malay Muslims into the Siamese (Thai) nation.

Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, but it continued to face new linguistic, ethnic, cultural, and religious problems relating to the Malay Muslim majority provinces of southern Thailand. In 1945 the Thai government passed the Patronage of Islam Act, which sought to form a link between the central political authority and the religious leaders of the Muslim community. The act created the Islamic Center of Thailand, headed by the chularajmontri or shaikh al-Islam, and also the Provincial Council for Islamic Affairs. The five chularajmontris who have served since then have been Sunni Muslims.

The modern Thai state ideology is centered around the notions of “chat, sassana, pramahakasat”—nation, religion (Buddhism), and the monarchy—with the expectation that all parts of the country are to be integrated into the Thai nation. Constitutionally, the Thai king is the patron of all religions. The Patronage of Islam Act gave the responsibility of integrating the Muslims living in the different regions of Thailand to the chularajmontri, along with the National Council of Islamic Affairs (NCIA) and the Provincial Councils for Islamic Affairs (PCIA).

In 1932 Thailand was transformed from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. The years since then have seen periods of participatory politics alternating with rule by military strongmen: Phibun Songkram (1938–44; 1948–57), Pridi Banomyong (1946–49), and Sarit Thanarat (1957–63). The entire era has been marked by efforts to centralize the country’s Islamic affairs.

The Patronage of Islam Act.

The Patronage of Islam Act of 1945 sought to break the political deadlock between the southern ulama—religious scholars—and the government. The southern Malay ulama were infuriated by the government of Phibun Songkram, who declared the national policy of rathaniyom—asserting the superiority of the Thai race and forced assimilation (“Thaiization”) of ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities. The policy allowed no space for cultural differences. The southern Malays were forbidden to wear Malay dress such as the sarong, to speak Yawi, the local Malay dialect, or to celebrate Muslim festivals. Even today, the majority of Muslims in the deep south speak Pattani-Malay or Yawi and are not fluent in Thai, the official national language.

The Malay Muslims of the south did not welcome the Thaiization policy, for it sought to remove their ethnic and cultural identity. This clash between the Siamese or Thai Buddhist and Malay Muslim ethno-religious identities continues to be at the root of the conflict in the deep south of Thailand. The rathaniyom policy further stirred the movement of southern Thai separatism.

The Patronage of Islam Act, while proclaiming the Thai king as patron of all religions, specifically recognized the presence of Islam in the country. The act stipulated that new institutions be established to mediate between the Muslim community and the government. One of these was the office of the chularajmontri, which was the equivalent of the shaikh al-Islam of the early Islamic empires. The incumbent would be considered the spiritual leader of all the Muslims of Thailand. He would advise the king and his government on ways in which to assist the Muslims and their religious activities. The chularajmontri would be “His Majesty’s personal aide fulfilling His royal duties in the patronage of Islam” (Article III). He was regarded as the counterpart of the sangharaja (Supreme Patriarch) of the Buddhist religious hierarchy.

The new chularajmontri was appointed to his office by the King of Thailand upon the recommendation of the Ministry of Interior. His term of office was for life and he could be removed only by the king. The first chularajmontri appointed under the act was Chaem Phromyong, a Muslim senator from Bangkok. He was nominated by the then prime minister Pridi Phanomyong (1946–47). Chaem’s appointment marked the end of the leadership of the Shia chularajmontris. Chaem Phromyong held office for two years. He was a close associate of Pridi, and he fled to China with Pridi when his government was overthrown by Phibun Songkram’s second military coup.

Developments since 1945.

The Royal Decree of 1948 was issued during Phibun Songkram’s second term in power (1948–57). The decree concerned the organization and administration of mosque committees. It lowered the status of the chularajmontri from advisor to the king to advisor to the Religious Department in the Ministry of Education (now in the Ministry of Culture, since the restructuring of the cabinet in 2002). The decree also stated that the chularajmontri would from now on be elected by the presidents of the Provincial Councils for Islamic Affairs and would hold office for life. The next two chularajmontris, Nai Tuan Suwannasat (1948–81) and Prasert Mahamad (1981–97), were elected under this procedure.

With the further democratization of Thailand in the 1990s there emerged a movement in the Thai parliament to reorganize the office of the chularajmontri along democratic lines. The 1992 Islamic Administrative Bill proposed that:

  • (1) the chularajmontri, the head of the National Council of Islamic Affairs, and the Provincial Council for Islamic Affairs, who had hitherto held their offices for life, from now on be elected to their posts for certain terms;
  • (2) the term of office for members of the National Council of Islamic Affairs and the Provincial Council for Islamic Affairs Committees be limited to six years, and that the chularajmontri retire at the age of seventy;
  • (3) an election process be introduced to select the members of the National Council of Islamic Affairs and the Provincial Councils for Islamic Affairs, leading to greater efficiency in the functioning of the official Islamic institutions in the country;
  • (4) the administrative structure of the National Council of Islamic Affairs, including the office of the chularajmontri, be reorganized.

The bill became law in 1997. Henceforth the chularajmontri would be elected by all the members of the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand (which replaced the National Council of Islamic Affairs) and the Provincial Islamic Committees (which replaced Provincial Councils for Islamic Affairs), and would hold office for life. The new law also stipulated that the chularajmontri would be a consultant to the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Education, and that his office would be under the Department of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Education. The chularajmontri in office at the time the bill was passed, Prasert Mahamad, died on 1 August 1997. The election for the new chularajmontri under the new law was held on 16 October 1997, with nine candidates. Sawad Sumalyasak, then eighty years old, was elected as the seventeenth chularajmontri of Thailand. He was confirmed in office by the king on 5 November 1997.

At present, the main functions of the chularajmontri are:

  • • To represent Thai Muslims at the national level;
  • • To provide notarial services;
  • • To issue fatawa (religious rulings);
  • • To regulate the administration of the registered mosques;
  • • To distribute subsidies and grants to the mosques;
  • • To publish Islamic religious literature;
  • • To announce the celebrations of Islamic festivals such as ‘Id al-Fitr, at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, and ‘Id al-Adha, at the end of the hajj pilgrimage;
  • • To organize the annual mawlid celebrations marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad;
  • • To coordinate the travel arrangements for the annual hajj pilgrimage;
  • • To grant formal religious certification of halal for the food items produced by Thai food industries; this function is now managed by the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand.

The southern Thai Muslims have always looked upon the chularajmontri, as an official of the Thai state, with a certain amount of suspicion. During the tenure of Chaem Phromyong, they regarded their local religious scholar, Haji Sulong bin Abdul Kadir bin Muhammad al-Fatani (d. 1954), educated in Mecca, as their de facto shaikh al-Islam. Haji Sulong had been influenced by the philosophy of Islamic reformism in the Middle East associated with Jamaluddin al-Afghani (1839–97), Muhammad Abduh (1825–1905), and Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703–92). He believed in the philosophy of political cooperation without cultural interference. Upon returning to Pattani from Mecca in 1930, Haji Sulong undertook the reform of the Malay Muslim community. He represented Malay Muslim interests by seeking political autonomy within a federal system as proposed by the then Thai prime minister Pridi Phanomyong.

In 1947, Haji Sulong made seven demands of the central government. These demands centered on the issues of political freedom for the Malays, the preservation of the Malay language, and enforcement of Islamic law. Haji Sulong served as the chairman of the Provincial Council of Islamic Affairs of Pattani, but never became the chularajmontri of Thailand. (The last four chularajmontris since the introduction of Islamic Patronage Act of 1945 have all been from Bangkok and its neighboring provinces and not the deep South were the Muslims make up the majority population.) Since his death in 1954 under mysterious circumstances, Haji Sulong has become a symbol of Malay Muslim resistance to the Thai state.

Although the chularajmontri is respected by Muslims in parts of the country other than the deep south, the southern Malay Muslims see him as an agent of the Thai state who does not have their interests at heart. For example, he was not welcomed in Pattani in December 1975 when there were demonstrations against the government. They believe he is too strongly influenced by the Thai government. Hence, the southern Muslims prefer to seek advice from the local Malay religious scholars, such as the tok guru (owner of the local pondok or madrasa) and ustaz (religious teachers) of their own community. The tok guru and ustaz receive their education in local pondok (Malay religious schools), and some of them have obtained higher Islamic education in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, or Indonesia. They are seen as authorities in religious and social matters, and are better respected by the southern communities.

The seventeeth chularajmontri of Thailand, Sawad Sumalyasak, died of old age at the age of ninety-three on 24 March 2010. Elections for the new chularajmontri were held on 16 May 2010. Aziz Phithakkumpol, age sixty-three, from the southern province of Songkla was elected as the eighteenth chularajmontri. Three candidates stood for the post, and 740 members representing the thirty-eight Provincial Islamic Committees cast votes. Phithakkumpol was confirmed in office by the king on 6 June 2010. He is the first chularajmontri from the upper south.


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