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Thailand, Salafiyyah in

Imtiyaz Yusuf
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Thailand, Salafiyyah in

The Salafiyyah movement refers to a reformist and renewal movement in Islamic history, and emphasizes a return to a puritanical interpretation of Islam and its doctrines on the basis of the Qur’an and sunnah. It calls for the emulation of the religious practice of the first three centuries of Islam, known as the age of the salaf—the pious ancestors. The Salafiyyah movement is critical of later developments in Islamic history such as kalam (theology), ta’wil (subjective or esoteric interpretation), Sufism (mysticism), and Islamic syncretism, the result of mixing Islam with existing local practices.

The first generation of the Salafiyyah movement is associated with Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (780–855), Abdul Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 1111), Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328), Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyah (d. 1350), and Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab (d. 1792), all of whom insisted on religious puritanism. The rise of Salafiyyah in the modern period is associated with reformist intellectuals such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani (1839–97), Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), and Rashid Rida (1865–1935) in Egypt and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817–98) in India, all of whom stressed the importance of social reform in Muslim societies in order to overcome taqlid (blind following of religious practices) and jumud (stagnation). They emphasized the compatibility of Islam and modernity.

The postcolonial Muslim world has witnessed the rise of three types of Salafiyyah. Salafiyyah Harakiyyah is a political Salafism associated with the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria and the al-Nour Party in Egypt. Salafiyyah Jihadiyya is jihadi Salafism of a radical type represented by al-Qaeda and the late Osama bin Laden, the now-defunct Algerian Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), Kashmir-Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Afghani and Pakistani Taliban. Ad-Da’wa al-Salafiyyah (Da’wa Salafism) is devoted to puritanical religious reform inspired by the Wahhabiyyah of Saudi Arabia; it is peaceful and oriented toward internal reform and mission within the Muslim community.

Salafi thought arrived in Southeast Asia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in two ways: by Southeast Asian Muslim students returning from educational institutions in Egypt and Mecca, and by journals such as al-Manar, published in Egypt, and al-Imam and al-Munir, published locally.

The Salafi reformism found in Thailand is of the ad-Da’wa al-Salafiyyah type. It arrived in the upper south and the northern parts of Thailand from Indonesia, India, and Saudi Arabia, and in the deep south from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. Because of these mixed origins, Salafiyyah in Thailand is referred to in this article as the Salafi-Wahhabi movement.

Types of Islam in Thailand.

Islam in Thailand exists in three configurations defined by history and location:

  • 1. An ethnicized, Malay-speaking Islam is practiced in the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala in the deep south. These southern Muslims make up about 44 percent of the total Thai Muslim population (which is between five and seven million).
  • 2. An integrated, ethnically Malay but Thai-speaking Islam is practiced in the provinces of Satun and in the upper south in Krabi, Nakorn Si Thammarat, Phangnga, Phuket, and Songkla.
  • 3. A multiethnic, Thai-speaking, culturally integrated Islam exists in the central Thai provinces of Bangkok and Ayudhaya and in north and northeast Thailand. This group comprises Muslims of Bengali, Cham, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Malay, Pathan, and Persian ethnic backgrounds. These migrant Muslims from other countries settled in Thailand for economic and political reasons, such as fleeing religious persecution at the hands of the communists in China and the nationalists in Burma. There are also a few Thai converts to Islam, either through marriage or personal conviction.

The first type of Islam has been largely resistant to integration within the Thai polity, while the second and third have been integrative.

Salafiyyah-Wahhabiyyah in Thailand.

Historically, Islam in Thailand has been of the syncretistic type, displaying the intermingling of local practices with normative Islam. It was tolerant of local Thai social and political customs as long as these practices did not contradict Islamic monotheism. This has changed gradually over recent decades, however, as Thai Islam came under the influence of puritanical theological trends from the Muslim heartland of Arabia.

Since the 1920s, Islam in Thailand has acquired two different faces, traditionalist and reformist. Traditionalist Islam, or khana kau, is syncretist in orientation and reflects a Thai Muslim identity that is more fully integrated into the larger Thai society. Reformist Islam, or khana mai, tends toward Salafi-Wahhabi puritanism, rejecting the locally based, syncretic rituals and ceremonies.

The Salafi-oriented religious resurgence movements emerged in both the integrated regions and the deep south of Thailand. They are directed toward transforming the local communities into holy communities; that is, giving them a religious identity rather than merely a social one. In this way, they contribute to the invention or development of a simpler, reified version of Islam. This is easier to do in the context of a religious minority, as in Thailand, where simpler, easy-to-grasp interpretations are readily adopted by a minority seeking a common identity. Where a religion is in the majority, it becomes more susceptible to multiple interpretations.

Muslim religious resurgence in Thailand is also a response to a perceived threat to religion in the increasingly complex Thai society. It seeks to protect and reinforce Islam’s message and identity in the face of globalization, materialism, and the reduced role of religion in moral, social, and public affairs.

Salafi/Wahhabi Reformism among the Thai-speaking Muslims of Thailand.

The first prominent Salafi-Wahhabi scholar and preacher to emerge from the Thai-speaking Muslim population was Hamza Yupensuk (1917–89) of Bangkok. While studying in Mecca, Hamza was influenced by the thinking of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab. When he returned to Thailand, Hamza began preaching Salafism, with emphasis on the Qur’an and sunnah. At the time, Thai Muslims practiced a syncretist Islam that was a mixture of Buddhist, Thai animist, and Islamic beliefs and practices, including agrarian rituals, funeral rites, and phii spirits. Hamza sought to reform his community by bringing it into line with the teachings and practices of the Qur’an and sunnah as interpreted by the Salafi-Wahhabi school in Saudi Arabia. There was much local opposition to this project, and he was labeled a khana mai or Wahhabi in a pejorative sense. Hamzah eventually joined forces with another Thai reformist, Ismail Ahmad, who had studied in India (and who is discussed in more detail below). This led to the merging of the Meccan and Indian schools of reformist thought. Both schools stress the Qur’an and sunnah as the main sources of Islamic belief, ritual, and practice.

Ismail Ahmad (1918–82), a native of South Phatthalung province, studied at the Nadwatul Ulama in Lucknow, India. Upon his return to Thailand, he established a religious school called Madrasah Ansar al-Sunnah (Sasanu Upatham, or “Helpers of Religion,” in Thai) in his native district in 1948. Ismail Ahmad was a scholar of Quran and hadith. He sent several young Thai students to study at Nadwatul Ulama between 1961 and 1969, including his future son-in-law, Mustafa Yupensuk, the son of Hamzah Yupensuk. Mustafa in turn sent several others students to Nadwatul Ulama.

As the Thai Muslim ulama in southern Thailand came under the supervision of the Thai government because of the political activities of Haji Sulong (1895–1952) of Pattani in the deep south, Ismail Ahmad became concerned for his safety and moved to the Prakhanong district of Bangkok. He established the second branch of Madrasah Ansar al-Sunnah in Prakhanong in 1958. The madrasah did not flourish, and it died after five or six years. Thereafter Ismail Ahmad continued his work as a preacher by moving to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand in 1964. He resided there for two years, preaching Salafi-Wahhabi dawah (mission activity). He returned to Bangkok in 1966 or 1967, where he continued the Salafi mission. In 1967, Ismail Ahmad became the first Thai president of the first Thai Salafi-Wahhabi organization, Jamiyatul Islam, serving from 1975 to 1981. Jamiyatul Islam was first formed by Pakistani migrants to Thailand, modeled on the reform agenda of Jamaat e Islami in Pakistan. As Jamiyatul Islam opened itself to Thai Muslims, it started playing a important role in the religious resurgence, promoting Salafi-Wahhabi theology and laying the groundwork for the formation of the khana mai Muslim community in the central, northern, and upper-south parts of Thailand. It used the modern media of radio and publications to spread its reformist message among both Thai Muslims and the general public. It founded the Young Muslim Association of Thailand (YMAT) in 1964. Ismail Ahmad passed away in 1981. The subsequent presidents of Jamiyatul Islam have been Direk Kulsiriswad (1981–95), Narong Songwira (1995–2003), and Mustafa Yupensuk (2003–2008). The current president is Shaikh Rida Ahmad Samadi (Thai name: Pramote Samadi), a sharia graduate of al-Azhar with a graduate degree in comparative religion from the University of al-Karaouine (al-Qarawiyyin) in Fez, Morocco. The election of Shaikh Rida marked a change in Jamiyatul Islam’s methodology; he favors a more aggressive and politically oriented approach than his predecessors.

The second president of Jamiyatul Islam, the late Direk Kulsirisawad (1923–2005), was a successful businessman. Fluent in classical and literary Thai, Arabic, Urdu, and English, he made a literary contribution to Salafi-Wahhabi dawah by producing original books and translations in the Thai language. They included a four-volume Thai translation of the Qur’an in 1966, a Thai translation of Hadith al-Bukhari in 1977, and several tracts on religious topics. He was the most prominent Thai Muslim scholar and intellectual leader of reformist Islam in Thailand between the 1950s and the early years of the twenty-first century. Direk was an intellectual modernist and rationalist, but also a Salafi. He held that Adam was not the first human created by God, and denied miracles such as the virgin birth of Jesus and Moses’s parting of the Red Sea.

In 1982, Hamza Yupensuk, his son Mustafa Yupensuk, Haji Shamshuddin Ngopaiwan, Abdullah Ngopaiwan, Direk Kulsiriswad, and Ariffin Oraphan revived the Madarasah Ansar al-Sunnah in Bangkok. The Ngopaiwan brothers donated the land for the school. Mustafa was appointed as the principal and Hamza as the manager. Mustafa Yupensuk continues to serve as the director. He also engages in preaching through radio, television, and public speaking in Thailand, continuing the Salafi-Wahhabi dawah.

Another important Salafi-Wahhabi personality in Thailand was an Indonesian exile, Ahmad Wahab, who arrived in Bangkok in 1926. He was a reformist Muslim who had studied in Mecca. Upon his return to Indonesia he was exiled to Thailand by the Dutch authorities because of his involvement with the reformist Muhammadiyah movement and its associated political movement, Sarekat Islam. In Bangkok, Ahmad Wahab first worked as a caretaker of a mosque in the Yannawa district of Bangkok, which was populated by Indonesian migrants. Initially, he kept a low profile, but he soon started tutoring the imam of a local mosque in delivering the Friday khutbah (sermon) in the sunnah style. This revealed his status as an alim, or Islamic scholar. He was soon joined by like-minded Thai Muslim reformists such as Hamza Yupensuk, Ismail Ahmad, and Direk Kulsiriswad. They all contributed to the formation of the Madrasah Ansar al-Sunnah and Jamiyatul Islam. The influence of Ahmad Wahab’s reformist activities extended to the north and south of Thailand, among the Thai-speaking Muslims of Chiang Mai and Chiangrai in the north, Pak Prayoon in Phatthalung province, and Nakorn Sithammarat in the upper south.

On the political front, Thai-speaking Muslim reformists generally favor political integration within the Thai Buddhist polity in the spirit of “live and let live.”

Salafi-Wahhabi Reformism among the Malay-speaking Muslims of Deep Southern Thailand.

The province of Pattani has a special place in Southeast Asian Islamic history. Apart from its commercial importance in the past, Pattani has also been a seat of Islamic learning famous for its scholars and pondoks (Islamic schools).

The Malay Islam of the deep southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat expresses itself in the form of Malay ethnic, religious, and cultural identity. This has taken the form of armed insurgency, inspired by the historical memory of the annexation of the Patani kingdom by Thailand in 1902.

The insurgency, or Malay irredentism, has three aspects: (1) an ideology of Malay Muslim nationalism; (2) ethnic resistance, by means of Islamic education, to a national educational policy that is aimed at transforming the identity of Malay Muslims; (3) religion-based resistance, which in turn takes two forms. One is the support of Malay Shafi‘i Islam as a religious identity. The other is a Salafi-Wahhabi reformism that seeks to resolve the ongoing conflict through dialogue and negotiation.

The Salafi-Wahhabi reform in southern Thailand is educational as well as religious. It uses Islamic education to develop the Malay population, with the intention of preparing them to manage their local affairs.

The first appearance of Islamic reformist ideas in southern Thailand is associated with Haji Sulong, who was a Malay Muslim reformist and political activist educated in Mecca. Sulong can be categorized as a religious and social reformist within the frame of Malay Shafi‘i Islam. He was not a Salafi-Wahhabi. His work led to the division of the Malay Muslim community between the kaum tua (traditionalists) and kaum muda (reformists), causing cultural dislocations within the community.

After Haji Sulong, the next important southern Thai reformist was Abdullah Chinarong, also called Abdullah India, a graduate of the Nadwatul Ulama seminary in Lucknow, India. Abdullah Chinarong represented the kaum muda tradition and preached actively in the 1970s. He also founded a school named Rongrian Islam Prasanwit. His influence did not last long, however, because he approved of modernist practices such as watching television, which were seen as lax by the locals. Thus his reformist activity had a limited impact.

The Salafi-Wahhabi strain of Islam affected southern Thailand in the 1970s and 1980s when students from southern Thailand studied in Saudi Arabian universities. When they returned to Thailand, they initiated projects with the aim of establishing a pure Islamic society through religious proselytism and activism. Their goal is to eradicate bidah (innovation) by steering the local Muslim communities toward a stricter adherence to the Quran and sunnah as interpreted by the Saudi Arabian school of Wahhabi theology. Local Salafi-Wahhabi reformers, such as Dr. Ismail Lutfi Japakiya, have undertaken the puritan reformation of the Malay Muslim community in the south through dawah—proselytism and promotion of Islamic education based on puritan theology. His Yala Islamic University is supported by sponsors in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar.

The Salafi-Wahhabi religious reformism led by Lutfi is politically nonviolent. Lutfi encourages the use of peaceful means to resolve the armed ethno-religious conflict in southern Thailand. The Thai government has sought his help in finding a religious solution, although the problem is essentially political. He emphasizes the need for the Thai state to recognize the distinct Malay-Islamic identity of the southern Muslim population. Lutfi’s stand differs from that of other religious ustaz (teachers) and their educational institutions, such as pondoks and Islamic private schools, who are inspired by Malay nationalism and religious militancy.

Salafi-Wahhabi Islam has caused a division within the Malay community between Salafi-Wahhabi Islam and Malay Shafi‘i Islam, which is a synthesis of normative Islam and Malay practices, some of which contradict the strictly monotheistic Islamic theology. The Salafi insistence on abandoning the Malay practices has created cultural dislocation.

The majority of southern Malay Muslims are attached to Malay Islam, which is tied to the Shafi‘i school of Islamic law, and prefer to avoid Wahhabi puritanism. In their view, there is a historical compatibility between Shafi‘i Islam and Malay identity, for both of these have served the purpose of protecting the ethnic, religious, and social aspects of Malay culture from being swept away by Thai Buddhism. The connection between agama (religion) and kaum (ethnic group) is thus a crucial one. The religious debates pit the local traditional combination of Islamic theology and Malay customs against the “pure” Islam of the Salafi-Wahhabis.

Currently, the traditionalists remain in the majority. It is they who still shape the character of Malay ethno-religious resistance to Thai political and cultural domination. Yet the popularity of Lutfi’s Salafi-Wahhabi reformist movement is on the increase, and the outcome is still uncertain.


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