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Southeast Asia, Islamic Dawah in


The introduction of Islam through da’wah, or mission work, in the Malay world or Southeast Asia is the subject of many questions regarding its actors, origin, location, timing, objectives, and means. However, most historians believe that this process occurred in three phases: the arrival of Muslims (seventh to tenth centuries), their process of settlement (eleventh to twelfth centuries), and the establishment of their Islamic states (thirteenth to twentieth centuries).

The da’wah of Islamic reformism, which took place in Mecca and Medina in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was transmitted to Southeast Asia during the same period. There, the courts became Muslim centers of learning. In the nineteenth century, the second half in particular, considerable changes occurred in the region. Traditional boarding schools gained strength as da’wah centers. In addition, Muslim circles were formed as more revivalist teachings arose. In the twentieth century, far-reaching da’wah organizations and institutions stretched across the region. New da’wah activities appeared, including so-called phenomenal preachers, some of whom, while not professionally trained, preached to large audiences. The impact of other factors should not be ignored, including the rise of scholars (dais), the dissemination of written works, and the use of mass media. These were the most influential da’wah factors in the process of the formation of Muslim community in the region.

This article analyzes da’wah in Southeast Asia (Dunia Islam Melayu, the Malay Islamic world), which includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand, the southern Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The da’wah process has evolved in different ways in these countries, with recent trends showing signs of radicalism. Research on da’wah in Southeast Asia has been limited, despite the tremendous activities of dais in the region.

Origin and Development in Southeast Asia.

From the beginning, the Muslim traders were followed by merchant guilds and Sufi ulama who wandered throughout the region and promoted Islam. Several da’wah centers opened. The sultanates of Samudra Pasai and Sulu (fourteenth century), Malacca (1400–1511), Aceh (1511–1650), and Johor-Riau (1650–1800) all encouraged education and da’wah in general and established Islamic institutions. Macassar and Banten served as a da’wah center in the seventeenth century. Three other centers of production of dais and religious works in Malay are Palembang, Banjarmasin, and Minangkabau. The latter was influential in Malaysia and Singapore. Pattani was one of the nineteenth-century Islamic centers. The Javanese accounts of da’wah mostly revolve around the Wali Songo, the “Nine Saints,” all non-Javanese except Sunan Kalijaga. The Islamization of Sulawesi seems to have been carried out by three ulama, the so-called datuk who probably came from Minangkabau.

The emergence of the Datuk ri Bandang, the Datuk ri Pattimang, and the Datuk ri Tiro Islamic reform movements, particularly at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, was initiated by the great number of Jawi students returning from their studies in Mecca, Medina, and Cairo, some of whom had been influenced by the teachings of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. These external factors had great consequences in the Malay world.

The Role of Da’wah in the Muslim Community in the Malay World.

Although the boundaries of each state have been those left behind by the European colonial governments, the imagined communities in the region were formed long before the Europeans’ occupation. For these reasons, the unification of the Malay world was achieved through the process of Islamization from the very beginning. It includes the growth of an Islamic civilization; the creation of a large cultural system of imagined communities that preceded it; the framework that Islam provided in terms of historical experience and myths; and the new identity that led to a pluralistic society created by the colonial governments. Thus, different ethnic groups within a large geographical area and a huge population came to combine their imagined communities into the Malay world.

Da’wah as a unifying force against colonizers.

One of the tenets of da’wah is to fight against oppressors. In the Malay world, the fight was carried out under four types of leadership: the royals, the aristocrats, the ulama, and the public. The issues of jihad flared up, anti-kafir movements spread, literary works highly critical of the oppressors appeared, the coming of the “Ratu Adil” (the Just King) was emphasized, and the importance of loving one’s country was emphasized. Court and the pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) became the centers of the movement.

The era of Muslim resistance to foreign penetration, a resistance led by the sultans, the nobles, ulama, and popular protest movements, ended with what the Dutch called “pacification” in the 1910s. The number of peasant revolts eventually became insignificant compared with the spread of the colonial government’s networks.

Da’wah in urban movements and the press.

The process of urbanization under the impact of bureaucratization, commercialization, and modernization generally encouraged the rural population to move into the cities from surrounding areas, as well as from remote areas and other islands of the region. This urbanization created new social networks different from those based on communitarian or communal ties such as those of locality, family, and tribe. Da’wah using the Malay language became important in order to knit these diverse elements together.

Middle-class dais emerged only after modern schools began to open in the early twentieth century. They enlightened the people in the region. Relations between Muslims in the cities and villages became easier with the development of communication technology. Transportation, telecommunications, mass media, and the various institutions played leading roles in increasing the people’s mobility and unity.

The press and the publishing industry were particularly important in da’wah. Because of them, communication was not restricted to face-to-face contacts, but could go beyond the boundaries of class, culture, and regionalism segmentations, as well as overcome these traps of segmentation. It increased the amount of information available and the intensity of communication, accelerated the circulation of ideas, and broadened the perception of the people. Most newspapers, including Pemberita Betawi, Sinar Jawa, and Oetoesan Hindia, used Malay as their medium. Malay had long been the lingua franca in the region and was therefore essentially neutral in ethnic terms. This was an important factor in the effort of da’wah for democratization and pluralization. Vertical, inter-group, and interethnic communications and da’wah were all facilitated. The traditional framework deteriorated and new concepts arose, along with corresponding changes in vocabulary.

The press expanded rapidly. In 1918, about forty newspapers were published, mostly in Malay; by 1925, there were about two hundred; by 1938, there were over four hundred dailies, weeklies, and monthlies. On the whole, the national movement and the native press could be seen as twin fields of Muslim activity that symbolically went together; organically, they were interdependent, and one could not exist without the other. Finally, the most important impact of the urban-based reform movements, along with its own press, was the setting up of organizations.

Preaching Islamic teaching.

Another basic role of da’wah in the Malay world is to teach Muslims the content of the Qur’an and the hadith. This process usually starts at home and in the community, sometimes in mosques, in a madrasah next to the mosque, or in teachers’ homes. Primary madrasahs near the mosques commonly offer afternoon classes. This system still holds in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, however, students have a choice as to where to study, either in a secular school or in a religious school, at all levels of education.

Da’wah in the Various Regions of Southeast Asia.

The spread of ulama writings, largely in the form of catechisms, seems to have been very high in the region for nearly four centuries. The spice trade was at least partly responsible for this dispersion. Although some Malay books on Islam were printed in Roman script, it appears that Malay was being printed in the Jawi script in Holland prior to 1677.

Batavia was the first, and for a long time the only, center of printing in the area. It came under the control of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) 1619. Prior to the twentieth century, and particularly in the nineteenth, a great number of Malay books on Islam were printed. From that time, printing presses began to appear in more remote corners of the region. In the east, presses were used in Ambon, Kupang, and Banjarmasin, while in the west, presses were active in many large cities, such as Batavia, Semarang, Bencoolen, Padang, Penang, Johor, Singapore, and Malacca. During the nineteenth century, Malay books (kitab) were printed in the Middle East, in Egypt, in Istanbul, and, after 1885, in Mecca. In Pattani, four thousand copies of the kitab Jawi (Jawi/Malay books) have been printed since the nineteenth century. Many of these works circulated throughout the Malay world (Indonesia, Sulu, Malaysia, Singapore, Patani, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Brunei).


Among the internal factors affecting the emergence of religious reform in Indonesia was the extension of religious school networks by graduates of those Islamic centers of study mentioned above. The early twentieth century saw the spread of Islamic associations, such as the Sarekat Islam (SI) in 1905–11, the Muhammadiyah in 1912 in Yogyakarta, and the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) in 1926. Pesantren remained strong in rural areas, social institutions and welfare networks were established, and Islamic da’wah went on. Jong Islamieten Bond (Islamic Youth Association) was also established in 1925, Islamic Students’ Association in 1947, Dewan Da’wah Islam Indonesia (Indonesian Islamic Call Council) in 1967, and Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals’ Association (ICMI) in 1990, all vehicles for da’wah.

Islamic higher education was also established at about this time, starting with State Islamic Higher Learning or Perguruan Tinggi Agama Islam Negeri (PTAIN) in 1950 and Official Academy of Religious Studies or Akademi Dinas Ilmu Agama (ADIA) in 1957. In 1960, both became State Institute of Islamic Studies or Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN), one in Jakarta and one in Yogyakarta. As each had its own branches in different provinces, these thirteen branches became independent IAINs: Bandung, Malang, Banda Aceh, Surabaya, Banjarmasin, Palembang, Serang, Makassar, Padang, Riau, and Jambi, in addition to Jakarta and Yogyakarta. Each of these IAINs later on again had its own branches. In 1999, these branches became the State College of Islamic Studies or Sekolah Tinggi Islam Negeri (STAIN). In 2001, six of these IAINs, Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Bandung, Malamng, Makassar, and Riau, became the State Islamic University or Universitas islam Negeri (UIN). These have been the centers of da’wah across the region.

Many graduates of madrasahs, pesantren, and other Islamic institutions also established informal education groups, called pengajian in mosques or majelis taklim in informal community centers or foundations. KKA (Klub Kajian Agama), BKMT (Badan Kontak Majelis Taklim), MTKB (Majelis Taklim Kaum Bapak), and MTKI (Majelis Taklim Kaum Ibu) are quite active.

The majelis taklim are unique not only in the teaching and learning processes they adopt, but also in their ability to mobilize, on a regular basis, a large part of the population in supporting causes they hold dear. In this respect, these groups have a widespread and penetrating impact on life in the region.

In the Malay world, almost every community has its own majelis taklim, in the mosques, in the foundation centers, or as home to home sessions—which are moving the sessions from one private home to another). In Indonesia, the earliest ones were Majelis Taklim Kuitang, as-Syafiiyah, and at-Tahiriyah. All three have majelis taklim for men and for women, attended by thousands each week. While these groups are mostly for internal da’wah (that is, among Muslims), Dewan Da’wah has concentrated on external (non-Muslim) da’wah in remote areas. To this more conventional approach to da’wah, Paramadina opposes a more modern way, attracting the upper middle classes in hotels, malls, cafés, and restaurants, with wide coverage by national TV stations. But the widest coverage is enjoyed by Daaruttauhid and Majelis Azzikra, attracting lower-middle-class men and women and moving from mosques to fields.


In Malaysia, da’wah activities are the work of politicians, youth associations, and students. Da’wah was used for gaining independence and establishing Muslim communities. They continued to employ the notion of jihad against foreign infidels (kafir). Traditional boarding schools were the centers of da’wah for independence. The United Malay National Organization (UMNO) was founded in 1946 as a political party. Another party, Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS: Islamic Party of Malaysia), was established in 1951 and attracted many religious leaders, including old and new groups. Partly as a result of da’wah activity, Malaysia gained its independence from the British in 1957. In addition to this political development, the 1960s marked the emergence of many Islamic organizations and movements for da’wah: Perkim (All-Malaya Muslim Welfare Organization) in 1960, National Muslim Student of Malaysia Organization (PKPIM) in 1961, the Islamic Welfare Body of Malaysia (Rahmaniah) in 1963, Nahdatul Islamic Union Movement in Sarawak (1968), United Sabah Islamic Association (USIA) in Sabah (1969), and Darul Arqam (1968). Although Jamaah Tabligh (Propagation Group) was introduced into Malaysia in 1952, it became significant only in 1969. The 1970s were a period of emergence of Islamic revivalism in Malaysia. The Islamic Youth Movement in Malaysia (ABIM) was founded in 1971. In 1982, Mahathir Mohammad, the third prime minister of Malaysia, declared an Islamization policy. While a Sufi order adopted a social da’wah movement, Darul al-Arqam involved itself in socioeconomic activities, although it later turned more political in its outlook, which led to its being banned in Malaysia. A more moderate approach to da’wah could be found in Rahmaniah, PKPIM, and ABIM. JIM (Reform Group of Malaysia) was founded in 1990. The year 2000 saw the emergence of popular dais, involved in healing and zikr (remembrance of God) activities. In addition an interactive da’wah—in which viewers can ask questions to speakers on TV showsbecame quite popular in both Malaysia and Indonesia.


The introduction of Islam into the Philippines dates back to at least the early fourteenth century (1310), as it lay along the maritime Silk Road, between the Arab, Indian, and Persian worlds on one side, and the Confucian world of Northeast Asia, particularly China, on the other. Da’wah started from the Sulu, Maguindanao, and Marawi areas. Since the 1990s, Filipino Muslims, as a religious minority in their country, have renewed their religious practices and have been rebuilding their communities and mosques. Life in a minority environment is a challenge, and thus da’wah activities extend to non-religious domains. Members include an active core of students and youths; university alumni working in the private or public sectors; and individuals working in non-professional capacities, as well as those with less formal education. Muslims in this country have established a close network with the rest of the Malay-speaking people in Southeast Asia. They share not only a culture but also a religion and some vocabulary.

Cambodia and Vietnam.

Da’wah in Cambodia and Vietnam, in the form of Islamic religious learning groups, has experienced tremendous challenges over the years. Muslims in both countries are members of a Malay ethnic group called Chams. They are descendants of the Muslims who lived in the Champa Kingdom, an area encompassing most of today’s Vietnam and part of Cambodia. The enjoyed strong cultural, political, and economic development until the fifteenth century. However, along with other religious groups, they fell victim to persecution under the Vietnamese kingdom in 1471, as a result of which they emigrated throughout the Malay world, including Cambodia. In the 1970s and the 1980s, the Chams were practically exterminated. Since the 1990s, however, along with other minorities, including Christians, the Chams have resumed their religious practices and are rebuilding their communities. In Vietnam, after the war (1972), the Chams concentrated their da’wah activities in Ho Chi Minh City and Chawduc.

As in the Philippines, participants in these da’wah activities include students, university graduates, and those with less formal education. These groups have established NGOs and hold regular formal discussions (their core activities) and periodic workshops on Islam and its social aspects, good governance, human rights, youth, family and community welfare, democracy, the relationship between minority and majority groups, and ethnic and religious tolerance. Together with other organizations (mostly Muslims), they engage in human development activities, including fundraising to support specific humanitarian causes in both countries and the channeling of almsgiving and charities.

The current Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, is very supportive of the activities of Muslims. Consequently, suspicion has subsided. The mufti (Kamaruddin Yusuf) is now working with the government, establishing mosques and dozens of other institutions, obtaining funding from philanthropists and business people, and attracting individuals and influential people both from within and outside Cambodia, as well as establishing and organizing NGOs for Muslims in Cambodia. In Vietnam, in the absence of a mufti, these activities are carried out by the Vietnamese Muslim Association (al-Jamiah al-Muslimin lil-Vietnamiyin), which has received considerable support from its government through da’wah for human development. Up till 2008, eighty-four mosques have been built in. In madrasahs next to mosques or within mosques, ulama and teachers preach Islam to male and female audiences after prayers. Special classes or sessions for primary and secondary students also teach about Islam in the afternoon. The teachers’ educational background is varied: they come from Malaysia, the Middle East, and the Indian sub-continent, Pakistan in particular.


Da’wah essentially means to enjoin what is good and to prohibit what is bad, but more specifically, it means to encourage Islam. In Southeast Asia, divided by the colonial powers, each country struggled for independence, using da’wah for brotherhood and solidarity. After independence, da’wah became an instrument for development and welfare. Religious learning groups emerged among the middle classes, attracting adult men and women, youths, students, and intellectuals. Today dais are not only teaching Islam, but are also working for democracy through civil organizations, business, and politics. They produce books and articles, and create both formal and informal educational institutions.

Islamic education systems include not only the traditional boarding schools and secular schools, but also informal education which is called pengajian or majelis taklim in Indonesia, or syarahan (comments), or bayan (explanation) in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia). Religious-study circles for men, women, youth, students, and children are organized on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis.


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