Ambiguity and its “Enemies” in Southeast Asian Islamic Societies
Part 1Session 1
Wed 11:00-12:30 Room 3.07
Part 2Session 2
Wed 14:00-15:30 Room 3.07
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A Culture of Ambiguity? Recontextualizing Islam in Java
Martin Slama Austrian Academy of Sciences
In his book A Culture of Ambiguity Thomas Bauer (2021) introduces an “alternative” reading of Islamic history as being characterized by long periods in which ambiguous positions about Islamic doctrine and practice were largely tolerated or even explicitly welcome. Bauer sees Islamic history profoundly informed by such a culture of ambiguity that is defined by a high degree of tolerance for different theological positions, but that was abandoned in the course of Islamic encounters with European modernity and colonialism. Bauer’s book, however, is concerned with an Islamic past and mainly considers occurrences in the Islamic empires of the Middle East, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. In contrast, this proposed paper reflects upon current developments in Islamic Southeast Asia and focuses on Indonesia’s island of Java that, according to classic literature, is home to “a culture” that holds “tolerance” in high esteem as a guiding principle of everyday life. Yet what is meant here with “tolerance” and in what way (or not) does it relate to (the appreciation of) ambiguity among Java’s predominantly Muslim population in the religious field? By asking such questions, the paper critically revisits the literature on “the tolerance of the Javanese” (Anderson 1965), their “relativism”, which is another term that is often used (Geertz 1960), and their putative inclination towards ambiguity. In particular, it examines those parts of the literature that present Islam as essentially being in contradiction with this “culture of tolerance”. According to this approach, ambiguity is not part of an Islamic culture, as Bauer proclaimed for some of the pre-modern Islamic centres of power, but it is the local other into which Islam as an unambiguous force intruded. It is the aim of this paper to complicate this picture without simply dismissing the classic literature as theoretically and empirically flawed or outdated. Instead, it looks for ambiguity in contemporary Islamic phenomena in Java as well as for intolerance in a supposedly local tradition of tolerance, and it examines how both can be interconnected and intertwined, making it increasingly difficult to tell apart “Java” and “Islam”. This, however, is not an exercise of pure deconstruction, but arrives at an attempt to recontextualize today’s un/ambiguities in Java’s Islamic communities by acknowledging their potentially multiple and entangled sources and traditions.
If one doesn’t believe, it’s an animal; if one does, it’s a saint’: Animals and Ambiguity in Modern Malay-Islamic Societies
Teren Sevea Harvard Divinity School
Believing involves mediating the Islamic multiverse and the multispecies nature of Islam. Many believers remain ambiguous about the realities of animals, flora, and spirits, while challenging the ‘enemies’ of ambiguity and their imaginings of Islam. Debates ensue in parts of Muslim Southeast Asia regarding the spiritual reality of animals and objects, and about the transmigration of spirits and the religious character of ‘non-Muslim’ spirits, animals, and objects. The Muslim communities that this paper introduces have actively contemplated on the form of animals, and simultaneously appreciated and challenged understandings of animal bodies and forms that could shift in physical lifetimes and beyond. A key concern is sanctity, and these devotional communities were and remain ambiguous about the sacredness of animals, while being divided over the question: can animals be saints or Friends of God? This question leads to further debate regarding the role of ambiguity in the implementation of Shari‘a, and the relationship of Shari‘a and Custom, in diverse Islamic contexts. This paper attempts to address these matters and more through a survey of Malay-Islamic traditions from the nineteenth century to the present. It pays attention to the accounts of believers who defend and oppose ambiguity in Malay Sufism, while proposing that there can be a fine line between the ‘proponents’ and ‘enemies’ of ambiguity.
Obedient Wives & Rebellious Citizens: Polygyny as a Battleground for Gender Equality and Islamic Orthodoxy
Nurul Huda Mohd. Razif Kyoto University
In 2011, one of Malaysia’s high-profile Islamist groups, Global Ikhwan, launched the Obedient Wives Club (Kelab Taat Suami, OWC) to encourage Muslim women to excel in the “wifely duties” they believe to be stipulated in Islam. These, according to them, include total and unequivocal obedience to the husband; allowing him to marry additional wives (for a husband’s insatiable sexual desires are never satisfied by just one); and treating him like a “first-class prostitute”. OWC’s provocative stance, and the subsequent publication of its sex guide called Seks Suci Islam (“Islamic Holy Sex”), antagonized both Muslim feminists in Malaysia fighting for more progressive and equal gender relations, and a Malaysian state intent on protecting its own version of “mainstream Islam”. In this paper, I explore polygyny as an ideological battleground between different factions claiming contradictory truths on gender equality and Islamic orthodoxy. I demonstrate that OWC’s pro-polygyny position serves to alienate them further from their female Muslim compatriots, for it not only risks dismantling Muslim feminists’ struggle against increasingly prevalent and negligent practices of polygyny and for more gender equality in society, but also defied cultural taboos on issues Malays are particularly sensitive to – sex and polygyny. OWC’s uncomfortable relationship with the Malaysian state furthermore reflects the ideological threat OWC and its parent group, Global Ikhwan, pose to the state’s exclusive authority and control over interpretations of Islam. This examination into the ideological ambivalences and ambiguities on polygyny in Malaysia today shows how the discursive arena on marriage, gender, and Islam may not always welcome alternative voices that challenge state monopoly over Islam, and the values and principles enshrined in the cultural code of Malay adat.
Regenerating Ambiguity: Inserting Salafism in a Cambodian sociocultural environment
Zoltan Pall Austrian Academy of Sciences
While classical Muslim scholars left a large room for ambiguity when interpreting the scripture, due to western influences various movements and schools of thought gained prominence in the Muslim world that intended to remove such ambiguities. They did that by projecting Islam as an all-encompassing system with often rigid and unambiguous rulings. Salafism became perhaps the most successful among these „enemies of ambiguity”.
‘And God Knows Best What Is Correct’: The Marvels of the Real in the Epic of Amir Hamza
Bernard Arps Leiden University
“The hero of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza is based on Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib” wrote the translator of the monumental Urdu epic, “[b]ut aside from the ancestral reference, there are no similarities between the Amir Hamza of this legend and the historic Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib” (Farooqi in Lakhnavi and Bilgrami 2007:909). My paper addresses this issue of historicity in the cultural setting of Java, where Hamza’s adventures, told in literary form since at least the 1500s, remain alive in dance and puppetry. Indications abound that the epic’s hero is considered to be the historical Hamza, uncle and contemporary of the Prophet. Yet it is equally clear that many elements of the epic were deemed fantastic. The marker of skepticism ‘and God knows best what is correct’ (wa-l-l?hu a‘lam bi-?-?aw?b) is found already in a Javanese Hamza manuscript from 1625 or earlier. Moreover the narrative proved itself open to apparently unfettered modification and expansion by later storytellers.
Referring to the final parts of the canonical Malay and Javanese texts, which recount Hamza’s conversion to Islam and death, I examine the interplay between historicity, realism, and fictionality. How does the evaluation of this interplay by patrons and audiences vary contextually and over time? Is this indicative of variation and change in societal Ambiguitätstoleranz (Bauer 2011)? How to characterize the core conceptual configuration of historicity-realism-fictionality that the Javanese Hamza epic continues to promote? How realistic must the truth appear, how fantastic can it be?
On Heteroglossic Ambiguity and Presence:
Ismail Fajrie Alatas New York University
Scholars working on Indonesia have classified a variety of Islamic discourse under the heading of Islamic reformism owing to their shared commitment to scripturalist and Sharia-minded visions of societal reform (islah) and renewal (tajdid). Muslim reformers are often portrayed as coherent, autonomous, and fully agentive (re)producers of unequivocal prescriptive discourses, and as enemies of ambiguity. They are frequently contrasted with the more ambiguous enunciative position of earlier mystics, saints, and prophetic poets (pujonggo) whose discourse interweaves and leaves unsettle multiple — often contradictory — voices, ontologies, and temporalities. These portrayals, I suggest, are built on the assumption of a direct correlation between the substantive content of a discourse and the subjectivity of its author. Consequently, there is a less developed discussion of the various enunciative modalities (Foucault 2002) in reformist discourses that can generate multiple ways of “being” a subject.
The Myth of Consistency: Sanctifying, Mediating and Resolving Legal Ambiguities
Jeremy Kingsley Swinburne University of Technology
The starting point of this paper is the emergence of modernity as it swept across European and Islamic thinking over the last three centuries. Modernity impacted legal and religious ideals by reifying positivist law and assumptions about the importance of legal certainty being paramount. This orientation was alien to many legal traditions, such as common law, which emphasised a developing body of law emerging from cases over time. Similarly, religious traditions, such as juristic Sufi-inspired practices, have its foundations in a continually developing body of religious commentary that accepts at its essence that intellectual flexibility and consistency are not being inherently contradictory. This dispute between ways of engaging with legal and religious thought has existed since Islam came to Southeast with the trade winds.
Commerce has always been integral to the foundations of religious activity and the communal institutions in Indonesia. But essential to commerce is a degree of consistency in the application of the legal rules and obligations that bind business relationships. But does this equate to a pre-eminence of modernist consistency? Flexibility can be pragmatic, or it can quickly become indeterminacy, obtuseness, and ambiguity. Law has always been able to accept these grey realities. Islamic religious leaders in Southeast Asia have been distinctly successful in accommodating consistency and allowing ambiguity when necessary. This paper asserts that this legal pragmatism, as applied by the religious leaders of Muslim traditionalist movement, Nahdlatul Ulama, underpins its political and economic strength in contemporary Indonesia. Over the last decade, I have been seeking to understand mercantile relationships in Indonesia. Studying legal intermediaries, whether ulama (Muslim religious leaders) or corporate lawyers in Jakarta, both attempt to bring efficacy to mercantile interactions. This paper will argue that the legal ecosystem that emerges from these legal intermediaries and their intercessions aren’t ones based on consistency but rather functionality.
Un-ambiguously Yours: Fostering Relatedness in Southeast Asia’s Islamization
Emiko Stock American University in Cairo
Foregrounding some Cham interpretations of Islamization’s histories as a starting point, this paper offers to rethink the ambiguous treatment of Islam in Southeast Asian studies. By focusing on traced, asserted, and documented genealogies, scholars often cast away mainland and female actors to the (passive, invisible, and legendary) margins of a grander regional and trans-regional history. Through the anthropological notion of relatedness, this presentation highlights the fragmented stories of queens’ unnamed sisters and saints’ foster parents left out of narratives for being in direct contradiction with what makes “history” and “Islam.” By following kins rather than bloodlines, silences rather than inscriptions, the workings of relations rather than the permanence of being related, I am brought to think along with two scholarly discussions: on the one hand, the call to recenter ambiguity (Bauer 2011) and contradictions (Ahmed 2015) to our attempts to define Islam, and on the other hand the development of a queer phenomenology that requires us to re-orient ourselves in theorizing the world (Ahmed 2006). I suggest that it is only in “getting caught up” (Favret-Saada 1980) in the relatedness of Southeast Asia’s Islamization that we can truthfully relate its history and relate to its history.
As recent work in the history of Islam has shown, Muslims have dealt and lived with ambiguity in various, often remarkable ways, in their religious lives (Ahmed 2016; Bauer 2021). These works show how Muslims often associate competing meanings with one and the same term, act, or object, draw on contrary discourses, and accept different interpretations of a phenomenon, all of which are entitled to equal validity. This panel seeks to expand this research interest to contemporary Southeast Asian Islamic societies. It explores how ambiguity – in its varied manifestations in Islamic rituals, Islamic law, ethics, and everyday practice – is not a thing of the past subdued by modernity, but a central component of and concern in Islamic life in the region that is often unrecognized and undertheorized. The panel invites papers that discuss phenomena of ambiguity in Southeast Asian Islamic societies today, whether publicly prominent or less salient. It seeks to understand how, where and by whom ambiguity is generated today, made sense of, and the responses it evokes. The panel is particularly interested in research that examines actors who encourage or defend ambiguity in open or subtle ways, and those who want to curb its myriad potentials and annihilate it, the latter assuming the role of “the enemies” of ambiguity. Considering ambiguity to be inseparable from more fixed and undisputed aspects of Islam and Muslim lives, the panel aims to contribute to a more nuanced analysis of Islamic societies in Southeast Asia that may get lost if the scholarly focus is mainly directed towards contemporary demands for and forms of (alleged) coherence and certainty.