Islam in Brunei Darussalam: Negotiating Islamic Revivalism and Religious Radicalism

By Mansurnoor, Iik Arifin | Islamic Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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Islam in Brunei Darussalam: Negotiating Islamic Revivalism and Religious Radicalism


Mansurnoor, Iik Arifin, Islamic Studies


Abstract

Bruneians have shown great earnestness in their adherence to Islam. Religious life in Brunei, however, is characterised by a marked degree of peace and harmony which is indicated by the absence of schismatic tensions. Moreover, the Bruneians' allegiance to Islam did not problematise their encounter with the religious others.

This paper attempts to study the phenomenon and seeks to explain it. While its fuller explanation requires a multi-dimensional analysis, the paper focuses on a careful examination of the religio-ideological factor and arrives at the conclusion that the characteristic Islamic orientation in Brunei-its inclusive approach, its accent on moderation, its ability to incorporate change without creating social convulsion, etc.-is largely because of the Bruneians' adherence to a well-established traditional Islamic school in which they are firmly rooted.

Introduction

The interesting feature of religious life in Brunei is its peace and harmony. The question is: what made such an achievement possible? As a social phenomenon, perhaps its definitive explanation is not easy. A historian can refer to some evidences and offer some explanations. Yet, it stands to reason that they must be grounded facts.

In some of my earlier writings on the relevance and persistence of certain interpretations of Islam in Brunei and Southeast Asia, I have argued that the long-established approaches in practicing Islam continue to enjoy popularity and loyalty.1 The consistent and firm endorsement of the ahl al-sunnah wa 'l- jamaeah approach (hereafter refered to as ahl al-sunnah approach) to Islam in its inclusive form has been the key to Brunei's resilience, forward-looking philosophy, and open policy. Brunei has also been fortunate to be spared terrorist convulsions. This is obviously due to a complex of factors. However, at the intellectual level, one of the factors contributing to it is the kind of Islamic understanding that this country has had almost all along.

How can we explain the factors underlying the success of Brunei in ensuring internal security from the perspective of religion and ideology? Policies relating to security and intelligence activities can be best studied by experts in that field. However, as far as I am concerned, I will focus on identifying the sources of Bruneian moderation in the application of Islamic teachings. Despite the importance of political and security measures in establishing and maintaining law and order it must be stressed that Brunei's characterestic orientation in the understanding and practice of Islam are of crucial importance.

In order to locate the maintenance and resilience of the ahl al-sunnah model in Brunei, it is necessary to trace the historical development of that model in the country. The major historical episodes or themes and religious networks such as radical revivalist trends and their impact, the spread of new religious interpretations and exchange of teachers and students will be especially examined. All these aspects are considered vital in Islamic globalization and thus the renewal of religious activism throughout the Muslim world and among Muslim minority communities. What is interesting in this regard is that a vigorous Islamic renewal has taken place in the country and yet there has been a resilient maintenance of its known religious characteristics and identity. After advancing this argument, the discussion will focus on the crucial and difficult period following the Asian economic crisis of 1997 and the 9/11 tragedy. What do these major events mean to Brunei's Islamic agenda? How could the country respond promptly and responsibly to the challenges of turbulent activism. Why did it remain immune from the terrorist networks despite its strategic location in the regional communication of Southeast Asia which did not remain altogether beyond the access of these terrorist networks?

Historical Background

Brunei Darussalam is the oldest uninterrupted Malay state.

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