Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Makings of Indonesian Islam: Orientalism and the Narration of a Sufi Past

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Makings of Indonesian Islam: Orientalism and the Narration of a Sufi Past

Article excerpt


The makings of Indonesian Islam: Orientalism and the narration of a Sufi Past


Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. Pp. 287 + xvii. Maps, Plates, Notes,

Bibliography, Index.

This book offers an original reflection on the factors that have contributed to the faces of Islam in Indonesia today. It is fascinating, and brilliant in the lines of argument and interplay of themes that it develops, and despite the liveliness, at times playfulness of style, is dense and closely argued in its texture.

Michael Laffan first outlines the global position of the great archipelago of Southeast Asia, and the first evidences there of Islam. They proved to be seeds of a religious, social and intellectual culture in the region that in a millennium was to interact with and transform its societies, and their relations with the wider world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Individuals and the roles they play are a major part of the work. The preface at once establishes this human dimension, juxtaposing two figures with almost legendary status in the study of Indonesian Islam, Snouck Hurgronje: an Islamologist and ethnographer; and Clifford Geertz: an anthropologist-observer with a genius for theory, but not significantly informed on Islam as a religion.

The range of sources the author has excavated, among them Dutch, Arabic and Malay, is wide. And out of them, from the late sixteenth century on, he has distilled a narrative that situates the diverse participants in a complex, shifting world. It was one the Dutch did not understand, and they were ill-equipped to cope with the tensions and dislocations resulting from their intrusion in it. The consequences were revealed in the evolving policies of the VOC--later the Dutch government--and the relations between the Dutch authorities and missionaries and vice versa; between missionaries and Muslims, and the responses of Muslims to both; and those of Muslims with each other, and to Muslims elsewhere, either as close as Singapore, or as distant as Mecca and Cairo.

Laffan's narrative, based on local religious and literary works, and the correspondence, diaries, and government reports of the participants in these ensuing processes, reveals their personalities, thought worlds, and responses to the situations they inherited or created. There are lovely accounts of their early attempts to prepare textbooks for the study of Malay, and their bewilderment at some Muslim devotional practices--incense, beads, ceremonies at graves and prayers for the dead--which to the Calvinist Dutch appeared 'Papist'.

From the seventeenth century on, the personalities of Dutch administrators, scholars and missionaries and the many-sided roles they played come clearly into view. None rivals Snouck Hurgronje, and Laffan presents a striking portrait of this giant of colonial history. He comes across as part scholar, part idealist and part shyster, successfully leading a double life in his avatars as a Dutch official and as the Muslim Abd al-Ghaffar. …

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