Andrée Feillard ed., L’islam en Asie, du Caucase à la Chine

This collection sets out to show that Asian Islam is not peripheral,
as is often supposed. Relying on their own specialist knowledge, each author gives
a general picture of the historical spread of Islam in their particular area:
in Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia for Stéphane Dudoignon; the Indian
subcontinent for Aminah Mohammad-Arif; South-East Asia for Andrée Feillard;
and China for Elisabeth Allès. They then analyse the current situation,
with particular reference to such topics as the relationship between Islam and
politics, religious practices, religious education, or the place of women in Asian
Muslim societies.

In considering the contemporary period, Stéphane Dudoignon
analyses the complex relations between “official” Islam, “parallel”
Islam, mystical orders, and reformist and fundamentalist movements. On the one
hand, he emphasises that these aspects, which are sometimes artificially isolated
from each other, have come to intermingle in certain cases. On the other hand,
he shows that an increasing number of movements are setting themselves up as vectors
of alternative socio-political patterns competing with the systems actually in
place (1), and are becoming increasingly radicalised
because of their exclusion from political and religious life by the Central Asian
regimes. Of course, external influences, particularly the spread of the salafi
trend, have aided the expansion of new Islamist movements, especially the radical
ones. Nonetheless, despite the growing number of links with the major international
Islamist organizations, the writer emphasises (contrary to the belief of a number
of Western observers) that the Islamic “revival” to be found in certain
societies of the former Soviet Union is the outcome of evolutionary developments
over a long period of time. Lots of current Islamist movements in this area have
their roots in the period of renewal of traditional thinking in the Soviet Union
of the 1970s, which had for example a deep impact on the emergence of the Islamic
Renaissance Party (p. 57).

In the Indian subcontinent, the shift in status undergone
by the Muslim populations, from dominant under the Muslim dynasties to dominated
in the colonial period, gave rise to “movements of reaction” (pp. 98-101).
Whether they are of the traditional Sufi Islam of the barelwi movement or reformist
deobandi, or whether they are modernising or fundamentalist in tendency (Tablighi
Jama’at or Jama’at-i-Islami), all of these movements still play a major
role in the political and social life of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Aminah Mohammad-Arif
also gives us an analysis of the difficult steps towards improving the situation
of women, as well as of the impact of the shortcomings in the religious education
system (especially in professional training) in the big three countries of the
subcontinent.

After laying emphasis on the role of trade, Sufism, and to
a lesser extent military conquest (in Indonesia in particular) in the spread of
Shafi’i Islam in South-East Asia, Andrée Feillard goes on to study
the role of Islam in the nation-building process and the ideology of the different
states of the region. She stresses the “problematic” nature of the integration
of Muslim communities in the countries where Islam is a minority religion, and
she uncovers a certain convergence here with the destiny of the two Islamic “heavyweights”
of South-East Asia, namely Indonesia and Malaysia. Although the history of the
relations between Islam and politics in these two countries was quite different,
whether under colonialism or in the early years of independence, both are now
facing a rising tide of Islamism which the governments in power have difficulty
in managing.

As for China, without passing completely over the Turkic Muslims
whose culture and history are more closely related to Central Asia, Elisabeth
Allès focuses mainly on the Chinese-speaking Hui nationality, which accounts
for nearly nine million out of the total of 17.5 million Muslims in China. The
penetration of Islam into China took place via two routes: the first overland
through Chinese Turkestan, and the other by sea to the coastal regions of southern
China. It was not the outcome of military conquests but of immigration by Muslim
merchants and officials (the latter mostly under the Yuan dynasty). The subsequent
conversions and intermarriage with the Chinese population allowed the emergence
of a homogeneous population, which was to become the Hui nationality in the twentieth
century. After examining the rivalries, which were sometimes ferocious, between
the Sufi sects, and also between different tendencies (traditional, reformist,
ikhwâni, Xidaotang, etc.), the writer analyses the complex relations between
the Chinese state and its Muslim subjects, as well as the political process leading
to the establishment of the Hui nationality. The “nationality” status
of the Hui, the Uighurs, the Kazakhs, etc., became definitively enshrined after
the communists took power in 1949. However, since then the Chinese authorities
have never ceased to be suspicious about any increase in Muslim claims in the
social and political arena. The writer also emphasises the local nature of certain
religious practices and the status of women, particularly the existence of women
ahong (2).

This volume restores the richness of an Asian Islam hitherto
unjustly ignored. Islam became part and parcel of societies which were often quite
different from those of the Arab world, a process in which the “opening”
of the hanafî school (3) and the Sufi
propensity towards syncretism played a determining role. On the other hand, the
relations between the historical centres of Islam and Asia very quickly ceased
to be a one-way flow, with central Asia and India becoming leading religious centres
exercising a widespread and lasting influence over the whole Islamic community.
This is all the more reason why, for the last two centuries, the Asian or Eurasian
centres of Islam have retained their influence through the spread of models belonging
to both the modernising tendency (4) and the
fundamentalist one with its claims to continue the deobandi heritage.

Even so, there is a regrettable absence perhaps of any in-depth
study of the origin and nature of foreign Islamist influences, whether neo-hanbali,
ikhwâni, salafi, or wahhabi. Although these are of external origin, they
have provided ideological models for a number of modern radical movements in Afghanistan,
the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia, Malaysia, and
the Philippines. Some readers might also be disappointed by the brevity of the
analyses of Afghanistan and Kashmir. Despite these few reservations, this clear
work of synthesis is to be highly recommended to any reader who wishes to gain
a deeper knowledge of Islam today in Asia, and in the heat of current events.

Translated from the French original by
Jonathan Hall

Back to top