Bring Back In Muslim Cosmopolitanism

Vivid and disturbing images of women and children dying in conflict-ridden parts of the Middle East and Myanmar were flashing across the digital media as this essay is being written. The popular press around the world condemned such atrocities as acts of war against humanity. As all eyes are riveted to these regions in the wake of endless violence that affects Muslims and non-Muslims globally, questions are now being asked whether other parts of the Muslim World, including Southeast Asia, might soon descend into chaos. Reports of fanatical Southeast Asian Muslims inspired by their Arab brethren and bent upon overthrowing secular regimes abound in the newspapers, academic journals and books.

The experiences on the ground are different from the imaginations of the forces of Islamophobia.[1]  In my recent book, Muslim Cosmopolitanism: Southeast Asian Islam in Comparative Perspective, I show that the actually-existing Islam in Southeast Asia (here referring specifically to Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia) is radically defined by what can be termed as  “Muslim cosmopolitanism.” It is this proclivity that has provided Southeast Asian Muslims with the vision and vocabulary to come together, rather than to become increasingly divided, in the age of globalization. In showing that Muslim cosmopolitanism characterizes Southeast Asian Islam, I provide a counterpoint to the growing perception of Islam and other religions as divisive forces and powerful engines of dissension in society, while shattering the preponderant thesis that Muslims are prone to violence to achieve what are supposedly their essentially absolutist, divisive, and insufficiently rational aims.

But what is Muslim cosmopolitanism? Undeniably, the term has been put to use by scholars working on various Muslim regions such as Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and East Asia, to name a few. Yet no clear definition has been offered. As a concept, Muslim cosmopolitanism thus suffers from being used too loosely and too indiscriminately to describe anything that Muslims say and do which points towards some degree of inclusivity.[2] Here, I offer a fresh definition of the concept as it has been lived and expressed by Southeast Asian Muslims through an ensemble of ideas, spaces, practices, dispositions, discourses, and activities.

Muslim Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia

Muslim cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia is a style of thought, a habit of seeing the world and a way of living that is rooted in the central tenet of Islam, which is that everyone is part of a common humanity accountable to God and that we are morally responsible towards one another. To embrace Muslim cosmopolitanism is to exhibit a high degree of receptiveness to universal values that are embedded within one’s own customs and traditions (adat). Internalizing Muslim cosmopolitanism enables a person to be at ease with his or her own Islamic and cultural identities, promoting these identities as a means to enrich public understanding about Islam and Muslims while maintaining and embracing an open attitude towards people of other backgrounds.

Muslim cosmopolitans seek to ensure the protection of faith, life, lineage, intellect, property and rights of all groups and individuals in society. As living embodiments of Muslim cosmopolitanism, they are committed to a set of practices and actions that are aimed at enlivening the spirit of compassion (rahmah), justice (adil), and consensus (musyawarah)[3] in order to safeguard public interest (maslahah).Sectarian Differences

Three interlinking issues emerge from such a definition of Muslim cosmopolitanism. First, Muslim cosmopolitanism involves relationships and interactions within the Muslim community, in other words between Muslims of different ideological persuasions and frames of mind. To ensure the vitality of Muslim cosmopolitanism, Muslims in Southeast Asia have attempted, and are unremittingly attempting, to dissolve the bifurcation between traditionalists and modernists and between conservatives and reformists towards assuming a live-and-let-live approach to contentious matters affecting Muslims. Undeniably, there have been rifts and schisms among Muslims, as seen from the “Salafi–Sufi discords” in Malaysia and “Sunni-Shi’ite sectarianism” in Indonesia. But such divisions, as my book clarifies, have not undermined the overall cosmopolitan texture of Southeast Asian Islam. In the effort to overcome such discords and sectarianism, bloggers and civil society activists have taken it upon themselves to bridge gaps between differing groups and to clarify any misperceptions.

The famed Indonesian freelance journalist and social activist, Satrio Arismunandar is one such person. He takes on a live and let live slant to the question of sectarian differences in Islam, especially in the case of the highly charged issue of the Sunni–Shi‘i schism. In his blog posting entitled ‘Saya Bukan Penganut Syiah, Tetapi Saya Tidak Merasa Terancam Berhubungan dengan Muslim Syiah atau Penganut Apa pun’ (I Am Not Syiah, But I Do Not Feel Threatened by Having Relationships with Shi‘a or Persons of Any Religious Persuasion), he shared his thoughts about his friends’ bids to convince him about the waywardness of Shi‘i ideology. He registers his respect for their efforts but contends that there was nothing wrong with befriending Shi‘i individuals. Satrio attributes his stance to the Sufi tradition to which he faithfully adheres and to his wide travels as a journalist. Indeed, Sufism in Southeast Asia has been coloured by many aspects of the Shi‘i thought and belief since Islam first arrived in the region. Even today, Malay religious practices and devotional tracts are still strewn with references to the Persian Shi‘i figures who are said to have inspired the Sufis to spread Islam in Southeast Asia.

People of Other Faiths

Second, Muslim cosmopolitanism encompasses ties between Muslims and non-Muslims. As minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia and the majority population in Singapore, non-Muslims have enjoyed mostly harmonious relationships with Muslims across the region. Marketplaces and mosques across Southeast Asia clearly demonstrate this point. In Surabaya, the capital of Indonesia’s East Java province, for example, non-Muslims are still visible and are, in fact, dominant in businesses linked to the Muslim consumer market. Similarly, visitors to the Tanah Abang area in Jakarta are often amazed by the vast and lavish green building that houses the largest textile market in Southeast Asia. Built in the image of the Islamic monuments of the medieval Arab-Turkish and Persian cities, the Tanah Abang textile mall covers 160,000 square meters, including a mosque within it that can accommodate more than a thousand worshippers. Muslim clothing such as long gowns, headscarves, cuffs and tonic tops are sold there, alongside shoes and batik products. What is most amusing about this much talked about mega mall is the pervasive presence of Chinese businessmen and businesswomen. This has not, however, dissuaded the majority Muslims of Southeast Asia from joining the droves of daily shoppers there.

Muslims and non-Muslims get along extremely well in Sarawak, where Malay-Muslims are a minority population. They have gone to the extent of sharing sacred spaces to invigorate the spirit of cooperation between the different communities. Such is the case with the An-Naim Mosque in Sarawak, which was built less than a hundred meters from the Good Shepherd Church. The mosque and the church share their parking lots on specific days. The church allows Muslim congregants to use its lot every Friday for their weekly prayers. The mosque, in turn, opens its parking lot for church-goers on Sunday. Both mosque and church worshippers have been breaking fasts together annually during the month of Ramadan for the past fifty years. The church reciprocates in kind by inviting Muslims to the church for dinner during Christmas. Commenting on such mutual reciprocity, An Naim Mosque’s Imam Mohd Zulkifli said, “It has become a way of life for us to share car parks and meet for gatherings. To us, Muslims and Christians are one big family.”’ Muslim cosmopolitanism, from this perspective, is thus not a Muslim-driven enterprise. It can only be made real through the active participation of non-Muslims in the creation of a tolerant society.

The Maqasid Approach

It is obvious that the definition of Muslim cosmopolitanism I offer above draws much from the Maqasid al-Shari’ah (the goals and purposes of Islamic law).[4] To be sure, much of the thinking and practices of Muslims in Southeast Asia today, and throughout history, is guided by this framework, even though many are often unconscious of it. From the time when Islam first arrived in the region in the eleventh century right up to the present day, prominent Muslim thinkers and preachers have propagated a universalist rather than a communalist conception of Islam.

They have espoused the ‘maqasidic’ maxim that the well-being and public interest of the larger society must be preserved for Muslims to coexist amicably with each other and with other communities. For this and other related reasons, Islamization in Southeast Asia was described as a “penetration pacifique.”’[5] It was seldom disseminated through the use of force, and predominantly traded through the harmonization of local customs and beliefs with Islamic teachings. What grew out of this vibrant process, according to Robert Hefner, was the maturing of “cultural pluralism.”’[6]

I would go further to suggest that the “maqasidic” approaches of thinkers and preachers aided in the making of a cosmopolitan Islam. Although the maqasid al-shariah were not as intellectualized in Southeast Asia as in other parts of the Muslim world until the advent of Islamic reformism in the twentieth century, it was certainly experienced and realized in the everyday lives of the believers.[7] This is clearly seen in the agency of women in Southeast Asia as the torchbearers of cosmopolitan practices. They exhibit a high degree of enthusiasm and commitment in advocating for gender equality, and have also played a big part in nurturing the younger generation’s cosmopolitan values.

Muslim Women’s Activism

One example of such activism by women is the hijab (headscarf) activism in Malaysia and Indonesia. Aware of the attitudes pertaining to hijab in 1970s’ Southeast Asia, hijabis and their supporters – both male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim – turned to active participation in mainstream institutions to make their identities readily accepted. They culturalized the hijab through their writings in the path to normalize it among non-Muslims. What I mean by this is that, rather than presenting the hijab as a religious requirement, they show that the hijab can be part and parcel of the culture of the Malays. These hijab activists have impressed upon the Malaysian and Indonesian public that Malay culture and attire is not static. Culture is malleable, changeable and dynamic, and can be reimagined to suit the needs of different times and contexts. Malay culture is formed and reformed through contact with new ideas about what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world.

Today, headscarves are worn in professional workplaces as a hallmark of Muslim cosmopolitanism among Southeast Asian Muslim women. The “professional” or “office look hijab,” as it has been called by hijabis, consists mainly of headscarves donned with suits and formal blouses for those working in offices and uniforms for women working in frontline services. Since the mainstreaming of Islamic revivalism in the 1990s, Southeast Asian Muslim women have also been allowed to wear their Malay traditional dresses with the hijab as part of their formal office attired. Recently, Indonesian policewomen are allowed to wear the hijab as part of their uniform. The long-standing ban on policewomen wearing the hijab was lifted due to the increasing numbers of women who were wearing the hijab before and after working hours. Muslim women in uniformed services who choose to wear headscarves have to match the color of their hijab with their uniforms.

When asked why many women now prefer to wear the hijab at work, Dewi Fitria from the Malang Police Force responded that, aside from being a religious requirement, it is “better to wear a hijab, its more efficient. We don’t have to comb our hair but we’d still look tidy. It’s also good when we have to work at night.” [8] The hijab, in this regard, professionalizes the appearance of these women inasmuch as it serves as a way for them to be exemplars to other officers on duty.

Although unique to the Southeast Asian context, many elements of Muslim cosmopolitanism there may as well mirror the incarnations of Muslim cosmopolitanism found in other parts of the Muslim world as recent studies suggest.[9] I, therefore, depart from Humeira Iqtidar’s supposition that “given the immense variation within the category ‘Muslim’, it is not entirely feasible to conceive of a coherent and stable phenomenon called ‘Muslim Cosmopolitanism.’”[10] Muslim cosmopolitanism, to my mind, need not be a stable and coherent phenomenon in any given time and space. Much like Islam as a belief system and a cultural reality, different individuals and groups may understand and express cosmopolitanism differently in accordance with the demands of their milieus.

They are, however, bounded by the shared conviction that Muslims are accountable to all of humankind and that they learn from each other and from the “other.” Purveyors of Muslim cosmopolitanism contribute to the making of plural societies, ensuring that peace, harmony and mutual respect are upheld just as they unceasingly oppose the forces of hate and disunity. They all come under the canopy of Muslim cosmopolitanism.


[1] One of the best critiques of alarmist depictions of Islam as a threat and on Islamophobia is found in the following book: John L. Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin (eds.), Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2] Sami Zubaida, ‘Cosmopolitanism and the Middle East’, in Roel Meijer (ed.), Cosmopolitanism, Identity, and Authenticity in the Middle East (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999), pp. 15–34; Muhammad Qasim Zaman, ‘The Scope and Limits of Islamic Cosmopolitanism and the Discursive Language of the Ulama’, in Miriam Cooke and Bruce Lawrence (eds), Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), pp. 84–104; Karim H. Karim,  ‘Cosmopolitanism: Ways of Being Muslim’, in Amyn B. Sajoo (ed.), A Companion to Muslim Cultures (London: I. B. Tauris, 2011), pp. 201–20; Carool Kersten, Cosmopolitans and Heretics: New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); Bruce Lawrence, ‘Muslim Cosmopolitanism’ in Critical Muslim, 2 (April-June 2012); Mara A. Leichtman and Dorothea Schulz (eds), ‘Special Issue on Muslim Cosmopolitanism: Movement, Identity and Contemporary Reconfiguration’, City & Society, 24, 1 (2012) and Seema Alavi, Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[3] Musyawarah here refers to consensus among Muslims at all levels in society. It is to be differentiated from “ijma” which refers to consensus among the scholars in the realm of Islamic jurisprudence.

[4] For an excellent summary of the maqasid al-shariah, see Jasser Auda, Maqasid al-Shari’ah: A Beginner’s Guide (London: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2008).

[5] Thomas W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam (Lahore: Ashraf, 1961), p. 363.

[6] Robert W. Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 14.

[7] My forthcoming book, Cosmopolitan Reform (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018) will elaborate on the development of ‘maqasidic’ thought among Muslim reformers as exemplified in the works of the famous Indonesian preacher, Haji Abdul Malik bin Abdul Karim Amrullah (Hamka). Hamka, too, discussed the revival of such a line of thinking in many of his historical writings.

[8] The lifting of the ban took effect on 25 March 2015.

[9] Kai Kreese and Edward Simpson (eds), Struggling with History: Islam and Cosmopolitanism in the Western Indian Ocean (London: Hurst, 2008) and Kai Kreese, ‘Interrogating “Cosmopolitanism” in an Indian Ocean Setting: Thinking Through Mombasa on the Swahili Coast’, in Derryl N. MacLean and Sikeena Karmali Ahmed (eds), Cosmopolitanisms in Muslim Contexts: Perspectives from the Past (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), pp. 31–50.

[10] Humeira Iqtidar, ‘Muslim Cosmopolitanism: Contemporary Theory and Social Practice’, in Bryan S. Turner, The Routledge International Handbook of Globalization Studies (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 631.