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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Nancy Khalek

In the modern period, however, the hybridization of local culture and religion and Islamic belief is more complicated, especially in South Asia. While the vast majority of Sunnis in, for example, Pakistan or Indonesia exhibit a long-standing religious and cultural diversity, more traditional Islamic revivalists in the region have begun, in recent years, to be more heavily influenced by the Saudi-based brand of modern Islam called Wahhabism. This vocal minority of the population has seen resurgence in recent years, in spite of the fact that most people in the region find the austere, restrictive, and demanding tenets of Wahhabism at odds with the broader tradition of Islamic intellectual and traditional diversity from earlier periods.

It is important to draw a distinction between revivalists, however, and Islamists. The former tend to be concerned with religious change for its own sake, with a "return" to religious values without any overt or state agenda. The latter seek to mobilize religious change in efforts to affect state action or to transform a state. It could be said that Islamists look back in history for a "golden age" from which to draw models for personal and political behavior, whereas revivalists seek ways to devise and implement a new vision for the future.

Some scholars further categorize different types of Islamists, into groups of those who do or do not advocate political resistance or violence. These distinctions and the tendencies they describe have become more relative in South Asia, as globalization and the rapidity of information exchange, travel, and the dissemination of ideas and ideologies have facilitated ever closer relationships between, for example, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. Yet, the scope and impact of Islamic Revival are also varied throughout this broad region. In Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, militant or violent expressions have not had much success, and in China, the Uigher population, though experiencing some political unrest vis-à-vis Chinese authorities in recent years, has flourished culturally despite the lack of political power.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why was Islam’s spread to Southeast Asia essentially tied to economics?
     2.    Why might the mystical aspect of Sufism make Islam more appealable to the inhabitants of Southeast Asia?
     3.    Contrast revivalists with Islamists.


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