It is often overlooked that the Netherlands have a long tradition in dealing with Muslim subjects. In the colonial era in the Netherlands East Indies a large part of the population was Muslim, and this forced to take the then administration to take a stance in all kinds of issues related to Islam and to formulate an Islam policy. Departing from this general observation I study the life and work of the well-known scholar of Arab descent, Sayyid `Uthmân ibn `Abd Allâh ibn `Aqîl ibn Yahyâ al-`Alawî of Batavia (1822-1914) who played an important role in the development of Islam in the Netherlands East Indies in his days.
Sayyid `Uthmân was one of the most productive ulama in the Netherlands East Indies; he wrote more than 150 books and brochures (in Arabic and in Malay), which he published on his own lithograph press. As his name shows Sayyid `Uthmân was a so-called sayyid, which is a honorific title for a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and in this capacity he belonged to the religious nobility which was held in high esteem among the Muslim masses in the Netherlands East Indies, and in the Muslim world at large.
Born in Batavia in 1822, he spent from 1841 - 1862 in Hadramaut in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula for study purposes. In 1862 he returned to his native town, where he became active in teaching. From 1889 Sayyid `Uthmân was involved in the Dutch colonial administration (from 1891 as 'Honorary Advisor for Arab Affairs'). In this capacity Sayyid `Uthmân worked closely with the famous scholar of Islam and government advisor, C. Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936). This part of his activities from a major focus of attention, and indeed his attitude towards the Dutch colonial administration will form a reoccurring theme throughout the research.
In addition to this Sayyid `Uthmân is interesting for other reasons. He lived in an era in which major new ideas emerged in the Middle East, principally through the efforts of the Cairo-based reformists, Muhammad `Abduh and Rashîd Ridâ. In Sayyid `Uthmân's lifetime these new ideas began to spread to Southeast Asia and compete with the established traditionalist discourse. Moreover, in this period major political changes took place as a result of the rise of new, anti-colonial movements.
These three different phenomena - his involvement in the Dutch colonial administration, the rise of modernist Islamic thinking, and the upsurge in nationalism - merge in Sayyid `Uthmân and, in conjunction with his activities as a prominent Muslim scholar as well as his Arab background, make him a fascinating topic for research.
Since 1997 I have occasionally published an article about Sayyid `Uthmân, but during my work on Islam in the Netherlands East Indies his name popped up so often that I have decided to devote an entire monograph to him, in which most of my previous work on the Arabs in general and Sayyid `Uthmân in particular will be integrated.
Leiden, 24 April 2006
Nico J.G. Kaptein