Chinese Ways of Being Muslim

Mary Somers Heidhues

Muslim Chinese in Indonesia are a small percentage of the minority, but, thanks to conversions, a growing and publicly apparent one (most Chinese in Indonesia are Buddhists, Christians, or Confucians). Hew Wai Weng´s book deals with this group in a series of chapters on themes that defy unification, not least because the group is itself so diverse. There are Chinese Muslim organizations, Chinese mosques, Chinese-Muslim businessmen and Chinese-Muslim preachers, yet, as his overview insists, the ways in which Chinese Indonesians (or ethnic Chinese in Indonesia) choose to express their religion of Islam are simply multifarious.

This diversity presents a challenge. If any thread unifies this book, it is the myth of the incompatibility of Islam and ‘Chineseness’ and how Chinese Indonesian converts to Islam have acted to counteract that myth since 1998.

The Author

As a student of Islamic politics in Malaysia and Indonesia, Hew continues to follow local developments, interacting with both native-born and immigrant (including both Han and Hui) Chinese Muslims. He has previously published about popular Chinese Indonesian preachers of Islam (one a former Catholic nun, one a former convict), and about Chinese-style mosques bearing the name of Ming Dynasty Admiral Zheng He (鄭和), who may have propagated Islam in the Archipelago. Revised and updated, these publications appear as chapters in the book.

Historically, the incompatibility myth is unfounded. Many non-Muslim Chinese immigrants in the Indonesian Archipelago adopted Islam in the past. Some converted in order to wed local women or to gain entrance to local courts. The word Peranakan” once applied to communities of Muslim Chinese, not, as in recent times, to local-born and locally-oriented Chinese in general. From the 19th century onward, colonial policies inhibited conversions and the consequent myth of incompatibility meant that converts to Islam would often face rejection from their families and social environments, and even suspicion from the host society. Still, some became completely absorbed into the majority.

That one of the most prominent post-independence converts, Junus Jahya, saw his adoption of Islam as a kind of divorce from his Chinese origins and a way of assimilation to ‘native’ Indonesian society underlines how strong the myth was in the 1960s. Only a handful of exceptions to the prevailing myth existed and they were not always known. The Suharto regime (1966-98), reinforced the myth by suppressing expression of Chinese culture. For example, a Chinese-Islamic association was forced to change its name and eliminate any reference to ‘Chinese’.

At the end of the 20th century, the situation changed rapidly. The downfall of Suharto´s New Order after 1998 opened the way for public expressions of Chinese culture. The spread of Islamic dakwah (preaching, outreach) activity since the 1980s and the rise of a Muslim middle class made conversion more attractive. Additionally, interest in China’s prosperity and its economic and cultural influence in Indonesia increased among Muslim believers. Although Hew does not emphasize it, celebrating the anniversary of Zheng He’s first visit to Southeast Asia in 2005 may also have contributed to dismantling the incompatibility myth. Islamic consumerism, with the demand for religiously specific clothing, food, and other products, also opened economic opportunities.

Chinese Mosques

Chinese-style mosques, most of them in Java, are architecturally Sinitic buildings but open to all practitioners of Islam. Non-Chinese Indonesians, according to Hew, flock to them for Friday prayers. They may also fulfill the role of community centers, drawing non-Islamic participants to other activities like sports or gymnastics. Hew’s map of Chinese-style mosques from 2017 reveals a concentration in East Java, where Chinese converts often cooperate with Nahdlatul Ulama, a traditionalist Muslim organization with strong roots in that area. It appears however that no Chinese mosques exist in areas strongly influenced by Chinese presence such as Medan, West Kalimantan, or Bangka, something the author does not speculate about.

One of Hew’s important conclusions is how prominent converts have chosen varied ways of expressing their new faith, practicing what he calls ‘flexible piety’. Examples include the popular preacher-converts, many of whom deliberately emphasize their Chinese origin, although they may not be educated in Chinese language or culture, while some have a relatively superficial understanding of Islam. Hew finds that they and other converts may align with different streams of Islam, traditional, modernist, and even fundamentalist or radical groups. The diversity of Indonesian Islam itself adds to the many ways of being Chinese and Muslim.

Despite increasing acceptance of ‘compatibility’, some elements of Chinese culture – or at least practices – are still hard to reconcile with strict adherence to Islam. Dietary restrictions, avoidance of alcohol, wearing ‘Islamic’ dress (especially for women), or refusing participation in veneration of the ancestors or in gambling might isolate a convert from his non-Muslim family, business, and social contacts. Here is where Hew’s term flexible piety may come in. Hew does not speculate about the motivations of converts or their sincerity, but he does report how some navigate business and family practices that diverge from strict adherence to Islamic norms. Again, such adaptations occur in a variety of situations and with various justifications. Controversies about celebrating Chinese New Year – whether it is a mere cultural tradition or an unacceptable religious practice, illustrate these tensions. They find diverse solutions.

Many converted Chinese businessmen, especially those who are close to Chinese culture and who have contributed to the building of the new-style mosques, describe their efforts to meld adherence to Islam and Chinese influences as an attempt to build a bridge between Chinese culture and Indonesian Islam. Given the many kinds of adaptation, how can they construct a bridge from such multifarious building blocks? Put in a different context, will greater acceptance of Chinese Indonesians who become Muslims contribute to greater tolerance for Chinese Indonesians who do not become Muslims?