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July 19, 2010


I traveled with Usha to Sumatra last year, and I'm so glad she finally got around to writing this.

To me, the Minangkabau of Sumatra brilliantly illustrate what students of history have known all along, that religion in a society is never cut from whole cloth. That the authority of books doesn't determine a culture any more than the reverse. That there is no "true religion" or fixed essence to a book any more than there is a fixed essence to a culture. That we should be wary of those who, out of partisan instincts, turn a blind eye to the fluid interplay of religious and secular ideas, traditional attitudes and social customs, geography, contingency, knowledge and power in any society.

The more I look around, whatever it is that supposedly unites all Muslims (and, conversely, divides them from non-Muslims) seems less and less clear. I mean, how much is really common between the Minangkabau Muslims, the Berber Muslims, the Muslims of Xian, Zanzibar, Lucknow, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, Bosnia, the Malabar, and Nubia? Why do we talk about "the Muslim World" as if it meant something specific? We certainly don't talk about "the Christian World", do we? Is it simply because "we" recognize the diversities within "us" but fail to see it in "them"?

Another interesting story from Indonesia that reveals how religion there is a patchwork of so many old and new influences:

It goes without saying that there is a glaring contradiction in the fact that Gunung Kemukus, a mass ritual of adultery and sex, is going on in the middle of Java, the demographic heart of the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

Of course, the ritual isn’t Islam as most would recognise it. Instead, it’s emblematic of Indonesia’s – and especially Java’s – syncretic mix of Islam with earlier Hindu, Buddhist and animist beliefs. But what is truly surprising is that even while Indonesia undergoes a steady shift towards more orthodox Islam, the ritual on Gunung Kemukus is exploding in popularity. It’s a quintessentially Indonesian contradiction.

and they have to share the same island with Achean, the most islamic soceity in East Asia!

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