Book Interview with Muhamad Ali on Islam and Colonialism challenge Dominate narratives of Nationalism and colonialism
What inspired you to begin this project, and how did this inspiration transform or continue during your project?
This book was a product of a major transformation of my dissertation submitted to the Department of History at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. The dissertation sought to trace the transmission of Islamic knowledge in Sulawesi, Indonesia and Kelantan, Malaysia during the first half of the twentieth century. Included in my analysis of the transmission of knowledge were the objectives, methods, and impacts of this knowledge. As I let the colonial and local sources speak for themselves, I found an interesting characteristic. Many authors, activists, and teachers, conceived of themselves and their desires and programs in terms of being up-to-date and present in their socio-political environment while being connected to the past and to the authoritative scriptures. The characteristic I found was what can be conceptually labelled as "becoming modern", hence the subtitle. While my dissertation has only one chapter on colonial desires and projects, I expanded it into chapters focusing on each domain that the colonized had: organization, politics, law, and education. I also expanded the dissertation’s regional focus on Sulawesi and Kelantan to parts of Malaya and Indonesia. In the book as the outcome, I compared and contrasted the colonial powers, Dutch and British, to the local, Malay and Indonesian, methods for becoming modern in the domains of organization, politics, law, and education.
The argument developed through the writing of the book: Islamic forces and colonial authorities often differed, but they were not always antagonistic, and they did not necessarily destroy local customs, in formulating and advancing their respective projects of reform and modernization. For example, motivated by a mixture of economic, political, and moral interests, Indonesian and Malay Muslim reformers understood Islam as a progressive faith and sought to build and foster communities by creating and expanding organizations and selectively borrowing Western vocabularies and organization models. The colonial powers sought to study and maintain control over Islam and the East by conducting research and building organizations based in Islamic practices and local cultures, often accommodating Islamic and local agencies and their cultures. In the domain of education, Muslim reformers and teachers adopted science and secular skills into the curricula of their schools and divided knowledge in the religious and the secular. They were open and flexible in reforming education and in adopting and adapting Dutch or British system of education in Indonesia and Malaya respectively. The colonial administrators and teachers promoted science, Dutch or English languages, and secular skills. They separated the private from the public and the religious from the secular, but they too accommodated local languages and cultures as well as Arabic and Islamic subjects, the later being outside the colonial institutions.
How does your work contribute to the literature on Islam and Colonialism?
The book seeks to contribute to the literature on Islam and Colonialism in several folds. It offers a nuanced picture of Islam-local-colonial relationships in response to the colonial, post-colonial, and nationalist historiographies which tend to see colonialism, Islam, and local cultures as necessarily antithetical and hierarchical. This book sees the colonizers and the colonized in juxtaposition and consider their different and yet often connected efforts for reform. It challenges the popular perception and wide ranging scholarship that associates modernity with European, Western powers and ignores Islamic, local agency. The book offers a comparative history that has rarely been conducted: a comparison and contrasting of two colonial powers and two colonized circumstances in four different domains: organization, politics, law, and education.
In presenting the interplay of both the colonial apparatus and Islamic movements, how do you understand the figure of 'modernity' in your work?
I understand modernity conceptually as the views and activities directed towards the 'here and now' and 'present-mindedness' connecting with the past and desiring a better future. As terms of analysis and the terms of practice, modernity and tradition have been differentiated, but they are not separate. Conversion to Islam, for example, may be conceptualized as being modern as the individual embraces a new religion in the context of existing beliefs and practices, without necessarily giving up the past and what is considered customary. However, modernities whether Christian, Islamic or local, comprise the various domains of life, including publication, organization, politics, law, and education. Thus, modernity is not inherently Western, not monolithic (hence “multiple modernities”), and does not necessarily contradict tradition and religion. From this, one may ask: Whose modernity? whose tradition? whose Islam?
How does your work contribute to the study of Indonesia and Malaysia?
To the study of Indonesia and Malaysia, this book offers a historical, comparative study of the colonial experiences that resist the nationalist historiographies and mainstream, popular, anti-colonial views. It also elaborates local perceptions and practices of politics, law, and education in different parts of Indonesia and Malaysia without being nationalistic. The book tries not to project the present, anti-colonial, nationalist, and Islamist discourses on the past.
How do you envision people using your book?
The readers of this book are scholars and students of Islam in Southeast Asia, religion and colonialism, history, politics, law, and education, and the public interested in the topics of Islam and the West, Islam and local cultures, and modernities.
What is your next project?
My next book projects are Islam and Religious Pluralism in Modern indonesia and A History of Indonesian Islam.