How Islam learned to adapt in 'Nusantara'
April-June 2015
By: Yahya Cholil Staquf

Given the paucity of contemporaneous historical records, no convincing explanation has been provided to date of the precise mechanisms through which Islam penetrated Nusantara. A number of records indicate that Islamic kingdoms were established in Nusantara from the late 13th through the 15th centuries (including Jeumpa, Tambayung and Malacca), prior to the process of Islamization gaining decisive momentum in Java with the establishment of the Demak Kingdom.

Notably, virtually all academics agree that Islam spread throughout Nusantara through a “diffusive” and “adaptive” process that, for the most part, eschewed military conquest. Like Hinduism and Buddhism before it, Islam “dissolved” and was gradually absorbed into the prevailing local civilization of Nusantara.

In distinct contrast to other regions of the Muslim world (eg, from Spain to India), there is no record of the application of fiqh as a comprehensive legal system within the Islamic kingdoms of Nusantara. The resolution of legal issues (such as crimes and disputes) was generally handled through the application of customary law, or adat, which differed from region to region. For example, to this day the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra retain a matrilineal system, distinctly opposed to the patrilineal system employed in mainstream fiqh interpretation of family law. And yet, this Minangkabau adherence to adat is accompanied, smoothly and unselfconsciously, by a strong self-identification with Islam on the part of the Minang people as a whole. Indeed, over time local customs (adat) throughout Nusantara have become flavored, or colored, by the influence of Islam. Yet there has never been any systematic and comprehensive application of “Islamic law, as defined by the mainstream of classical Islamic discourse, in public affairs.

In other words, Islam was forced to “surrender” to the prevailing local customs, and power, of Nusantara's highly pluralistic civilization. To cite yet another example from West Sumatra, the Islamic law of inheritance, which favors males, was subordinated to – or at least compromised with – Minang customary law, in which land and houses are bequeathed through a matrilineal line. Islam thus experienced a softening of its “original discipline.” Likewise in Java, where many traditional rituals have been adopted as “part of Islam” after being adjusted to a lesser or greater extent through a steady process of assimilation.

The Islam that learns

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