Saturday, May 5, 2007

Tahmena Bokhari's Findings & Experiences on...

History of Islam & Lives of Muslim Villagers
across Southeast Asia:
The Inter-Weaving of Histories & Identities

"To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child. For what is [wo]man's lifetime unless the memory of past events is woven with those of earlier times?"- Marcus Tullius Cicero

This is a brief description of my work and research in Muslim villages, communities and mosques across 11 East Asian & Southeast Asian countries (China, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and Japan) in 2007. I visited mosques and worked and lived among Muslim villagers (at times with no running water or electricity) to learn about the histories of these Muslim communities and to gain an understanding of the day-to-day lives (struggles, issues, lifestyles) of the Muslims living here. What does it mean to be a Muslim in Southeast Asia? What is their interpretation and meaning of Islam? What is the history behind these village communities? How did these Muslim villages come about and develop all across Southeast Asia?
As a social worker, some of the areas in which I was able to contribute to the villages was in education (such as teaching English, educational activities with children in their local schools, connecting local education resources) and health awareness (providing information on basic health and relevant diseases such as TB, malaria or dengue fever, arranging for donation of medicines and other necessities, connecting with local health care organizations). As I talked with women from the villages, I did what they did throughout the day, such as standing knee-high in the water of the rice fields bent over during 8hrs of sunlight, preparing meals in an outside kitchen on open fires, collecting water from pump wells and boiling it, and looking after children while doing all this. In talking with the men who were fisherman, I went out with them on their boats back and forth out into the bodies of water their villages were on (Gulf of Thailand, South China Sea or the Java Sea). I also at times went out to market with both men and women to sell fish, farm animals, rice, fruit or small handicrafts women may make in the villages. I somewhat became a part of the communal network in the villages (and networks among several villages), where everyone had a role or a skill to contribute to the overall village life. This helped me to learn about their day-to-day lives and struggles given their socio-economic status as rural Muslim villagers.
The elderly would guide and assist in child-rearing, educate children through oral telling of history, and spend time teaching children while parents were busy working. This generation had very respectable positions in the community and often played the roles of imams, spiritual healers, shamans (men), birthing assistants (women), village counselors, family advisors, keepers of information, and village representatives. Much of the history of the particular communities I was able to obtain by sitting with the elders. Being from the east myself and having the experience of living in remote parts of Pakistan, I could relate to the communal system and the hierarchy/structure of duties. Although there are many deep and long-lasting complications of poverty and isolation, such as illness due to lack of regular access to health-care, access to an acceptable standard of formal schooling, and constant day-to-day struggles over 'bread and butter' issues, I certainly had an appreciation for the values of family life, peace and honesty, living in symbiosis with the environment, and the communal safety net.
Certainly, I personally gained much more than what I was able to give. In learning about Islam across Southeast Asia, I learned about a multiplicity of Muslim identities ranging across a wide spectrum of communities and experiences, as well as gaining a stronger understanding of my own history. One of the most significant contributions to my own personal on-going learning was the multiple and complex ways in which many of our histories are inter-woven, specifically in this case as Muslims and as Asians.

Southeast Asia: Geography
Southeast Asia is a sub-region of Asia, consisting of the countries that are geographically south of China, east of India, and north of Australia. This includes 11 countries (starting from the west): Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam (which are defined as the mainland) and Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, East Timor, and Philippines (defined as maritime). Of the Muslim world or "Dar al-Islam" (a term used to communicate a territory or region that is known to be where a large majority is Muslim and/or is governed as an Islamic state), Southeast Asia is the region of the world that is home to the majority of the world’s Muslims and home to the largest Muslim nation (Indonesia). Singapore and the mainland countries (defined above) are predominantly Buddhist, with the second largest religion being Islam. Malaysia, western Indonesia and Brunei are predominantly Muslim. Vietnam and Philippines have Christian and Catholic populations.
Seen below is a map of Southeast Asia courtesy of Google images.

Southeast Asia is a large region of the world with great diversity in environments and landscapes from urban to remote rural, island and sea life, flat rice field lands to volcanoes and hills/mountains.

Southeast Asia: Colonization

Colonization also had a significant impact on the developments of Southeast Asian countries and communities. The first settlers in Southeast Asia came from southern China to the Philippines in 2500 (BC) and later spread to modern day Malaysia and Indonesia.
In the early 1900s, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Borneo Island (divided by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei) were colonized by Britain, Indochina (Cambodia and Vietnam) by France, and the Philippines by Spain. Due to this, there was significant attraction for commercial agriculture and mining, which brought in large numbers of migrants from India and China. This had (and still does have) significant impacts on the culture of Southeast Asia, including intermarriage.

Though exploring these impacts was not the focus of my work, I did find some similarities of descending from a history of colonization between myself (being that my familial lineage is from British colonized India) and the Southeast Asian Muslims I met through my research. One of these aspects was the presence of "shadism" and the internalized belief of European/Anglo-Saxon/Caucasian superiority. For example, when I spoke with women in particular, they indicated that the fairer-skinned a woman is, the higher her chances of being pursued for marriage. When I spoke with men, they indicated that fairer-skinned men are believed (hidden belief reflected in pattern of behavior) to be stronger and more intelligent and usually are able to get better jobs. Note that the concept of "shadism" (a form of oppression in which fairer shades of skin are preferred), like many social phenomenon, is a hidden belief/value and an experience reflected more so in behavior and social patterns rather than verbally acknowledged or directly stated in an interview. Certainly, there are other factors to shadism such as classism and historical distinctions of outside-land labourers who were darker-skinned due to being in direct sunlight for most of the day for most of their lives. (Note that the existence and extent of shadism is debated pre-, post-, and during, colonial periods). There is, however, tremendous research and scholarly writing on deeply entrenched 'left-overs' from colonization and on the multiple and over-layered methods in which colonization has impacted, and continues to shape, both individual psyches and communities in all aspects of life.

Origins of Islam
Islam came to the world in the 7th century from Arabia with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Today, there are estimated to be 1.5 - 1.8 billion Muslims in the world and Islam is the 2nd largest religion (2nd to Christianity at 2.1 billion) and making up 21% of the world’s population, (again 2nd to Christianity at 33%). Islam is also the fastest growing religion in the world, at an estimated 2.9% growth per year. Islam is based on the premise or tenet that there is one God, Allah, and Muhammad is his last messenger. The Quran is the Islamic holy book, (presented in written format by Caliph Abu Baker given a compilation of oral memorizations from recitation) based on recitations from Prophet Muhammad as the messenger of the word of God. The five pillars of Islam are declaration of faith in the basic tenet, prayer 5 times per day, fasting during the month of Ramadan, giving charity to the poor, and performing “Hajj” (pilgrimage) to Mecca once in a lifetime. These are based on the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), compiled in texts called Hadith, including those written by Imam Bukhari (Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari) who was from the Persian City of Bukhara and has some familial linkages with today's Bukhari/Bokhari families. Islam is also divided into two main sects, Sunni and Shia, as well as several sub-groups such as Ismaili and Ahmadiyya. There is also a class of Muslims called “Syeds” (who can be Sunni or Shia), a title which indicates being from the bloodline of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
It is important to be aware of the vast diversity within the Muslim world and among individuals who identify as Muslim. As mentioned earlier, Southeast Asia itself includes a vast diversity of identities and certainly looking within Muslim Southeast Asians, the same diversity exists. It is important to note that Muslims around the world and within even one single village identify as Muslim in various ways and ‘practice’ Islam across a wide spectrum of what may be considered ‘Islamic’. This is due to various cultural, historical, social, economic, political and personal circumstances. Women for example may cover their head in various ways (hijab, niqab or a scarf), or not cover at all, or cover sometimes, some may dress “moderately”, some may be traditional and others may be modern, some may be professionals and others may be full time mothers, and some men and women may abide by all, some, or none of the 5 pillars and some may in addition follow the "Hadith". As with anywhere in the world, this large range of 'being' Muslim was quite apparent across Southeast Asian communities.

Background of this Project: Weaving of Personal Stories and Histories of Muslims
As a Canadian Muslim woman with a Pakistani background, I have had an interest in learning about my own history. I started with researching my Sunni Syed Muslim family, with particular our name, Bokhari. I traced our roots back to the City of Bukhara (formerly spelled "Bokhara"), now in the country of Uzbekistan. This interest in my own Muslim history cascaded off into learning about the historical spread of Islam around the world.
Bukhara was a major hub of the Silk Road, a route which connected west and east Asia, leading to much of the interwoven histories and cultural tapestries we can find today across Asia and parts of Europe.
In 1408, my ancestors left the Persian City of Bukhara, for the province of Punjab in India. Punjab was not yet an official state of India and became one in 1947 after the Partition. It was known as "Punjab" in the Persian world because in Farsi (Persian) this term means 5 waters, referring to the land of the 5 rivers Beas, Jhelum, Chenad, Ravi and Sutlej.
Many centuries later, during the Partition of 1947, my family migrated from Jalandhar City in Punjab (India) to the newly formed Punjab Province in Pakistan. Today, along with Islamic, our family culture includes a mixture of Uzbek, Persian, Arab, Afghan, Hindu, Sikh, Punjabi, Urdu, Indian and British (due to colonization of India) traditions, ceremonies, beliefs, foods, clothings and languages. This list also includes western cultures due to the impact of globalization, our recent migration to North America and the U.K., and long-lasting impacts of colonization. I found similar weavings of a multiplicity of identities (and histories) in the people I lived and worked with across the Southeast Asian countries. The Indochinese culture (Cambodians most identify as this race) is a tapestry of artifacts of China, India and everything in between as well as beliefs that span Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, and animist.

"The Personal is the Political"

This project was both personal and professional for me, as this work (on the lives of Muslims and the history of Islam in Southeast Asia) was also a piece of my own history that I shared with this region. I was (and am) personally invested in the process of discovery, the (re)learning and (re)telling of history, and was looking for reflections of myself in the people I met along my journey. With Southeast Asia being where the majority of the world’s Muslims are located, I was also determined to highlight an Islamic identity (which I knew existed) that countered the ‘terrorist’ images increasingly being shown of Muslim people given the post 9-11 context. It was interesting to me, but perhaps not surprising, that almost none of the photographs and stories of Muslims I saw in the mainstream western media were of Muslims visibly of Southeast Asian or Chinese ethnic backgrounds. The account of this journey here on this website is a personal project of the telling and (re)telling of realities of Islamic life across Southeast Asia, with multiple voices including those of the people whom I interviewed, those who I befriended along the way, writers and scholars who have shaped my understanding of the region, and my own interpretations of what I have seen.

Social Location & Issues of Being an Insider-Outsider
Today, as I entered Southeast Asia, I could feel that I was not a complete foreigner. Being from the east and a person of colour, I could see that villagers responded to me in a slightly different manner than other foreigners who presented as caucasian. I also found familiarity in the customs, traditions, beliefs and lifestyles. However, I was also conscious that I was an “outsider” in many ways as well.

The concept of "insider-outsider" is frequently used in community development and social work arenas to describe how closely one self-identifies (or disassociates) and/or is perceived to be 'one of us' (or 'one of them') by the group one is working with). 'Social location' is how one identifies across the range of human experience including race, ethnicity, sex, faith, education, class, sexual orientation, geographical history, family background, political standpoint and more. Both concepts are critical to include in one's research and practice with people. This, in large part, is due to problematic earlier methods of research that adhere to limited western or euro-centric definitions of creating knowledge. For example, the concept of “going native”, a negative term mostly used in anthropological ethnographic research to describe when the researcher becomes too much a part of the community or too assimilated (becoming an 'insider'), while living there for the purpose of research. "Going native" can occur while carrying out this kind of "participant-observation" methods of research for long periods of time. It can also be a reason used to dismiss one's research when the researcher is perceived as 'too blended-in' with the subject-matter, thereby making the research findings too subjective (lacking 'objectivity' as necessary in the western model of research) to have significant contribution to the building of knowledge.
However, I believe, as do many researchers specifically in the fields of equity/justice, women studies, sociology and social work, that the concept of 'objectivity' in this kind of research is somewhat of a western-made fallacy. I believe that we are all aspects of ‘native’ (or of being an insider) at some point and context or another. I feel that one does not lose objectivity or gain subjectivity, but that we speak and interpret information from our social location (which is continually changing), whether we all, as I did above, declare it or not, or are aware of it or not. I feel it necessary for researchers, no matter where on the insider-outsider spectrum, to identify their social location and constantly examine how this may impact their relationship with their environment of data collection and in their interpretation of data. For community development officers and social workers (working locally or internationally) in practice, it is important for them to reexamine their own social locations (and with respect to their client groups) to ensure that they are conducting the highest quality of assessments and making the best possible sound conclusions and recommendations.
I quote Anais Nin (1903 -1977), a French writer, who so eloquently stated, “We don't see things as they are; we see things as we are.” I add here that we relate to the world as we relate to (and see) ourselves in the world. Thus, to understand others, we must understand ourselves, and I see this as a symbiotic process, in which understanding the 'relational dialogue' is key. This is partly why I have weaved in my own family history with the history of the villagers I was meeting and with the history of Southeast Asia I had read from various sources --- as I acknowledge that I am a part of the research process and interpret the information from my social location.

This was one of the (many) missing elements of earlier anthropologist-researchers and colonial reporters, who did not identify their own social locations. Certainly colonial writers, when labeling native groups as ‘savages’ and ‘barbaric’, were speaking from their own perspectives. This was not formally acknowledged in their work, thereby mis-presenting their findings as 'objective' and leaving the assumption that anyone else would also have the same interpretations. Their conclusions, by chance, would serve their interests since these conclusions validated the need to ‘bring civilization’ or colonize the peoples and the lands. I believe that we need more research (and more visibility of research) of certain histories, communities and races by researchers who can personally identify with their subject-matter. This would balance the political/public/authoritative voice on the debate on what the history really was and whose stories get told and how. I believe the perspective of such researchers is critical to the construction of history and in shaping our 'present' and in how we currently understand ourselves. Thus, my perspectives on the Southeast Asian cultures I have seen, are not objective, nor do I feel any account of similar research is, and not only do I declare it, I delve into it for the pursuit of knowledge, because one of the ways I define knowledge is ‘perspective’.
As a Muslim Pakistani woman walking around (in western dress) in the villages, interacting with villagers, the markets, and small eating places, as well as in urban centres, I felt a sense of belonging. I did not feel I extremely stood-out or extremely blended-in. Although, I feel a sense of belonging in Canada as well as in Pakistan, both of a distinct nature, I felt yet a new sense of belonging in various parts of Southeast Asia. I attribute this to me being Asian, someone who identifies as being 'from the East', someone who abides by eastern philosophies of 'knowing', 'visioning' and of 'the self', someone who can (to a degree) identify with the poverty (and its implications) in a "developing" nation, my status as Muslim (originally from the east) in a Muslim dominated country, as well as to being a person visibly non-caucasian. The villagers also indicated the impacts of these similarities. Many of them noted that the reason they shared as much with me as they did was because they felt I was one of their own. Some clearly indicated that had I been American or caucasian they would not be able to share so much so openly, or may never have developed such a bond. They indicated that they would be comfortable and cooperative with any foreigner, but they felt that with someone who is also "from the east" and is Muslim there is less to explain and more to share. I am aware that there may be information missing to me that may be apparent to someone who was more of an outsider in these respects, as clearly our experiences would have been different.

At the same, I am also very much an ‘outsider’ in many respects to Southeast Asian cultures, which in itself is a vast region with so many distinct cultures and identities within it. Some of the major differences were my status as a Canadian visitor, difference in languages, my profession as a social worker, as well as my own socio-economic status.
I had various privileges due to my Canadian nationality, my lighter skin-shade compared to those I was working with (often times I was mistaken for caucasian-western), my education and (perceived) status as a (North American) social worker, researcher or "expert". Certainly, I was somewhere on the large spectrum of being an “insider-outsider” and in some cases throughout my work in Southeast Asia I was closer to an insider than outsider and in other cases more outsider than in. This was dependent on the environment in which I was in, whether it was a poor rural village, a large company, a government office, an elite middle-class party or simply walking down the street. This of course impacted the way that I was received, the way I related to those around me, my experiences and the way that I interpreted and made sense of my experiences.

because I shared both a Muslim and Indian history with Southeast Asians, certain parts of who I am were suddenly validated in new public and sometimes strange ways. This includes the experience of being amongst a large community that looked like me (or of similar shades, race and ethnicity), spoke similar languages (i.e. Hindi in Malaysia & Singapore), hearing old Indian music blasted on the festive streets that I only listened to among closest of friends, hearing the 'azan' sometimes as I walked by a masjid, openly seeing people/professionals wearing varieties of non-western clothing, speaking languages and talking about topics so openly in public (professional and official state spaces) that I was used to doing so only in small private circles. This was a beautiful experience and one leading to significant personal insight.

Stories & Histories of Islam in Southeast Asia

Today, Southeast Asia is home to the largest Muslim population and the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia. Indonesia is the 4th largest nation in the world with population of 240 million. Singapore and the mainland countries (Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) are predominantly Buddhist, with second largest religion being Islam. Malaysia, western Indonesia and Brunei are predominantly Muslim. The Muslims in Southeast Asia are also sometimes referred to as Cham communities or Cham Muslims.

Islam came to the birthplace of my ancestors, the City of Bukhara, in 650 (AD) via an Arab invasion. In 1220 the city was severely destroyed by Genghis Khan and Mongol empire invasion. Much after Persian rule, it came under the Soviet empire, and is now in the country of Uzbekistan. Note that there are also Bokhari/Bukhari Jews and Jewish families with lineages originating back to the City of Bukhara.

The City of Bukhara
was a major hub of the Silk Road. It was first traveled in 138 BC, when Zhang Qian, a Chinese explorer under the Han dynasty, went from China to West Asia. The Silk Road has linked the Chinese culture with the Indian, Roman and Persian cultures, spreading Chinese inventions as silk, gunpowder, and printing into western Asia/Europe and bringing Buddhism, Christian and Islamic cultures and arts into China.

Traveled since then by the likes of Alexander the Great (Sikandar) and Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire (which later founded the Moghul empire in South Asia), this route was a means of not only economic trade, but also cultural, religious and political exchange which has shaped our global realities to this day. For example, one of the reasons that European settlers were attracted to the Southeast Asian region was for spices and herbs only available in the far east. Given the importance of spice trading, one of the reasons that have been attributed to Southeast Asians converting to Islam was that of the desire to create a “brotherhood of spice traders”, a mutual identity and a sense of belonging to this particular community of livelihood.

Islam in Southeast Asia has been dated back to the 12th century with Mongol invasions as well as Afghan and Indian migrations and travels, but quickly spread in the 15th century. In 1260 (AD), after the elected reign of Kublai Khan (last of the Mongul leaders), the Mongols saw decades of internal wars, they became extremely weak as a united threat, and were unable to defend their leadership. Thus, Muslim leaders led rebellions and established Muslim states throughout the Silk Road region. In addition, many Mongol rulers converted to Islam (few Mongul tribes had previously converted), creating a widespread Muslim regions from parts of China to west Africa. In this region of Islamic states (Dar al-Islam), Arabic became the main language and Muslims were united as one community. This meant that Muslim traders could expect good treatment by other Muslims as they traveled the Silk Road.

Since the collapse of the Mongol empire, the Silk Road has seen tremendous war which has made travel along it very difficult. In addition, as kingdoms developed across the Silk Road, taxes for merchants increased which made it very expensive as a trade route. This encouraged traders (mostly now Muslim) to seek alternative routes, as the demands for goods that were carried via the Silk Route were still high.
The southern parts of Asia were open and hospitable to merchants because they were far enough from Mongol feuds and these countries were also Muslim (within Dar al-Islam). This lead to further investments in ships, rather than camels or horses, which were also faster and larger. Many Muslims I met along my journey claimed Mongol ancestry or that they were descendants of the trader communities.

In the late 1300’s, Zheng He, through his voyages across land and sea, has been identified as one of the reasons for the spread of Islam (indicated by Hamka in 1961, a well known Islamic scholar). Zheng He (1371-1433) was a Chinese Muslim eunuch explorer under the Ming dynasty. It has also been theorized (by Galvin Menzies, 2002) that He also discovered America well before Columbus. Zheng He had roots in the City of Bukhara as he was 6 generations removed from a governor in the City of Bukhara and was from a family lineage operating under the Mongols of the “Hui” ethnic group in Bukhara. Zheng He and his crew would seek out mosques and promote building of mosques, connect with local Muslim groups, teach local people about Islam, teach them to read the Quran, and specifically created Chinese Muslim communities. Specifically in Southeast Asia, he had built Chinese Muslim communities in Eastern Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines and is also known as the founder of Indochinese communities. I visited a museum on his life in Melaka, Malaysia (the Cheng Ho Cultural Museum). Some Muslim members I spoke with in Malaysia believed that they were descendants of Zheng He’s family members or descendants of Zheng He’s crews or members of his fleet that settled in these regions (note that Zheng He did not have children as he was a eunuch).

Muslim Communities: Mosques

The largest mosque in Southeast Asia is the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, which is the third largest in the world. The Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Mosque is the second largest mosque in Southeast Asia, know as Malaysia's Blue Mosque.

Muslim Communities: Village Life
I lived among the members of the communities whom I interviewed to learn about their day-to-day lives. Some of the villages I went to did not have electricity or running water and some areas were known to have land-mines. The villages also appeared environmentally clean. Most of the waste created by the communities was biodegradable, the homes were built with wood and on stilts (due to rice farms below and to prevent flooding), they did not have very many possessions and ‘things’ in their homes that were not meant for specific purposes, clothes were often made at home, many got around by walking, biking or motor biking. There was also a strong sense of the communal safety net and the idea of sharing what one has with the entire village.

Prey Tom Commune (Cambodia), is home to a Muslim village called Dom Nak Jangea, and
within it a small mosque titled Noor-e-Janna (seen here in pic). This mosque was originally built in 1973 and then rebuilt in 1994. The mosque had to be rebuilt because it was destroyed during civil war under the regime of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), a communist party who fought to destroy any form of religion, development or westernization. This particular Muslim village has 54 families, who earn livelihoods as rice farmers, by fishing and some as local Tuk-tuk drivers (similar to Indian rickshaws, a cabin-carriage pulled by motor-bike).

I spent some time with Imam Matdad, 75 years of age, who was elected the Imam for this village 10 years ago. He told me that his entire family was killed by the Khmer Rouge. He also talked to me about his Islamic teachings and ways of life being centered around peace and serenity. He is Sunni and indicated that almost all Muslims in
Cambodia are Sunni. He indicated that their village is struggling as although they farm rice, they are forced to have to buy rice for half of the year. They are too small in numbers to fully support the land. He also announced my entry into the village, giving me permission to talk to everyone there, and provided me a great deal of background information on life and people in the village. This helped build a strong connection between myself and the villagers.

Imam Matdad and other Imams I met requested from me translated versions of the Quran. They wanted translations in their local language Khmer or in English. They said that with all the civil issues, they were concerned that they may be losing their identity and their community. They lost a lot of their processions and many elders were killed who were the keepers and story tellers of their histories. They indicated that as they are the leaders now, they are trying to pass on whatever they can to the younger generations, but due to economic hardship and that many of the younger members have to leave the villages to find work, it is difficult to maintain that sense of community as well as pass on their histories orally. In addition, they wanted to be connected to other Muslims across Southeast Asia and globally so they can keep up with world politics and religious issues.

One of the ways in which I connected with the members of the village was the same way in which my ancestors traveling via the
Silk Road may have, by showing my “sisterhood” as a Muslim. I asked the women about the Quran and if they had a copy. They brought me a copy and I began to read it. This usually first shocked the women and they laughed, gasped and called all others to come and watch. Although they did understand that I was Muslim, they were surprised that someone that did not look like them could read Arabic (language of Quran) and that I could greet them as other Muslims do, by saying “Aslam-o-Alaikum”, instead of their local language (i.e. ‘Souousidey’ in local language of Khmer in Cambodia). As seen in these pictures, women are surprised and then slowly begin to read with me. This helped establish trust and verified a common interest and value/belief system.

This particular woman, aged 20, is a newly wed in the village and was visiting her mother's home while I was there. The women were extremely helpful and informative. I felt very comfortable and sensed that they were also very comfortable with me. Soon, the male translator was side-lined and I was able to communicate with them directly through their broken English, my broken French (as they were a French colony), the little Khmer I learned along the way and a lot of sign language. It was apparent they wanted to speak with me as a woman among women only, without interference of men. The women discussed with me issues of sexuality, child-birth, childrearing and health. Before the local hospital was built, the doctor would come to the village and they would deliver babies at home. The women also wanted to hear about my experiences as Muslim woman traveler, about Canada and about Pakistan. They asked a lot of questions to compare themselves to Pakistanis and they concluded that the two Muslim cultures seem very much the same.

Seen here is Masjid Asa Karim, built in 1962 in
Kampot, Cambodia. This was a beautifully constructed mosque. This Muslim village includes 370 families and as most Muslims in Cambodia (and many other parts of Southeast Asia), they earned livelihoods by rice farming and fishing. Women are also fisherman.
Seen in the picture here are the fishing boats of the villagers. Fishing is one of the main livelihoods for many Muslims in smaller poorer villages, along with rice farming.

Seen in the picture below is the Imam of Masjid Asa Karim, 83. He welcomed me into the village and spent much with me telling me of the history that he has seen during his lifetime as well as that which was passed on to him by previous generations orally and through story-telling.

Being an ethnic minority, Muslims struggled tremendously during Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia and communist rule in Vietnam. My appointed guide within this village, Mr. Abdul Rashid Mohammad, indicated to me, as others had confirmed, that there are 1 million Muslims in Cambodia (population of 14 million), and about 370 Muslim villages, each with its own Mosque. Many Muslims in Cambodia, often called Cham Muslims or Cham community, are descendants of Muslims who came from Vietnam in the mid and late 1900’s.

Some of my best times were when I did activities with the children. They were also very open to working with me and indicated their strong desire to be educated.

Seen here is a donated pump well in a poor Muslim village in Cambodia.

In Indonesia, the Muslim members that I spoke with indicated that majority of the country is Sunni and there are a small number (approx 100, 000) Shias.
I was also told by Muslims I spoke with in the mosques that there are about 240 branches of Ahmadiyya Muslims in Indonesia. In one small village I went to near Jakarta, I talked with Imam Ahmed, who was considered quite knowledgeable about Islamic history in Indonesia.

He indicated to that Islam first came to Indonesia in the 11th century and that it spread from 1200 to 1400, mostly due to trade.
This was confirmed by many others whom I spoke with, as well as with authors of Southeast Asian and Islamic history whom I read. Many Indonesian Muslims are members of or closely follow “Muhammadiyah”, an Islamic organization in Indonesia dedicated to education and community building.

In Indonesia, (as with Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and parts of Vietnam) I found mostly extremely poor villages and some small elite circles of Muslims with everything in between this range (although, I spend much of my time in rural villages rather than urban and middle-class areas).

Urban Life & Middle-class Muslims
Mosque in urban Singapore seen in below picture.
Though my focus was on village and rural communities, I did engage with Urban life and middle-class men and women. I will briefly describe these experiences here. Again, I speak here from my social location and my experience as a North American middle-class woman. My location on the 'insider-outsider' spectrum changed as I mostly-likely shared similar socio-economic backgrounds with the men and women in urban areas. In the day to day lives of the middle-classes in urban centres of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, I have to say that I found a sense of diversity rare in other parts of the world (even Toronto with its claim of being the most diverse in the world). Women of various ethnicities and religions were walking down the urban streets of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and even in some parts of the main cities of Indonesia wearing all kinds of clothing from full niqab to mini-skirts, from western to saris, and speaking multiple languages. There was also a visible sense of diversity in faith with mosques, temples, and churches all along the same street as well as a vast choice of ethno-culturally specific restaurants. No one seemed to be staring or concerned, it was the norm, unlike in western countries or other parts of the world where I have visited. Muslim women presented in a range of Muslim identities and appearances.
This was confirmed when I spoke with various women directly. Women were surprised to hear that in America, working women may only get 6 weeks for maternity leave. Women I spoke with who worked in international companies, or were professionals, indicated they found it odd that events that occur in everyones lives (giving birth, getting married, death in family, care taking of sick and elderly) are not events that women can easily work around in America (from what they hear from western counterparts). Certainly, Southeast Asian Muslim women also faced gender discrimination and experienced constant challenges of balancing home and work life, but felt that it would be harder (based on what they knew, heard and read) in western countries. They also felt that (caucasian) western women were too inwardly concerned, such as a high focus on looks, appearance, way of dress and associated judgments/ insecurities, as well as this false notion of 'women's liberation' being solely on (economic) independence. The women here were providing an example of the concept of 'independence' in the east, which I myself have found over and over again in all my time in the east. The issue of 'independence' is viewed very differently in eastern philosophies of self, in which we are all co-dependent whether we acknowledge it or not, because we all function within a societal space of some sort. Even though these women were middle-class professional women whom I was speaking with, they seemed to have a strong sense of family and community values similar to the women in the villages. They also indicated that this was the norm in their locations, even given diversity of religions, ethnicities and cultures, and this is why they feel it would be even harder in North America, because not everyone else around you would have the same regard for the priority of family in one's life.
Unlike, what I was used to in Canada, the Muslims here took Islam as a given, they lived in a Muslim country where Muslims ruled and were the majority. Islam was the norm, and hence, so were they. It was a part of their identity they need not have to explain, such as what namaz, azaan or janaaza is. Infact, I heard these statements (in English or local languages) very often in mainstream urban areas across Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia (i.e “I am going to pray namaz” or “I will be back after three days after the janaaza” or “Asalam-o-alaikum sister”). In addition, clothing did not seem to be a major concern for women or in general communities. For example, women (specifically in Singapore and Indonesian urban and rural areas) mentioned that it was the norm to wear the hijab, so no one questioned them. Similarly, women in more urban areas who dressed in trendy and modern fashions indicated that they also felt that their dress was the norm, although head-covering was common, and did not feel any pressure to dress one way or another. They indicated that 'fashion' was a big part of women's lives here, even if women wore the hijab. I got a sense of that when I entered the shopping centres and malls. Women that I spoke with, mostly professionals, educated and married with families, said that they were aware of debates on 'hijab' in various parts of the world and that they found it a bit odd that such a "small or personal issue was getting so much public attention, and mostly debated by men". The focus of their concerns was not about "hijab or no hijab, but other larger issues of family, education and economic stability".

In speaking with Muslims in Malaysia, Singapore & Thailand (countries in better economic shape than Cambodia, Brunei and Laos), many confirmed the history of the spread of Islam across Southeast Asia that I read about and as I have described earlier. I found similarities in some Muslims I spoke with in Indonesia. Though my focus was on rural and village life, I had an opportunity to speak to urban elder retired members of the Muslim communities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, who were university educated and held senior positions in government or business before retirement. They discussed their histories with me and indicated potential familial bloodlines shared with those of Zheng He (note that He was a eunuch and did not have any children) or were descendants of Ghengis Khan. Some indicated that they believe that their ancestors were spice traders. Many were also aware of the City of Bukhara as a major hub in the Silk Road. Many had high regard for the City where many Sunni Syed Bokhari/Bukhari families came from, significantly where Imam Bukhari came from who wrote parts of the Hadith. Many of these men were open with me once they knew my name, as from my name, they placed my roots to the City of Bukhara and recognized me as a Syed, although the concept of "Syed" is not as common in Southeast Asia as it is in South Asia. As discussed earlier, this again lead me to renegotiate myself as an insider-outsider as well as (re)understand the impact of my (perceived) social location.

"Those who authentically commit themselves to people must re-examine themselves constantly." - Paulo Freire

Thank You
Although my research on the Islamic history of Southeast Asia, and particularly of Muslim migration patterns, is on-going, I have learned a great deal about Southeast Asian Muslim culture and peoples and about my own history in various ways.

To all of you whom I met along my journey, I want to thank you. I am grateful to all of the Muslims of Southeast Asia who shared your time and stories with me, as well as welcomed me into your homes as a friend. I feel extremely
privileged to have known you and to have had the opportunity to learn from you.


"Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by [wo]men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results." - Machiavelli
I dedicate this project to the man who brought me up from an infant, the late Syed Talib (Shah) Hussain Bokhari (~1912-2007), who was my first mentor in life and who helped construct my sense of history and identity. It was through many conversations with him over the years, and more so in his last difficult months, that I was able to document our history through his story-telling. I am blessed to have had this opportunity... and yet... the feeling remains, that there was, is, so much more, more to ask, more to hear, more to learn....just as how Abu always said it would be.
As I now turn to my broader family 'historians' to fill the gaps, in his honour, and for all the elders in the world who are the keepers and tellers of histories, I continue to be a student of 'our past'.

...The End...