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  • Chinese Ways of Being Muslim: Negotiating Ethnicity and Religiosity in Indonesia by Hew Wai Weng
  • Sharon Carstens (bio)
Hew Wai Weng. Chinese Ways of Being Muslim: Negotiating Ethnicity and Religiosity in Indonesia. Copenhagen: NAIS ( Nordic Institute of Asian Studies) Press, 2018. 305 pp.

The title of Hew Wai Weng's ethnographic study, Chinese Ways of Being Muslim, captures immediately a crucial feature of the Indonesian Chinese Muslim experience. Dispersed throughout the archipelago, Chinese Muslims have responded to localized and historical trends in highly variable ways, so that ways of being Muslim are both diverse and individual. Clearly not a cohesive group, their treatment as an analytical category makes good sense for this study. Even so, who belongs in this category is still open to interpretation. Choosing to highlight diversity, Hew includes in his project not only individuals who self-identify as practicing Chinese Muslims, but also Chinese married to non-Chinese Muslims who no longer consider themselves Chinese, as well as Chinese converts who have become Muslim for practical reasons but are not religious in practice. Even within this wider framework, and despite the increased visibility and activism of Muslim Chinese, their numbers remain relatively small, estimated at only .5 to 1 percent of the Chinese Indonesian population (somewhere between thirty and fifty thousand individuals).

This volume explores the multiple sites where Chinese Muslim activities contest the long-standing belief that "Chineseness" and Islam are mutually incompatible—from historic legends to Chinese-style mosques to popular Chinese Muslim preachers to Islamic celebrations of Chinese New Year to Chinese participation in Islamic organizations. While Chinese conversion to Islam during the New Order period was conceived and encouraged as a move toward assimilation, the current approach incorporates Chinese symbols into Chinese Muslim practices that aim to bridge the Indonesian and Chinese Muslim communities. This has only become possible in the post-1998 political order, where expressions of cultural, religious, and political diversity have allowed new expressions of Chinese and Islamic identities that were previously curtailed or forbidden.

The primary ethnographic research for this project was conducted over thirteen months in 2008–09 that included seven months in Jakarta and five months in Surubaya. Close connections with three major Chinese Muslim organizations gave the author access to a wide range of Chinese Muslim events. Hew combines observations of these events with data from ninety-five recorded, semi-structured interviews of individuals from a range of age, gender, generational, and social-class backgrounds, as well as data from a variety of primary and secondary sources. Drawing on the theoretical frameworks of Pierre Bourdieu, Stuart Hall, John Storey, Gayatri Spivak, and others, he portrays Chinese and Islamic identities as fluid, invented, multiple, flexible, and strategic, even as they are constrained by larger institutional forces. The contestations and negotiation of different types of identity takes place within a range of historical, social, and political settings detailed in the book's main chapters. Hew [End Page 157] also deploys the concepts of hybridity (both intentional and organic) and vernacular cosmopolitanism as he describes Chinese Muslims' efforts to combine aspects of Chinese and Islamic culture in the ongoing production of both official discourse and daily activities.

Chinese Muslims are not new to Indonesia, even though most current Chinese Muslims are first-generation converts. Chapter two briefly summarizes the history of Muslim Chinese interactions in the Indonesian context, beginning with the celebrated visits to Java of the fifteenth-century Chinese Muslim Admiral Cheng Ho, along with references to the presence of other Chinese Muslims of this time. Hew is somewhat skeptical of the facticity of local texts that claim Chinese origins for some early Muslim saints in Java or assert that Chinese were instrumental in spreading Islam in Java, but he argues that what is more important is the historical memory-making that aims to establish a place for Chinese Muslims in Indonesian history. In his subsequent discussion of the construction of Chinese-style Cheng Ho mosques throughout Indonesia and the claims of Chinese contributions to Javanese Islam by some Chinese Muslim preachers, he argues that these represent strategic assertions that Chineseness and Islam are not incompatible.

During the New Order period, Chinese Muslim leaders and the...


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