Religion and Politics

Term: Spring 2010

Subject Code: GPOL

Course Number: 5066

The aim of this course is to use sociological tools to revisit the history of Islamic polities in Southeast Asia. Islam still too often is considered as having been antithetic to the birth and spread of political modernity, in the sense that it would have hampered the development of liberal understandings of individuality and militated against the advent of “civil society” (an autonomous space of relationships between rulers and ruled, freed from religious authority). The course will run contrary to this line of argument by showing that in the Modern Age muslim-Malay world (1450-1750), Islam did become the main vehicle of new “visions of politics” that enabled Malay and Javanese societies to move out of a world in which kings and subjects did not even belong to the same ontological realms – the ruler being, in most Classical Age Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, a devaraja: a God-like figure of authority. By peering through various texts – from the Laws of Melaka (c. 1450) to the Taj us-Salatin (1603) and the Serat Cabolek (c. 1750) –, we will try to show that these “visions of politics” were rooted in “contractual” understandings of the relationship between the ruler and his subjects that implied the idea of a free-willing, reason-guided, rights-bearing individual. To go against the late 18th century fantasyof freedom-bashing sultanates, will also see how Malay treaties of “good government” did spell out very sophisticated rules of conduct that the ruler had to abide by if he wished not to be removed from office by his “people”. Lastly, we will examine the harsh moral battles that were being fought around mystical doctrines, at the turn of the 17th century, in Aceh and Banten (two of the most important sultanates of the Malay world), in order to demonstrate how these controversies led to the enlargement of peculiar spaces of mundane (one should rather say “immanent”) politics. All along the road, we will engage in an exercise of “critical comparison” between those Malay and Javanese texts and their european counterparts – the works of Simon Stevin, Juste Lipse, Jean Bodin, Giordano Bruno, etc. – for the sake of showing that a non-Eurocentric history of political ideas is both possible and urgently needed, at least if one is to try to pluralize the genealogies of falsely universal categories of liberal political thought.


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