Islam in Asia

This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.

Methodological Note: For the purposes of this brief ‘Asia’ will not include the Middle East, even though it is part of Asia. There will be a separate brief on the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. This brief will therefore focus on the Subcontinent and Southeast Asia (including the ‘Tiger Economies’). China and Central Asia will also require separate briefs.


  • The Muslim population total for the Subcontinent and Southeast Asia is approximately 839,890,000. That is 12% of the total global population and 52.5% of the total global Muslim population.
    • Of that number 229 million are in Indonesia, 200 million are in Pakistan, 195 million are in India and 153 million are in Bangladesh.
    • 93% of the Muslim population of that region is concentrated in just five countries
    • 65% are concentrated on the Subcontinent.
  • 0.5% Indonesian Muslims are Shi’a, the rest are Sunni (with a tiny Ahmadiyya minority)
    • Overwhelming majority of Sunni Muslims are Sufis, however, Salafism is growing rapidly
    • The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) is the leading Islamic party in Indonesia: it is an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • India has the largest Muslim minority in the World
    • The long history of Islamic Empire in India (before the British established the Raj) fuels an ongoing (internal) sectarian tension and sometimes violence between Hindus (and Sikhs) and Muslims seen most recently in February 2020.
    • The tense relationship with Pakistan antagonises this ongoing tension, as does the issue of the right to control Kashmir.
    • Some commentators argue that rise of the Hindu Nationalism s attributable to fears of Muslim activism
    • India’s Muslim population is rising faster than its Hindu population through birthrate. 14.4% of total population in 2010 – 18.4% in 2050.
  • Pakistan has gone through considerable religio-cultural change since its creation in 1947.
    • Founded as a secular state, but specifically for Muslims
    • General Zia ul-Huq changed the official name of the country to include the word ‘Islamic’ in 1974 as part of his Islamification program.
    • Salafism and Jihadism have both increased since that time, especially as a result of the funding of the Mujahidiin in the Anti-Soviet campaign of the 1980s.
    • Pakistani intelligence is closely inter-weaved with the Taliban.
    • The Pakistani military is the key economic power in the country.
  • Bangladesh has been moving closer to its erstwhile enemy, Pakistan (from whose authority it freed itself in 1971) over the past few years taking a stronger religious identity for the country.
    • Until recently, it had been economically hampered by the regular flooding of the Ganges Delta, but the improvement of flood defences has enable the country to resist the impact of such floods in more recent years.
    • Today it is one of the fastest growing economies in the region, indeed the world, with an annual growth rate of 6.5-7% for the past decade.
    • That being said, there is still an ongoing problem with ‘seasonal hunger’
    • Garment manufacturing has become a significant industry and a key source of international trade income.
  • Afghanistan is showing signs of stabilisation after its long-running war. However, power-sharing with the Taliban suggests that the country is set to travel back to a salafi-shari’a political settlement which will be bad for minorities.
  • A number of ‘Tiger Economy’ states, such as Korea, suppressed Islam in the early modern period, only seeing a re-introduction of the faith in the 20th Century.
    • Numbers of Muslims in each of these states remain less than 1% of the total populations of these countries
    • However, Malaysia has given grants to a number of states (including Taiwan and Korea) specifically for the purpose of building mosques and encouraging the growth of Muslim communities in the countries.
  • Rohingya Muslims have caught international attention due to their long-running struggle with Myanmar’s authorities.

Discussions of Islam in these regions of Asia are frequently dominated by either Muslim tensions with state authorities (eg China, Burma and India) or the growth of Salafi Islam (Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Indonesia). Clearly these are important themes, but the focus on these issues perhaps misses some of the nuances that are helping to drive this headline dynamic. This analysis will therefore focus on a couple of these nuances.
Perhaps the most interesting economic development is the rapid growth of online Islamic Finance (IF). A recent article about ‘Fintech’ startups in Southeast Asia particularly noted that Malaysia (which is indexed as having the third most shari’a compliant assets after Iran and Saudi Arabia) has been pouring considerable assets into the development and availability of online IF banking products. (Lauria, 2020) Malaysia is already home for a number of the world’s leading IF institutions: Bank Islam Malaysia as well as Malaysian branches of Maybank and CIMB Group.
Amongst the most energetic of the new Fintech firms is Alami (‘Natural’ in Indonesian) which links investors with Small and Medium Size Businesses (SME) in Indonesia. Another is Ethis which is based in Singapore and is supplying crowd funding for projects from Southeast Asia to the Middle East.
The key issue with IF is that it is not religiously necessary for Muslims (see Kuran, 2013) but its development has been heavily encouraged by literalist Muslims (Salafis and Islamic Fundamentalists) for two reasons. Firstly, that it prevents Muslims from being ‘stained’ by using a system which is based upon non-Islamic principles (such as interest rates) and secondly, that it encourages the development of Islamic separatism. Of course, these reasons are interlinked, and they speak to the open expressed aspiration of the leading Islamic Finance scholar, Taqi Usmani, who has stated that proliferating IF products is a way of waging jihad by finance until alternative finance systems have been ‘conquored.’ (Usmani, 2006)
The second interesting development is the growth of an alternative diplomatic bloc which is seeking to challenge the leadership of the Saudi-led Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The ‘Muslim-5-Summit’(M5S) which was held for the first time in December 2019 in Kuala Lumpur was to bring together representatives from Turkey, Qatar, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia. (Ahmad, 2020) There are a number of aspects of this new group which are worthwhile noting.
Firstly, the Saudis clearly fear it because, as soon as they heard about it they immediately brought pressure to bear on Pakistan and Malaysia not to attend. Both Pakistan and Malaysia did not go and Iran attended in their place. So the Saudi pressure was successful. However, neither Pakistan or Malaysia has withdrawn from the process.
Secondly, it is a signal that the power of Saudi Arabia itself is waning as oil demand drops and their regional hegemony is challenged by Iran. The direct invitation to Iran instead was proof that the summit organisers did not fear the Saudi response.
Thirdly, the attendees and those who committed to it without attending, are the most radical and fundamentalist of all Muslim states. Turkey is moving to recreate the Ottoman Empire and, along with Qatar, has been giving funding and refuge to Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood leaders. Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia are all introducing increasingly strict interpretations of shari’a and clamping down on minorities. Therefore, this new alliance looks as much religiously motivated as it does geo-politically or economically.
Both the IF and M5S dynamics point to the development of growing Islamic identity ideologies being encouraged in the region. This is likely to be a regional manifestation of a typology of response to globalisation which have taken on a different flavour to the minority-driven identity politics of the Minority World (‘West’). These developments therefore suggest that new leaders in Salafism might be emerging and that, the plight of Muslims in India might therefore gain the international notoriety which the Israel-Palestine issue has had over the past 70 years. In that context, it might become an impediment to India’s growing influence in world politics.

Ahmad, Talmiz (2020) ‘Diplomatic Challenges from the Muslim World’ 25th March
Kuran, Timur (2006) Islam and Mammon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006
Lauria, Vinnie (2020) ‘Islamic Fintech Startups on the rise in Southeast Asia’ 13th March
Usmani, Taqi (2006), Islam and Modernism, Trans. Dr. Mohammed Swaleh Siddiqui, New Delhi: Adam Publishers and Distributors.


Thank you for this information as it helps to understand the demographics. In a multicultural country like Malaysia where Islam has been used as a political tool by the Race-based political parties, the influence amongst Muslim is very different. The Malays, as they know here are Muslims and the rhetoric by the political dominant parties has always been to portray Malay/Muslims against other races.

The current government which is actually a ‘back door’ government isn’t even an elected government has utilized race and religion as a stepping stone to manoeuvre into power again.

What I have experienced here is a fear amongst the indigenous Malays of losing their constitutional position/right as the dominant race/religion. Thus losing all the perks.

Interestingly enough there is a tremendous upheaval in the upper-middle-class Muslims, away from Islam. They basically are now non-practising Muslims, and in quiet corners proclaim themselves as an atheist. I know of many who have gone as far as Nepal and Tibet, looking for answers to life’s questions.

I have many who quietly reach out to my new website and FB, chatting about Christianity but for now, I try to avoid plunging into Christian evangelism and try to become friends first. Looking at life through the philosophical window. I have found that over time they start to ask me how I am so content, which leads to slowly revealing God’s word. I now have regular ‘friends’ who have been chatting cordially for some time. I have even met a few quietly.

It is a tremendous burden for Muslim, whose whole identity is tied up in their religion. Whatever intrinsic value they have for themselves is entwined in their religion. Plus the fact that here, turning away from Islam is also turning away from the race and culture. A tremendous amount of sensitivity to their burden in seeking life’s answers has to emphasized when dealing with Malay/Muslims in this country. But I can foresee a major shift happening here. It will start in the upper-middle class and will slowly seep down the cracks.

Another issue is the strong ties the diehard Muslim movements have with the Tabligh’s from India. Their influence has been a radical mix in the their teachings. Zakir Naik has made his home here now in exile, and I’ve attended some of his talks, which strangely are all done in English in the villages outside the bigger cities and especially in the Northern states. 90% of the attendees cannot even speak English and Zakir uses his own ‘groupies’ to stir up the crowds who literally cheer, only when his front row groupies cheer. Never even waiting for the translator to finish his translation.

Hope this little information, on the ground, helps your assessments for future RZIM programs, especially in Malaysia. I know Dr Ravi has been here a few times in the past and the Asia Pacific RZIM is active as well, but activity is limited in Malaysia. You can be assured that I am more than willing to help in any way possible here and around this region.

Thank you and God Bless.

For Christ