Why are there so few Chinese Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia?

The Malay world constitute the countries of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore and the island of Mindanao in Phillipines. While Muslims are in the majority in Indonesia and Malaysia and both these counties have large  Chinese minorities, the percentage of Chinese Muslims is quite small. Thus Indonesia has the largest population of Chinese people outside of China but only 0.4% of the Chinese people in Indonesia are Muslims. The situation in Malaysia is also similar i.e., only 0.5% of the Chinese people in Malaysia are Muslims. There are a number of reasons for this.

Chinese Muslims were instrumental in spreading Islam in the Malay world and thus many communities of Muslims in the Malay world are the direct consequence of daw’ah done by Chinese Muslims. Here we should note that in most cases the Chinese Muslims assimilated into the local culture and their traces of Chineseness were lost. Another factor is that during the colonial period the Dutch in Indonesia and the British in Malaysia adopted a policy of seperating different races and fostering a sense of difference between different people in these countries. As a consequence the social identification of Islam with the Malays because stronger both amongst the Malays and amongst non-Malays. This created a barries for many people who would want to convert to Islam. Additionally Islam came to be associated with people in the lower socio-economic and thus the incentive of converting Islam was even lesser. After independence the vestiges of such kind of thinking still survived in the minds of the people. To change these perceptions what is needed is for people, especially Muslims, to reach out to other people and to show that Islam in a religion for all. However I should add that one should not just have good relations with other people because on wants to convert them but because it is the right thing to do.

16 responses to “Why are there so few Chinese Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia?

  1. Totally unrelated, but I’m amazed on how Beyonce appeared in the ‘possibly related posts’ section. 🙂

    Coming back to the context, I couldn’t agree more. Yes, it is the right thing to do. 🙂

  2. I dunno about Indonesia, but here in Malaysia, to convert to Islam is to convert to Malay. So, this stigma causes people to avoid conversion.

    Another thing, the political stance is race-based here. A Chinese Muslim would not find himself acceptable to either Malay or Chinese political parties.


    • @Tsir Ah Xuan: I’m an Indonesian. Alhamdulillah (praise be to God) man here in Indonesia you don’t need to change your ethnic group when you convert to other religion. A Chinese can be a Muslim at the same time, google this guy: “Koko Liem”, he’s an Indonesian Chinese preacher. A religion’s a religion, an ethnic group is something else.

      Btw, “Malay” is not a race in Indonesia. We have ethnic groups, and Malay is an ethnic group not a race. The Malaysians (plus Singaporeans, coz they where one and the same) and Bruneians have got it wrong. Because the stupid Brits thought “you’re brown, you’re a malay”. Notice how these countries were colonized by the Brits? That’s why you don’t see Indonesians and Pinoys running around saying “I’m a Malay”?? Don’t be fooled by your government. Malay people come from Indonesia, the Riau Islands, we’d know better.

      Peace be upon you.

  3. Assalamualaikum, what an amazing blog. I was surfing and searching the net because I am tired of the Arab/South-Asian muslim stereotyping in the USA.
    I am from Malaysia but I live in US now, and whenever I go to the masjid I feel awkward and my muslim friends sort of expect me to follow their practices (that are sometimes just enlaced with their traditions). I just don’t want to be Arab or Indian or Pakistani. So I am looking up to see if there are Chinese Muslims in US.
    Keep up the good work brother.

  4. Assalamu’alaikum..
    Hi, you are correct, chinese with what you write, chinese in Indonesia want representative west people, they more close to western then to Asia, and especially Hakka ethnic.
    Mostly they are protestant, Catholic or Budhis, some og them are Moslem.
    Warm greeting from Jakarta.

  5. Assalamualaik.
    I’m Indonesian people, and I know a little about Chinese Muslim in Indonesia.
    I know that in Malaysia there are an “association” about religion with ethnic: Malay is associated to Muslim, Chinese to Buddhist and Christian, and India to Hindu. Partly Indonesia also have that, much ethnic have their “majority” religion, that some people said it’s associated with. Ex: Suku Melayu, Minangkabau, Aceh, Banjar, Betawi, Sunda, Madura, Bugis, and Bawean to Islam; Suku Batak, Minahasa, Ambon, and Papuan ethnic to Christian/Catholic; Suku Bali, Osing, Sasak, and Tengger to Hindu; where Suku Tionghoa (Chinese) associated to Buddhism and Konghucu. (Suku Jawa and Dayak is not associated to anywhere, cz there are main number of non-Muslim on two of them: Christian/Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, and local believes)

    In the fact, the main reason as you say that there’s not a great number of Chinese Muslim in Indonesia because the stigma, that Islam = poorness. So there are many Chinese migrated to Christian/Catholic or Buddhist than Islam on Netherlands colonialism (as we know, that Konghucu is stated as national religion just since 1999)

  6. assalamualikum

    im new here n really interested with this topic…i want to have fren with other ethnic since rite now all my frens are malays (sure…as a student of uitm)

    and i have a dream to get married with other ethnics too…sometimes got sick with the malays minds…but i figure out that its hard to survive in mix marriage…is it true?

    • Assalam Alaikum all,

      Muslim in southeast asia (SEA) really need to step up on their efforts on doing Dawah~ And the best example of Dawah is from one’s action~

      Correct me if I am wrong, but being a non-malay and because of political issues, there are not really much good examples of Muslims around in SEA… Well, I don’t blame the people, it’s just how the world works today~ We are bounded by our cultures and regional politics~

      The problem with the world nowadays because we are fashioned and “brainwashed” by cultures and politics… And we are soOoo busy chasing after wordly stuff that we don’t reflect, but just to accept what was given to us readily…

      Yes, it’s true that there are malay muslimah wearing hijab, muslim men going to friday Jummah~ But it’s their actions and thoughts that are hindering non-muslim from knowing the religion~ And often, they are following culture, instead of Islam~ No offences of Malay culture, I’m just stating from the point of view of a non-malay…

      Alhamdulliah, I reverted to Islam with Allah(SWT)’s Grace! But that’s only when the stigma of Muslim=Malay was taken out of my mind when I see the vast number of westerners reverting back to Islam…

      It was mentioned in the Qur’an,

      And if your Lord had so willed, He could surely have made mankind one Ummah [nation or community (following one religion i.e. Islam)] but they will not cease to disagree.
      ( سورة هود , Hud, Chapter #11, Verse #118)

      That’s how we are made… So, it would not be possible for peace and harmony UNLESS everyone follow the Qur’an irregardless what race/culture one is~

      Say: “With Allah is the perfect proof and argument, (i.e. the Oneness of Allah, the sending of His Messengers and His Holy Books to mankind); had He so willed, He would indeed have guided you all.”
      ( سورة الأنعام , Al-Anaam, Chapter #6, Verse #149)

      Hence, it is the religion we Muslim need to hold on tightly… And everyday, we need to reflect on our actions to see if it fits into the Qur’an or the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad… Who else has the best example because our beloved Prophet Muhammad, right? =D

      Insha’Allah, I will work towards being a good example of being a revert to demonstrate this only beautiful religion to non-muslim~ =D

      Khadijah C.

  7. AssalamAlaikum!!! =)

    Finally, I get to be in a place where people can understand the stigma of relating being a muslim and malay…

    Is it true that Indonesia has ONLY 0.4% of Muslim Chinese and only 0.5% of the Chinese people in Malaysia are Muslims??? It’s a scary number… And among these, how many are females and males? Single and available? hee~ =D

    I just reverted, took Shahadah in a foreign land and collecting information to convince my family that I’m a muslim now… It’s kind of difficult when there’s a confusion between culture and religion, especially in SEA where we are divided into different ethnic groups…

    Alincuppu, It is Allah (SWT) who brings 2 person together and it both were to work together and complete each other, Allah (SWT) will send His blessings to them…

    It was stated in the Quran that….

    “And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquillity with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): verily in that are Signs for those who reflect.”
    [Ar-Room 30:21]

    You never know who will come into your life.. Just be patience and wait… Insha’Allah…

    Well, at least that’s what I’ve been doing all this while… hehehehe~ =D

    Have a blessed day/night ahead!


  8. Assalamualikum,
    This is very informative blog. I was in Beijing last year and had the opputurnity to pray at Beijing mosque.. met a very nice muslim chinese lady (name aishah) selling lace at the market . Generally i find chinese people in beijing is so friendly and gentle compared to chinese in other countries..especially in Asia.
    I hope to visit Kunming end of this year..shall keep reading your blog for more info..
    By the way is there a Muslim tour agency in China that we could contact for assistance?
    Thank You. May Allah bless You.

  9. By reading this post and its comments, feels like for some people to have a faith is just for social status. This is a characteristic of people that have no enough faith.

  10. Assalam All,

    The lack of Chinese muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia is hardly suprising and i would argue divinely willed.There is a seemingly irreconcilable gulf between the Chinese and Muslims mindest.As a muslim married to a Chinese Indonesia non muslim i can attest to that first hand.

    My wife cannot relate to Islam,to her the prophet Muhammed is a stranger as she says,although the simplistic piety of Jesus is something she immediately identifies with.

    To be muslim means to lose your Chinesness in the context of Malay/Indonesian society. The atttachment to Chinese culture is something to be admired rather than scorned, in the same way that Muslim steadfastness in western countries is also worthy of admiration.
    To be a chrisitian chineaw doesnt require you to learn english (you can prey in chinese)..you dont have to change the clothes you wear or wash yourself 5 times a day,and most significantly you dont have to stop eating pork!
    You can still celebrate Chines new year etc.

    So Money and status really has very little to do with the resistance to Islam.

    The bridge between a true Chinese and true Islamic culture can only be made at the transcendental/metaphysicial level,something achived by Lie TZi and Wang Dai yu,but that is too far outside the scope of the average Muslim or chinese.

    The muslim and chinese worlds represent two seperate Universes and each should be respected for what they are.It would be tragic if all the Chinese became Muslims in those countries.

    I am not a big believer in Proletysing,however i do feel that Islam could/should have some kind of place (albeit a marginal one) for the chinese in those countries,as their is an increasing spiritual need for it,rather than out of some sense of muslim superiority..
    Traditional chinese ideas of ancestor worship etc are becoming increasingly redundant in the face of globalisation (which also requires people to adopt a globally recognisable identity) and islam can at least fill that spirtual vaccum for some Chinese.
    More chinese are assuming a distinct religous idnetities ( as opposed to the traditional heterogenous mix of taosim,buddhism Kongfuchu) such as Buddhist,Taoist etc.

    Christianity is hugh amongst Chinese these countries and i think this is a transtion phase,which will eventually lead to more chinese to embrace Islam over the next few generations.

    The jump straight from a traditional (totok) chinese worldview to an Islamic one,is a very diffciult one. I can see the largsacle migration towards christianity (which is a lot more accessible in a way )pathing the way towards Islam later.

    Regarding the bad example of Musliums in s.e.asia.:
    I here alot of malays and Indonesian muslims say that,which is rubbish.It actually usually comes from modernist muslims who think they are so morally superior ,based on sentimental notions of piety they have adopted from the western worlds.

    Most of these modernist muslims tend to point out the hypocrisy of others,esp religous leaders (who they always expect ot be perfect??). However as the Buddha said it is really hard to be a real hypocrite,but also very easy.
    Real hypocrisy is not recognsing that hypopcrisy is within all of us and by calling others hypocrite,you are actually being the worst kind of hypocrite possible.Their is always a gap betwee what we know and what we can do in terms of practise.
    Whilst Malaysian Islam is for the most part very normative and lacking in dynamism,i would say Indonesia (which most malays look down upon) has some of the most amazing,pious and genuine muslims in the world. From all my travels in the muslim world,i would say the Indonesian muslims are the most naturually spiritual and flexible.

  11. aAssalam Alaikum

    Strange indeed, in the past it was chinese who brought islam to indonesia. Some of the 9 wali in Java were chinese too. I think maybe because other ethnic group in Indonesia (like sundanese, acehnese, minang, etc) have their culture already blend with islam. That’s what i don’t see in the chinese culture here. So it is rather hard for the chinese to be a muslim.

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