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Selma Cook

Islam in Thailand

‘Thai’ means freedom and Thai people will happily tell you that their country has never been occupied, even by China. Both liberty and tranquility are very important to people in Thailand and until today various religions co-exist in peace and people from all backgrounds are treated fairly under the law.

 

The king, who is loved by everyone, is now just a political figurehead of the country but he plays the important role of uniting the people. Despite being a Buddhist, he supports all religions and guarantees freedom of religion. There are many states in the south where Islamic family law is legally practiced.

 

Religion in Thailand

Islam came to Thailand through Arab traders over one thousand years ago and also people from Pakistan have been going there for Dawah. Nowadays, in Thailand, people are reverting to Islam as they hear about the religion from Islamic magazines, TV shows, and radio programs. Also, in schools the Islamic curriculum is mixed with that of the government so Muslim children learn about the religion during school time in separate classes from Buddhists, twice a week. However, at other times both Muslims and Buddhists interact and learn about each other’s religions.

 

Sakina, a 22-year-old Thai student studying at Al-Azhar in Egypt, said, “About seventy years ago, Christians started setting up schools and hospitals, especially in the north where people are mainly Buddhist or follow pagan religions. Christianity is seen as the new fashion in Thailand because it is considered an easy religion and it represents the West.”

She added, “There are many Muslims in Thailand but their practice is not always strong. However, Islam is commonly seen as a religion that makes people better behaved and stronger inside themselves. It is seen as making life positive and opening the way for people to discover everything in life.” The word of a Muslim in Thailand is usually trusted and Muslims are often engaged in some form of business venture. The Muslim community in Thailand sees that it is very important that women are educated and develop themselves.

 

Islam in Thailand Changing

In the past, many Muslims in Thailand practiced Islam as a part of their culture; without the conscious intention of practicing the religion. However, in recent times, Muslims in Thailand have started to understand Islam more and are consciously seeking to learn about it and practice it. In the past, there were a lot of traditional practices that were incorporated into the Muslim community from both Hindus and Buddhists. Now many of these practices, like praying to ancestors, have been abolished. Islam is spreading and there is increased practice of Islam as Thai Muslims leave the country to study the religion in places like Al-Azhar University in Egypt. There are quite a few Egyptian teachers working in Islamic schools in Thailand. In the last fifty years there is more spirituality and more flexibility in the way Thai Muslims practice Islam.

 

At the same time, Thai culture grooms Muslims to be open and flexible and feeds in to the peaceful essence of Islam that coincides with Buddhist teachings. People generally agree that living in a modern world means that it is vital to gain knowledge; the same attitude exists concerning religion. There is now more emphasis on gaining sound Islamic knowledge. Nowadays, many Muslim youth go overseas to study the religion and are respected when they return.

 

All this is happening while Western culture is increasingly affecting Thai people. Western culture can be seen in the way people choose to dress, the influx of fast food and materialism. Western influence started to be felt after the Vietnam War as there was a US army base in Thailand and the country took in 400,000 Vietnamese orphans who were the offspring of US soldiers in Vietnam.

 

Thailand is essentially a spiritual place where religion is respected. There is a strong undercurrent of religion and values in society, so despite the growth of Western culture people easily turn back to religion and in Thailand, religion is all about peace.

 

Muslims in Thailand love to be together for support and they organize lessons for children after school, called ‘madrasa’. They believe that if the group is strong the individual will be strong as well. Some families are more religious than others, but many Muslim families want their children to attend Islamic nurseries and schools in the hope that the young ones will develop a strong Islamic identity.

 

At the same time, it is usual and acceptable to have Buddhist friends and neighbors. Both religions have lived side by side for hundreds of years and Buddhists respect Muslims and even celebrate their special occasions with them, like Ramadan. They will share food, children will play together and everyone will celebrate the special occasion. Buddhists also understand that Muslims do not eat pork or drink alcohol and so they share halal things with them. Farida, a 20-year-old student currently studying at Al-Azhar University, commented, “There is no separation between Muslims and Buddhists. Muslim women wearing the veil is no problem, it has never been a problem.”

Another Thai student named Asma currently studying at Al-Azhar, said, “My mother wears the veil and lectures at the university. She teaches Buddhists every day and is respected by both Muslims and Buddhists.”

 

Growing up in Thailand

Nowadays, like everywhere else in the world, many children watch a lot of television and spend hours play computer games. However, the culture in Thailand urges interaction and active play so most parents are not happy about the rise of passive entertainment. Naturally, in the countryside there is more fishing, climbing and outdoor play and children lead an active healthy life. On the other hand, city life does pose many challenges but until now it is still quite safe for children to play outside. In fact, parents are more afraid of the internet and that children will learn to steal and kill from watching films and playing violent computer games than any bad habits they might pick up while playing in the street. There are also many beautiful parks in the cities. Thai people love to have a garden and they enjoy planting vegetables, herbs and flowers, so most families do not like living in flats when they have children.

 

 

Education

Education is generally co-educational; however, Islamic schools usually separate girls and boys. Some Islamic schools choose to have separate rows for boys and girls or even separate class rooms. Islamic schools are cheaper but are known to have a good standard of education. Sometimes teachers from countries like Egypt come to Thailand and teach, and quite often Thai students who have graduated from universities like Al-Azhar will teach at schools or madrasas for free as charity. Some parents send their children to government schools and then after school the children attend Islamic classes but this is seen as weaker religious learning and the children who graduate from such programs do not have the same level of knowledge and understanding as those who attended Islamic schools.

 

It is generally considered very important to educate girls. This was not the case in the past; however, nowadays since people are learning more about Islam they are encouraging their daughters to finish school. Another point in favor of girls being educated is the economic pressure on families. This is especially so for city people as it is difficult to survive financially without a career. In more spiritual terms, there is a common belief that women have to be educated as they are the ones who will educate their children. The notion that it is not important for women to be educated because after all they will just get married and have children, is generally considered old-fashioned and traditional. Muslim women who are educated and have a successful career are respected both within the general Muslim community as well as the wider community.

 

How Modern Day Goals are Made and Achieved

The international financial crisis is striking at economies all over the world. Thailand is also affected, and Muslims, due to straitened economic circumstances, are being forced to develop and reach out but mostly they are doing so within the framework of Islam. Muslims in Thailand are well-known for being good businessmen.

 

When it comes to making decisions about work, education, career or marriage, individuals within Muslim families are mostly free to make their own goals and decisions. The role of the family is largely one of offering guidance and advice. Parents encourage the youth to study Islam when they are young and then when the child grows older he or she is trusted to go to university and retain his identity. Young people are encouraged to be the best; to be successful in their career and to make money but most often they are left to choose their own course in life.

 

Love and Marriage

Very few young people are forced to marry. Sometimes families or parents might recommend someone for their child to marry. While young people are relatively free to make decisions, they are also taught to take responsibility for that decision and they are taught to be responsible from a young age. Parents give general guidelines on how to choose a career or a spouse but in the end, the young person must make the decision. When it comes to marriage, there is not so much emphasis on social status and marrying within certain social groups; the concept of compatibility is more concerned with interests and personality.

 

If the daughter meets someone she would like to marry, she can tell her parents and ask them to meet him. However, she will be sure to secure the relationship first before bringing him home to the family. If the daughter is trustworthy the parents will allow her to go out with her intended along with a group of friends. It must be said that generally boys are freer to go out and socialize, while girls have a time limit and are under more supervision.

 

Thai people generally believe that love is fundamental in marriage; if there is love, there will be more help and support. If the marriage ends in divorce, remarriage is not frowned upon; it is considered normal that divorced people will remarry. Thai people are generally laid back and take things easy.

 

The family will support a divorced daughter and because of an ingrown sense of responsibility, and independence, people are capable of building up their life after marriage and divorce. Few people will return to their family home ashamed because of divorce.

 

A Culture of Joy and Peace

 

It is expected that all members of the household will work and contribute to the home. There are usually no maids. Even if children are working they will give money to the parents to help the family. As both happiness and sorrow are shared, family members reinforce each other. Thai culture is one of joy and peace.

 

Thai people easily find joy because they live simply and are taught to be humble. In the past, it was not important to wear clothes that have a designer label, however, things are changing and the new generation is being more and more affected by Western materialism. Regardless, most people are modest and happy and find pleasure in sitting with friends and neighbors and enjoying simple things like eating together. Meals in Thailand take a long time because people talk a lot. The men and women sit together when they eat and the whole process can stretch out for hours.

 

Parents mostly speak politely to their children and treat them with respect. There is not much hugging and kissing and children are not encouraged to be over-confident but they are taught to be responsible, sensitive and ambitious. It is not easy for a Thai person to ask for something and this fosters independence in the individuals.

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