10: Islamic education in Myanmar: a case study

Mohammed Mohiyuddin Mohammed Sulaiman

Table of Contents

Different Myanmar Muslim groups
Madrasahs in Myanmar
Curriculum of madrasahs in Myanmar
Languages used in Myanmar madrasahs
Famous and reputable madrasahs in Myanmar
Challenges faced by madrasahs in Myanmar


‘Islam’, which literally means ‘peace’ in Arabic, has been transformed into a faith interpreted loosely by one group and understood conservatively by another, making it seem as if Islam itself is not well comprehended by its followers. Today, it is the faith of 1.2 billion people across the world; Asia is a home for 60 per cent of these adherents, with Muslims forming an absolute majority in 11 countries (Selth 2003:5). Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, international scholars have become increasingly interested in Islam and in Muslims in South-East Asia, where more than 230 million Muslims live (Mutalib 2005:50). These South-East Asian Muslims originally received Islam from Arab traders. History reveals the Arabs as sea-loving people who voyaged around the Indian Ocean (IIAS 2005), including to South-East Asia.

The arrival of Arabs has had different degrees of impact on different communities in the region. We find, however, that not much research has been done by today’s Arabs on the Arab–South-East Asian connection, as they consider South-East Asia a part of the wider ‘East’, which includes Iran, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, the term ‘South-East Asia’ is hardly used in modern Arab literature. For them, anything east of the Middle East and non-Arabic speaking world is considered to be ‘Asia’ (Abaza 2002).

According to Myanmar and non-Myanmar sources, Islam reached the shores of Myanmar’s Arakan (Rakhine State) as early as 712 AD, via oceangoing merchants, and in the form of Sufism. The conversion of local inhabitants to Islam was more by choice than coercion, and the same phenomenon was also the trend for all South-East Asian nations, such as Malaysia and Indonesia (Jilani 1999:63). There were no Muslim attempts to invade Myanmar from outside or to proselytise within (Thiker 1959:338). At the same time, Myanmar, unlike Malaysia or Indonesia, did not present a religious vacuum (Hall 1959:131). What is more, the islands of South-East Asia are easily accessible by sea and presented a very lucrative business and commercial environment (Moshe 1972:105).