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The impact of being Tamil on religious life among Tamil Muslims in Singapore

The impact of being Tamil on religious life among Tamil Muslims in Singapore


South Asian Studies Programme, National University of Singapore, Singapore 119077, SINGAPORE.


This thesis aims to investigate the impact of ethnic differences on the religious life of Tamil-speaking Muslims in Singapore. More specifically, it examines in which contexts ethnic differences between Tamil-speaking Muslims and other Singaporean Muslims become salient. Furthermore, the effects of that salience both in practical terms, e.g. in the organization of religious life, as well as in discursive terms, i.e. in the way ethnic differences are conceptualized in the religious domain, are elucidated. Both anthropological and historical research methods were employed in order to address these questions.

The thesis consists of seven chapters. After the Introduction, chapter 2 outlines the historical development of Tamil Muslim society in Singapore, with a focus on the colonial period, which will serve as a point of comparison for the contemporary situation throughout the thesis. Chapter 3 discusses the way Tamil Muslim society and community is imagined in Singapore, investigating in particular those aspects of Tamil Muslim society that delineate various social segments within a putative single Tamil Muslim community. The thesis then proceeds in chapter 4 to consider the institutions that structure and organize religious life among Singaporean Tamil Muslims, paying particular attention to the operation of Tamil Muslim associations. The use of the Tamil language and its impact on religious life in the form of preaching, teaching, publishing, and debating Islam is considered in chapter 5. Chapter 6 discusses the debates that have grown out of the salience of ethnic differences in the religious domain. The first part of the chapter considers the structural challenges Singaporean Tamil Muslims are faced with in the local context due to ethnic differences, and the ways they have contested the institutional setup of Islam in Singapore. The second part deals with the broader discourse on popular practice and identity that arises from the salience of ethnic differences, leading to the formulation of an essentialized ‘Indian Islam’ and an equally static image of an ‘Indian-Muslim’ community. The final chapter presents some conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence discussed in the thesis.

The results emerging from the thesis indicate that ethnic difference has a great impact on the organization as well as the imagination of religious life among Singaporean Tamil Muslims. Ethnic salience becomes most visible in two contexts, viz. that of popular practices and that of language use. It is the latter that has the greatest practical consequences on the organization of religious life, as it directly interferes with the capacity of Tamil Muslims to participate in certain normative Islamic practices. In contrast, it is popular practice rather than language that most strongly informs the imagination of difference between Tamil Muslims and other non-Tamil Muslims and non-Muslim Tamils in Singapore. In both cases, the impact of ethnic difference is furthermore shaped by the peculiar historical context, producing different reactions to ethnic difference among Muslims in different historical contexts, while at the same time suggesting a tendency to similar types of discourse in various historical and spatial settings.