Dr R. Michael Feener

  • Islamic Studies
  • Southeast Asian Studies
  • Indian Ocean History

My work focuses on the religious, cultural, and intellectual history of Islam; with a primary focus on the maritime Muslim world stretching from the Red Sea across the Indian Ocean and through the Indonesian Archipelago to the South China Sea. My current book project explores the complex processes through which Islam took root in diverse societies across Southeast Asia, and how in turn this region came to form an integral part of an expanding maritime Muslim world. It tells stories of the movement of diverse peoples, carrying their goods, cultures, and beliefs on shipboard, thereby shaping dynamics of Islamization and vernacularization that have come to define much of the Muslim world as we know it today. The narrative weaves together strands of diverse and sometimes distant origins, involving complex interactions with societies of the Middle East, South Asia, China, and Europe. These long term and shifting engagements with developments well beyond the region were important factors informing the specific ways in which Islam arrived and took root in Southeast Asia - where local communities then actively adopted and adapted select aspects of various traditions in forming their own understandings and experiences of Islam. This work draws on a wide range of sources from archaeology, art history, and Arabic epigraphy to vernacular-language manuscripts and European colonial archives. I am currently also collaborating with a team of seismologists, geologists, and archaeologists on a project tracing the long-term impact of natural disaster and climate change on early Muslim settlement patterns in the region that will contribute a further important environmental perspective to our understandings of this complex history. These diverse materials are brought together to trace narratives of Islamization and vernacularization from the earliest Muslim traders active in the region to the establishment of coastal sultanates, the conversion of local populations of the interior, the development of Islamicate vernacular literary and cultural traditions, the expansion of ulama networks, the formation of state and social institutions, and evolving forms of aesthetic and performative expression.

From my background in Islamic Studies I have also expanded my research and publications over the years to include work on modern and contemporary dynamics of religion and development across diverse religious traditions in Asia. My work in Aceh since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami has led me to new explorations of the social, cultural, political, and economic effects of disasters and humanitarian responses. In this I have a particular interest in the ways in which conceptions of religion and the structures of religious institutions both inform and respond to the often dramatic social transformations of such contexts. 




Featured Publication

Muslim Legal Thought in Modern Indonesia (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Muslim Legal Thought

Indonesia has been home to some of the most vibrant and complex developments in modern Islamic thought anywhere in the world. Nevertheless little is known or understood about these developments outside South East Asia. By considering the work of the leading Indonesian thinkers of the twentieth century, Michael Feener, an intellectual authority in the area, offers a cogent critique of this diverse and extensive literature and sheds light on the contemporary debates and the dynamics of Islamic reform. The book highlights the openness to, and creative manipulation of, diverse strands of international thought that have come to define Islamic intellectualism in modern Indonesia. This is an accessible and interpretive overview of the religious and social thought of the world's largest Muslim majority nation. As such it will be read by scholars of Islamic law and society, South East Asian studies and comparative law and jurisprudence.


“The effort to comprehend and faithfully render this complex, multi-dimensional intellectual enterprise is a tall order, it requires an ability to navigate a vast scholarly and confessional intellectual landscape, as well as a sensitivity to the Indonesian cultural and political context in which those ideas develop and interact. Michael Feener is virtually alone in possessing the qualifications necessary to undertake such a study; in Muslim Legal Thought in Modern Indonesia, he has written a book that is worthy of his subject.”


- Mark Cammack (Southwestern Law School), Indonesia

  • Buddhist and Islamic Orders in Southern Asia Comparative Perspectives

  • Challenging Cosmopolitanism Coercion, Mobility and Displacement in Islamic Asia

  • The Mission of Development Religion and Techno-Politics in Asia

  • Navigating a world of religious NGOs: Ethnography, abstraction, and views of the horizon

  • Configuring Catholicism in the anthropology of Christianity

  • Muslim Cultures and Pre-Islamic Pasts: Changing Perceptions of ‘Heritage’

  • The Anthropology of Catholicism in Southern Asia

  • Religion and Reconstruction in the Wake of Disaster

  • Rebuilding Asia Following Natural Disasters Approaches to Reconstruction in the Asia-Pacific Region

  • Blue prints for change and the re-imaging of life in post-tsunami Aceh, Indonesia

  • More

DPhil Students

I would like to hear from potential DPhil students regarding Islamic History, Southeast Asian History, Indian Ocean History.