Religions of Brunei

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of Brunei Darussalam. Nearly 80 percent of all Bruneian people practice Islam.

Khairul Fitri Mohamad / Getty Images 

Islam is the main religion of Brunei Darussalam, colloquially known as Brunei, practiced by 78.8% of the population. Although religious freedom is protected under the Bruneian constitution, Sharia Law, a strict Islamic penal code based on the Quran and other religious works, is currently in place in Brunei. 

Key Takeaways

  • More than 78 percent of the population of Brunei Darussalam practice Islam.
  • Although religious freedom is protected under the Bruneian constitution, Sharia Law, a strict Islamic penal code based on the Quran and other religious works, is currently in place in Brunei.
  • Christianity, Buddhism, and other world religions are permitted to be practiced in private, though practitioners of these faiths must conform to strict religious regulations.
  • In 2019, a harsh penal code based on Sharia Law was implemented by the Sultan of Brunei, including death by stoning for homosexuality and adultery. 

The Muslim population can be subdivided into two sects: the Sunni, who make up a majority of the population, and the Shia. Another 8.7 percent of the population identify as Christian, while 7.8 percent are Buddhist and a final 4.8 percent identify as “other,” encompassing indigenous beliefs, Hinduism, and Confucianism. 

Islam

Islam is foundational to the history of Brunei, and the two cannot be separated. The culture of the small but wealthy country, which is almost 80 percent Muslim, is rooted in Islam and has been since the 14th century. Brunei is an Islamic Sultanate, headed by a heredity monarch whose family has maintained sovereign power for six centuries. This extensive influence is possible because Brunei, as a country, has played only minor roles on the world stage since the Age of Exploration, but it has amassed wealth while being left to its own devices, for the most part.

Islam is the dominant religion of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the southern parts of the Philippines, the countries that surround Brunei, making the origin of the religion in the region easy to trace. Merchants, traders, and religious leaders brought Islam to Brunei in the 12th century via trade routes that stretched from the Middle East, across India and the Indian Ocean, into Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and up into the Philippines.

The religious and political leaders, or sultans, of these regions developed strong ties with Mecca and Medina, sending young men to study Islam in the Middle East. These young men would return home well versed in scripture, and the sultans would grant them jobs as government officials. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Brunei held significant power and influence over most of the island of Borneo and the southern Philippines. In fact, the island of Borneo took its name from Brunei. However, the increasing presence of Dutch, British, and Spanish colonizers from the west slowly shrank Bruneian influence, reducing the size of the country to a small region on the island of Borneo.

Because Brunei was neither large nor an essential port for accessing the trade routes in southeast Asia, it was left mostly to its own devices until 1888, when it was adopted as a British protectorate, though the British government interfered very little in the political affairs of the country.

By the beginning of the 20th century, oil had been discovered in Brunei, earning the small country an enormous amount of wealth. The small geographical size, combined with wealth and the little external influence from colonizers solidified Islam as the foundation for public and private life within the country.

Impact of Sharia Law

In 2013, the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, introduced a long-term project to create a more restrictive Muslim society. As of April 2019, brutal new penalties in accordance with Sharia Law and this project went into effect.

These penalties include the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Mohammed, rape, and sodomy, and they apply to anybody who has reached puberty. Children who have not yet reached puberty can still face flogging for the same crimes. Gay men, adulterers, and women who have abortions face death by stoning. Lesbian women face 40 lashes from a whip, a punishment that can be fatal. Convicted thieves will have limbs forcibly amputated. 

Christianity

According to the Bruneian constitution, Islam is the state-recognized religion of the country, but the peaceful practice of other religions, including Christianity, will remain legal. However, there are restrictions on accessibility and public displays worship for Christians.

For example, Christians are not permitted to proselytize, and converting from Islam to any faith, including Christianity, is punishable by death. The study of Malay Islamic Monarchy is mandatory for all secondary school students, regardless of the institution, and it is illegal to teach Christianity in schools. The importation of religious texts, including Bibles, is prohibited, as is the construction of new churches or houses of worship, in most cases.

Additionally, public celebrations of Christmas holidays, including the wearing of Santa Claus hats, was made illegal in 2014, though private Christmas celebrations are protected under the constitution.

Notably, the brutal punishments of the April 2019 implementation of Sharia Law are, in some cases, less harsh for members of faiths other than Islam because they apply directly to Muslims.

Buddhism

Similar to both Malaysia and Indonesia, Buddhism arrived in Brunei as a result of trade routes from India that traversed the Straits of Malacca between the 5th and 6th centuries. Though only 7.8 percent of the population identify as Buddhist, the religion solidified Malay as the lingua franca, or common language, across the region.

Buddhism in Brunei is practiced mostly by ethnically Han Chinese, who make up about 10% of the population. Mahayana Buddhism is the most common subsect practiced by Bruneian Buddhists, owing to the fact that most Chinese practice Mahayana rather than Theravada Buddhism. More often than not, Buddhism is practiced in conjunction with other faiths, including Confucianism and Taoism

Like Christians, Buddhists in Brunei must conform to strict religious regulations, though the peaceful and private practice of Buddhism is protected under the Bruneian constitution.

Indigenous Beliefs and Other Religions

Less than 5% of the population of Brunei practices religions other than Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. All religious celebrations that include more than five people must first obtain official permission, and these celebrations must almost always take place within a private home or on a predetermined religious space, like a church or temple. However, as of 2005, it is legal to host and participate in Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations outside of the grounds of temples, as long as the required government-issued permits have been obtained.

Indigenous communities in rural areas are targeted by members of all faiths, even though it is prohibited to proselytize anything other than Islam in Brunei. Muslim outreach groups often provide housing, clean water, and electricity to indigenous groups, encouraging the conversion to Islam. This kind of proselytization is leading to the disappearance of indigenous faiths in favor of Islam and in some cases, Christianity. Indigenous populations rarely convert to Buddhism.

Sources

  • Magra, Iliana. “Brunei Stoning Punishment for Gay Sex and Adultery Takes Effect Despite International Outcry.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Apr. 2019.
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  • Murdoch, Lindsay. “Brunei Bans Christmas Celebrations in Public, Including Wearing Santa Hats.” The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Dec. 2015.
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  • Somers Heidhues, Mary. Southeast Asia: A Concise History. Thames & Hudson, 2000.
  • “The World Factbook: Brunei.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Feb. 2018.
  • “International Religious Freedom Report 2007.” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, 2007