The Malay Archipelago, or Maritime Southeast Asia, has long provided a spectacular demonstration of societies deeply invested in the ethos of cultural pluralism, and modern-day Malaysia has laid claim to that inheritance by representing itself as one of the world’s more arresting experiments in multiculturalism in recent decades.

Once upon a time there was a quiet little mosque in the middle of a business park. The mosque occupied the ground floor of an office building, and the other three floors were devoted to an import-export business. The mosque was a busy place on Fridays, when Muslims from the west side of town would gather, but other than that, it was fairly quiet.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Malaysia was seized by numerous episodes of spirit possession among young Malay women factory workers.

Abdurrahman Wahid, former President of Indonesia, once told me a joke: ‘If God visited Indonesia and declared that Islam is erroneous, most Indonesians would continue following Islam, and expel God’. Abdurrahman Wahid, who was affectionately known by his nickname Gus Dur, was notorious for his humour; it gained him countless enemies. But his jokes were always pointed, never frivolous.

The impulse to reconstruct Islamic civilisation in the post-colonial ruins of the modern world explains why the desire for sovereignty preoccupies Muslim thought. This is true whether the aim is to salvage Islam as a problem-solving religion of historical relevance, which feeds nostalgia for a lost past; or whether the focus is obsessive concern for the legal tradition and all the moralising that comes with it.