Language and religion are comparatively new areas of research (Spolsky, 2003; Darquennes & Vandenbussche, 2011). Studies looking at the interaction between the two have found that they are in a ‘symbiotic relationship’ (Salbrina & Zayani, 2021b), and that religion can be one of the determining factors for language variation and maintenance. Two key concepts underpin investigations on language and religion: first, that language is crucial for the maintenance of religion and religious practices, and vice versa; and second, that both language and religion function as identity markers (Mukherjee, 2013). Spolsky (2006) developed a four-tiered thematic framework on which research on language and religion could be structured, and all of which can be subsumed under the hypernymous field of language policy. The four dimensions are as follows:

  1. 1.

    The effects of religion on language

  2. 2.

    The effects of language on religion

  3. 3.

    The mutuality of language and religion

  4. 4.

    The interplay between language, religion and literacy

One of the best examples of the effect of religion on language is the partition of the Indian subcontinent, prompted initially by Hindu-Muslim differences, which eventually resulted in the Hindi-Urdu division (Mukherjee, 2013). Another example of religion affecting language can be seen in the case of Lithuanian immigrants in Scotland. The community has witnessed a serious decline in the number of Lithuanian speakers among its descendants and this was attributed to the growth of secularism and the consequent detachment to Catholicism among their youth (Dzialtuvaite, 2006).

The effect of language on religion is illustrated in Skerett’s (2017) case study of a Caribbean-Chinese adolescent. Her subject identified more as a Christian than a Buddhist as a result of his diminishing proficiency in his mother tongue, Cantonese, and his heightened attachment to English. Vajta (2013) carried out a qualitative study on a five-generation family in Alsace, a region in north-eastern France where French is associated with Catholicism and German with Lutheranism. Vajta’s findings revealed that despite the growing dominance of French in the area, German use was still evident in the Lutheran branch of the family, thus indicating that religion plays an important role in the maintenance of language. Chronicling the changes in Jewish religious language practices spanning over three millennia, Spolsky (2009) compellingly showed that the variations observed in the language of worship in Judaism were largely driven by socio-demographic changes such as the emigration of the Jewish people to new territories. While the diasporic Jewish communities have accommodated to secular languages, Hebrew is still maintained as their sacred language, notably in the ultra-orthodox sects.

The third dimension, the mutuality of language and religion, can be observed in the long-standing tradition of associating a particular language to a particular religion or religious identity. In Lebanon, the use of French is associated with Christianity and is reflective of the Christian identity (Joseph, 2004). In India, a person’s spoken language can inform his religious belief. There are regions in the country where Hindus are associated with those who speak Marathi, Muslims with Urdu and Jains with the Dravidian language, Kannada (Spolsky, 2003). Pandharipande (2006), however, pointed out the complex reality of the language-religion interface in South Asia where ‘there is no fixed equation of one linguistic form for one religion’ (p.141). For instance, Christianity can be expressed by a variety of languages including English, Portuguese, Tamil, Sinhala and Urdu, and within one community, different languages can be utilised for different religious functions, thereby creating a situation characterised by diglossia.

In Malaysia, there is an undeniably strong tendency to link Malay with Islam, and this largely stems from the Federal Constitution which explicitly states that a Malay person is someone ‘who practise Islam… and who speak the Malay language [emphasis added]’ (Rajadurai, 2010: 291). The connection is deemed exclusive and ‘Islam has the privilege in using the Malay language’ (Munif, 2018: 75). In four of the nation’s thirteen states (namely, Kedah, Selangor, Pahang and Penang), the Malay equivalent of specific words such as ‘mosque’, ‘prayer’ and ‘pilgrimage’ has been earmarked as ‘exclusive words by the enactment of Islamic state laws’ (p.75) and are, therefore, banned from being used by non-Muslims. In a landmark albeit contentious court ruling, the use of ‘Allah’ for God was prohibited to those not of the Muslim faith (Neo, 2019), upholding the 1986 Malaysian government directive which had also proscribed ‘kaabah’, ‘baitullah’ and ‘solat’ from non-Islamic publication usage. The decision was made as a way ‘to protect the sanctity of Islam and (to) prevent any confusion among Muslims’ (Mohd. Sani, 2020: 75). The ruling for ‘Allah’, however, was overturned in 2021 by the Malaysian High Court (‘Malaysian court rules non-Muslims can use “Allah”’, 2021).

A similar practice of banning Islamic words was reported in Brunei when the first phase of the Syariah Penal Code Order (SPCO) was implemented in 2014 (Hayat, 2019). Clause 1 of Sect. 217 of the SPCO 2013 outlines the prohibition of the use of nineteen words, including ‘fatwa’, ‘hadith’ and ‘azan’, for religions other than Islam, while clause 2 of the same section proscribes non-Muslims from using 15 Islamic phrases, such as ‘subhanallah’, ‘tabarakallah’ and ‘insha Allah’. In this respect, the two Malay-majority nations appear to have adopted the same stance when it comes to the use of particular Islam-related words by the non-Muslims. However, the association between the Malay language and Islam has not been made as explicit in Brunei as it has been in Malaysia. As mentioned earlier, the Malaysia’s Constitution specifically stipulates that a Malay person is one who professes the Islamic faith.

In Brunei, a Malay person is constitutionally defined as one belonging to any of the state’s seven indigenous groups (explained further in the “Brunei in brief” section), and three of the groups are traditionally known to be adherents of faiths other than Islam (Haji-Othman, 2005). In other words, an ethnically Malay person need not necessarily mean he is a Muslim. There is, nevertheless, a tacit association between Islam and Malay, specifically, the language. The relation between Malay and Islam in Brunei is inferred through the disposition of the state to use the Malay language in Islamic domains and for most things Islam-related. The situation, as shall be explained later, is not as straightforward as there are two prominent Malay varieties in Brunei: the standardised ‘Bahasa Melayu’ and the vernacular, Brunei Malay. The one utilised for Islamic matters, ‘Bahasa Melayu’, is hardly used in the day-to-day life of the general population. Even so, that has not hindered Islam from flourishing in the small nation-state given that there is a general acceptance of an embedded relationship between Islam and the Malay language as a whole. As will be elaborated in the next section, Islamic education is delivered in mainstream schools using MalayFootnote 1 as the medium of instruction (Haji-Othman, 2016). Recent findings on language use in Brunei have shown that the position of Malay has been challenged by English, and the latter has risen in popularity among youngFootnote 2 Bruneians (Salbrina & Zayani, 2021a; Salbrina, 2020, 2021). It is so popular that many from the younger generation claim to prefer English over Malay as their everyday language of communication while some others profess to speaking English as their mother tongue. The preference for English was particularly salient in Bruneian females. Intrigued by this development, Salbrina and Zayani (2021b) sought to investigate if the change in linguistic preference has a bearing on the young Bruneians’ sense of Muslim identity. Their investigation revealed a significant correlation between language leanings and religious identity, and while the overall findings indicate that the Bruneians’ Muslim identity is still intact, there is an observed attrition with increasing proclivity towards English use. This paper expands on this work by introducing other social variables in addition to language predisposition in the analysis. Furthermore, the current study’s focus is not on religious identity alone, but rather, on the association between language and religiosity.


Religiosity is a multi-faceted construct the definition of which varies depending on the lens through which it is viewed. To a scholar of theology, religiosity is often interpreted in terms of faith, while to a psychologist, its meaning may be tied to elements of devotion and piousness. To a sociologist, on the other hand, religiosity may also include one’s membership to a religious group, and his diligence (or lack thereof) in participating in religious social activities. Interestingly, Cambridge University Press (n.d.) includes an additional remark in its definition of ‘religiosity’, noting that this word is usually used in a disapproving way. While there seems to be differing viewpoints on what religiosity constitute, one theme frequently appears in scholarly work investigating this concept: that religiosity is, in principle, quantifiable. Measurements of religiosity usually entail appraising its ‘intensity, salience, importance or centrality’ in a person (Huber & Huber, 2012: 711). In the sociology of religion literature, heterogeneous frameworks with differently numbered dimensions of religiosity have been proposed. De Jong et al. (1976) suggested a six-dimensional scale of belief, experience, religious practice, religious knowledge, moral consequences and social consequences. Glock (1973) formulated a model comprising five core dimensions: the intellect, the ideology, the ritual, the experience and the consequences. Others, such Schwartz and Huismans (1995), have preferred a single dimensional construct of religiosity.

When it comes to Islam, the applicability and suitability of these measurements to cover Muslim religious beliefs have been questioned since they are based on Judeo-Christian traditions (Al-Menayes, 2016) and are culture-specific (Albelaikhi, 1997). Unlike the other monotheistic religions, the concept of ‘tawhid’ (assertion of oneness or unity) in Islam is deeply ingrained in all aspects of life such that there is no political or cultural separation between the ‘mosque and state’ (Gonzalez, 2011: 340). Consequently, several conceptualisations of the Muslim religiosity scale have materialised (e.g. Abu-Raiya & Pargament, 2011; Berghammer & Fliegenschnee, 2014; Krauss et al., 2006; Tiliouine et al., 2009), all of which are multi-dimensional and can be succinctly summarised under two broad concepts: faith and conduct (Al-Khalifah, 1994). While ‘faith’ covers beliefs and the theological aspect of Islam, ‘conduct’ concerns manifestations of religious beliefs and practices and can be further categorised into two: (1) rituals and duties and (2) ethical behavioural principles (Berghammer & Fliegenschnee, 2014). Acts that are ‘fard’ (obligatory) and ‘sunnah’ or ‘mustahab’ (recommended) and those pertaining to religious enrichment such as listening to Islamic talks and reading the Quran are classified under the broad category of ‘conduct’. It also needs to be pointed out that in Islam, there are gendered normative expectations for measures of religiosity such as wearing the ‘hijab’ for women and growing a beard for men. Recently, a large-scale survey involving 3888 Muslims worldwide was carried out (Desouky & Umarji, 2021) to assess the impact of religiosity on aspects of well-being. Religiosity, in this study, is defined as comprising five components: belief; attitude; spiritual behaviour and connection; institutional connection; and contribution or volunteerism. Out of the five, the surveyed Muslims scored the highest on the belief aspect indicating that to the Muslims, Islamic religiosity is chiefly grounded on beliefs or faith. The study concluded that the higher the level of religiosity, the more positive is an individual’s outlook on life.

As mentioned earlier, the focus of this present study is on the plausible link between religiosity and language leaning in the context of Bruneian Muslims. There have been a substantial number of past studies investigating the impact of different social variables on religiosity. Krauss et al. (2006) focussed on the urban–rural divide in Malaysia and found that youths from the rural areas display significantly higher levels of religiosity in comparison to their urban peers, while studies on gender (e.g. Albehairi & Demerdash, 1988; Sateemae et al., 2015) have suggested that in general, females tend to display greater religious impulses than males. Noorfuad and Wok (2018) assessed the relationship between religiosity and intercultural sensitivity and found a positive correlation between the two.

The current study chooses the variable ‘language leaning’ due to the dynamic linguistic situation in contemporary Brunei, as briefly explained in the previous section; while there is an implicit association between the Malay language and Islam with Malay utilised as the main vehicle for the propagation of the Islamic faith, there is now a rising number of predominantly English-speaking youth. One of the questions this research hopes to answer is: is one’s language proclivity a predictor for Islamic religiosity in Brunei? Additional social variables such as age, gender and education level are also included to see if any of them may serve as predictors of religiosity. Given the findings of Salbrina and Zayani (2021b) on the relationship between language preference and one’s Muslim identity, it is hypothesised that there is also a link between religiosity and language leaning, that is, an individual’s language leaning has a bearing on his religious practices and beliefs.

A brief overview of Brunei’s historical and socio-cultural background is provided in the next section in order to better understand the complexity of the linguistic situation tied to Islam in the country.

Brunei in brief

Nestled on the north-western coast of the island of Borneo, Brunei is a small Sultanate with a population of slightly under half a million (Department of Economic Planning & Statistics, 2021). In terms of racial demographics, the Malays make up the bulk of the populace with the Chinese coming in a distant second. The remaining, labelled ‘Others’ in the country’s census report, comprises immigrants and expatriates, with a majority coming in from neighbouring Southeast Asian states such as the Philippines and Indonesia. There is also a sizable community of migrants hailing from South Asia, notably from Bangladesh and India (Ahsan Ullah & Kumpoh, 2019).

The largest population group, the Malays, is in actual fact made up of seven ethnic groups collectively called the ‘puak jati’, that is, those who are indigenous to the country (Abdullah, 2016). As per the Brunei Nationality Status Acts 1961, the seven races are the Bruneis (formerly spelt ‘Barunays’ in state census records from the early to mid-twentieth century; see Maxwell, 2001), the Kedayan, Belait, Bisaya, Dusun, Murut and the Tutong. Four of the seven (i.e. the Bruneis, Kedayan, Belait and Tutong) have always been identified in socio-cultural literature as Brunei’s traditional Muslim groups, while the remaining have been regarded as adherents of faiths other than Islam. However, active propagation practices by the Islamic Da’wah Centre have seen a steadily increasing number of non-Muslims accepting Islam. In 2019, for instance, there were 349 new Muslim converts, with the number increasing to 436 in 2020 (‘Number of converts increase’, 2021).

One of the last remaining absolute monarchies in the world, Brunei’s Islamic roots can be traced back to the fourteenth century when its pagan chieftain, Awang Alak Betatar, accepted Islam and took on the Muslim name Sultan Muhammad Shah (Saadiah, 2016). The sultan’s conversion resulted in two of Brunei’s major ethnic groups, the Bruneis and the Kedayan, to also embrace the Islamic faith (Kumpoh et al., 2017). There have been discoveries, however, of Muslim tombstones dating back to the 1200s, indicating that there were already Muslims living on the land even prior to the first ruler’s acceptance of Islam (Gallop, 2004). Local researchers, on the other hand, contended that Islam existed in Brunei as early as the tenth century Mail, 2017), which, if accurate, would mean that Islam has been in existence in the country for over a millennium, as opposed to just six centuries.

Over time, the number of the Muslim population grew by leaps and bounds, and the dominance of Islam in Brunei was eventually cemented through its declaration as the country’s official religion in the 1959 State Constitution (Gin, 2016). Also mentioned in the Constitution is ‘Melayu, Islam, Beraja’ (lit. Malay Islamic Monarchy), Brunei’s national ideology, which further illustrates the pivotal role Islam plays not only in the lives of the Bruneians but also in guiding the government’s policy-planning and decision-making (Saxena, 2007). Most recently, the ruling Sultan expressed his desire for Brunei to be a nation of ‘Zikir’ and ‘Baldatun Tayyibatun Warabbun Ghafur’ (Mohamad, 2020), that is, a developed nation based on the conception of Islamic principles and which benefits from God’s mercy.

The 1959 State Constitution has also declared Malay, or specifically ‘Bahasa Melayu’ (standardised Malay), the country’s official language and is to be used within the government in official texts and speeches. Interestingly, this variety of Malay, however, is not used in everyday spoken interactions among the locals. Instead, the regional dialectal variant known as Brunei Malay is the mother tongue of the Bruneian majority and serves as the nation’s lingua franca (Haji-Othman & McLellan, 2014). While ‘Bahasa Melayu’ and Brunei Malay bear some resemblances, they also differ in substantial ways so much so that a ‘Bahasa Melayu’ speaker who has little to no knowledge of the local dialect will not be able to partake in a wholly Brunei Malay conversation. Even though Brunei Malay is the variety that is most likely regarded the ‘language of the soul’ (Salbrina & Zayani, 2021a: 6), it is ‘Bahasa Melayu’, a variety that is ‘vaguely familiar’ (Jones, 2016: 512) to the masses, that is upheld as showcasing Brunei’s ‘national culture and spiritual identity’ (Jones et al., 1993: 40).

English in Brunei—action and reaction

While Brunei’s status as a monarchical state with the Sultan at the helm has spanned over six centuries, at one point in time, it also had a British Resident advising the country on governmental matters. In 1906, the then Sultan signed a treaty with the British Government agreeing to the appointment of a British officer who would advise the Sultan on all administrative dealings other than those pertaining to Islam (Saunders, 2002). Prior to this, another treaty had been signed in 1888, which saw Brunei become a British protectorate. It was during the period of British presence that the English language began to feature in the local community and lessons on elementary English were recorded as early as 1928 (Jones, 2012). Education in pre-independent Brunei, however, was almost exclusively delivered in Malay and it was only in the 1950s that the schools were streamlined into Malay and English mediums when the first Government English School was set up in 1951 (Haji Suhaila & Salbrina, 2015). Nevertheless, English was still viewed as a foreign language even by the English-medium students as they were reluctant to speak the language outside the classroom (Hill, 1982).

In 1984, Brunei was granted independence and became fully self-governing. Not long after, the newly established government launched an official bilingual education policy with ‘Bahasa Melayu’ and English jointly used as the mediums of instruction in schools. Scholars (e.g. Braighlinn, 1992; Cane, 1994; Jones, 1996; Martin, 2002), however, pointed out that the policy, popularly called the ‘Dwibahasa’ (lit. dual language), was, in actual fact, English-heavy, and that by the time Bruneian students reached secondary level of education, they had considerably spent more than 60% of their schooling years having been taught in English (Haji-Jumat, 1993). Haji-Othman et al. (2019) note that the ‘Dwibahasa’ was ‘divisive, privileging those students who had a sound grasp of English from their home and family background’ (p.317). The unveiling of a new education system in 2009 tipped the scale even more in the direction of English with more time allocated to the use of English as the medium of teaching in the curriculum (Haji-Othman, 2012; Salbrina & Jaidin, 2020). This, undoubtedly, was not well-received by some segments of the society notably the Malay nationalists who equate English to cultural erosion (‘SPN21 lays less stress on Malay’, 2009). According to Saxena (2007), speaking English is associated with ‘being Western’, as is the case in other post-colonial settings (e.g. in Malaysia cf. Rajadurai (2010). To the young Bruneians, ‘being Western’ is also extended to mean ‘cool’ where ‘cool’ includes normalising alien Malay (and Islamic) values such as ‘having pre-marital sex’ (Saxena, 2007: 271). To evaluate if the increasingly English-heavy education system has indeed produced a nation that is more English-centric and less Malay-inclined, Salbrina and Zayani (2021a) surveyed over 800 Bruneians who they divided into three groups: those who had been in the education system prior to the ‘Dwibahasa’ where the teaching was streamlined into Malay and English; those educated under the ‘Dwibahasa’; and the SPN21 generation. Their statistically significant findings confirmed the postulations of an association between the Bruneians’ language preferences and the education systems they had been part of. In other words, the older generation from the pre- ‘Dwibahasa’ era was Malay-inclined while the younger, SPN21-educated ones were mainly English-leaning. The number of Malay-English bilinguals was also found to increase substantially following the implementation of the ‘Dwibahasa’ system. Thus, it can be said with confidence that the growing English-speaking population and the changing sociolinguistic demographics of Brunei are largely attributed to the education system. Given that education is free in BruneiFootnote 3 and that the 2007 Compulsory Education Act mandates Bruneian children to be in mainstream schools for at least 12 years, that is, from ages 6–15, it is no surprise, therefore, that present-day young Bruneians, regardless of whether they are university-educated or not, are English-knowing and English-speaking bilinguals.

While the concern that ‘more English equals less Malay’ has been brushed off as untenable (Jones, 2007; Haji-Othman & McLellan, 2014) and even mythical (Noorashid, 2018), a recent study (Salbrina & Zayani, 2021b) looking at the possible association between language and identity has revealed some compelling findings. Basing their arguments on the inexplicable link between Malay and Islam in the Brunei context, Salbrina and Zayani (2021b) procured their data from 195 Muslim Malays aged between 19 and 28 years old and found that the respondents who show a preference for Malay are more likely to identify as Muslims. Simply put, those who are predisposed to more use of English in their day-to-day life exhibit a level of detachment to the Muslim identity. They cautioned, however, that their findings were based on a small data set comprising undergraduates from one university who are similar in ages and suggested the inclusion of different-aged subjects in order to ascertain that their observations were ‘indeed a language-related issue’ rather than ‘a complex identity formation process that is uniquely Bruneian’ (p.9). To address this limitation, this current study was, therefore, undertaken. In the next section, a brief outline of the linguistic situation in relation to Islam in Brunei is provided, before going into the methodological considerations of the present investigation.

Islamic religious education and linguistic practices

While there is no macro-policy explicitly stating the use of Malay for the Islamic religious domain, the association between Islam and the Malay language can be inferred through other means, most glaringly in the state’s Islamic religious education. Early records from 1914 revealed that formal schooling came in the form of a Malay-medium vernacular school conducted in a mosque and that Islamic education was the taught curriculum (Muhammad & Petra, 2021). In the 1962 National Education Policy, a proposal was made to designate the Malay language as the sole medium of instruction in schools (Jones, 2012). However, it was never implemented. Instead, Brunei’s Ministry of Education unrolled the ‘Dwibahasa’ system in 1985 which saw English being used alongside ‘Bahasa Melayu’ in the mainstream education system. Subjects which are tied to culture and religion, such as Islamic Religious Knowledge (IRK), were taught in Malay, while secular ones, such as Science and Mathematics, were delivered in English. This practice still continues today.

In addition to the mainstream education system, there is also an Islamic religious one, which is under the purview of the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MoRA). Locally called the ‘Ugama’ (lit. religion) schools, a few were formally established throughout the country in September 1956 (Mail et al., 2019) and only subjects pertaining to Islam, such as ‘tawhid’ and Quran, were taught. The medium of instruction in the ‘Ugama’ schools is ‘Bahasa Melayu’ while the writing system is the modified Arabic script, ‘jawi’. Attendance at the religious schools was on a voluntary basis initially, and for a majority of the children, this meant going to the ‘Ugama’ schools in the afternoon once their secular ones ended at noon. In 2013, the Compulsory Ugama School Enactment was implemented, which makes it mandatory for Bruneian children of the Muslim faith to register and attend the ‘Ugama’ schools for up to 7 years (Haji-Othman, 2016). This means that in addition to the 7 years of ‘Ugama’ schooling, Muslim Bruneians also receive education on Islam through IRK in the mainstream schools, that is all the way until they are about 17 years old.

For those wishing to pursue Islamic education at levels higher than the primary, they are able to do so by taking an entrance test for the Arabic school and this is normally done when they are in Year 2 of their Ugama study. There are currently 7 Arabic schools in Brunei (Jabatan Urusan Haji, 2018), the first of which opened in 1966 with an initial enrolment of 50 male students. A year later, in 1967, an Arabic school for females was established, welcoming 61 students (Muhammad & Petra, 2021). Teaching in the Arabic schools is conducted mainly in Arabic and Malay with English utilised for ‘secular’ subjects such as Chemistry, Economics and History. The Arabic school system consists of 2 years of education at the primary level, followed by 5 years at secondary, and then 2 years of pre-university or sixth-form study. At the end of the sixth-form level, students sit for a national religious examination known as Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Ugama Brunei (STUPB) and those who obtain outstanding results stand a chance of being awarded a scholarship to pursue their undergraduate study in Egypt. The others have the option of either going to the local Islamic university, Universiti Islam Sultan Sharif Ali (UNISSA) or, for those intending to become religious teachers, the Seri Begawan Religious Teacher University College (KUPU SB).

The KUPU SB provides the teaching force for the ‘Ugama’ schools and for IRK. It was established in 2007 and is also under the jurisdiction of the MoRA. While ‘Bahasa Melayu’ and Arabic are the main instructional languages in KUPU SB (as is the case in UNISSA), the institution has recently introduced three English for Academic Purposes modules which all religious teacher-trainees are obliged to read and pass. Collectively called English for Islamic Education modules, the introduction of this initiative is not only in response to the awareness of the growing importance of English as the primary means of communication in a globalised world, but also to open KUPU SB’s door to international students (Muhammad & Baihaqy, 2021).

Outside the education domain, the use of Malay or rather, ‘Bahasa Melayu’, for any matters Islam-related is also evident. The Friday sermons in all mosques, for instance, are delivered in the official language, and so are broadcasts of Islamic talks on national television and radio stations. In state functions, the norm is to have the Quran recited at the start of any event, and this is then followed by a narration of the Quran translation in ‘Bahasa Melayu’. ‘Bahasa Melayu’ is also exclusively utilised for religious events that are organised and hosted by MoRA.

The establishment of a link between the Malay language and Islam in Brunei is further reinforced by the fact that a majority of Malays are Muslims and that most Muslims are Malays. When a non-Malay converts to Islam, not only is he said to ‘masuk Islam’ (lit. to enter Islam) but is also regarded to ‘masuk Melayu’ (lit. to enter Malay), and this entails the expectation of the new convert to also embrace Malay cultural norms and values (Gunn, 1997). On official documents, however, the new Muslims are not expected to put down ‘Malay’ as their ethnicity or race since the ‘masuk Melayu’ identity (Kumpoh, 2020) is a mere social percept to describe the eventual portrayal of ‘Malay-like behaviour and lifestyle’ (p.85) by the former non-Muslims. Another evidence of the tacit association between ‘Muslimness’ and Malayness in the Bruneian context can be conjectured by examining the state philosophy of ‘Melayu Islam Beraja’ (MIB). The Malay component of the ideology encompasses ‘the Malay people, language and religion’ (Salbrina & Mabud, 2021: 49) and is said to index three types of identity, which is ethnic (Malay), religious (Islam) and national (Bruneian).

Having provided the background to and motivations for this study, the next section outlines the methodology adopted in the investigation of religiosity and its probable association with the variable language leaning, as well as those of age, gender and education level.

Method and sampling

An online survey was developed using the SurveyMonkey platform ( and multiple methods were utilised to distribute the link. The first involved mass-messaging contacts of the author via WhatsApp ( with a request to forward the link to others in their network of friends, family and acquaintances, that is, recruitment through snowball sampling. The second method involved reaching out through social media, using both personal and professional accounts affiliated with the author. The survey was kept open for a month from January to February 2021 and by the time of closing; 420 responses were collected. However, 55 were found to be incomplete and 78 were not included in the analysis as the respondents did not meet the eligibility criteria: Bruneian Malays of the Muslim faith. As such, only 287 responses were eventually processed.

The survey

Similar to the practice employed by Salbrina and Hassan (2021), the survey was made available in two languages, ‘Bahasa Melayu’ and English, and the participants were given the freedom to choose the language in which they were more comfortable to complete the survey. Not surprisingly, the younger respondents were more inclined to select the survey in English with all 10 under 19 s and over 98% (170) of the 20-year-olds choosing this option. In contrast, only 1 of the over 50 s and fewer than half of the 40-year-olds chose to answer the survey in English.

The survey was divided into three sections: the first sought the respondents’ background information such as their ages, gender, ethnicity, religion and educational qualification. Information from this section was then used to screen the respondents’ eligibility and responses of those not meeting the criteria were discarded. Table 1 is a summary of the respondents’ demographic characteristics. There were slightly more females than males (55.7% versus 44.3%) with the bulk of the informants aged between 20 and 29 (59.9%) and those in their 30 s (25.4%) coming in second. This is not unexpected given the method of data collection and that internet users mainly comprise those aged between 20 and 40 (Johnson, 2021). All of the respondents reported to have had at least attended secondary school, which means that they have had some exposure to IRK as a subject from their mainstream education. A question on ‘Ugama’ school attendance was also included in the survey and a majority (277 or 96.5%) answered in the affirmative while 10 (3.5%) replied ‘no’ (mean = 43.5 years, standard deviation = 14.8). All of those who claimed to have never attended ‘Ugama’ school had already left school by the time the Compulsory Ugama School Enactment was ratified in 2013.

Table 1 Background information on respondents (N = 287)

The second section of the survey elicited details regarding the respondents’ language experience and language use (see Appendix A), similar to the survey conducted by Salbrina (2021). This included, among others, questions on their mother tongue; language used in various domains and in different contexts; and their self-rated proficiency in the two Malay varieties and English. The items in this section were then coded with 5 representing Malay and 1 English, and the language index scores were calculated for each individual. Table 2 presents a summary of the language index scores according to gender and age groups where a higher score indicates greater inclination towards more Malay use. An overview of the results reveals that Bruneian males show more Malay-leaning tendencies than the females. There is also a general pattern of increasing index score with age confirming previously reported findings that the younger the Bruneians, the more likely they are to choose English as their preferred language.

Table 2 Descriptive statistics for language index score by gender and age groups

The third section is on religious identity and religiosity and the questions cover aspects of what Krauss et al.’s (2006) termed ‘Religious Personality’ defined as ‘behaviours, motivations, attitudes, and emotions that reflect Islamic teachings and commands’ (p. 240). Included in this section is a religiosity scale of 10 indicators, each valued on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from ‘always’ (1) to ‘never’ (5) (see Appendix B for details of items in the religiosity section). A principal component analysis (PCA) was carried out to determine the factor structure of the religiosity scale. The exploratory factor analysis produced a two-factor solution based on eigenvalues above 1 and the Scree plot, which accounted for 41.38% of the variance. The items with loadings less than 0.4 were then removed to arrive at a rotated solution of 1 factor comprising 6 items (see Table 3). Kaiser–Meyer–Olkin (KMO) measure of sample adequacy is 0.82 indicating that the sample size is sufficient for the measures undertaken, while the Bartlett’s test of sphericity shows that the items in the scale are sufficiently correlated (χ2 = 575.8, p ≤ 0.001). The items which had low loadings (i.e. less than 0.4) and which were subsequently removed are as follows:

  • Citing ‘bismillah’ before starting an activity (e.g. eating)

  • Fasting during Ramadan

  • Asking for Allah’s forgiveness after committing a sin

  • Making ‘dua’ (supplication) to Allah with problems in life

Table 3 Factor analysis of the religiosity sub-scale: PCA with varimax rotation

In other words, these four items have weak bonds with, and are not contributing to the measurement of religiosity in the Bruneian context.

Also investigated in the third section are Islamic values, including personal importance of religion; self-assessed saliency of the Muslim identity; and their degree of agreements on 14 statements related to Islamic worldview comprising the doctrine of Islam (see Table 4). A reliability analysis was carried out on the perceived task values scale comprising the 14 statements which where were expressed on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 5 (Strongly agree) to 1 (Strongly disagree). Cronbach’s alpha showed the questionnaire to reach acceptable reliability, α = 0.71, which suggests a relatively reliable and acceptable consistency (George & Mallery, 2003). As with Sect. "In addition to your answer to the previous question, what other languages do you speak? (You can tick more than one box)" of the survey on language, the items in Sect. "What language do you speak at home?" were also assigned scores for religiosity index construction. Examination of association between measures of religiosity, language leaning, age, gender and educational qualification is then carried out using the composite index scores, with increasing religiosity index score correlating to increasing religiosity (maximum index score = 4.91), while increasing language index score points to increasing Malay-leaning tendencies (maximum index score = 5.00).

Table 4 Statements assessing alignments to religiosity


One useful way of investigating the relationship with religiosity and other social variables is through the use of multiple regression analysis with religiosity as the dependent variable and age, gender, language leanings (in the form of the language index scores) and education level forming the independent variables. However, prior to performing the multiple regression, preliminary analysis was conducted to explore how religiosity is linked with each of the independent variables, as well as to check that the assumptions of multiple regression are met.

Preliminary analysis

The mean differences in the religiosity variable across gender were measured using t-tests. Figure 1 shows the boxplots for the gender variable against religiosity. The female group has lower values for the variable religiosity (M = 3.3, SD = 0.4) than the male group (M = 3.4, SD = 0.39). A t-test for independent samples (equal variances assumed) shows that the difference is statistically significant, albeit marginally so (t(285) =  − 2.07, p = 0.04).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Boxplot of religiosity versus gender

The assessments of the relationship between religiosity with age, language leaning and education level were carried out using the Pearson correlation test. The results indicate that there is a highly significant negative association between religiosity and age, r(285) = 0.26, p =  < 0.001, and a significant positive association with language leaning, r(285) = 0.19, p = 0.01. A significant positive correlation was also obtained for the variable education level, r(285) = 0.13, p = 0.022. Based on these preliminary findings, the following conclusions can be drawn:

  • Bruneian males show slightly greater measures of religiosity than females.

  • Religiosity inversely corresponds to age, that is, it increases as one gets older.

  • The more predisposed one is to using Malay, the stronger is the measures of religiosity.

  • The more educated a Bruneian is, the higher is the tendency to showcase Islamic religiosity.

Multiple regression analysis

A final way of viewing the data is in a multiple regression analysis which assesses the strength of the relationship between religiosity and the predictor variables. A statistical model for a multiple regression analysis including all the targeted independent variables was first conducted to consider the impact each of the variables independent of the others. Following these data exploratory measures, the variables gender and education level are not included in the actual analysis as both do not meet the assumptions for a multiple regression test, namely, that of linearity and a normal distribution of residuals. So only age and language leaning are included in the model. The findings of the multiple regression analysis are shown in Table 5.

Table 5 Multiple linear regression of religiosity on age and language leaning

The regression model indicates that the predictors explain 8.28% of the variance and a collective significant effect is found (R2 = 0.08, F = 12.82). It is also discovered that the language leaning variable significantly predicts religiosity (β = 0.13, t = 2.2, p =  < 0.05, as does age (β = 0.22, t =  − 3.76, p < 0.001). Thus, the preliminary findings on age and language leaning are strengthened, and with regard to the language leaning variable, it can be confidently surmised that an individual who has greater Malay-leaning tendency is also likely to display greater degree of religiosity in comparison to someone who is English-leaning.


The main goal of this study is to examine the relationship between language preference and religiosity in Brunei. The rationale for this study was based on previous reports that young Bruneians are increasingly English-leaning and that their Anglo-centricity seems to have implications on their percept of the Muslim identity. Expanding the earlier work of Salbrina and Zayani (2021b), this study pooled its data from Bruneian Muslims of Malay ethnicity from different age groups. While other social variables are also investigated, the primary focus is on the interaction between religiosity and language leaning. The findings here are consistent with the initial hypothesis that there is a link between the two variables of interest; that a predisposition towards Malay, the language of Islam in Brunei, predicts greater manifestations of values and practices aligned to Islamic teaching. Age was included in the final model of the multiple regression analysis and is also found to be a predictor of religiosity, that is, religious inclinations increase with age. Also investigated but not included in the final model of the analysis are the variables gender and education level. With regard to gender, present findings run contrary to those of Albehairi and Demerdash (1988) and Sateemae et al. (2015); Bruneian males, in general, scored higher in religiosity than females but since the difference is found to be only marginally significant, this information may need to be treated with caution. An explanation, nevertheless, could still be offered in terms of language proclivity. As reported in earlier studies on the linguistic situation in Brunei, females are at the forefront of the language shift towards English. Given that religiosity appears to be inversely proportional to increasing English use, it is, thus, not a surprise that the English-leaning Bruneian females display fewer religiosity impulses than the males. In terms of education level, the findings here indicate that the more highly educated an individual is, the greater are the markers of religiosity.

An interesting secondary finding emerged in the analysis of the factor structure of the religiosity scale in which four items were excluded from the final measure of religiosity. While three of the items fall under the category of ‘sunnah’ acts (i.e. citing ‘bismillah’ before any activity, asking for forgiveness after committing a sin, and reciting ‘duas’ when faced with difficulties), fasting during the month of Ramadan is an obligation and constitutes one of the pillars of Islam. Its exclusion due to a low factor loading indicates that in the context of Brunei, it is weakly related to religiosity and that the practice of fasting in Ramadan need not necessarily be religiously motivated, but rather, an act that has evolved to become an annual observance. Four items are found to have strong links with religiosity: the regular recitation of the Quran, reading Islamic books and the ‘sunnah’ fast and prayer.

The overall implication of these findings is that religion is playing a lesser role among modern-day young Bruneians when compared to the older generation. This study offers a probable explanation in terms of linguistic change and the intrinsic link between language and religion. The country’s default stance is to associate all things Islamic with the Malay language while the realities on the ground point to a complex linguistic scene that is in an active state of change. The matter is further compounded by the fact that the Malay variety which has been sanctioned for use in official domains including in religious education is the standardised variety, one that is hardly spoken or used in everyday Bruneian life. While the local variety, Brunei Malay, has always been regarded as the nation’s lingua franca, its value has seen a gradual depreciation among young Bruneians who are found to be increasingly Anglo-centric (cf. Salbrina & Zayani, 2021a; Salbrina, 2020, 2021), the latter of which is believed to be a product of the decades-long English-heavy education system. So, it is argued that due to the lack of attachment to the Malay language, there is also a disconnectedness when it comes to the learning of Islamic subjects in both the mainstream and ‘Ugama’ schools. While one may counter-argue that children learn conceptual matters best when taught in the mother tongue (i.e. mother tongue–based learning; Jones, 2016), the situation in Brunei, as has been shown earlier, is not as clear-cut. To teach in the mother tongue in Brunei would mean to teach in Brunei Malay, and this in itself poses other challenges, notably since modern-day young Bruneians, regardless of educational background, are also showing evidence of detachment from Brunei Malay (cf. Salbrina, 2020, 2021).

While it is conceivable that a heightened sense of religiosity will be acquired as one grows older (as predicted by the findings of the present study), the effect of language leaning on religiosity cannot be dismissed as trivial or even random, especially when the current findings are collectively assessed with the findings of Salbrina and Zayani (2021b) on similarly aged Bruneians. As recounted earlier, there is a significant difference in identification as Muslims between the Malay-leaning and English-leaning Bruneian youth, confirming that, regardless of age, there is an ‘axiomatic association of Islam with the Malay language’ (p.9). Thus, if the situation is left the way it is now with Brunei maintaining its policy of employing only the Malay language for all things Islam-related, there is every possibility that the attrition in religiosity as well as in identifying as Muslims (cf. Salbrina & Zayani, 2021b) among the younger population will intensify with each new generation, simply because of the growing Malay-English linguistic divide.

What do these findings mean for the future of Islam but more importantly, religiosity in Brunei then? A simple solution may be to start utilising English in activities that are Islamic in nature, as a way to reach out to the growing population of English-leaning Bruneians. This, however, may be met with a great amount of resistance considering the country’s time-honoured national ideology of ‘Melayu Islam Beraja’, which calls for the preservation and promotion of the Malay language and culture. In addition, there is this long-held albeit contested belief that embracing and becoming proficient in a new language means abandoning traditional conventions and adopting the cultural norms associated with the new language. The theolinguistic predicament afflicting Brunei is, indeed, a double-edged sword, where the act of prioritising one language means sacrificing another. On the other side of the coin, another issue looms large: the attrition of religiosity due to a religio-linguistic imbalance of the real, modern world. While the ideal (and Islamic) approach would be to prioritise the religious aspect of this issue, the realistic solution is to reach a form of compromise that satisfies the needs of the multi-parties involved. One approach could be for English to be introduced and utilised as the language of instruction for the teaching of IRK in the mainstream schools, while the use of Malay (notably the local variety, Brunei Malay) is still maintained in the ‘Ugama’ schools. Indeed, the introduction of the three mandatory English for Islamic Education modules at KUPU SB seems to pave way for this initiative.

In addition, given that Malay-English bilingualism is now the widespread norm rather than an exception in Brunei, it may also be worthwhile to consider incorporating the use of both languages in all Islamic events. Failing that, another option would be to be audience-centric when it comes to organising Islamic activities and functions. In other words, when an Islamic event is targeted towards the Bruneian youth, it may be best to utilise the use of English as opposed to the use of Malay only. A case in point can be seen during an Islamic motivational talk that was organised by a non-governmental organisation in 2019 where the invited speaker was a renowned figure from the USA. Conducted entirely in English, the event was a huge success not only because it was a full house, but also because the organisers had had to change the venue to a bigger location three times due to an unexpected increase in ticket sales (Damit, 2019). Unsurprisingly, and most likely because of the language of delivery, a majority of those in attendance were young adults. It may be too soon, however, to expect a similar English-only Islamic event organised by the government because to do so requires the dismantling of the dated viewpoint of an exclusive Malay-Islam association. Nonetheless, in an increasingly secular world and in the best interest of the future of the Brunei Muslim population, it is a recommendation that may well be worth serious consideration.