THE ARRIVAL OF ISLAM IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
An Historical Approach
Dr. Badrane Benlahcene
When did Islam come to the Malay world? Who were its mentors and where did they come from? These two questions and some other related questions are among the most commonly asked questions concerning the history of Islam in the Malay world or Southeast Asia. Therefore, it is the purpose of this paper to look for answers which historically could be justifiable.
At the very outset of this discussion, one may honestly acknowledge that mystery still surrounds the origins of Islam in Southeast Asia. The date of the religion’s arrival in the Malay world, and the identity of those responsible for its introduction, will probably never be known with certainty. Some clues are provided by Arab and Chinese documentary sources, archaeological investigations and inscribed stones. However, debate continues as to whether the propagators were from the Middle East, India or China. Despite this, the development of Islam in the region is widely and richly recorded.
Before the arrival of Islam to the region, there were regular contacts with the Indian subcontinent. In addition, a number of Indian states existed in the Malay world. Geographical factors within the archipelago and Southeast Asia, and the inherent relationship with the Indian Ocean, provided the infrastructure for human interaction, precipitating the Indianisation of the region. The Indians introduced the Hindu and Buddhist religions to the region; an early prominent Buddhist kingdom in the peninsula was that of Lankasuka in the Bujang Valley, Kedah, in the north of modern Malaysia. From the 7th to the 13th century, the Hindu-Buddhist empire of Srivijaya, founded in Palembang, controlled all of Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, the greater part of Java, and numerous other islands in the region. In the 13th century, the Srivijaya Empire was succeeded by the kingdom of Majapahit. Based in Java, Majapahit held sway over vast territory, including parts of Borneo. These Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms blended their religious practices with ancient Southeast Asian customs and traditions.
By the later 13th century, the most powerful state in Southeast Asia was the Sultanate of Melaka, and this is where the story of the Muslim Malay world really begins. The political presence of Islam in the Malay world came some time after the first Islamic presence in the region; the connection between Southeast Asia and the Arab world predates Islam itself by many centuries. Scholars have observed that the relationship between the Malay world and Arabia could date back as early as the 1st century AD. Studies have found that Malay navigators learned to use the monsoons, and Malay shipbuilders probably pioneered the balance-lug sail, allowing vessels to sail into the wind by ‘tacking’. The technology is related to and may be the ancestor of the triangular-shaped sail of the Arab dhow, which was in turn borrowed by the Portuguese and Spanish in the design of the caravel.
By the 8th century, Muslim traders and merchants had established themselves in Sind (present-day Pakistan), and merchants from Persia, Oman and Hadhramaut had settled on the west coast of India. Gujarat came under Muslim rule in 1287, and significant Muslim trading communities developed in Malabar, Coromandel and Bengal. Extensive trade connections between India, China and West Asia and the Malay Archipelago enabled Muslim sailors, merchants and travellers from Arabia, West Asia, India and China to visit and even settle in the region. Certain locations in the Malay world were well known to Arab and non-Arab Muslim traders, being mentioned in works of early Muslim geographers and travellers. Along the Melaka Straits, Arab merchant colonies were established in Kalah (Kedah) and Zabaj, which has been identified with Srivijaya, in south Sumatra. The harbour of Melaka also became a familiar destination for traders from Arabia. Arab sources mention the existence of tin and jungle products. This reference to tin supports arguments identifying Kalah as Kedah, as well as the discovery in the state of Kedah of two coins from the Abbasid Caliphate, one of which is dated 234 AH (848 AD). Another popular stopover for Arab sailors was Tiyumah, believed to be Pualu Tioman, in the South China Sea. Like Kalah, Tiyumah acted as a stapling port and source of fresh water for ships sailing to China. In the 10th century, an Arab text also mentions ‘Panhang’ (Pahang). The major maritime route followed by early Arab and Persian traders went from Sri Lanka via the Nicobar Islands to Kedah, and then round the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula to the island of Tioman and north to China.
Among the first confirmed pieces of evidence about the arrival of Islam in Southeast Asia comes from Phan Rang, in Campa (to the south of modern-day Vietnam), where an Arabic-inscribed pillar recording laws, dated to the year 1035, and a Muslim gravestone, dated to 1039, have been found. In addition, a Muslim woman’s gravestone from 1048 was found in Brunei, and another from 1082 is known from Leran, East Java. The existence of these graves indicates that a Muslim presence in these places was well established. As Muslim merchants did not travel with their families, the women commemorated by the gravestones were probably local women who had married the traders during their long periods of stay while awaiting the change of winds. On the Chinese side, from the 12th century, the closing of the overland routes across Central Asia spurred the Hui communities to expand their ocean-going trade activities in Southeast Asia, and Chinese Muslim settlements developed in Southeast Asia. When the Ming emperor sent an imperial fleet through the region, he chose the Chinese Muslim Zhenghe (Cheng Ho) (1371-1435) as his emissary.
The settlements established by Arab merchants along the Straits of Melaka facilitated the expansion of Islam. During the 13th century Muslim missionaries, mainly Sufis from West Asia, travelled to these ports to reintroduce Islam among the traders. From the 13th century onwards the first local Islamic kingdoms appeared, the earliest of which was Pasai in northern Sumatra. From that time onwards the commercial presence of Muslim traders in the Malay regions was essential to introducing local societies to Islam, and Islamic influence became very pronounced.
The Pioneers of Islam in Southeast Asia
Unlike the date of the arrival of Islam to the region, most scholars agree on how Islam made its way to Southeast Asia and who its pioneers were. The leading mentors included traders, the Ulama and Sufi ‘saints’, and the local Sultans. Islam took root in Southeast Asia through a combination of the patience of religious scholars and the adaptation of members of royal courts. Although extensive Arab contact with Southeast Asia predated Islam itself, and despite the Chams of Vietnam adopting Islam in the 10th century, it was not until the end of the 13th century that the faith came to be a major influence in Southeast Asia’s coastal regions. From there, it made inroads into the hinterland of Southeast Asia.
Although Islam travelled by many different routes, sometimes converting rulers and entire populations in a single initiative, it was not solely traders and religious figures who provided spiritual guidance. The sultans played a vital role in the spread of Islam among the different tribes and kingdoms of the region. They were the protectors of Islam on the one hand, while on the other hand they found in Islam a sense of a unity to live by and a message to accomplish. These elements formed the basis of the establishment and spread of Islam in Southeast Asia. Once established, the spread of Islam was accelerated through marriages between the daughters of wealthy local merchants and Muslim traders, combined with commercial policies. From the 13th century onwards, as is evident in the use of Arabic terminology in the Sejarah Melayu, Islam made incursions into the region through trade with Arab merchants and as a result of the movements of Islamic scholars and pilgrims across the seas to Mecca.
By the 14th century, Muslim traders in Java were among the elite at the capital of Majapahit. In addition, Java’s port cities converted and, as sultanates, competed with Majapahit for trade. New men, especially merchants, formed the elites of these sultanates. While the names of the prominent traders who contributed to the arrival of Islam remain unknown, historical records state that they came mainly from southern Arabia and other parts of the Arab world, as well as Persia, India and Turkey. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Islamisation of the region was advanced especially by traders and Sufi saints from the Hadramaut in southern Arabia, as well as by merchants from southern India. These were areas in which Shafi’ite Sunnism was prevalent, propagated in the garb of a mysticism imbued with the ideals of sainthood and attached to the leading mystical orders then active in the Middle East and India.
The emergence of various Malay-Muslim kingdoms in the wake of the disintegration of Srivijaya Empire, based in south Sumatra, and the Majapahit in Java took place at different times and under different circumstances. Following the example of powerful kingdoms in the region, beginning with Samudra Pasai in north Sumatra in 13th century, the succeeding centuries saw the rise of Melaka, Aceh, Brunei, Patani, Banten and Cirebon, culminating in the 19th century with sultanates in southern Thailand and along the coasts of Borneo. These kingdoms were not only the centres for the propagation of Islam, but they also nurtured its intellectual development through the presence of the Ulama and advanced Islamic education, especially Sufi philosophies.
The Sultanate of Melaka was one of the most significant bases of Islamisation in the region, before it was taken by the Portuguese in 1511. This empire controlled much of the trade passing through the Straits of Melaka and was also a centre of Malay culture and a model for subsequent Malay-Muslim sultanates. Aceh, also known as the ‘Veranda of Makka’, reached the height of its power during the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda (1607-36), controlling the lucrative trade in pepper and providing patronage for many Islamic works. History mentions the names of many other sultans who were patrons of learning; among the most notable of whom were al-Malik al-Zahir of Samudra-Pasai, Mansur Shah of Melaka, and Iskandar Muda Mahkota Alam of Aceh. Some were the protectors of Sufi orders and followed the mystical paths or were closely associated with the teachers of Sufism. These include Muhammad Yusuf al-Khalidi al-Naqshabandi of Riau and Agung Tirtayasa of Banten.
The institutions which have played a more continuous role in the Islamisation of Southeast Asia are the Ulama and Sufi orders. The Ulama and Sufis formed a special and greatly respected group which influenced all aspects of society. Among the leading figures who played a part in developing regional Islamic culture were the prolific writer and scholar Hamza al-Fansuri (d. 1629) of Barus in Sumatra, Nur al-din al-Raniri (d. 1666), Shams al-Din al-Sumatrani (d. 1630), Abd al-Ra’uf Singkl (d. 1693), Daud Ibn Abdullah al-Fatani (1718-1847), Abdullah al-Arif (1165-1177) and the Nine Saints in Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi.
The Development of Islamic Culture
The advent of Islam and the subsequent spread of Islamic learning in Southeast Asia brought about a major cultural change. The process of Islamisation and the formation of the Malay world’s Islamic culture and identity underwent a gradual evolution in three phases. The first of these (circa 1200-1400) was the phase of nominal conversion, or ‘conversion of the body’. The second phase (circa 1400-1700) is described as the period of the ‘conversion of the spirit’, and saw the rising influence and spread of philosophical mysticism, tasawwuf and kalam. The third phase (from 1700 onwards) saw the continuation and consummation of the second phase coinciding with the coming of the West.
The Islamic theological, mystical and metaphysical literature set in motion the process of revolutionising the Malay world’s world view, turning it away from a crumbling world of mythology to the world of intelligence, reason and order. Islamic monotheism also transformed the Malay language. By the 16th century, Malay had become the literary and religious language of Islam in the region. The 16th and 17th centuries, a period which marked the rise of rationalism and intellectualism not manifested anywhere before in the Malay Archipelago, saw the emergence of philosophical mysticism and rational theology. The works of this new stream of Malay literature reveal a language of logical reasoning and scientific analysis. The great significance of this period of Islamisation is that it set in motion the process of revolutionising the Malay world view, effecting its transformation from an aesthetic to a scientific one.
The new conception of being in the world view of Tawhid (monotheism) was the fundamental factor in the cultural transformation of the 15th -17th centuries, which reflected the beginning of the modern age in the archipelago. This affected all aspects of Malay culture by introducing the concept of the Ummah (universal community of Islam). In addition, there are the essential concepts of a sultan who takes responsibility as a guardian of religion and society; for society, there is the importance equality in the sight of God; for culture and knowledge, Islam introduced the fundamental call of the Qur’an for believers to base their life and their religion on reading and knowledge.
This process helped remove many mythical and tyrannical traditions, and caused the disintegration of the magical world view of the Malay world. This latter was further assisted by the coming of the Western imperialism as well as the imposition of Western culture beginning in the 16th century. The advent of Islam changed the culture of maritime Southeast Asia in many ways. It brought a new system of writing; the Malay language was now written in Arabic script called Jawi. Malay itself became the language of religious works, and, next to Arabic and Persian, a major vehicle of Islamic discourse.
To conclude with, one can say that Islam is a civilisation, as well as a religion, which in the span of about eight centuries has shaped most of the Malay Archipelago into a distinctive Islamic entity. The areas that make up the Malay world are inhabited by over 200 million Muslims of Malay ethnic stock, speaking a form of the Malay language as their lingua-franca, along with other local dialects which are cognate to Malay. Not only has Islam developed into a civilisation recognisable for having its own cultural configuration, based on the religious fundamentals of Islam, but it also makes Islam a regional force to be reckoned with.
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