The Spread Of Islam To Southeast Asia

Islam From The Beginning To 1300
Date: 2002

The spread of Islam to various parts of coastal India set the stage for
its further expansion to island Southeast Asia. As we have seen, Arab traders
and sailors regularly visited the ports of Southeast Asia long before they
converted to Islam. Initially the region was little more than a middle ground,
where the Chinese segment of the great Euroasian trading complex met the
Indian Ocean trading zone to the west. At ports on the coast of the Malayan
peninsula, east Sumatra, and somewhat later north Java, goods from China were
transferred from East Asian vessels to Arab or Indian ships, and products from
as far west as Rome were loaded into the emptied Chinese ships to be carried
to East Asia. By the 7th and 8th centuries A.D., sailors and ships from areas
within Southeast Asia – particularly Sumatra and Malaya – had become active in
the seaborne trade of the region. Southeast Asian products, especially luxury
items, such as aromatic woods from the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, and
spices, such as cloves, nutmeg, and mace from the far end of the Indonesian
archipelago, had also become important exports to both China in the east and
India and the Mediterranean area in the west. These trading links were to
prove even more critical to the expansion of Islam in Southeast Asia than they
had earlier been to the spread of Buddhism and Hinduism.

As the coastal trade and shipping of India came to be controlled (from
the 8th century onward) increasingly by Muslims from such regions as Gujarat
and various parts of south India, elements of Islamic culture began to filter
into island Southeast Asia. But only in the 13th century after the collapse of
the far-flung trading empire of Shrivijaya, which was centered on the Straits
of Malacca between Malaya and the north tip of Sumatra, was the way open for
the widespread proselytization of Islam. With its great war fleets, Shrivijaya
controlled trade in much of the area and was at times so powerful that it
could launch attacks on rival empires in south India. Indian traders, Muslim
or otherwise, were welcome to trade in the chain of ports controlled by
Shrivijaya. Since the rulers and officials of Shrivijaya were devout
Buddhists, however, there was little incentive for the traders and sailors of
Southeast Asian ports to convert to Islam, the religion of growing numbers of
the merchants and sailors from India. With the fall of Shrivijaya, the way was
open for the establishment of Muslim trading centers and efforts to preach the
faith to the coastal peoples. Muslim conquests in areas such as Gujarat and
Bengal, which separated Southeast Asia from Buddhist centers in India from the
11th century onward, also played a role in opening the way for Muslim

The Pattern Of Conversion

As was the case in most of the areas to which Islam spread, peaceful and
voluntary conversion was far more important than conquest and force in
spreading the faith in Southeast Asia. Almost everywhere in the islands of the
region, trading contacts paved the way for conversion. Muslim merchants and
sailors introduced local peoples to the ideas and rituals of the new faith and
impressed on them how much of the known world had already been converted.
Muslim ships also carried Sufis to various parts of Southeast Asia, where they
were destined to play as vital a role in conversion as they had in India. The
first areas to be won to Islam in the last decades of the 13th century were
several small port centers on the northern coast of Sumatra. From these ports,
the religion spread in the following centuries across the Strait of Malacca to

On the mainland the key to widespread conversion was the powerful trading
city of Malacca, whose smaller trading empire had replaced the fallen
Shrivijaya. From the capital at Malacca, Islam spread down the east coast of
Sumatra, up the east and west coasts of Malaya, to the island of Borneo, and
to the trading center of Demak on the north coast of Java. From Demak, the
most powerful of the trading states on north Java, the Muslim faith was
disseminated to other Javanese ports and, after a long struggle with a
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom in the interior, to the rest of the island. From Demak,
Islam was also carried to the Celebes, tha spice islands in the eastern
archipelago, and from there to Mindanao in the southern Philippines.

This progress of Islamic conversion shows that port cities in coastal
areas were particularly receptive to the new faith. Here the trading links
were critical. Once one of the key cities in a trading cluster converted, it
was in the best interest of others to follow suit in order to enhance personal
ties and provide a common basis in Muslim law to regulate business deals.
Conversion to Islam also linked these centers, culturally as well as
economically, to the merchants and ports of India, the Middle East, and the
Mediterranean. Islam made slow progress in areas such as central Java, where
Hindu-Buddhist dynasties contested its spread. But the fact that the earlier
conversion to these Indian religions had been confined mainly to the ruling
elites in Java and other island areas left openings for mass conversions to
Islam that the Sufis eventually exploited. The island of Bali, where Hinduism
had taken deep root at the popular level, remained largely impervious to the
spread of Islam. The same was true of most of mainland Southeast Asia, where
centuries before the coming of Islam, Theravada Buddhism had spread from India
and Ceylon and won the fervent adherence of both the ruling elites and the
peasant masses.

Sufi Mystics And The Nature Of Southeast Asian Islam

The fact that Islam came to Southeast Asia primarily from India and that
it was spread in many areas by Sufis had much to do with the mystical quality
of the religion and its tolerance for coexistence with earlier animist, Hindu,
and Buddhist beliefs and rituals. Just as they had in the Middle East and
India, the Sufis who spread Islam in Southeast Asia varied widely in
personality and approach. Most were believed by those who followed them to
have magical powers, and virtually all Sufis established mosque and school
centers from which they traveled in neighboring regions to preach the faith.

In winning converts, the Sufis were willing to allow the inhabitants of
island Southeast Asia to retain pre-Islamic beliefs and practices that
orthodox scholars would clearly have found contrary to Islamic doctrine.
Pre-Islamic customary law remained important in regulating social interaction,
while Islamic law was confined to specific sorts of agreements and exchanges.
Women retained a much stronger position, both within the family and in
society, than they had in the Middle East and India. Local and regional
markets, for example, continued to be dominated by the trading of small-scale
female buyers and sellers. In such areas as western Sumatra, lineage and
inheritance continued to be traced through the female line after the coming of
Islam, despite its tendency to promote male dominance and descent through the
male line. Perhaps most tellingly, pre-Muslim religious beliefs and rituals
were incorporated into Muslim ceremonies. Indigenous cultural staples, such as
the brilliant Javanese shadow plays that were based on the Indian epics of the
Brahmanic age, were refined, and they became even more central to popular and
elite belief and practice than they had been in the pre-Muslim era.

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