Do NOT panic. We’re simply greeting you.
“Assalamualaikum”, which means “peace be upon you”.
Before we start on the many things we want to share here, we would like say why we chose this topic, the Spread of Islam in Southeast Asia (SEA). First of all, Islam is the fastest growing religion as of today. This is VERY interesting, don’t you think? There must be some reasons to how and why this happened (and we'll find out soon!). Second of all, we live in SEA, so we chose a place close to home. There were a myriad of factors which drew many towards conversion to Islam between 11th to 15th century, namely spirit portability, the influence of wealth, as well as military success of Muslims outside of Southeast Asia. Today, Southeast Asia boasts the largest number of Muslims in the world.
We have found some reasons to why this happened and we hope that you’ll learn something new through this post!
SO without further ado….we’ll jump right on to history.
Islam originated in the cities of Mecca and Medina back in the 7th CE. It has since spread to other parts of the globe, including SEA. The number of Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia combined would beat the number of Muslims in Middle Eastern countries, and thus their nickname “The Muslim Archipelago”. There are more than 240 million Muslims in this subregion of Asia which constitutes to about 42% of the total Southeast Asian population. In terms of the world population, 25% are Muslims (which is about 1.6 billion people).
The transmission of Islamic values into Southeast Asia is still widely disputed as there are scarce evidence to support the available theory. However, the general consensus of these debates sheds light on the transmission occurring through the trade networks which is linked from Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Muslim traders and traveling preachers are the primary agent for the conversion to Islam. It proved to be the fundamental factor in the development of new kingdoms and sultanates emerged along the sea trade routes. The northern coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, which holds several main ports, paved the way for the conversion of men and women to Islam which then proliferate across the Strait of Malacca, Malaysia and island of Mindanao, Philippines by the end of 16 century.
The Indian Ocean was the main channel for trading and it provided a whole new range of marketing opportunities for East-West sea trade route. Middle Eastern traders decided to use the channel to venture out to a new region to expand their trading empire. This network was able to connect different communities together through the movements of goods and religion teachings. This was especially true for the Middle Eastern traders who settled in Southeast Asia and mingled with the villagers there to spread the teaching of Islam. Many thought that this new ideology that they heard can free them from being colonised by those who constantly manipulate their resources. Here are the three factors.
Spirit portability was a major pull factor towards conversion. Animism, loosely defined as the belief in spirits, and spirit worship in general, was an intensely 'local' religious form. It was difficult to perform rituals outside of one's own home area, since spirits (ancestral or otherwise) were not 'portable'. Once away from their familiar landscape, travellers were at the mercy of unknown spirits manipulated by their enemies, thus were forced to return to their own village to attend to their ancestors and gain protection. At a time when a considerable proportion of Southeast Asians were drawn into the international economy, the age of commerce provided a necessary precondition for conversion on a large scale. Those who embarked from the village world needed a universally valid faith, and the conversion to Islam served that function.
In addition, military success of Muslims in general played a critical role with regards to appeal. In warfare, Muslims were viewed as valuable allies and used as mercenaries even by various kingdoms in SEA. Firearms entered into the region via Turkish, Indian and Chinese Muslim traders. The traders had a more ruthless and determined view of war, in addition to their better ships and arms. The locals were intrigued by their strengths pertaining to warfare. They were determined to inculcate the spiritual and practical techniques these warriors possessed. Furthermore, the existing religious system among Southeast Asians would have led them to believe that the victors in any battle had supernatural forces on their side. Hence, corroborating with the Muslim belief that God had commanded them to fight for the faith and would grant them the victory if they proved to be worthy. However, there was a notable difference that ultimately proved key in luring many towards Islam.
With this difference, the perspective of the divine purpose of war among Muslims was a much longer one, given that Islamic religious communities had collective memories of many defeats. This encouraged both the development of the doctrine of martyrdom to sanctify failures, as well as heightened their attention to the technical aspect of war, something animists could never do. These factors resulted in Muslim soldiers to be more formidable, and aided them to spread their faith through military victories across the region.
Lastly, the wealth and power that Muslim trades possessed, and the spiritual associations with wealth, also made conversion more appealing. Appearing both wealthy and powerful, they were believed to own important secrets about how to manipulate the spirit world, since wealth and power signalled enhanced spiritual strength. The Middle Eastern traders were considered successful since they monopolised the trading routes. Their success during this period provided the basis of attraction to new ritual practices. In many cases, new religious practices were absorbed into the existing Southeast Asian ritual practices. For instance a number of Filipinos who observed Muslim traders refraining from eating pork, began to imitate their taboo on pork, presumably believing it to be a ritual key to their success.
Now that we have went through the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, we can clearly see how people adopted Islam in the past and how Southeast Asia became the biggest region to be populated by Muslims. The timing whereby Islam was being introduced was one of the important factors with regards to this rapid spread. Many people were more receptive due to the combination of spiritual, economic and military influences. We hope that this brief history of the initial spread of Islam in Southeast Asia can help in your general knowledge of our world!
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