Islam in the Malay World

By Anne Deguerry and Jean-Marie Metzger

This article was originally written for and published in the Gazette of the Association of Francophones in Malaysia and is reproduced here with the gracious authorization of its President, Ms Elizabeth Galland; it also widely draws upon Anne’s 7 minutes presentation written for Batch 28 MV training course.

Islam started to spread all over the world at the end of the seventh century C.E, but the Islamization of insular Southeast Asia was achieved much later on, by the penetration of merchant networks and not by conquest.

Several factors have been put forward to explain the extension of Islam in the Malay world at this time. The Malay Archipelago was perfectly located at the crossroads of trade routes between East (China) and West (Europe, Middle East, India), at the reversal of the monsoon, and in shallow waters that fostered navigation. It stimulated international trade.

  • India was exporting fabrics (cotton fabrics, muslins, patola), cowries (shells used as currency collected in the Maldives and piled up in Gujarat), pearls, gemstones, and local spices.
  • China was exporting silk, ceramics, paper and copper.
  • Locally, merchants could find raw materials of great value such as precious wood, plants, resins and wax, spices (cloves from Ternate and nutmeg from Banda islands), tortoiseshell, feathers, ivory, tin, silver and gold.

The ethno-geographical group formed by the Malay archipelago and the peninsula of Malaya was, from the first centuries CE, influenced by Indian merchants whose presence favored the establishment of Malay kingdoms. These were marked by language, culture, and religion (Hinduism and Buddhism), imported from the south of India. According to Chinese texts of the 3rd century CE, nearly 100 kingdoms were known in the region. Small political entities, or often, probably, somewhat large cities of fishermen and merchants at the mouths of rivers, evolved into stronger structures and, from the 7th century, the Buddhist Srivijaya empire, based in Palembang (Sumatra), started gaining suzerainty over Sumatra and the Malayan Peninsula. From the 13th century, the decline of Srivijaya, which controlled the Straits of Malacca and Sunda, left the door open for the emergence of a new political and religious order.

The texts relating to the arrival of Islam in the region are varied, not always coherent and often written, very late, with objectives of historical and political reconstruction for the benefit of the reigning dynasties. Among these texts, the Malay Annals, Sejarah Melayu which, even today, forms the basis of much of the national story of Malaysia, was written from the 16th century and has not less than 32 different versions. The Kedah Annals or Hikayat Marong Mahawangsa, believed to have been written between the 18th and the 19th century, could have been intended to rewrite history in order to give Kedah anteriority over the Sultanate of Malacca, considered today as the founder of Islam in the Peninsula.

Islam, most likely, came from India through Muslim merchants (both Indian and Arab). Gujarat was then a very dynamic trading center. Commercial outposts were created on the coasts of Southeast Asia, and then, in the late 13th century CE, merchant sultanates arose, such as in Samudra-Pasai in northern Sumatra, in Champa in today’s central Vietnam, and finally in Malacca.

In 1292, Marco Polo signaled the presence of an important Muslim Kingdom in Aceh. Long before that, evidence of trade with the Abbasids, dating from the 9th century, was discovered in Kedah in the form of coins. A stone inscribed ‘Ibnu Sardan 213’ was also found in Bujang Valley. The Ibnu Sardan family is mentioned in different texts of the time and they were known as intellectuals, sailors and missionaries. The date 213 Hegira (Hijra) corresponds to the year 823 of our era. The Kedah Sultanate is dated to 1136 upon the conversion to Islam of the Raja who then took the name of Sultan Mudzaffar Shah.

181
Stone of Ibnu Sardan – Gallery B, National Museum Malaysia

Beyond the influence of India, one must also consider the contribution of the Chinese. Admiral Zheng Ho, himself, who led seven maritime expeditions from 1405 to 1453, of which at least 4 stopped in Malacca, was a Muslim, as was his translator Ma Huan. Ma Huan, considered as one of the artisans of the Islamization of Java, took part in three of the seven expeditions and recorded the journeys. While the number of ships and people accompanying the fleets may have been exaggerated, the fleet of Zheng Ho was huge and heavily armed; it was the official symbol of Chinese diplomacy. Following Zheng Ho’s journeys, the Sultanate of Malacca placed itself under the protection of China, against the attacks of Siam and Java.

If archaeological findings or ancient texts attest to the presence of Muslims in the Peninsula since the 9th century, the first indigenous evidence of the presence of Islam in the Malay Peninsula is a granite stele, known as the Terengganu Stone, inscribed in Malay using Arabic characters -a script known as Jawi, still used in official documents or in the Northern sultanates such as Kelantan or Terengganu (it is also used on street name plates in Melaka). The stele was discovered in 1899 in Kuala Berang in the State of Terengganu. Its date is deciphered as 1303 (702 Hegira) although there are contentions on this date.

Why is this stone so important? First of all, because it is not a tombstone. The early Muslim tombstones (Batu Aceh), many of which were discovered in Malaysia and Indonesia, only show that a Muslim person was buried and often have no personal names. But the Terengganu Stone is engraved with a set of Islamic laws. It indicates an early Islamization of the northeast coast of the Malay Peninsula and the legal character of the inscription is a sign of strong anchorage in society.

Terengganu Stone or Batu Bersurat Terengganu – Terengganu State Museum

In any event, although it occurred nearly one century later than the date inscribed on the Terengganu Stone, the most important event was the conversion to Islam of the rulers of Malacca, from which they gained undeniable political and economic advantages:

  • Patronage of powerful Muslim traders
  • Legitimation against Majapahit, the largest kingdom after the demise of Srivijaya
  • Legitimation of sultanate authority, a new form of government

It is however rather difficult to determine who was the first Muslim ruler of Malacca as the sources vary, some being more literary than historical. Depending on the case, there are assertions between Parameswara, his son Megat Iskandar Shah, and his grandson.

Parameswara, a prince of Srivijaya, was said to have founded Malacca in 1400 (but this date itself is controversial!), then married a Muslim princess of the Pasai Sultanate in northern Sumatra and may have converted. But according to Portuguese sources, it is the son of Parameswara, Megat Iskandar Shah (1414-1424), that first converted to Islam. Finally, the Malay Annals attribute the conversion to the grandson of Parameswara, Muhammad Shah (1424-1444). Legend says that Muhammad Shah was visited one night by an angel in a dream; on waking up he could quote verses from the Quran verbatim. The next morning, his advisers told him about some Arab scholars debating at the port. He met with them. He was immediately struck by their learning, courtesy, and high character and he decided to adopt Islam. This is the version retained in Gallery B of Muzium Negara.

The conversion of Muhammad Shah – as per the diorama at Gallery B, National Museum Malaysia

But whatever was the conversion timeline, Islam was attractive to Malacca:

  • it emphasized the individual value of each man;
  • with the view that the ruler was seen as “The Shadow of God on Earth”, Islamic traders would regard Malacca as a safe place;
  • it provided access to the learning and sophistication of the Muslim world (continuing the intellectual tradition of Palembang, from where Parameswara originated, as a center of Buddhist studies, Malacca quickly became a famous center for Islamic studies)

Altogether, it does not matter which, Kedah, Terengganu or Malacca, or even the Malay States of the archipelago, was the first to convert to Islam, the conversion of the Sultan of Malacca was a founding act by establishing, clearly and publicly, Islam as a state religion. In this sense, modern Malaysia is certainly the heir of Malacca.

The arrival of Islam in the Malay world greatly influenced the Malay lifestyle and culture and brought a vibrant influence in the archipelago, through the development of arts.

  • Calligraphy, Arabic script (jawi)
  • Decorative applied arts (calligraphy/geometric patterns/arabesques)
    • Metal ware and jewellery
    • Ceramics
    • Carving
A Terengganu Koran with typical Malay features: eg. illuminations of central pages with triangular patterns – Islamic Arts Museum, Kuala Lumpur
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Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

One thought on “Islam in the Malay World”

  1. Congratulation Anne & Jean Marie,

    It is a most well researched and written article. Most of all, it gave me an insight and an in-depth explanation on the advent of Islam here in the Peninsular. I am also grateful for the explanation of the Ibnu Sardan Stone. I did not know what it was previously. Many thanks and Great Job.

    Kind regards,

    Elizabeth Khoo

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