This is a two-part essay on the complex history of Islam in the Malay World by Lhavanya Dharmalingam, a student of International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. The first part of the essay outlines how the process of Islamisation took place in the region due to the openness of Malay cultural life which allowed for easy assimilation of Islamic practices and values. It also touches on the significance of Sufism, a form of Islam which was spread across the Malay world. In the second of the her essay, Lhavanya takes a look at the manifestations of Malay-Islam in modern politics, governance and social life.

Islam as a Political Tool

Legitimacy is seen in the people’s support of the King and this was a gradual process, the effect of persuasion rather than force (Marsden, 1812, xxxiv). And scholars opine that they were a dominant force in leading Islamisation (Milner, 2008, p.40) building upon a similar process that had occurred centuries earlier with Hindu-Buddhism. Once Islam became the preferred basis for rulers it was relatively straightforward and easy for their subjects to convert with the sanction and support of their leaders. The Melaka-Johor chronicle, narrates the decree the newly converted ruler of Melaka gives his people “whether of high or low degree” to convert (Milner, 2008, p.65).

Islam reinforces the concept of daulat, which in the Malay world refers to the mystical powers of rulership, by imparting to the ruler divine sanction to establish God’s ordained rule (Means, 2009, p.21). The ruler would be considered the head of the Ummah and at the apex of the system of moral authority. In the 17th century, the Sultan Agung of Mataram sought legitimacy by Islamicising local traditions and Javanising Islam, by marrying Ratu Kidul, a Goddess of indigenous Javanese tradition while also inaugurating the hybrid Saka calendrical system with the Islamic hijri calendar (Feener, 2011, p.479). Yet others sought to serve political agenda with appeals made to piety to reinforce legitimacy. In Mataram in the early 18th century, Ratu Pakubuwana, the grandmother of Pakubuwana II sponsored a series of pious Islamic works which praised her piety such as the Carita Sultan Iskandar which claims authentication as a text from exegesis of the Quran. Her following texts Carita Nabi Yusuf and Kitab Usulbiyah do the same (Feener, 2011).

Sultan La Maddaremmeng, the ruler of Bone during the 17th century, put in place a new rule appealing to the sharia to prohibit practices such as the third gender bissu priesthood and to emancipate slaves (Feener, 2011, p.482). Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa from Banten encouraged Islamic values such as the prohibition of opium and the adoption of popular perceptions of Arab forms of dress (ibid). Sultan Pakubuwana II from Mataram banned all forms of gambling except cock fighting in 1731. By adopting selective aspects of Islam, the claims to the religion could be made which would also be of benefit as it increased access to trading networks as seen in Melaka which established a system of favoured treatment for Muslims both involving trade agreements and payment of transit duties (Means, 2009, p.21). However in many cases rulers were selective in their implementation of Islam for fear of losing the popular support of the locals or engendering dissent over the abolishment of some of their practices. Arguably however, the selective adoption of aspects of Islamic principles, in some of these contexts, could be viewed in the reflection of the Quranic revelations on alcohol. There was a series of three revelations over time (2:219, 4:43 and 5:90-91) progressively dissuading the use of alcohol to finally outright prohibiting it because it was the best means to achieving this, perceived, moral outcome. Therefore this selective application, at least within the timeframe of a ruler’s reign could be a means to an end.

Whether rulers managed to successfully harness the support of the people through this means was not guaranteed however. Pakubuwana’s grandmother and himself did not manage to successfully cement themselves in their people’s good opinion (Feener, 2011). This could be because these rulers were not successful in convincing their people that they were truly pious Muslims as there was a cleavage between the ideal pattern of behaviour and their praxis. This can be seen in 1660 when Shaykh Yusuf unsuccessfully attempted to persuade rulers to impose Islamic principles like prohibiting gambling, cock fighting, arrack drinking and other habits that were frowned upon by Islam (Reid, 2011, p.456). In addition, in many situations Islamic teachings discriminated against female rulers therefore the case for the legitimising capabilities of Islam being a dominant factor in the Islamisation of the Malay world does not stand, although it does qualify as a significant factor. As Ricklefs (1997, p.252) comments on Java, the Islamic elite were something of an anomaly, with other Javanese courts seemingly indifferent to Islamic piety at best and its enemy at worst and between the two cultural streams, the Javanese one is dominant in court affairs between the period of the 17th century til 20th century.

At another level, there is reason for the conflict between ‘original’ Islam and ‘Malay’ Islam because as seen in many instances, the adoption of Islam by rulers was done for purely political rather than pious reasons. The somewhat piecemeal adoption of Islamic ideas and practices was a calculated approach to make claims to piety while still appealing to popularity and could very much be considered a syncretism and possibly not even Islamic. As an example of what could be perceived as a systemwide failure of Islam in the Malay world lies in its supposed egalitarian nature, removing the ascriptive social status of birth and caste and making all members of the Ummah socially equal, in praxis however the systems of patron-client linkages and hierarchical social systems were still maintained to a large extent across the Malay world with Islamic festivals such as Eid serving as opportunities to reinforce these relationships (Means, 2009, p.25).

Islam and Adat

The verdict on whether Islam and adat were conflicting or complementary has still yet to be made but we can assume there was some conflict but the differences were negotiated and an effective compromise reached and maintained in the 17th and 18th centuries. The example of Minangkabau as given by Abdullah (1966) will be used to illustrate the synthesis between adat and Islam.

In the late 17th century, records talk about the first religious teacher Sjech Burhanuddin in the region, from the town of Ulakan in 1704. He had been instrumental in setting up the first religious school (madrasah) from which later on many others grew out of. At the early stages of the Islamisation process, Sufi missionaries were more concerned with individual morality over the religious correctness of a person’s actions and also with the more pressing issue of the “re-structuralisation of adat in order to interpret the heterogenetic change as orthogenetic.” (Marsden, 1783, p.343). It must be noted that the Minangkabau attitude toward adat is one that recognises the imperative continuity of the system while also acknowledging the importance of change. Therefore the hybridisation of adat and Islam was a long drawn, subtle process. There are four classes of adat and the first, adaik nan sabana adaik (adat which is truly adat) is considered to be eternal, since it is also identical with natural law and it was to this, during the process of codification (which happened only after the Arabic script was adapted in the region) that a new category of supernatural law was added to contain and insert the Quran and the hadiths and these were collectively perceived as eternal principles that guide human spiritual and secular activities.

Abdullah posits that over the two centuries, the madrasahs grew in size and influence posing a threat to the royalty as a symbol of tradition as well as because the madrasahs also practised patrilineal inheritance of their leadership just like the royalty. The commoners on the other hand practised matrilineal inheritance. The influence and power of the royalty waned because of these madrasahs although there was no direct conflict and no direct impact on society till the end of the 18th century (p.13). At the turn of the 19th century adat is changed far more significantly and arguably, even hijacked and its original elements downgraded by the incoming Padri movement led by the “three hajis” who were influenced by the initial success of the Wahabi movement in Arabia (p.18).


Undoubtedly, in many parts of the Malay world and across the centuries, ‘Malay’ Islam was a syncretic rather than a creole synthesis, with many contradictions that would warrant the criticism of Muslims practicing ‘original’ Islam. Many of its amalgamations with the Hindu-Buddhist culture was deliberately done to serve a political agenda, either to reinforce legitimacy or to convince locals to convert to Islam. The nature of Sufism was particularly effective Islamising the Malay world because it permitted the fusing of Islam and Hindu-Buddhism. Arguably without that openess, the Malay world might not have taken Islam so successfully. This then paved the way for more rigid formulations of Islam to take hold in the Malay world after the 18th century.

The political machinations behind the adoption of Islam was also key in getting large numbers of Malays to declare themselves Muslims even if they did not follow all its principles. And it could be argued that not all of these machinations were purely political as many of these rulers could have truly believed in Islam, but simultaneously were aware of the reality that their people may not have welcomed the religion if it had been too restrictive. Therefore while ‘original’ Islam was valid in some of its criticisms of Islam, it is also unrealistic to expect a rigid fixed form of Islam to develop identical to it, especially when Islam itself is diverse and varied. The moral judgement passed on such a syncretic but rich creation is unwarranted. The diversity enriches the scholarship of Islam while also giving rise to conflicts that need to be dealt with rationally as do all conflicts of belief systems whether religious or otherwise.


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