The integration of Islam into the Malay world occurred as a constant flux over time and its formulation across the Malay world was neither consistent nor constant. The religion, especially the Sufi school of Islam had a tremendous impact within those four centuries, altering the social and political fabric of the Malay ruled areas of Southeast Asia while also resulting in new Islamic developments that impacted the other kingdoms and societies in the Indian ocean. This two-part essay by Lhavanya Dharmalingam, a student of International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, discusses that the ideals and doctrines of Middle Eastern formulations of Islam was not adopted as a totality, but were being modified with complex innovations that manifested in different legal systems, systems of governance, societal arrangements and practices in the Malay world.

For the purposes of this essay the term ‘original Islam’ shall be used to refer to the manifestation of the culture and principles of Islam as it was practised in the Middle East. The modifications were made for various reasons, such as to further legitimise a ruler’s claim to rulership, or to encourage local conversion through either a religious syncretism (Kitiarsa, 2005) that gave concessions to indigenous/ Hindu-Buddhist religious practices or through an organic process of creolisation. Essentially, Islam was built on the existing religious and cultural practices, and Hindu-Buddhist systems of governance. The localisation of this religion manifests in the politics of trade, of governance, of society. The emergence of this new entity of ‘Malay Islam’ is significant because of its significant impact and role in the Malay political systems and its conflict with ‘original Islam’ because of the perceived syncretism. This essay will therefore aim to analyse the roles of Sufism and political facotrs in the localisation of Islam and the ideological conflict between ‘original Islam’ and ‘Malay Islam’ between the fifteenth to eighteenth century.

A snapshot of Islamisation

Muslims have been present in the Malay world since the first centuries of Islamic history (Feener, 2011, p.471). In the thirteenth century, Muslim trade across the Indian Ocean increased significantly, forming social, economic and political connections with locals. The first Islamic port city was the Sultanate of Pasai in the 13th century and it is towards the end of this century that documents show significant numbers of conversions (ibid, p.470) alongside an increasing Arab diaspora. By the fifteenth century, the small communities of Muslim migrants were evolving into significant local Muslim communities through processes of trade, intermarriage, shared economic interests and political alliances.

Over the 15th and 16th century the north coast of Java was developing a distinctive Islamic identity which subsequently spread east and west. Towards the late 16th century, Mataram rose as an agrarian Muslim kingdom (ibid, p.479). In the early 17th century, the Makassar and Bugis kings had converted to Islam while the major kings of South Sulawesi resisted because they feared it would decrease their supernatural status as well as interfere with their religious feasting on pork and palm wine (Reid, 2011, p.455). Upon conversion in 1605, Karaeng Matoaya proceeded to attack the Bugis states that resisted Islam and within a few years those states were won over (ibid, p.456). Under Sultan Iskandar Muda, Aceh became the leading regional centre of Islamic learning for that period and launched campaigns into neighbouring Gayo and Minangkabau (Feener, 2011, p.489). It was mainly during the 16th and the 17th century that the Malay world as a region became increasingly integrated with Islamic civilisational networks arising around the Indian ocean and developed increasingly self-conscious Islamic identities (ibid, p.488). Islamisation of the Malay world was a long drawn non-linear process.

Scholars frequently credit the traders and merchants and/or the Sufis for bringing Islam to the Malay world (Al-Attas, 1967; Johns, 1961). Morrison (1951) states that Arab, Persian and Indian traders, separately, brought Islam to this region and Alatas (1985) is convinced that there were non-Malay Muslims residing in the major ports of the Malay Archipelago as early as the ninth century. Drawing on textual evidence from that period he also stresses the significance of traders from the Hadhramaut region in the process of Islamisation. On the other hand, Arnold (1913) opines that while traders and settlements of Muslim merchants laid the political and social foundations for the regional embedding of Islam, it was the Sufis ‘using their superior intelligence and civilisation in the service of their religion’ who played the dominant role in spreading the faith as firm believers in it.

The Nature of Sufism

The nature of Sufism is a key factor in how these Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms managed to embrace Islam. In fact the contrast between the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of the Malay world and the doctrines of Islam was significant, where on the one hand there were fundamentally hierarchical polities with rulers claiming spiritual prowness and a multitude of gods and on the other hand a religion that stressed equality before the one god (Milner, 2008, p.40). Despite this, Islam managed to complement and amalgamate with the systems in place. Scholars like John (1961, p.19) point out the Sufi characteristic of accepting non-Islamic elements provided they were not contradictory to the Quranic verses and also argue that only the Sufis were capable and learned enough to face their Hindu/ Buddhist counterparts and engage in dialogue to successfully present their religion’s superiority. As Crawfurd (1967, p.266) eloquently puts forth:

“In most Mahomedan institutions of the Javanese, we discover marks of Hinduism. The institutions of the latter have been rather modified and built upon rather than destroyed, and in viewing them, we cannot withhold the tribute of our applause to the discreet and artful conduct of the first Mahomedan teachers, whose temperate zeal is always marked by a politic and wise forbearance.”

One of the reasons for the changed nature of Malay Islam that offends its critics and also contributes to the multiplicity in Sufi thought across the different localities and even within a single locality, perhaps lies in the permissive nature of Sufism. Sufis search for “new truths” that can be subsumed into the corpus of the Quran’s doctrines and each Sufi order developed its own rituals and devotional forms designed to “achieve direct contact with God and thereby obtain sublime salvation”(Means, 2009, p.22). One such ‘new truth’ arising out of the combination of the Javanese doctrines and Islamic doctrines was put forth by the Wujudiyyah in the 17th century. They were exponents of the Ibn al-Arabi school primarily based in Aceh, set up by Hamzah Fansuri a prominent scholar who localised aspects of Middle Eastern Sufi thought and developed a new genre of poetry, Syair (Feener, 2011, p.472). They sought to know and understand the relationship between god, man and the world from the ‘new’ Malay Islamic perspective that stemmed from the idea of the oneness or unity of god and they drew upon works of reputed scholars such as the aforementioned al-Arabi from the Middle East (Moris, 2011, p.109). Their metaphysical teachings on Being and Reality were highly controversial (Moris, 2011, p.110; Leaman, 2006, p.91). As Means explains:

“Javanese mystic doctrines view the temporal world as “unreal” but behind this temporal world lies the eternal reality of God, which is immanent in all creation. For the Sufi, the assumption is that Allah is everywhere and is in everything; he is concealed, unreachable and without equal. When combined with the doctrine of nonduality, Javanese Sufis concluded that man and God share the same identity and “ there is no difference between the worshiper and the worshiped” because the divinity of both are subject and object.”

Such teachings were condemned as heretical and supporting pantheism by scholars like Al-Raniri, writing from Aceh from when he was Chief Judge (Riddell, 2001, p.116). He represented the Aydarusiyya Sufi order, which did not originate in the Malay world and his criticisms were laid out in the Hujjat al-siddiq li-daf al-zindiq (ibid, p.119). Although he had been in Aceh for seven years on the behest of Sultan Iskandar Thani, he was born and spent most of his studies in Gujerat and the Hadhramaut (ibid, p.117) and therefore the clash between the teachings of Malay scholarship and scholarship representing ‘original Islam’ is evident here. Subsequently Al-Raniri’s teachings were disputed by Sayf al Rijal, a Minangkabau who successfully condemned his extremism and in 1643, Al-Raniri returned to Gujerat (Reid, 2011, p.460).

Additionally Sufis were more concerned with their direct experience of God rather than the doctrines and legal requirements of Sharia (ibid, p.24), a quality which manifested to varying degrees across the Malay world and arguably permitted the varied, selective implementation of the tenets of Islam. Additionally, because Sufis venerated individuals who purported to have achieved direct contact with god, this also permitted select individuals to be awarded the de facto authority to transmit their own transmutations of Islamic doctrines. One of the cornerstones of Islamic learning is this principle of authority. It is in the practice of Muslims to follow the teachings and opinions of teachers whose wisdom and appeal to learnedness convince them of his authority. The religious teachers are associated with various schools of learning that guarantee the standard of his learning and his doctrine’s legitimacy (Johns, 1975, p.46). This gives rise to different opinions and judgements as seen in the above example. Although, given that this is a trait of all types of Islam irrespective of locality, it cannot entirely be credited with the specific rise of ‘Malay’ Islam but to variations in Islam across the globe.

The Sufi doctrine of the ‘Perfect Man’ who achieves ‘essential oneness with God and guides his followers down the path he has trodden’ resonates strongly with the Buddhist ideal of the Bodhisattva which was also a concept used by rulers to portray themselves as divine representatives (Milner, 2008, p.41). Islam perceives the ruler as God’s representative on earth and protector of the one true faith and therefore as a ‘Perfect Man’. Relics such as old coins are seen to carry epithets such as ‘Shadow of God’ (Milner, 2008, p.42) depicting how rulers used a cloak of divine perfection and authority to legitimise themselves.

In the second part of Lhavanya’s essay, she will build up on the landscape of Islam in Malay identity to examine the polemics of Islam as a tool of politics and its inextricable relationship with ‘adat’. Find out what she has to say (as well as her bibliography) here.


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