Islamization Of Southeast Asia
The spread of Islam has immense historical significance. The history of Islam provides striking insights into cultural, political and economic peculiarities of the Southeast Asia. While the magnitude the conversion to Islam in Java, Malaysia, and the Philippines varies greatly, it was an entirely successful campaign spearheaded by the Arab merchants and preachers.
Islam of the Southeast Asia has a long history of penetrating and shaping the religious traditions of Muslim communities in the region. One may notice that the first references to Islam in the mentioned area date back to the Biblical times. According to McAmos, the native Philippines legend tells the story about the arrival of Skandir Jokanin, one of the fortunate survivors from the ark of Noah. The Malaysian inhabitants, by contrast, have no legendary stories about the arrival of Muslim preachers. The fact is attributable to the rather late progress of Islam in this region due to its remoteness from the main trade routed between the North Africa and China. The emergence of Islam in Java is commonly associated with the two outstanding events. The siege of Baghdad by Mongol forces in 1238 marked the disruption of the land trade with India, whereas the routes gained the increasing significance. At the same time, the collapse of the Hindu-Javanese Empire significantly decreased the position of Buddhism in the region and created the power vacuum that stirred Islam expansion. The religion of Islam slowly gained popularity in the region and reached Java in the 11th century. Evidently, the time and circumstances of the introduction to the new religion greatly varied.
In fact, Islam survived the complex process of adaptation to regional peculiarities of the Southeast Asia. The first obstacle was the widespread popularity of Buddhism in the region. The historical accounts suggest that Islam won the adherence of the native inhabitants mainly by peaceful methods of propaganda and adjustment to the native customs and traditions. The religion of Islam exhibited a significant degree of flexibility by incorporating the elements of the local culture. In other cases, the followers were attracted by the simplicity of Islam. According to Ahmad, uncomplicated practices and doctrines of Islam were the main contributive factor of its growth in Malaysia. The mentioned qualities are likely to have simplified the process of conversion. Apparently, these features of Islam seem to satisfy the deep spiritual need of the region’s inhabitants. In the Philippines, the upper and lower classes of the native population were particularly interested in practicing Islam since it suited their religious tastes. The provided examples clearly indicate the great potential of the religion of Islam to gain support of the large masses in the Southeast Asia.
The Muslim conversion of the region was an overly successful enterprise. In words of Ibrahim, Siddique, and Hussain, the spread of Islam became an integral part of the unprecedented “mingling of religious traditions.” While the native inhabitants studied the new religion, the Arab merchants established a strong economic influence in the region. In the 14th century, Malacca became the first Muslim state and the starting point of the Muslim conquest of the North. Later on, the Islamization enjoyed tremendous success in the Philippines, although it faced certain obstacles during its development. The Muslim teachings became an integral part of the national religion since the elements of Islamic beliefs were incorporated into the national mentality. In Majul’s words, Islam underwent the rapid process of “internalization of its value” that paved the way for the adoption of the Shari’a laws and old Muslim political institutions. Moreover, the introduction to the foreign religion led to the penetration of new ethical and theological views on the structure of the universe. The Muslim principles of personal interactions as well as relations between a man and their Creator became a form of the spiritual guidance for the Philippines people.
However, the Western imperialism forced the process of Islamization to reduce its speed of spreading. The arrival of Spanish conquerors in 1565 considerably slowed the Muslim conversion in the northern parts of the region and undermined the economic well-being of the Muslim population in the Philippines by introducing European technological innovations to non-Muslims. However, the persistence in preserving religious traditions allowed Muslim communities to regain some of the lost positions in the country during the American occupation at the beginning of the 20th century. Due to the overly tolerant attitude of the U.S. occupants to religious freedom, Islam adherents enjoyed the benefits of the better sanitation and education along with jobs in the law enforcement. Evidently, the religion of Islam had a massive support among the Philippines natives since it survived the political and economic turmoil.
Similarly, the Muslim conversion in Malaysia had the immense effect on the native culture. Malaysians were introduced to spiritual concepts of Islam. Specifically, the inhabitants of the region developed deep adherence to the Shari’a school of jurisprudence, whereas local schools advocated the Sunni teachings. Moreover, the region became the part of the far-reaching trade route. Since Arab merchants from Aden and Yemen have extended the international maritime trade to the Far East, the Malay-Indonesian archipelago came to serve as an important stop for the commercial ships for the conducting trade operations and restocking food supplies. The Javanese experience, by contrast, was less smooth. Since Islam threatened to erase the strict caste system enforced by Buddhism, the local aristocracy strongly resisted the changes. It seems that the Javanese nobility feared the loss of power. Therefore, the provided evidence suggests that the Islamization enjoyed a steady progress despite occasional disruptions.
Meanwhile, the spread of Islam in the South Asia has several striking similarities and differences. In fact, one may notice the general geographical pattern. The religion gradually found its adherents in Malaysia and eventually conquered the Southern Philippines.The enormous size of the covered territory ensured cultural diversity among national Muslim communities. National peculiarities of each country greatly influenced original Muslim teachings and provoked the emergence of their mixed versions, including the Malay Islam, Javanese Islam, Sundanese Islam, and Buhinese Islam etc. The multiple ethnic groups have developed a complex mosaic of religious practices in the region. Moreover, the arrival of Islam is commonly associated with the assimilation of the Arab population in the Southeast Asia. Thereafter, such ethnic groups as the Labbai, the Mappilla, the Bengali, the Gugerati and the Urdu-speaking Muslims of the North India and Pakistan settled in the region. The influx of immigrants has significantly diversified the ethnic composition of the region and essentially stimulated the spread and establishment of Islam in the Southeast Asia.
The arrival and economic expansion of Arab merchants appear to be a common feature of Islamization of the area. The Philippines, in particular, became an important outpost for Arab maritime traders on their way from the North Africa to China since the 8th century. Between the 10th and 15th century, Muslim merchants have established commercial contacts with numerous peoples that mainly inhabited the Malayan peninsula and Indonesian islands, including Borneo, Kalai and Sulu. The appearance of Arab merchants in Malaysia was registered a century earlier. In the 7th century, Muslims settled in the region and assimilated by means of inter-marriages with the native inhabitants. The full-scale economic invasion of the foreign traders started in the 13th century accompanied by the missionary activities of Sufis preachers. Java, in its turn, was the most resisting state. It became the target of the Muslim conversion and enjoyed the benefit of the participation in the international trade after the fall of the Hindu-Javanese Empire in the 11th century. Evidently, the economic expansion was the main channel of Islam spreading.
Historically, the magnitude of the Muslim conversion in different regions greatly varied. Islamization constantly faced unavoidable obstacles in the form of the Western intervention. Since the 16th century, the Southeast Asia became the target of the French, Dutch, British and Spanish colonial ambitions. Meanwhile, the speed of spreading and the amount of support of Islam varied greatly from state to state. The Philippines population, in particular, was ready to embrace the new doctrines and practices since they suited their spiritual needs. Islamization of Malaysia, by contrast, has acquired several distinguishing features. The historical study indicates the incredible speed of the Muslim conversion among the rural Javanese population since Islam teachings condemned the caste system. Alternatively, only the Javanese aristocracy exhibited no interest in the new religion. Evidently, the process of the Muslim conversion was not linear due to regional peculiarities of the Southeast Asia.
In conclusion, the history of Islam reveals the interconnection between political, economic and cultural features of the converted nations. In terms of the whole region, Islam succeeded in winning the support of the large masses in the Southeast Asia. However, the scope of its progress greatly varies in such areas as Java, Malaysia and the Philippines due to cultural peculiarities and historical circumstances.