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Southeast Asia is a varied region, both in terms of its natural and human geography. Thus, the examination of the spread of any cultural influence in the region calls for a complex and multifaceted discussion. The spread of Islamic culture in this part of Asia is dissimilar to that of other regions. While the presence of Islam in certain parts dates back to the early Islamic centuries, it has only found its way into other areas as late as the 20th century. The spread of Islam in Southeast Asia is closely tied to the Muslim trade in the Far East, i.e. the first introduction of Islam to the region coincided with the florescence of China’s maritime trade in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AH. The flourishing of trading activities in Chinese ports, in the 6th century AH, transformed Islam from a minority religion into the dominant creed of the inhabitants of the region. Though, Southeast Asia is among the farthest regions of earth in terms of proximity to the birthplace of Islam, and though the spread of Islam in the region was gradual and reached its culmination in recent times, none the less, today, this part of the world is home to one of the largest Muslim populations. 

Prior to the advent of Islam the religions of Southeast Asia belonged to the two major categories of Buddhist and animistic, with Hinduism as a distant third. At the time, Buddhism was a religion with extensive literary achievements, which made any effective propagation of Islam the task of those in possession of a thorough knowledge of Islamic concepts and teachings. The animists, on the other hand, where in an entirely different position, owing to the primitive nature of their beliefs and lack of a literary foundation. None the less, some of these same animists, such as the Bataks, proved more impervious to the message of Islam than the Buddhists. 

The majority of the Muslims of Southeast Asia, throughout the medieval period and in more recent times, have been followers of the Hanafite school, which predominates in the Indian Ocean region, such as in Malabar and vast areas of India, as well as in Hadhramaut. Some scholars have accounted for this religious tendency by underlining the cultural link between India and southern Arabia. Though, the place of Hanafite religion in Southeast Asia has received little attention, there are traces of a solid Hanafite background in the Malayan culture, an example of which is the popularity of a work of Abu Layth Samarqandi (d. 373 AH) called `Aqidah, a compendium of Muslim beliefs, with several Malayan and Javanese translations. 

Sufism, and its various branches, played a key role as effective instruments in confronting similar Buddhist tendencies in the region. Throughout the course of the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, Sufi propagators from India and Iran continued to occupy an effective, prominent place. 

Shi`ism, though not visible as a distinct religion in the region, has, none the less, left traces in its native culture, a fact that has drawn the attention of a number of scholars. Ansari Dimashqi, in his Nukhbat al-dahr, refers to a group of `Alawites who had migrated to the region as a means of escaping the persecution of Hajjaj and the Umayyads. In his discussion of the spread of Islam in Java and Sumatra, Arnold makes references to traces of Shi`ism which he attributes to the influence of its adherents from India and Iran. Imam al-Din also deals with evidence regarding the role of Shi`ites in the propagation of Islam in Southeast Asia. Though, the transmitters of Islam to the area are often deemed to have been people from India, Iran and Saudi Arabia, one should not gloss over the role played by Chinese Muslims, whose influence in the Islamization of the Southeast Asian region has been the subject of a study by T. Y. Seong (1962). The existence of a wide spectrum of Islamic cultural manifestations, together with complex and varied historical circumstances relating to both ethnic and religious elements, have resulted in a multiplicity of theories on the mode of Islamization of Southeast Asia, which, in turn, has given rise to their comparative study by the likes of Hamid (1982) and `Attas (1985).

* source: Pakatchi , Ahmad "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 , pp.558

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