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The Malay Archipelago

Reports on the spread of Islam in the Malay Archipelago in the first six Islamic centuries are extremely scarce and the existing ones are an admixture of truth and fable. The existing records, at times, refer to the introduction of Islam in the region during the 1st century AH. In a Chinese work of pre-54 AH (674 AD), we encounter a report about an Arab commander, who, according to a comparative examination of various records by Arnold, appears to have been the leader of a group of Muslim settlers in the western coast of Sumatra. There is also an account in Ramhurmuzi’s `Aja’ib al-Hind which refers to the considerable presence of Muslims in the archipelago, and goes as far as elaborating the special arrangements according to which the king of Zabij gave audience to the “alien Muslims”; all of which should not be placed later than the mid 3rd century AH. 

Though, beginning in the late 3rd century AH, the decline in Chinese maritime trade resulted in a dwindling of Muslim populations along this trade route, the evidence points to a continuing of Muslim commercial relations with the Malay Archipelago, be it at a much more limited scale. Part of this evidence includes a Muslim tombstone in eastern Java with an inscription dating from 475 AH (1082 AD). Among the few reports on the Muslim propagators in the region during the 6th century AH is one in Malay historical sources about the first such individual active in Achen (Aceh), who is said to have been an Arab by the name of `Abd Allah `Arif, whose date is fixed in early 6th century AH (12th cen. AD). After his death, his work was carried on by his pupil, Burhan al-Din, who expanded the scope of his activity to the western shores of Sumatra, to the vicinity of Biryaman. 

The late 7th century AH (13th century AD) marked the major period of expansion of Islam in the region. At this time, there existed two small Muslim kingdoms in northern Sumatra (Samudrah), whose sole economic base consisted of trade with Muslims. It appears that around this time the resurgence of trade with the Yuan China had improved the conditions for an expansion of ties between the Muslim west and the peoples of the Southeast Asia. In any event, the above mentioned Muslim kingdoms, which had come be referred to as Perlak and Pasay, were, for all practical purposes, indigenous states. Traditional tales attribute the introduction of Islam in the region and the subsequent establishment of the Muslim state of Perlak to the coming to Sumatra of a delegation from Mecca, headed by a certain Shaykh Isma`il. The king of Samudrah (Perlak) at the time of the visit by Ibn Battutah (746 AH), Sultan al-Malik al-Zahir, had considerably expanded his Islamic kingdom and created a suitable cultural atmosphere for the spread of Islamic teachings in the region through attracting a number of Iranian and Arab scholars. In the early 9th century AH, a Chinese visitor to Lamberi (816 AH / 1413 AD) speaks of the area as being home to some one thousand Muslim households. 

The government of Acheh, which came into existence in the 10th century AH (16th cen. AD), as one of the most prominent Islamic governments in the east, eventually proved unsuccessful in converting the Bataks of the mountainous interior regions, in spite of its long-standing stability and influence in the area. The situation was quite different when it came to the adherents of Hindu religions, an example of which was the successful spread of Islam in the region of Menang Kabao, with its culture of Tantraism (a type of Hindu mysticism), dating from the 8th century AH (14th century AD). Through its contact with central Islamic lands, Acheh succeeded in establishing the Malayan region as part of the Islamic world, a factor enhanced by the immigration of scholars as well as the training of natives ones, which placed the region, known in the west as Java, alongside such territories as India. 

Among the first efforts in spreading Islam in the island of Java, in the 6th century AH (12th cen. AD), mention should be made of that of Hajji Purwa, the prince of Pajajaran, who converted to Islam during a visit to India, and, upon his return, engaged in the propagation of the message in the territories of his father and brother. In the second half of the 8th century AH, the efforts of a group of Muslims, led by Mawlana Malik Ibrahim, resulted in the formation of a Muslim community in the region of Garsik. The movement continued its expansion into the Buddhist kingdom of Majapahit, the most important non-Muslim power in the region. Today, the tomb of Malik Ibrahim is among the oldest religious sites in Java. An early Muslim visitor to Java reported of a considerable number of Chinese Muslims alongside those of their Javanese coreligionists. 

In the 9th century AH (15th cen. AD), the movement of Islamic propagation intersected with family feuds within the royal family of the extensive kingdom of Java and resulted in the rise of a politico-religious movement which soon led to the fall of the most important non-Muslim government of the region, in 883 AH (1478 AD), and which laid the ground for the formation of a number of small Muslim kingdoms in northern Java as well as in other regions along the major trade routes. Among the key personalities responsible for this outcome was the newly converted Muslim prince, Raden Rahmat, who is known in the Malaysian tradition as the greatest propagator of Islam in Java. 

After the fall of the Majapahit government, in spite of the unparalleled power of Muslim rulers, the expansion of Islam proceeded along its natural path and was unaffected by the political pressure intended to accelerate its progress. The preeminence of Islam in western Java was consolidated following a protracted campaign of propagation carried out after the fall of the dynasty of Siwai Pajajaran in the 10th century AH (16th cen. AD); this at a time when, today, the infiltration of Islam among the idolaters of the interior regions of Basi Island is taking place at a much slower pace. 

The eastward expansion of Islam, in the two major islands of Borneo and Celebes, took place after a long delay in the 10th century AH, with a cultural depth nowhere near that in Java or Sumatra. In the easternmost point, the annexation of the island of New Guinea and its surrounding islands to the Muslim sultanate of Batjan facilitated the spread of Islam among the people of Papua. The migration of Muslim groups, especially those from Malaya, has accentuated the Islamic atmosphere of New Guinea, where idolatry continues to be practiced, alongside Islam, by a part of the population of the island. 

Today, the major part of the Malay Archipelago falls within the boundaries of the most populous Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, with a Muslim population of 87.2 percent (1990 census). Sarawak, in the northern part of the island of Borneo, belongs to the Muslim state of Malaysia. The small sultanate of Brunei in the northern part of the same island is an Islamic country, with a Muslim population of 67.2 percent (1991 consensus). 

In the northeastern direction of the Malay Archipelago, mention should be made of the Philippines, especially in its province of Mindanao, with its majority Muslim population making up 4.3 percent of the total population of the country (1991 census). 

Traditional sources attribute the first introduction of Islam in Mindanao to a man from Johor, in Malaya, by the name of Kabungsuan. The conversion of the people of the region to Islam soon led to the establishment of an Islamic state in the region. With regard to the propagation of Islam during later periods, there exist references to a certain Karim al-Makhdum, in the 8th century AH (14th cen. AD), and Abu Bakr, in the 9th century AH (15th cen. AD).

* 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 - 560

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