The spread of Islam in Indonesia (1200 to 1600)

The spread of Islam in Indonesia (1200 to 1600)

Islam is thought to have first been adopted by peoples of the Indonesian archipelago sometime during the eleventh century, although Muslims had visited the archipelago early in the Muslim era. By the end of the 16th century, Islam, through assimilation, had supplanted Hinduism and Buddhism as the dominant religion of Java and Sumatra. At this time, only Bali retained a Hindu majority and the eastern islands remained largely animist but would adopt Islam and Christianity in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The spread of Islam was driven by increasing trade links outside of the archipelago; in general, traders and the royalty of major kingdoms were the first to adopt the new religion. Dominant kingdoms included Mataram in Central Java, and the sultanates of Ternate and Tidore in the Maluku Islands to the east. By the end of the thirteenth century, Islam had been established in North Sumatra; by the fourteenth in northeast Malaya, Brunei, the southern Philippines and among some courtiers of East Java; and the fifteenth in Malacca and other areas of the Malay Peninsula. Although it is known that the spread of Islam began in the west of the archipelago, the fragmentary evidence does not suggest a rolling wave of conversion through adjacent areas; rather, it suggests the process was complicated and slow.

Despite being one of the most significant developments in Indonesian history, historical evidence is fragmentary and generally uninformative such that understandings of the coming of Islam to Indonesia are limited; there is considerable debate amongst scholars about what conclusions can be drawn about the conversion of Indonesian peoples. The primary evidence, at least of the earlier stages of the process, are gravestones and a few travellers accounts, but these can only show that indigenous Muslims were in a certain place at a certain time. This evidence cannot explain more complicated matters such as how lifestyles were affected by the new religion or how deeply it affected societies. It cannot be assumed, for example, that because a ruler was known to be a Muslim, that that the process of Islamisation of that area was complete; rather the process was, and remains to this day, a continuous process in Indonesia.

Early history

Historical evidence is fragmentary and generally uninformative such that understandings of the coming of Islam to Indonesia are limited; there is considerable debate amongst scholars about what conclusions can be drawn about the conversion of Indonesian peoples. The primary evidence, at least of the earlier stages of the process, are gravestones and a few travellers accounts, but these can only show that indigenous Muslims were in a certain place at a certain time. Both Indonesia's colonial and republican governments have favoured Hindu and Buddhist sites in Java in their allocation of resources for excavation and preservation, with less emphasis on the early history of Islam in Indonesia. Funds, both public and private, are spent on the construction of new mosques, rather than the exploration of old ones. [cite book
last =Taylor | first =Jean Gelman | title =Indonesia: Peoples and Histories | publisher =Yale University Press | date =2003 | location =New Haven and London | pages =pp.29–30 | url = | doi = | isbn = 0-300-10518-5

Even before Islam was established amongst Indonesian communities, Muslim traders had been present for several centuries. Ricklefs (1991) identifies two overlapping processes by which the Islamisation of Indonesia occurred: Indonesians either came into contact with Islam and converted, and/or foreign Muslim Asians (Arabs, Indians, Chinese, etc.) settled in Indonesia and mixed with local communities. Islam is thought to have been present in South East Asia from early in the Islamic era. From the time of the third caliph of Islam, 'Uthman' (644-656) Muslim emissaries and merchants were arriving in China who must have passed Indonesia sea routes through Indonesia from the Islamic world. It would have been through this contact that Arabic emissaries between 904 and the mid-twelfth century are thought to have become involved in the Sumatran trading state of Srivijaya.

The presence of foreign Muslims in Indonesia does not, however, demonstrate a significant level of local conversion or the establishment of local Islamic states.cite book | last =Ricklefs | first =M.C. | authorlink = | coauthors = | title =A History of Modern Indonesia since c.1300, 2nd Edition | publisher =MacMillan | date =1991 | location =London | pages =p.3 | url = | doi = | isbn = 0-333-57689-6] The most reliable evidence of the early spread of Islam in Indonesia comes from inscriptions on tombstones and a limited number of travellers’ accounts. The earliest legibly inscribed tombstone is dated AH 475 (AD 1082) although as it belongs to a non-Indonesian Muslim, there is doubt as to whether it was not transported to Java at a later time. The first evidence of Indonesian Muslims come from northern Sumatra; Marco Polo, on his way home from China in 1292, reported at least one Muslim town;cite journal|title=Islam in the Netherlands East Indies|author=Raden Abdulkadir Widjojoatmodjo|journal=The Far Eastern Quarterly|volume=2|issue=1|pages=48–57|date=1942|url=|doi=10.2307/2049278|month=Nov|year=1942] and the first evidence of a Muslim dynasty is the gravestone, dated AH 696 (AD 1297), of Sultan Malik al Saleh, the first Muslim ruler of Samudra, with further gravestones indicating continued Islamic rule. The presence of the Shafi’i school of thought, which was to later dominate Indonesia was reported by Ibn Battutah, a Moroccan traveller, in 1346. In his travel log, Ibn Battutah wrote that the ruler of Samudera Pasai was a muslim, who performs his religious duties in his utmost zeal. The madh'hab he used was Imam Shafi'i with the similar customs he had seen in India.

By region

Islam penetrated Indonesian society in a largely peaceful way, and from the 14th century to the end of the 19th century the archipelago saw almost no organised Muslim missionary activity. [Nieuwenhuijze (1958), p. 35.]


Founded around the beginning of the fifteenth century, the great Malay trading state of Malacca, was, as the most important trading centre of the western archipelago, a centre of foreign Muslims, and it thus appears a supporter of the spread of Islam. From Malacca and elsewhere gravestones survive showing not only its spread in the Malay archipelago, but as the religion of a number of cultures and their rulers in the late fifteenth century.

Northern Sumatra

Firmer evidence documenting continued cultural transitions comes from two late-fourteenth century gravestones from Minye Tujoh in North Sumatra, each with Islamic inscriptions but in Indian-type characters and the other Arabic. Dating from the fourteenth century, tombstones in Brunei, Trengganu (northeast Malaysia) and East Java are evidence of Islam’s spread. The Trengganu stone has a predominance of Sanskrit over Arabic words, suggesting the representation of the introduction of Islamic law. Ma Huan's "Ying-yai Sheng-lan: The overall survey of the ocean's shores' (1433)", reports that the main states of the northern part of Sumatra were already Islamic. In 1414, he visited the King of Malacca, who was Muslim and also his people, and they were very strict believers. The establishment of further Islamic states in North Sumatra is documented by late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century graves including those of the first and second Sultans of Pedir; Muzaffar Syah, buried AH 902 (AD 1497) and Ma’ruf Syah, buried AH 917 (AD 1511). Aceh was founded in the early sixteenth century and would later become the most powerful North Sumatran state and one of the most powerful in the whole Malay archipelago. The Aceh Empire’s first sultan was Ali Mughayat Syah whose tombstone is dated AH 936 (AD 1530).

The book of Portuguese apothecary Tomé Piers that documents his observations of Java and Sumatra from his 1512 to 1515 visits, is considered one of the most important sources on the spread of Islam in Indonesia. At this time, according to Piers, most Sumatran kings were Muslim; from Aceh and south along the east coast to Palembang the rulers were Muslim, while south of Palembang and around the southern tip of Sumatra and up the west coast, most were not. In other Sumatran kingdoms, such as Pasai and Minangkabau the rulers were Muslim although at that stage their subjects and people’s of neighbouring areas were not, however, it was reported that the religion was continually gaining new adherents.

Central and eastern Java

Inscriptions in Old Javanese rather than Arabic on a significant series of gravestones dating back to AD 1369 in East Java, indicate that these are almost certainly Javanese, rather than foreign, Muslims. Due to their elaborate decorations and proximity to the site of the former Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit capital, Damais concludes that these are the graves of very distinguished Javanese, perhaps even royalty. [Damais, Louis-Charles, 'Études javanaises, I: Les tombes musulmanes datées de Trålåjå.' "BEFEO", vol. 54 (1968), pp. 567-604.] This suggests that some of the Javanese elite adopted Islam at a time when the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit was at the height of its glory.

Ricklefs (1991) argues that these east Javan gravestones, sited and dated at the non-coastal Majapahit, cast doubt on the long held view that Islam in Java originated on the coast and represented political and religious opposition to the kingdom. As a kingdom with far-reaching political and trading contacts, Majapahit would have almost certainly been in contact with Muslim traders, however there is conjecture over the likelihood of its sophisticated courtiers being attracted to a religion of merchants. Rather, it mystical Sufi-influence Islamic teachers, possibly claiming supernatural powers, who are thought to be a more probable agent of religious conversion of Javanese court elites who had long been familiar with aspects of Hindu and Buddhist mysticism.cite book | last =Ricklefs | first =M.C. | authorlink = | coauthors = | title =A History of Modern Indonesia since c.1300, 2nd Edition | publisher =MacMillan | date =1991 | location =London | pages =p.5 | url = | doi = | isbn = 0-333-57689-6]

When the peoples of the north coast of Java adopted Islam is unclear. Chinese Muslim, Ma Huan and envoy of Chinese Emperor Yongle, visited the Java coast in 1416 and reported in his book, "Ying-yai Sheng-lan: The overall survey of the ocean's shores' (1433)", that there were only three types of people in Java: Muslims from the west, Chinese (some Muslim) and the heathen Javanese. [Ma Huan’s, "Ying-yai Sheng-lan: The overall survey of the ocean's shores' (1433)." Ed. and transl. J.V.G. Mills. Cambridge: University Press, 1970] Since the east Javan gravestones were those of Javanese Muslims fifty years before, Ma Huan’s report indicates that Islam may have indeed been adopted by Javanese courtiers before the coastal Javanese.

An early Muslim gravestone date AH 822 (AD 1419) has been found at Gresik an East Javanese port and marks the burial of Maulana Malik Ibrahim . As it appears, however, that he was non-Javanese foreigner, the gravestone does not provide evidence of coastal Javanese conversion. Malik Ibrahim was, however, according to Javanese tradition one of the first nine apostles of Islam in Java (the "Wali Sanga") although no documentary evidence exists for this tradition. In the late fifteenth century, the powerful Majapahit Empire in Java was at its decline. After had been defeated in several battles, the last Hindu kingdom in Java fell under the rising power of Islamised state Sultanate of Demak in 1520.

Western Java

Pires' "Suma Oriental" reports that Sundanese-speaking West Java was not Muslim in his day. A Muslim conquest of the area occurred later in the sixteenth century. In the early sixteenth century the Central and East Java (home of the Javanese) were still claimed by the Hindu-Buddhist king living in the interior of East Java at Daha (Kediri). The north coast was, however, Muslim as far as Surabaya and were often at war with the interior. Of these coastal Muslim lords, some were Javanese who had adopted Islam, and others were not originally Javanese but Muslim traders settling along established trading routes including Chinese, Indians, Arabs and Malays. According to Piers, these settlers and their descendants so admired Javanese Hindu-Buddhist culture that they emulate its style and were thus themselves becoming Javanese.

Other areas

There is no evidence of the adoption of Islam by Indonesians before the sixteenth century in areas outside of Java, Sumatra, the sultanates of Ternate and Tidore in Maluku, and Brunei and the Malay Peninsula.

Indonesian and Malay legends

Although time frames for the establishment of Islam in Indonesian regions can be broadly determined, the historical primary sources cannot answer many specific questions, and considerable controversy surrounds the topic. Such sources don't explain why significant conversions of Indonesians to Islam did not begin until after several centuries of foreign Muslims visiting and living in Indonesia, nor do they adequately explain the origin and development of Indonesia's idiosyncratic strains of Islam, or how Islam came to be the dominant religion in Indonesia. [Ricklefs (1991), p.8.]

To fill these gaps, many scholars turn to Malay and Indonesian legends surrounding Indonesian conversion to Islam. Ricklefs argues that although they are not reliable historical accounts of actual events, they are valuable in illuminating some of the events is through their shared insights into the nature of learning and magical powers, foreign origins and trade connections of the early teachers, and the conversion process that moved from the elite downwards. These also provide insight into how later generations of Indonesians view Islamisation. [Ricklefs (1991), pp.8-11.] These sources include:
*"Hikayat Raja-raja Pasai" ("The Story of the kings of Pasai") - an Old Malay text that tells how Islam came to "Samudra" (Pasai, northern Sumatra) where the first Indonesian Islamic state was founded.
*"Sejarah Melayu" ("Malay History") - an Old Malay text, which like "Hikayat Raja-raja Pasai" tells the story of the conversion of Samudra, but also tells of the conversion of the King of Malacca.
*"Babad Tanah Jawi" ("History of the land of Java") - a generic name for a large number of manuscripts, in which the first Javanese conversions are attributed to the "Wali Sanga" ("nine saints").
*"Sejarah Banten" ("History of Banten") - A Javanese text containing stories of conversion. Of the texts mentioned here, the Malay texts describe the conversion process as a significant watershed, signified by formal and tangible signs of conversion such as circumcision, the Confession of Faith, and the adoption of an Arabic name. On the other hand, while magical events still play a prominent role in the Javanese accounts of Islamisation, such turning points of conversion as in the Malay texts are otherwise not as evident. This suggests a more adsorptive process for the Javanese, [Ricklefs (1991), p.9.] that is consistent with the significantly larger syncretic element in contemporary Javanese Islam in comparison to the relatively orthodox Islam of Sumatra and Malaysia.

ee also

*Islam in Indonesia
*History of Indonesia
*Spread of Islam


last = Van Nieuwenhuijze
first = C.A.O.
title = Aspects of Islam in Post-Colonial Indonesia
place = The Hague
publisher = W.van Hoeve Ltd
year = 1958
isbn =


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