During the fourteenth century, the demand in Europe for spices and Chinese luxury goods expanded rapidly. To meet that demand, Arab and Indian Muslim trading links into Southeast Asia steadily increased. About 1400, a prince named Parameswara from the Sumatran kingdom of Majapahit established the fortified trading port of Melaka at the narrowest part of the straits formed between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Very quickly, Melaka’s power grew, based on extracting duties from passing traders. Toward the end of his reign, Parameswara converted to Islam, and in doing so assumed the Islamic name Megat Iskandar Shah. His conversion marked the beginning of a period during which Islam rapidly expanded to other parts of Southeast Asia.
Melaka established a system of favored treatment for Muslims both involving trade agreements and payment of transit duties. By these measures, Muslim traders discovered the advantages of a monopoly trading system. Southeast Asian rulers who converted to Islam gained privileged access to the lucrative spice trade system that extended to markets in China, India, and beyond Arabia to Europe. Local rulers were also attracted to Islam for a variety of other reasons. Malay .society was hierarchical and organized under a monarch usually holding the Indian title of raja. Hindu and Buddhist concepts of kingship attributed magical powers and a divine sanction to that office. In the cosmic theology of the Malay world, the mystical powers of rulership, known as daulat, provided the ideology for royal legitimacy. The Islamic doctrine that a Muslim ruler was God’s representative on earth and protector of the one true faith enhanced the power and authority of any ruler choosing to adopt Islam as a “state religion.” Not only was Islam congruent with the idea of daulat, but it also enhanced that concept by imparting to the ruler divine sanction to establish God’s ordained rule.
Arab and Indian Muslim traders not only established contacts with the outside world, they had access to improved technology. Their ships and navigation skills were superior to those of local traders and they had better weapons, including muskets and more formidable cannons. They understood economics and operated with a degree of coordination and knowledge of market conditions to anticipate and calculate risk, both economic and political. By their actions and their foreign contacts, they exuded the aura of success and power, which was attributed to their superior knowledge and to God’s beneficence.
Some of the missionaries who came to Southeast Asia were Indian Muslims who had already been influenced by Indian philosophy and were thus better prepared to confront the religious and philosophical assumptions of Malay mystical beliefs that had been influenced by Hindu and Buddhist concepts. Through a process of acculturation, new converts were able to adapt the rituals and obligations of Islam to make them fairly congruent with traditional beliefs and social structures. The more stringent requirements of Islamic public law governing government, taxes, and criminal law were often ignored, just as they had been in Islam’s medieval period and under Muslim rule in the Indian subcontinent. Islamic rules of social organization and property were not entirely ignored, but they were frequently modified to permit the continuation of existing practices regarding marriages, inheritance, and the status of women. In some places, such as the Minangkabau areas of Sumatra, the population adopted Islam while also retaining their earlier matrilineal social system. The spread of Islam was also facilitated by the religious tolerance that characterized Buddhist and Hindu cultural systems, as well as by the fact that Hinduism and Buddhism had not penetrated deeply into Malay/Indonesian culture, but had been instead primarily accepted as the basis for royal authority. When Islam became the preferred basis for the authority of the rulers, it was a relatively easy process for their subjects to convert to Islam with the sanction and support of those in power.
By this process, Islam came, not as a destabilizing process, but rather as an additional pillar of authority for the existing social and political order. For converts, this meant accepting new rituals and doctrines, without making a revolutionary break with the past.
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