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A Book Review on The Propagation of Islam in the Indonesian-Malay Archipelago

Alijah Gordon (ed.) (2001) The Propagation of Islam in the Indonesian-Malay Archipelago. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Sociological Research Institute (MSRI). 472pp. ISBN 9–83998–662–7.

propogationofislaminindonesiaAs Muslims in Southeast Asia, we always wonder how our forefathers were converted to Islam after thousands of years of being steeped in Hindu-Buddhist and animist beliefs. Why did they decide to switch to a new religion and change their ways of life? How long did the process of conversion took? What were the strategies that the early missionaries used to convert the Malays to Islam?

This collection of essays provides some explanations to the factors that had brought about Malay conversion to Islam. The editor, Alijah Gordon has done us a great service by carefully selecting of the works of European scholars who are sympathetic to Islam.

The first section of the book consists of three essays. First among these is a short intellectual biography of  a prominent historian and scholar of Malay Studies, Rudolf Aernoud Kern written by G.W.J. Drewes. Drewes’ essay sheds much needed light on the man, his personality and the circumstances that brought him to a serious study of the Malay world. Kern’s writings, especially in the later part of his life, according to Drewes, demonstrates his varied scholarly capabilities and interests.

This is followed by a collection of Kern’s important writings, which is the main highlight of this book. Indeed, any reader would be struck by Kern’s expert and close readings of early Malay and Indonesian Muslim texts and archaeological evidences which are revealing of the stan- dards of scholarship in his time. Two broad themes could be derived from Kern’s essays which preoccupied the works of later scholars in his path.

Kern explains that the coming of Islam to the Malay world and the Islamisation of Malay society was a gentle, long and complex process which appealed to elites as well as the lowest section of the Malay-Indonesian societies. The change in lifestyles and religious beliefs did not result in conflicts in the Malay society over questions of identity. Rather, Islam, ethnicity and culture interacted with one another in a dynamic manner which gave rise to civilisations that incorporated peoples from varied traditions. Muslims gave their allegiance to powerful Muslim rulers who, at the same time, gave the common folk spaces to manifest their cultural diversity and difference.

The second part of the book consists of essays that develop Kern’s key arguments to examine the process of Islamisation in other parts of the Malay archipelago. Charles Ralph Boxer’s essay entitled “Portuguese and Spanish Projects in Southeast Asia” highlights the impact of the crusades in Europe upon the Islamisation process in the Malay world. If anything, the battle between Christianity and Islam in the 16th aided in Malay conversion to Islam as Muslim scholars and mystics heightened their miss ionizing activities. This is followed by Denys Lombard and Claudine Salmon’s ground-breaking essay on Chinese contribution in the Islamisation process. Arguing against the dominant paradigm among historians which posits that Islam and Chineseness have always been two competing variables, Lombard and Salmon demonstrate the  relationship that existed between them for many generations. Chinese Muslim missionaries played a big part in converting Malays to Islam.

The third essay by Christian Pelras narrates the Islamisation of South Sulawesi. Pelras maintains that the Sulawesi experience shows how varied groupings but within the Muslim community worked together in their continuous struggle to harmonise their cultures and the Islamic traditions. “Dividing the Islands” by Hendrik E. Niemeijer traces, primarily, Dutch contribution to the Islamisation process of Maluku. His piece is an excellent prelude to another essay in the volume by Pierce-Yves Manguin’s essay which examines the propagation of Islam in the much neglected kingdom of Champa. Both Niemeijer and Manguin argue for a need to re-position these outlying areas in the Malay world into a larger narrative of Islamisation in the region. Both scholars stress that Malay missionaries were responsible for the spread of Islam in these two states.

I find this volume to be useful for anyone who have a deep  interest in Islam and its dynamic contribution in the making of the Malay world. The book should be read alongside other works on theories of Islamisation, foremost among which that I would recommend is by Syed Naquib Al-Attas entitled Historical Fact and Fiction. The final word perhaps goes to the Prime Minister of Malaysia whom, in a lucid way, lauded the book as important in its acknowledgment of not only the Arabs and Indians but also the Chinese as the earliest ambassadors of Islam in this region (Mingguan Malaysia, 6 June 2001).

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