On the Islamization of the Malays and Malay Contributions to Islam
The coming of Islam to the Malay World could be pushed back to as early as 9th century when the first traders from Yemen came and converted some Malays here. But Islam as a civilization took root much later on. By 11-12th century, Islam had taken root in places such as Aceh, Trengganu and Pasai not the Nusantara as a whole. By 14th century, Islam had spread so rapidly, thanks to the work of Malay missionaries, so much so that the Arab wayfarers would come to learn under the feet of scholars based in this part of the world.
So influential was Islam here in the 14th century that even the cultures here were brought home by the Arabs who came to marry with local women. In Hadramaut, kain pelekat was used by the Masyaikhs in Tarim and Hadramis would read kitabs written by scholars here back home. Malays became Great People. The Malay missionaries together with Arabs and Indian Muslims went all over the region to as far as Lombok to spread Islam.
Because Arab and Indian traders followed winds and less geographical sites, they traded wherever their ships landed. It is clear that different groups landed at different places at almost the same time and the idea that Islam came to specific places first such as Trengganu or Aceh may not be at all true. We need to also acknowledge the roles of Chinese Muslim preachers who came as early as 10th century. So Malays became Muslims not only through the work of Arabs and Indians but also through the efforts of the progeny of Saad Ibn Waqqas and also Persian missionaries who had already settled in some parts of China at that time. People here thus received the best of 4 worlds and the myth goes that “Aceh” was an acronym for Arab, Cina, Eropah dan Hindia. The debate still goes on and on…making me so animated with this history of ours.
The most important issue to take note of here were the Usul Fiqh tools which many of the preachers used: SYAR’U MAN QABLANA (the Legal Rules that Came Before) and URUF (Customs). Instead of trying to reform everything that was there, the Muslim traders and scholars took what was best in Malay culture and grafted Islamic ideals into the existing cultural framework. Gradualism was the approach they used and instead of rushing the Hindu Malays to accept Islam in its entirety, they emphasised on the understanding of the concept of Tauhid first.
Fiqh and the Syariah was taught in stages largely through works of kanun which was textualized much later on. So, in sum, the early preachers made sure that the Syarak (Legal Norms) of the Malays remained intact and slowly brushed off features that ran against the fundamentals of Islam while amplifiying those that were in congruent to the ideals of Tauhid. Because of this, many Malays willingly accepted Islam because they saw it as no different from their existing beliefs aside from the fact that they had to belief in less gods and just one Mighty Allah which they called “Gusti Allah”. That is to say, Malay Culture remained as it was, infused with the Islamic spirit, and was regarded by the Malays themselves as superior and richer than what it was before because now they share now some features of the Arab, Indian, Persian and Chinese cultures with an Islamic Twist. Rojak, as well call it today, with Malay gravy.
That is the amazing journey of Islam in the Malay World with Malays as the Proponents of the Faith they see as Their Own.