36: Islam overlaid on Austronesian beliefs


Southeast Asia: “The Chinese influence upon my politics was considerable in the first 1400 years of the Common Era. China’s sway over my people was especially powerful at the beginning of the 15th century. Joining China’s 'tribute' system turned the sleepy port town of Malacca into an international entrepôt within just a few decades. The ensuing wealth transformed Malacca into a mini-empire, complete with vassal states.

Then due to internal problems, i.e. the Chinese peasantry was starving, China suddenly evaporated from the international scene to take care of its own. Without their wealthy and powerful benefactor to lend prestige, abundant business and military protection, Malacca converted to Islam to capture the Arab trade. The strategy was successful in that it allowed her to thrive and prosper, for at least the better part of a single century. Her soldiers were even able repulse an invading force from Thailand in the middle of Malacca's century of glory.

Perhaps her strategy was too successful. Wealth attracts power, like honey attracts a bee. News of Malacca's fabulous riches drew barbarian invaders from the West - the Europeans. There was a considerable difference in the motives between the Europeans and the Chinese. The contrast in motives difference cannot be overestimated.

As mentioned, the Chinese came to my land, not as invaders, but to establish diplomatic relations and promote international trade. Their emissaries were respectful of local traditions, even curious about them. The Chinese scholars and scientists took prodigious notes concerning our way of life, including the flora and fauna. They sent their findings home to China to be housed in the imperial library. The first Europeans to arrive, the Spanish and Portuguese, came to plunder our riches through military force and convert our people to their religion.

Sigh! We never really appreciated how tolerant the Chinese were. We thought that all societies were respectful of cultural differences. How wrong we were. My people were respectful of each others' beliefs. Our two powerful neighbors never exhibited any religious intolerance. We adopted many of their religious, business and political practices, not because of force, but because of the sophistication of their vision.

Religious tolerance was one of the Chinese Emperor's virtues. Zhu Di regularly sent Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist holy men on Zheng He's voyages, presumably to provide guidance and wisdom. A Muslim himself, Zheng He epitomized tolerance. Historians found a stele that he erected at one of the port cities that his ships visited. The inscriptions were written in 3 languages, Chinese, Tamil, and Persian. They were addressed to Buddha, Shiva, and Allah. They thanked them for their compassion and moral virtue and asked for their protective blessing upon the coming voyage. The Muslim Zheng He was definitely an elevated human being, treating all humans as equals.

Who knows? Perhaps Zheng He’s moral stature played a factor in the conversion to Islam of the resilient Paramesvara, the first Sultan of Malacca. Sigh again! What a stark contrast to the Europeans that followed.

Attracted by Malacca's legendary wealth, the Portuguese sent Albuquerque, their thug, not to trade, but to conquer our international entrepôt. Shortly after, they sent Saint Francis Xavier, not to share wisdom, but to convert our people to Catholicism. Little did we know what was to befall us next.

We had been spared the Biblical wars of Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East. All of our minuscule wars had been based upon trade and wealth, not religious beliefs. We didn’t even understand the concept of religious intolerance. To understand the shock on our collective nervous system from the arrival of the Portuguese, let us speak a little about religion in our area prior to their arrival. This discussion will provide some context to the coming travesty that the barbaric Europeans inflicted upon our people.”

New religions overlaid on top of Indigenous beliefs

We’ve seen how Southeast Asian culture first adopted India’s Hinduism and later embraced Arabia’s Islam. This gives the image of mass conversions, which is very misleading. Basically the Indian traders arrived on our soil at the beginning of the Common Era. Because of the alternation of the monsoons they established local communities. These coexisted with the tribes of my indigenous population. Those who dealt with these foreign traders were influenced by their religious traditions, but the bulk of the tribes retained their animistic beliefs.

Because of the sophistication of India’s Hinduism, those who understood and practiced it acquired a certain prestige. However, this prestige was only associated with the trading centers. Southeast Asia’s religious organization, like our political organization, was naturally based upon the mandala. Religious beliefs emanated from these trading or cultural centers, just as power did. In general those in the political/trading centers adopted Hinduism, while those who were further away retained their tribal religions.

Hinduism and power walk hand in hand

Hinduism was particularly important for the spreading of power in Southeast Asia cultures because it affirmed a hierarchical power structure. The tribal chieftains, in particular, embraced Hinduism as it affirmed their right to rule. Inspired and/or corrupted by these dreams of power, they set themselves up as maharajahs of petty kingdoms. However, most of the indigenous population continued practicing their ancestor and spirit worship.

Our religious references are more applicable to the ruling class than to the general population. Similarly, the Arab and Chinese historians, who visited these centers of trade, power and culture, affirmed these collective generalizations. They reported what was going on in the center of the power mandala, not what was happening on the periphery. Thus when we speak of an Indianized state, like Funan, Srivijaya or Majapahit, it is most likely that the ruling class was Hindu or Buddhist. It doesn’t mean that the entire country practiced Hinduism or Buddhism. Indeed even if most of the country was allegedly Buddhist, this religion was only casually overlaid upon local belief systems.

Accordingly, when we speak about the Buddhist Srivijaya Empire, we are primarily referring to the rulers, merchants and traders, and much less to the average citizen. Indeed the deeper in the jungle these tribes were, the less likely that Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam influenced their religious beliefs. However for ease of reference, we will continue with these generalizations because the shakers and movers of these civilizations participated in these generalizations even though the general populace might not have.

This was akin to what happened throughout the world when indigenous cultures converted to Catholicism. Catholicism didn’t replace the indigenous belief systems, but was instead an overlay. This merger of religions explains the rituals/practices associated with Christmas and Easter in Western culture. Decorated pine trees and bunnies hiding colored eggs have nothing to do with Christianity and actually derive from earlier Celtic traditions.

Islam replaces Hinduism as religion of power

Islam, like Hinduism and Buddhism, was just overlaid on the traditional beliefs of Southeast Asian island cultures. Malacca was the first Islamized state or Sultanate. But even after her fall, the Muslim entrepôts continued to attract Asian and European merchants. This influx of foreigners contributed to Malaysia’s great ethnic diversity. Because of the wealth derived from trade, sultanates continued to be created even after Malacca’s decline. This Islamic political organization continued despite the Catholic influence due to the militaristic Portuguese and their missionaries. In this way, Islam spread to the rest of the peninsula and then to the archipelago, which included the islands of Sumatra and Java.

The centers of these Muslim political units were usually located on the mouth of major rivers. These trade-based groups controlled the flow of goods to and from the interior. Aboriginal and semi-nomadic peoples populated the interior. The coastal people converted to Islam, but the interior remained animistic until the 20th century. Attempts to control the interior failed. Headhunters from western Borneo continued to wreak havoc on the sultanates through the 20th century. The Sultan of Brunei even enlisted Western assistance to suppress these native uprisings.

Instead of being universal, Islam was primarily practiced in the trading centers. These centers were always located near water, because water facilitates trade. Muslim traditions and beliefs emanated from these trading centers. However, the greater the distance the local communities were from these centers of wealth and power, the less likely that they were influenced by Islamic traditions.

Even the conversions were not rigid or dogmatic. The Islamic beliefs were overlaid right on top of Hindu and Buddhist rituals, which had been overlaid on top of the earlier animistic beliefs. Only a few of the islanders were orthodox Islam. Their animist spirits were frequently included in Islamic folk beliefs, especially before the reform movement of the 17th century.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, multiple religions were overlaid one on top of the other. This mish mash of beliefs led to incredible religious tolerance. This tolerance provides a context for the impact of the religiously intolerant European cultures upon our people. Prior to Portuguese colonization, wars were not based upon religion. They were centered around commercial, hence political power. The ruling classes fought over who was going to control the trading centers that generated the wealth that led to power.

The appeal of Islam for the Austronesian Islanders

Summarizing to reinforce retention: Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, religion was not really a source of conflict in Southeast Asia. All the diverse cultures coexisted relatively peacefully. During the 15th century, the Southeast Asian island cultures, including the Malay Peninsula, converted en masse to Islam. This conversion instigated Malacca’s Golden Age as a commercial and Islamic religious center.

What features of Islam attracted the Austronesian-speaking islanders, besides its financial and political benefits? Why did the Islanders convert so readily to Islam after they had been Hindu/Buddhist for over a thousand years? There must be some good reasons that would inspire an entire culture to voluntarily convert to a new religion.

First point: long before this conversion, Southeast Asians had been friends with Arab and Indian merchants. These merchants had been visiting their ports for centuries before Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was even born. Due to internal conflicts, Roman power faded as the second century passed. Ethiopian, Parthian, and Arab traders replaced Roman traders. The Arabs, particularly, dominated Eastern sea routes from the 3rd to 15th century. The story of Sinbad the Sailor from Thousand and One Nights reflects the importance of Arab sea trade.

After the Arabs converted to Islam, their new religion accompanied them to Southeast Asia. Influenced by their long-term friends, Southeast Asians converted willingly, not due to military force. The spread of Islam was linked to the efflorescence of trade in the Indian Ocean that linked India, the Middle East and East Africa with Indonesian spices, Malay gold, and Chinese silk and tea, all via the Straits of Malacca.

The conversion to Islam of Parmesvara, the founder of Malacca, was certainly significant. His religious transformation combined with the rise of Malacca as a financial and political power catalyzed the conversion. However, the Austronesians were ripe for change, as Hinduism had run its course. Its Pulse was ending.

Islam contained an egalitarian message, which challenged the power of the traditional elites. Hinduism with its muted caste system gave legitimacy to the families in power. Islam tore these distinctions away. Further Islam’s complex theology has a more pragmatic message, in contrast with other worldly Hinduism. This shift in orientation appealed particularly to the more down-to-earth merchants and peasants.

Christianity vs. Islam in Southeast Asia

Why didn't Christianity have the same appeal?

For one, Southeast Asians were much more familiar with the Arabs, having traded with them for over a thousand years. The Europeans were relative strangers. The Romans had traveled to Southeast Asia in the 1st century BCE under Hadrian - visiting Siam, Cambodia, Sumatra, and Java, even China. In 161 CE Huan-ti of China even accepted gifts, as tribute from Marcus Aurelius of Rome. But that was pretty much the last Southeast Asia saw of the Europeans. And they hadn’t even converted to Christianity yet. As the Romans faded, the Arabs took over. One reason that Christianity failed to take hold was because it was unfamiliar. On the other hand, the islanders had been in close contact with Arabs and their belief system through trade.

Further, Islam, like Southeast Asia’s village-based society, is very social. Every morning and every week, Muslims pray together as a group. Rich and poor, weak and powerful alike. This communal activity encourages social cohesion, which is independent of class. Islam has no class structure. Everybody is equal before God.

This is very different from Catholicism with its hierarchy of priests, bishops and popes. These individuals act as intermediaries between their congregation and God. In some ways, Catholicism is reminiscent of Hinduism with its caste system.

Further because of Islam’s social side, public conduct is most important, while one’s private life is immaterial. In contrast, the way someone thinks is most important for Christians, because salvation is in the mind. Believing that Jesus is the only Son of God or belief in the supremacy of the Pope and the Catholic Church is far more important than one’s behavior. For Muslims, behavior is of utmost importance, not what is said. This is why expressing remorse is so important for Christians, while it means nothing in the Islamic world.

Also charity is one of the 5 obligations of a Muslim. This attitude promotes generosity of spirit. In contrast, the Protestant Christianity of the colonial powers, England and the Netherlands, stressed belief in an omnipotent God over works. Presumably wealth is evidence that their all-powerful and all-knowing God favors the actions of the rich and poverty is a consequence of God’s divine justice. This mindset certainly does not encourage compassion towards the less fortunate.  Helping everyone in the community has been a necessary feature of egalitarian island life that was encouraged by Islam.

Another element that attracted the Austronesians to the Muslim faith was that it wasn’t as centralized. The Pope, the semi-divine leader of Catholicism, was located in Rome, thousands of miles from Southeast Asia. The Roman civilization from which Catholicism arose was centered in huge cities. In contrast, the Arabs originated in smaller tribal units, just like the islanders. As most Austronesians live in small villages spread across hundreds of small islands, they have never been that comfortable with centralization. In fact, it would be impossible.

Modern Austronesians: Muslim, Traditional & Contemporary

What branch of Islam is practiced in Southeast Asia?

Mostly Sunni. This was the branch of Islam carried by the Arab and Indian merchants that visited Southeast Asia. However, to think of Austronesians as traditional Sunnis is a distortion.

Southeast Asian islanders then and now practice a blend of religious traditions, including traditional, Hindu and Islam. Following is a first person account of an interaction that indicates this merger of practices. The dialogue occurred in 2103 CE between a Javanese guide Sumedi, our Chinese Malaysian host Martin and myself.

Sumedi revealed that his people continue to worship their ancestors in association with the shrines on the ancient Dieng Plateau. Instead of just being inert museum pieces for tourists to enjoy, it seems that these stone monuments continue to serve as a locus for prehistoric religious traditions.

Somewhat startled by this revelation, I attempted to solidify my understanding of the religious mentality of the locals.

Me: "What religion are the Javanese?"

Guide Sumedi: "Muslim, strictly Muslim."

Me: "Let me get this straight. Most Javanese are familiar with the Hindu spiritual novels, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, worship their ancestors, and are also Muslims?"

Sumedi: "Exactly."

Host Martin: "Muslim in the morning; traditional Javanese during the day; and modern at night."

We all laugh, including Sumedi. The warm and friendly micro-expressions on our guide’s face confirm Martin's characterization.

Me: "What does this mean?"

Martin: "There's an old classification of the Javanese into abangan and santri. The abangan are nominal Muslims with the Javanese/Hindu/traditions more prominent. In contrast, the santri are practicing/devout Muslims. Normally the santri are located primarily in the coastal areas where foreign influence is high.

Islam spread into Java through Indian and Arab traders and especially by Chinese Muslim (more Chinese than Muslim). Cheng Ho, the famous admiral of the Chinese imperial armada, is a good example. The conversion was not through harsh conquest like elsewhere. Thirty years ago, i.e. before Iran's revolution and Saudi's funding of the fundamentalist Wahabi creed, I would say 90% of Javanese were abangan. Now maybe 70%.

Even then most regions in Indonesia, except the recent Aceh autonomous Islamic province, and some isolated corners, the Indonesian Muslims are fun loving. This is true of most islanders or the residents of wet tropical countries, especially as compared to the Muslims living in desert/harsh areas, such as the Saudi Arabia/Afghanistan/Pakistan etc.

For major ceremonies - marriage, circumcision etc. – Islamic rituals start the ceremony. However by the afternoon, traditional fun dominates. For instance, my wife's sister wedding and son's circumcision started in the morning with prayers led by elders from the local mosque. But clothing was traditional Sundanese or Javanese (bare shoulder for both groom and bride). When the elders had their lunch and gone back, live stage music (Dangdut – Indian beat influenced songs and music) started people dancing. By nighttime, it's electronic organ disco music. No separation of sexes after lunch.

Also while Muslim elders chant prayers at the inauguration of a new building/projects etc., they also sprinkle holy water and cut cone rice, as part of traditional Javanese religious practices.

As you see, the heavy Hindu influence combined with prehistoric practices from our proud pre-Islamic history has tempered Islam in Java.”

This dialogue provides an excellent example of the continuation of the flexible and supple nature of the Javanese belief system. Instead of either one or the other, they believe in elements of both.

Muslim/Buddhist friction in Thailand?

The voluntary conversion of Southeast Asia’s Austronesian-speaking islanders was generally without conflict.  However, there was and is definitely some friction where Islam met Buddhism on Southeast Asia’s mainland. For instance the north of Thailand is over 90% Buddhist, while the south of this relatively large countryis predominantly Muslim. Why is this so?

In the 15th century when Malacca and Islam emerged as a political force, most of the petty kingdoms on the Malay Peninsula had a tributary relation with the Thai empire based in Ayutthaya. Malacca’s wealth and power allowed her to break these chains with Thailand. However, the rest of the peninsula remained under Thai control.

In the meantime because of the social connection provided by the Muslim community, the Malays continued to convert to Islam and create sultanates. This process continued despite the Thai government's political dominance over the region. These sultanates didn’t unify politically until after World War II. They were relatively small political units. Because of this political fragmentation, the Siamese were able to control the sultanates in the north of the Malay Peninsula for centuries. Even after World War II, the Thai government continued to claim that they deserve to be in control of these Malay communities in the north because of a lengthy political tradition.  A separatist Islamic movement in the south aims at autonomy from the Buddhist government. It seems that tolerant Southeast Asians aren’t so tolerant at the boundary lines. Yet this political tension due to beliefs is a modern phenomenon. In the 1500s prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Southeast Asian world had yet to experience religious conflict.


Southeast Asia: “I would like to express gratitude to the Author for the many hours he spent rendering my tale in a form that is accessible to your species. I am eternally grateful that he has relayed the stories of my many empires. Each of these cultural glaciers seemed as if they would last forever. Instead, they melted away, as does everything. Human culture is just a speck for Time, who even consumes tall mountains and continental formations.

These collections of humans grew into giants, flowing through the rivers and valleys, etching the landscape as they went with their amazing architectural masterpieces. After completing their temporal Pulse, the human glacier retreated, leaving behind its amazing debris. But those who created it are gone, like the fire that is extinguished after it transforms ore into metal and then casts it into a work of art.

I remember when these disembodied souls were just babies, existing in tiny groups that you humans call tribes. First were the Hill Tribes. They loved living in the high altitudes of the enormous Himalayan mountain range. It was such a good fit that they never spread any further and still live there to this very day. 

Then several tens of thousands of years ago, the Austroasiatic speakers from Southern India arrived. They spread out over my mainland and onto my islands. Their culture developed a sophisticated bronze technology. Their bronze craft was devoted to art and utilitarian objects. Conversely, the remainder of our small planet used bronze primarily for weaponry and waging war. It was this Austroasiatic culture that began growing rice. They discovered this amazing agricultural technology presumably due to the regular flooding of the Himalayas.

This apparently everlasting condition changed when the Austronesians arrived via the ocean 5 to 10 thousand years ago. Extraordinary sailors, they spread over the islands, displacing the Austroasiatics. But there was plenty to go around for everyone. These two cultural groups coexisted relatively peacefully as small tribal units for many millennia.

At the beginning of the Common Era, Indian traders arrived in Southeast Asia from the West. Their cultural impact was astounding. The tiny tribes coalesced into kingdoms. The new possibilities arising from the increased social complexity were multiplied tremendously, just like when single cells join together and become multi-cellular organisms.

At the same time, Chinese traders arrived from the East, as emissaries of their Empire. Tiny ports joined the Chinese Empire as tributary states, and became Southeast Asian empires in their own right. Funneling the Chinese trade through a single port generated the enormous wealth that was necessary to fund empires, such as those of Funan, Srivijaya, and Malacca.

During this prolonged time period, I, Southeast Asia became an international entrepôt, the nexus of trade between the East and the West. Although China epitomized the East, Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese traders were included in my mixing pot. Although India epitomized the West, Arab, African and Mediterranean goods were also exchanged. However, the Arab and Indian merchants were the most prevalent.

For 1500 years beginning with the Common Era, Indian, Arab, Chinese and a miscellany of other cultures came to trade with my local cultures. My humans consisted primarily of Austronesian, Austroasiatic, Indian and Chinese speakers. Although empires rose and fell depending upon political circumstances, the cultural mixture was stable.

My kingdoms and empires employed the mandala political structure. These larger collections of humans were held together by virtue of trade and cultural prestige, rather than military might. In other words, my people were not accustomed to the endemic warfare that plagues the rest of the planet. Conquering and enslaving a local population was not a feature of our political landscape.

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