Christian Churches of God

No. B7_9




Mysticism Chapter 9

South East Asian Systems

(Edition 1.0 19900925-20001216)

The text examines the original Southeast Asian religions and the subsequent influences of the Indian, Muslim and later Christian systems.




Christian Churches of God

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 (Copyright © 1990, 2000 Wade Cox)


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South East Asian Systems


Original Religious Systems

The original religions of the Austronesians and also of the mainland racial groups, appears to have been a form of ancestor worship with Shamanism. The Shamanist priests were termed Wali and the group Walian. Amongst the various island groups, the major gods were those of the sun and of the moon with other deities for things such as the sea and of agriculture. Among the East Indonesians and Moluccans the general Shamanist beliefs in the migration of the spirits of the dead were held, also belief in Suanggi or witches. These beliefs are also found among the mixed groups of Papuan extraction such as the Kei and Aru. (According to Professor Koentjaraningrat in Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia, vol. 1, Human Relations Area Files Press, New Haven,1972, p.115).


The worship of departed ancestors, called begu amongst the Batak of Sumatra, is a form that has sacrificial ceremonies carried out by living descendants. These ceremonies are helpful in combating a host of lesser ghosts and spirits, which are malevolent in nature. 


The male priests (datu) are specialists in occult knowledge which they gain through a rigourous apprenticeship. (ibid., Article Batak, p.22). 


Talismans and charms are employed together with divination (using a Hindu derived Zodiac and magical tables) by the male priests, who are also skilled in sorcery through the use of natural poisons.


To contact spirits of the dead, priests employ female mediums (sibasa), who, through dancing, inhaling incense and beating drums and gongs, induce a trance and spirit possession. (ibid).


This Shamanist practice is employed also for illness, when the priest will also assist chanting in a special language (or in tongues) to induce the spirit to enter the body of the medium. This classic Shamanism uses animal sacrifices usually centred on a sacred breed of horse.


The ceremonial unit is a bius, which is a territorial political entity, not necessarily equivalent to a single genealogical unit. This could be termed a form of diocese. In many ways this is reminiscent of the early Shamanism, which entered Europe from Chaldea and 'Scythia' and was found amongst the Druids.


An interesting aspect of the doctrine of transmigration is found in the way the Batak divide the soul into two elements. The tondi, or vital life force (which is found also in rice and iron) can leave the host temporarily or permanently (if permanently, death ensues).  This spirit can leave one's body to dwell in another organism. What is left of the dead becomes a begu, or spirit, which is in the state of what has become known as purgatory. They have to be elevated to exalted status, which can be described as oneness, or unity with the essential spirit. This concept is essentially similar to that adopted by the Indians and transferred back into Islam during the Abbasid period and is important to this work. It is essentially a Shamanistic and Babylonian concept. Afterlife concepts are vague, not only amongst the Batak where it is held to be similar to that on earth, but they vary along utopian lines generally.


Despite the inroads made by Christianity in the North and Islam in the South, this religion still persists as the framework on which the later two are superimposed, particularly amongst the Karo Batak.


That Shamanism was the universal religion of the Austronesians, is evidenced by its universal diffusion (with variations on the inclusion of females in the Shaman priesthood and the function of deities) amongst these people even to the Andaman and Nicobarese. The Car Nicobarese believe in the high god Teo, who created the lesser deities of the sun and moon, and this may be derived from the original monotheism on which Chinese religion was also based prior to the 5th century BCE.


The original Malays spread to Sumatra and Borneo and formed the Minangkabau peoples in Sumatra, who are distinctive by isolation.  The Iban and some Malayic Dayaks, are also in this Riay or coastal Malay group, who arrived in Borneo prior to the spread of Islam in S. E. Asia.


The Iban trace their ancestry to the god Sengalang Burong, symbolised by the Brahmani Kite or Hawk. These people have a pantheon of gods and also have the typical spiritual world, with which they act in equilibrium in their Shaman or manang.


Ritual dancing and speaking in a language or tongues and communication with spirit familiars whilst in trances are practised by the manang. The office of manang is divided by grades marked by apprenticeship and initiation and the highest grade usually involves transvestite behaviour. The lemembang, a ritual expert or priest, may be filled by either male or female, but males predominate. Chants and invocations performed at religious festivals are termed, gowai. They are lengthy and it is at this time the lemembang most resembles a priest.  The ritual seems mantric in form and suggests Indian influence on the Iban, placing their movement during the establishment of the Indian States in Malaya and before Islam. They have an auger, tuai burong, who specialises in bird omenology. Many of the religious festivals were centred on rice cultivation and involved headhunting as an added cult feature.


The Shaman cults extend over the Ngadju and Maanyan Dyaks, where the Shaman are termed Wadian as opposed to Walian and the more general term balian is used (Bali seemingly being derived from a Shamanistic function).  These Shamans are of seven types, six females and one male, each with its own spirits and ritual. Islam has not penetrated these people to the extent that 78% are still native animists, 18% Christian and only 3% Muslim.


Of the Acehnese, their form of Shamanism as pantheistic mysticism is still extant. The mystical practices still occur, albeit in a weakened form, with the Shamanist priesthood confined to the women.  Whilst this province is ostensibly the centre of Islamic development its Islamic faith seems to be a form superimposed on the original religion. (See Article Acehnese, ibid., p.18-19). The observance of pilgrimage to tombs of Islamic Wali is widespread and this practice is non-Islamic in derivation.


It is the historical development of this process that we will now examine.


Buddhism and Indianization in Southeast Asia

The movement of the Indian systems into Southeast Asia, and also China, was helped greatly by the increased maritime capacity Buddhism allowed over the restrictive Brahmanic Varna system.


Through increased trade, it was to come into contact with the animistic tribes of Southeast Asia, which at that time included large areas of Southern China. Events in China allowed the system to superimpose itself on the indigenous Shamanist Mysticism. This was facilitated by the conquests of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) and the subjugation of some thirty nations. According to Coedes in The Indianized States of Southeast Asia at p.7:

In most cases we pass without transition from the late neolithic to the first Indian remains.  .... The Indian establishments of Oc Eo (in Cochin China) and of Kuala Selinseng (in the State of Perak in Malaya) from which come seals engraved with sanskrit names in the writing of the second to fourth centuries, have also yielded instruments of polished stone.  In the Celebes a bronze Buddha of the Amaravati School was found at Sempaga above a Neolithic layer.


He contends (that when the Brahmano-Buddhist culture of India came into contact with these people) they were still in what he terms "the midst of late Neolithic civilisation" and what I shall term neo-Babylonian Shamanism.


Modern paradigms attempt to construct a pre-Aryan foundation for the Southeast Asian system. However, the structure of ancestor worship and Animism, of the God of the Soil, of the fertility symbols and the building of shrines in the 'high places' has a common thread with Chaldean theology, which is too striking to be accidental. Regardless of argument surrounding the original structures, we can trace with relative certainty, the historical development, which shows conclusively that the early religious systems were structured under Indo-Aryan influence and that influence is unmistakable.


Another common theme is the burial of the dead:

in jars or dolmens and for which purpose the megalithic structures are constructed, throughout not only the island chain but wherever this system occurred, is characteristic.  So also is the cosmological dualism which is inherent in the system.  This dualism is not only of gods but of the spirits of mountain and sea and of species and further of mountain and lowland peoples. This system is indelibly stamped on the Austronesian people, probably the Chinese K'unlun or the Sanskrit Dvipantera, 'the people of the islands'. These people had a civilisation that penetrated it and an approximate idea of this civilisation can still be obtained by observation of "some peoples of the mountains and back country of Indochina and Malaya. (ibid.,  p, 9-10).


Many incorrect assumptions have been made about the process by which South East Asia is said to have gone through the varying historical stages. The assumption that South East Asia was Animistic, then Indianized, then Islamic or Christian is incorrect.


In the first state of transition, that from Animistic to Indianization, the understanding of Indianization is:

as the expansion of an organised culture that was founded upon the Indian conception of royalty, (it) was characterised by Hinduist or Buddhist cults, the mythology of the Puranas, the observance of the Dharmasastras, and expressed itself in the Sanskrit language.  (ibid., p.15-16). 


From this is derived the term 'Sanskritization' instead of Indianization. It is incorrect to assume that this process applied to the general populace. It did not. Coedes holds that:

The Indian civilisation of Southeast Asia was the civilisation of an elite and not that of the whole population whose beliefs and way of life are still very insufficiently known.....  (ibid., p.16),


and as nothing more is known, it is vain to try to arbitrate in the conflict between those who hold that the indigenous societies have preserved the essence of their original character under an Indian veneer and those who believe they were integrated into a society of the Indian type.  This view is incorrect. The original systems are readily identifiable with the forms of Shamanism found elsewhere both East and West and preceded the later philosophical forms of the Indo-Aryan system, which expanded later with the more established city states. Thus in Southeast Asia it was not by remoteness, fused into the Indianized system, but rather remained the religion of the people adapting to the successive Indianized empirical structures established in the successive states.


A number of significant factors led to the expansion of an Indian religious system in Southeast Asia. These same factors were later to assist the spread of Islam. The great migrations of the northern nomadic peoples had halted the supply of precious metals, chiefly gold, from Siberia to India, who then turned to the Roman Empire, which caused such a drain on the economy that Vespasian (69-79 CE) halted this dangerous leakage. Thus the Indians turned to the "golden chersonese" and so the trade to the East already in existence, was much more fully developed.


At the same time the Indian and Chinese navies were being developed, with the building of seaworthy junks capable of 600-700 passengers. Their construction was by a technique in use in the Persian Gulf. Coedes refers to a Chinese text of the 3rd century describing this at p.21.


These traders used the monsoons. With the advent of Buddhism the Indians were able to overcome the caste limitations of Hinduism and participate more fully in maritime trade.


The use of the monsoons was characteristic of these people from China to the Persian Gulf. Around the 1st century CE the Greek pilot, Hippalos, discovered or rediscovered the periodic alternations of the monsoons. This story has been appropriated by the Muslims, as an apocryphal story. However, the Arabs involved were undoubtedly those who had lapsed into idolatry and remained so. Except for Jewish influence until the mission of the Prophet some 6 centuries later, and from the Arab legends, it is certain that these were Chaldean and Indo-Aryan forms of worship.


The hypothetical role of trade in the spread of Indian religion is often appropriated to Islamic traders at a later date. Gabriel Ferrand raised the hypothetical trade situation. This is further developed by R O Winstedt in his History of Malaya, who alleges that

The coming of the Hindu appears to have been very similar to the later arrival of the Muslims from India and the Hadramaut, the Brahmin and the Kshatrija taking the place to be usurped by the Sayid. (as quoted by Coedes, p.22).


Thus it alleged that the first stage of Indianization was

by individual or corporate enterprises, peaceful in nature, without a preconceived plan, rather than massive immigration.  (ibid. p.23).


The first elements appear to be essentially Buddhist. This is asserted from the fact, that the most ancient evidences of Indianization are the images of the Dipankara Buddha, who enjoyed great favour with the seamen frequenting the Southern islands. It appears that the Brahman and Kshatriya groups followed them imparting the Siriate concept of royalty.


Central Java became a Buddhist centre. The New History of the Tang shows that Hui-ning came to Ho-ling and from 664-65 translated the Sanskrit texts of the Theravada into Chinese.


On the mainland also, Buddhism became superimposed with Brahmanism on the local Animistic Shamanism. According to B.J. Terwiel (Monks and Magic - Student literature - 1975 - p.17):

In general the propitiation of natural forces and the ritual expertise of the Brahmins were considered to be in tune with Buddhism.  It is even possible that many of the elite regarded propitiation and Brahmanism as an intrinsic part of Theravada Buddhism.


The religion of the urban and rural mass differed over the period of Buddhist expansion. The forms that Buddhism took varied. Terwiel refers to Le May's assertion that:

It must not be forgotten that to the vast majority of Siamese (and Burmese) peasants Buddhism is and always has been, what I call `The Decoration of Life' and the people themselves have remained animist". (R. Le May, The Culture of Southeast Asia, 1964, p.163, (ibid. p.18).


In dealing with Bechert and Le May's assessment of this Animistic phenomenon Terwiel says:

  I think ... that the peasants gradually adopted Buddhism in their religious orientation but in a manner quite distinct from that in the towns: The peasant accepted Buddhism not primarily because he was convinced of the truth of the Pali Canon, but rather because it elaborated on ideas he held previously.  (ibid).

  The hypothesis of a rural restructuring of Buddhism whereby it can justifiably be called animistic Buddhism is made plausible by reference to the specific characteristics of the spread of Buddhism.  (ibid. p.19).

The major impact of Buddhism was therefore probably the abolition of animal sacrifices  (ibid).


It was probably also instrumental in eliminating the Adat ritual cannibalism of the Malay.


The Theravada-Mahayana dispute was overtaken in the south by adaptions of Theravada in Thailand, to the native Animistic practices (discussed herein), and then by later Islamic incursions in Southeast Asia generally.


Because of the structure of the Sangha and the easy access to it on non-doctrinal grounds, Terwiel holds that:

  In rural areas it regularly occurred that men became members of the Sangha for purely animistic reasons.  (ibid.)


By becoming a monk he propitiated the invisible powers of his magico-mystical cosmology. This was common throughout the entire South East Asia. It did not stop with the removal of varying aspects of Indian religion, but persisted even into Muslim and Christian periods.


The adoption of the Buddhist system over the East has been as an adaption to neo-Babylonian Animistic Shamanism, which is the uniting religious element. Alteration of basic Buddhist tenets of the faith along Magico-Mystical lines is endemic.


The basis of the law of Karma has in its essence become a merit-demerit balance of accounts, propitiating the unseen spirits of an Animistic past.


That these people traded from Arabia to China is evidenced by the records of Indians, or Chu, as designated by the Chinese, as officials, in their earliest records of the Kingdom of Funan.  Thus, the Indians imposed their system on South East Asia by intermarriage and by influencing the native chiefs who saw the adoption of the civilisation of the foreigners, as a means of strengthening their power in the eyes of the populace given the inherent magico-mysticism of the area. This form of marriage was the origin of the dynasty of Funan as reported by the Chinese.


According to Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia vol 1, Human Relations Area Files Press, New Haven,1972, pp. 15ff. at p.16:

Chinese sources dating from as early as 500 AD contain references to the Kingdom of Poli in North Sumatra, within the present bounds of Aceh, which apparently was ruled by Buddhists of Indian extraction.  


The elevation of native chiefs to the level of Kshatriya by means of the Vratyastoma, the Brahminic rite for admitting foreigners into the orthodox community, was employed throughout South East Asia. Examples are King Mularvarman in Borneo at the beginning to the 5th century, who was the son of Asvavarman, whose name is purely Sanskrit, but his grandfather's name was Kundunga, which is not.  Sanjaya, the founder of the Javanese Kingdom of Mataram in the 8th century was the nephew of Sanna, which appears to be the Sanskritization of a Javanese name.


The process established by the Brahmins was to enter a tribe (either by enticement or capture) and to recognise in the fetishes of the tribe, the avatars of the Indian divinities and in the genealogies and systems, a relationship to the epic cycles. Thus, the syncretic adoption of a related system occurs without disruption of the original. Roman Catholicism used this system also very successfully.


The Indian style kingdoms were formed by assembling local groups, each possessing its guardian genie (or local god of the soil) under the authority of a single Indian - or Indianized -  native chief. This:

reconciled the native cult of spirits on the heights with the Indian concept of royalty, and gave the population; assembled under one sovereign; a sort of national god, intimately associated with the monarchy...India...knew how to make foreign beliefs and cults her own and assimilate them. (Coedes, p. 27)


When Islam followed in the wake of Hinduism and Buddhism, transmitted by traders using the same Indian systems, they were to find much the same sequence open to them. Those systems of Islam that were Indianized, or syncretised by the Indo-Aryans, were those more readily accepted by the indigenous.


In the middle of the 9th century, the Sumatran Sialendra king Balaputra Deva founded a Buddhist monastry at Nalanda in Bengal, setting aside the five villages granted him by the king of Bengal for their maintenance (cf. Professor Bosch's 1925 article and quoted by Drewes). It will be recalled from the section on the Mother goddess cult, that this cult was established at Nalanda some three centuries prior to this and that the cult of Tara among the Thai Ahom, together with the Tantric form of Buddhism, was carried by them into the southeast and Indo-China proper. It is thus probable that these contacts were fundamental in the spread of the Tantric forms to Indonesia, replacing the earlier Theravada which seems to have undergone the same Mahayana syncretism as in the north. The fusion with Shamanism may well have been complete by this time.


The development of Indianization occurred right up until the Majapahit Empire centred on Java, which ranged from Rajasa (1222-1227) to Bhre Tumapel (1447-1451).


The rise and fall of Empires within Indonesia/Malaya (and in Indo-China) was initially between Indianized groups.  The Chinese pilgrims, Hui-ning came to Ho-ling, which is attributed, by Coedes and others, as being in central Java. According to the New History of the Tang, this was a centre of Buddhist culture and from 664-65 Hui-ning translated the Sanskrit texts of the Theravada into Chinese.


At the same time as the first embassy of Ho-ling in 640 the New History of the Tang mentions the first embassy of Mo-Lo-yu. This refers to the country of Malayu situated on the East coast of Sumatra in the region of Jambi.  The pilgrim, I-Ching, stopped off there for a time in 671 and from his memoirs, we know that between 689 and 692 Malaya was absorbed by Shih-li-fo-shoh or Srivijaya. I-Ching had travelled to India and had embarked from there for his return to China and this contact with China extended also to the Arabs. Professor E H Parker related that

in 1657 AD a Mussulman, holding a position on that Board (The Astronomical Board at Peking), in denouncing the methods of Schell, informed the Emperor that 1058 years ago, eighteen men from the Western regions had brought to China the Mussulman Calendar, and their descendants have ever assisted China in astrological matters (from China and Religion, p.155, quoted from Muslim China by Ahmed Ali -  Karachi.  1949).


Thus, there are those of Islam who claim Islam to have been in China from 599 CE, some twenty-three years before the Hijrah, when the Prophet was thirty, and some ten years before his first revelation. These Arabs were thus not of Islam, but rather would have been of the general Arab commercial world of the time.  The tradition that Islam was introduced into China during the Sui Dynasty (589-618 CE) is perfectly explainable as an Arab settlement, probably Unitarian Sabbatarians, which some time later was supplemented by Islam. We know for a fact, Sabbatarians were established in China by Mueses in the fourth century from Abyssinia (cf. Cox, (No. 122) ibid.).


With the T'ang Dynasty (618-907) there are records dealing with Islam. Yezdegrid, the last of the Sassanian Kings of Iran sent an embassy in 638 to the court of T'ai Tsung, the second T'ang Emperor (627-65) and in 643 a Roman embassy was also sent; both to report their defeat at the hands of the Arabs. From this the Emperor despatched an embassy in 650 to the Caliph Othman. His reply was received at Sianfu in 651.


Ahmed Ali also alleges that after the Mongols had attacked Western Turkestan they had not only suzerainty over Annam, Burma, Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet and Turkestan, but their tributary states were the Liuchiu Islands, Siam, Borneo, the Zulu Islands, Java, Ceylon, Nepal and Bhutan. From our records of the T'ang this would appear correct and from the weaker forms of Buddhism in China the comments on the Sanskrit translation are of import. The Chinese religion was of ancestor worship and was also animistic. The Mongols were decidedly Shamanists. Hence, any Chinese or Mongol influence would not register on Austronesian religion. Indeed, they could be said to have common roots, and the later Hindu practices were common in China, even at the time of Confucius.


Southeast Asian History From The Twelfth Century

In Sumatra at the end of the 12th century the Srivijaya Empire at Palembang was weakened in favour of the Malayu kingdom of Jambi. Nevertheless, regardless of the place of the capital, the Sumatran kingdom under the name of San-fo-ch'i, was still a great power and "an important thoroughfare, says Chou Ch'u fu, on the sea routes of the foreigners on their way to and from (China)". (Coedes The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, p. 179).


The King, Trailokyaraja Maulibhush anavarmadeva cast a bronze Buddha called the Buddha of Grahi in 1183 at Chaija on the Bay of Bandon. His title suggests that he was Malayu.


By the last quarter of the 13th century Java gained ascendancy over Sumatra and in 1286 a Buddha was sent from Java to the Country of Gold (Savarnabhumi) by four Javanese officials and erected at Dharmasraya by order of Maharajadhiraja Sri Kritanagara Vikramadharmottungadeva. The King of Malayu bore the lesser title of Maharaja indicating also that he was vassal to the Javanese.


The history of the Yuon tells us that in 1295 the Thais (People of Siam) and Malayurs (Ma-li-yii-erh) have long been killing each other (from Coedes p 202) and the actions of the Javanese and the Thais stripped Srivijaya of its island and continental possessions


The Development of Islam in Southeast Asia


Chinese influence

The history of the Muslims in China has been compiled by Ahmed Ali (Muslim China, Karachi, 1949.)


It will be recalled from the chapter on the rise of Islam, that Islam defeated an Army of 200,000 men of the Emperor Hsuon Tsung (713-756). The General Qutaiba bin Muslim sent an embassy demanding that the Emperor accept Islam or pay jizya. However, after the death of Caliph Walid bin Abdul-Malik and the subsequent assassination of Quataiba bin Muslim, the Muslim armies made peace with China and turned back, but the Hui-chi were converted to Islam. Chinese Muslims were known by this name until the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty, when they became known as Hui-Hui by which they are still known, in addition to Ching Chen Chias.


Thus Islam lost its opportunity to conquer China and extend over Asia. Nevertheless, as a result of a rebellion during the reign of the tenth T'ang Emperor Hsuan Tsung in 755 under General An Lu-Shan, the Emperor abdicated in favour of his son Su Tsung who appealed to the Muslims. As was said in the chapter on Islam: Caliph Abu Ja'far sent a well equipped force of between four and ten thousand soldiers to help Su Tsung. The rebels were defeated and the two capitals of Sionfu and Honsufu were recovered in 757. These soldiers were highly honoured by the Emperor. They did not return to Khorosan but remained in China and married Chinese. Their descendants formed the nucleus of the Muslim population today. (Ahmed Ali ibid., p.28).


T'ang records indicate that in 787 there were as many as four thousand families of Islam from Urumichi, Ansi, Kashghar, etc., who could not return home because the Tibetans had closed the land routes. They were given permission to settle.  Many also had come by sea, settling in Canton and Hangchow. It was these groups who spread Islam in the south.


Ali alleges that four missionaries arrived during the reign of T'ai Tsung (627-650) but the first official record was that of 651 apart from the Islam settlers: descendants of which evidently served in the Chinese Army and Navy.  Vietnamese independence forced the Chinese to rely on naval trade with S.E. Asia. A.Reid makes this point in Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450-1680 (pp. 8-10)).  


As previously stated, the next record is during the Soong Dynasty (960-1280) when twenty embassies from Arabia came to China. Receiving good treatment, they prompted other Muslims to come from Turkistan to serve in the Chinese Army so that during the Yuan or Mongol Dynasty (1280-1368), after the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate to the Mongols the number of Muslims in China was high with one, Hasan, being raised to the rank of Minister (ibid., p.29). This privileged position both in the Army and the civil service continued under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). With the fall of the Ming in 1644 and the establishment of the Manchus, Islam lost all favour; with their subsequent history one of, as Ali puts it, unspeakable sufferings.


It appears that the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, has a marked correlation with the fortunes and development of Islamic forces in China and largely as a result of their fall in the West.


According to Professor A H Johns in "Islam in South East Asia: Reflections and New Directions" in Journal Indonesia, Vol. 19, 1974:

...the history of Islam in Southeast Asia cannot be understood apart from the history of the generation of trading centers at focal points in the archipelago.


The urban history of our region is freakish, disparate and abrupt. The process and character of Islamization is therefore of the same character. The concern of scholars for the source of Islam in this part of the world has obscured this fact. Lines of communication between urban centers in the archipelago cannot be taken for granted, so nothing is gained and much may be lost by assuming any consistency or identity between the development of religious schools and centers of learning in Malacca, Aceh, Palembang, Banten, the port cities of North-east Java or Makassar. Each was autonomous, each was open to the influence of a particular school of religious teachers, and rivalries could result in bitterness, persecution and book burning.


In order to better understand how this situation developed, one of these major centers of development, namely that of Aceh, and its interaction in the region is examined following on from the examination of the known history of the area and the nature of its people.


The Origins and Method of Islams' Arrival in Sumatra

According to Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia vol 1, Human Relations Area Files Press, New Haven,1972, pp. 15ff. at p.16,

Chinese sources dating from as early as 500 AD contain references to the Kingdom of Poli in North Sumatra, within the present bounds of Aceh, which apparently was ruled by Buddhists of Indian extraction.  In the middle of the fourteenth century. Ibn Battuta found at Pase a flourishing Islamic state, which had evidently been in existence for some time before his arrival.  By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the center of power had moved to the valley of the Aceh River, and from 1507 until the beginning of the twentieth century a long line of sultans existed here, whose domain at some periods extended over most of Sumatra but whose actual power was quite limited outside the confines of Great Aceh.


The Acehnese people:

have been divided by some into hill people (ureueng tunong) and lowland people (ureueng baroh) on the basis of physical type and minor cultural differences.  Racially, they are a product of many centuries of interbreeding of indigenes with Bataks, Hindus, Dravidians, Javanese, Arabs, Chinese, and Niasan slaves. No good anthropometric data exist, but observers agree that there is considerable physical divergence between the inland population, of a fairly homogeneous proto-Malay type, and the coastal Acehnese, who are physically quite heterogeneous, although relatively slim, tall and almost Caucasoid in appearance (Kennedy 1935).


According to William Dampier in 1688 (Voyages and Discoveries, ed. C Wilkinson, London, Argonaut Press 1931), as well as importing the majority of their rice, agriculture was by:

... Slaves brought lately by the English and the Danes from the Coast of Coromandel, in the Time of a Famine there, I spoke of before, who first brought this Sort of Husbandry into such Request among the Acehnese. Yet neither does the Rice they have this way supply one Quarter of their Occasions, but they have it brought to them from their Neighbouring Countries." (Quoted by A Reid in Trade and the Problem of Royal Power in Aceh.  Three Stages: c. 15550-1700 in Monographs of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, No. 6, Pre-Colonial State Systems in Southeast Asia, Anthony Reid et al, Kuala Lumpur, Rajiv Printers 1975, p 54).


This influx of Indian slaves is confirmed later by Charles Lockyer and Snouck Hurgronje (see ibid., p. 54).


The use of slaves, or bondmen, by the lowland city groups is noted by Reid in Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450-1560 Vol. 1: The Lands below the Winds at pp. 131 ff.


This form of labour was common over an extended period. The hill peoples provided the labour either selling captives or more often simply being raided for slaves. The city populace often had to provide half their time in labour to the king. So often it was more profitable to enter into bondship. This was sometimes abused and was denounced, according to Reid, by some monarchs. It is obvious from this practice that tribal custom would be syncretised repeatedly.


It is clear that by 1281 Islam had made some progress in Sumatra at Malayu as the Chinese chose to dispatch the Muslims, Sulaiman and Chams ud-din to Malayu as emissaries. Ten years later Marco Polo noted in his description of Perlak in the extreme north of Sumatra (he refers to it as Ferlec) that the people were all idolaters but on account of the Saracen traders were converted to "The law of Mahomet." 


According to G W J Drewes, "New Light on the Coming of Islam to Indonesia" reprinted in Readings on Islam in Southeast Asia, compiled by Ahmed Ibrahim et al, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 1985, p. 7-17:

...Pijnappel ascribes the spread of Islam in the Indonesian Archipelago to these Shafii Arabs of Gujerat and Malabar (pp. 7-8)

The inhabitants of the Deccan resided in the port cities as middlemen in great numbers (p.8)


...Pijnappel ascribes the spread of Islam in the Indonesian Archipelago to these Shafii Arabs of Gujerat and Malabar, especially because these regions are mentioned so frequently in the early history of the Archipelago.  The Persian influence would also be explained, partially at least, by this contact with the western coast of India.

Thus the preaching of Islam is still thought of as proceeding from Arabs, but these no longer come directly from the Arab countries, but from India, and in particular from the west coast - from Gujerat and Malabar. (pp. 7-8)

Snouck Hurgronje:

first developed the proposition of the South Indian origin of Indonesian Islam. When Islam had once gained a firm hold in the port cities of South India, 'the inhabitants of the Deccan, who resided in great numbers in the port cities of this island-world as middlemen in the trade between the Muslim states (i.e. the states of western Asia) and the East Indies, were as if in the nature of things destined to scatter the first seeds of the new religion…' (Drewes p. 8)


Both he (for Achenese literature) and Bausani (for Malay) noted the incidence of Persian words in Malay and Javanese literature, demonstrating the derivation from Indian sources.


Numerous Persian words and names appear in Malay and Javanese stories, and famous Persian names appear in Achenese literature. These were summarised by Snouck Hurgronje (De Atjehers) in 1894 and more deeply in 1907 (Arabia and the East Indies). Bausani made the observation that 90% of the Persian words in Malay indicate concrete objects and "not even 10% abstract or adjectival concepts, and that only for a limited number can definite borrowing from India not be established". (cf. Drewes, p. 9). Snouck Hurgronje (in his work on the Gayo country in the south of Greater Aceh of 1903) considers the significance of Marco Polo's report on Sumatra very much exaggerated, and the report of just 50 years earlier was mentioned only in passing by Ibn Battuta who visited the place on his journey from Bengal to China.


Snouck makes note of three Muslim gravestones from the first half of the 15th century discovered in the 'Pase' district of which Ibn Battuta spoke. One of these was of an "Abbasid prince, a great-great-grandson of the caliph al-Muntasir" who had "undoubtedly floated in from Delhi, where his father had lived for a long time at the expense of the maharaja of Hindustan" (Drewes ibid). Snouck further notes that, as Van Ronkel had first observed, these three gravestones from northern Sumatra show a striking resemblance to the gravestone in Gresik of Malik Ibrahim "who died in 1418 and belongs to the eight or nine chief saints of Java who are recorded in tradition as the bringers of Islam." (ibib.) Drewes goes on to say that:

Moquette had then not yet made his discovery that these stones were imported ready-made, but without names from Gujerat. 


Snouck proposed the year 1200: "as the earliest date for the 'first serious steps' toward inclusion of the Indonesian Archipelago into the territory of Islam" (ibid.) ostensibly taken by Arab merchants from India.


Professor Aboebakar Atjeh (Sekitar Masuknja Islam ke Indonesia Semarang, 1971) considers that the argument for the Gujarati based movement, as identified by the Dutch, is incomplete and even after identifying the six grounds on which it would be correct, attempts to establish an earlier chain of descent for Islam in Indonesia. Others have attempted to start from the Prophet himself. He seems to dispute Western historical analysis on the grounds that not enough Arab writers were taken into account save Ibn Battutah (ibid., p.34) and that these untranslated works will inevitably reveal the Dutch errors, although it is not clear which works he means.


The attempts at establishing a chain of authority with the Prophet is very necessary for the Tariqahs, as their syncretic Indianized traditions are quite at variance with the Koran and involve a metaphysical system, which is Chaldean and not Abrahamic. This is dealt with in the section on the philosophy of Mysticism. At any rate there appears to be no real evidence for the construction of direct chain or lineage and in fact a great deal of hard evidence against the proposition. 


Moquette, importantly, discovered in 1912 that the gravestones in the Pase district, as well as those in Gresik, originated from Cambay in Gujerat and all were from the 15th century and later (ibid.). The gravestone of Malik al-Salih who died in 1297, was of another quite different type than those of Cambay and Moquette suggests placement on the grave "some time after the death of the ruler". According to Drewes, from this assertion of Moquette, came the 'peculiarly Dutch error' regarding origins of time and location. 


Cambay is held to have been Hindu in 1293. Gujerat came under Muslim rule in 1297, although the Muslims were extant among the Moplahs from 782/3 in northern Malabar and also in Ceylon and among the Maracayars of the Coromandel Coast.


G.E. Marrison, (1951) noted that Marco Polo describes Cambay as a Hindu city in 1293 and that Gujerat came under Muslim rule only in 1297. The Muslims are held to have been extant among the Moplahs, from a grave dated 782/3) in (northern) Malabar and also in Ceylon and among the Maracayars of the Coromandel Coast. Drewes points out that Moquette overlooked the work of the Lisbon apothecary Tome Pires, the Suma Oriental (published in English in 1944 with the title page An Account of the East, from the Red Sea to Japan). Pires was sent to India in 1511 at 40 years of age 'as an agent for drugs.’ He was sent to Malacca within a year by Alfonso d'Albuquerque in a more responsible position. He returned to Cochin in 1515 and completed the Suma Oriental. He was then despatched to China as the head of a mission. He sailed via Pase and Malacca to Canton arriving in 1517. He was imprisoned there because the Portuguese had seized Malacca in 1511, which was under suzerainty to the Chinese Emperor. He was released after some years and died as an exile at about 70.


From Marco Polo's observation of Cambay and the gravestone of Malik al-Salih of Pase who died in 1297 and is assumed to be already a Muslim, Drewes considers Pires to erroneously assert the following:

a. Cambay was seized by the Muslims some 300 years prior i.e. in 1215, and even in Pires' own time was still mainly in non Muslim hands, as he himself says; and


b. Pase still had a heathen king until about 160 years before or about 1355. i.e.:

"he reports that Pase still had a heathen King until about 160 years before then - hence till about 1355 -while we know from the gravestones of the earliest princes of Pase that Malik al-Salih, who died in 1297, was already a Muslim." (Drewes)


His assertion that the king of Aru was said to have "turned Moor before any of the others, even before the king of Pase" (II:245 cf. Drewes p. 11) is devalued by Drewes although it is logically possible. Pires described Pasai as a rich city, containing many Moorish and Indian traders, among whom the Bengalis were the most important. He distinguishes further Rumis, Turks, Arabs, Persians, Gujeratis, Klings, Malays, Javanese and Siamese. The people consisted mainly of Bengalis or people of Bengal origin. The people under Moorish influence appointed a 'Moorish king of the Bengali caste' but the countryside was still heathen, although Islam was progressing daily.  The kings were killed on a repetitive basis, as in Bengal and whoever killed him provided he was Muslim succeeded in his place. Drewes considers Pires may have been told this by a Bengali, out of nationalistic exaltation.


This information of Pires is the basis for the assertions of the Bengal origin of Islam in Indonesia and was taken up by Professor S.Q. Fatimi in 1963 (Islam Comes to Malaysia, Malaysian Sociol, Research Institute Ltd. Singapore). He refers (from Parker) to the Chinese report of the Chinese traveller at Qui[l]lon in South India in 1282 meeting with the official from Su-mu-ta (Samudra) who was urged to send envoys to China. Soon after the envoys Hasan and Suleiman were sent, thus it was taken that they were Muslim. But note the Chinese mission of 1281 above. It may have been deemed politic to send Islamic Samudran envoys after receiving Islamic Chinese ones. Another alternative is that the accounts themselves have been confused. Certainly the title of the Samudran King at this time was ta-kur which is of North Indian derivation and not Muslim. Drewes notes from the Chinese report of 1282 (cf. Parker 'The Island of Sumatra" in The Imperial and Asiatic Quarterly Review, 3rd series, vol. IX, 1900 and referred to by Drewes p.13). It is apparently derived from the Hindi thakur or the Sanskrit thakkura meaning lord or master and which occurs in many North Indian languages, but sometimes in other meanings (see Turner A Comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Aryan Languages No. 5488).


Both Fatimi and Drewes are in agreement on one fundamental point and that is that, long before Islam, relations existed between Bengal and the Indonesian Archipelago. It was by travelling from the port of Tamralipta in Bengal, as well as overland that the Sailendra realm received the form of Mahayana Buddhism, which became dominant in the Archipelago.


It has been mentioned above that in the middle of the 9th century the Sumatran Sialendra king Balaputra Deva, founded a Buddhist monastry at Nalanda in Bengal, setting aside the five villages granted him by the king of Bengal for their maintenance (cf. Professor Bosch's 1925 article and quoted by Drewes ibid.). This is probably the common point for the fusion of Tantric rites and the Mother Goddess and possibly the manifestation of Princess of the Southern Ocean among others.


Bengal was overcome by Muslims about 1200, and Islamised. This was a century before Gujarat and South India. Fatimi thus reasons, from the history of Islam in India, which mentions many great Mystics who went to Bengal and from there demonstrated missionary fervour; that they would have proceeded to Sumatra.


Drewes considers that the Southern Indian origin of Islam is more correct, presumably from the derivation of the Malay religious teacher lebai, from the Tamil word labbai (written ilappai). He considers it irrelevant whether this is interpreted from the South Indian Shafi'i Muslims called Labbai centred at Nagore on the Coromandel Coast. To Drewes the question has been re-opened and requires research in Northern Sumatra.


Drewes considers Professor Johns correct in opposing the conception attributed to Schrieke and Wertheim that the coming of the Portuguese contributed to a large degree to the spread of Islam in Indonesia. Drewes differs with Professor Johns, attributing to him the postulation of "a world-wide Muslim mission, and in the spirit sees Muslim preachers going on board amid bales of produce 'to attend to the spiritual needs of the craft or trade guild they were chaplain to, or to spread their gospel'". As Professor Johns says this may well be irrelevant. 


Professor Johns holds that the beginnings of Islam in the Malay world derive from trade and a specific point of origin, for any particular Muslim community is not of primary concern and is in fact irrelevant, coming from the Muslim character of the mercantile history of the Indian Ocean and of the silk road through central Asia, with new Muslim trading communities generated at the focal points of international trade and local barter. "There is no single answer as to the question of the whence of Islam in the Malay world". Trade in the Indian Ocean was by Tamil, Chinese, Persian and Arab vessels with a wide variety of crews, travellers and religious teachers and far predated Islam. (Johns, p.39)


The concept of trade is only part of the story of the spread of Islam. It was not written on a blank page, but superimposed on an animistic system influenced by Hindu and Buddhist concepts and already syncretised in the north.


Whilst there is no simple answer, the question is clearly of relevance in establishing a certain history, even if only in controlling the assertions of Indonesian Muslim Historians in their quest for antiquity.


The first Islamic port city in the region was the Sultanate of Pasai in the thirteenth century. It was followed by others, at other points on Sumatra, on the Malay Peninsula, the north coast of Java, Borneo and the Celebes. These port cities either developed to fill a power vacuum where no rival state existed (as in the case of Malacca) or challenged and took over already existing maritime states, and from there spread to the hinterland. (Johns, p. 39.)


Islamization began when Muslim merchants stopped off and sometimes married at particular settlements, between monsoons etc. The nucleus of the Islamic state in any environment is established in the principles of social order, community government and a self-sustaining educational system. The legitimacy of any other power exercising authority over it is not tolerated and thus:

there is a progression then from a group, to a self-governing community, to a politically active community which becomes strong enough to seize power and establish its own authority. (Johns pp.39-40)

The study of these local states is vital to understanding. The starting point must be the Sejarah Melayu itself. (ibid.)


The Sejarah Melayu is ad hoc in character from which it is difficult to understand the role of Islam in either fifteenth century Malacca or fourteenth century Pasai. (Johns, pp.41-42)


But from 1291 the Islamization was only in the cities and probably confined to 'Perlak' in north Sumatra as Marco Polo states in Observations of Sumatra, which had degenerated to six kingdoms. Of Perlak he observed that the Muslims were inhabitants of the city only and "the inhabitants of the mountains are like Beasts." (from Coedes p. 203). He also states that Pasaman on the south west coast have no law unless it be that of brute beasts." (ibid.)  They said they were "lieges of the Great Kaan" but paid no tribute. He allegedly resided for five months in Sumudra or Pasai, where he drank palm liquor. In Dagroian, he described cannibalistic rites. (These rites were practised by many Malay peoples from Borneo to Sumatra as punishments for breaches of the adat, i.e. death by ritual feast.)


At Lamuri or Achin he mentions men with [?] tails, and at Baros he refers to this as the country of camphor and of trees that yield flour for bread. We can therefore establish that in 1291 Islam had virtually made no significant penetration of Sumatra outside the city of Perlak in the north.


With the fall of the Srivijaya Kingdom caused by the loss of its peninsular possessions to the Thai and its island possession to the Javanese, Hindu power and thus its religion was eclipsed, and the void was filled by, Islam and later Christianity.


According to current Javanese opinion, the Majapahit had not yielded to Islam until 1478 and so the inscriptions on the stones at Tralaya near the supposed site of the kraton of the Majapahit Empire, are assumed to be of a later date. However from Damais' interpretation of the dates there was Muslim influence in the hinterland of the Javanese from 1376 at the height of the Majapahit Empire under Hayam Wuruk thus indicating its extent. According to Drewes notations, the years on the gravestones are with one exception of the Saka era and according to the decipherment of Damais, run from 1298S to 1397S, i.e., from CE 1376 to 1475. One stone is of later date i.e., from 1533S or 1611. The stone with a Hijra year is from A.H.874, or 1391/92S or CE 1469/70. The stones with the Saka dates bear only verses from the Koran and pious formulas, but the one with the Hijra year mentions the personal name Zainuddin an Arabic name, but one, which could have been borne by a Javanese. Thus according to Damais' interpretation there were already Muslims of Javanese race in the capital of the realm, in the time of Majapahit's greatest prosperity under the reign of Hayam Wuruk. Thus Muslim influence in the interior previously thought to be limited to 1370S from the grave of the princess of Cempa, (a Muslim wife of one of the kings of Majapahit) is now demonstrable over 70 years earlier in 1298S or CE 1376.


The Spread of Islam under the Mongols

The explanation of why Islam made no significant inroads until the second half of the 13th century is quite understandable within the wider context. Professor Johns establishes, in the Encyclopedia of Religion article Islam: Islam in Southeast Asia, vol. 7 pp. 404-422, the first traces of Islam: a lone pillar at Phanrang on the mid east coast of Vietnam inscribed in Arabic and dated from the 10th century. He quotes Ravaisse as attributing the community's existence there to the 11th century and from the name of its leader Shaik al Suq, or master of the market. It was an eastern trading post.


A Muslim merchant's daughter's grave at Leren on the North coast of Java from roughly the same period, establishes a trading presence there but no large-scale activity. Why the Muslim presence in Southeast Asia should suddenly increase from the second half of the 13th century is perfectly explainable from Chinese history. Whilst Islam went into decline in this period it did not do so in relation to China. 


In 1242 the Mongols defeated the Seljuks of Rum at Kuzadag and by 1258 they had captured Baghdad and ended the Abbasid caliphate. They were only stopped by the Mamelukes of Egypt at Ain Jalut in Palestine in 1260. In 1264 they moved the capital from Karakorum to Beijing splitting the empire into four separate Khanates. In 1253 the Mongols had launched their campaign against the southern Soong of China, establishing total control from west to east.


The western conquests had the effect of bringing Eastern Islam into the Mongol Empire, under the Empire of the Mongol Il Khans and further north under the Khanate of The Golden Horde. As Islam served the Soong, so too did it serve the Mongols, and the increased empire required increased communications.


The capital, now at Beijing, made the sea route more feasible. Moslem traffic was increased significantly, but this time in the form of the warrior class, which had a great impact on the Malay/Spice Islander (now termed Indonesian) mentality from its Indianization.  In 1287 the Mongols sacked Pagan in Burma and in 1292-3 the Mongol expedition to Java saw the Majapahit throne change from Kritanangara (1268-1292) to Jayakatwang (1292-1293) and to Kritarajasa Jayarardhana (1293-1309).  Muslim soldiers accompanied these expeditions and the fact that the ambassadors were Muslim saw their stature increase in the eyes of the elite. Thus, by military means as defeated vassals, or mercenaries under the victorious Mongols, Islam was able to achieve more than it had been able to do in the previous six hundred years of trading and conquest, for they had achieved a status or wahyu that merchants never could.


Whilst Sumatra was the centre of development, this was very slow, as Odoric of Pordenone visited there in 1321 and corroborates Marco Polo's comments in much the same way with name variations, i.e. Tamiang for Dagroian.  For Lamori (or Achin) he adds "that all the women be in common" to the cannibalism noted previously and that in Sumudra face branding in 12 places of the face occurred.


Islam still had not penetrated all of North Sumatra by the middle of the 14th century. It is in this century also that we establish (from an image at Rambohan (Coedes p. 232) the practice of Tantric rites which are practised in Bali today and which Islam has adopted within its prayer forms especially in funery rites.


Professor Johns establishes the development of Islamisation in his article at p. 407 by map with routes of growth. He shows the extent of Islam in 1500, which was limited solely to the North and to the East coast of Sumatra down to the southern tip with small areas on Java and the coastal areas of the Malay peninsular.


East and West Asian Mysticism Meet in Aceh

Why had Islam made so little inroad into the area? Simply because the monotheism of Islam was of no attraction to a pantheistic animistic religious system under Shamans. It was not until the Abbasids had adapted the Indo-Aryan traditions and incorporated them into Islam within the writings of scholars such as Al Farabi (d. 950) and Ibn Sina (d. 1037) would they be of any appeal to animists of the type found in Asia and particularly in Southeast Asia.


From this time onwards even the opponents of Mysticism in Islam, such as Al Gazali (d.1111) were using the processes of Mysticism and Asharism. The Hindu process of enlightenment was incorporated by As Suhrawardi (d. 1191) using the "ishraq tradition" into Islam and particularly in the Ikhwahas-Safa or Brethren of Sincerity. Thus 'fortuitously' just prior to the incorporation of Arabia into the empire of the Mongols, a syncretic eastern philosophy was developed which could appeal to it and within sixty years of its philosophical flowering the Sufis or Tariqah entered the East.


Before Islam could make real progress it had to absorb into its traditions the animistic system with its practices and ritual, its spells and magic formulas. The animistic spirit world has been incorporated into the concept of the Arab jinn.  Islam was able to eliminate the more obvious affectations of the Animist system, such as some sacrificial practice and the construction of mausolea in the normal ancestor worship, and has been replaced where shrines of the Wali are venerated as Islamic saints. Thus the cult of the dead has assumed a new form; Islam did not eliminate this form of worship, it merely changed the practice. 


The progress of development was from the first state at Pasai. Malacca then "inherited the mantle of Pasai" (Johns p. 408) becoming Muslim shortly after its foundation around 1400, establishing the dynasties of the Malay Sultanates and dependencies on the East coast of Sumatra. This state attracted foreign ulama principally from India, even though some of them had Arab blood.


Reid (pp. 45-46) corroborates the above sequence as follows:

1 a. Prior to 1520 the north Sumatran Coast was divided among a number of completely distinct port-states, none of which appeared even to claim suzerainty over the others.  Reid says Marco Polo in 1292 claims that there were eight kingdoms on the island, in the area of northern Sumatra, and eight crowned kings with each of the eight kingdoms having its own language differing from Coedes above. 


b. The Aceh Sultanate of Aceh Darus-Salam created by Sultan Ali Mughayat Syah's conquest of the whole northern coast (1520-24) was essentially a new beginning, made possible only by the intervention of the Portuguese [and the defeat of Malacca (Melaka) had created a vacuum]. 


2. Even within the separate north Sumatran states before Aceh, cosmic Indianised conceptions of the state appear less well established than in South Sumatra or Java.  Pre-Islamic temple remains exist within the region of Lamri, but the Islamic tradition was older and deeper than in any other region of Indonesia.  The people of Pasai allegedly discarded their kings casually (see Tome Pires: 1515)


3. The valley of the Aceh river itself, which became the political centre of Aceh after 1520 - known as Aceh Besar (Groot-Atjeh or Acheen Proper) - was not itself an important source of export produce.  Pepper, and later betelnut, was grown on the northern coast; pepper, camphor, gold and other exports came from the ports of the west coast; tin was exported from Perak.  Aceh's consistent policy was to dominate their regions politically, deny their produce to the enemy Portuguese, and as far as possible direct their foreign trade through its capital.  It seems likely that Pasai continued to be the major Achenese export port as late as 1539, but thereafter strenuous and largely successful measures were taken to ensure the political and commercial subordination of these production centres.


Reid suggests that:     

"Much of the credit for the viability of the Acehnese state, fashioned as it was from diverse peoples and tradition, must go to its great sixteenth century ruler, Ala'ad-din Ri'ayat Shah al-Kahar (1539-71). He conquered Aru on the east coast and Pariaman on the west, establishing his sons as vassal rulers of these regions.  He presided over the revival of the Muslim spice trade between his port and the Red Sea, which by the end of his reign was carrying as much as the Portuguese route.  He forged an alliance with Turkey in 1567, and became the scourge of the Portuguese in Malacca.  The commercial emporium of Banda Aceh must have grown up around his palace...whose language was Malay rather than Aceh.

A probable picture is of a trade largely financed and organised by a varied group of Muslim merchants whose origins were in Pasai, Pidie, Malacca, Gujerat and South India, but who increasingly became involved in Aceh's state system, its court ceremonies and its wars. (Reid p46 -47)


From 1550 onwards it is possible to see remarkable developments in the Islamic history of Aceh. Professor Johns refers to Schrieke on Ala al-Din Ri ayat Shah al-Qahhar (1537-68) (Note dates) and the mission to the sultan of Turkey requesting help against the Portuguese.  The sultan sent him some craftsmen skilled in casting cannon, and Schrieke reports Pinto as saying that he did have Turkish auxiliary troops at his disposal in 1539. 

Schrieke also refers to other European accounts mentioning ambassadors sent (from Aceh) to Turkey in 1564, and of artillery men and guns being sent (to Aceh) from Egypt.  Egypt, it will be recalled, had been part of the Ottoman empire since 1517.  The Turks, moreover, had a fleet, from Egypt, operating in the Indian Ocean as early as 1538, and asserted their presence in the Indian seas in the 1570's.


The extension of Ottoman power coincided with the growth of Acehnese political and military power to the extent that in 1602 Francois Pyrard remarks: 

'All the people in the Indies, or on the other side of the Cape of Good Hope, when they would go to Sumatra, merely say that they are going to Achen:  for this city and port has acquired the name and reputation of the island.'  Moreover from 1570 onwards we have a record of a series of scholars from the Indian subcontinent and Western Asia.  Schrieke presents the most convenient summary of information, noting that a scholar from Mecca named Muhammad Azhari arrived during the reign of the Sultan of Aceh 'Ali Riayat Shah (1568-75) and remained there until he died in 1630.  In 1582 during the reign of sultan 'Al al-Din (1577-86) two scholars arrived from Mecca, Muhammad Yamani and Shaykh Abu l-Khayr b. Shaykh b. Hajar, author of al-Sayf al-Qati (the Cutting Sword) dealing with the Fixed Prototypes (a'yan thabita) a concept having a special place in the monistic theosophy of ibn 'Arabi.  They are followed by a Shafiite scholar from the Gujerat, Shakh Muhammad Jaylani G. Hasan b. Hamid, a Kuraishite born in Ranir, an uncle of the later and better known al-Raniri. (Johns pp. 43-44)


The text Hikayat Acheh, the closest equivalent to the Sejarah Melayu, shows by indirect reference a knowledge of the basic principles of Ibn 'Arabi's system indicating a fair degree of scholarship in the 17th century. Johns says of this:

...The closest Acehnese equivalent to the Sejarah Melayu is a long but incomplete work which Teuku Iskandar has published as the Hikayat Acheh.  Iskandar suggests that it is devoted to the praise of Iskandar Muda (1603-30), the greatest ruler of Aceh.  It does not include any specifically Islamic episodes, but occasionally an indirect reference indicates a knowledge of Islam far more profound than anything occurring in the Sejarah Melayu... shows that the author understood clearly at least the basic principles of ibn 'Arabi's system, and his use of it in this way is all the more striking because it is not self-conscious (p. 44).


Throughout the second half of the sixteenth century, in addition to its contacts with Turkey and Egypt, Aceh was developing its relations with the Mogul Empire, taking the structure of the Mogul court as the model for the administrative center of their own kingdom.  A sizeable corpus of Muslim learning and literature, rendered into Malay from Arabic or Persian, came to Aceh during these fifty years, increasing considerably during the seventeenth century and stimulating the production of original works by local authors, pre-eminent of whom was the Sufist Hamzah Pansurie (d. 1600) who effectively recorded the oral Sufi traditions in Malay. 


Johns says of him: 

His writings, in prose and verse, are the first manifestation of an independent Islamic intellectual life in the Malay world. ...His Arabic citations (those in Persian are few) are mostly part of the common tradition of Sufi wisdom, passed on by the oral tradition, and it was these that he was able to orchestrate effectively into Malay.


Not associated with other Malay or Arabic teachers, or educational networks:

he was a loner who appeared, and vanished suddenly, with whatever school he founded dispersed by a subsequent change in fashion, and many of his writings lost in the accompanying persecution and book burning.


A change in character of mystical writing becomes apparent in 1601 when Shams Al-Din began his career as a religious writer at the Acehnese court....Shams Al-Din,. had obviously accepted as his own the framework of seven grades of being first set out in the short work of Muhammad b. Fadl Allah that was sent from India to Aceh, the Tuhfa (Johns p. 45).


Another change of style, this time not a natural development, but imposed by force, occurred in 1637.  Iskandar Muda died in 1636, and his successor, Iskandar II gave his ear to al-Raniri, the nephew of Muhammad Jailani...Al-Raniri was probably one of a type of peripatetic ulama' who sought fortune, patronage and influence at a royal court.


He probably represented a school and tradition in which he had been trained and of which unfortunately we know very little (Johns p. 46).


Abd al-Ra'uf began to make his mark on the Acehnese scene "after 1661 when he returned to Aceh after spending twenty years or so in Arabia. He died in Aceh in 1693." (p. 46)


He: "was not the first Jawi nor the only one to study there, [in Medina] and a succession of others followed him."


He travelled and studied widely in the Arabian Peninsular, winning high esteem and he continued contacts with Medina after his return.

The two teachers that Abd al-Ra'uf holds in the highest respect in his academic biography are Ahmad Qushashi, (1563-1600) and Qushashi's pupil and successor as head of the Shattariyya order, Burhan al-Din Mulla Ibrahim b. Hasan al-Kurani.


From knowledge of their teachings, the doctrines and ideas that Abd al-Ra'uf's own pupils in Aceh were to disseminate throughout the archipelago are understood (Johns p. 49).         


Nineteenth Century Islamic Theology in Southeast Asia

To achieve growth Islam, as Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity before it, became syncretic. As seen above, it superimposed itself on an established framework, which was readily identifiable, not only within Austronesia, but within Islam generally.


The syncretic adaptions were necessary to its expansion. By 1800, Islam had succeeded in penetrating all of the Malay peninsular and most of Indonesia with the exception of the Batak and south central Sumatra, the interior of Borneo, Bali and the major northern area of the Philippines.


These accretions and practices were so blatant that, on the return of a group of scholars from Arabia in 1803, reforms were commenced which led to a series of movements, the first being the Padri movement in the Minangkabau area of Sumatra. This resulted in a civil war with Dutch intervention on behalf of the traditionalists with the defeat of the leader, Imam Bondjol in 1842. Professor Johns considers that it may well be that the Java war of 1826-1830 between rival members of the Court "took part of its energy from this ferment in Islam."


Some of the conflict in Islam was between rival sects such as that of Aceh in 1637-1642 between the Shuhudijah (Unity of Witness) School of Mysticism and the Wujudiyah (Unity of Being) school whom it attempted to suppress. Sultan Amongkurat 1 in the 1660s waged war against the legalistic Muslim communities of the north coast of Java and then, what Professor Johns terms, "the Scatological diatribes written in Javanese to make fun of the professional ulama in the nineteenth century." (ibid., p, 410).


The Messianic Ratu Adil [King of Justice or Just King similar to the concept of Melchizedek (My King is Righteousness or Justice) among the Hebrews] movements in Java and the Ratu Sunda (King of Sunda) movements in Sunda illustrate how these communities continue into the 19th and 20th centuries. They, whilst carrying the form of Islam, still believe in the spirit force, the kesaktian, the wahyu kedaton or magic light force, of amulets and charms, of ritual feasts or slametan, of invulnerability cults, of the visit to shrines of wali to invoke the intercession of the spirits, of the witnessing of animistic phenomena and all of the forms which derive not from Islam but from Animism and its later Indo-Aryan adaptions.  These beliefs are so entrenched in the Indonesian people that it appears that the 30 September 1965 Movement may well have been deliberately precipitated by manipulating the animistic or magico-mystical predisposition of these people.


Reform movements, such as that precipitated by Abduh and Rashid Rida, have only been moderately successful. The success is relative from area to area. Malaysia is the most obvious case of Arabic inspired reform.


As a result of the above prolific inter-breeding of people of different religious backgrounds, and given the syncretic nature of the Southeast Asian Animists, or in other words their marked propensity to absorb other gods and systems, it is not surprising that the native animism survives to the present day. According to the work Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia at p.19, Mysticism or kebatinan is wide spread (Snouck Hurgronje 1906: 2, 281-83). Kennedy (1935) also notes:


...that the graves of famous mystics are the objects of pilgrimages from all over Atjeh. Indigenous beliefs and superstitions persist in a weakened form. Exorcistic practices, eg "cooling" the individuals involved, are part of most ceremonies.  Magical practices are employed in agriculture and other activities, and interpretation of dreams and omens is widespread.  Sickness is attributed to the influence of evil spirits and is generally cured by magical means. A form of shamanism seems confined to females. Funeral practices are generally Muhammadan. The body is washed and wrapped in a shroud, a ritual service held, and burial takes place. A notable institution is the bhom, or family burial place. Children are taken to the burial ground of their father's family for interment (Kennedy 1935).


Drewes is correct that:

Since Snouck Hurgronje it is actually nothing new that Islam in Indonesia has had a strong mystical turn from the earliest times


But even this assertion is uncertain as the information that has survived has done so by chance amid the power struggles, syncretic amalgams and traditions. Different mystical traditions are extant in different parts of the archipelago at the same time. An outline of much of what is known as above does however provide the detail by which we can identify the process and the forms that developed and survived. We can also form an idea of why they survived.


The influence of Sufi Mysticism was by way of the disciples of the Scholars rather than directly by those such as Al-Farabi or Ibn Sina. Nevertheless, Sufi Mysticism came. It was recognised by the native Mysticism or Kebatinan as a brother, or at least a very near relative. So the forms of religion in South East Asia were derived from, and syncretised by, the native Animism, and the Sufi forms like the Tantric forms in Buddhism, before they were readily adopted into the area with early impact in Malacca and Northern Sumatra at Aceh and elsewhere.


In Indonesia the relative success can be measured by looking at the underlying superstitions and practices of the people who ostensibly embrace Islam. In addition to observation of Aceh and Sumatra, further indications can be gained from modern observations of Java.


Modern Day Religion on Java

Whilst the Sundanese embrace Islam, according to Professor Koentjaraningrat, magic and sorcery form an important sector of Sundanese religion at all social levels. Magic mainly centres about curing, divination and numerology (petangan).  Whilst:

the Sundanese gentry has not developed the refined and elaborated system of magico-mysticism such as emerged in Javanese prijaji culture, there are, however, Islamic based mystical movements usually centering about rural Islamic religious schools (pesantren).  Members of these movements seek to experience the religious ecstacy of a mystical unity with God (titeuleum) (From Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia  Vol. 1, p.56). 


The Sundanese practitioners of the priyangan Highlands usually distinguish four categories of practitioners, women curers (tukang ngubaran), in herbs and native medicines, (tukang njampe), specialists in producing protective amulets and fetishes, tukang katitihan "also usually women who are mediums" and "tukang palingtangan numerologists, diviners and fortunetellers." (ibid).


The people believe in the life substance or soul, njawa, and spiritual double of the body, suksuma. At death the njawa unites with the suksuma and becomes a spirit (lelembutan).  During the initial 40 days after death it roams about the graveyard, often returning to the house where it had lived as a human being.  The spirit then enters the world of the dead where it waits until judgment day. This latter adaption is an Islamic modification of the 40-day death feasts of the Indo-Aryans.


The Magico-mystical practices were developed from Hinduism and Buddhism over the animistic system. Curiously the Madurese lack some of those magico-mystical influences. However, magic and sorcery are essential parts of their religion. The Bull figure of the Mithras system has been adopted here, not by slaughter, but by bull racing and bull fighting.


The Javanese have two categories of religious observance. Those of the Wong Putihan, or Santri, who rigorously observe Islamic principles (however these themselves are adapted) and the Wong Abangan. Both are distinct sub cultures with contrasting world- views.


Whilst every Javanese has professed the faith at least once in his life "the average abangan does not comprehend the formula." (ibid., p.52).  Many eat pork, do not observe the salat or the fast of Ramadan, yet despite this they believe intensely in Allah.


The peasant abangan also believes in the rice goddess, Dewi Sri (the Javanese version of Shri Vishnu's wife in Hindu mythology) and in Batara Kala the God of Time and Death, (the Javanese equivalent of Shiva in Hinduism).  Benevolent and malevolent spirits are important in everyday life. These inhabit wells, crossroads, banyan trees etc. 

Impersonal magic power (kesaktian) exists in amulets and in heirlooms, especially the Javanese dagger or keris, in parts of the human body (nails, hair) and in sacred musical instruments (especially drums) (ibid). 


Magic and the sorcery, centre around the dukun or sorcerer. The higher levels of Javanese society, the prijaji, etc., who are abangan, practice extreme forms of ascetism, magico-mysticism and meditation. They utilize the guru-cela relationship of the Hindu system within sects or movements.


These people practice slametan or ritual meals which are held at various points in the life cycle, e.g. 7th month of pregnancy, at childbirth, at the falling of the umbilical cord, the first contact of the child with the earth, at circumcision, at the presentation of the bride price, at the wedding, at the burial, at mortuary rites and at the 7th, 40th, 100th and 1000th day after death. These feasts, because of their ritual significance, are also an inherently political act.  The Dukuns or sorcerers of these people are specialists in many forms of magic, even down to simple massage and acupuncture.


Thus Islam, even amongst the most highly concentrated and longest established groups, has not replaced the animistic system in its Indo-Aryan refinements and therefore its success has been significantly limited.


In fact the forms of the faith practised in Southeast Asia by over one third of its adherents, and also in India by a further third, would not be recognizable by the Prophet. They have differing and pantheistic Indo-Aryan concepts of God. The religion of Southeast Asia, by whatever name it is called, is recognisable as Mysticism.