Islam in Asia

I have heard statements from such usually ill-informed and reactionary ‘shock-jocks’ such as Alan Jones, that Islam is a religion of war, and is spreak through conquer.

I was wondering, then, when and how did Islam become established in South-East Asian nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia? Was it through war?

  • Bubba.

Certainly in Malaysia it was not through war. It first arrived with Arab and Indian traders and extended out from coastal lands, spread by people who found its message more egalitarian than the strictly hierarchical religions that it replaced. I am not sure whether it spread through active proselytization or simply by attraction.

Islam reached Indonesia in the same way and spread, there, in a similar fashion. In Indonesia, there are more records of conflict, but the conflicts tend to be trade conflicts among Muslims rather than religious wars and I have never seen any indication that conversions took place at the edge of a sword.

(While Europeans tend to recall the great wave of Islamic conquest that occurred in the eighth century, sweeping the Iberian peninsula into its fold, there has never been a repeat of that phenomenon in Islamic history and Islamic theology tends to downplay that belief.)

The Philippines were converted through active missionary work, (no battles being required since that archipelago had no central government or “state” religion to overcome). However, the Spanish arrived while the conversions were fairly recent and brought their own Christian missionaries (along with muskets), and converted all of the northern Islands to Christianity. The southern islands remained sparsely populated and Muslim until efforts by the Philippine Commonwealth in the 1930s to provide more land to the expanding population led to many Christian settlements being established on formerly Muslim lands.

In contrast, the movement of Islam into India (prior to the regions noted above) did accompany warfare. However, Islamic conversion was a byproduct of the wars, not a reason for them. Indian Hindu kingdoms were in a period of mild decline at a time when Arab and other Muslim kingdoms were looking for places to plunder (originally) and conquer (eventually). As they established their hold in Northwestern India, they brought their religion with them (leading, ultimately, to the disputes that currently plague Pakistan and Kashmir).

Something I’m actually qualified to answer! Islam spread to the Indonesian archipelago beginning in the 13th-14th century, often mixing with native animist religions along the way as it moved inland. For this reason, you find the most fundamentalist Islamic populations in the northwest regions (Aceh – pronounced Ah-Chay – in particular); the rest of Indonesia practices a rather secularized or culturally blended Islam. That is, they would tell you they are Muslim, but likely do not practice a “pure” form of Islam that Sunni or Shi’a Muslims in the Near East would recognize. Sukarno & Suharto’s regimes after Dutch decolonization ensured Islam didn’t gain a greater foothold (since they could pose a threat to their power), and even today extremism is isolated. The bombing in Bali, if it turns out to be an Al Qaida attack, is certainly not something the greater population hails.

So, Islam did not spread to the region through war. Trade and cultural exchange (leading to cultural syncretism) was largely responsible.