Islam in Southeast Asia

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Scholars still debate the means by which Islam came to Southeast Asia, with little direct evidence available to support any particular theory. There is general agreement however that conversion happened peacefully and followed the path of the trade networks linking the region with South Asia, China and the Middle East, in which Muslim traders and traveling preachers or holy men from these regions served as the main means of transmission. This connection to the sea means also that Islam made its initial impact and took root most extensively in the archipelagic region of Southeast Asia, in modern-day Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The time frame for conversion to Islam in Southeast Asia is also uncertain. Although archeological remnants, such as tombs, exist from earlier periods, Islam only becomes more obviously prevalent in Southeast Asia after the 13th century, when it becomes an integral factor in the emergence of new kingdoms or sultanates founded along the important maritime trading routes.

The most significant Islamic kingdom to emerge in Southeast Asia at this time was the sultanate of Melaka, which was founded around 1400 by a local prince who converted to Islam. Established along the Straits of Melaka on the western Malay peninsula, the sultanate became the main entrepot for merchants traveling between India and China, and was noted for its safe harbor and effective administration. Melaka's influence declined significantly though after it captured by the Portuguese in 1511, with trade moving to other ports in the region.

Other important sultanates in Southeast Asia around the time of Melaka's ascendancy included Aceh in northern Sumatra; Johor on the Malay peninsula; the port cities of Demak and Banten on the north coast of Java; the kingdom of Mataram in central Java; and Ternate and Tidore in what is now Maluku. By the 16th century, Islam had also spread into the Sulu archipelago, where an important sultanate was established, and the island of Mindanao, in what is now the Philippines.

In modern day Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei are the region's majority Muslim countries, with Indonesia being the world's largest Muslim country. These countries also include minority populations of other religions.

Most other Southeast Asian countries have minority Muslim populations, including the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Myanmar (Burma). The ancient kingdom of Champa, located in Cambodia and Vietnam, collapsed after the 14th century, but many of its population converted to Islam around this same period, and were then absorbed into the surrounding kingdoms. The Cham people therefore form a minority Muslim population in this part of the region, although their practices are marked by many local beliefs and traditions.


Most Muslims in Southeast Asia are Sunni, although scholars note that Islam here is remarkably syncretic, having absorbed a number of local beliefs, customs and traditions that pre-date the arrival of Islam. This condition is most frequently remarked upon when discussing Islam in Indonesia, where the religion was adopted by local populations used to Hindu, Buddhist and animist traditions. The island of Java is usually of specific interest here, with many pre-Islamic traditions remaining in place as part of the everyday life of local Muslims. The influence of Sufism on Islam in Southeast Asia has also been commented upon by scholars, with some suggesting that initial conversions in many places in the region may have been tied to the work of prominent Sufi mystics.

Islam's acknowledged syncretism in Southeast Asia has emerged as an issue every so often in the region, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia, over the past century or so, with schools and movements starting up at different times with stated aims being to reform and re-energize the religion. One particular influence here was the Modernist movement that emerged in the Middle East in the early 1900s, and whose central precepts were brought back to Southeast Asia by local students and teachers who had gone to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to study.

In Indonesia, the establishment of the large mass Muslim organizations of Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammidiyah are connected with these concerns. Muhammidiyah, with a modern-day membership of more than twenty million, was founded in 1912 on Modernist principles. Nahdlatul Ulama, on the other hand, was established in 1926 with the direct intent to counteract the rise of the Modernists, and since its founding has been seen as the more "traditionalist" organization. Its current membership is stated to be more than thirty million, although it is hard to assess these figures exactly.

In colonial-era Malaya, similar differences emerged between the modernists grouped together as Kaum Muda and the traditionalists grouped as Kaum Tua. The differences designated by these groupings eventually also came to distinguish those interested in modern ways and those preferring to hold onto traditional practices and outlooks.

Modern-day debates on tradition vs. modernity in both Indonesia and Malaysia have continued to emerge from time to time, as was seen with the rise of the dakwah movement in Malaysia in the 1970s and ‘80s, which encouraged Malay Muslims to bring forward and strengthen the fundamentals of their faith.

More recently, the fundamentalist Jemaah Islamiyah, active mostly in Indonesia, but with links also to Malaysia, has espoused a more extremist perspective, with terrorism used to forward its goals, although it has received little sustained or widespread support from local populations.

Current Issues


Indonesia rejected its longstanding authoritarian system of government following the fall of the Suharto regime in May 1998, and is now a democracy. Democratic reforms since that time have encouraged the creation of scores of new political parties, including many that incorporate Islam into their guiding principles and party platforms. However, despite rapidly growing popular support for these parties in the elections held in 1999 and 2004, their gains moderated in the parliamentary elections in 2009. Indonesia's other main political parties, the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan or PDI-P), Golkar and the Democrat Party (Partai Demokrat), do not incorporate a specific focus on Islam in their platforms, and have continued to maintain a strong presence at the polls.

Nonetheless, some debate did emerge during the 2009 presidential campaign as to the religious credentials of the presidential and vice presidential candidates, with campaign posters prominently displaying photographs of the candidates' wives wearing Islamic head scarves. This kind of campaign approach showed that religion remains an important consideration for many Indonesian voters even as there appears to be less interest in voting directly for a religious party. The simmering issue of religious freedom may have also been a backdrop here, with many Indonesian Muslims opposed to the principles and practices espoused by the Ahmadiyah sect, whose beliefs emerged as an issue for public debate in early 2009.

New concerns about Islamic radicalism in Indonesia re-emerged after the national elections following the bombing of two luxury hotels in Jakarta in July 2009 by suspected Jemaah Islamiyah adherents. These bombings were the first terrorist attacks in the country since attacks mounted on a tourist area in Bali in 2005. Although there was immediate condemnation by most Indonesians of these recent bombings, the incidents show that a core group of radical Muslims remains active inside the country, albeit operating underground and under pressure from security forces.

POPULATION: 240,271,522 (2009 est.)
Chief of state: President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono


Malaysia's political system began experiencing some turmoil, following two decades or more of general stability, beginning in the late 1990s, following the demonstrations that broke out to protest the government's prosecution of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Until this time, Mahathir Mohamed, the country's long-serving Prime Minister, had maintained very direct control over the government, and was the dominant figure in the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the main political party representing the country's Malay Muslim population, which, aligned with the mainstream Chinese and Indian parties, formed the National Front (Barisan Nasional or BN), a united political alliance. The main opposition parties for most of Mahathir's tenure were the Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam se-Malaysia or PAS), an Islamic party with significant support in the more traditional east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu, and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a secular, urban-based party. Although these parties were occasionally successful in fielding candidates for election, the dominance of UMNO and its allies was generally unchallenged in the political arena.

By 1999 though, the Anwar crisis helped PAS secure some significant electoral success in that year's elections, and led also to the formation of a new political party headed by Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Ismail. The party, known eventually as the People's Justice Party or Parti Keadilan Rakyat, was not initially very successful electorally, but since Anwar's conviction was overturned in 2004, he has been more active in promoting its platform and in challenging UMNO's political dominance.

In 2003, Mahathir resigned from office, which has opened up the political scene to a greater extent than before. His successors have not had the same hold on political events, and have seen some more direct inroads made to the BN's hold on the reins of government. The main actor here has been Parti Keadilan, which was able to mount successful challenges for a number of parliamentary seats in the 2008 elections. PAS, on the other hand, has not been able to maintain the gains it secured in the 1999 elections. Observers have suggested that while voters seem to want to support new directions for Malaysian politics, they are reluctant to subscribe fully to the PAS platform, with its intent to establish Malaysia as an Islamic state.

One example of the more contentious political situation was seen in early 2009 in the state of Perak where a dispute emerged over the dismissal of the state's Chief Minister, allied with Parti Keadilan, by the state's Sultan. The controversy over the dismissal has continued, with claims and counter-claims about procedural issues and political legitimacy now wending through the courts.

Another political issue of ongoing concern concerns debates over conversions into and out of Islam, and the possible impacts on family law and inheritance. Malaysia's multi-ethnic population continues to grapple with issues such as these, that relate to Islam, but that have the potential to affect non-Muslim Malaysians.

POPULATION: 25,715,819 (2009 est.)
Chief of state: Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin 
Head of government: Prime Minister Mohamed Najib

The Philippines

The Muslim minority population in the Philippines is mostly concentrated on the southern island of Mindanao and on the Sulu archipelago. Relations between the Muslim population here and the predominantly Catholic majority in the rest of the country have been difficult for decades, although periodic efforts to negotiate settlements and agreements have been occasionally successful. At present, the island includes the special Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao with a government structure in place that is intended to support local rights, but insurgency movements led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and by Abu Sayyaf are still active. In 2008, the MILF and the Philippines government were in negotiations to develop plans for a ceasefire, a new program of local autonomy and to redress land rights concerns. These talks collapsed by early 2009 and the status quo remains in place.

POPULATION: 97,976,603 (2009 est.)
Chief of state: President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo


A small population of Muslims live near Myanmar's border with Bangladesh. These people, known as Rohingya, have been singled out for persecution by the authoritarian government there in recent years, and many have fled the country, seeking asylum in Bangladesh or other parts of Southeast Asia. Although Thailand, Myanmar's next-door neighbor, has been at times aggressively unwelcoming to these refugees, Malaysia and Indonesia have been more engaged in aiding this population.


Thailand's Muslim minority population is predominantly found in the far south of the country in the region bordering Malaysia, where local principalities such as Patani traditionally had been part of the Malay Muslim world. These areas became part of modern-day Thailand in 1909 following a treaty signed between the kingdom of Siam and the British colonial government then ruling over much of the Malay peninsula. Since that time, the Thai state, which is majority Buddhist, has intermittently sought to integrate its Muslim population, and to encourage its adoption of standard markers of Thai identity, with limited success. In recent years, differences between the Thai Buddhist majority and the Malay Muslim minority in this area have turned violent, and no immediate peaceful solutions seem to be in hand.

POPULATION: 65,905,410
Chief of state: King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Head of government: Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva

Further reading


  • Abdul Harun Majid, Rebellion in Brunei: The 1962 Revolt, Imperialism, Confrontation and Oil (2007)
  • Kamarulnizam Abdullah, The Politics of Islam in Contemporary Malaysia (2002)
  • Raja Ali Al-Haji Riau,  Virginia Matheson Hooker and Barbara Watson Andaya, translators, The Precious Gift: Tuhfat Al-Nafis(1982)
  • Leonard Andaya, Leaves of the Same Tree: Trade and Ethnicity in the Straits of Melaka (2008)
  • Edward Aspinall, Opposing Suharto: Compromise, Resistance and Regime Change in Indonesia (2005)
  • Azyumardi Azra, Indonesia, Islam and Democracy (2006)
  • Greg Barton, Gus Dur: The Authorized Biography of Abdurrahman Wahid (2002)
  • Greg Barton, Indonesia's Struggle: Jemaah Islamiyah and the Soul of Islam (2004)
  • Huub de Jonge and Nico Kaptein, editors, Transcending Borders: Arabs, Politics, Trade and Islam in Southeast Asia (2002)
  • Greg Fealy and Sally White (editors), Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia (2008)
  • R. Michael Feener, Muslim Legal Thought in Modern Indonesia (2007)
  • Edmund Terence Gomez (editor), Politics in Malaysia: The Malay Dimension (2007)
  • Edmund Terence Gomez, The State of Malaysia: Ethnicity, Equity and Reform (2004)
  • Robert Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia (2000)
  • Engseng Ho, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean (2006)
  • Jomo K.S., A Question of Class: Capital, the State and Uneven Development in Malaya (1988)
  • Joel S. Kahn, Other Malays: Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in the Modern Malay World (2006)
  • Michael Laffan, Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma Below the Winds (2003)
  • Joseph Chinyong Liow, Piety and Politics: Islamism in Contemporary Malaysia (2009)
  • Henk Maier, We Are Playing Relatives: A Survey of Malay Writing (2005)
  • Duncan McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand (2008)
  • Thomas McKenna, Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines (1998)
  • Deliar Noer, The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia, 1900-1942 (1973)
  • Natalie Mobini-Kesheh, The Hadrami Awakening: Community and Identity in the Netherlands East Indies, 1900-1942 (1999)
  • Farish Noor, Islam Embedded: The Historical Development of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, 1951-2003 (2004)
  • Michael Peletz, Islamic Modern: Religious Courts and Cultural Politics in Malaysia (2003)
  • Anthony Reid and Michael Gilsenan, editors, Islamic Legitimacy in a Plural Asia (2007)
  • William Roff, The Origins of Malay Nationalism (1967)
  • Shamsul A.B., From British to Bumiputera Rule: Local Politics and Rural Development in Peninsular Malaysia (1986)
  • John Sidel, Riots, Pogroms, Jihad: Religious Violence in Indonesia (2006)
  • James Siegel, The Rope of God (1969)
  • Eric Tagliacozzo (editor), Southeast Asia and the Middle East: Islam, Movement, and the Longue Duree (2009)
  • Meredith Weiss, Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia (2006)