Islam had been known in what is now Indonesia since the eighth century but does not appear to have begun to take hold until the beginning of the thirteenth century at the earliest. The first Indonesian Islamic ruler in the archipelago for whom we now have clear evidence was Sultan Sulaiman of Lamreh (northern Sumatra), who died in 1211; several other Sumatran kings, probably influenced by traders and intellectuals arriving from Gujarat and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, became Muslims later in the thirteenth century. Javanese do not appear to have begun conversion until well into the fifteenth century, despite several centuries’ presence there of foreign Muslims. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Much of this story may not yet be clear to historians, however, for graves at Trowulan and Tralaya near the eastern Java heart of Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit strongly suggest that some members of that state’s elite, perhaps even of the court, had converted to Islam as early as 1368, a time when Majapahit and its state orthodoxies were still very much in the ascendent. The small trading port states on the Pasisir—Java’s north coast—many of which later broke away from Majapahit’s control, do not appear to have begun to convert to Islam until at least the mid-fifteenth century. This probably developed from the influence of Chinese, Cham, and Chinese-Javanese Muslim merchants and later as a result of the efforts of the so-called Nine Saints ( wali songo), some of whom were probably Chinese-Javanese and others connected with Indian and Persian Islam. The conversion of the eastern archipelago began with the king of Ternate in 1460, but that region was not widely Islamized until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. *

The spread of Islam in the archipelago is not well understood historically, and, especially regarding this early period, scholars continue to disagree on many fundamental points, such as the precise sources and nature of Muslim influence and the attractions the new religion held for those who eventually adopted it. It is not clear, for example, whether individuals—rulers, elites, or commoners—converted for essentially practical considerations (such as the often very real economic and political advantages of joining the ummah, or community of believers), because of alienation from existing social and political values (in the Hindu- Buddhist kingdoms, for example), or out of an intrinsic interest in the new spiritual and cultural ideas Islam brought with it. Nor is it always obvious why some conversions appear to have been peaceful and others coercive and even violent, or why some indigenous histories emphasize “miraculous” or magical elements in conversions and others do not. Whatever the case, Islamization was not an event, or even a series of events, but rather a long, variegated, and evolutionary process best understood in terms of local, rather than universal, patterns.

Arrival of Islam in Asia and Indonesia

The Indian Ocean continued to serve as both a commercial and a cultural link between Indonesia and the countries to the west. Thus Islam, which was established on the Arabian Peninsula by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century A.D., followed the Hindu and Buddhist religions into the archipelago. By the late twentieth century, approximately 85 percent of Indonesia's inhabitants considered themselves to be Muslim. Among some Indonesians, Islam is only an element in a syncretic belief system that also includes animist and Hindu-Buddhist concepts. Others are intensely committed to the faith. Like the introduction of Indian civilization, the process of Islamization is obscure because of the lack of adequate historical records and archeological evidence. The archipelago was not invaded by outsiders and forcibly converted. Yet states that had converted to Islam often waged war against those that adhered to the older, Hindu-Buddhist traditions. Religious lines, however, do not appear to have been clearly drawn in Javanese statecraft and war. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Over the centuries, merchants from Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean ports and mystics and literary figures propagated the faith. Because commerce was more prevalent along the coasts of Sumatra, Java, and the eastern archipelago than in inland areas of Java, it is not surprising that Islamization proceeded more rapidly in the former than the latter. According to historian M.C. Ricklefs, legends describe the conversion of rulers to Islam in coastal Malay regions as a "great turning point" marked by miracles (including the magical circumcision of converts), the confession of faith, and adoption of Arabic names. Javanese chroniclers tended to view it as a much less central event in the history of dynasties and states. But the Javanese chronicles mention the role of nine (or ten) saints (wali in Arabic), who converted rulers through the use of supernatural powers. *

Doubtless small numbers of Muslims traveled through and resided in the archipelago at a very early date. Historical records of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) tell of Arab traders who must have stopped at Indonesian ports along the way to Guangzhou and other southern Chinese ports. Yet the conversion of rulers and significant numbers of indigenous peoples to Islam apparently did not begin until around the late thirteenth century. Many areas of the archipelago resisted the religion's spread. Some, such as Ambon, were converted to Christianity by Europeans. Others preserved their distinctiveness despite powerful Islamic neighbors. These included small enclaves on Java and the adjacent island of Bali, where animist and Hindu beliefs created a distinct, inward-looking culture. *

According to The Economist: “It is not clear when Islam came to South-East Asia, and whether Arabs, Persians or Indians were its main disseminators. But there is no doubt that it was spread for the most part by merchants, rather than the warriors who brought it to the Middle East and North Africa. Local people seem to have converted gradually, while preserving many of their pre-Islamic beliefs. For a long time, Muslims remained a minority, and had to learn to rub along with people of other faiths. Hindu kingdoms endured in Java until the 16th century, for example, while Spanish colonisers and Muslim preachers seem to have arrived in the Philippines only a few decades apart. [Source: The Economist , May 29, 2003 \*/]

“What is more, the merchant missionaries themselves seem to have followed a fairly unorthodox brand of Islam. They introduced Sufism, a form of mysticism frowned upon by dogmatic Muslims. And although almost all South-East Asian Muslims follow the Sunni sect, Shia holidays have entered the local tradition. To this day, even the Acehnese, popularly considered the region's most devout Muslims, celebrate Ashura, an exclusively Shia festival in the rest of the Islamic world. \*/

Early History of Islam to Indonesia

Aceh in northern Sumatra was one of the first places in Southeast Asia where Islam took hold. It was well established by the 12th century and may have arrived as early as the 9th century. By the 13th century it was well entrenched. Marco Polo visited the northern Sumatran town of Perlak in 1292 and noted that the people there were Muslims. From northern Sumatra, Muslim traders island hopped eastward. The earliest Muslim inscriptions found in Java date to the 11th century. Javanese tradition holds that Islam was introduced to Java by nine holy men, wali songo, who possessed great knowledge of Islam and mystical powers.

It is not clear whether Arabs, Persians or Indians were the main disseminators of Islam in Indonesia. The aristocracy adopted a mystical Sufi form of Islam form—brought by Muslim traders from the Indian state of Gujarat and had been influenced by south Indian religious beliefs—rather than conventional Orthodox forms. Even though most Indonesians became Sunnis, elements of Shiite Islam were introduced. To this day many Indonesia Muslims celebrate the Shiite festival of Ashura. Islam in Indonesia was also fused with Hinduism and indigenous beliefs, creating a hybrid Islam that continues to exist today.

Islam was not introduced by force or by conquest as it was on much if the Middle East, Central Asia and India. Displacement by Islam was peaceful. Local people accepted Islamic gradually and were not forced to renounce their indigenous religions so Islamic merged and coexisted with Buddhism and Hinduism and traditional religions. The result was a hybrid form of Islam that was unique to Indonesia and different from the forms found in the Middle East and Central Asia.

First Reports of Islam in Indonesia

The first Islamic inscriptions found in Indonesia date from the 11th century, and there may have been Muslims in the Majapahit court. Islam really first took hold in northern Sumatra, where Arab traders had settled by the 13th century.

The first reliable evidence of Islam as an active force in the archipelago comes from the Venetian traveler Marco Polo. Landing in northern Sumatra on his way back to Europe from China in 1292, he discovered an Islamic town, Perlak, surrounded by non-Islamic neighbors. An inscription from a tombstone dated 1297 reveals that the first ruler of Samudra, another Sumatran state, was a Muslim; the Arab traveler Muhammad ibn-'Abdullah ibn-Battuta visited the same town in 1345-46 and wrote that its monarch was a Sunni rather than a Shia Muslim. By the late fourteenth century, inscriptions on Sumatra were written with Arabic letters rather than older, indigenous or Indian-based scripts. [Source: Library of Congress *]

There also were important Chinese contacts with Java and Sumatra during this period. Between 1405 and 1433, a Chinese Muslim military leader, the Grand Eunuch Zheng He, was commissioned by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1643) emperor to make seven naval expeditions, each comprising hundreds of ships and crews numbering more than 20,000. The various expeditions went from China to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. Rather than voyages of exploration, these expeditions followed established trade routes and were diplomatic in nature and helped expand contacts among and provide information about the regions visited. Zheng used Java and Sumatra as waystops and, on his first voyage, destroyed a Chinese pirate fleet based near Palembang on the north coast of Sumatra. He also is said to have developed close contacts with Melaka on the Malay Peninsula. *

Advance of Islam in Indonesia

There was a Muslim presence in the archipelago as early as 1100 but there was little Islamic growth before Malacca on the Malay straits became a Muslim stronghold in 1414. Aceh in North Sumatra began expanding its Islamic influence about 1416. Muslim scholars push the date of Islam’s advent in Indonesia back almost to the time of Muhammad. But some of the incidents they record were probably not significant. The real advent of Islam seems to be when Arab and Persian missionaries entered Java in the early 1400’s and gradually gained converts among the ruling classes. [Source: ***]

By 1450, Islam had gained a foothold in the court of Majapahit in East Java. Van Leur feels this was aided by a disintegration of the Brahman culture in India. Surabaya (Ampel) became the center of Islamic learning and from there famous Arab entrepreneurs spread their power. The fall of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit in 1468 has been linked with intrigue in the royal family due to the fact that a royal son, Raden Patah, had converted to Islam. Unlike the Hindu leaders, Islamic missionaries encouraged military power to seal their advantages. No foreign army invaded Java to force the people to believe. But coercion was involved in getting the rulers to accept the faith of Muhammad. Both in East Java and West Java, rebellion in the royal families was fomented by the Islamic military pressure. As the nobility changed allegiances, the people followed suit. Despite this, we must remember as Vlekke points out that religious wars seldom occurred throughout the history of Java. ***

Raden Patah settled in Demak which became the first Islamic kingdom on Java. It reached the zenith of its power by 1540 and in its time subdued peoples as far away as West Java. Bernard Vlekke says Demak expanded towards West Java because Javanese politics had little interest in Islam. In the meantime Sunan Gunung Jati, a Javanese prince, sent his son Hasanudin from Cirebon to make extensive conversions among the Sundanese. In 1526, both Banten and Sunda Kelapa (Jakarta) were under the control of Sunan Gunung Jati who became the first sultan of Banten. This alignment of Cirebon with Demak brought much of West Java under the sway of Islam. “In the second quarter of the 16th century, all the northern coast of West Java was under the power of Islamic leaders and the populace had become Muslim” (Edi S. Ekadjati, Masyarakat Sunda dan Kebudayaannya. Jakarta: Girimukti Pasaka, 1984:93). Since population statistics of 1780 list about 260,000 people in West Java, we can assume the amount was much less in the 16th century. This shows that Islam entered when the Sundanese were a small tribe located primarily on the coasts and in the river basins like the Ciliwung, Citarum, and Cisadane Rivers. ***

Islamization in Indonesia

The major impetus to Islamization was provided by Melaka, a rich port city that dominated the Strait of Malacca and controlled much of the archipelago's trade during the fifteenth century. According to legend, Melaka was founded in 1400 by a princely descendant of the rulers of Srivijaya who fled Palembang after an attack by Majapahit. Originally a Hindu-Buddhist, this prince converted to Islam and assumed the name Iskandar Syah. Under his rule and that of his successors, Melaka's trading fleets brought Islam to coastal areas of the archipelago. According to the sixteenth century Portuguese chronicler Tomé Pires, whose Suma Oriental is perhaps the best account of early sixteenth century Indonesia, most of the Sumatran states were Muslim. The kingdom known as Aceh, founded in the early sixteenth century at the western tip of Sumatra, was a territory of strong Islamic allegiance. In Pires's time, the ruler of the Minangkabau people of central Sumatra and his court were Muslim, but their subjects were not. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In eastern Indonesia, Islamization proceeded through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, often in competition with the aggressive proselytization of Portuguese and other Christian missionaries. According to Pires, the island states of Ternate and Tidore, off the west coast of Halmahera in Maluku, had Muslim sultans, and Muslim merchants had settled in the Banda Islands. In 1605 the ruler of Gowa in southern Sulawesi (Celebes) converted to Islam and subsequently imposed Islam on neighboring rulers. Muslim missionaries were sent from the north coast of Java to Lombok, Sulawesi, and Kalimantan until the late seventeenth century. *

Because of the antiquity of Java's civilizations and the relative isolation of some of its most powerful kingdoms, the process of Islamization there was both complex and protracted. The discovery of Muslim gravestones dating from the fourteenth century near the site of the Majapahit court suggests that members of the elite converted to Islam while the king remained an adherent of Indian religions. The early focus of conversion was the northern coastal region, known as the Pasisir (Javanese for coast). Melaka's domination of trade after 1400 promoted a substantial Islamic presence in the Pasisir region, which lay strategically between Melaka to the west and Maluku to the east. Muslim merchants were numerous, although their role in the conversion of royal courts is unclear. The north shore state of Gresik was ruled by one of the nine saints. During the sixteenth century, after Melaka had ceased to be an Islamic center following its capture by the Portuguese in 1511, the Malay trading network shifted to Johore and northwest Kalimantan. *

Scholars have speculated on why Islam failed to gain a large number of converts until after the thirteenth century, even though Muslim merchants had arrived in the islands much earlier. Some have suggested that the Sufi tradition--a mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes the ultimate reality of God and the illusoriness of the perceived world--may have been brought into the islands at this time. Given the mystical elements of both Sufism and indigenous beliefs, it may have been more appealing to Indonesians than earlier, more austere, and law-bound versions of Islam. Yet according to Ricklefs, no evidence of the existence of Sufi brotherhoods in the early centuries has been found. *

Muslims and the Majapahit Empire

Although the Majapahit rulers extended their power over other islands and destroyed neighbouring kingdoms, their focus seems to have been on controlling and gaining a larger share of the commercial trade that passed through the archipelago. About the time Majapahit was founded, Muslim traders and proselytisers began entering the area. [Source: <+>]

Muslim merchants from Gujarat (India) and Persia began visiting what is now-called Indonesia in the 13th Century and established trade links between the area and India and Persia. Along with trade, they propagated Islam among the Indonesian people, particularly along the coastal areas of Java, like Demak. At a later stage they even influenced and converted Hindu kings to Islam, the first being the Sultan of Demak. <+>

This Muslim Sultan (Raden Fatah) later spread Islam westwards to the cities of Cirebon and Banten, and eastward along the northern coast of Java to the kingdom of Gresik. Feeling threatened by the rise of the Demak Sultanate, the last king of Majapahit, Prabhu Udara attacked Demak with the help of the King of Klungkung on Bali in 1513. However, Majapahit's forces were driven back. <+>

Islam Takes Hold in Indonesia

From the 15th and 16th centuries, Indonesian rulers made Islam the state religion. It was, however, superimposed on the prevailing mix of Hinduism and animism to produce the hybrid religion that is followed in much of Indonesia today. By the 15th century, the trading kingdom of Melaka (on the Malay Peninsula) was reaching the height of its power and had embraced Islam. Its influence strengthened the spread of Islam through the archipelago. By the time of the collapse of the Majapahit kingdom in the early 1500s, many of its satellite kingdoms had already declared themselves independent Islamic states. Much of their wealth came from being transhipment points for the spice trade, and Islam followed the trade routes across the archipelago. [Source: Lonely Planet]

During the 14th and 15th century. Muslim traders and sultanates expanded from west to east through Sumatra and Java, driving out Buddhist rulers and forcing Hindu leader to move to Bali, and then on to other islands. Islam remains strongest on the western side of Indonesia. Not surprisingly, Christianity later was able to make the greatest inroads in the east because Islam was not as firmly planted there.

Melaka rose as a trading port around the same time it embraced Islam, paving the way for the religion to be spread throughout the archipelago. By the time th Majapahit Empire collapsed in the 16th century, there were a number of largely independent Muslim sultanates that had grown powerful and rich as transhipment points and from the growing spice trade and trade between India and China. There were also a number of Islamic schools, especially in northern Java and the east coast of Sumatra.

For along time Muslims were the minority so they had little choice but to respect existing religions. In some places Islam didn’t arrive much earlier than European Christian missionaries. Many Buddhist monasteries became Muslim centers. There are still some Buddhist left. Buddhist beliefs pervade every day life and some Buddhist festivals are still celebrated.

As the number of Muslims grew Indonesia was divided into small kingdoms ruled by sultans. Numerous Muslim cities and states started on the coast and expanded towards the interior. Among the Muslim kings that emerged on Java in the 15th and 16th centuries were Dema, Cinebon and Bantem. Chief was Malacca states on Malay peninsula 1400-1511. By the end 16th century, Islam was the state religion in many places.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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