The Hybridity of Malay Islam (1500-1800) Part 2: An Entanglement of ‘Adat’ and Politics

This is a two-part essay on the complex history of Islam in the Malay World by Lhavanya Dharmalingam, a student of International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. The first part of the essay outlines how the process of Islamisation took place in the region due to the openness of Malay cultural life which allowed for easy assimilation of Islamic practices and values. It also touches on the significance of Sufism, a form of Islam which was spread across the Malay world. In the second of the her essay, Lhavanya takes a look at the manifestations of Malay-Islam in modern politics, governance and social life.

Islam as a Political Tool

Legitimacy is seen in the people’s support of the King and this was a gradual process, the effect of persuasion rather than force (Marsden, 1812, xxxiv). And scholars opine that they were a dominant force in leading Islamisation (Milner, 2008, p.40) building upon a similar process that had occurred centuries earlier with Hindu-Buddhism. Once Islam became the preferred basis for rulers it was relatively straightforward and easy for their subjects to convert with the sanction and support of their leaders. The Melaka-Johor chronicle, narrates the decree the newly converted ruler of Melaka gives his people “whether of high or low degree” to convert (Milner, 2008, p.65).

Islam reinforces the concept of daulat, which in the Malay world refers to the mystical powers of rulership, by imparting to the ruler divine sanction to establish God’s ordained rule (Means, 2009, p.21). The ruler would be considered the head of the Ummah and at the apex of the system of moral authority. In the 17th century, the Sultan Agung of Mataram sought legitimacy by Islamicising local traditions and Javanising Islam, by marrying Ratu Kidul, a Goddess of indigenous Javanese tradition while also inaugurating the hybrid Saka calendrical system with the Islamic hijri calendar (Feener, 2011, p.479). Yet others sought to serve political agenda with appeals made to piety to reinforce legitimacy. In Mataram in the early 18th century, Ratu Pakubuwana, the grandmother of Pakubuwana II sponsored a series of pious Islamic works which praised her piety such as the Carita Sultan Iskandar which claims authentication as a text from exegesis of the Quran. Her following texts Carita Nabi Yusuf and Kitab Usulbiyah do the same (Feener, 2011).

Sultan La Maddaremmeng, the ruler of Bone during the 17th century, put in place a new rule appealing to the sharia to prohibit practices such as the third gender bissu priesthood and to emancipate slaves (Feener, 2011, p.482). Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa from Banten encouraged Islamic values such as the prohibition of opium and the adoption of popular perceptions of Arab forms of dress (ibid). Sultan Pakubuwana II from Mataram banned all forms of gambling except cock fighting in 1731. By adopting selective aspects of Islam, the claims to the religion could be made which would also be of benefit as it increased access to trading networks as seen in Melaka which established a system of favoured treatment for Muslims both involving trade agreements and payment of transit duties (Means, 2009, p.21). However in many cases rulers were selective in their implementation of Islam for fear of losing the popular support of the locals or engendering dissent over the abolishment of some of their practices. Arguably however, the selective adoption of aspects of Islamic principles, in some of these contexts, could be viewed in the reflection of the Quranic revelations on alcohol. There was a series of three revelations over time (2:219, 4:43 and 5:90-91) progressively dissuading the use of alcohol to finally outright prohibiting it because it was the best means to achieving this, perceived, moral outcome. Therefore this selective application, at least within the timeframe of a ruler’s reign could be a means to an end.

Whether rulers managed to successfully harness the support of the people through this means was not guaranteed however. Pakubuwana’s grandmother and himself did not manage to successfully cement themselves in their people’s good opinion (Feener, 2011). This could be because these rulers were not successful in convincing their people that they were truly pious Muslims as there was a cleavage between the ideal pattern of behaviour and their praxis. This can be seen in 1660 when Shaykh Yusuf unsuccessfully attempted to persuade rulers to impose Islamic principles like prohibiting gambling, cock fighting, arrack drinking and other habits that were frowned upon by Islam (Reid, 2011, p.456). In addition, in many situations Islamic teachings discriminated against female rulers therefore the case for the legitimising capabilities of Islam being a dominant factor in the Islamisation of the Malay world does not stand, although it does qualify as a significant factor. As Ricklefs (1997, p.252) comments on Java, the Islamic elite were something of an anomaly, with other Javanese courts seemingly indifferent to Islamic piety at best and its enemy at worst and between the two cultural streams, the Javanese one is dominant in court affairs between the period of the 17th century til 20th century.

At another level, there is reason for the conflict between ‘original’ Islam and ‘Malay’ Islam because as seen in many instances, the adoption of Islam by rulers was done for purely political rather than pious reasons. The somewhat piecemeal adoption of Islamic ideas and practices was a calculated approach to make claims to piety while still appealing to popularity and could very much be considered a syncretism and possibly not even Islamic. As an example of what could be perceived as a systemwide failure of Islam in the Malay world lies in its supposed egalitarian nature, removing the ascriptive social status of birth and caste and making all members of the Ummah socially equal, in praxis however the systems of patron-client linkages and hierarchical social systems were still maintained to a large extent across the Malay world with Islamic festivals such as Eid serving as opportunities to reinforce these relationships (Means, 2009, p.25).

Islam and Adat

The verdict on whether Islam and adat were conflicting or complementary has still yet to be made but we can assume there was some conflict but the differences were negotiated and an effective compromise reached and maintained in the 17th and 18th centuries. The example of Minangkabau as given by Abdullah (1966) will be used to illustrate the synthesis between adat and Islam.

In the late 17th century, records talk about the first religious teacher Sjech Burhanuddin in the region, from the town of Ulakan in 1704. He had been instrumental in setting up the first religious school (madrasah) from which later on many others grew out of. At the early stages of the Islamisation process, Sufi missionaries were more concerned with individual morality over the religious correctness of a person’s actions and also with the more pressing issue of the “re-structuralisation of adat in order to interpret the heterogenetic change as orthogenetic.” (Marsden, 1783, p.343). It must be noted that the Minangkabau attitude toward adat is one that recognises the imperative continuity of the system while also acknowledging the importance of change. Therefore the hybridisation of adat and Islam was a long drawn, subtle process. There are four classes of adat and the first, adaik nan sabana adaik (adat which is truly adat) is considered to be eternal, since it is also identical with natural law and it was to this, during the process of codification (which happened only after the Arabic script was adapted in the region) that a new category of supernatural law was added to contain and insert the Quran and the hadiths and these were collectively perceived as eternal principles that guide human spiritual and secular activities.

Abdullah posits that over the two centuries, the madrasahs grew in size and influence posing a threat to the royalty as a symbol of tradition as well as because the madrasahs also practised patrilineal inheritance of their leadership just like the royalty. The commoners on the other hand practised matrilineal inheritance. The influence and power of the royalty waned because of these madrasahs although there was no direct conflict and no direct impact on society till the end of the 18th century (p.13). At the turn of the 19th century adat is changed far more significantly and arguably, even hijacked and its original elements downgraded by the incoming Padri movement led by the “three hajis” who were influenced by the initial success of the Wahabi movement in Arabia (p.18).


Undoubtedly, in many parts of the Malay world and across the centuries, ‘Malay’ Islam was a syncretic rather than a creole synthesis, with many contradictions that would warrant the criticism of Muslims practicing ‘original’ Islam. Many of its amalgamations with the Hindu-Buddhist culture was deliberately done to serve a political agenda, either to reinforce legitimacy or to convince locals to convert to Islam. The nature of Sufism was particularly effective Islamising the Malay world because it permitted the fusing of Islam and Hindu-Buddhism. Arguably without that openess, the Malay world might not have taken Islam so successfully. This then paved the way for more rigid formulations of Islam to take hold in the Malay world after the 18th century.

The political machinations behind the adoption of Islam was also key in getting large numbers of Malays to declare themselves Muslims even if they did not follow all its principles. And it could be argued that not all of these machinations were purely political as many of these rulers could have truly believed in Islam, but simultaneously were aware of the reality that their people may not have welcomed the religion if it had been too restrictive. Therefore while ‘original’ Islam was valid in some of its criticisms of Islam, it is also unrealistic to expect a rigid fixed form of Islam to develop identical to it, especially when Islam itself is diverse and varied. The moral judgement passed on such a syncretic but rich creation is unwarranted. The diversity enriches the scholarship of Islam while also giving rise to conflicts that need to be dealt with rationally as do all conflicts of belief systems whether religious or otherwise.


  1. Abdullah, T. (1966). Adat and Islam: An Examination of Conflict in Minangkabau. Southeast Asia Program Publications at Cornell University. [Online]. 2, pp 1 – 24. [Accessed 26 December]. Available from:
  2. Alatas, S. F. (1985). Notes on Various Theories regarding the Islamization of the Malay Archipelago. The Muslim World. [Online]. 75(3-4), pp 162-175. [Accessed 24 December]. Available from:
  3. Al-Attas, S. N. (1967). Preliminary Statement on a General Theory of the Islamization of the Malay Indonesian Archipelago. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka.
  4. Arnold, T. W. (1913). The Preaching of Islam: A History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith. London: Constable & Co. Ltd.
  5. Crawfurd, J. (1967). History of the Indian Archipelago. Vol 2. U.S: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Johns, A. H. (1961). The Role of Sufism in the Spread of Islam to Malaya and Indonesia. Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society. 9(3), pp 143 – 160.
  7. Johns, A. H. (1975). Islam in Southeast Asia: Reflection and New Direction. Indonesia. [Online]. 19, pp 33 – 55. [Accessed 23 December]. Available from:
  8. Reid, A. (2011). Islam in South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean littoral, 1500 1800: Expansion, Polarisation, Synthesis. In Morgan, D. O. and Reid, A. Eds.The New Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 427 – 469.
  9. Feener, R. M. (2011). South-East Asian localisations of Islam and participation within a global umma, c. 1500 1800. In Morgan, D. O. and Reid, A. Eds.The New Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 470-503.
  10. Marsden, W. (1783). The History of Sumatra. London: Black-Horse Court
  11. Marsden, W. (1812). A Dictionary of the Malay Language in Two Parts. London: Cox and Batlis.
  12. Ricklefs, M. C. (1997). Islam and the Reign of Pakubuwana II, 1726-49. In Riddell, P. G. and Street, T. Eds. Islam: Essays on Scripture, Thought and Society. Netherlands: Brill, pp 237 – 252.
  13. Moris, M. (2011). Islamization of the Malay Worldview: Sufi Metaphysical Writings. World Journal of Islamic History and Civilisation. [Online]. 1(2), pp.108 – 116. [Accessed 26 December 2016]. Available from:
  14. Morrison, G.E. (1951). The Coming of Islam to the East Indies. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. [Online]. 24(1), pp 28 – 37. [Accessed 20 December 2016]. Available from:
  15. Means, G. P. (2009). Political Islam in Southeast Asia. Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre (SIRD)
  16. Milner, A. (2008). The Malays.K: Wiley-Blackwell.
  17. Quran, The: A modern English version.
  18. Leaman, O. (2006). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Islamic Philosophy. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  19. Riddell, P. G. (2001). Islam and the Malay-Indonesian World: Transmission and Responses. London: Hurst & Company.
  20. Kitiarsa, P. (2005). Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. [Online]. 36(3), pp 461 – 487. [Accessed 20 December]. Available from:

The Hybridity of Malay Islam (1500-1800) Part I: Islamisation and Sufism as Key Elements of Identity

The integration of Islam into the Malay world occurred as a constant flux over time and its formulation across the Malay world was neither consistent nor constant. The religion, especially the Sufi school of Islam had a tremendous impact within those four centuries, altering the social and political fabric of the Malay ruled areas of Southeast Asia while also resulting in new Islamic developments that impacted the other kingdoms and societies in the Indian ocean. This two-part essay by Lhavanya Dharmalingam, a student of International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, discusses that the ideals and doctrines of Middle Eastern formulations of Islam was not adopted as a totality, but were being modified with complex innovations that manifested in different legal systems, systems of governance, societal arrangements and practices in the Malay world.

For the purposes of this essay the term ‘original Islam’ shall be used to refer to the manifestation of the culture and principles of Islam as it was practised in the Middle East. The modifications were made for various reasons, such as to further legitimise a ruler’s claim to rulership, or to encourage local conversion through either a religious syncretism (Kitiarsa, 2005) that gave concessions to indigenous/ Hindu-Buddhist religious practices or through an organic process of creolisation. Essentially, Islam was built on the existing religious and cultural practices, and Hindu-Buddhist systems of governance. The localisation of this religion manifests in the politics of trade, of governance, of society. The emergence of this new entity of ‘Malay Islam’ is significant because of its significant impact and role in the Malay political systems and its conflict with ‘original Islam’ because of the perceived syncretism. This essay will therefore aim to analyse the roles of Sufism and political facotrs in the localisation of Islam and the ideological conflict between ‘original Islam’ and ‘Malay Islam’ between the fifteenth to eighteenth century.

A snapshot of Islamisation

Muslims have been present in the Malay world since the first centuries of Islamic history (Feener, 2011, p.471). In the thirteenth century, Muslim trade across the Indian Ocean increased significantly, forming social, economic and political connections with locals. The first Islamic port city was the Sultanate of Pasai in the 13th century and it is towards the end of this century that documents show significant numbers of conversions (ibid, p.470) alongside an increasing Arab diaspora. By the fifteenth century, the small communities of Muslim migrants were evolving into significant local Muslim communities through processes of trade, intermarriage, shared economic interests and political alliances.

Over the 15th and 16th century the north coast of Java was developing a distinctive Islamic identity which subsequently spread east and west. Towards the late 16th century, Mataram rose as an agrarian Muslim kingdom (ibid, p.479). In the early 17th century, the Makassar and Bugis kings had converted to Islam while the major kings of South Sulawesi resisted because they feared it would decrease their supernatural status as well as interfere with their religious feasting on pork and palm wine (Reid, 2011, p.455). Upon conversion in 1605, Karaeng Matoaya proceeded to attack the Bugis states that resisted Islam and within a few years those states were won over (ibid, p.456). Under Sultan Iskandar Muda, Aceh became the leading regional centre of Islamic learning for that period and launched campaigns into neighbouring Gayo and Minangkabau (Feener, 2011, p.489). It was mainly during the 16th and the 17th century that the Malay world as a region became increasingly integrated with Islamic civilisational networks arising around the Indian ocean and developed increasingly self-conscious Islamic identities (ibid, p.488). Islamisation of the Malay world was a long drawn non-linear process.

Scholars frequently credit the traders and merchants and/or the Sufis for bringing Islam to the Malay world (Al-Attas, 1967; Johns, 1961). Morrison (1951) states that Arab, Persian and Indian traders, separately, brought Islam to this region and Alatas (1985) is convinced that there were non-Malay Muslims residing in the major ports of the Malay Archipelago as early as the ninth century. Drawing on textual evidence from that period he also stresses the significance of traders from the Hadhramaut region in the process of Islamisation. On the other hand, Arnold (1913) opines that while traders and settlements of Muslim merchants laid the political and social foundations for the regional embedding of Islam, it was the Sufis ‘using their superior intelligence and civilisation in the service of their religion’ who played the dominant role in spreading the faith as firm believers in it.

The Nature of Sufism

The nature of Sufism is a key factor in how these Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms managed to embrace Islam. In fact the contrast between the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of the Malay world and the doctrines of Islam was significant, where on the one hand there were fundamentally hierarchical polities with rulers claiming spiritual prowness and a multitude of gods and on the other hand a religion that stressed equality before the one god (Milner, 2008, p.40). Despite this, Islam managed to complement and amalgamate with the systems in place. Scholars like John (1961, p.19) point out the Sufi characteristic of accepting non-Islamic elements provided they were not contradictory to the Quranic verses and also argue that only the Sufis were capable and learned enough to face their Hindu/ Buddhist counterparts and engage in dialogue to successfully present their religion’s superiority. As Crawfurd (1967, p.266) eloquently puts forth:

“In most Mahomedan institutions of the Javanese, we discover marks of Hinduism. The institutions of the latter have been rather modified and built upon rather than destroyed, and in viewing them, we cannot withhold the tribute of our applause to the discreet and artful conduct of the first Mahomedan teachers, whose temperate zeal is always marked by a politic and wise forbearance.”

One of the reasons for the changed nature of Malay Islam that offends its critics and also contributes to the multiplicity in Sufi thought across the different localities and even within a single locality, perhaps lies in the permissive nature of Sufism. Sufis search for “new truths” that can be subsumed into the corpus of the Quran’s doctrines and each Sufi order developed its own rituals and devotional forms designed to “achieve direct contact with God and thereby obtain sublime salvation”(Means, 2009, p.22). One such ‘new truth’ arising out of the combination of the Javanese doctrines and Islamic doctrines was put forth by the Wujudiyyah in the 17th century. They were exponents of the Ibn al-Arabi school primarily based in Aceh, set up by Hamzah Fansuri a prominent scholar who localised aspects of Middle Eastern Sufi thought and developed a new genre of poetry, Syair (Feener, 2011, p.472). They sought to know and understand the relationship between god, man and the world from the ‘new’ Malay Islamic perspective that stemmed from the idea of the oneness or unity of god and they drew upon works of reputed scholars such as the aforementioned al-Arabi from the Middle East (Moris, 2011, p.109). Their metaphysical teachings on Being and Reality were highly controversial (Moris, 2011, p.110; Leaman, 2006, p.91). As Means explains:

“Javanese mystic doctrines view the temporal world as “unreal” but behind this temporal world lies the eternal reality of God, which is immanent in all creation. For the Sufi, the assumption is that Allah is everywhere and is in everything; he is concealed, unreachable and without equal. When combined with the doctrine of nonduality, Javanese Sufis concluded that man and God share the same identity and “ there is no difference between the worshiper and the worshiped” because the divinity of both are subject and object.”

Such teachings were condemned as heretical and supporting pantheism by scholars like Al-Raniri, writing from Aceh from when he was Chief Judge (Riddell, 2001, p.116). He represented the Aydarusiyya Sufi order, which did not originate in the Malay world and his criticisms were laid out in the Hujjat al-siddiq li-daf al-zindiq (ibid, p.119). Although he had been in Aceh for seven years on the behest of Sultan Iskandar Thani, he was born and spent most of his studies in Gujerat and the Hadhramaut (ibid, p.117) and therefore the clash between the teachings of Malay scholarship and scholarship representing ‘original Islam’ is evident here. Subsequently Al-Raniri’s teachings were disputed by Sayf al Rijal, a Minangkabau who successfully condemned his extremism and in 1643, Al-Raniri returned to Gujerat (Reid, 2011, p.460).

Additionally Sufis were more concerned with their direct experience of God rather than the doctrines and legal requirements of Sharia (ibid, p.24), a quality which manifested to varying degrees across the Malay world and arguably permitted the varied, selective implementation of the tenets of Islam. Additionally, because Sufis venerated individuals who purported to have achieved direct contact with god, this also permitted select individuals to be awarded the de facto authority to transmit their own transmutations of Islamic doctrines. One of the cornerstones of Islamic learning is this principle of authority. It is in the practice of Muslims to follow the teachings and opinions of teachers whose wisdom and appeal to learnedness convince them of his authority. The religious teachers are associated with various schools of learning that guarantee the standard of his learning and his doctrine’s legitimacy (Johns, 1975, p.46). This gives rise to different opinions and judgements as seen in the above example. Although, given that this is a trait of all types of Islam irrespective of locality, it cannot entirely be credited with the specific rise of ‘Malay’ Islam but to variations in Islam across the globe.

The Sufi doctrine of the ‘Perfect Man’ who achieves ‘essential oneness with God and guides his followers down the path he has trodden’ resonates strongly with the Buddhist ideal of the Bodhisattva which was also a concept used by rulers to portray themselves as divine representatives (Milner, 2008, p.41). Islam perceives the ruler as God’s representative on earth and protector of the one true faith and therefore as a ‘Perfect Man’. Relics such as old coins are seen to carry epithets such as ‘Shadow of God’ (Milner, 2008, p.42) depicting how rulers used a cloak of divine perfection and authority to legitimise themselves.

In the second part of Lhavanya’s essay, she will build up on the landscape of Islam in Malay identity to examine the polemics of Islam as a tool of politics and its inextricable relationship with ‘adat’. Find out what she has to say (as well as her bibliography) here.