Archaeological Approaches to the Study of Islam in Island Southeast Asia

Article excerpt


By the end of the seventeenth century, Islam had become an important part of people's lives in large portions of Island Southeast Asia. The social processes at work behind this remarkable transformation, which has left the contemporary nation of Indonesia with the world's largest Muslim population, remain unclear. Scholars have approached these questions from a variety of perspectives, but their evidence has been primarily from textual sources. This article briefly considers how archaeological evidence has contributed to this scholarship, and assesses its potential as a source of data for future research.

Research questions

The study of Islam in Island Southeast Asia has differed somewhat from the study of Islam in the Middle East. As with other regions outside the 'core' of middle-eastern Muslim culture, such as Africa and South Asia, scholarship about Island Southeast Asian Islam has been dominated by social and political historians and anthropologists, although this difference may be overstated if one considers the contribution of Islamic scholarship from within religious institutions (Andaya 1993; Cummings 1998, 2001; Dobbin 1980; Feener 1998; Gordon 2001; Hall 1977, 2001; Hooker 1983; Johns 1980, 1981, 1995; KathirithambyWells 1987; Manguin 2001; Pelras 2001; Reid 1993a,b,c; Ricklefs 1979; Riddell 2001; Riddell & Cotterell 2003; Steenbrink 1993). However, a review of primarily Western literature reveals a variety of related questions guiding research on Island Southeast Asian Islam which are relevant to those interested in how historical processes contributed to the contemporary practices of Muslims in Island Southeast Asia today.

Origin questions ask when Islam first reached south-east Asia, where the entry points were, who brought it and from where they came. Many of the foreign visitors to Island Southeast Asia whose impressions were recorded in writing were also interested in how and when Islam first appeared in the region. European visitors were particularly concerned with this issue; the first Portuguese traders to reach the East Indies always recorded whether people were moors. Often they also asked local people how long they had been believers, and in many cases people told the Portuguese that they had only recently converted (Barbosa 1921; Galvao 1862). In what is now the Maluku province of Indonesia, for example, people told Portuguese visitors in 1512 that they had converted only 50 years earlier (Pires & Rodrigues 1944). These and other Christian European visitors were interested in these questions because their voyages were in part motivated by competition (both on economic and ideological grounds) with Muslims. These European observers, whose writings make up the bulk of the oldest available documents about Island Southeast Asia, speculated that Islam was brought to these regions, far from the Middle East, by traders rather than religious specialists. However, as I will discuss in more detail below, these documents are the record of ideologically biased and not always well-informed observers.

Questions about the origins of southeast Asian Islam have continued to be of central interest for both Asian and non-Asian scholars. Interestingly, prevailing theories about the chronology of conversion and the people who brought Islamic ideas to the region have not been seriously revised from the earliest Portuguese speculations. In general, these theories hold that Islam was brought to Island Southeast Asia primarily by traders rather than religious specialists or missionaries, and that these traders came from South Asia rather than the Middle East. The dating of the first Islamic influence on the archipelago relies primarily on evidence from epigraphic inscriptions on gravestones from Muslim burials, the earliest of which were found in Sumatra and date to the twelfth century AD (Hall 2001). There is some evidence from Arab texts that Muslim Arabs visited the region even earlier, and it is likely that Islamic ideas were introduced to the region by the tenth or eleventh century (Tibbetts 1979). …