Islam and State in Sumatra: A Study of Seventeenth-Century Aceh

Islam and State in Sumatra: A Study of Seventeenth-Century Aceh

Islam and State in Sumatra: A Study of Seventeenth-Century Aceh

Islam and State in Sumatra: A Study of Seventeenth-Century Aceh


This study looks at the Islamic character of the Acehnese state in the seventeenth century. It examines not only its Islamic institutions but also its political culture and policies towards Islam. The discussion begins with a historical sketch of the rise of Aceh in the sixteenth century, followed by an analysis of the ruler and authority, the royal enclosure, Islamic religious ceremonies and the Islamic institutions of the state. The work concludes with a brief comparison of Aceh with other Islamic states in the region, especially Melaka and Mataram, whereby it is shown that the Islamic nature of the Acehnese state was more pronounced. This study is of particular interest to scholars and students of Islam, history, anthropology and political science.


Many would agree with Anthony H. Johns’ assertion that “the presence and role of Islam in Southeast Asia has been consistently underestimated.” There are, at the very least, two underlying reasons for this attitude. First, there is the “syncretic” character of Islam in the region, in which many pre-Islamic beliefs and practices are still apparent. Then there is the “conflict” between adat and Islamic law, in which the former is seen to be dominant. This has led Ira M. Lapidus to remark that “indigenous pre-Islamic Southeast Asian culture formed the basis of the later Islamic civilization.”

The issue is not as simple as labeling one group more Islamic than another, however. The complexity of the problem is to be observed when “one tries to understand, and reduce to descriptive and analytical order, phenomena associated with the translation of a major religious system from the culture(s) (systems of shared meaning) in which it arose and was formed to the substantially different cultures of Southeast Asia.” In fact, it was an Islam colored by Arab and Persian elements that was introduced to the region. This new religion was adopted, adapted and translated into the Southeast Asian context, suggesting the “active role” played by indigenous peoples in this process.

Anthony H. Johns, “Sufism in Southeast Asia: Reflections and Reconsiderations,” JSEAS 26, 1 (1995), p. 172. The same tone is also taken by William R. Roff who insists that “there seems to have been an extraordinary desire on the part of Western social science observers to diminish, conceptually, the place and role of the religion of Islam now and in the past, in Southeast Asian societies.” William R. Roff, “Islam Obscured? Some Reflections on Studies of Islam and Society in Southeast Asia,” Archipel 29 (1985), p. 7.

Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Muslim Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 467.

Johns regrets the marginalization of Islam in the study of this region. To him, this “was compounded by the currency of such terms as the heartland and the periphery of the Islamic world to refer to the Middle East and the Indonesian islands respectively—as though the further one got from Mecca the more diluted and weaker Islamic faith and practice inevitably became. Such are the ways in which we are captive to methapors of our own creation!” (“Sufism in Southeast Asia,” p. 172).

Roff, “Islam Obscured?,” p. 8.

It would not be accurate to suggest that Southeast Asian Islam is less Islamic

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