Indonesia Expat
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Settlers, Saints, Kings and Conversions: The Dawn of Indonesian Islam

Author of A Brief History of Indonesia, Tim Hannigan, travels back in time to explore the history of Islam in Indonesia.

The hamlet of Leran lies amidst the low fields north of Gresik in East Java, a few kilometres inland from the muddy shores of the Madura Strait. On a December day in the year 1082, a funeral party gathered there beneath leaden monsoon skies.

Leran lay within the kingdom of Kediri, a realm ruled by a raja who claimed to be an incarnation of the god Vishnu, and in the surrounding countryside there were temples where shaven-headed priests oversaw Hindu worship. But there was no such priest amongst the members of the funeral party, and there was no pyre of scented timber. Instead there was a hole dug into the damp soil and aligned so that the corpse, bound in pale cloth and laid on its side, would face towards the northwest. When the mourners gathered at the graveside, they cupped their hands and whispered words of Arabic prayer. They were burying a Muslim. Her name, marked later in Kufic calligraphy on a carven headstone, was Fatimah binti Maimun, Fatimah daughter of Maimun.

The grave of fatimah binti maimun
The grave of Fatimah binti Maimun, the ‘first’ known Muslim in Indonesia


We know nothing about her – her age, her race, her place of birth or cause of death. But amongst the various flotsam and jetsam of history, cast up along Indonesia’s shores, hers is the oldest identified Muslim tomb, dating back almost 1,000 years, fully two centuries before the rise of the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit kingdom.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority nation on Earth, but the story of how exactly this state of affairs came to be is as murky as a cup of kopi tubruk, with myth and misinformation poured in heaps. And yet flickering throughout the early centuries of Islamisation, there are flashes of light: a casual comment in a Chinese chronicle; an incongruous grave marker; a fabulous folktale wrapped around an elusive fact; and here and there an enigmatic name – like that of Fatimah binti Maimun.

It was trade that brought the first Muslims to Indonesia. Straddling the space between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, this has always been the ultimate international shipping junction. The river-mouth ports around the Straits of Melaka were places where you could pick up Indian pottery, Chinese silk, cloves and nutmeg from Maluku, sandalwood from Timor, rice from Java – and perhaps the occasional slave from Bali. Needless to say, all these heady business opportunities attracted outsiders, and the earliest expats in Indonesia were vagabonding merchants from China and India, based in places like Srivijaya – the fabled Buddhist trading state of southern Sumatra.

We know that the first Muslim travellers had already reached China by the middle of the seventh century (just a couple of decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad); it seems more than likely that some of their coreligionists made it as far as Indonesia around the same time. Indeed, some of the early emissaries from Srivijaya to China seem to have been Muslims – judging by the way their names were recorded in the Chinese records. They were probably international itinerants who had offered their seafaring services to the Buddhist king, and in the decades and centuries that followed there were many more like them – Muslim travellers from China, India, Persia and Arabia who settled in Indonesia’s burgeoning ports, creating little communities of expat Islam in the process. Fatimah binti Maimun, whoever she was, was probably part of this scattered but diverse population of international Islam in early Indonesia.

You’ll find a curious mirror of this history today in the small Indonesian-Arab communities in the old quarters of port cities like Surabaya, traders in perfume and agarwood. They are the descendants of settlers from Yemen who arrived in the last few centuries, but with their distinct identity, apart from the Indonesian mainstream, they probably bear more than a passing resemblance to their predecessors in Srivijaya.

In light of all this, it’s not so much the fact that Indonesia became Muslim that seems strange; it’s the fact that it took so long to make the change. Some historians used to give much of the credit for the eventual conversion to the traders. But the fact that there were foreign Muslims passing through – and almost certainly resident in – Indonesia for hundreds of years before large-scale conversions began, suggests that they probably didn’t have much influence with the locals. When the change really did get going, it seems to have come from the top down.

The first Muslim king in Indonesia was a man named Malik as-Saleh. He died in 1297, and he ruled over a little state called Samudera Pasai in the far northeast of Sumatra (where Marco Polo reported Muslim territories at about the same time), but according to local legend he had started out as a “heathen” by the name of Merah Silau. His conversion to Islam wasn’t exactly conventional:

the Prophet Muhammad appeared to him in a dream and spat in his mouth, and when he woke he found that he had somehow learnt to speak Arabic – and had been circumcised!

There is a very similar story of a magical dream-conversion told in Melaka on the other side of the Straits of Melaka, and throughout the archipelago local legends place miracles at the heart of the conversion process. The king of Makassar, seat of Sulawesi’s mightiest seafarers, converted after a visiting holy man magically rid the surrounding forests of wild pigs. The local penchant for pork had been a major stumbling block on the path to Islam, but once there were no more pigs there was no more resistance!

Farfetched though these legends might be, they do all involve an Indonesian king converting – and that is how things really did unfold in most places. By the 14th and 15th centuries, Islam had become by far the biggest club in Asia, a unifying standard that gave people everywhere from the Taklamakan Desert to the Coromandel Coast a shared vocabulary. For an Indonesian king presiding over an economy based on international trade, signing up made very good sense indeed. And where kings led, commoners followed. Those little communities of foreign Muslim traders dotted around Indonesia – who’d probably been viewed with benign bewilderment by the locals for generations – suddenly found themselves surrounded by coreligionists.

The Menara Mosque in Kudus on the north coast of Java has a minaret echoing the style of the temples of Majapahit. This region was where Islam first gained a toehold in Java.
The Menara Mosque in Kudus on the north coast of Java has a minaret echoing the style of the temples of Majapahit. This region was where Islam first gained a toehold in Java.

The only place where things unfolded a little differently was – inevitably – Java. When the first Portuguese traders turned up in Southeast Asia – in the early 16th century, when the process of Islamisation was at full tilt – they noted that inland Java was still the realm of “a great heathen king”, none other than Brawijaya VII, Emperor of Majapahit. Along the north coast of the island, however, there were fiefdoms ruled by Muslims who were taking on Javanese manners and customs, but who were descended from Chinese, Persian and Indian immigrants. And somewhere in the space between these incomers who had “made themselves more important in Javanese nobility and state than those of the hinterland” and the masters of the fading Hindu-Buddhist empire, Islam was beginning to thread its way into the fabric of Java itself, tangling with other strands as it did so; a mysterious process represented today by the tales of the semi-mythical Wali Songo, the “Nine Saints” credited in traditional stories with converting Java to Islam.

By the early 17th century the job was done, and almost all the areas of Indonesia that have a Muslim majority today had converted – officially, at least. On the ground the process of forging the many distinct and distinctive Indonesian versions of Islam was only just beginning, of course – but that’s another story…

But stop. Rewind for a moment: the first Muslims to visit Indonesia – and in all likelihood the first Muslims to live in Indonesia, even if only temporarily – had probably arrived some 900 years earlier, and in that simple fact there’s a hidden story.

The traders, travellers, itinerants and imperialists who have come to Indonesia over the centuries have overwhelmingly been male. And yet many of them created little communities on the fringes of the archipelago’s ports. Communities need women, and those women, naturally, were locals; they were Indonesians. The Chinese migrants who have been setting up shop in Indonesia since the First Millennium CE married local women, and in doing so created the distinctive Peranakan Chinese-creole culture of maritime Southeast Asia. The Portuguese and the Dutchmen who followed them also married Javanese, Sundanese and Malay girls and gave rise to the huge Indo-European population – now largely forgotten but a prominent feature of Indonesia right to the end of the colonial period. Those early Muslim settlers would have done exactly the same thing – and in the name of marriage their Indonesian wives would have usually become Muslims too.

Long before any internationally-minded king had a peculiar dream, quite possibly within a century of Islam’s Arabian emergence, a girl from Sumatra or Java opened her mouth, uttered the mellifluous syllables of the Shahada, and joined the faith of her foreign husband. The first Indonesian Muslim was almost certainly a woman…


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