Islam first arrived in the Indonesian archipelago not through a series of holy wars or armed rebellions, but rather on the coattails of peaceful economic expansion along the major trade routes of the East. Although Muslim traders had visited the region for centuries, it was not until the important Indian trading centre of Gujarat fell into Muslim hands in the mid – 13th Century that Indonesian rulers began to convert to the new faith. The trading ports of Samudra, Perlak and Pasai on the northeastern coast of Sumatera – ports that guarded the entrance to the economically strategic Straits of Malacca – became the first Islamic kingdoms in Indonesia. Marco Polo mentions that Perlak was already Muslim at the time of his visit in 1292, and the tombstone of the first Islamic ruler of Samudra, Sultan Malik al Saleh, bears the date 1297.
The dominant sect of Islam in Indonesia during this period was the mystical brotherhood of Sufism. The Sufis were peripatetic mediums and mystics who propagated charismatic traditions of ecstasy, asceticism, dance and poetry. Such of teachings probably accorded well with the existing political and cultural climate of the Hinduized Indonesian courts – whose God – Kings, Brahmin gurus and Tibeto – Buddhist mystics had held sway for many centuries. Perhaps for this reason, the arrival of Islam in Indonesia seems not to have disturbed the social and political structure of these courts, even though Islam, by stressing the equality of all men before God, would seem to be more egalitarian than the caste oriented Indian religions that existed in many form in Indonesian prior to this.
Trade and Islam: But conversion to Islam in Indonesia was not accomplished on the basis of faith alone-there were compelling worldly benefits to be obtained. Islamic traders were at this time becoming a dominant force on the international scene. They had controlled the overland trade from China and India to Europe via Persia and the Levant for some time, and with the major textile – producing ports of India in their hands, they began to dominate the maritime trade routes through South and East Asia as well. Conversion thus ensured that Indonesian rulers could participate in the growing international Islamic trade network. And equally importantly, it provided these rulers with protection against the encroachments of two aggressive regional powers, the Thais and the Javanese.
To clarify the process of Islamization in Indonesia, and understanding of the basic political and economic structure of the region at this time is necessary. In the precolonial period, there were essentially three important types of kingdoms: 1) the coastal (riverine) states around the Straits of Malacca that produced little food and few trade goods of their own but relied on trade and control of the seas for their existence; 2) the vast inland states on Java and Bali that produced surpluses of rice in irrigated paddies and possessed large manpower reserves; and 3) the tiny kingdoms on the eastern Maluku islands that produced valuable cloves, nutmegs and mace but little food.
All of these kingdoms imported some “luxury” goods from abroad-textiles and porcelains, precious metals, medicines, and gems, to name but a few. The coastal and spice – producing states also needed to import rice. And the trade was not only insular, but involved foreigners as well – principally Indians and Chinese, but also Arabs, Siamese and Burmese.
Many of these trading patterns were the result of physical limitations on the trade itself. Sailing ships were at the mercy of the annual monsoon winds. Sea voyages to and from China or India could only be made once a year in each direction, so that certain ports came to serve as havens and trading emporiums where traders could gather to exchange their goods while waiting for the winds to shift.
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