|Muslim kingdoms of northern Sumatra.
Muslims had traded in Indonesia and China for many centuries; a Muslim tombstone in
eastern Java bears a date corresponding to 1082. But substantial evidence of Islam in
Indonesia begins only in northern Sumatra at the end of the 13th century. Two small Muslim
trading kingdoms existed by that time at Samudra- Pasai and Perlak. A royal tomb at
Samudra, of 1297, is inscribed entirely in Arabic. By the 15th century the beachheads of
Islam in Indonesia had multiplied with the emergence of several harbour kingdoms, ruled by
local Muslim princes, on the north coast of Java and elsewhere along the main trading
route as far east as Ternate and Tidore in the Moluccas.
The establishment of the first Muslim centres in Indonesia was probably a result of
commercial circumstances. By the 13th century, in the absence of a strong and stable
entrepôt in western Indonesia, foreign traders were drawn to harbours on the northern
Sumatran shores of the Bay of Bengal, distant from the dangerous pirate lairs at the
southern end of the Strait of Malacca. Northern Sumatra had a hinterland rich in gold and
forest produce, and pepper was being cultivated at the beginning of the 15th century. It
was accessible to all archipelago merchants who wanted to meet ships from the Indian
Ocean. By the end of the 14th century, Samudra-Pasai had become a wealthy commercial
centre, giving way in the early 15th century to the better protected harbour of Malacca on
the southwest coast of the Malay Peninsula. Javanese middlemen, converging on Malacca,
ensured its importance.
Pasai's economic and political fame depended almost entirely on
foreigners. Muslim traders and teachers were probably associated with its administration
from the beginning and were bound to introduce the religious institutions that made
foreign Muslims feel at home. The first Muslim beachheads in Indonesia, and especially
Pasai, were to a considerable extent genuine Muslim creations that commanded the loyalty
of the local population and encouraged scholarly activities. There were similar new
harbour kingdoms on the northern coast of Java. Tomé Pires, author of the Suma Oriental,
writing not long after 1511, stresses the obscure ethnic origins of the founders of
Cheribon, Demak, Japara, and Gresik. These Javanese kingdoms existed to serve the commerce
with the extensive Muslim world and especially with Malacca, an importer of Javanese rice.
The rulers of Malacca, though of prestigious Palembang origin, had accepted Islam
precisely in order to attract Muslim and Javanese traders to their port.
Arab trader arriving in Indonesia.
New men could now be expected to contribute impulses to Indonesian life. The northern
Sumatran and Javanese coasts seem hitherto to have been on the fringe of the
Shaivite-Mahayana cultures of southern Sumatra and eastern Java. For the first time in
Indonesian history, the possibility existed that the inhabitants of formerly peripheral
regions would begin to influence the course of events, inspired by Islam's assertion of
the equality of all believers and supported by very profitable communications with the
Muslim world throughout Asia.
But Indonesian history is the history of many distinct and often greatly separated
regions. The history of early Indonesian Islam is no exception. What happened in the 15th
and 16th centuries cannot be explained simply in terms of the influence of new ideas. The
political ambitions of many regional princes intervened, and a variety of often rapidly
changing and sometimes disturbed situations developed. The historian looks in vain for a
uniform pattern of early Muslim life in the archipelago.
Aceh (Acheh), which succeeded Pasai in the 16th century as the leading harbour kingdom
in northern Sumatra, became a self-consciously Muslim state, though a persuasive case has
been made for the persistence as late as the 17th century of "Hindu" notions of
divine kingship familiar in Java. Aceh had contacts with Muslim India and its own
heterodox school of Muslim mysticism; its sultans sought an alliance with the Ottoman
Turks against the Portuguese, who had conquered Malacca in 1511. The Malay princes of
Malacca installed Muslim vassals on the east coast of Sumatra in the 15th century, but
when Malacca was captured by the Portuguese the princes transferred their capital
southward to Johore and gradually became involved in a conflict not only with the
Portuguese but also with the Achinese for control of the Strait of Malacca. Aceh, for its
part, was unable to impose its faith on the Batak highlanders in the interior. The single
and notable gain for Islam in Sumatra was in the Minangkabau country, where
Shaivite-Mahayana Tantric cults had flourished in the 14th century. Islam's penetration of
Minangkabau by way of the Achinese west coast of Sumatra was far advanced by the beginning
of the 17th century. Minangkabau, a land of enterprising and mobile traders, was later to
exercise a significant influence in the affairs of the archipelago.