The Long Road From Mecca to Manila


Is watching the new “Star Wars” movie on your list of things to do during this holiday season?  Go ahead, but I hope you will also take time to listen to the latest episode of my podcast, the last episode scheduled for 2016.  Here you will learn how Islam came to Southeast Asia, and meet Malacca, the first important Southeast Asian state that converted to the new religion.

And here is a map showing how Islam spread across Southeast Asia, starting with Aceh (also spelled Acheh or Atjeh), from 1240 to 1600.


(Transcript, added 12/29/2019)


Episode 11: The Long Road from Mecca to Manila

Greetings, dear listeners! What place do you think of when you hear the words “Islam” and “Moslem”? Chances are it is the Middle East, right? Well, the Middle East is the birthplace of that religion, and in our time, Islam has certainly made headlines in the Middle East. Because this is not a political podcast, I’d better not say too much about this subject, but you can probably think of several examples of how Islam continues to inject itself into current events.


While you are right in associating Islam with the Middle East, it would be a mistake to stop with that. Over the past 1,400 years, the followers of Islam have successfully spread it well beyond the Middle East, into more fertile parts of the world. Consequently, today the world’s largest Moslem communities are not in the Middle East, but in Africa and East Asia. Here, in the format of the famous “top ten lists,” are the ten countries with the largest Moslem populations. Can I have a drumroll?


10. Morocco

9. Algeria

8. Turkey

7. Iran

6. Egypt. This is the largest country on the list that’s in the Middle East.

5. Nigeria

4. Bangladesh

3. India. When the Indian subcontinent was divided in 1947, to create Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan, a lot of folks were left on the wrong side of the line, because there were Hindus and Moslems in virtually every town and village. Indeed, the partition has been called “the most complicated divorce in history.” As a result, today there are 172 million Moslems in India, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who did not get out in 1947, and because there are 1.7 billion Moslems worldwide, this means one out of every ten Moslems lives in present-day India, an enormous minority in a Hindu-majority country. Now back to the list.

2. Pakistan

And the number one largest Moslem country in the world is a Southeast Asian country — Ta Da! — Indonesia.


Back in the introduction to this podcast, I stated that today 618 million people, one twelfth of the human race, live in Southeast Asia. Of those people, 257 million, or 41 percent, are Moslem. In the episodes recorded up to this point, I have talked quite a bit about the role Hinduism and Buddhism played in Southeast Asian civilization, but nowadays the top religion in Southeast Asia is Islam. Three Southeast Asian countries are predominantly Moslem — Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei — and among the other eight, four of them — the Philippines, East Timor, Myanmar and Thailand — have been under Moslem pressure since the late twentieth century. For all these reasons, we have to discuss at some point how Islam came to Southeast Asia, and since the last few episodes talked about everything else that happened in Southeast Asia during the Middle Ages, the time to discuss the introduction of Islam is now.


I am not going to talk about the origin of Islam here. Not only did it happen away from Southeast Asia, but plenty of authors have discussed how Islam got started already. And not just in books. Forty years ago, a movie about Mohammed was made, called “The Message,” starring Anthony Quinn as the Prophet’s uncle. At the time the movie generated some controversy, though in respect of Islamic commandments, Mohammed himself never appeared in the movie, nor was his voice ever heard; the actors spoke to an empty spot where the Prophet was supposed to be. An animated version of the story, called “Muhammad: The Last Prophet,” was made in 2002.


Then in late 2015, a podcast was launched on Islamic history, called The History of Islam Podcast. At the time when I am recording this episode, The History of Islam Podcast has seventeen episodes online, and at the rate it is going, several more episodes will be needed just to finish the story of Mohammed. Maybe someday I will record a podcast episode about early Islam, but I am sure I won’t be able to devote as much detail to it as Elias Belhaddad is doing now. Another podcaster, Robin Pierson of The History of Byzantium Podcast, has also devoted time to discuss the origin of Islam, since it is directly related to the subject matter he covers, but he takes a more skeptical view, asking if anything we know about the story of early Islam can be trusted, because we do not have any texts or coins from before the year 750, that mention Mohammed or Islam.


On the other hand, the story of Islam’s introduction to Southeast Asia goes back nearly as far as the story of Islam itself, to the early seventh century. Those of you who listened to Episode 6 will remember that Indonesia’s first major kingdom, Srivijaya, got rich by trading with both the Arabs and the Chinese, and Chinese records indicate that Arab traders were coming to China when the great Tang dynasty was founded, in 618. If the traditional biography of Mohammed is correct, this happened while Mohammed was alive, but before he conquered Arabia, so the first Arab traders to the Far East were probably Sabaeans, followers of the old-time paganism that most Arabs practiced before they converted to Islam. Some Arab traders may also have been Christians, because Christian missionaries had converted a few Arab tribes by that time, like the Ghassanids in the Syrian-Jordanian desert.


We have a story about Mohammed sending out a letter in 628, after he had gained the initiative against his rivals. The only thing we know about the letter is that it called upon the recipient to acknowledge the one true God and to serve him. Supposedly identical copies went to the three most powerful monarchs in the world. Today historians doubt such a letter ever existed, but the story is too good to ignore, so I am sharing it here.


One copy of the letter went to Heraclius, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine emperor. We have no record of Heraclius receiving it; if he did, he did not bother to answer, because he would have had no idea who Mohammed was.


Another copy went to the Sassanid king of Persia, Kavadh II. Unlike Heraclius, the Persians knew about Mohammed, because they had clashed with Mohammed’s followers, in Yemen and on the Persian frontier. Kavadh tore up the letter, flung the pieces at the messenger, and ordered him to leave. When Mohammed heard about this response, he cried out, “Even so, O Lord! Rend thou his kingdom from him.” And that became the excuse for war when the Arabs invaded Persia, a few years after Mohammed’s death.


The third copy of the letter went to Taizong, the emperor of China. This letter took a year to reach him, and it received the most positive response. Taizong happened to be friendlier to foreigners than any other emperor in Chinese history, and he expressed interest in the new theology the Arabs brought. Another Arab embassy went to China in 651, this time led by Sa’d ibn abi Waqqas, a relative of Mohammed. The emperor at this date, Gaozong, ordered the construction of a mosque in Canton, for the benefit of any other Arabs who might visit. This was one of the oldest mosques in the world, but it was rebuilt in 1350, burned down later, and was rebuilt again in 1695, so you can’t visit the original mosque. The mosque which stands in Canton today is called Huaisheng, meaning “Remember the Sage”; another name for it is the Lighthouse Mosque, because the bare pagoda built to serve as a minaret for it looks like a lighthouse.


I mentioned all this because when the Arabs went to China, they had to go past Southeast Asia, like everyone else who sailed to China from the west. Therefore Arab ships were coming to Southeast Asia as early as 618, and possibly sooner than that. And like the other merchants, they would have stopped in ports belonging to early Southeast Asian nations like Srivijaya, Funan, and Champa. We now believe that Islam spread to Southeast Asia in three stages. The first stage happened before the year 1000; during this time the Arabs could have sent a few missionaries and diplomats, but most of the Arabs going east would have been merchants, folks more interested in making a profit than in making converts. If they made any converts at this early date, they must have been few in number. The oldest evidence of Islam anywhere in Southeast Asia is a woman’s tombstone on eastern Java, dated 1082.


The second stage of conversion happened between 1000 and 1250. What changed was that Moslems like Mahmud of Ghazni, an early Turkish ruler, were now conquering and converting parts of India. Also, other Moslems besides the Arabs, like Persians and Africans, could now visit Southeast Asia. In 1944 five copper coins were found on Australia’s northern coast, near the city of Darwin, and recently they were identified as 1,000-year-old coins from Kilwa, a city in modern-day Tanzania. Nobody knows how the coins got to Australia, but we have a theory; they could have been left by Arab or African merchants who were sailing to or from Indonesia, and got blown off course.


Finally, by this time, a form of mysticism called Sufism had become popular across the Islamic world. Apparently both Indians and Southeast Asians did not find Islam appealing until they discovered the many Sufi sects, which combine Islam with ideas from other religions, like the veneration of saints. This turned out to be more compatible with Asian cultures than the strict Sunni doctrine of Arabia.


When Southeast Asians converted to Islam, they were not willing to give up the combination of Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism they had practiced previously, since their whole heritage was tied up in it. Back in Episode 3, we noted that Far Eastern cultures allow more than one religion to exist side by side, so Southeast Asians modified Islam to fit into the way of life they already had. For example, Indonesia is mostly Moslem today, but on holidays they still have plays which re-enact stories from Hindu myths such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. And we noted in Episode 6 that Indonesians wholeheartedly supported the United Nations-led project that restored the ancient Borobudur temple. Clifford Geertz, a British journalist who visited Java in 1960, recorded a typical prayer given by a Javanese villager to begin a feast. The prayer honored the guardian spirits of the village and of the master of ceremonies, the household angel of the kitchen, the ancestors of all the guests, and the spirits of the fields, waters, and a nearby volcano. Finally, the prayer ended piously with Islam’s first commandment: “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.”


The first predominantly Moslem state in Southeast Asia appears to have been Aceh, located on the northwestern tip of Sumatra. This area was in the news in 2004, when a terrible tsunami struck all the lands around the Indian Ocean, and because northwest Sumatra was the nearest land to the epicenter of the earthquake that caused the tsunami, the city in this area, Bandar Aceh, was the city hardest hit. In fact, Aceh made news again just before I recorded this episode, because a 6.5 magnitude earthquake struck here on December 7, 2016, killing at least 97 people. It is no surprise to us that Islam got a foothold here first, because any ship approaching the Straits of Malacca from the west would have passed Aceh, before coming to any other Southeast Asian lands.


The two outstanding travelers of the Middle Ages, Marco Polo and his North African counterpart, Mohammed Ibn Battuta, both visited Aceh in the course of their journeys. Marco Polo stopped there in 1292, and reported that Aceh had converted to Islam fifty years earlier. We also have Chinese records of a Moslem delegation visiting Kublai Khan’s court in 1282, from a state called Samudra or Pasai, which was next to Aceh on the Sumatran coast. Then when Ibn Battuta came by around 1345, he reported Aceh had been Moslem for a hundred years, so we have a ballpark figure; northwest Sumatra converted at some time in the 1240s. This marked the beginning of the third stage of conversion. Now that there was a country in Southeast Asia that promoted Islam, conversions happened much faster than before.


From northwest Sumatra, Islam followed the trade routes, establishing numerous enclaves on the Malay peninsula and on the coasts of the nearest islands. Often the natives converted so that they could get a share of the Indian Ocean trade; now that there was a choice between doing business with Moslems and non-Moslems, the Arabs naturally felt more comfortable buying and selling to the former. Still, it was an uphill struggle, because Moslems were outnumbered by the non-Moslems around them. Nevertheless, in other parts of the world, like Africa, India and the Balkan corner of Europe, Islam could make progress against larger populations, so Islam advanced in Southeast Asia, too. What helped at this stage was that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Islam became a way to express political opposition, first against Majapahit, the Hindu-Buddhist empire that dominated Indonesia previously, and later against the Christian Europeans. After 1400, Moslem-ruled states besides Aceh and Pasai popped up all around Indonesia. On the Facebook page of this podcast, and on the page where this episode is hosted, there is a map showing how Islam spread throughout the region.


It is quick and easy sailing from Java to Borneo, and the same can be said of the trip from Borneo to the Philippines. As the business of Moslem traders expanded, the peoples north and east of Java were encouraged to convert. In the Philippines the nearest islands to Borneo, the Sulu islands and Basilan, were converted first, and then tribes on the big southern island, Mindanao, were converted next. As in Indonesia, the missionary traders converted the coastal communities of Mindanao, but they completely bypassed the stone-age tribes living in the interior, since the interior tribes were almost inaccessible and played no part in the commercial network. Eventually Moslems were attracted to Luzon, the largest and most important island of the Philippines, because Manila Bay is one of the finest harbors in Asia. A Moslem leader named Rajah Suleiman established himself in Manila in 1558, just a few years before the Spaniards arrived. We will come back to the Philippines in a future episode, when we cover the Spanish exploration and conquest of that archipelago.



The first Moslem State in Southeast Asia with real power was Malacca, and it was located on the Malay Peninsula. The Malays wrote down Malacca’s history in a text called The Malay Annals, of which the oldest known copy dates to 1612. However, it begins the story with the founding of another state, from the end of the thirteenth century. When the Srivijayan empire fell apart, a prince from the Srivijayan capital, Palembang, went looking for a new place to call his own. Originally his name was Sang Nila Utama, but today he is better known by the name he took for himself later, Seri Teri Buana. Whatever you want to call him, he first spent a few years on Bintan, a small island between Malaya and Sumatra; then in 1299 he went to an island just off the tip of Malaya, then called Temasek. After landing, he went inland to do some hunting, and the prince saw a strange animal that he described as having an orange body, a black head, and a white breast. The animal escaped into the jungle before he could catch it, and when he asked what it was, his chief minister told him it was a lion. Since lions don’t come in those colors, and lions don’t live in Southeast Asia, it was probably a tiger or some other kind of jungle cat. Still, the prince took this as a good omen, so he decided to found a city here, and he renamed Temasek Singapura, which is Sanskrit for Lion City; of course this is the city we now call Singapore.


Seri Teri Buana ruled for 48 years, and Singapura prospered, though it was surrounded by two growing powers, Siam to the north and Majapahit to the south. Long-time listeners will remember we met Majapahit, Java’s strongest state, in Episode 6, and we met Siam in Episode 10. That was the situation when Singapura’s fifth ruler, Parameswara, took charge in 1389. For better or for worse, Parameswara’s fortunes depended on the women in his life. The first woman was a concubine of his, whom he accused of adultery, and he humiliated her by having her stripped naked in public. The concubine’s father, Sang Rajuna Tapa, was one of Parameswara’s officials, and he got revenge by sending a letter to the king of Majapahit, offering his support if the king attacked. Majapahit responded by sending a huge fleet against Singapura in 1398, and it took the city after a month-long siege. Parameswara and his followers fled to Malaya, and likewise we will leave Singapore for now; it will not become important until the British acquire it in 1819.


After considering several possible locations for a new home, the fugitives chose a village named Malacca in 1401, where the local fishermen accepted Parameswara as their ruler. Malacca had a superb location for commerce, being right at the narrowest point of the Malacca Strait, but otherwise it was not very promising. The port was poor, and so was the surrounding land, which could not grow enough food to feed a large population. Finally, both Siam and Majapahit claimed the whole Malay peninsula for themselves. For Malacca to survive it needed a powerful ally, and it was found in China. In 1405 China began sending huge naval expeditions into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These fleets, numbering hundreds of ships and thousands of men, were commanded by an admiral named Zheng He, who happened to be a Chinese Moslem.


To secure Chinese support, Parameswara went to the Ming dynasty court more than once, and offered homage and tribute to the emperor; the emperor responded by officially declaring Parameswara the rightful prince of Malacca, and a loyal vassal under Chinese protection. After that, when China warned “Hands off Malacca!” the Siamese and Javanese listened and obeyed. The Orang Laut, the sea people who used to work for Srivijaya, were hired to patrol the waters in the strait, keep the pirates away, and direct merchant ships to Malacca. Next, Parameswara invited Moslem merchants to visit his state by charging them less for port duties and expenses than they were paying in Sumatra. In 1414 Parameswara converted to Islam, and changed his name to Megat Iskander Shah, which is Malay for King Mohammed Alexander. Again, a woman was the reason for this; he converted because he had married a princess from Pasai, a state which we saw was Moslem already. Most of his people followed his example, but not right away–after his death in 1424, the next two kings had both Moslem and non-Moslem names. Only after 1446 could the city be considered completely converted, and from then on its rulers showed it by calling themselves by the Turkish title of sultan, rather than king or rajah.


The Chinese naval expeditions stopped after 1433, but for Malacca that was okay, they weren’t needed anymore. By that time, Majapahit had declined to the point that it was no longer a threat, and Malacca had grown rich enough to hire enough mercenaries to keep Siam at a safe distance. The mercenaries proved their worth when they repelled a land invasion from Siam in 1445, and a seaborne invasion in 1456. We saw in the last episode that Siam had more than one strong king and an efficient government at this time, so these victories were no small achievements. The next sultan, Mansur Shah, ruled from 1459 to 1477, and he embarked on an expansionist policy, sending forth warriors and ships to conquer the lands around Malacca. By the time he was done, Malacca was no longer a city-state but a full-fledged sultanate, controlling the whole Malay peninsula and a big chunk of eastern Sumatra.


Even more important, Malacca controlled one of the world’s most important waterways, so now it received the same kind of wealth that had gone to previous Southeast Asian states with fleets. Thus, Malacca became Southeast Asia’s busiest port, receiving ships from the Middle East, India, China and Indonesia. The Indonesian ships were the most important in the long run, because they brought spices from the Molucca islands, near New Guinea. These islands, soon to be called “the Spice Islands” by Europeans, are the world’s largest source of black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, mace and camphor.


Spices have been a valuable trade commodity for a very long time. In 2013, archaeologists in Israel reported the discovery of several flasks, three thousand years old, that contained traces of cinnamon. This told me that King Solomon must have liked spices. Then in the classical era of the Greeks and Romans, a trade route was set up across the Indian Ocean to bring spices from India to Egypt, and from Egypt they were distributed across the Mediterranean basin; this “Spice Road” was almost as profitable as the famous Silk Road that ran across Central Asia between China and Persia. Of course most of the Indian spices were home-grown, but even this early, some could have come from farther east. By the end of the Middle Ages, the demand for spices in Europe and the Middle East was at an all-time high, because European and Middle Eastern diets were terribly bland without them; moreover, they helped make spoiled meat tolerable, which made a difference before refrigeration was invented. In addition, spices were widely used as medicines, and merchants considered them to be the ideal cargo: a nonperishable commodity that can be worth a lot of money without taking up a lot of cargo space.


Unfortunately for Western Europe, the spices were not brought west by one caravan, but by a relay of merchants: Indonesians, Chinese, Indians, Persians, Arabs and finally Italians. Each group usually did not travel much more than a thousand miles, and because merchants make their money by buying cheap and selling dear, every time the cargo changed hands the price went up. For example, a bag of cloves typically sold for three ducats in India. A ducat was a gold coin from the city of Venice, the most popular currency in Renaissance times; it contained three and a half grams of gold, so it was worth approximately $150 American dollars in today’s money. However, that same bag could cost almost fifty times as much by the time it reached Venice. Do the math; $150 * 3 * 50 = $22,500! How about that? One bag of cloves could buy an economy car in today’s money! And that is not including the markup for those spices sold in western Europe.


The people in one of the countries farthest to the west of Venice, Portugal, justifiably felt that the spice trade was ripping them off. In the early fifteenth century, Portuguese ships started exploring the Atlantic Ocean and the coast of Africa. At first they were looking to get African commodities, like gold and ivory, but when the Portuguese realized it might be possible to go to the Orient by sailing around Africa, they got the idea that if they could get the spices without dealing with middlemen, they would make a huge profit. Now the Portuguese saw spices the same way that modern nations see oil; they thought that the nation which controlled pepper would control the world! Thus, the Age of Exploration began, culminating when a sailor named Christopher Columbus tried an alternative route to Asia and discovered America.




On that note, the Middle Ages are now over, and the modern era in Southeast Asian history is ready to begin, so this is a good place to end the episode. When I started this podcast, I set for myself a goal of two episodes a month, each about thirty minutes long. In practice, forty minutes per episode worked better than thirty, but I kept to the two-episode schedule. Therefore, this will be the last episode I upload in 2016. If you are listening to this in December 2016, come back after 2017 begins, when we will introduce the Europeans, a new set of players who will change the rules of the game completely. I promise you, things won’t get boring, with Western nations interfering in Southeast Asian events. In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, happy whatever holiday you celebrate in December, and Happy New Year!


As I said on previous episodes, if you like what you just heard, consider making a donation to support this podcast, using the Paypal button on this episode’s page. Every donation is appreciated, and Paypal will set it up either for a one-time payment, or a monthly one, starting with amounts as small as one American dollar. If you listen to this podcast on iTunes, consider writing a review. Those are appreciated, too, because reviews attract new listeners. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!

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