How and why Islam spread in Southeast Asia

How and why Islam spread in Southeast Asia

There are about 240 million Muslims in Southeast Asia. This makes Islam as the most dominant religion in the region. In Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia, Muslims dominate the entire population while there are also sizeable minority populations in the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Nonetheless, Islam arguably plays a major role in shaping the society and culture of the region. But how did Islam spread in Southeast Asia from the Arabian Peninsula? Why did it become a dominant religion in most countries in the region?

How and why Islam spread in Southeast Asia: The Theories

Scholars agree that three majors factors based on three theories or views explain how and why Islam spread in Southeast Asia and led to the further growth of the Muslim population in the region. These factors are trade relationships with the Arabs and other Muslim merchants from the western part of Asia, the indoctrination and conversion of community leaders and its members, and the expansion of territories controlled by local Muslim rulers.

1. Spread through trading with Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia

Prior to the advent of modernity as well as the emergence of Islam, communities in Southeast Asia already had an established trading relationships with traders from the Arabia Peninsula and India. Note that the region was once a trading crossroad between the western part of Asia, including the Near East and the Indian Subcontinent, and China. With the emergence of Islam in Mecca and Medina and its expansion outside the Arabian Peninsula came with the expansion of Muslim traders across established trading routes.

In his book, “Islam in Southeast Asia,” political science professor Hussin Mutalib said that although there is no universal consensus about the dates, originating sources, and agencies of the Islamization of communities in Southeast Asia, there is an agreement that trade played a role. He noted that Muslim merchants controlled a sizeable portion of the trade route in the Indian Ocean, thus giving them direct access to trading ports without needing intermediaries.

However, the book chapter by Yusof Ahmad Talib mentioned that Muslim traders from the Middle East were initially not too keen on trading in Southeast Asia due to the lack of organization. Their attention was directed toward China in which trading is not only more organized but also more lucrative. But the relationship between the Muslim traders and China became distressed, especially after the reported massacre of foreign merchants in Canton in 878 C.E. that halted all trading activities between western Asia and China. The situation compelled Muslim traders to refocus their attention toward Southeast Asia.

Years of flourishing trade relations between the western part of Asia and Southeast Asia led to some Muslim traders settling in early communities in the Malay archipelago. Numerous sources, including the book chapter from Talib, mentioned a 1292 C.E. account by Venetian trader Marco Polo describing flourishing Muslim settlements in present-day Sumatra in Indonesia. Intermarriages between Muslim traders and the locals led to the eventual conversion of communities to Islam.

2. Indoctrinations of Local Communities Fueled by the Tradition of the Sufi Order

The establishment of what is deemed as the first Muslim community in Sumatra eventually led to the spread of Islam to Java during the 16th century, and further to coastal areas inward in different parts of present-day Indonesia. Instrumental to such expansion was the Sufism missionaries.

Historian Anthony H. Johns wrote in his 1993 journal article that Sufism played an important role in how Islam spread in Southeast Asia. As a backgrounder, he noted that one of the traditions of Sufism centers on the theosophical view of unity in the Muslim world. This view served as one of the reasons for the spread of Islam beyond Sumatra, especially as Sufi missionaries from the western part of Asia traveled in Southeast Asia to promote further the religion through indoctrination.

Sufism also became a prominent brand of Islam in Southeast Asia. Hence, locals who followed the Sufi Order became missionaries themselves. Note that due to the high level of tolerance of Sufism to other cultures and traditions, Southeast Asia developed its own brand of Islam that featured unique cultural characteristics influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism.

3. Spread through the Expansion of Territories Controlled by Local Muslim Rulers

Remember that the intermarriages of early Muslim traders and settlers with locals helped in the early spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, especially in Sumatra, and other trading ports and coastal communities in Indonesia and the Malay Archipelago, including the Sultanate of Malacca. Some of these intermarriages involved union between wealthy Muslim traders and successors of local community leaders. The practice was essentially a political alliance. Nonetheless, because local leaders became Muslims, their subjects naturally adhered to their Islamic affiliation.

Some of the communities that converted to Islam gained substantial power for them to spread beyond their original territories. The respective local Muslim rulers, or more formally known as sultans and rajas, brought with them their religion as they spread beyond their territorial scope using their resources. It is also important to add that intermarriages between two political families resulted in the expansion of controlled territories, as well as the further expansion of Islam.

Note that the further expansion of Islam in the Philippines, especially in the southern part of Mindanao, was due to the creation of Islamic sultanates and subsequent immigration of people from other parts of the Malay Archipelago. For example, Talib mentioned that the arrival of Sharif Kabungsuwan, the son of a princess from a sultanate in Malaysia and an immigrant from Yemen who was said to be a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, led to the first introduction of Islam in Mindanao and the eventual creation of the first sultanate in the Philippines. It is interesting to note that the brothers of Sharif Kabungsuwan also founded the Sultanate of Sulu and the Sultanate of Brunei.

Both Mutalib and Talib wrote that the locals largely welcomed Islam along with the expansion and annexation of territories of sultans and rajas. The reason for this was that the religion also came with learning or education, as well as the appreciation of arts. In addition, Talib noted that the creation and expansion of communities under formal governments and an established religion promote social progress based on rigid social organization. Islam essentially provided a unifying force among the ruling classes and the trading classes, as well as other members of the community.

Takeaway: A Note on the Spread of Islam in Southeast Asia

It is important to stress the fact that the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia was not a uniform process. Mutalib and Talib, as well as other scholars, have argued that the spread of the religion in the region was uneven in terms of geography and chronology. Take note that some scholars have argued that China and India might also be the originating sources of Islamization apart from Arabia and other communities in the western part of Asia. It is also worth mentioning that there are numerous historical sources made by merchants and early historians and they collectively do not suggest a linear Islamization process in Southeast Asia.

The aforementioned factors are general theories or reasons explaining how and why Islam spread in Southeast Asia. However, there are also other factors that halted its expansion. For example, the European colonization and introduction of Christianity in the region served as a main stumbling block in the Islamization process. The Philippines remains a prime example where Christianity remains the dominant religion across the country while Islam remains concentrated mostly in the provinces of Mindanao.


  • Johns, A. H. 1993. “Islamization in Southeast Asia: Reflections and Reconsiderations with Special Reference to the Role of Sufism.” Southeast Asian Studies. 31(1): 43-61. DOI: 10.1017/S0022463400010560
  • Mutalib, H. 2008. “Introduction: Islam in Southeast Asia—Origins, Sources of Spread, and Role of Colonialism.” In Islam in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN: 978-981-230-758-3
  • Talib, Y. A. 2011. “Islam in South-East Asia.” In eds. I. El Hareir & E. H. R. M’Baye, The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture: The Spread of Islam Throughout the World. France: UNESCO Publishing. ISBN: 978-92-3-104153-2