The Long Road from Mecca to Manila

   by Charles Kimball

Arab merchants first started sailing from the Middle East to China in the early seventh century A.D. Like the Indians, they used the ports of Malaya and Sumatra as places to stop and rest on the long voyages to and from Canton. If they made any converts to Islam at this early date, they must have been few in number. The oldest evidence of Islam in Southeast Asia is a woman's tombstone on eastern Java, dated 1082 A.D. It is possible that the natives did not find Islam appealing until it spread into India (after 1000), where a form of mysticism called Sufism quickly became popular. The many doctrines taught by Sufis combined Moslem and pagan ideas and turned out to be more compatible with Far Eastern culture than the orthodox Sunni doctrine of Arabia.

When Islam did make converts, the natives were not willing to give up the Hindu-Buddhist-animist combination they had practiced previously, since their whole heritage was tied up in it. Instead, in typical Oriental fashion, they modified Islam to fit into the way of life that already existed. For example, Indonesia is 90% Moslem today, but on holidays they still have plays which re-enact stories from Hindu myths such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana . The whole country was also proud of a United Nations-led project in the early 1980s that rescued the ancient Borobudur temple from the ravages of time and the jungle. 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. The prayer ended piously with "There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet."

The first predominantly Moslem state appears to have been Acheh, located on the northwestern tip of Sumatra. The two outstanding travelers of the Middle Ages, Marco Polo and his North African counterpart, Ibn Battuta, visited Acheh in the course of their journeys, and both stated that it was converted to Islam around 1250. Next Islam spread along the trade routes, establishing numerous enclaves on the coasts of the islands. Often the natives converted so that they could get a share of the lucrative Indian Ocean trade, since 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. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were particularly good years for Islam, because during this time Islam also became a way to express political opposition, first against Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit, and later against the Christian Europeans.

From Java and Sumatra it is quick and easy sailing to Borneo, and the same can be said of the trip from Borneo to the Philippines. The expanding commerce of the Moslem traders encouraged the peoples east and north of Java to convert. In the Philippines the nearest islands to Borneo, like Jolo and Basilan, were converted first, followed by the tribes on Mindanao. As in Indonesia, the missionary traders converted the coastal communities of Mindanao but completely bypassed the stone-age tribes living in the interior, since they were almost inaccessible and played no part in the commercial network. Like the Chinese and the Europeans, they were eventually attracted to Luzon, since Manila Bay is one of the finest harbors in Asia. A Moslem sultan named Suleiman established himself in Manila just before the Spanish arrived there in 1571.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball