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  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: November 2017

2 - The History of Islam in Southeast Asia: Some Questions and Debates




Islam probably reached Southeast Asia in the very first century of the Islamic era. Although this early period may be considered as the starting point of the Islamization process, the most recent events have shown that its end has yet to come. Many theories have been offered on the origin and development of Islam in this region. Any approach that fails to consider a diversity of factors and a variety of successive stages in its history will also misunderstand contemporary Southeast Asian Islam. This chapter will present a few details to substantiate this thesis. It will also analyze some debates on the history of Islam in the region and highlight the inter-related scholarly and political dimensions of these discussions.

The chapter will pay particular attention to the role of international networks in the development of Southeast Asian Islam and the existence of various international, regional, and local intellectual references. As cases in point, it will offer some details on the development of Islamic educational institutions and the circulation and translation of books produced in various parts of the world. It will also examine the position of the Southeast Asian Muslim community in past and present globalization, Islamic “counterglobalization”, and localization processes.

To complete this historical survey, this chapter will explain some contemporary dissimilarities of the situation and characteristics of Islam in the various countries of the region by referring to differing styles of colonization and decolonization. Although much research has been done on the history of Islam in Southeast Asia, many questions remain unanswered and various debates undecided. This condition is not only of an academic or scholarly nature, but has ideological and political dimensions too.


The very starting point of Islamic history in the region is matter of controversy. Estimations vary from the first century of the Islamic era, that is, approximately the latter half of the seventh and the first half of the eighth century of the Christian or “common” era, to somewhere around the twelfth century of this common era. The question of the time in which Islam was introduced into Southeast Asia is closely related to questions of the region it came from, and of the people who brought it. This relationship is both of a technical and of an ideological nature.