Malay Muslims: The History and Challenge of Resurgent Islam in Southeast Asia

M. S. Thirumalai


This book, Malay Muslims: The History and Challenge of Resurgent Islam in Southeast Asia, by Robert Day McAmis is a well-written introduction to Islam in Southeast Asia. Just within 122 pages of content, the author, with a missionary career in Southeast Asia (the Philippines) for more than 25 years and then serving in various capacities and ministering to the people of Malay ethnic group, has done an outstanding overview of Islam in Southeast Asia and the current challenges that it poses for the presentation of the Gospel.

The book is divided into 6 parts or chapters.

Chapter 1 of the Book

Chapter 1 is an introduction to the subject which presents an ‘Overview of the Muslim World Today,” “the Malays of Southeast Asia,” and “the Island World of Southeast Asia.”

Muslims from the Malay ethnic group in Southeast Asia constitutes a very large Muslim bloc with their own culture, languages and dialects and a history of conversion to Islam, which is unique in many respects.

Chapter 2 of the Book

Chapter 2 presents “A History of Malay Islam.” This is dealt with under six heads:

  1. Pre-Islamic Influence in the Islands.
  2. Early Islamic Influence.
  3. Islamic Influence After the Thirteenth Century.
  4. Sufi Influence Among the Malays.
  5. Islam Reaches the Philippines.
  6. Summary of the Penetration of Islam into Southeast Asia.

The Malays constitute a distinct ethnic/racial group, found in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines and many islands and nations in the area. This book focuses mainly on peoples of Malay origin in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Islam came to these parts mainly through the Indian Muslim and Arab Muslim traders. Earlier to the arrival of Indian and Arab Muslim traders, the Hindu and Buddhist missionary activities had impacted the people of Malay origin. Hindu and Buddhist influences still continue to have a strong influence over the Muslim practices in these parts.

Miscegenation between Races

An important means for the expansion of Islam among the people of Malay origin was through “intermarriage between the Muslim merchants and local inhabitants, often with local rulers’ families” (p. 13). Based on Rosen, 1965:11, McAmis makes a significant observation:

The development that took place as it [Islam] passed through India included Indian influences of toleration. The Main Muslim teachings were presented, but many of the old pre-Islamic beliefs and customs persisted. The Muslim settlers intermarried with the local population and became integrated with the local community. (p. 13)

The Prestige Factor – Progress in Islamic Missionary Effort

Islam gained prestige in the eyes of the local population through the efforts of the Indian and Arab Muslims. McAmis cites Majul 1964 and Arnold 1913 on the importance of prestige that the Arab and Indian Muslim missionaries carried as an important reason for the spread of Islam. The context referred to was in southern Mindanao, but applicable to the Malayan Peninsula. Thus Majul reports:

Introducing some religious practices, they married local women, learned the native language, and adopted many customs of the country and adjusted themselves to the social order. In time they were able to acquire many slaves to increase their prestige until they were able to join the ranks of the datus. With more unity, skill and coordination than the natives, and having slaves like them, they progressively increased their power and formed a sort of confederation among themselves until they were able t o establish a monarchy which they declared to be hereditary in a family and from which the native datus elected a sultan. (p. 18)

Sufism as an Important Vehicle

The Muslim missionaries were also helped in the process by the adoption of Sufi practices that suited the current native practices based on Hinduism and Buddhism among the peoples of Malayan Peninsula. Some scholars have also pointed out that Islam was seen to be a liberating force from the oppression of caste hierarchy among the lower classes and this had led to conversion to Islam among such classes.

In any case, the following quote from an early Muslim trader on the dilemma of retaining traditions of pre-Islamic persuasion is very interesting and is still valid today:

So long as we live we are in the power of the ancestors of those who live in this land. We must therefore serve the ancestors of our heathen relatives. But so long as we do not eat pork and are buried in Muslim fashion we will wind up in heaven with our Muslim ancestors with whom we feel at home….So long as we let ur children become Muslims they will take care of the veneration of our souls….Ancestor worship is for this life; Islam is for the life to come. (Van der Kroef, 1960:268) (Page 25 in McAmis under review here.)

Helpful Arrangements Under the Colonial Power for the Spread of Islam

McAmis seems to take the position that it was the cruel rule of the Dutch for over 150 years in Malayan Peninsula that made Islam a more favorable persuasion among those vast numbers of people of Malay origin who were not yet Muslims in the interior parts of the region. In addition, the Dutch policy of not permitting Christian missions among these peoples also added to the easy penetration of Islam among these communities. McAmis concludes, “Thus, the Dutch as well as the Portuguese, contributed to the spread of Islam in the islands” (p. 36).

This judgment may be correct only to some extent. The geopolitical and social contexts that prevailed in Europe, the weaknesses of Christian missions in these islands, the small number of missionaries on the field, the inability and unpreparedness of the nascent native Church should also be cited as possible reasons. As stated earlier, Islam already had acquired great prestige among the nationals of these islands, and was, materially speaking, ready to expand into the interiors when the Dutch and the Portuguese opened facilities to reach out to the interiors.

Chapter 3 of the Book

Chapter 3 presents “a history of relations between Islam and the Western Church in Malay Southeast Asia.” The chapter looks at these relations under the following headings:

  1. Contacts between Islam and the Western Church.
  2. Western European Christians arrive in Malay Southeast Asia.
  3. The Portuguese arrive in Malay Southeast Asia.
  4. Sailing west across the Pacific Ocean, the Spanish reach Malay Southeast Asia.
  5. The Protestant Dutch replace the Roman Catholic Portuguese in the East Indies.
  6. The British gain control of the Malay Peninsula.
  7. Conclusion.

Amis cites Hall to show that

the natives were driven into resistance by the injustice of their trading methods. And although priests and monks multiplied in their dominions, they were ineffectual missionaries because of the misdeeds of traders and freebooters. (Hall 1981:206).

A Lesson for the Enthusiasts of Business as Mission

There is some lesson here for the enthusiasts of Business as Mission. If profit motives take precedence over, which naturally happen when we emphasize business, the intentions of the band of Business and Missions “missionaries” will become very suspect in the eyes of the nationals. East India Companies may not be allowed to take a new avatar in our days.

The Policy of Religious Neutrality of the Colonial Powers

Amis again argues,

The policy of religious neutrality, the government’s fear of stirring up religious strife among the Muslims, and the initial prohibition of Christian Missions in many areas, actually gave Islam a favored position in the eyes of the non-Muslim inhabitants of the Indonesian archipelago during the early decades of Dutch rule (p.36).

Earlier in India, the British rulers faced the problem faced by the Dutch in Malay Peninsula. As territories were acquired primarily for their economic benefits, colonial governments had to tread a very cautious path in dealing with non-Christian religions. Also, in my opinion, they did the right thing, not to bring State Power to impose Christianity over the nationals. Conversion of heart comes by loving persuasion not through imposition of a religion. If at there was any failure, it should be ascribed to the meager number of missionaries that the Western Church could muster from among their faithful to preach the gospel in Southeast Asia.

Ultimately, in Malaysia, the British entered into an agreement with the rulers that the British would not contact and allow any effort to convert the Muslims, but the migrants hailing from the Chinese and Indian communities could be converted under this arrangement, which kept open the door for Islamicization of these migrant communities as well.

The Contents of Other Chapters

Chapter 4 Traditions, Beliefs, and Practices of Malay Muslim

  1. What is Islam?
  2. Indonesian Islam
  3. Javanese Islam
  4. Malaysian Islam
  5. Bornean Islam
  6. Philippine Islam
  7. The Role of Adalat in Malay Islam
  8. The Role of Sufism in Malay Islam
  9. The Role of Education in Among Malay Muslims
  10. Distinctive Beliefs and Practices Among Malay Muslims

Chapter 5 Islamic Resurgence Among Malay Muslims

  1. Global View of Islamic Resurgence
  2. Islamic Resurgence in Indonesia
  3. Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia
  4. Islamic Resurgence in the Philippines

Chapter 6 The Role of the Church and Islam in Malay Southeast Asia in the Twenty-First Century

  1. Prospects for Christian-Muslim Relations Among the Malays
  2. Christian Mission and Islamic Da’wa
  3. Christian-Muslim Dialogue Among the Malays
    1. Dialgoue in General
    2. Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Indonesia
    3. Christian-Muslim Dialogue in Malaysia
    4. Christian-Muslim Dialogue in the Philippines
  4. A Malaysian Christian Response

This book is a must for those who wish to understand the past history and current trends in Southeast Asia relating to evangelization.

(All taken from the book under review)

Arnold, Sir Thomas W. 1913. The Preaching of Islam. London: Constable and Company, Inc.

Hall, D.G.E. 1981. A History of South East Asia. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Majul, Cesar Adiab. 1964. “Theories on the Introduction and Expansion of Islam in Malaysia,” Silliman Journal 11:335-98.

McAmis, Robert Day. Malay Muslims: The History and Challenge of Resurgent Islam in Southeast Asia. Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Rosen, Lawrence. 1965. “The Islamicization of Indonesia.” Unpublished Master’s Thesis, University of Chicago.

Van der Kroef, Justin M. 1960. “Problems of Dutch Mission Policy in Indonesia,” Practical Anthropology 7:263:72.


M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Bethany International
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Bloomington, MN 55438