The Arrival of Islam in Java

The word ‘islam‘ in Arabic means ‘submission’, i.e. surrender to God. The word ‘muslim’, then, refers to someone who fully surrenders him or herself to God. All muslims believe the Islam to be the final revelation of God, transmitted to the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century in the Arabic world. Therefore, the revelations of the prophet Muhammad, collected in the Koran, are considered to go beyond earlier revelations proclaimed by others, such as Jesus who received the Evangely, and Moses who received the Thora. The worship of the One Almighty God, the existence of angels, recognition of the prophets and their revelations, in particular Muhammad, form the central beliefs of Islam.[1] These central beliefs consist of the five pillars (ibadat): (1) shahada (declaration of Islamic faith); (2) salat (prayer); (3) zakat (almsgiving); (4) sawm (fasting); and (5) hadj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. From the very beginning, the main principles of Islam – the Koran, the Sharia, authority of Islamic scholars, mosques, sufism and pelgrimages to Mecca – have always been held essential in the muslim world.[2]

Around the year 1000 A.D. the life of Indonesians began to change due to the increasing influence of trade and increasing number of travelling merchants. Trading merchants brought the teachings of Islam to the ports of Indonesia. These ports functioned as important meeting places between foreign traders (Islamic merchants from Arabia, India and China) and the local community. Soon the poets of the Royal Court also came in contact with Islamic scholars. In the time before the arrival of Islamic scholars at the Royal Court, Indonesians were already familiar with worshipping of one God, which clearly resembled ancient Hindu and Buddhist devotion practice as based on Indian beliefs. Through these forms of practice they recognized the spiritual potential of realizing the mystical unity between servant and master. Thus, some key aspects of Islamic creed were in itself not entirely new to the Indonesian population’s understanding of religious concepts as previously applied in their uniquely combined practice of Hindu and Buddhist teachings.

Through continuous trade contact with India the religious leaders in the Indonesian archipelago became aware of the Islamic versions of some of the most prominent religious concepts as taught in India in the time. And so, during the 13th, 14th and 15th century, Indonesians sailed out to Indian ports, which they visited in order to sell their goods. On their arrival they witnessed the booming trading activity in Indian ports, and saw how succesful tradesmen shared their wealth with Islamic scholars, and provided financial support for the mosques. Over time the Indonesian merchants established connections with influential Islamic tradesmen and their leaders (sultans). Hence, Indonesian merchants received financial support from Indian sultans to start building mosques in Indonesian society as well, through which the Arabic web of civilization and trade network could expand even further. In the nineth century the first Arabic merchants arrived at Sumatra, where they trade their goods which were then taken to China. Later, in the thirteenth century some of the very first major trade centers in the Indonesian archipelago were established here by Arabic merchants.

After the establishment of important sea trade routes at Pasai and Malakka, the first Islamic states started to appear along the North coast of Java in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. The expansion of muslim settlements in Javanese ports allowed people the opportunity of continuous access to the teachings of Islam. In this way, the Javanese became more and more familiar with muslims, their customs, and their religion. Because of this, the first converts to Islam were the people living near the ports, since they were the ones who lived side by side with the islamic community. From this time onwards, for a period of three hundred years the religion of Islam steadily increased its presence in the Indonesian archipelago, and ultimately came to dominate life in Javanese society.


[1] Driessen, H., 1997: ‘In het huis van de Islam‘. Nijmegen/Amsterdam: Uitgeverij SUN; pp. 107-115.

[2] Driessen, H., 1997: ‘In het huis van de Islam‘. Nijmegen/Amsterdam: Uitgeverij SUN; p. 125.

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