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Southeast Asian region comprises the territories of three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. Contrary to a common belief that the Middle East has the highest number of Muslim citizens in the world, Southeast Asia is not only the region most densely inhabited with Muslims; it also includes the country with the biggest Muslim population, Indonesia. There are various theories to explain the spread of Islam in this region, such as trade and Sufi missionaries. In this region, Islam was adopted and spread in different ways and thus its manifestation may significantly differ from the rest of the Muslim world. This essay provides an analysis of the spread of Islam in the Southeast Asian region.

Southeast Asia in General

Southeast Asian region lies at the cross-roads of some of the world’s most important shipping lines. Consequently, it has been providing free access to other parts of the world for hundreds of years and thus a large number of people, such as Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta, Arabian, Indian and Chinese traders visited the area . Thus, the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia has been the subject of debate for many years. While some authors attempt to establish the exact time on the spread of Islam in SE Asia, others, such as McAmis, for instance, argue that it is impossible to define the date when the religion developed in the region. Additionally, some authors explain the spread of Islam in the region as a result of maritime commerce and presence of Muslim traders from Indian and China. By contrast, other scholars argue that Arab traders and missionaries might have been the most responsible for the Islamization of the region. However, it is vital to mention that in SE Asia, Islam was established mostly through peaceful cooperation. Ibrahim, Siddique, and Hussain explain that the religion was first instilled in the Malay Peninsula. Although it encountered considerable resistance from the dominant Buddhism in Thailand, the religion continued spreading up to the southern Philippines. In a few centuries, Muslims constituted the majority of people inhabiting Southeast Asia, which according to Ahmad indicates that Islam widely spread in spite of geographical and ethnic complexities of the region and the existence of other religions in the area.

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Spread of Islam in the Malay Peninsula

The Malay Peninsula was the starting point of the spread of Islam in the region. The City of Melaka was one of the first regions in the peninsula inhabited by Muslim inhabitants. Furthermore, the first Muslim institution that was ruled by a Sultan up to the arrival of the Portuguese colonists was established in the city. In some places in the world, Islam spread as a result of conquest. However, there is no evidence of any military conquest by Muslims in this region. Consequently, it can be inferred that the spread of Islam in this the Malay Peninsula was defined by other factors.

The scholars typically distinguish two factors that contributed to the spread of Islam in the region. The first causative factor is the trade relations with Islamic countries. Thus, Muslim traders frequently came to the region on business trips. Ahmad suggests that the region has always had close contact with sailors. Therefore, the scholar argues that Islam might have been introduced in the peninsula as early as 674 A.D. Muslim merchants, who settled in the peninsula for trading purposes, encouraged the spread of Islam through intermarriage with local women. Moreover, conversion of many of the ruling princes to the faith also facilitated its spread among the local population. The second factor responsible for Islamization of Southeast Asia is the impact of Sufi missionaries. As argued by Ahmad, proselytization by Sufis from Bengal also played a significant role in the spread of Islam in this region. However, some historians doubt the proselytization claim in the early spread of Islam, crediting it to the rapid zealous conversion of Indians to Islam in the late fourteenth century.


After the establishment of Islam in the Malay Peninsula, the religion spread to Java and the surrounding islands. According to Ahmad, Muslims might have been in Java as early as the end of the eleventh century . Similarly to the Malay Peninsula, Islam was first spread in Java by Muslim traders . Since the thirteenth century, the area had extensive contacts with traders from Bengal and the neighboring islands such as the Malay Peninsula. Being located between China and Arabia, Java was laying on an important trade route. Therefore, there existed a possibility that some Muslim traders and emissaries crossed this region in their trade with China. With the establishment of trade relations and settlement of Muslims, the contact between Muslims and the local people eventually led to religious conversion over several centuries. However, some historians speculate that Muslim Sufis might have played the major role in the conversion of the local population. Before the spread of Islam, the dominant religions in the region were Buddhism and Hindu.

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The Philippines

Introduction of Islam in the Philippines is not very different from that of the Malay Peninsula and Java. In the Philippines, the introduction of Islam was a result of international trade, which entailed trade with the Arab North Africa and China. Muslim traders had already known about the Philippine islands of Sulu and Mindanao by the tenth century. By the end the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, both islands were frequently visited by Muslim traveler. Historians have explained that after the local ruling elite adopted Islam for trading and political purposes, it spread among the rest of the population. Moreover, the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century, who had an objective to convert the locals into Christianity, spurred the local Muslims to proselytize Islam, which explains an upsurge in the number of Muslims in the sixteenth century. There is also historical evidence suggesting that Sufis were also involved in the conversion of people in the Philippines to Islam.

Adoption of Islam to Cultural Practices of the Region

Religions have to adapt to local customs and culture both in terms of practice and interpretation. In the Malay Peninsula, there seems to have been a strong religious and political system based on Hinduism and Buddhism before the emergence of Islam. However, conversion to Islam did not present a dramatic religious shift, with many cultural and religious practices still maintained by the Malay people after their conversion. In Java, there also existed a strong Hindu and Buddhist tradition, which Islam had to penetrate before being established as a dominant religion. Islam is unique to the region, and although it is similar in some ways to that in South Asia and Arabian Peninsula, it is not merely an extension of those regions . Consequently, Java did not witness sweeping changes in culture, but rather experienced a gradual cultural and religious shift from Hinduism and Buddhism to Islam. In other words, coexistence of the culture of the region with Islam predated the spread of the religion in the region , . This led to the development of homegrown Islam, which is sometimes considered less than orthodox. Moreover, Islam has also had an impact on the social and political life, including political organization.

In the Philippines, Islam brought a new religious view, especially in the southern part of the country. However, the new religion fused with local customs and traditions, with some of the local practices being considered Islamic while they were not. The religion also introduced a new political system in the island, which faced strong resistance from some traditional chiefs. Independent and semi-independent traditional chiefs used to rule the region, but the advent of Muslim sultans, who emphasized absolute authority, appeared to restrict their power. Moreover, Muslims then faced the challenge of the coming of the Christian Spaniards, who started converting local people to Catholicism.

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The success of Islam in the Region

In the various parts of SE Asia, the religion had different degree of success among the local people. In Java, Islam has the largest number of adherents. High prevalence of the religion in Java can be explained by the fact it was among the first places in the region to have the traders from Muslim lands due to its location. Moreover, the religion developed unabated in the region, slowly displacing and incorporating what had been Hindu and Buddhist traditions of the area to form not only an overwhelming majority in the region, but also the largest Muslim community in the world. In the Malay Peninsula, Islam also had success in gaining converts, ultimately comprising the majority of people in the country.

Unlike in the other two regions, where the majority of people are Muslims, in the Philippines Islam did not have such success. The religion confined itself to the southernmost part of the islands, those that are closest to the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia. Moreover, unlike in the other two regions, Islam failed to widely spread in the islands before the advent of Europeans. Thus when the Spaniards came to the Philippines in the sixteenth century, their missionaries converted the majority of people in the north of the country. Consequently, Muslims now constitute a minority of in the country.

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Comparison of the Experiences

Southeast Asia has many similarities regarding conversion of people to Islam. First, it is apparent that across the three areas Islam was combined with the local practices to form a religion that is unique to those areas. Secondly, trade played an important role in the propagation of Islam in the region, with traders from as far as Arabia and Bengal facilitating the spread of the religion. Moreover, Sufism is also a relevant factor in the spread of Islam in this region. Lastly, the top-down conversion, where the political leaders would convert first and their constituents would follow, seems also to be similar for all the three areas of the region.

However, there are also some differences in the experience of Islam in this region. First, in the Malay Peninsula and Java, the majority of people converted to Islam. By contrast, in the Philippines, the minority of people are Muslims. Secondly, Islam seems to have spread fast to the rest of the Malay Peninsula and Java and continued spreading even after the advent of Europeans. On the other hand, in the Philippines, colonization by the Spaniards spelled the end of the expansion of Islam towards the north. Consequently, unlike in the Malay Peninsula and Java, Islam in the Philippines had to compete with another global monotheistic religion, Christianity, before it fully established in the major part of the country.

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The essay analyzed the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia. As it is apparent, most of the region lies at the shipping lanes from Arabia to China, which resulted in a great number of travelers visiting the region since time immemorial. Some of them were Muslim traders who helped spread the Islamic faith in this region. Sufis and in some cases missionaries from other Muslim areas such as Arabia also played a significant role in the conversion. However, due to the peculiarities of the area, Islam was adopted the local cultural and religious beliefs, which is why some scholars do not consider it orthodox Islam. The degree of success of Islam in the region also differs. Thus, in the Malay Peninsula and Java, Islam succeeded to form the majority of the population and failed to gain such overwhelming support in the Philippines.