Can Islamic Art from Southeast Asia properly be considered Islamic?
by Michael Backman
Islamic art from Southeast Asia barely features in most major public collections. It is a grievous omission. And the
major auction houses generally only include it in their Islamic art auctions because they’ve misidentified it as Mughal,
Middle Eastern or Ottoman. And yet, around 70% of the world’s Muslims do not live in the Middle East or anywhere
near it. Instead they live east of Karachi. Furthermore, the world’s largest Islamic country population-wise is in
Southeast Asia: Indonesia, with around 215 million Muslims.
The rich Islamic art of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, southern Thailand, and the southern Philippines is
generally ignored yet the trading and migration links between Southeast Asia and the rest of the world are extensive
and go back centuries. Marco Polo was the first to inform Europe of the existence of the Islamic sultanates in northern
Sumatra in 1292. The artistic traditions that arose in Southeast Asia are firmly within the Islamic ascetic and in some
respects adhere to the aesthetic even more closely than elsewhere. In others, pre-existing Hindu and Buddhist artistic
traditions were incorporated into the new Islamic oeuvre to provide a syncreatic blend.
Southeast Asian contact with the Islamic world commenced not long after the death of the Prophet. Islam came to
Southeast Asia not directly from the Middle East but from India and China via trade routes. But not just merchants
introduced the new faith. Sufis arrived too on the trade ships to proselytise. But the influence was two-way. It was
extensive and dynamic. By the eighteenth century, Malay became a lingua franca of ports from Persia to the
Philippines. Many Arabic words were incorporated into Malay. Traders from Persia settled in Siam and Persian words
entered the Thai language too.
Key wealthy trading ports arose in Southeast Asia that were firmly committed to Islam. Aceh, Banten, Brunei and
Patani were the most prominent. Dozens of sultanates and royal courts arose including those of Patani, Kedah, Perlis,
Riau, Deli, Aceh, all with rich Islamic cultural histories that showed clear influence from the Ottoman empire and the
Middle East. A local version of Arabic evolved, called jawi, which allowed for Malay to be written in Arabic form.
Aceh, in the northern tip of Sumatra, was an early convert to Islam. Its rulers professed to Islam by the 13th century.
And by the 16th century, Aceh was the ‘gateway to Mecca’ for Southeast Asia’s Muslims; it was where they gathered
before they left on boats for the Holy Land. It also became an important centre for Islamic study.
Aceh developed close trading links with Surat in India, largely because Surat was one of the fixed stations for people
travelling on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Mughal elements were introduced into Acehnese architecture and from there
such elements spread to the rest of Southeast Asia.
Malacca on the Malay peninsular had been the most important Islamic sultanate in the region but it fell to the
Portuguese in 1511. Thereafter, Aceh grew in power and status. It adopted Ottoman-like court protocol and was very
keen to demonstrate its position in the broader, international Islamic community.
It entered into a formal diplomatic relationship with Turkey in the 16th century. Turkey provided troops, weapons and
ships that the Acehnese needed to constrain the growth of Portuguese influence in their region that had commenced
with their capture of Malacca. The Portuguese had already captured Malacca on the Malaysian peninsular. Acehnese
diplomatic missals at the time were written in Arabic including one sent to the English Queen Elizabeth I in 1585 in
which the Sultan of Aceh introduced himself thus: “I am the mighty ruler of the Regions below the wind, who holds
sway over the land of Aceh and over the land of Sumatra and over all the lands tributary to Aceh, which stretch from
sunrise to sunset.” In 1873, the Acehnese requested Turkish military assistance again, this time to help propel the
Dutch. The axis was pan-Islamic: between Islamic Turkey and Islamic Aceh. Many missions were sent to the Ottoman
Caliph and the Turkish population of Aceh grew to the hundreds and possibly thousands. Aceh and the other
Southeast Asian sultanates did not see themselves as outposts on an Islamic periphery but very much part of the
international Islamic community.
The position of Malay art in the wider body of Islamic art is insufficiently appreciated. Islamic art is fundamental to
Malay art essentially because Islam and its art are inseparable. Islam after all is not a religion so much as a complete
social code with rules of conduct in all spheres of daily life. Usefully the Islamic appreciation for beauty and the
aesthetic run parallel with the traditional Malay appreciation for such things. And of course, there is the very long
history of commercial and cultural exchange between Islamic Southeast Asia and the rest of the Islamic world.
Backman, M., The Asian Insider: Unconventional Wisdom for Asian Business, (revised edition), Palgrave Macmillan,
Bennett, J., et al, Crescent Moon: Islamic Art & Civilisation in Southeast Asia, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2005.
Reid, A., Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450-1680, Volume One: The Lands below the Winds, Silkworm
© Michael Backman