The Formation of Kingdoms (Part 1)

Written By Dinda Revolusi on Sabtu, 19 Februari 2011 | 17.55

The historical sources available on the early history of Islam in the archipelago have led historians to conclude that Samudra Pasai was the first Islamic state to emerge in the areas in the late thirteenth century.1 This conclusion is based on evidence supplied by the gravestone of Malik al-Saleh, the first Muslim ruler of Samudra Pasai, which is dated 1297.2 This opinion corresponds to the story provided in the Hikayat Raja-Raja Pasai, in which Malik al-Saleh is described as the first ruler of the state to convert to Islam. 

The Hikayat relates that Merah Silu—the previous name of Malik al-Saleh—once had a dream that he met the Prophet Muhammad who asked him to recite the profession of the faith (kalimah syahadah). The Prophet then named him Malik al-Saleh. From that moment, Merah Silu converted to Islam with the title ’Sultan’. In addition, the story credits Malik al-Saleh as having built a palace in Samudra, an area in the northern part of Sumatra, as the centre of the kerajaan (Hill 1960: 55-7; Jones 1979: 129-57).

The case of Samudra Pasai presented a phenomenon—the integration of Islam, trade, and politics—that came to be a salient feature of the early history of Islam in the archipelago. The conversion of Samudra Pasai’s ruler to Islam coincided with the process of its formation of becoming a kingdom. Malik al-Saleh converted to Islam not long after assuming power and transformed Samudra Pasai into a leading Malay Islamic state that reached its peak in the fourteenth century.

Included in this pattern of state formation was the kingdom of Malacca. The travel accounts of Tome Pires demonstrated that Malacca emerged as an important state in the fourteenth century, alongside its becoming increasingly attractive for trade enterprises and in turn surpassing Samudra Pasai in importance. Some Muslim merchants, especially Persians as well as Bengalis and Arabs, moved from Samudra Pasai to Malacca. Iskandar Shah, the ruler of Malacca, welcomed the merchants with open arms, providing them with facilities for both economic and religious activities (Pires 1944: I, 240-1). On the advice of the ruler of Samudra Pasai and the ‘ulama (mollah), who had settled in Malacca during his reign, Iskandar Shah himself converted to Islam at the age of seventy-two (Pires 1944: I, 241-2).

A similar process also applied to the formation of the Acehnese kingdom in the sixteenth century. The Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511, which resulted in the dispersal of the Asian trade network, provided Aceh with opportunity to become a major trade centre. The Muslim merchants in Malacca moved and settled in Aceh, and—as in the cases of Samudra Pasai and Malacca—contributed to the making of Aceh as a leading trading centre in the Asian trade network. Ali Mughayat Shah (r.1514-30) was the first ruler to lay the foundations for the development of Aceh as a powerful Islamic state in the seventeenth century (Lombard 1986: 8-17; Ricklefs 2001: 62-9).

The dispersion of the trade network also led northern coastal areas of Java (pesisir) to become more involved in the long distance trade in the sixteenth century. The Muslim merchants, who formed a leading social elite, contributed to the transformation of the trading centres of the areas into Islamic states. They formed a “Muslim middle class” (de Graaf and Pigeaud 1985: 26-27), which altered their accumulated economic strength into political power. The Islamic principle of egalitarianism—unlike the caste system of Hindu-Buddhist—created a strong social solidarity among the merchants, and paved the way for their integration into the local communities (Wertheim 1956: 193-6). Hence, the Muslim communities increasingly grew in the pesisir, and the economic and political power came into their hands, while the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Majapahit in the interior of Java declined.

Demak is the first Javanese kingdom to emerge in the latter sixteenth century, marking the beginning of the Islamic period in Javanese history. Raden Patah, most likely a Chinese Muslim merchant, became its first ruler.3 Demak developed extensively during the reign of its third ruler, Trenggana (r. c. 1505-18 and c. 1521-46). He conquered the capital of Majapahit in Kediri in c. 1527 (de Graaf and Pigeaud 1985: 58-67), signalling the establishment of Islamic political power in Java and thus replacing the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom.

Other kingdoms that were of special importance are Banten and Cirebon in West Java. The establishment of these two kingdoms is closely associated with Sunan Gunug Jati (d. c. 1570), a respected‘ālim and one of nine Javanese walis.4 Nurullah, Sunan Gunung Jati’s previous name, began his career as a political advisor for Trenggana. He is said to be the main actor behind Demak’s military expansion to take control of Banten from the local lord of Pajajaran. Not long after, around 1552, he moved to Cirebon to extend Islamic political power on the north coast of Java. Here, he ruled Cirebon as another Islamic kingdom, and established it as a centre for the spread of Islam to the areas of West Java (Ricklefs 2001: 42-3; de Graaf and Pigeaud 1985: 138-50).

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