Maneuver in the narrative space: Lessons from Islam Nusantara
January-March 2018
By: C Holland Taylor

In 1293, Kublai Khan sent a large punitive expedition against the Hindu/Buddhist Singhasari dynasty, based in Java, which had replaced the kingdom of Srivijaya as the dominant maritime power in the Malay archipelago and refused to acknowledge Mongol suzerainty. Small vassal states throughout the archipelago, including many along the coasts of Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, quickly submitted to Kublai Khan’s maritime expedition, which was commanded by a Hui general and consisted primarily of Hui and ethnic Chinese soldiers. Although the Mongol expedition ultimately ended in defeat and disgrace at the hands of Raden Wijaya, founder of the Majapahit dynasty, it helped set in motion a process whereby, over the next two centuries, political power in the East Indies – and, hence, the official state religion – gradually shifted from Hindu/Buddhist to Muslim polities. It is noteworthy that the first Muslim state in present-day Indonesia was established in 1297, when the ruler of Pasai, in northern Sumatra, converted to Islam.

This process accelerated dramatically a century later, when the Yongle emperor of the Ming dynasty, who came to power with Muslim support and whose mother was said to be descended from Hui Muslims, dispatched a massive Chinese naval expedition to Southeast Asia led by a Hui admiral named Zheng He (aka “Cheng Ho”). Zheng He was the great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajal Shams al-Din Omar, a Persian who served in the administration of the Mongol empire and was the governor of Yunnan during the early Yuan dynasty. Zheng He’s grandfather was a hajji, a Muslim who had performed the pilgrimage to Mecca.

In 1405, Zheng He visited northern Java on the first of seven Chinese naval expeditions to Southeast Asia, India, Arabia and East Africa during the next 28 years. These expeditions, each comprising hundreds of ships and crews numbering more than 20,000, many of them Hui Muslims, were ostensibly commercial and diplomatic in character, yet also constituted an overwhelming display of force by the Ming dynasty, which was sufficient to permanently transform the political and religious dynamics of the East Indies. The expeditions’ immediate impact was to stimulate trade, destabilize the Hindu/Buddhist Majapahit empire, which claimed suzerainty over the Malay archipelago, and accelerate the process of Islamization throughout the region. That these results were intentional is suggested by the fact that Zheng He not only shielded a rebellious minor principality in Melaka, whose ruler converted to Islam in 1414, from Majapahit retribution, but also transformed the regional balance of power by designating Melaka as the primary base of the Chinese fleet in Southeast Asia and its commercial entrepôt.

Zheng He is also reported to have established an Overseas Chinese Bureau, based in Champa (present-day central and southern Vietnam), to govern diaspora Chinese in Southeast Asia and project strategic influence throughout the region. The bureau was controlled by Hui Muslims, handpicked and appointed by Zheng He himself, who encouraged diaspora Chinese to embrace Islam, financed the construction of mosques for Chinese communities and favored Chinese Muslims in the awarding of contracts for trade and service at his armada’s many ports of call. This impetus for ethnic Chinese to embrace Islam was heightened by the access conversion provided to international trade networks dominated by Arab, Indian, Chinese (Hui) and Malay Muslim traders.

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