Iskandar Muda (1583? – December 27, 1636) was the twelfth Sultan of Aceh, under whom the sultanate achieved its greatest territorial extent, and was the strongest power and wealthiest state in the western Indonesian archipelago and the Strait of Malacca. "Iskandar Muda" literally means "young Alexander," and his conquests were often compared to those of Alexander the Great. In addition to his notable conquests, during his tenure Aceh became known as an international center of Islamic learning and trade.
The Youth of Iskandar Muda
The future Iskandar Muda was born in about 1583. His father was Mansur Syah, a grandson of Sultan Alauddin al-Kahar. His mother Puteri Raja Inderabangsa was the daughter of Sultan Alauddin Ri'ayat Syah Sayyid al-Mukammal. Through his parentage he therefore combined the two branches of the Acehnese sultan's dynasty. His childhood and youth are described at great length in the Hikayat Aceh which extols his personal qualities. He was known under a number of names and titles, especially Perkasa Alam which was also the name he used after his accession ("Iskandar Muda" is however not a posthumous name as sometimes suggested since it occurs on his coins). In about 1605 he fell out with his uncle, Sultan Ali Ri'ayat Syah III and fled to Pidië where another uncle, Husain, was the vassal ruler. Together they planned rebellion against Sultan Ali. Perkasa Alam was put in command of the Pidië troops, but in the end they refused to fight and Perkasa Alam was imprisoned by the sultan. However, when the Portuguese invaded Aceh in 1606 he was let out of prison and distinguished himself in the fight against the "infidels". The invasion force was beaten back and withdrew and Perkasa Alam rose in esteem at the court. When Sultan Ali suddenly died on 4 April 1607, Perkasa Alam was able to secure the throne on the same day. He imprisoned his other uncle Husain and later had him killed.
The successes of Iskandar Muda were based on his military strength. His armed forces consisted of a navy of heavy galleys each with 600-800 men, a cavalry using Persian horses, an elephant corps, conscripted infantry forces  and more than 2000 cannons and guns (of both Sumatran and European origin). Upon gaining power, he began consolidating control over northern Sumatra. In 1612 he conquered Deli, and in 1613 Aru and Johor. Upon the conquest of Johor, its sultan, Alauddin Riayat Shah III, and other members of the royal family were brought to Aceh, along with a group of traders from the Dutch East India Company. However, Johor was able to expel the Acehnese garrison later that year, and Iskandar Muda was never able to assert permanent control over the area. Johor further built an alliance with Pahang, Palembang, Jambi, Inderagiri, Kampar and Siak against Aceh.
Iskandar Muda’s campaigns continued, however, and he was able to defeat a Portuguese fleet at Bintan in 1614. In 1617 he conquered Pahang and carried its sultan Ahmad Syah to Aceh, and thus achieved a foothold on the Malayan peninsula. This conquest was followed by Kedah in 1619, in which the capital was laid waste and the surviving inhabitants were brought to Aceh. A similar capture of Perak occurred in 1620, when 5,000 people were captured and left to die in Aceh. He again sacked Johor in 1623 and took Nias in 1624/5. At this point Aceh’s strength seriously threatened the Portuguese holding of Melaka. In 1629, he sent several hundred ships to attack Melaka, but the mission was a devastating failure. According to Portuguese sources, all of his ships were destroyed along with 19,000 men. After this loss, Iskandar Muda launched only two more sea expeditions, in 1630/1 and 1634, both to suppress revolts in Pahang. His sultanate maintained control over northern Sumatra, but was never able to gain supremacy in the strait or expand the empire to the rich pepper-producing region of Lampung on the southern part of the island, which was under the control of the sultanate of Banten.
Economy and administration
The economic foundations of the sultanate was the spice trade, especially in pepper. The conflicts between Aceh and Johor and Portuguese Melacca, as well as the numerous pepper-producing ports in the sultanate's domain, were the main causes of the military conflict. Other major exports included cloves and nutmegs, as well as betel nuts, whose narcotic properties bypassed the Muslim prohibition of alcohol. Exports, encouraged by the Ottoman Sultans as an alternative to the "infidel" (i.e. Portuguese)-controlled route around Africa, added to the wealth of the sultanate. Iskandar Muda also made shrewd economic decisions that supported growth, such as low interest rates and the widespread use of small gold coins (mas). However, like other sultanates in the area it had trouble compelling the farms in the hinterland to produce sufficient excess food for the military and commercial activities of the capital. Indeed, one of the aims of Iskandar Muda’s campaigns was to bring prisoners-of-war who could act as slaves for agricultural production.
One reason for Iskandar Muda’s success, in contrast to the weaker sultans who preceded and succeeded him, was his ability to suppress the Acehnese elite, known as the orang kaya ("powerful men"). Through the royal monopoly on trade, he was able to keep them dependent on his favor. The orang kaya were forced to attend court where they could be supervised, and were prohibited from building independent houses, which could be used for military purposes or hold cannons. He sought to create a new nobility of “war leaders” (Malay language: hulubalang; Acehnese: uleëbalang), whom he gave districts (mukim) in feudal tenure. After his reign, however, the elite often supported weaker sultans, in order to maintain their own autonomy. He also sought to replace the Acehnese princes with royal officials called panglima, who had to report annually and were subject to periodic appraisal. An elite palace guard was created, consisting of 3,000 women. He passed legal reforms which created a network of courts using Islamic jurisprudence. His system of law and administration became a model for other Islamic states in Indonesia.
Iskandar Muda’s reign was also marked by considerable brutality, directed at disobedient subjects. He also did not hesitate to execute wealthy subjects and confiscate their wealth. Punishments for offenses were gruesome; a French visitor in the 1620s reported "every day the King would have people’s noses cut off, eyes dug out, castrations, feet cut off, or hands, ears, and other parts mutilated, very often for some very small matter." He had his own son Merah Pupok killed, and named his son-in-law, the son of the captured sultan of Pahang, as his successor, Iskandar Thani.
During Iskandar Muda’s reign, eminent Islamic scholars were attracted to Aceh and made it a center of Islamic scholarship. Iskandar Muda favored the tradition of the Sufi mystics Hamzah Pansuri and Syamsuddin of Pasai, both of whom resided at the court of Aceh. These writers' works were translated into other Indonesian languages, and had considerable influence across the peninsula. Both were later denounced for their heretical ideas by Nuruddin ar-Raniri, who arrived in the Aceh court during the reign of Iskandar Thani, and their books were ordered to be burnt.
The chronicle Hikayat Aceh ("The Story of Aceh") was probably written during the reign of Iskandar Muda, although some date it later. It describes the history of the sultanate and praises Iskandar Muda in his youth. It was apparently inspired by the Persian Akbarnama for the Mogul Emperor Akbar. The Hikayat Aceh described Iskandar Muda as a scion of the lineage (nasab) and race (bangsa) of Iskandar Zulkarnain, Alexander the Great. Through this statement the hikayat presented Aceh as a part of the Malay world, since Iskandar Zulkarnain was the purported ancestor of the Melaka, Johor, Perak and Pahang rulers.
Among the Acehnese, Iskandar Muda is revered as a hero and symbol of Aceh’s past greatness. Posthumously he was given the title Po Teuh Meureuhom, which means "Our Beloved Late Lord", or "Marhum Mahkota Alam".
He has several buildings and structures in and near Banda Aceh named after him, including the Sultan Iskandarmuda Airport and Sultan Iskandar Muda Air Force Base. Kodam Iskandar Muda is the name of the military area commands overseeing Aceh Province.
- World Book article, accessed January 4, 2007
- Yusra Habib Abdul Gani, Sultan Iskandar Muda, accessed on January 4, 2007
- Being 32 (Muslim) years in 1613; see Lombard, 168.
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- Ricklefs, 34
- Barwise and White, 115
- Barwise and White, 115. Ricklefs (p. 34) dates this conquest in 1620.
- Ricklefs, 34-35
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- Ricklefs, 51.
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- The Hikayat Aceh is translated into German in Penth, 61-178.
- Andaya, 123-4.
- Barwise and White, 117.
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- Raden Hoesein Djajadiningrat. 'Critisch overzicht van de in Maleische werken vervatte gegevens over de geschiedenis van het soeltanaat van Atjeh', Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 65, pp. 135-265.
- Denys Lombard. Le sultanat d'Atjéh au temps d'Iskandar muda, 1607-1636. Paris: École francaise d'Extrême-Orient.
- Hans Penth. Hikajat Atjeh: Die Erzählung von der Abkunft und den Jugendjaren des Sultan Iskandar Muda von Atjeh (Sumatra). Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1969.
- M.C. Ricklefs. A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1300, 2nd ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Ali Ri'ayat Syah III
|Sultan of Aceh