Malay Islamic identity
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Malays were originally animists who believed that everything possessed a semangat (spirit). Around the time of the coming of the Christian era, Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism were introduced to the Malay Archipelago by Indian traders, where they flourished until the 13th century and the arrival of Islam brought by Arab, Indian and Chinese Muslim traders.
In the 15th century, orthodox Sunni Islam flourished in the Malay world under the rule of the Malacca Sultanate. In contrast with Hinduism, which had only a superficial effect on early Malay society, Islam took root in the hearts and minds of the people.
Islamization of the Malays
The period of the 13th and 14th centuries saw the arrival of Islam and the rise of the great port-city of Malacca on the southwestern coast of the Malay peninsula — two major developments that altered the course of Malay history.
Islam began arriving on the shores of what are now the states of Kedah, Perak, Kelantan and Terengganu, from around the 12th century. The earliest archaeological evidence of Islam from the Malay peninsula is in the form of an inscribed stone dating from the 14th century found in Terengganu state, Malaysia.
By the 15th century, the Malacca Sultanate, whose hegemony reached over much of the western Malay archipelago, had become the centre of Islamization in the east. The Malaccan tradition was handed down from generation to generation and fostered a vigorous ethos of Malay identity. During this era, the Islamic faith became closely identified with Malay society and played a significant role in defining the Malay identity.
In 1511, the city of Malacca fell to Portuguese conquistadors. However, Malacca remained an institutional prototype as a paradigm of statecraft and a point of cultural reference for successor states such as the Johor Sultanate (1528–present), the Perak Sultanate (1528–present) and the Pahang Sultanate (1470–present).
Across the South China Sea, another Malay realm, the Brunei Sultanate (1363–present) was growing into a trading port that rivalled Malacca. Brunei reached its golden age in the mid 16th century when it controlled land as far south as present day Kuching in Sarawak and north towards the islands of the Philippines.
Islam as ethnoreligious identity
Following this era, the Malays traditionally had a close identification with Islam and it has remained their religion ever since. Such identification is so strong to the extent that to become Muslim, it was said, was to masuk Melayu (to become Malay); those who gave up Islam rejected his/her Malay identity.
Nevertheless, strongly-rooted earlier beliefs have held their ground against the anathemas of Islam. The mysticism of Shia Islam, which tends to be contested by traditionalist Sunnis, has become intertwined among the Malays, with the spirits of the earlier animistic world and some elements of Hinduism also present.
Following the 1970s Islamic revival (also referred as re-Islamization) throughout the Muslim world, many traditions that contravene the teaching of Islam and contain elements of shirk (idolatry or polytheism), were abandoned by the Malays. Among these practices was the mandi safar festival (Safar bath), a bathing festival intended to achieve spiritual purity that contains some features similar to those of the Durga Puja festival celebrated in India. and the worshipping of Datuk Keramat. Ironically, the minority community of Malaysian Chinese now worship these spirits in line with their Taoist concept of local gods and goddesses. The Datuk Keramat are known in Chinese as Na Tuk Kong.
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