In a geopolitical context, the term has been used interchangeably with the Javanese concept of Nusantara and the colonial term for the Malay Archipelago. It has been more broadly defined as a region, homeland of the Austronesian people that extends "from the Easter Islands in the east to Madagascar in the west",. However, these wider definitions of the Malay world remained controversial and criticized for their primary derivation from the anachronistic concept of a Malay race.
In a cultural sense, the Malay world refers to the homeland of ethnic Malays that was historically ruled by various Malay sultanates in Maritime Southeast Asia. This area includes the Malay peninsula, the coastal areas of Sumatra and Borneo, and the smaller islands in between.
Portuguese historian Emanuel Godinho de Erédia's 16th century account says the early phase of the Malay world began with the consolidation of Laut Melayu ("Malay sea") under Melakan dominance in the 15th century. The area Erédia called the "Malayos sea" covers the Andaman Sea in the north, the entire Malacca Strait in the centre, a part of Sunda Strait in the south and the western South China Sea in the east. The region was generally described as a Muslim centre of international trade, with Malay language as its lingua franca.
|“||...starting point by the Island of Pulo Catay in the region of Pattane (Pattani), situated in the east coast in 8 degrees of latitude, the pass round to the other or western coast of Ujontana (Malay peninsula), to Taranda and Ujon Calan situated in the same latitude in district of Queda (Kedah): this stretch of territory lies within the region of "Malayos" and the same language prevail throughout.||”|
Erédia's description indicates that Laut Melayu was a geo-religio-sociocultural concept, a concept of geographical unity characterized by the common religious belief and cultural features. This was strongly attested when the notion of Malayness and the common Malay identity based on Islam began taking shape during the Melakan era. The subsequent expansion of Melakan commercial and religious influence beyond this cultural border had resulted in the early stage of Malayisation process, heavily marked by the spread of Classical Malay language, Islam and Malay customs. This assimilation process continued and intensified even after the demise of Melaka in the early 16th century. The post Melakan era saw the rise of numerous Melakan-modelled Malay sultanates in a larger geographical sphere of the region, ranging from the small sultanates like Asahan, Deli, Langkat and Serdang, to the powerful imperial sultanates like Brunei, Johor and Pattani. The emergence of these sultanates resulted in a broader Malay cultural and commercial influence and the eventual expansion of the Malay world.
The strong Malay cultural and linguistic diffusion in the region as observed by the European scholars during colonial era, would later became the basis for the construction of several anthropological, geographical and linguistic terms. Among the examples are the concept of Malay race, the name Malay Archipelago for the region, and several linguistic terminologies such as Malayo-Polynesian languages and Malayic languages. These xenisms have been very influential in shaping various modern views on the extent of the "Malay world".
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- Mohamed Anwar Omar Din (2011). "Asal Usul Orang Melayu: Menulis Semula Sejarahnya (The Malay Origin: Rewrite Its History)". Jurnal Melayu, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. p. 31. Retrieved 2012-06-04.
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- Milner, Anthony (2010). The Malays (The Peoples of South-East Asia and the Pacific). Wiley-Blackwell. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-4443-3903-1.
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- Mohamed Anwar Omar Din (2011). "Asal Usul Orang Melayu: Menulis Semula Sejarahnya (The Malay Origin: Rewrite Its History)". Jurnal Melayu, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. pp. 31–34. Retrieved 2012-06-04.
- Ooi, Keat Gin (2009). Historical Dictionary of Malaysia. Scarecrow Press. p. 181. ISBN 9780810863057.
- Tirtosudarmo, Riwanto (2005). "The Orang Melayu and Orang Jawa in the ‘Lands Below the Winds". Centre for research on inequality, human security and ethnicity. Retrieved 2010-06-21.