Shafi`i Sunnis dominate the Malay-Indonesian world, including Singapore, southern Thailand, and the southern Philippines. Shafi`is also constitute the majority of southern India’s Muslim population, a fact that is of historical relevance to the Islamization of Southeast Asia. Persia, too, was one of the centers of Shafi`i Sunni scholarship prior to the establishment there of Twelver Shi`ism as the “religion of state” in 1501 under the Safavid dynasty.

Yet there is also a Shi`i presence in Southeast Asia, and it is not simply a result of post-1979 events in Iran. It is rooted in a historical trajectory, especially of Islamic mysticism, or Sufism.

Pre-nineteenth-century Southeast Asian (especially Malay-Indonesian) Islam is seen as rather mystically inclined, displaying Sufi and Shi`i elements though maintaining a veneer of “orthodox” Sunnism. Beginning in the early 1800s, Southeast Asian Islam followed a different, more legalistic, course. Improved means of communication with more frequent and affordable travel opportunities to the Sunni centers of learning in the Middle East, particularly Egypt and Arabia, accelerated the already ongoing purge of Malay Muslim literature of its more “heterodox” elements and resulted in a rejection of a significant part of its heritage.

Early or “proto”-Shi`ism is said to have been present among the Cham people, an ethnic Malay minority in what is now Cambodia and Vietnam, from as early as the seventh century CE, that is, during the formative period of Islam. This rather surprising feature should be considered within the context of Southeast Asia’s favorable geographical location along the major maritime trade routes between East Asia—China in particular—and the wider Indian Ocean/Middle Eastern region.

Read moreover, when considering the history of Islam in the eastern Indian Ocean region and the eastern archipelago, as well as the place of Shi`ism within this context, the role played by lingua franca also becomes apparent. In the course of Islamic history, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Malay (not to mention several other lingua franca in Africa) were major tools that communicated the message of Islam to a multiethnic and multilingual audience.

Persian obtained such a position in Central Asia and on the Indian subcontinent, and Persian was also to have a place in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago. Persian thus became the transmitter for a less legalistic-minded, mystically and philosophically inclined form of Islamic religiosity in the eastern, non-Arab lands of twelfth and thirteenth-century pre-Mongol Persia and Central Asia, as well as India and farther east. The devastating Mongol invasions of the Middle East (including Persia and Central Asia) and the subsequent establishment of kingdoms of Mongol and Turkic ethnic and cultural background strengthened this trend toward the development of a distinctive Islamic culture in the East. The trend extended to India and Southeast Asia.

Persian also became the lingua franca in the Indian Ocean trading world. A Persian-speaking merchant community was present in Malacca, the Malay Muslim sultanate and trade emporium that lasted from the early fifteenth century to 1511, at which time it was conquered by the Portuguese. Although Malacca was at least nominally a vassal of Siam, which claimed suzerainty over the entire Malay Peninsula, it was able to establish itself as the foremost power in the archipelago, giving the propagation of Islam in the region a vigorous new impetus.

The spread of Islam in Southeast Asia happened mainly by way of the southern and western Indian trade emporia, that is, by sea. Muslims had certainly visited Southeast Asia relatively early as traders coming from the Middle East and India. The large-scale Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, particularly Sumatra and parts of Java during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, was further advanced by Arab traders from the Hadhramaut in Yemen (southern Arabia), as well as by merchants from southern India, areas in which Shafi`i Sunnism was prevalent. Many of the arriving Muslim merchants and preachers of Islam were affiliated with one or more of the leading mystical orders[1] then en vogue in the Middle East and India. In the archipelago, Islam was often propagated in the garb of a mysticism imbued with the ideals of sainthood[2] as expounded by classical Persian Sufism. These tendencies met and blended with local folk beliefs and even shamanistic elements from the region’s pre-Islamic period. Persian influences also manifested themselves in the Malay language, whether classical or modern.

Along with Persianate Sufism, Shi`i elements, too, entered Malay-Indonesian Islam, certainly by way of southern India, where it was well represented. However, we should bear in mind that the connotation “Persian Islam = Shi`ism” that might come to one’s mind when thinking today of Iran was not apparent in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, although Shi`i undercurrents in Sufi literature existed always. Read moreover, Shi`ism encompassed at that time a rather wide variety of branches, such as those belonging to the Isma`ilis.

From a cultural point of view, Shi`i influences are also manifest in the Muslim literatures of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago and have been studied in depth by several Western and Indonesian scholars. Shi`i influences on Islamic religious thought in Southeast Asia are substantial with regard to the Aceh sultanate, which was able to proceed to a dominant position in the Straits after the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511 caused the latter’s peninsular Malay successor states to lapse into a period of isolation.

The presence of a Twelver Shi`i Persian-speaking community in the Ayutthaya kingdom (modern Thailand) also had several long-term effects on Southeast Asian culture. Persian loanwords are discernible in the vocabulary of the Thai or Siamese language, into which they might have entered from the sixteenth century and the Ayutthaya period onward. King Narai is said to have been taken with Persian cultural influences in terms of his daily food and dress. These influences even extended to seventeenth-century Siamese architecture and mural painting, and, above all, to Siamese royal etiquette and court customs.

The end of the Ayutthaya kingdom in 1767 also resulted in the end of Persian cultural as well as Shi`i dominance among its Muslims. However, the descendants of some of the original Iranian and Persian-speaking merchants—members of the Bunnag, Siphen, and Singhseni families—continued to be in positions close to the throne into the twentieth century.

The current “revival” of Shi`ism among formerly Sunni Muslims in Southeast Asia—Twelver  Shi`ism, in particular—is a relatively recent phenomenon emerging from the Iranian Revolution of 1979. In Iran, the dictatorial regime of the Shah was equated with its backer, the United States, which was viewed as the “Great Satan” for its exploitation of the country’s natural resources and corruption of the local culture. The erosion of Islamic values, combined with the moral and financial lassitude of the ruling elite, fomented a groundswell of anger against the Shah.

The unexpected success of Khomeini’s revolution stirred a sense of Islamic empowerment across Muslim communities all over the world, including in Southeast Asia. There was, however, a significant constraint in Iran’s ability to export its brand of Shi`i Islam to Southeast Asia since most Muslims in the region belong to the Sunni variant of the faith. Nevertheless, the successful establishment of a purist Islamic theocracy in Iran inspired a new sense of confidence in the power of Islamic identity and the strength of Islam to mobilize the masses. In addition, Khomeini’s triumph fostered a wave of Islamic activity in the Sunni world as well, especially since it galvanized Saudi Arabia to aggressively promote Wahhabi beliefs in competition with Iran. Under the dual influence of Khomeini’s example and Saudi Arabia’s rich sponsorship, Muslims in Southeast Asia developed a growing sense of identification with the larger community of believers and an increasing acknowledgement of the new ideological developments in the Middle East.

This contribution is part of the Middle East-Asia Project at the Middle East Institute.


[1] Arabic plural: tariqat or turuq, singular: tariqa.

[2] In Arabic, wilaya; in Persian, velayat.