The golden history of Islam in Brunei

A man with his son heading to Jame Asr' Hassanil Bolkiah to attend the Friday prayers. Muslim men are obligated to participate in Friday prayers, also known as Jumu'ah. Pictures: BT/Rudolf Portillo and Raul Padernal

Monday, March 8, 2010

IT has been debated when Islam actually first arrived in Brunei. A number of relics showed that Islam could actually be practised in Brunei by the 12th century.

Amongst these were tombstones found in the various Islamic graveyards in Brunei particularly the one at Rangas which showed one with a Chinese Muslim by the name of Pu Kung Chih-mu. He was buried there in 1264. This is more than a hundred years earlier before the conversion of Awang Alak Betatas as the Islamic Sultan Muhammad Shah, the first Sultan of Brunei.

Pu is the common surname which according to Chinese historians identified them as someone who is a Muslim. The tombstone also identified Pu Kung Chih-mu as one who had originated from Chuan-chou City in China. During the Sung Dynasty, Arab and Persian Traders flocked to the Kwang Chow (Canton) in Kwangtung Province and Chuan-chou in Fukien Province.

It was not the only Chinese Muslim grave there. In another grave nearby belonged to another Chinese Muslim by the name of Li Chia-tzu from Yung Chun (Fukian) who died in 1876. Yung Chun is also another city in China where Muslim travellers frequently trade.

According to Chinese records, stated in the "Notes on the Malay Archipelago and Malacca Compiled From Chinese Sources" written by WP Groeneveldt in 1880, one Chinese Islamic trader arrived in Brunei in the 10th century. His name was P'u-lu-shieh. He was both a trader and a diplomat. SQ Fatimi writing in the Sociological Research Institute in Singapore in 1963 under an article entitled "Islam Comes to Malaysia", P'u-lu-shieh name is akin to Abu al-Layth.

The Brunei King at that time was named Hiang-ta. The arrival of the diplomat-trader from China was greeted with great ceremony. If this is so, Islam has actually arrived in Brunei in the year of 977.

One may discount the fact that the Muslim diplomat-trader did not do anything in Brunei but merely brought greetings and therefore one should not read too much into this. However the interesting thing was that the Brunei King's delegation to China to return the Emperor's greetings was headed by another Muslim by the name of P'u A-li (Abu Ali).

Based on this fact alone, Abu Ali must have held an important position in the Brunei Government if he was tasked to be Brunei's Ambassador in those days and even if the King of Brunei then was not himself a Muslim, some members of his royal court were Muslims.

A number of European historians claimed that Brunei was still not a Muslim nation until the 15th century. However, the Ming Shih, Book 325, a Chinese reference book noted that the King of Brunei in 1370 was Ma-ho-mo-sa. Some say that this should be read as Mahmud Shah. But local Brunei historians take this to refer to "Muhammad Shah" the first Islamic Sultan of Brunei.

Robert Nicholl, a former Brunei Museum Curator argued in another paper entitled "Notes on Some Controversial Issues in Brunei History" in 1980 that the name Ma-ho-mo-sa could be pronounced as Maha Moksha which means Great Eternity. Maha Mokhsa would make it a Buddhist name. Nicholl goes on to argue that even the Brunei Sultan who died in Nanjing in 1408 was not a Muslim. Another European Historian, Pelliot, Ma-na-jo-kia-nai-nai was reconstituted as Majarajah Gyana (nai). But the closest title would have been Maharaja Karna. However Brunei historians have stated that the King was Sultan Abdul Majid Hassan who would have been the second Sultan of Brunei.

Nicholl further argued that Sultan Muhammad Shah converted to Islam as late as the 16th century and not during the 14th century as is widely known. However according to Brunei historians, Sultan Muhammad Shah converted to Islam in 1376 and that he ruled until 1402. After which time, it was Sultan Abdul Majid Hassan, who died in China who ascended the throne. That was when Sultan Ahmad reigned in Brunei beginning 1406.

Most likely there were two waves of Islamic teachings that came to Brunei. The first was brought by traders from Arabia, Persia, India and China. The second wave was brought about by the conversion of Sultan Muhammad Shah. With the coming of the second wave, Brunei's Islamisation hastened.

!The propogation of Islam in Brunei was led by a Syarif with the name of Syarif Ali who was a descendant from Rasulullah S.A.W. through his grandsons Sayydinia Hassan or Sayydinia Hussin.

Syarif Ali arrived from Taif. Not long after he arrived in Brunei, he was married to a daughter of Sultan Ahmad. Syarif Ali built a mosque in Brunei. Syarif Ali was closely connected to a few other well known Islam propogationist in the region such as Malik Ibrahim who went to Java, Syarif Zainal Abidin in Malacca, Syarif Abu Bakar or Syariful Hashim in Sulu and Syarif Kebungsuan in Mindanoa.

Syarif Ali ascended the throne as the third Sultan of Brunei when he took over from his father-in-law. Because of his piousness, he was known as Sultan Berkat (Berkat means 'blessed').

The mosque especially the pulpit was used by Sultan Syarif Ali himself. Sultan Syarif Ali himself conducted the sermons during Friday prayers. So he was not only the Sultan but he was also the Imam and brought the religion directly to the Brunei people.

According to Thomas Stamford Raffles in his book "The History of Java", the Islamic activities of Sultan Syarif Ali was not limited to Brunei. He was also known to have gone over to Java to propagate Islam where he was known as Raja Chermin. He tried hard to convert the Majapahit King named Prabu Angka Wijaya.

The efforts of the Brunei Sultans in spreading Islam helped to spread Islam not only in Borneo but also as far north as to the southern Philippines islands. When Malacca fell to the Portuguese in 1511, it was Brunei which played a major role in the spread of Islam in the region.

By the 16th century, Brunei had built one of her biggest mosques. In 1578, Alonso Beltran, a Spanish traveller described it as one of five storeys tall built on the water. Most likely it had five layers of roofs to represent the five pillars of Islam.

Islam was firmly rooted in Brunei by the 16th century. This mosque was unfortunately destroyed by the Spanish in June that same year.

By the time of Sultan Hassan, Brunei's ninth Sultan, Brunei had the Islamic laws incorporated into the Brunei canons. Pengiran Dato Dr Hj Mohammad writing a Malay article entitled "Kemasukan Islam ke Brunei Darussalam dan Undang-Undangnya" (Arrival of Islam in Brunei Darussalam and the Laws) noted that out of the 47 chapters of the Brunei canons, 27 of those chapters had Islamic elements.

Islam lived on in Brunei till today and with the Constitution in 1959, Islam became Brunei's Offical Religion.

The writer runs a website on Brunei at bruneiresources.com.

The Brunei Times


Feel free to comment on this article using your Facebook account. By submitting your comment, you agree to the Terms and Conditions for the use of this comments feature, as stated here.