Zheng He and Islam in Southeast Asia

A statue of admiral Zheng He in Melaka, Malaysia. Picture: Agency

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

SOME ninety years prior to the expedition of Italian navigator Christopher Columbus to the New World, on July 11,1405, Chinese explorer Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) set sail to explore the known world for the first time by order of the emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

In the early 15th century, the Ming dynasty had built one of the most powerful fleets in history. Comprising 62 junks and 100 lesser vessels and carrying almost 30,000 men, Zheng He accomplished a total of seven great naval expeditions. He crossed the seas to the Western Oceans from China to the western part of Archipelago, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and reached the east coast of Africa.

The voyages covered a total of 160,000 nautical miles or more than 296,000km, visiting more than 50 places and countries and opening up over 41 international shipping lines.

Zheng He's great naval voyages enriched the world's geography and pushed the sciences of navigation to levels never known before.

In addition, Zheng He's voyages were also aimed at setting up close and friendly diplomatic relationship, developing cultural and trade exchanges, as well as establishing and strengthening maritime communications with other countries.

Humble origins

Zheng He was born in 1371 from the nationality of Chinese Hui. His original name was Ma He or Ma San Bao. After living in the western region of China, his ancestors had moved and settled in Kunming, Yunnan.

One of his ancestors was known as Zaidinsyeh Shamsuddin, a prince of Xian Yang of the Yunnan province during the Chinese Yuan Dynasty.

Looking on his family name of Ma, Zheng He obviously was a Muslim. His family adhered to Islam for generations. His great grandfather, Bay-An, his grandfather, Charameddin, and his father, Myrikyn were "Hajis", meaning that they had performed the Haj pilgrimage in Mekah.

He rendered his service to Prince Yan, who later became Emperor Yungle of the Ming dynasty. He successfully won battles throughout the country. Therefore he was conferred upon "Top Court Eunuch of Great Influence" with surname "Zheng". After Emperor Yungle, he later serve under the next two Ming emperors.

During his voyages, his fleet visited many Asian and African countries, including the kingdoms of Brunei, Melaka, Java (Semarang and Surabaya), Palembang, Aceh in Sumatra, Pontianak (West Kalimantan), Sri Lanka, and Jeddah and Mekah in Hijaz.

Ma Huan, Zhen He's Muslim interpreter and writer who mastered Arabic and had accompanied him during his expeditions, wrote chronicles on the social life and customs of local communities he encountered in ports they visited. He recorded them in his book "The Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores" written in 1416.

In his expeditions, Zheng He was accompanied by a number of officials who were also Muslims. At the time when his fleet first arrived in Melaka, there were already Chinese Muslims living there. Ma Huan called them "tángrén". The similar communities they met were also living in other ports such as in Semarang and Surabaya in Java. At their ports of call, they actively promoted the spread of Islam, established Chinese Muslim communities and built mosques.

According to an acclaimed Indonesian philologist Slametmuljana, Zheng He established Chinese Muslim communities, first in Palembang, then in San Fa (West Kalimantan), and subsequently he founded similar communities along the northern parts of Java, the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines. They propagated Islam according to the Hanafi school of thought (madzhab) in Chinese language.

In 1430, Zheng He had already successfully established the foundations of the Hui religion Islam. After his death, Haji Yan Ying Yu became the leading man behind the Chinese Muslim community overseas, and he delegated a few local Chinese as leaders, such as trader Sun Long from Semarang, Peng Rui He and Haji Peng De Qin. Sun Long and Peng Rui He actively urged the Chinese community in "Javanisation".

They encouraged the younger Chinese generation to assimilate with the Javanese society, to take on Javanese names and way of life. Sun Long's adopted son Chen Wen, also named Radin Patah, is the son of last King of Majapahit and his Chinese wife. Chen Wen is believed by some historians to be the same Raden Fatah who had a Chinese mother and was a student and/or cousin of Sunan Ampel (one of Walisongo, the nine Muslim saints who promoted Islam in Java in 15th and 16th centuries) and was the first Sultan of Islamic sultanate of Demak.

In Surabaya, some 300km east of Demak, Ma Hua categorised communities in the city in three groups. He observed that one of the groups was Muslim community who lived in clean and healthy life style compared to the two other groups.

Prof Dr Hamka, an influential Indonesian Muslim scholar, once said in 1961 that "the development of Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia is closely related to a Chinese pious Muslim, who is none other than Admiral Zheng He".

Besides that Zheng He gave high respect for temples and places of worship of other religions. The Galle Trilingual Inscription stone tablet, erected by Zheng He around 1410 in Sri Lanka, records details about contributions of gold, silver, and silk that he made at a Buddhist mountain temple. Meanwhile, a commemorative pillar at the temple of the Taoist goddess Tian Fei, the Celestial Spouse, in Fujian province, records details about his voyages.

After his death, Chinese naval expeditions were suspended. The Hanafi madzhab that Cheng Ho and his people propagated lost almost all contact with Islam in China, and gradually was totally absorbed by the local Shafi'i madzhab.

When Melaka was successively colonised by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and later the British, Chinese were discouraged from converting to Islam. Many of the Chinese Muslim mosques, including in Singapore and Semarang (Java) became San Bao (Sam Po Kong) Chinese temples (viharas) commemorating Zheng He. After a lapse of 600 years, the influence of Chinese Muslims in Melaka and other places declined to almost nil.

Maritime dedications

Zheng He had dedicated his whole life to navigation, pioneering and linking up "the Silk and Ceramic Roads on the Ocean". He had strengthened the mutual understanding and friendly relationship between China and the Western countries, pushed forward and promoted the economy of various cities in South and Southeast Asia to prosperity.

In 2005, a mosque with Chinese architecture named "Masjid Cheng Ho" was officially open in Surabaya.The Construction Committee of Cheng Ho Mosque of Surabaya in the Indonesian province of East Java wrote in its brochure (2003): "Eunuch Sanbao's success in going west, which he made 600 years before, will live up to his reputation in history and spread far and wide forever."

The Brunei Times