Brunei, the First Southeast Asian Muslim Kingdom?


Brunei, the First Southeast Asian Muslim Kingdom?
By Rozan Yunos

When did Islam come to Brunei? Most western historians argued that Brunei Darussalam only began to accept Islam in the 16th century, that is, after the fall of the Malacca Sultanate in 1511. A number of historians such as K.G. Tregonning in his book ‘From Earliest Time to 1511’ (1957), D.G.E. Hall in his book ‘Sejarah Asia Tenggara’ (1979), J.F. Cady in his book ‘South East Asia: Its Historical Development’ (1963) and Nicholas Tarling in his book ‘South East Asia: Past and Present’ (1966) all wrote that Brunei replaced Malacca as the new centre to spread the teachings of Islam.

Robert Nicholl in his book published by the Brunei Museums entitled ‘European Sources for the History of the Sultanate of Brunei in the 16th century’ (1975) compiled a number of European sources which also suggested that the Brunei Sultanate was still not a Muslim nation during the early 16th century.

Pengiran Dato Seri Setia Haji Mohammad bin Pengiran Haji Abd Rahman, the former Minister of Religious Affairs in his book entitled ‘Islam di Brunei Darussalam’ (1992) noted that the western historians did not seem to take into account that Islam had spread widely in Southeast Asia even before the 16th century. Gravestones found in Brunei indicated that Muslims had been buried in the cemeteries with the stones dating a few centuries earlier than the 16th century date.

One of the earliest known was a Chinese Muslim by the name of Pu Kung who died in 1276 A.D. Therefore there must be a Muslim community in Brunei which enabled him to be buried as a Muslim when he died. This according to Pengiran Dato Seri Setia Haji Mohammad is not impossible. He noted that the evidences in a number of places in Southeast Asia that showed Islam was already being accepted much earlier. In Leran, East Java a gravestone bearing the name of Fatimah binti Maimon Hibatullah was found dated 1082 A.D., in Champa, Vietnam, a gravestone belonging to Abu Kamil Ahmad was dated 1039 A.D., and in Pasai, it was a gravestone belonging to Sultan al-Malik al-Saleh dated 1297 A.D.

An article which recently came to light in support of this was found in a book published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2000 entitled ‘The Silk Roads Highways of Culture and Commerce’ which contained a small selection of papers from the international seminars organized during UNESCO Silk Road expeditions.

One of the articles was written by a Chinese scholar by the name of Chen Da-sheng entitled ‘A Brunei Sultan of the Early Fourteenth Century: A Study of an Arabic Gravestone’ which comprised Chapter 8 of the book.

We are very fortunate that the paper was included as Brunei at that point in time was not a member of UNESCO. Chen Da-sheng sailed on the expedition ship the Fulk-al-Salamah visiting several countries including Brunei. Chen Da-sheng was from Quanzhou and he was interested in the gravestone of Pu Kung who was also from Quanzhou. During his visit he visited the various cemeteries in Brunei.

In his research he was attracted to an article in the Brunei Museums Journal (1987) where two former senior Museum officials Metassim bin Haji Jibah and Suhaili bin Haji Hassan wrote about ‘Tomb of Maharaja Brunei’ which was found at the Dagang Cemetery at Jalan Residency. He was very surprised that the undated gravestone was very similar to the gravestones that had been found in Quanzhou.

Quanzhou was an important trading harbour during the Song Dynasty. The Ashab Mosque or the Qingjing Mosque is a mosque found in Quanzhou constructed in 1009 A.D. and this remained as the oldest Arab style mosque in China. In the city, there is also the Yisalangjiao Sheng Mu or Islamic Holy Graves built on the Ling Shan, the mountain of spirits on the East of Quanzhou city. The Yisalangjiao Sheng Mu graves are the resting places of early Islamic missionaries of the 7th century.

Chen Da-sheng immediately recognised that the gravestone belonging to the Emperor of Brunei was similar to the Muslim gravestones that were once used in Quanzhou and he deduced that the gravestone in Brunei was made in Quanzhou as the material for the gravestone which was ‘diabase’ was not found in Brunei. Diabase or also known as dolerite is a subvolcanic rock similar to volcanic basalt.

The front of the gravestone had Arabic inscriptions and these were translated to read:

This tomb belongs to the late matyr
Sultan, a learned and just man
a protector and conqueror. He was called
Maharaja Bruni. Forgive him
Allah with His grace and Pleasure
May Allah bless
Muhammad and all his descendants

The back of the stone had this engraving:

Every soul must taste
of death, and ye shall only be paid your hire
upon the resurrection day
But he who is forced away from the fire

This stone was not dated and neither was the king who died identified other than as the Maharaja Brunei. As such, this king could not be cross referenced to the royal genealogy of the Sultans of Brunei; and the genealogy began with Sultan Muhammad said to reign from 1363 A.D.

Chen Da-sheng noted that in Quanzhou, when excavations were made of these ancient Muslim graves, the majority of gravestones were made from diabase. In the 1920s and 1930s, a great number of these gravestones were excavated when the ancient wall of Quanzhou was demolished. The current collection of Arabic and Persian stones inscriptions of the Quanzhou Foreign Maritime Museum is the richest of all museums in China.

After studying and cross referencing with the gravestones that had been recovered in Quanzhou, Chen Da-sheng discovered that the inscriptions on the Brunei gravestone were very similar to another gravestone belonging to Fatimat bin Naina Ahmad who died in Quanzhou in 1301 A.D. Chen Da-sheng believed that the two stones were inscribed by the same people as the writings were identical. No other similar stone has been found in Brunei. Upon discussion with the Brunei Museum officials, it was also confirmed that all the inscriptions for subsequent Sultans were written in Jawi with the exception of this gravestone which was written in Arabic.

With regard to the age, Chen Da-sheng explained that the Muslims in Quanzhou were massacred after they lost a war known as the Ispah Rebellion in 1366 A.D. and the winning army killed all the Muslim population they could find. After 1366, it was very hard to find any Arabic inscriptions on any gravestones in Quanzhou. The few that could be found in the outlying villages are different in style, shape and paleography.

Chen Da-sheng argued that based on the facts above, this provided evidence that the Muslim kingdom established in Brunei was certainly during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. In Chen Da-sheng words, “the Arabic gravestone of Sultan Maharaja Brunei presented evidence that a Muslim kingdom already existed in Brunei about A.H. 700 (A.D. 1301). It sheds new light on the study of the early history of the Muslim kingdoms established in Brunei and even in Sumatra.”

 If this is true, and supported with the written records of the Boxer Codex, this mean that the official date when the first Brunei Muslim Sultanate of 1376 A.D. needed to be adjusted, and that Brunei could be one of the early Malay Muslim kingdoms or there is even the possibility that Brunei could even be the earliest in the Southeast Asian region. Currently Pasai in Sumatra is considered to be the earliest Muslim kingdom because a gravestone belonging to Sultan al-Malik al-Salleh dated 1297 A.D. was found there. Who knows when exactly did the Brunei Muslim Sultanate began? It could be earlier than that of Sultan al-Malik al-Salleh.

In the original publication in The Brunei Times, the name Pu King was printed as Pu Kung Chih Mu. I have been told that is wrong as Pu Kung Chih Mu means the Tomb of Master Pu (Pu Kung = Master Kung, Chih Mu = tomb of). This Master Pu has been identified as Pu Zongmin which matched correctly with a written account preserved in China about Pu Zongmin who was sent to Brunei and later died here and left two sons Ying and Jia.


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