Prominent Religious Figures in Brunei History (15th to 18th Century)


Prominent Religious Figures in Brunei History (Part 1)
by Rozan Yunos

There are two short roads leading to the Arabic Secondary School near the Batu Satu area at Jalan Tutong. The roads are named Pehin Dato Perdana Menteri Sheikh Haji Abd Rahman and Pehin Dato Perdana Menteri Sheikh Haji Abd Halim. The many people who drove past these road signs everyday probably have no idea who they were. It is not surprising. Not many people know who the prominent religious figures in our Islamic history were and not much has been written about them.

One of the major publication in this area was a book published by the Brunei Museums in 1992, more than 24 years ago. It was entitled ‘Tokoh-Tokoh Agama di Brunei Darussalam: Pengenalan Ringkas’ or ‘Prominent Religious Figures in Brunei Darussalam: A Short Introduction’. The book was compiled by a few writers who were assisted by a number of Brunei Islamic Scholars and senior officers of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

The book was divided into two parts. The first part consisted of prominent religious figures from the 15th to 18th centuries and the second part consisted of religious figures born in the 19th century. The book also contained a substantive introduction which can easily become a third part, that is about the history of the spread of Islam to Brunei and the role of the religion in Brunei’s society and administrative system.

It is not known when Islam first appeared in Brunei Darussalam. Though generally by 1376 AD, local historians accepted that Awang Alak Betatar accepted the Islamic faith with his marriage to the princess of Sultan Johor (Sultan Iskandar Shah Tumasik). Awang Alak Betatar became Sultan Muhammad. It was the third Sultan, Sultan Sharif Ali which spread the religion further. He built a mosque which had a seven layer roof structure believed to be around the Kota Batu area.

The main evidence of the spread of Islam in Brunei was through the design of the ‘batu nisan’ or grave markers or gravestones marking the graves of the religious figures. These were in general elaborately designed with Muslim motifs and carved with Arabic and Jawi lettering. One of the earliest was a gravestone belonging to a Chinese Muslim Pu Kung Chih Mu dating back to 1264 AD. The others included the princess of Sultan Abdul Majid (who died in China) dated 1402 AD and Syarif Hud who died in 1499 AD. In Tutong, one of the earliest Muslim graves was dated 1561 AD.

Among the prominent figures responsible for spreading Islam in Brunei in the early 15th centuries were Sultan Syarif Ali and Syarif Mu’faqih. Syarif Ali came from Taif in today’s Saudi Arabia in 1370. He was a descendant of Prophet Muhammad through the Prophet’s grandson, Sayidina Hassan bin Ali bin Abi Thalib.

Sultan Syarif Ali married Sultan Ahmad’s princess and on the demise of Sultan Ahmad in 1425 AD, he ascended the throne and became the third Sultan of Brunei. It was during his reign that the spread of Islam was said to have taken place widely in Brunei Darussalam. Up to now he was known as ‘Sultan Berkat’.

Another Muslim preacher during the same time period was Syarif Mu’Faqih and most probably assisted Sultan Syarif Ali in spreading Islam in Brunei. He was also known as Syarif Alwi Ba Faqih and also came around 1375 AD. Many of the Syarifs who came to Brunei during those times came to teach the Quran and the Islamic laws to the local people. The Bruneians then were very respectful to the Syarifs who came from the Middle East and they were considered as ‘Wali Allah’ and ‘Keramat’. Syarif Mu’Faqih left behind a special supplication (doa) as told by Allahyarham Begawan Mudim Dato Paduka Haji Abu Bakar bin Mohd Salleh who lived in Kampong Kiulap.

Another Muslim scholar who came to Brunei was Sheikh Adam. He was not known in the Brunei history but was identified when his gravestone was discovered in Kota Batu. He died in 1454 AD. It is widely believed that he was among a number of Muslim preachers who came during the time of Sultan Syarif Ali. Another was Syed Abu Bakar who was said to have stop over in Brunei in 1450 AD on his way to Sulu. In 1515 AD, another Muslim preacher, Zainal Abidin the son of Syarif Ali came over from Malacca. Several other gravestones have been found in Rangas with one not so legible other than the words ‘Al-Syeikh’.

In 1932, T.F. Carey writing in an article published in the Royal Asiatic Society journal wrote about ‘The Two Early Muslim Tombs in Brunei’ who noted that another Muslim preacher was buried in Brunei. He was Syarif Hud. Carey wrote that ‘in the year of Hijra 905, Syarif Hud died returning to the Mercy of Allah on 20 Rabiulawal Monday and was buried in the morning’. The year 905 Hijra is the year 1499 AD. Unfortunately that gravestone had not been discovered since then.

Another figure identified through the gravestone was Sulaiman bin Abdul Rahman. He died in 1418 AD and his gravestone was carved in both Arabic and Sanskrit. Sanskrit was the predominant language of the time before Jawi took over influenced by the Arabic script.

There were a number of other Muslim preachers who did their work in the regions under the control of Brunei. These included Syarif Jaafar in Lingga, Syarif Sabudin and Syarif Sahib in Sadong; and Syarif Mollana in Melaka.

In the latter centuries, among the prominent religious figures in Brunei was Imam Yaakub. Imam Yaakub was responsible for keeping the history of the Sultans of Brunei from the first Sultan Muhammad up to Sultan Muhammad Tajuddin. These were later carved on the Genealogical Tablet. According to Yang Berhormat Pehin Datu Seri Maharaja Dato Paduka Seri Setia Ustaz Dr. Haji Awang Abdul Aziz bin Juned, the State Mufti writing in Beriga (1987) a Dewan Bahasa Pustaka Brunei publicaton, Imam Yaakub came to Brunei around 1680 AD during the reign of Sultan Muhyddin. He came from Macassar and studied in Makkah before coming to Brunei.

The final prominent figure identified born before the 19th century, was Maulana Pengiran Haji Abdul Momin bin Pengiran Sabtu. Maulana Pengiran Abdul Momin was from Kampong Pengiran Siraja Muda. According to Allahyarham Pengiran Dato Haji Abas bin Pengiran Aliuddin, Maulana Abdul Momin studied in Makkah in the early 1800s. He married an Arab when he studied there.

The prominent religious figures born in the 19th century will be dealt with in a separate article.

/End of Article (Part I)


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