Malaysia is a multiracial country with a population that currently stands at 28 million, of which approximately 60 percent are Muslims. Islam is constitutionally the country’s official religion, with the freedom to practise other religions. The Shariah Law in Malaysia is only applicable to Muslims and is used to resolve conflicts relating to creed and family matters.
Malaysian Muslims generally follow the Shafi’e school of thought. Mosques are part of the ordinary scene in Malaysia and are as much a cultural icon as a religious one. It is also the norm to hear the azan (call to prayer) on loudspeaker five times a day. On Fridays, government offices and banking institutions are closed for two hours during lunchtime for the Friday prayers.
Islam is an integral part of the Malaysian Malay culture, so much so that many Islamic rituals and practices are associated with the Malay culture. Many words in the Malay vocabulary are borrowed from Arabic words, such as ‘dunia’ and ‘haram’. It is also quite common to see Malay women here donning the hijab or headscarf.
Malaysia was a prime centre of trade and commerce since the 10th century CE. Back then, ancient Malay kingdoms within the northern region of the peninsula were still under Buddhist and Hindu influence.
It is believed that Islam first arrived in Malaysia sometime between the 13th and the 14th century CE, via Arab and Indian-Muslim traders. At this time, the religion was embraced by only a select few. Islam became widespread in the region with the arrival and conversion of Parameswara, a Hindu prince and Singapore’s last king, who had established the Sultanate of Melaka in the 15th century CE. During its heyday in the 15th century CE, Melaka became a renowned hub of Islamic studies. Islam continued to flourish in the peninsula during the 15th and the 16th century CE, which greatly influenced the Malay lifestyle and culture as can be seen until today.
The earliest evidence of the arrival of Islam in Malaysia was discovered in Terengganu, in the form of an ancient inscribed stone locally referred to as ‘Batu Bersurat’. Dated 1303 CE, the stone tablet with Jawi (Romanised Arabic) script on it stands as proof that Islam had arrived in the east coast region of the peninsula long before Parameswara embraced Islam.
Other evidence of the arrival of Islam in Malaysia include a 15th-century tomb and three inscribed pillars in Pengkalan Kempas, Negeri Sembilan, as well as intricately carved grave markers known locally as ‘Batu Aceh’, which can be found in most states in the peninsula. The stones’ shapes and inscriptions provide important clues to the early history of Islam in the country.