On the Relationship between Cheng Ho and Islam in Southeast Asia

Kong Yuanzhi

 From 1405 to 1433, during his seven expeditions overseas, did Cheng Ho participate in spreading Islam? While there is no relevant record in historical archives in China, many records and tales in Southeast Asian countries demonstrate well that Cheng Ho did help the spread of Islam there. However, do these records and tales really match the historical facts? The questions above merit further discussion, because answering them can help us understand the expeditions more completely and because Cheng Ho’s role in the development of Islam in Southeast Asia constitutes an inseparable part of the cultural exchange between China and Southeast Asia. In the following sections, the author will mainly focus on the discourses of foreign scholars on Cheng Ho’s role in diffusing Islam through Southeast Asia, and will also express his view on the issue.

 Islam in Southeast Asia before the 15th century

In order to better understand and explore Cheng Ho’s activities in relation to the diffusion of Islam in Southeast Asia, it is necessary to briefly introduce the background of Islam in the region. Where and when did Islam first reach Southeast Asia? According to B.W. Andaya, a New Zealand scholar, and Ishii Yoneo, a Japanese scholar, “it was in northern Sumatra, closest to India and the Islamic heartlands, where Islam established its first beach-heads” in Southeast Asia. 1According to Ensiklopedi Indonesia, Islam was first introduced in the 13th century to the northern part of Sumatra via merchants from Persia and from Gujarat in Western India. 2 This reasoning is based on the fact that on the gravestone of the first king in kerajaan Samudra Pasai, who died in the year 1297, is carved “Sultan Malik As Salih” and some other words indicating his Islamic belief. 3 Moreover, the gravestone was imported from Cambay, situated in Gujarat. This shows that Islam was introduced to Kerajaan Samudra Pasai from Gujarat in 1292 or 1297 at the latest. Many scholars support this point of view.

 Other scholars hold, however, that in the 7th and 8th centuries, some Arabian merchants went to Northern Sumatra, doing business while spreading Islam. 4 Meanwhile, some Muslims in Indonesia contend that Islam was first introduced to Indonesia from China. For example, Abdurrahman Wahid, the chairman of Nahdatul Ulama, who was also the president of Indonesia from October 1999 to July 2001, once claimed that Islam was first diffused to the Indonesian archipelago by Chinese Muslims. 5 Professor Dr. Nurcholish Madjid, a well-known scholar on Islam in Indonesia, introduces a third view, i.e., that Islam may have spread to Indonesia from the Indian subcontinent or southern Arabia via the Chinese continent. 6 Some even hold that it came from Yunnan province, China. 7 Moreover, some scholars think Islam may have been introduced by two separate groups: Muslims from Champa in the east and Muslims from India in the west. 8 This article will not focus on the views mentioned above, as these will be further elaborated in another article.

According to historical archives, Kerajaan Samudra Pasai was established as the first Islamic kingdom in Sumatra in the 13th century and became the center of Islam in the region. In 1292, when Marco Polo, an Italian explorer, was returning from China to Italy, he made a stopover in northern Sumatra and discovered that many residents there had converted to Islam. 9 When writing about the Perlak kingdom, he said that Muslims always visited and preached there, teaching the natives to believe in Islam. He noted that such beliefs were limited to city dwellers. 10

Early 17th-century Chinese woodblock print, thought to represent Zheng He's ships
Early 17th-century Chinese woodblock print, thought to represent Zheng He’s ships

According to historic records, it is highly likely that by the 7th and 8th centuries, Muslim merchants from Arabia, Persia, and India reached Sumatra. For example, in western Sumatra, there is a gravestone dating back to as early as 674 BC. 11 And the gravestone of Fatimah binti Maimum bin hibat Allah, a female Muslim who died in 1082, was discovered in a village near Gresik in eastern Java. 12 However, some hold that this gravestone was brought there later. In any case, “even if the date is genuine, the inscription does no more than indicate the presence of an Arab, or Persian, there in about 1100. There is no evidence of the spread of Islam to that region until long afterwards.” 13

These facts show that there were Muslims in Indonesia before the 13th century. However, there is no convincing evidence of Islamic communities or kingdoms before that. We can say that the first Islamic kingdom, Samudra Pasai, and the first Islamic settlement, a lot near Lhokseumawe in Aceh Utara, both appeared in the second half of the 13th century. 14 However, even this does not demonstrate that Islam had spread to all of Sumatra. Writing about places near Samudra Pasai, such as Tamiang and Lambri, in his Travels of Marco Polo, Marco Polo called the residents idol (image) worshippers, or non-Muslims, noting that idol worshipping is forbidden in Islam.

Thus, it is safe to say that Islam was introduced to and established in Indonesia in the second half of the 13th century. The process from initial introduction in Sumatra to the wider spread of the religion to islands such as Java and Kalimantan would take centuries.

In the case of Malay Peninsula, the earliest record of Islam is carved on an epitaph discovered in Terengganu. However, the date is hardly identifiable because of the ravages of time. 15 According to The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, this epitaph “records a royal order to local officials… to uphold the Islamic religion and the teachings of the apostle of Allah, [and] has a hijra date… between 702 and 789 AH (1303 and 1387 CE).” Hall, a British scholar, wrote that this stone might be a boundary sign between the Islamic region and the war zone, and that the epitaph suggests that the natives had not yet accepted the new religion. Hall notes Ibn Battuta’s testimony that between 1345 and 1346, the ruler in Malay Peninsula was a non-Muslim and concludes that “Actually there is little evidence suggesting the spread of Islam to the Peninsula before the fifteenth century.” 16

However, in Champa in Indochina, there are two tombs of Muslims dating back to the early 11th century. Van Leur also wrote that an Arab gravestone dating to 1039 was discovered in Champa. However, again according to The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, “only from the thirteenth century is there clear proof of local adoption of the Muslim religion. Even then Islamic influence was confined to scattered ports along coastal trading route”. 17

Before the 13th century, there were not only the above-mentioned tombs, but also those of Chinese Muslims, which can be established historically. For example, in the second half of the 9th century, after the rebellion led by Huang Chao captured Guangzhou, many Chinese Muslims and Arab and Persian merchants living along China’s southern coast migrated to Palembang (Samboja, Sumatra) and other parts of Southeast Asia. 18 In 943, when Masudi, an Arab, was passing Sumatra, he saw many Chinese farming on the island, all of whom were refugees from the riot. 19 After the 11th century, some Muslim merchants from Gujarat, India, were engaged in business while spreading Islam in Javanese ports, converting not only natives, but also Chinese merchants living there, to Islam. 20 In 1281, China sent two Muslim envoys, Sulaiman and Shamsuddin, to Melayu on Sumatra. 21

Due to massive migration from China to Southeast Asia during the Yuan Dynasty, there were already some Chinese Muslims in Java before Cheng Ho reached there. According to the Yuan Dynasty Yi Guo Zhi (Records of Foreign Countries), ships sailed every month between Quanzhou in China and Tuban on Java. Some Chinese also settled in Java. According to Dao Yi Zhi Lue (Records of Foreign Countries and Islands), compiled by Wang Dayuan, after the Yuan government launched its conquest of Java, some soldiers stayed behind, sharing the island with the natives. At that time in fact, Islam was booming in China, and many soldiers were Muslim. Ma Huan, writing about 15th century Majapahit in Ying Ya Sheng Lan (The Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores), described three kinds of residents in Java, among whom were Chinese Muslim migrants from Canton, Zhangzhou, and Quanzhou, including many who were very pious.

As is pointed out by some scholars, Islam already existed in some parts of Southeast Asia before the 15th century, although its spread was slow. There were two reasons for this. First, Brahmanism and Buddhism from India had long exerted great influence in Southeast Asia; secondly, local kingdoms, namely Buddhist Sri Vijaya in the 7th century, Hindu Majapahit in the 8th century, and Buddhist Ayutthaya in the 14th century impeded the spread of Islam. 22

Zheng He and the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia

When talking about the relationship between Cheng Ho and Islam in Southeast Asia, some scholars agree that “the Cheng Ho expeditions helped connect the East and the West through marine transportation, to expand interconnections between Southeast Asia and the Islamic world, and to accelerate the spread of Islam there.” Meanwhile, Cheng Ho, as an envoy of the Ming Dynasty, “supported the independence of the Melaka kingdom, injecting a driving force to the diffusion of Islam.” 23 This macroscopic analysis is necessary as well as faithful to the historical facts.

However, when foreign scholars talk about Cheng Ho’s role in spreading Islam overseas, they are mostly concerned with his activities in the Indonesia archipelago, especially Java. Indonesian scholars like Hamka, Mangaradja Onggang Parlindungan, Usman Effendi, Agus Sujudi, Roso, Hartono Kasmadi, Wiyono and Heru Christiyono; Indonesian Chinese scholars Liem Thian Joe and Benny G. Setiono; Singaporean scholars Lee Khoon Choy and Tan Yeok Seong; and western scholars D. E. Willmott and Robert Morrison all hold this view. Among them, Mangaradja Onggang Parlindungan’s Tuanku Rao is the most detailed description. Tuanku means “my master,” here referring to an imam, and Rao is the name of an Islamic missionary living in Sumatra in the mid-19th century; this book was written in memory of him. The 31st appendix of the book, “The Role of Chinese Hanafiyah Believers in Spreading Islam on Java (1411-1564),” has documented this in great detail. Because the major content of the appendix is a chronicle of Semarang and Cirebon written in Malay, some scholars call it The Malay Annals of Semarang and Cirebon. 24 And because the book, together with its appendix, is based on materials collected from the Cheng Ho temple (Sam Po Kong temple) in Semarang, other scholars call it The Semarang Chronicle or The Semarang and Cirebon Chronicle. 25 For the sake of convenience, it will be called Annals hereafter.

The Cheng Hoo Mosque in Surabaya which was established by Indonesian Chinese

According to the scholars mentioned above, Cheng Ho’s Islam-related activities in the Southeast Asian archipelago can be classified into two categories: First, he prayed in mosques in the region and built mosques on Java. Mangaradja Onggang Parlindungan writes that in 1413, while the fleet sent by the Ming government stayed in Semarang for a whole month for repairs, the three commanders – Cheng Ho, Ma Huan, and Fei Xin – frequently prayed in the local Chinese mosque. Due to Cheng Ho’s efforts from 1411 to 1416, communities of Chinese Hanafiyah believers were established on the Malay Peninsula, Java, and the Philippines, and mosques were built in Antjol (Ancol in Jakarta), Sembung, Lasem, Tuban, Gresik, Joratan (in Cirebon), and Cangki (in Mojokerto). 26

According to the interpretation of Tuanku Rao, after the death of Cheng Ho and the end of the maritime affair, the Chinese Islamic community stopped integrating into local society and turned the mosques built by Cheng Ho and his followers into temples for worshipping him. 27 Heru Christiyono notes that in local legend, a cave in Semarang where Cheng Ho lived was a center for spreading Islam; 28 and in 1411, Cheng Ho built a small mosque near that cave. 29 And as mentioned above, Cheng Ho, Ma Huan, and Fei Xin were known to visit the local mosque in 1413. If all the records match the historical facts, it is safe to say that Cheng Ho visited Semarang at least in 1411 and 1413. Since we know that the mosque is the place where Muslims perform their rituals and diffuse Islamic beliefs, and that due to Cheng Ho’s efforts many new mosques were built in Java, it can be said that Cheng Ho served to spread Islam on the island.

Secondly, he established Chinese Muslim communities in Southeast Asia. Parlindungan writes that in 1407, the fleet fought and took over Kukang (Palembang), which had long been controlled by non-Muslim Chinese from Fujian province. They arrested Chen Zuyi, the head of the pirates and sent him under escort to Beijing (Parlindungan is wrong here; it should be Nanjing), where he was publically beheaded to warn Chinese migrating from Fujian. Following this, the first community for Chinese Hanafiyah followers in Indonesia was built in Kukang, and in the same year, a Chinese Muslim community was established in Sambas, Kalimantan. 30 In 1416, Cheng Ho built a third community, in northwest Sumatra, near the embouchure of Batanggadis. 31

In his Runtuhnja Keradjaan-Keradjaan Hindu Djawa Dan Timbulnja Negara-Negara Islam Di Nusantara, Slamet Muljana also says that Cheng Ho first established a Chinese Muslim community in Kukang, then in Sambas and the coastal area of Java, thus disseminating Islam in Chinese with the doctrines of the Hanafiyah school. 32 According to Lee Khoon Choy, a Singaporean scholar, by 1430 Cheng Ho had built a solid basis for spreading Islam and had established Chinese Muslim communities in Tuban, Cirebon, Kukang, and Gresik. 33 Another Singaporean scholar, Chen Yu Song, points out that it was in this period that most Chinese immigrants began to believe in Islam, with great support from Cheng Ho. He also helped build Muslim communities in Kukang, Gresik, and many other places to spread Islam to local residents. 34

Cheng Ho assigned some overseas Chinese Muslims to be leaders in their local Chinese communities, and they played an important role in spreading Islam. According to Parlindungan, in 1419, Cheng Ho appointed Bong Tak Keng, a resident in Champa who was a descendent of migrants from Yunnan, to govern all the Chinese Muslim communities along the coastline of Southeast Asia. In the same year, Gan Eng Tju was entrusted by Bong Tak Keng to rule the Chinese settled in Manila (Luzon). Then, in 1423, Gan Eng Tju was sent by his grandfather from Manila to Tuban, a major Javanese port, to govern the Chinese Muslims in Java, Kukang, Sumatra, and Sambas (Kalimantan). After Cheng Ho died in 1434, Gan Eng Tju became one of the major leaders of the Chinese in Southeast Asia. In 1443, he assigned Swan Liong, then the Chief Supervisor of the Arsenal, to lead the Chinese Muslims in Kukang.

In 1445, Bong Swee Hoo (1401-1481), the grandson of Bong Tak Keng and son-in-law of Gan Eng Tju, was also sent to Kukang to assist Swan Liong. Bong Swee Hoo was called, in Indonesian, Raden Rachmat or Sunan Ngampel. Sunan refers to a saint who has made great contributions to the spread of Islam on Java, and Ngampel was one of the nine great Islamic saints there. Between 1451 and 1477, he established Muslim communities, mainly for Javanese natives, in Ngampel, north Java, and Madura.

What merits special attention is the fact that while Cheng Ho was preaching in Chinese, Bong Swee Hoo, a Chinese descendent who had grown up in Java, was preaching in Javanese. During this period, he also led Chinese Muslim communities in north Java, Madura, Kukang, and Sambas. Slamet Muljana writes that in 1451, Bong Swee Hoo left the Chinese Muslim community in Bangil for the Mas River valley to preach to local people there. His son Bonang (1465-1525) could not speak Chinese and used the Javanese language to diffuse the doctrines of Islam. 35 The Chinese Dutch scholar Sie Hok Tjwan writes that by the 16th century, many Chinese Muslims in northern Java used the local language rather than Chinese. 36 Thus, given Javanese natives had still been worshipping idols (according to Ma Huan) in the 15th century, 37 the fact that Cheng Ho and other Chinese under his influence diffused Islam on Java was of great significance.

Djin Bun (or Orang Kuat, 1455-1518), the foster son of Swan Liong and son of the king of Majapahit and a Chinese girl court servant, was also called Raden Patah. It was he who subverted the Majapahit dynasty, which upheld Buddhism, and established an Islamic kingdom in Demak, the first of its kind in Java. This kingdom played a very important role in spreading Islam in Kalimantan as well as Java. In 1474, when Djin Bun travelled to Semarang, he discovered that an image had been placed in the mosque in memory of Cheng Ho, making it a Cheng Ho temple rather than a mosque, for image worshipping was forbidden in a mosque. As a pious Muslim, Djin Bun was extremely upset upon witnessing such a scene and prayed and hoped that Allah would help him build a new mosque there in the near future. His dream was finally realized in 1487, when a gorgeous mosque was completed, which is still standing in Semarang today.

When talking about the spread of Islam in Java between the 14th and the 16th centuries, we must also take into account the nine saints (Wali Songo), said to be the best missionaries in Java and revered by local Muslims. 38 What was the relationship between Cheng Ho and the nine saints? Among the nine, Bong Swee Hoo, i.e., Sunan Ngampel, was the most important. His two sons, Sunan Bonang and Sunan Drajat, were also saints. And Sunan Giri used to study in the Pesantren organized by Sunan Ngampel, thus he was also the student of Bong Swee Hoo.

When talking about Cheng Ho’s contributions to the diffusion of Islam, Indonesian scholars always mention Raden Paku, i.e. Sunan Giri. In 1407, with the assistance of Shi Jinqing, a Chinese Muslim, Cheng Ho’s fleet succeeded in beating Chen Zuyi, head of the pirates in Sumatra. For this, Shi Jinqing was awarded a military title by the Cheng Emperor of the Ming dynasty. In 1421, when Shi Jinqing died, his son Shi Jisun and his second elder sister fought over the position, and on January 8th, 1424, between his 6th (1421-1422) and 7th (1431-1433) expeditions, Cheng Ho travelled to Kukang with a view to resolving the conflict. The eldest daughter of Shi Jinqing, who was usually called Nyai Gede Pinatih, came to Java due to the family in-fighting. She was reputed for her hard and successful work in spreading Islam in eastern Java and became the foster mother of Raden Paku, who devoted himself to spreading Islam in the area of Surabaya. When Majapahit sent troops to suppress his activities, Raden Paku, a wise and brave man, led his follow men and beat the aggressors. According to Ensiklopedi Indonesia, Raden Paku was buried in the mountains in Giri near Gresik, thus people all called him Sunan Giri. These three important figures –Shi Jinqing, Nyai Gede Pinatih and Raden Paku, – must have been more or less indebted to the first Chinese Muslim community in Indonesia set up by Cheng Ho in Kukang in 1407.

Sunan Kalijaga, the son of Gan Eng Tju, was Bong Swee Hoo’s brother-in-law, and he was also taught by Bong Swee Hoo and his son, Sunan Bonang. Sunan Muria was the son of Bonang, thus the grandson of Bong Swee Hoo. Among the other eight saints, five were more or less related, either by kinship or as teacher-disciple, with Bong Swee Hoo. In his The 6th Overseas Chinese State, Sie Hok Twjan, a Chinese Dutch scholar, says that among the nine saints of Java, seven had Chinese kinship. 39 Djin Bun, who subverted the reign of Majapahit dynasty, married the daughter of Sunan Giri, i.e. Raden Paku, and was also a disciple of Sunan Bonang, although he was not a saint.

The key figure among the nine saints, Bong Swee Hoo, was the grandson of Bong Tak Keng, who had been sent to Champa in 1413 by Cheng Ho to lead the Chinese Muslim communities in Southeast Asia. 40 More importantly, Cheng Ho’s efforts to build Chinese Muslim communities in Champa, the Philippines, the Malay peninsula, and the Indonesian archipelago in the first 30 years of the 15th century had created a favorable environment for the appearance of the nine saints and their preaching in the 15th and 16th centuries, thus enabling local Chinese Muslim leaders to further spread Islam from generation to generation. Given that Bong Tak Keng and Gan Eng Tju led Chinese Muslim communities in Champa and the Philippines, respectively, it is certain that the impact of Chinese Muslim leaders was not limited to Java and Sumatra in the Indonesian archipelago, but when beyond it to other parts of Southeast Asia.

These achievements in disseminating Islam in Southeast Asia are highly appreciated by local scholars and others. Buya Hamka, the famous Islamic leader in Indonesia, once acknowledged the close relationship between the development of Islam in Indonesia and Malaya and the Chinese Muslim Admiral Cheng Ho. 41 Hamka also said that the Cheng Emperor of the Ming did not choose Cheng Ho to lead the expeditions in order to enforce Islam there; however, his choice not only expanded the authority of the Ming government in the Malay islands (including islands in the Indonesian archipelago) and the Malay peninsula, but also succeeded in reinforcing local Islamic regimes. And as China recognized these Islamic countries, they were freed from aggression by Siam and Majapahit. After Pasai was eliminated in north Sumatra, Melaka became the centre of Islam in the region, recognized by the Cheng Emperor. Finally, Hamka cited a broadcast speech by Fatemi, a Pakistani professor, saying that the development of Islam in Southeast Asia was related to Admiral Cheng Ho.

In the popular press, the September 14th, 1985, edition of the Indonesian magazine Tempo wrote that, like other pious Muslims, Cheng Ho was engaged in preaching wherever he travelled in Java. 42 It also said that Cheng Ho’s religious activities were not confined to Indonesia and Brunei, but reached as far as Melaka and other kingdoms.

British missionary Robert Morrison
British missionary Robert Morrison

British missionary Robert Morrison (1782-1843) reported Java to be the richest island in Southeast Asia and credited Cheng Ho (whom he called an Islamic preacher with soldiers) with forcing the Javanese to convert from idol worship to Islam In 1405. 43 This reflects that in the early 15th century, Cheng Ho was indeed spreading Islam in Java. However, that Cheng Ho used force is against the historical truth. Up until now, no article or book has ever recorded such violence. In contrast, as Wang Juesheng, an overseas Chinese, once wrote: “In the Ming dynasty, Cheng Ho travelled to the north of Makassar in Celebes island and conferred the title of king to a local chief who had been converted from Buddhism to Islam.” 44

In the Cheng Ho temple in Semarang, there is a big drum on which the four Chinese characters Mo Ren Lan Yin are carved. Some Indonesian scholars interpret them as “murmuring words from the Koran”. 45 In 1993, when this author visited the temple, he did not see the drum, but a plaque is also carved with these Chinese characters. Friends said that the building was built by Cheng Ho himself as a mosque, but was later refurnished by the local Chinese, who believed in Buddhism, Taoism, or Confucianism, as a Cheng Ho temple. However, this plaque repeatedly reminds people not to forget that Cheng Ho was a pious Muslim. According to a widespread Indonesian story, Cheng Ho fasted during Ramadan during his visit to Java. 46

Moreover, some foreign scholars have talked a lot about the diffusion of Islam by Wang Jinghong, another envoy in Cheng Ho’s fleet. According to Amen Budiman and other scholars, when Cheng Ho’s fleet was sailing along the coast of north Java, Wang Jinghong suddenly fell ill and Cheng Ho ordered the fleet to land at Semarang so Wang could get treatment. Ten days later, Cheng Ho went on with his voyage, leaving Wang behind with ten servants to continue his recovery. After recovering, however, Wang did not catch up with the fleet, but settled. Out of enthusiasm for his adopted land, he taught local and Chinese farmers how to farm and do business and preached Islamic doctrine. Wang stayed in Semarang until his death at age 78 and was buried according to Islamic rituals by local residents, who called him “the navigator for Master Cheng Ho and an Islamic imam.” 47According to local legend, “Wang Jinghong was a very pious Muslim.” 48

Questions regarding Cheng Ho’s role in spreading Islam in Southeast Asia

[quote]Cheng Ho was a Muslim, it was his glorious obligation to spread Islam[/quote]
Cheng Ho statue in the Quanzhou Maritime Museum
Cheng Ho statue in the Quanzhou Maritime Museum

Reasons why Cheng Ho spread Islam overseas

First, in the early Ming dynasty, Islam was enjoying an unprecedented boom in China, providing favorable conditions for expanding it to other countries. As early as the Yuan dynasty, the government adopted the policy of “governing people according to their customs,” therefore Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, and Lamaism were all protected by the government. And also during the Yuan dynasty, Muslims were all over China. Ibn Battuta reported that Muslim communities could be found in every city in China, and they built mosques within their communities. 49 According to History of the Ming Dynasty: Biography of Samerqhan, “Muslims were everywhere in the Yuan dynasty.” In the late Yuan dynasty, many Muslim military commanders and soldiers (such as Chang Yuchun, Mu Ying and Hu Dahai) participated in the rebellion led by Zhu Yuanzhang. It was also described that “among the chancellors around the emperor, more than half are Muslims.” The first emperor of the Ming dynasty adopted a policy of appeasement toward the Muslims, ordered the building of mosques, and himself wrote a hymn of one hundred characters in praise of Islam and Mohammed for his “excellent ability to preach and in exorcism” and for his character as a “holy master”. 50 In 1382, the Emperor issued an edict ordering the erection of a monument with his personal inscription on it in a mosque in Daxuexi alley, Xi’an. The inscription read: “In case the mosque falls, reconstruction work should start as soon as possible without any delay.” In the early Ming dynasty, Muslims already constituted an ethnic group in China, called the Hui. On May 11, 1407, the Cheng Emperor of the Ming dynasty issued a royal decree to protect Mili Haji, a foreign Muslim living in China, saying that he was “loyal to his belief and very kind-hearted, doing a lot of charity work and offering guidance to other people. Pious, faithful, charitable and honest, what he has done deserves commendation”; therefore, the decree continues, “he should be respected and protected.” He also ordered that “any officials, military officers, and residents must not insult him. If anyone dare go against the wish of the emperor, he will be severely punished.” This decree gives full expression to the respect the shown by Ming emperors to Islam and their determination to protect Chinese Muslims and foreign Muslims residing in Chinese. All these helped boost the spread of Islam in China and created favorable conditions for Cheng Ho to diffuse his religion overseas.

Second, as Cheng Ho was a Muslim, it was his glorious obligation to spread Islam. Cheng Ho was born into a Haji family, and in 1417 he paid homage to the tombs of Muslim ancestors in Ling Mountain and prayed in Jiuri Mountains in Quanzhou. In 1413, Cheng Ho restored the mosque in Xi’an and before his 7th expedition appealed to the court for the reconstruction of the mosque in Nanjing. Before setting off, he recruited the Muslim officials Ma Huan, Ha Shan, Guo Chongli, and Sha Ban to accompany him. These activities, showing his desire and sense of mission to spread Islam, are retrievable from historical records. It is conceivable that during his voyage, Cheng Ho did not forget these responsibilities and obligations. Furthermore, through his efforts in spreading Islam, he established close relations with local rulers and residents, thus enabling him to better accomplish his expeditions.

 Sumanto Al Qurtuby, an Indonesian scholar, writes that in virtually all the cities he visited Cheng Ho left not only diplomats serving the Ming government’s political and economic interests, but also Islamic missionaries. Therefore, while assuming his mission from the court, as a Muslim he also harbored the motive to diffuse Islam. 51

Third, many countries in Southeast Asia were in a time of transition from Buddhism-dominant to Islam-dominant, and Cheng Ho’s efforts catered to that need. As is recorded in ancient archives, Cheng Ho visited Java on each expedition except the sixth. During this period, i.e. the first half of the 15th century, Java was in this transitional period; it was not until more than one hundred years later that Islam was finally established. When introducing the history of mosques on Java, Aboebakar writes, “In the mid-15th century, most residents of Java believed in Buddhism, and only a few were Muslim.” 52 When talking about Sunan Ngampel and the influence of Chinese Islam in Indonesia in the light of the impact of different Sunni schools, Slamet Muljana writes that till the 13th century, Hanafiyah had been practiced only in Central Asia, north India, and Turkey, and that it was after Ghinggis Khan’s conquest that it was introduced to China. Thus, the presence of Hanafiyah on the north coast of Java in the 15th century indicates Islam’s introduction via China. If it had come from Melaka or from the eastern coast of Sumatra, then it would not have been Hanafiyah, but Shafiiyah or some other school. 53 That Cheng Ho and his followers spread Islam in the 15th century was in response to the need of the times, and it was Hanafiyah that they were diffusing.

Fourth, Cheng Ho’s activities spreading Islam in Southeast Asia were conducted in peaceful manner and were closely related to commercial activities. The primary mission for Cheng Ho’s expeditions was to “advocate virtues and morality to promote harmonious relations with other nations,” so as to create a peaceful international environment with a view to reinforcing the reign of Ming government. During his expeditions, Cheng Ho used force only three times out of the need for self-defense. And according to extant foreign archives, as a Muslim, Cheng Ho spread Islam through peaceful means.

Whether judged by the diffusion of Islam through a network of Chinese Muslims or by the development of Chinese Muslim communities and their integration after his death, Cheng Ho’s way of spreading Islam was peaceful and this tradition was carried on from generation to generation. According to Annals, in 1413 Cheng Ho appointed Bong Tak Keng, who lived in Champa, to lead all the Chinese Muslim communities in Southeast Asia. Then Bong Tak Keng assigned Gan Eng Tju to be responsible for the administration of communities first in the Philippines and then in Indonesia. There was no sign of violence in this. Many Chinese Muslim leaders, who were more or less indebted to Cheng Ho, carried on this non-violent tradition in their preaching. Some other cases in Annals are also indicative of the non-violent approach. For example, the entry for 1478 says: “Haji Bong Swee Hoo never had conflicts with the natives who believed in Buddhism.” Between 1478 and 1529, it says: “King Shan ruled Semarang for nearly 50 years. He loved his people, and protected all of them regardless of their religious beliefs.” Showing no hostility or discrimination, King Shan even appointed Gan Shi Chang, Gan Eng Tju’s son, who had abandoned his Islamic belief, to be the leader of the non-Muslim Chinese in Semarang.

Hamka writes, “The introduction of Islam into Malay countries (referring to those countries in the Indonesian archipelago and Malay peninsula where Malay is spoken, i.e. Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei) is distinctive in itself, i.e. it is a peaceful and gradual process without coercive means. Local residents accepted it voluntarily and gradually.” 54

Statue from a modern monument to Cheng Ho at the Stadthuys Museum in Malacca Town, Malaysia
Statue from a modern monument to Cheng Ho at the Stadthuys Museum in Malacca Town, Malaysia

The first foreign missionaries in Southeast Asia were Muslim merchants, and they were most active around ports such as Tuban, Gresik, Surabaya, and Mojokerto on Java, Kukang on Sumatra, and Melaka on the Malay Peninsula. What should be noted is that Islam was introduced into Indonesia along with commerce, thus promoting the development of business there, marking a great step forward in the Middle Ages in Indonesia. Here is another example. Maulana Malik Ibrahim, one of the nine saints of Java, was a merchant. He was born in Gujarat, India, went to lead a mission to Java in 1379, and died in 1419.

When describing the overall picture of the development of Islam in Southeast Asia between the late 13th century and early 16th century, M. C. Ricklefs, author of The History of Indonesia, writes,” “The areas where it was most firmly established were those that were most important in international trade: the Sumatran shores of the Straits of Malacca, the Malay peninsula, the north coast of Java, Brunei, Sulu and Maluku” 55. And the places mentioned above were frequently visited by Cheng Ho’s fleet. What merits special attention is that these places were at the same time places where Chinese private merchants and Chinese Muslims were most active. Thus, it is obvious that, in Southeast Asia in the 15th century, the routes and itinerary of Cheng Ho’s voyage, the network of Chinese private merchants, and the network for disseminating Islam by Chinese Muslims converged, interacted, and complemented each other.

Dutch scholars who have done profound research on the history of Islam in Indonesia point out that during the early period of Islam’s diffusion on Java, its affirmation of equality among all people regardless of birth, social status, and tribe of origin made it most appealing to merchants and dock laborers from different places and with different backgrounds, even though merchants belonged to the middle class. In this sense, Islam helped build equal and harmonious relations among people. Moreover, its notion of equality in marriage was a great novelty in people’s daily life. 56 They also mentioned that Nyai Gede Pinatih, the eldest daughter of Shi Jinqing, was a rich merchant in Gresik in eastern Java. Her adopted son, Sunan Giri, one of the nine saints on Java, himself sailed to southern Kalimantan for commercial purposes. Tan Yeok Seong, writing about Cheng Ho’s preaching in Kukang, says, “With Cheng Ho’s support, a sphere of influence came into being, and religion and trade were entwined with each other. Through Islam, Muslims, regardless of nationality, all became masters of commerce. Success in marine trade in turn gave impetus to the development of Islam.” 57 All these show that the spread of Islam in the Indonesian archipelago is closely linked to the development of commerce, and that some famous Muslims were rich merchants themselves.

Meanwhile, the assistance provided by the Chinese Muslim communities in Southeast Asia to Cheng Ho’s voyage also deserves attention. In the second part of Annals, it is written that in 1415, because of the arrival of Cheng Ho’s fleet, Chinese Muslim communities were established in Sembung and other villages, and that every community had its own mosque. Sembung village was ordered to provide teak to repair the fleet’s ships, another village to look after and repair the ships, and a third to maintain beacons. And these three Muslim villages together were responsible for the logistics provision to the fleet.

Moreover, inter-marriage between immigrant Muslims and local women is another feature of the development of Islam in Indonesia. The Chinese Muslims among the nine saints were all products of inter-marriage. And the marriage between Cheng Ho’s chef and Sitiwati –a dancer in Jakarta is a case in point. And that chef must have been a Muslim too, for after their death, the couple was buried together, and their tomb was regarded as sacred. 58 All these facts match well with the Islamic ideas of equality in marriage regardless of birth, social status, and tribe.

Based on the examples cited above, it is highly possible that Cheng Ho was engaged in spreading Islam in Indonesia and that what he did was of great significance at the time. In his article “Cheng Ho,” Hamka says: “It can be concluded that those who helped develop Islam in our country (i.e. Indonesia) include not only Arabs, Persians, Indians, Malabarens and Gujaratis, but also Chinese Muslims.” However, he also writes that research on Cheng Ho’s contributions to the development of Islam in Indonesia is insufficient. Up until now, Cheng Ho’s image is still defined by idols enshrined in Cheng Ho temples in Semarang and some other places and by some tales. Thus, Hamka appeals to scholars focusing on the history of Islam in Indonesia to further study Cheng Ho. 59 Also, in 2003, Aa. Kustia, Indonesia’s ambassador to China, pointed out at the Second International Symposium on Cheng Ho, that “In Indonesia, Cheng Ho is more a legendary than a historical figure.” 60

 Possible reasons for the lack of systematic research by both Chinese and foreign scholars on Cheng Ho’s role in spreading Islam overseas

The primary reason is scarcity of relevant materials. History of the Ming Dynasty and many other important historical records in China have mentioned nothing about Cheng Ho’s religious activities overseas, and they are seldom referred to in relevant biographies or novels. What merits attention is that Ma Huan, a Muslim who accompanied Cheng Ho several times in the expeditions, did not record anything about Cheng Ho’s preaching in his The Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores, which described in detail Muslims and Islamic activities in the countries he visited. As mentioned above, he described Muslims among the “three kinds of residents” of Java: “One group is Muslims who are migrants from Western Asia doing business, and they are tasteful and clean in their daily life. Another group is Muslim Chinese from Guangdong, Zhangzhou, and Quanzhou, whose lifestyle is just as tasteful and clean. Most of them fast according to Islamic rituals.” In Melaka, “both the emperor and his subjects are Muslims, and they read the Koran and fast.” In Aru, “both the king and his people are Muslims.” In Lambri, “the people living along the coast are all Muslims.” In Calicut, “the two most important chancellors around the king in charge of national affairs are Muslims. Most people are believers in Islam, and there are twenty to thirty mosques. All the Muslims go there to pray every week. On that day, the whole family does nothing other than bathe. All men, whether young or old, go to the mosques at noon, and leave for home to continue their business or housework in the afternoon.” In Maldives, “the king, chancellors, and people are all Muslim. The society is harmonious, and people all behave in accordance with the doctrines of Islam.” In Zufal, “both the emperor and his subjects are Muslim. When they should pray, they stop their business and go to the mosques. They all arrange their marriages or funerals according to Islamic rules.” In Aden, “all over the country are Muslims.” In Bangladesh, “all the people believe in Islam. Both the king and his major chancellors are no exception.” In Hormuz, “both the king and his people believe in Islam. They are pious Muslims, praying five times a day. They also fast and bathe themselves.” In Mecca, “all believe in Islam. Islamic saints started their preaching in this country, thus, people here are obedient to the Islamic rules and dare not to break them.” There are many more examples.

However, why did Ma Huan not record Cheng Ho’s activities related to the spread of Islam? First, because, as mentioned above, the expeditions’ purpose was primarily to “advocate virtues and morality to promote harmonious relations with other nations,” a peaceful environment, and trade. They were not designed to propagate Islam. It is thus understandable that Ma Huan recorded Cheng Ho’s fulfillment of his mission and the social situation in the different countries, while leaving activities beyond such obligations unnoted, whether accidentally or on purpose. The Ming emperor believed in Buddhism and his chancellors and men of letters looked down upon Cheng Ho, who was a eunuch; although Cheng Ho’s religious activities might have helped him accomplish his missions in Southeast Asia, these men would not consider that important. Therefore, in China’s ancient archives, no word was mentioned about Cheng Ho’s spreading of Islam in Southeast Asia.

Cheng Ho, too, may have had misgivings which contributed to the lack of documentation. Although the emperor adopted a policy of appeasement towards Muslims, he also imposed some restrictions. For example, with a view to not revealing their Islamic identity, many Muslim generals and chancellors chose to bear Han names; even when they built mosques, they did it in the name of “blessing longevity,” i.e., as places to pray for the emperor’s longevity. Here is another example. Quanzhou, one of the places where Islam first established itself in China, witnessed a boom of Islam during the Song and Yuan dynasties, when “tens of thousands” of Muslims from Arab and Persia gathered there. But around the time of the late Yuan and early Ming dynasties, there were two “anti-Muslim” movements. According to The Genealogy of the Jins in Wenling, “in that turmoil, all people from the west border were persecuted.” In order to survive the persecution, some Muslims sailed to foreign countries, some escaped to remote areas such as the mountains or the coasts. Some changed their family names and abandoned their Islamic belief. 61 It would have been impossible for Cheng Ho, as a Muslim, to ignore all this.

One scholar argues that Cheng Ho’s own family background gave him misgivings about his Islamic belief. 62 According to Xiao Xian, both his grandfather and father were Hajis who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca and must have been highly respected Muslims in their local community. Cheng Ho’s father died in 1382, the year Ming troops defeated the local army of Yunnan province; at the time of his death, he was only 38, too young an age for natural causes. Cheng Ho was 11 years old when he was captured, brought to court, and reduced to a eunuch, although he was later appreciated and trusted by the emperor. Xiao also cites the fact that when Cheng Ho wrote an epitaph for his father before his first expedition, he addressed both his father and grandfather as Ma Haji rather than with their real names. This could demonstrate that “Cheng Ho must have some hidden and subdued sorrow about his family and religion. If so, it can be sure that Cheng Ho would not want to publicize his overseas activities in spreading Islam.” It is therefore both because of “official historians’ contempt for” and “Cheng Ho’s reluctance to make records out of personal misgivings” that few relevant materials have been left behind. In this author’s view, these reasons might indeed be relevant.

The second reason is that extant overseas records about Cheng Ho’s religion diffusion need more backup evidence. For example, as is mentioned above, in 1413, Cheng Ho, Ma Huan, and Fei Xin frequently visited the mosque in Semarang and prayed there. Those praying in a mosque are surely taken to be Muslim, but was Fei Xin really a Muslim? Some scholars argue that “both Ma and Fei were Muslims,” 63 or that “Fei Xin believed in Islam.” 64 However, no ancient archive in China has confirmed Fei Xin’s Islamic identity. Moreover, comparing Ma Huan’s The Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores with Fei Xin’s Xin Cha Sheng Lan (Marvellous Visions from the Star Raft) the author has discovered that Ma Huan touched upon “Islam” and “Muslims” in such regions as Java, Melaka, Lambri, Calicut, Maldives, Aden, Hormuz, and Mecca, while Fei Xin’s narration on these countries mentioned nothing about Islam. Even when describing the holy city of Mecca, he only wrote: “There are mosques. The chief and his subjects are all religious people.” Obviously, Fei Xin was neither interested in nor familiar with “Islam” and “Muslims.” Thus the author doubts whether Fei Xin ever prayed in the mosque and holds that Fei Xin’s Islamic identity, although always asserted, is not convincing. Up to now, there are still foreign scholars calling Fei Xin “Haji,” 65 which in my view is groundless.

Another example cited above was from Amen Budiman. When Cheng Ho was sailing along the coast of north Java, Wong Jinghong suddenly fell ill and could not continue on the voyage. He stayed behind to teach local residents and Chinese migrants to farm and to do business, and preached to them as well. Other foreign scholars hold that Wang was left behind in Semarang during the fifth expedition, and settled there, diffusing Islam, till his death at age 78. 66 But was Wang a Muslim? Did he really spread Islam on Java? Is it really a historical fact that he settled in Semarang until his death? This does not match another record of Wang visiting Samudra Pasai in Sumatra in 1434. And there is no relevant record in China, thus it needs to be further proven.

Here is a final example. Wang Juesheng, cited above, wrote that Cheng Ho visited Makassar in Sulawesi and “conferred the title of king to a local chief who had been converted from Buddhism to Islam.” This leaves the impression that the religion conversion in Makassar is related in Cheng Ho. Yet there is no record of Cheng Ho’s visit to Sulawesi, and some scholars would even question the conversion. For example, Andaya and Ishii point out that “By the seventeenth century, Makassar was one of the few important courts where Islam was not established”. 67 Therefore, Wang Juesheng’s narration is not fully credible.

In sum, most records about Cheng Ho’s religious activities are only tales or isolated historical records, lacking convincing supporting evidence. Many materials on the relationship between Cheng Ho and Chinese Muslims who helped spread Islam on Java are still “controversial.”

The third reason for lack of systematic research on Cheng Ho’s religious activities has been local authorities’ restriction on such research. The Dutch colonial rulers, who governed Indonesia for about three centuries, adopted not only an ethnic, but also a religious, hierarchy. They regarded Christianity, their own religion, as noble, and Islam, which most Indonesians followed, as a “religion of inferior nations.” 68 Moreover, they tried to prevent local Chinese from converting to Islam 69 and played down or even denied the contributions made by Chinese people such as Cheng Ho to spreading Islam in Indonesia.

In 1926, an anti-Dutch rebellion led by the Indonesian Communist Party was brutally suppressed, and in 1928, a Dutch official in central Java named Poortman thoroughly checked the Cheng Ho temples in Semarang and Cirebon in search of communists. It is reported that Poortman found lots of materials in both Malay and Chinese concerning the important role played by the Chinese in Javanese social and Islamic life, including Cheng Ho and his fleet. Poortman’s excellent command of Chinese enabled him to translate the Chinese materials into Dutch, 70 but he argued that if the information was made public, these achievements might stir strong reaction in local Islamic circles. So Poortman’s research was kept internal to the Dutch government and only five copies of his research report were circulated, namely to the Dutch prime minister, chancellors in the colony, and the Dutch governor general in East India (Indonesia). Parlindungan, the author of Tuanku Rao, was the son of an Indonesian aristocrat and also an official in the Dutch colonial government. He was highly appreciated by Poortman, and during his advanced studies in Holland Technical School, he was lucky enough to read the secret dossiers. In 1951, after Poortman’s death, Parlindungan got one copy of his research report and included some of the secret information in the Annals as the appendix of Tuanku Rao. However, after Suharto gained political power, because of similar concerns about Islamic reactions, Tuanku Rao was banned. Slamet Muljana, the former dean of the department of literature at Universitas Indonesia and the student of Parlindungan, saw those secret materials in his teacher’s house. In 1968, Muljana published his work Runtuhnja Keradjaan-Keradjaan Hindu Djawa Dan Timbulnja Negara-Negara Islam Di Nusantara, in which he quoted and acknowledged the truth value of Annals, the appendix of Tuanku Rao. This book, in turn, was banned by the Suharto government in 1971. Slamet Muljana subsequently translated his book into English, as A Story of Majapahit, and had it published in Singapore. Over a long period of time, then, because of restrictions imposed by successive authorities, Indonesian scholars have been hindered from studying the role of local Chinese, and Cheng Ho in particular, in the development of Islam in Indonesia.

Neither have the achievements of Cheng Ho and the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia received due attention from scholars in western countries or Southeast Asia. Claudine Salmon, a French scholar, noted in “The Contributions of Chinese to the Development of Southeast Asia: A Renewed Evaluation,” that many dossiers about Chinese who frequently appeared in chronicles in different regions have been completely ignored, including in Indonesia, where materials about the role of Chinese in coastal Javanese society remain under-utilized. 71 It is Annals, the appendix of Tuanku Rao, that constitutes the most important part of the chronicles of Semarang and Cirebon, and it is also Annals that records the preaching of Cheng Ho and other Chinese Muslims in north Java.

Overseas scholars mostly quote from Annals when they are touching upon Cheng Ho’s preaching in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia. As noted above, the appendix is based on materials found in the Cheng Ho temple in Semarang via Poortman’s research report. However, Annals is abridged from original materials which are nowhere to be found. How large a part of these materials are devoted to Cheng Ho’s preaching in Java is unknown. Even whether Poortman really made a research report has been the center of controversy among Indonesian scholars since 1969. Based on many sources of information, Liem Ek Hian once concluded that it was impossible to find these dossiers in the Cheng Ho temple in Semarang. He also pointed out that some famous contemporary Dutch scholars found nothing related to Poortman’s research report in the archives or libraries of Holland. 72 And in 1986, when the author was in Holland as a visiting scholar, he also tried to find the materials mentioned above, in vain. All these have caused great difficulties in verifying, with strong historical evidence, the authenticity of what is written in Tuanku Rao and its appendix, Annals.

Apart from these three reasons, the declining influence of Cheng Ho’s preaching in Southeast Asia may be also a factor accounting for the lack of relevant materials. After the expeditions, Chinese rulers abruptly ceased the great venture, with consequences that lasted for hundreds of years. In Java and many other places, the Hanafiyah school, which was advocated by Cheng Ho, virtually lost all contact with its Chinese counterparts and as a result, more and more local residents and Muslims followed the Shafiiyah school. When numerous Chinese people migrated to the Indonesian archipelago in the late 19th century, most of them believed in Buddhism, Taoism, and Lamaism. The mosque built by Cheng Ho in Semarang in 1411 had already been transformed into a Cheng Ho temple between 1450 and 1475. According to the author’s statistics, there are at least seven temples in Indonesia bearing some relation to Cheng Ho. 73 Except for the Surabaya Cheng Ho mosque built in 2002, the other six were built much earlier to house idols or “relics” of Cheng Ho or his followers. To be sure, these six temples are not mosques, for idols cannot be placed in mosques. Thus, due to the dwindling impact of Cheng Ho on Islam in Indonesia, scholars have been hindered from further studying these issues.

Many scholars take Indonesia as the basis for their arguments about Cheng Ho’s influence on Islam in Southeast Asia. One of them is Slamet Muljana, who holds that Cheng Ho established Chinese Muslim communities in Kukang on Sumatra, Sambas on Kalimantan, and Java, and that he preached to the local people in Chinese according to Islamic doctrines and obligations. Junus Jahja, commenting on this issue, says that in Indonesia, “many Sinologists are not familiar with Islam while many Islam experts are not good at Chinese.” 74 This may be another reason for the unsatisfying research on Cheng Ho’s role in the development of Islam in Southeast Asia.

However, it is general acknowledged that what actually happened in history cannot be denied or ignored simply because it has not been documented in archives in China. And it is not impossible that, for various reasons, something has been deliberately or accidentally missed or left out. It is possible that a large number of dossiers about Cheng Ho’s expeditions were destroyed for historical reasons, and it is also possible that some might have found their way to other countries. We have to be very serious in the collection and analysis of overseas dossiers and reference material in order to tell which are true and which are false. Progress so far has not been satisfactory due to many factors.

The route of the voyages of Cheng Ho's fleet
The route of the voyages of Cheng Ho’s fleet

Current developments and prospects for research on the relationship between Cheng Ho and Islam in Southeast Asia

In the past twenty years, the Indonesian press has carried an increasing number of articles commemorating Cheng Ho’s visits to Indonesia and his role in spreading Islam. In 1985, a group of students studying Chinese in the Sinology Department of  University of  Indonesia, led by their teachers, conducted field investigations at the sites of relics left by Cheng Ho in Java and completed an extensive report. Slamet Muljana, a famous Indonesian scholar, compared the relevant parts of Tuanku Rao with Pararaton and Babad Tanah Jawi, two ancient records about Java; he discovered that what has been documented in the three books coincides in many parts. 75 Two Dutch scholars specializing in Indonesian studies should also be mentioned: H. J. de Graff and Th. Pigeaud. In De Eerste Mioslime Vorstendammen op Java, which they co-authored 1974, they showed no interest in Annals at all. However, when they became suspicious of their bias and re-studied the chronicles, they came to realize its value. Unfortunately, by 1983, they were too old to finish their new work. The book was later finished by M. C. Ricklefs and published by Monash University in Australia in 1984 as Chinese Muslims in Java in the 15th and 16th Centuries. Its Indonesian translation, cited above, was published in 1998.

 In 1998, after the Suharto administration was overthrown, many forbidden areas in academic studies were opened for discussion. In 2003, in Jakarta, Indonesian scholars Sumanto and Xu Tiantang (Benny G. Setiono) published their books, Arus: Cina-Islam-Jawa and Tionghoa Dalam Pusaran Politik, respectively; these publicly described Cheng Ho’s activities related to spreading Islam in Southeast Asia, especially Java. The books repeatedly cite examples from Tuanku Rao and its appendix, Annals. Chen Dasheng once said that Annal’s brief sentences, numerous examples of Fujian dialect, and ubiquitous monosyllabic words such as Kun Ta Bu Mi, Pa Bu Ta La, and Muk Ming, rather than polysyllabic Indonesian, well demonstrates that its earliest version might have recorded oral Chinese, and that it was translated and recorded in Malay by local Chinese beginning in the 18th century. In the 20th century, Poortman and Parlindungan edited it by omitting things they considered irrelevant and adding other things; Parlindungan in particular added information about the Japanese occupation in the 1940s. 76 However, it is the situation of Chinese Muslims living in Indonesia between 1411 and 1564 and the role played by Cheng Ho in the development of Islam in Java that Annals focuses on. Commemorating the 600th anniversary of the launch of Cheng Ho’s expeditions, the Indonesian newspaper Light of Hope, on April 23, 2005, carried an article “In Memory of General Cheng Ho’s Visits,” reiterating that Cheng Ho did preach in Semarang and north Java.

The explanations and additions made by de Graff and Pigeaud are also very important. They wrote that Annals was first recorded in Chinese, that the translator of its Semarang part was a Chinese Muslim living in Semarang in the first half of the 18th century, and that it was he who translated most of the Chinese dossiers into Jawi (Malay written in Arab). Poortman, a Dutch official, was the second translator and editor; his greatest contribution was to incorporate the European calendar in rearranging the book. Parlindungan was undoubtedly the third translator and editor who rendered it into Malay. In addition, a leader of the Chinese communities in Sumatra sent Poortman a book called Moa Tsai Pi Tjing Wong (the king of Majapahit), which was a report made by Ma Yuang Long. The appearance of this report further enriched Annals, for Ma Yung Long was the brother of Ma Hong Fu, the Chinese Muslim envoy to Majapahit between 1424 and 1449 and son-in-law of Bong Tak Keen. Although there are some flaws in Annals, these two scholars found no evidence that the development of Chinese Muslim communities on Java was deliberately fabricated and exaggerated. On the other hand, they also pointed out that the achievements of Hanafiyah followers in Yunnan province were not the key to the development of Islam on Java. 77 In fact, as early as in 1379, Maulana Malik Ibrahim, a Muslim born in Gujarat, India, had come to preach Islamic doctrines, making Gresik in east Java his center for religious activities. He was also one of the nine saints and died in 1419. 78

                        Cheng Ho launched his first expedition in 1405. Shortly after, many envoys were sent to China from Sumatra and Java, many of whom were Muslims. In 1406 and 1425, respectively, Haji Mahmud, Aliand Chang Fonama etc. were sent to China from Kukang. 79 According to Records on the Ming Dynasty, between 1413 and 1438, Ali Sulaiman, Ali Mahmud, Ali Koua, and many others were sent from Java. 80 This not only reflects Islam in Southeast Asia enjoying great development and Muslims engaging in national affairs; it also represents something of great significance between Chinese and Indonesian Muslims. It is no coincidence that Chinese Muslims could be sent as envoys by the king of Java during Cheng Ho’s expeditions and five years after his death, because Chinese Muslims were already in Java before Cheng Ho arrived. While many materials collected overseas attribute the development of Islam as well as Chinese Muslim communities in Java to Cheng Ho, it is not proper to say that Cheng Ho was the sole contributor to this development.

As to the credibility of Annals, de Graff and Pigeaud point out in their preface that if, as Parlindungan said, Annals was completed in the 16th century (it records the period between 1403 and 1585), it is incredible that it should have been intact through 400 years of sweltering, humid weather and numerous wars and political turmoil. However, Parlindungan holds that the dossiers on Semarang and Cirebon appeared in the mid-18th century. Between 1740 and 1742, there was a revolt by Chinese against Dutch colonialists, and a Chinese called Sunan Kuning came to power as the ruler of the north coast and interior of Java. (According to the 77th page of Slamet Muljana’s Runtuhnja Keradjaan-Keradjaan Hindu Djawa Dan Timbulnja Negara-Negara Islam Di Nusantara, his name was Njoo Lay Wa.) This ruler was soon dethroned by troops belonging to the king of Java and Madura. Then a Chinese who served as an official in Semarang linked these affairs with the heroism of Chinese Muslims in the battle against pagan Majapahit and in defending Islam in Java. In the 1740s, he collected the documents and minutes which were originally kept by the Association of Muslim Boat-Builders.

This Chinese Muslim might have been the first translator and editor of the dossiers discovered in the first few decades of the 20th century, the one who translated most of the Chinese dossiers into Jawi. He had long been living in Semarang and was very familiar with the local history of the first half of the 18th century. It would not be surprising had he exaggerated the impact of China’s culture and politics in Java if he had been nurtured in Chinese culture. Poortman, the Dutch colonial official, was surely the second editor. 81  And Parlindungan is, of course, the third editor. If this sequence of events is true, and if Annals “originated from an oral Chinese version” that was repeatedly rearranged and translated, it is a must to study the dossiers and judge which are original texts and which were added by translators and editors, which are historical facts and which are fabrications. For example, in Annals, Cheng Ho is called Hajj, suggesting that he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca; this is groundless. When Cheng Ho’s achievements in spreading Islam in Java are being evaluated, no subjective denial or exaggeration is allowed. Research on this should be based on convincing facts and strict reasoning, not only because historical studies emphasize facts and reality, but also because Islamic issues are sensitive topics in a country like Indonesia where the majority of the population is Muslim.

Moreover, foreign scholars have considered the relationship between Cheng Ho’s expeditions and Muslims in Southeast Asia. For example, Terada Takanobu, a Japanese scholar, writes, “Cheng Ho’s expeditions can be referred to as a remarkable Islamic undertaking that was acted out by Chinese Muslims as the leading stars and Muslims in Southeast Asia, India, and West Asia as the supporting actors.” 82 It is believable that Cheng Ho and many other Muslims in the fleet had some contact with local Muslims in Southeast Asia. However, it is not proper to call Cheng Ho’s expeditions an “Islamic undertaking,” for he set out under the decrees of the emperor of the Ming dynasty. It is true, as mentioned, that there were some Muslims in the fleet. However, the claim that Cheng Ho’s religious activities constituted a drama “acted out by Chinese Muslims as the leading stars and Muslims in Southeast Asia, India, and West Asia as the supporting actors” still needs further discussion.


The main reason why there is a lack of convincing documentation about Cheng Ho’s preaching of Islam in Southeast Asia is that it was not the mission of his expeditions. However, there are many records and tales concerning it in other countries, the most important of which is Tuanku Rao with its appendix Annals by Mangaradja Onggang Parlindungan. Though lacking in adequate supporting evidence, Annals at least provides significant clues: the frequent visits of Cheng Ho, Ma Huan, and Fei Xin to the mosque in Semarang; the many Chinese Muslim communities built thanks to Cheng Ho’s efforts; Cheng Ho’s use of a network of Chinese Muslims (especially Hanafiyah followers from Yunnan province) to spread Islam; the substantial decline suffered by the Hanafiyah school in Chinese Muslim communities after Cheng Ho’s death, especially between 1450 and 1475, when some Chinese followed the natives in becoming Shafiiyah believers; and the use by some Chinese Muslims of the local language instead of Chinese to preach. Many Islamic scholars and professors attach great importance to this, having discovered coincidences between Annals and other ancient records about Java.

Cheng Ho, who was born into a Muslim family, was engaged in various domestic Islamic activities. It is therefore highly possible that he would do the same in foreign countries after finishing his official missions. Cheng Ho’s expeditions were launched in the transitional period in some parts of Southeast Asia when Buddhism was gradually giving way to Islam. If the role of Cheng Ho and his associates in the development of Islam in Southeast Asia can be ascertained, it will be significant. Islam was introduced along with peaceful commercial activities to Southeast Asia, and in turn helped promote the growth of a commercial economy.

Even if Cheng Ho had had nothing to do with the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, his status and reputation as a great navigator and excellent envoy of peace cannot be shaken. Studies on the relationship between Cheng Ho and Islam in Southeast Asia can offer more insight into Cheng Ho’s expeditions, especially his role in the development of Islam in Southeast Asia in the 15th century. This also constitutes an important part in the cultural exchange between China and Southeast Asia. It will be valuable if scholars both at home and abroad can collaborate better in their investigation and research to solve this historical riddle.

Kong Yuanzhi [孔远志]
Professor, Peking University

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia Issue 10 (August 2008): Southeast Asian Studies in China 
This paper was first published in
Southeast Asian Studies 2006, no. 1, and was translated for KRSEA by Liu Kewei.
Editor’s note: quotations from translations of English language sources into Chinese have been paraphrased where the original was not available for consultation. The existence of a quotation in the Chinese version of this paper has been noted in the citation, and in all cases the page numbers from the Chinese translations have been retained.


  1. Nicholas Tarling, ed., The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia,I, Cambridge University Press 1992, p.513.
  2. Hasan Shadily, Ensiklopedi Indonesia,(Jakarta : P.T.Ichtiar Baru—Van Hoeve ,1989) p. 1501.
  3. A. Hasymy, Sejarah Masuk Dan Berkembangnya Islam Di Indonesia, cetakan kedua (Jakarta: PT Alma’ arif, 1989), p. 361.
  4. Harian Kompas, 28 September 1980.
  5. Harian Republik, 14 September 1997.
  6. Aspirasi, 25 September, 2003, p. 23.
  7. H. J. de Graaf dkk., Cina Muslim Di Jawa Abad XV dan XCI: Antara Historisitas dan Mitos (Yogya : PT Tiara Wacana Yogya, 1998), p. 7.
  8. S. Q. Fatimi, Islam Comes to Malaysia (Singapore: Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, 1963), p. 52-66.
  9. Shadily, Ensiklopedi Indonesia, p. 1501-1502; Sanusi Pane, Sejarah Indonesia, vol. I, Chinese translation (Commercial Press, 1972), p. 147.
  10. Marco Polo, Travels of Marco Polo, vol. II, translated by Feng Chengjun (Commercial Press, 1936), p. 655 [quotation].
  11.  J. C. van Leur, Indonesian Trade and Society (The Hague: The Royal Tropical Institute-Amsterdam, 1995), p. 111.
  12. H.G. de Graff & Theodore G. Th. Pigeaud, Kerajaan Islam Pertama di Jawa (Jakarta: Pustaka Utama Grafiti). Another view holds that Fatimah died in 1102; see Uka Tjandrasamita, The Arrival and Expansion of Islam in Indonesia Relating to Southeast Asia (Jakarta: Masagung Foundation, 1985), p. 3-5. According to various other sources, Fatimah was dead in 1083 rather than in 1102.
  13. D.G.E. Hall, A History of South-east Asia,I, Mac-millan & Co.Ltd. London, Second Edition, 1964. p.190.
  14. Tjandrasamita, Arrival and Expansion of Islam, p. 3-5.
  15. Van Leur, Indonesian Trade and Society, p.111.
  16. Hall, History of Southeast Asia, p. 191.
  17. Tarling, Cambridge History, p. 515,
  18. Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, Sejarah Nasional Indonesia (Jakarta: Balai Pustaka, 1976), p.109.
  19. Lite Chen, A History of Chinese Migrants (Chinese Literature Press, 1946), p. 6.
  20. Prijohudomo, Sejarah Kebudayaan Indonesia, II (Jakarta, 1953), p. 91.
  21. The History of the Yuan Dynasty; see also G. Coedes, The Indianized States of Southeast Asia(Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1968), p. 202; Liao Dake, “Cheng Ho’s Expeditions and the Spread of Islamism in Southeast Asia,” in The Chinese Who was Travelling on the Sea(Association of Cheng Ho Studies, Haichao Press, 1996), p. 252.
  22. Liao, “Cheng Ho’s Expeditions,” p. 252.
  23. Liao, “Cheng Ho’s Expeditions,” p. 254-256.
  24. De Graaf dkk., Cina Muslim Di Jawa, p. 47.
  25. Chen Dasheng, “Cheng Ho, Islam in Southeast Asia and the Chronicles of Semarang,” Asia Culture (Singapore Association of Asia Studies, June 2003); Qian Jiang, “Cheng Ho’s Expeditions and Chinese Muslim Communities in the Indonesian Archipelago as seen through The Malay Annals of Semarang and Cirebon,” Overseas Chinese History Studies 2005, no. 3 [ed.’s note: see (http://scholar.ilib.cn/ A-hqhrlsyj200503001.html for abstract].
  26. Parlindungan, Tuanku Rao (Jakarta: Penerbit Tandjung Pengharapan, 1964), p. 653.
  27. Lee Khoon Choy, Indonesia: Myth and Reality (Singapore: Educational Press, 1979), p. 85.
  28. Heru Christiyono, “Zheng Ho,” (Jakarta: Majalah Selecta, 1982, no. 1126.
  29. Slamet Muljana, Kuntala, Sriwijaya dan Suwarnabhumi (Jakarta: Yayasan Idayu, 1981); de Graaf dkk., Cina Muslim Di Jawa, p. 56.
  30. Parlindungan, Tuanku Rao, p. 652-653.
  31. Parlindungan, Tuanku Rao, p. 116.
  32. Slamet Muljana, Runtuhnja Keradjaan-Keradjaan Hindu Djawa Dan Timbulnja Negara-Negara Islam Di Nusantara (Jakarta: Bhratara, 1968), p. 64-72.
  33. Lee Khoon Choy, Indonesia: Myth and Reality, p. 85.
  34. Tan Yeok Seong, “The Relationship between Chinese Migration in the Ming and Islamization in Southeast Asia,” Southeast Asia Journal 1975-1976, nos. 1-2.
  35. Muljana, Runtuhnja Keradjaan-Keradjaan Hindu Djawa, p. 108.
  36. Sie Hok Tjwan, The 6th Overseas Chinese State (Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, James Cook University of North Queensland, Australia, 1990), p. 72.
  37. Ma Huan, The Overall Survey of the Ocean Shores.
  38. Halim, “Wali Sanga Islam Di Pulau Jawa,” Harian Utusan Malaysia, 9 November 1980.
  39. Sie Hok Tjwan, 6th Overseas Chinese State, p. 154.
  40. Muljana, Runtuhnja Keradjaan-Keradjaan Hindu Djawa, p. 71.
  41. Buya Hamka, “Cheng Ho: Laksamana Muslim Yang Pernah Mengunjungi Indonesia,” Majalah Star Weekly, 18 March 1961.
  42. Tempo, 14 September 1985, p. 48.
  43. Geography of the Countries, Vol. 6.
  44. outheast Asian Studies, vol. 2, no.3 quoted from Zhang Weihu (ed.), Cheng Ho’s Maritime Expedition (Beijing: People’s Communication Press, 1985), p. 168.
  45. Sumanto Al Qurtuby, Arus Cina-Islam-Jawa (Jakarta: INSPEAL Press & INTI, 2003), p. 192.
  46. Hamka, “Cheng Ho.”
  47. Kong Yuanzhi, “Precious Friendship, Touching Legends: On the Folk Legends about Cheng Ho in Southeast Asia,” Cheng Ho Studies, December 1989, no. 9.
  48. See also Tempo, 14 September 1985, p. 48; Amen Budiman, Semarang Riwayatmu Dulu, vol. I (Semarang: Tanjung Sari, 1978), p. 26; Xue Ming, “Cheng Ho Cave, A Tourist Spot in Indonesia,Overseas Chinese (Hong Kong, 1987), no. 10.
  49. D. E. Willmott, The Chinese of Semarang: A Changing Minority Community in Indonesia(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1960), p. 2.
  50. he Genealogy of Cheng Ho (People’s Communications Press, 1985), p. 48.
  51. Sumanto Al Qurtuby, Arus Cina-Islam-Jawa, p. 86.
  52. H. Aboebakar, Sejarah Masjid (Jakarta: Toko Buku “Andil,” 1955), p. 163.
  53. Muljana, Runtuhnja Keradjaan-Keradjaan Hindu Djawa, p. 160-162, 170.
  54. Hamka, Sejarah Ummat Islam, Jilid IV, cetakan kedua (Jakarta: Penerbit Bulan Bintang, 1976), p. 34.
  55. M. C. Ricklefs, The History of Modern Indonesia, since c.1200, Third Edition, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.  p. 10.
  56. H. J. de Graaf and Theodore G. Th. Pigeaud, Kerajaan Islam Pertama di Jawa (Jakarta: Pustaka Utama Grafiti, 1986), p. 28-29.
  57. an Yeok Seong, “The Relationship between Chinese Migration in the Ming and Islamization in Southeast Asia”.
  58. Agus Sujudi, “Warisan Sam Po Toa Lang,” Star Weekly, no. 347, 1952.
  59. Hamka, Sejarah Ummat Islam. Malabar is located in the Southwest coast of India. Kong Yuanzhi refers to the map.
  60. Aa. Kustia, “Admiral Cheng Ho: A Great Man with Multi-Identities,” Studies on Cheng Ho, no.3, 2003, p. 14.
  61. Huang Qiurun, “Cheng Ho’s Achievements and Quanzhou,” Studies on Cheng Ho, no. 12, 1991, p. 54.
  62. Xiao Xian, “Cheng Ho’s Expeditions and the Development of Islamism in Southeast Asia”, 2ndConference on Cheng Ho Studies (Kunming, 2002).
  63. Liang Qichao, “Biography of Cheng Ho, a Great Navigator of China,” in Selections on Cheng Ho Studies, ed. Wang Tianyou and Wan Ming (Peking University Press, 2004), p. 4.
  64. Liu Ruzhong, Cheng Ho’s Expeditions (Chinese Literature Press, 1983), p.16.
  65. Benny G. Setiono, Tionghoa Dalam Pusaran Poltiik (Jakarta: Elkasa, 2003), p. 44.
  66. Setiono, Tionghoa Dalam Pusaran, p. 33.
  67. Tarling, Cambridge History, p. 520.
  68.  Junus Jahja, ed., Muslim Tionghoa (Jakarta: Yayasan Ukhuwah Islamiyah, 1985), p. 21.
  69. Achmad Setiaji, “Islam Indonesia: Cina dan Sam Po Kong,” Pikiran Rakyat (Bandung), 27 Februari 1998.
  70. Muljana, Runtuhnja Keradjaan-Keradjaan Hindu Djawa, p. 66.
  71. Muljana, Runtuhnja Keradjaan-Keradjaan Hindu Djawa, p. 66 [quotation].
  72. Tempo, 14 September 1985.
  73. The seven temples related to Cheng Ho are located in Semarang, Jakarta, Cirebon, Surabaya(2) ,Bangka Island and Bali Island.
  74.  Junus Jahja, Catatan Seorang WNI (Jakarta: Yayasan Tunas Bangsa, 1988), p. 65-64.
  75. Muljana, Runtuhnja Keradjaan-Keradjaan Hindu Djawa, p. 67.
  76. Chen, “Cheng Ho, Islam in Southeast Asia and the Chronicles of Semarang,” p. 90.
  77. De Graaf dkk., Cina Muslim Di Jawa, p. xxii-xxxii.
  78. Shadily, Ensiklopedi Indonesia, p. 1362; Denys Lombard, Nusa Jawa Slang Budaya, II (Jakarta: Penerbit Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 1996), p. 314.
  79. Liao Dake, “Early Chinese Muslims in Southeast Asia,” Studies on Chinese and Overseas Chinese, 1997, no. 1, p. 32.
  80. Liao Dake, “Cheng Ho’s Expeditions and the Spread of Islamism in Southeast Asia,” p. 256.
  81.  De Graaf dkk., Cina Muslim Di Jawa, p. xxv-xxxvi.
  82. Terada Tabanobu, Cheng Ho: A Navigator Linking China and Muslim Countries (Haiyang Press, 1988), p. 144.