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Southeast Asia, Shia in

Christoph Marcinkowski
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Southeast Asia, Shia in


The vast majority of the Muslims in Southeast Asia today are Sunnis, most of them adhering to the Shāfiʿī legal school. The spread of Islam in the region occurred predominantly by way of the southern and western Indian trade emporia, that is to say, by sea. Muslims had certainly visited Southeast Asia from the seventh century CE onward as traders coming from the Middle East and India. The large-scale Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago (Sumatra and parts of Java in particular) during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, however, was further advanced by Arab traders from the Hadhramaut in Yemen (southern Arabia), as well as by merchants from southern India, areas in which Shāfiʿī Sunnism was prevalent. Many of the arriving Muslim merchants and preachers of Islam were affiliated with one or more of the leading Sufi orders then in vogue in the Middle East and India. In the archipelago, Islam was often propagated in the garb of mysticism as expounded by classical Persianate Sufism. These tendencies met and blended with local folk beliefs and even shamanistic elements from the region’s pre-Islamic period.

Historical and Cultural Currents.

Early or “proto-Shi‘ism” is said to have been present among the Cham people (a minority of Malay ethnic stock in what is now Cambodia and Vietnam) as early as the seventh century CE, that is to say, during the formative period of Islam. This rather surprising feature should be considered within the context of Southeast Asia’s favorable geographical location along the major maritime trade routes between East Asia—China in particular—on the one hand and the wider Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern region on the other. Shīʿism is said to have been brought there directly by partisans of ʿAlī b. Abī Tālib who escaped persecution by the Umayyad regime. Other scholars have argued that the early Muslim arrivals were mainly Persian Shīʿīs. The circumstance of one of ʿAlī’s sons, Muḥammad Ibn al-Ḥanafīyah (d. 700 CE), being the focal point of reference for early Islam among the Cham people is very interesting.

As in the case of the Cham people, on the eastern Indonesian Maluku islands, too, we still encounter several other remnants of surviving Shīʿī customs, such as the above-mentioned explicit reference to ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and his wife Fāṭimah in wedding ceremonies. The Shīʿī “passion play” (taʿzīyah), too, had been performed. Moreover, half-legendary Sufi teachers, known as “Nine Saints,” or wali songo in Javanese, are traditionally credited with the spread of Islam on the island of Java during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The historical identities of those teachers are often shrouded in mystery. However, of particular interest is a figure traditionally known as “Sunan Kudus” or Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, which is also the name of the sixth Imām of the Twelver Shīʿīs. The reason he is known by this particularly Shīʿī name appears to be lost in history. However, the place of his shrine still hosts an annual festival involving certain Shīʿī elements, celebrated on the tenth day of Muḥarram, the day that marks the killing of Ḥusayn at Karbalā’.

The importance of languages in the history of Islam in the eastern Indian Ocean region and the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, as well as the place of Shīʿism within this context, is readily apparent. Persian became the lingua franca in the Indian Ocean trading world and a Persian-speaking merchant community was present in Malacca, the Malay Muslim sultanate and trade emporium, a state that lasted from the early fifteenth century to 1511, when it was conquered by the Portuguese.

Along with the Persian language and Persianate Sufism, Shīʿī elements, too, entered Malay-Indonesian Islam, certainly by way of southern India, where it was well represented. In our present state of knowledge, we are unable to say whether the activities of the Ismāʿīlī Shīʿīs in India at that time had any bearing on Southeast Asia. However, with regard to India it is interesting to note that Ismāʿīlīs often used analogies to which Hindus, the potential targets of Ismāʿīlī missionary activities, could connect, such as likening the epic struggle of Lord Rama, a “wronged hero,” to that of ʿAlī b. Abī Tālib or his son Ḥusayn. At any rate, by the end of the thirteenth century, still the formative period of Islam in Southeast Asia, Shīʿīs had not managed to establish a political entity of their own in the region, although at that time Shīʿism is said to have caused a split in the ruling family of Perlak, apparently the earliest Muslim sultanate on Sumatra’s northeastern coast.

From the cultural point of view, however, Shīʿī influences are nevertheless manifest in the Muslim literatures of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago. These influences are particularly evident in what is known in Malay as the hikayat genre. The anonymous Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyyah, for instance, seems to be the oldest Malay work of this kind of literature that is still popular among the Muslim peoples of Southeast Asia. It appears that it was translated, at times literally, perhaps in the middle of the fifteenth century and possibly at Pasai in northeastern Sumatra, from a Persian original. The work recounts the epic struggle between the Umayyad regime and the aforementioned Muḥammad Ibn al-Ḥanafīyah, an enigmatic, archetypal heroic figure of early Shi‘ism.

Shīʿī influences on Islamic religious thought in Southeast Asia are substantial with regard to the former Acheh sultanate in Sumatra, which was able to claim a dominant position at the Straits after the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511 had caused Malacca’s peninsular Malay successor states to lapse into a period of isolation. Muḥarram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar, used to be referred to as “Ḥasan-Ḥusayn,” in commemoration of Muḥammad’s two grandchildren. Some of the Achenese, even though they were Sunnis, used to perform mourning ceremonies reminiscent of those in Shīʿī countries, although on a smaller scale. A festival with a particularly Shīʿī flavor persists to this day in West Sumatra. It is celebrated during the first ten days of Muḥarram and involves certain dramatic performances reminiscent of taʿzīyah. In recent years, these performances have also become a major tourist attraction in the region.

It has been alleged that the Achenese sultan Ibrāhīm II, who ascended the throne in 1636, had been a Shīʿī or at least sympathetic towards Shīʿīs. Regardless of whether or not this is in accordance with the historical facts, it should also be noted that this period, contemporary with the rule of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1603) in India, appears to reveal a general flourishing of speculative philosophy and mysticism in the Indian Ocean region. The rise to favor with the succeeding Achenese rulers of the staunch Shāfiʿī Sunni scholar Nūr al-Dīn Rānīrī, who was born in India, however, is sometimes seen as the beginning of a period of legalism, resulting in the persecution and repression of the heterodox, nonconformist Sufis and crypto-Shīʿīs. Thus, throughout history, there has always existed a certain tension in Malay-Indonesian Islam between a profound “heterodox” mystical tradition with at times strong Shīʿī undercurrents, dating back to the time of the arrival of Islam in the region, and the thin veneer of Sunni legalism under which it is hidden. It is telling that the “purge” of Classical Malay Muslim literature of its earlier “heterodox” (i.e., Sufi and Shīʿī) tendencies did not prevent these texts from remaining popular among local Muslims.

Ḥamzah Fanṣūrī (fl. sixteenth century), the main exponent of Malay Muslim “heterodoxy,” is believed to have been born in the Siamese capital and major trading emporium Ayutthaya. This circumstance leads to another interesting fact that might be surprising at first glance: the existence of a vibrant Twelver Shi‘i community of Persian or Persianate merchants in the Theravada Buddhist kingdom of Siam, present-day Thailand, during the seventeenth century. In the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Twelver Shīʿism had a strong foothold in Siam. During that period, Siam had also direct diplomatic contacts with Ṣafavid Persia. Ayutthaya was also home to a Twelver Shīʿī merchant colony, most of whom were Persians. In the light of the dominating role of Persianate Shīʿī states in southern India it is not surprising that Ayutthaya should have been known to the mainly Muslim merchants under a Persian name: Shahr-i Nāv (City of Boats and Canals). Up to the end of the seventeenth century, Shīʿīs may even have constituted the majority of the Muslims at Ayutthaya. Some of them were entrusted by the Siamese kings with key administrative positions that put them in charge of Siam’s entire trade with the Middle East and Muslim India, serving as commercial counterweights to the more dangerous European trading companies. The end of the Ayutthaya kingdom in 1767 also resulted in the end of Persian cultural dominance, as well as Shīʿī dominance among its Muslims. However, the descendants of some of the original Persian-speaking merchants, members of the Bunnag, Siphen, and Singhseni families, continue to be in positions close to the throne to this day.

Contemporary developments.

In contrast to other parts of Southeast Asia, the presence of Shīʿism on the Malay Peninsula seems to be of rather recent date. This development should be considered in light of the impact of the Iranian revolution of 1979 and its aftermath on the Muslim world in general. In history, the Malacca sultanate, as well as its various successor states on the peninsula, had always been strongholds of the Sunni Shāfiʿī legal school, combined with a staunchly Ashʿarī theological outlook.

However, the issue of continuing latent Shīʿī tendencies in Southeast Asian Islam had already, at the beginning of the twentieth century, become the subject of heated debate among Muslims in British-administered Malaya and Singapore, as well as the Dutch East Indies. Sayyid Muḥammad b. al-ʿAqīl al-Ḥaḍramī, a member of the local Arab immigrant community of Yemeni descent, evoked an outcry from his peers and fellow Sunnis when he criticized the cursing of the first Umayyad caliph Muʿāwiyah. Moreover, it should be noted that Shīʿism—or at least cultural expressions of it—did have an outlet on Penang Island, which was in British hands from the last years of the eighteenth century onward. Shīʿī sepoy soldiers in British service brought with them the boria, a choral street performance carried out annually by several troupes during the first ten days of Muḥarram in commemoration of Karbalā’. This event had its apex in the nineteenth century and is still practiced in contemporary Malaysia, where it has become a part of the Malay heritage.


With regard to Malaysia—a multicultural and multi-religious country with a large ethnic Chinese and Indian non-Muslim minority—it is crucial to understand that the fact that only little more than half of the country’s population are ethnically Malay (and Muslim). This circumstance has been a matter of concern to the political leadership of the Malays at least since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957. The currently rather sad state of interfaith relations in Malaysia is, of course, also highly relevant to the country’s tiny Shīʿī community.

During the 1980s and 1990s, many Malaysians and Indonesians—mostly former Sunnis—were to be found at the Shīʿī theological study centers of Qum in Iran. Many of the Malaysian Shīʿīs feel compelled to exercise taqīyah, “prudent dissimulation,” and recently several Shīʿī practices have led to misunderstandings between Malaysia’s Sunni authorities and the local Shīʿī community. The misuse of mutʿah, “temporary marriage,” for instance—mostly by individuals who were not even Shīʿīs themselves—led to severe accusations against local Shīʿīs as a whole.

In contrast to their Sunni brethren, Malaysian Shīʿīs congregate in separate gathering places, ḥusaynīyahs, rather than in state-run (Sunni) mosques. Depending on the prevailing political climate, those ḥusaynīyah often operate only in hiding. As the name already suggests, ḥusaynīyahs do not merely fulfill the function of mosques but are above all assembly halls for the celebrations of particularly Shīʿī events. All of them operated only in secret and were only temporarily active due to persecution. Most were situated either in apartment blocks or in rented houses, as the erection of an openly Shīʿī mosque would be impossible. To date, any deviation from what is perceived as orthodox Sunni Islam—of the Shāfiʿī variety, one should add—is still considered heretical as it could disturb the “unity of the Malays.” The Internal Security Act (ISA), which provides for detention without trial for up to sixty days (and under special circumstances up to two years), is still in force. The second half of the 1990s saw an apparently government-backed campaign against what was introduced to the public as “deviationist teachings,” among them Shīʿism. It appears that this campaign was motivated by purely internal political considerations, such as the above-mentioned issue of “Malay unity,” rather than religious ones. The arrest of six Shīʿīs in October 2000 caused particular concern which went far beyond the Shīʿī community. The future fate of the Shīʿīs in Malaysia is thus unclear and seems to depend on the general course the country is going to take.


The main and decisive historical factor behind the current dominance of Sunni Islam among the Muslims in Thailand seems to be—aside from the end of the “Persian intermezzo” during the Ayutthaya period—the incorporation in 1902 of the four southern princely states of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, and Satun into the administrative framework of the kingdom, making Islam the country’s largest minority religion. The dominance of Sunnism in those provinces (and thus now also in the country overall) resulted in the appointment of a Sunni head of the kingdom’s Muslim community in 1945, instead of the previous Shīʿī ones. Despite this, Shīʿīs, mostly ethnic Pathans but also new Thai and ethnic Malay converts, continue to live in the kingdom. They are now merely an insignificant minority in metropolitan Bangkok.

Shīʿī life in contemporary Thailand seems to be dominated entirely by the Iranian embassy in Bangkok and its cultural center, in spite of the presence of the rather quietist as-Sayyid al-Khoei Center in the same city. The Iranian embassy in Bangkok tries to promote a favorable environment for Iran by convening conferences and publishing classical Persian literature in Thai translation. The history of the presence of Iranians in Siam, for instance, has been the subject of several conferences in Thailand, mostly in conjunction with several local universities. Most of the members of the Thai staff working at the Iranian embassy appear to be converts from Sunnism, some of them ethnic Malays, others ethnic Thais. Moreover, most of them are former seminarians of the Twelver Shīʿī study centers in Iran, such as Qum. Most of them appear to be rather unconditional adherents of Iran and its current political system. Because of this, they often find themselves in isolation vis-à-vis their Sunni compatriots and have almost nothing in common with the southerners and their struggle for more autonomy.


Indonesia, in turn, can well be considered the center of Shīʿī revivalism in the region. This seems to be manifested in the publication sector and especially in the field of religious and secular education. As in the cases of Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore, however, the recent interest in and revival of Shīʿism in Indonesia from the early 1980s onward must also be seen within the impact of the Iranian revolution of 1979 on the Muslim world at large. Shīʿī life in Indonesia appears to be mostly concentrated on Java, especially in the capital Jakarta, but also in Bandung and Surabaya. Being the country with the largest number of Muslims in the world, and given the extent of opportunities for Shīʿīs to organize themselves freely under the present democratic political system, the number of Shīʿīs in the country may be much higher than those of some other countries in the region. There are no official statistics, but the U.S. State Department in its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2005 stated that there are between 1 and 3 million Shīʿī practitioners nationwide. This would make Indonesia the spearhead of Shīʿism in Southeast Asia, taking into account the difficult situation faced by Shīʿī Muslims in Malaysia and their rather limited numbers in other parts of the region.

Many Indonesian Shīʿīs—in most cases, neophytes—have studied at the seminaries at Qum in Iran. Under the Suharto regime the country’s Shīʿīs were considered a major threat to the state as an “Iran-inspired” revolutionary movement. Shīʿī institutions in the country receive more or less official visits from the Iranian religious establishment and several Shīʿī organizations are active in the educational sector, among them several institutions of higher learning. Numerous Shīʿī or “Shīʿa-friendly” publishing houses exist in the country, and as literature on Shīʿsm in Malay, published in Malaysia, is not available, publications in the Indonesian language are a major source for Malay-speaking Muslims in Singapore and Malaysia.


This case is also unique, as there is no Iranian embassy or cultural center in the republic that could be considered to be a “promoter” of Shīʿism. Until recently, Iran’s interests in Singapore had been overseen by the Iranian ambassador to Indonesia, who was also accredited to Singapore. The local Shīʿī community is therefore mainly on its own. As in the case of Malaysia, university graduates are often found among the local Shīʿīs. However, due to Singapore’s character as a secular multiethnic and multi-religious state, the problems faced by local Shīʿīs differ from those of their coreligionists in Malaysia. In Singapore, the main issue seems to be to establish a climate of mutual trust between the Shīʿīs and other, non-Muslim Singaporeans, and, to a lesser extent, with the local Sunnite Muslim community, as both Sunnis and Shīʿīs are minorities in the island republic. There are about two thousand to three thousand Twelver Shīʿīs living in Singapore, most of them Malays, as are most of the country’s Sunni Muslims. Moreover, the community’s social structure has changed, now including businessmen as well as university graduates, among them a deputy public prosecutor. Singapore acknowledges Sunni personal law, but fails to recognize Shīʿī personal law. Other issues involve security. On 9 June 2002, the Singaporean government is said to have accused Lebanon’s Hezbollah of recruiting five Singaporeans—apparently Shīʿīs—for “special classes” held on the island state and in the Malaysian state of Johor for the preparation of a (failed) plot during the 1990s to attack American and Israeli shipping bound for the island republic.

Finally, aside from the Twelvers, there is also a rather small local Ismāʿīlī Dawoodi (Dā’udī) Bohra community in Singapore. The community is ethnically Indian and many of its members are involved in various business activities.


Translated primary sources

  • Brakel, L. F. The Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyyah: A Medieval Muslim-Malay Romance. 2 vols., vol. 1. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975 [intro. and romanized Malay ed.]. Gives evidence for Shīʿī influences on Classical Malay literature.
  • Brakel, L. F. The Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyyah: A Medieval Muslim-Malay Romance. 2 vols., vol. 2. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977 [Engl. transl.].
  • Ibn Muḥammad Ibrāhīm [Muḥammad Rabīʿ b. Muḥammad Ibrāhīm]. The Ship of Sulayman, translated by John O’Kane. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972. The prime source on the Shīʿīs in Thailand in the seventeenth century.

Secondary sources

  • Baried, B. “Shi’a Elements in Malay Literature.” In Profiles of Malay Culture: Historiography, Religion and Politics, edited by Sartono Kartidirdjo. Jakarta: Ministry of Education and Culture, 1976.
  • Baried, B. “Le Shi‘isme en Indonesie.” Archipel 15 (1978): 65_84.
  • Barnard, T. P. Contesting Malayness: Malay Identity across Boundaries. Singapore: Singapore University Press 2004. Good overviews on the correlatives between ethnicity and religion among the Malays.
  • Durand, E. M. “Les Chams Banis.” Bulletin de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient 3 (1903): 54–62.
  • Ende, Werner. “Schiitische Tendenzen bei sunnitischen Sayyids aus Hadramaut: Muhammad b. ‘Aqil al-‘Alawi (1863–1931).” Der Islam 50 (1973): 82–97.
  • Gordon, A., ed. The Propagation of Islam in the Indonesian-Malay Archipelago. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, 2001. Good historical overview on the Islamization process in Southeast Asia.
  • Hurgronje, C. S. The Achenese, translated by A. W. S. O’Sullivan. 2 vols. Leiden: Brill, 1906. Has some interesting parts on Shīʿī practices in Sumatra, Indonesia.
  • Manguin, P. Y. “Etudes cam II: L’introduction de l’Islam au Campa.” Bulletin de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient 66 (1979): 255–87.
  • Marcinkowski, Christoph. Shi’ite Identities: Community and Culture in Changing Social Contexts. Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2010. A recent work on the correlatives of culture, religion, and politics among Shīʿīs between Beirut and Singapore; the most comprehensive study on the Shīʿīs of Southeast Asia.
  • Riddell, Peter. Islam and the Malay-Indonesian World: Transmission and Responses. Singapore: Horizon Books, 2001. Good introduction to the history and present.
  • Rinkes, D. A. Nine Saints of Java, translated by H. M. Froger, edited by A. Gordon, introduction by G. W. J. Drewes. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, 1996.
  • Roff, W. R. The Origins of Malay Nationalism. New Haven, Conn.,, and London: Yale University Press, 1967.
  • Wieringa, E. “Does Traditional Islamic Malay Literature Contain Shi’itic Elements? ‘Alî and Fâtimah in Malay Hikayat Literature.” Studia Islamika [Jakarta] 3 (1996): 93–111.
  • Zulkifli. “Seeking Knowledge unto Qum: The Education of Indonesian Shi’i ustadhs.” www.iias.nl/nl/38/IIAS_NL38_30.pdf.
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