International Symposium

“Cosmopolitanism of Islam Nusantara: Spiritual Traces and Intellectual Networks on the Spice Route”

Speaker 1


The dynamic interaction of societies over the course of history in maritime Southeast Asia (Nusantara) in general and the Indonesian archipelago in particular has affected the ability of its people to live in coexistence. The interoceanic trade route has been interwoven with cultural exchanges in many ways for centuries. People’s hospitality, as evidenced in today’s life, was an inseparable form of cosmopolitanism that facilitated its relationship in the past with other people from many parts of the world. For example, before the coming of Islam to the region, Javanese society had interacted with various groups of “nations” such Champ, Kalingga, North India, Srilanka, Bengal, Tamil, Malay, Karnataka, Pegu (Burmese) and Cambodia (Lombard, 2005:19). In the ports of Nusantara, all traders were welcomed and basically no people were rejected because of different religion. In Malacca, according to Tomé Pires (d. 1540), foreigners from many parts of the world such as Gujarat, Bengal, Tamil, Siam, China, Ethiopia, Armenia had visited the important port of Malay Peninsula. They joined Malays, Buginese, as well as traders from Luzon and Ryukyu islands (Lombard, 2005: 7). A.B. Lapian identified a similar trend regarding the openness of coastal or maritime society to external elements in Samudera Pasai, Aceh, Demak, Gresik, Tuban, Cirebon, Banten and Ternate (Lapian, 1992: 27).

As part of the trading society, the Nusantara people have been accustomed to deal with various people and different cultures. The ability to live in coexistence has been forged through a long history of acceptance of many religions among the Nusantara people such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. These religions have lived and developed in a relatively tolerant atmosphere. Unlike European and Middle Eastern medieval history, there was no evidence of serious interreligious conflict during the reign of Sriwijaya and Majapahit Kingdom. The religious tolerance was shown by the Majapahit administration through the appointment of several public officials who had the responsibility to promote a variety of religions (Munandar, 2008:7). In a certain period, tolerance and inclusiveness were influenced by traders and travelers who visited the region for centuries. They frequently taught lessons to locals by the fact that they usually came from mixed marriage, mastering many languages, inclined to live in diverse society, and were syncretic, open to any culture and accepting of universal ideologies (Lombard, 2005:28).

An interesting clue but still vague indication of how the rulers in Nusantara welcomed and opened the spirit of tolerance to build a ‘multicultural society’ was probably shown by the King of Sriwijaya, whose kingdom had been known as the center for learning of Buddhism in the 11th century of Southeast Asian society. S.Q. Fatimi (1963) wrote that one of the king from Nusantara sent a letter to Umar b. Abdul Aziz (99/717-102/720), one of the Umayyad caliphs, conveying a peaceful massage in the 8th century. This ruler asked the Caliph to send knowledgeable people capable of teaching Islam and its law. The king’s request, as reported by Ibn Taghribirdi (d. 1470), was conveyed together with a lot of souvenirs of Nusantara’s treasures such as fragrance, sapodilla, incense and camphor (Azra, 2013:29). The letter was probably not a surprising request since the Sriwijaya kingdom had interacted with Muslim fellows from the Middle East and the king welcomed or allowed Islam in his territory (Azra, 2013:25). Moreover, there are reports that the Sriwijaya rulers employed many Muslim delegates to conduct a diplomatic mission with the Chinese rulers in the 10th to 12th century (Azra, 2013:26).

Transregional adventures of Nusantara sailors also characterize the cosmopolitan view of people who dominated naval navigation and explored seas since the first AD. According to Brissenden, the earliest evidence of Nusantara trading activity comes from Rome in the first century BC. Through the city, Nusantara sailors/traders at that time operated a regular route across the vastness of the Indian ocean to Madagascar, carrying cargoes of cinnamon. From the island and through the ports of East Africa, the cinnamon was transported by mainland traders, eventually reaching the voracious spice market of the Roman Empire (Brissenden, 1976: 65-66). Oliver Wolters in the ‘Early Indonesian Commerce’ (1967) believes that in the 5th to 6th century of Asian maritime trade, Nusantara people who were historically known as ‘kun-lun traders’ took control over the naval expedition to China. Robert Dick Read also found that in the 7th century, the Kun-lun people annually sailed to Canton or China (Dick-Read, 2005:59). No wonder when he argued that it is difficult to deny that Kun-lun took control over the sea line from China to Sumatera and from Sumatera to southern India and probably from the southern India to the Horn of Africa (Dick-Read, 2005:63).

Based on the above description, the characteristic of cosmopolitan society was practiced by the Nusantara people. There is evidence that it experienced an increasing trend after the coming of Islam in the archipelago. As Bryan Douglas Averbuch (2013) argues, Islamicate societies in maritime Southeast Asia had been formed after the onset of new contact between the Islamic world and the peoples of the tropical Pacific Rim. The desire of Near Eastern elite to possess and consume many kinds of spices from the Nusantara archipelago helped to define the cosmopolitan culture of early Islamicate societies in the region. Trade in tropical luxuries of the Indo-Pacific world, between the ninth and eleventh centuries C.E., evolved across the overlapping Sanskrit, Persian and Islamicate cosmopolitan realms. It was facilitated by the ability of merchants to operate across multiple cultural frontiers. This finding is certainly important to further trace the cosmopolitan dimensions of spice route which possibly fostered a spiritual and intellectual network across the Islamic sphere of Nusantara.

As cosmopolitanism has been discussed by scholars in various approaches, research with historical and multidisciplinary approach is important to investigate empirical traces of actors and structure of society with cosmopolitan ethos and tradition. Cosmopolitanism is one of the central topics for research, debate and controversy in the social sciences today. Unfortunately, the established studies on cosmopolitanism show a Eurocentric bias and have not gone unchallenged (Pieterse 2006; Benhabib 2008), while Southeast Asian studies found interesting facts about many forms of experience and sociability with the vision and vocabulary of togetherness, rather than separateness in the age of the networked society (Al-Junied, 2019:168). In the mid-nineteenth century onward, a study reports that, Southeast Asia has experienced an enhancement and expansion of transoceanic and intra-Asian connections and forms of cosmopolitan connectedness within the region after being integrated into the world capitalist economy (Sidel, 2021: 9). Therefore, it is important to offer alternative locations and genealogies of cosmopolitan practices in the dearth of studies on cosmopolitanism in the context of Southeast Asian culture. Moreover, construction of studies on ‘cosmopolitanism requires moving past normative visions towards understanding of the world with all its attendant tensions, dislocations and displacements’ (Feener and Gedacht, 2018: viii).

While the spice route has been identified by certain scholars as superstructure of material culture, investigation on immaterial culture of the Indo-Pacific trajectory has not become a serious concern among them. The immaterial culture here refers to spiritual and intellectual aspect that presumably emerged along with the wave of Islamization in the Nusantara archipelago. Islamic civilization, as echoed by the eminent historian Marshal Hodgson, was shaped by the vision of faith and history. Various accounts state that Muslim preachers and Sufi agents participated in many seaborne expeditions. They played a significant role in the Islamization of Nusantara society and to some extent in the introduction of the intellectual framework. Anthony Johns believed that Islamization of Nusantara was carried out by Sufi preachers along with the arrival of foreign traders (Bruinessen, 1995:189). Also, the spice route has not been maximally explored to reveal a crucial narrative concerning the role of Nusantara agents in dealing with foreign traders and cultures. Based on these considerations, it is important to convene the international symposium on “Cosmopolitanism of Islam Nusantara: Spiritual Traces and Intellectual Networks on the Spice Route”. The term ‘Islam Nusantara’ here specifically means to denote Indonesian Islam which dominated the historical-geographical discourse of Islam in maritime Southeast Asia.


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