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The golden history of Islam in Brunei

The golden history of Islam in Brunei



By Rozan Yunos Mar 8th, 2010 . BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN


Based on this fact alone, Abu Ali must have held an important position in the Brunei Government if he was tasked to be Brunei’s Ambassador in those days and even if the King of Brunei then was not himself a Muslim, some members of his royal court were Muslims.

A number of European historians claimed that Brunei was still not a Muslim nation until the 15th century. However, the Ming Shih, Book 325, a Chinese reference book noted that the King of Brunei in 1370 was Ma-ho-mo-sa. Some say that this should be read as Mahmud Shah. But local Brunei historians take this to refer to “Muhammad Shah” the first Islamic Sultan of Brunei.

A man with his son heading to Jame Asr' Hassanil Bolkiah to attend the Friday prayers. Muslim men are obligated to participate in Friday prayers, also known as Jumu'ah. Pictures: BT/Rudolf Portillo and Raul Padernal

Robert Nicholl, a former Brunei Museum Curator argued in another paper entitled “Notes on Some Controversial Issues in Brunei History” in 1980 that the name Ma-ho-mo-sa could be pronounced as Maha Moksha which means Great Eternity. Maha Mokhsa would make it a Buddhist name. Nicholl goes on to argue that even the Brunei Sultan who died in Nanjing in 1408 was not a Muslim. Another European Historian, Pelliot, Ma-na-jo-kia-nai-nai was reconstituted as Majarajah Gyana (nai). But the closest title would have been Maharaja Karna. However Brunei historians have stated that the King was Sultan Abdul Majid Hassan who would have been the second Sultan of Brunei.

Nicholl further argued that Sultan Muhammad Shah converted to Islam as late as the 16th century and not during the 14th century as is widely known. However according to Brunei historians, Sultan Muhammad Shah converted to Islam in 1376 and that he ruled until 1402. After which time, it was Sultan Abdul Majid Hassan, who died in China who ascended the throne. That was when Sultan Ahmad reigned in Brunei beginning 1406.

Most likely there were two waves of Islamic teachings that came to Brunei. The first was brought by traders from Arabia, Persia, India and China. The second wave was brought about by the conversion of Sultan Muhammad Shah. With the coming of the second wave, Brunei’s Islamisation hastened.

!The propogation of Islam in Brunei was led by a Syarif with the name of Syarif Ali who was a descendant from Rasulullah S.A.W. through his grandsons Sayydinia Hassan or Sayydinia Hussin.

Syarif Ali arrived from Taif. Not long after he arrived in Brunei, he was married to a daughter of Sultan Ahmad. Syarif Ali built a mosque in Brunei. Syarif Ali was closely connected to a few other well known Islam propogationist in the region such as Malik Ibrahim who went to Java, Syarif Zainal Abidin in Malacca, Syarif Abu Bakar or Syariful Hashim in Sulu and Syarif Kebungsuan in Mindanoa.

Syarif Ali ascended the throne as the third Sultan of Brunei when he took over from his father-in-law. Because of his piousness, he was known as Sultan Berkat (Berkat means ‘blessed’).

The mosque especially the pulpit was used by Sultan Syarif Ali himself. Sultan Syarif Ali himself conducted the sermons during Friday prayers. So he was not only the Sultan but he was also the Imam and brought the religion directly to the Brunei people.

According to Thomas Stamford Raffles in his book “The History of Java”, the Islamic activities of Sultan Syarif Ali was not limited to Brunei. He was also known to have gone over to Java to propagate Islam where he was known as Raja Chermin. He tried hard to convert the Majapahit King named Prabu Angka Wijaya.

The efforts of the Brunei Sultans in spreading Islam helped to spread Islam not only in Borneo but also as far north as to the southern Philippines islands. When Malacca fell to the Portuguese in 1511, it was Brunei which played a major role in the spread of Islam in the region.

By the 16th century, Brunei had built one of her biggest mosques. In 1578, Alonso Beltran, a Spanish traveller described it as one of five storeys tall built on the water. Most likely it had five layers of roofs to represent the five pillars of Islam.

Islam was firmly rooted in Brunei by the 16th century. This mosque was unfortunately destroyed by the Spanish in June that same year.

By the time of Sultan Hassan, Brunei’s ninth Sultan, Brunei had the Islamic laws incorporated into the Brunei canons. Pengiran Dato Dr Hj Mohammad writing a Malay article entitled “Kemasukan Islam ke Brunei Darussalam dan Undang-Undangnya” (Arrival of Islam in Brunei Darussalam and the Laws) noted that out of the 47 chapters of the Brunei canons, 27 of those chapters had Islamic elements.

Islam lived on in Brunei till today and with the Constitution in 1959, Islam became Brunei’s Offical Religion.

The writer runs a website on Brunei at

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