The Arabs in Southeast Asia

by Omar Farouk Shaeik Ahmad
Lecturer, Department of History, University of Malaya

Yemen Update 33(1993):42-43

[Excerpted from The Toyota Foundation Occasional Report, May, 1992, pp. 2-4.]

For over a thousand years the Arabs have maintained a very special relationship with the Southeast Asia region and its people. Historically, this relationship has been deep and permanent; sociologically, it has been extensive and continuous; culturally, it has been rich, manifesting itself in a range of ways; and in every other sphere it has been pervasive and significant. Yet hitherto there has been no major documentation evaluating the contribution of the Arabs to the evolution of the region's polities and histories. There has been a tendency to view the role of the Arabs in Southeast Asia in a geographically compartmentalized context or in a narrow time frame; their presence in Southeast Asia has seldom been examined in a cohesive and coherent fashion.

"The Arabs in Southeast Asia: A Historical and Sociological Study" was undertaken with the help of international grants from the Toyota Foundation in the hope of correcting the imbalance of information on the role of Arabs in the region. My reconstruction of this role makes use of British, Dutch, Arabic, and vernacular records, both historical and contemporary, from within the region and beyond. Inevitably, this study raises a number of theoretical and conceptual questions relating to some of the major issues pertaining to the phenomenon of Islamization in the region, the dynamics of Arab and Muslim identity, and the pattern of integration and assimilation of the Arabs in Southeast Asia.

Arab Identity

A key issue examined in the study is the definition of "Arab." One reason it has been difficult to devise a common and universally applicable definition of the Arabs is their heterogeneous nature. Furthermore, as a people they have been widely dispersed geographically. Arab identity rarely seems to be based on territoriality.

The Arabs in Southeast Asia hail from all over the Arab world, but the majority are from Hadramaut, an ancient region in Arabia Felix, or South Arabia. The Hadarim, or Arabs from Hadramaut, cherish a very strong sense of Arab identity, which seems to overlap considerably with Islamic identity. In the Islamized world of Southeast Asia, Arab and Islamic identity are generally perceived to be synonymous. The Arab tends to be seen as representing the ideal Muslim. It is this universal popular perception of Arab identity in the region that makes it both potent and dynamic.

The study also confirms two other major characteristics of the Arabs: their obsession with movement, which illustrates their nomadic proclivities, and their very strong tribal loyalties, which manifest themselves in clannishness. The Arabs from Hadramaut have been migratory from time immemorial. They have emigrated not only to Southeast Asia but also to East Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Arab world from Morocco and Mauritania in the west to the Gulf States in the east, and even Europe and China. The harsh political and economic realities in Hadramaut and the Islamic notion of geography, which considered the world to be a universal unit without territorial frontiers, greatly facilitated the migration of the Hadrami Arabs.

The Hadrami Arabs are proud of their origins although they may have been geographically removed from Hadramaut for generations. In this connection, it is useful to note that the Arab kinship system is patrilineal. This is especially significant for the Hadrami Arabs in Southeast Asia, who intermarry with local women a great deal, yet remain almost fanatical about their Arab identity.

At present, with the exception of a thousand or so first- and second-generation Arabs who remain citizens of Arab countries, usually either Yemen or Saudi Arabia, the Arabs in Southeast Asia have become citizens of various nations in the region. The majority have become assimilated into national society. Some have almost completely lost their objective symbols of Arab identity, but most continue to possess some of these symbols in varying degrees and ways.

The Precolonial Period

The question of Arab identity has been a central theme in all three of the broad phases of development relating to the role of the Arabs in Southeast Asia: the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial periods. In the first, long period of contact between the Arabs and the region, which stretched from about the ninth century A.D. to around 1800, all kinds of relationships with Southeast Asia were established. The Arabs engaged in trade, commerce, shipping, shipbuilding, scholarship, missionary activities, diplomacy, and even local politics.

The movement of Arabs into the region was gradual, sporadic, and small in scale, though always significant. In the traditional international order, which did not interfere with either freedom of movement or cultural and religious autonomy, Arab communities thrived. In fact, because this period coincided with the dominance of Islam, and because Arab identity was generally perceived as being contiguous with Islamic identity, the Arabs were able to manipulate their ethnicity to penetrate local society to obtain rewards and benefits disproportionate to their numbers.

The most important method the Arabs adopted to achieve this was marriage. Often they used their genealogical claim to being direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad to gain acceptance into local polities as members of the nobility or royalty. In some cases they took over or founded ruling dynasties, choosing to exchange their Arab identity for an Islamized indigenous identity. It is therefore not surprising that many of the so-called national heroes of the region as well as local ruling houses were actually Arab in origin. It was the predominance of the political culture of Islam in the Islamized areas of Southeast Asia that made this possible in pre-colonial times. But the situation was to change with the advent of colonialism.

The Colonial Period

In the colonial period, beginning around the nineteenth century, Arabs began moving into Southeast Asia in greater numbers and at much more frequent intervals than in the preceding period. But this time their movement was not as free. The Arabs had to operate under colonial patronage. Islam, too, was generally in decline, and there were far fewer opportunities for the Arabs to exploit religion to their advantage.

Of course there were various forms of opposition against colonial rule undertaken by local leaders of Arab descent, but colonial policy had brought about the emergence of Arab communities that preferred to insulate themselves from local society in exchange for rewards that the colonial administration accorded them. Although religion continued to be relevant to the Arabs, they generally tended to give priority to economic activities and the acquisition and accumulation of wealth.

It was also the newly acquired wealth of the Arabs in Southeast Asia that gave them a new role in their “homeland." Money began to be channeled back to Hadramaut for various purposes. Some went into the development of the region, but some was sent to the Arabs' own tribes to help fund the chronic tribal feuds that characterized Hadramaut.

The Postcolonial Period

In the postcolonial period the Arabs continued to have a role in Southeast Asia, but that role became to a considerable extent a function of the political systems of the nations they lived in. Throughout Southeast Asia, with the exception of Singapore, the Arabs accepted some kind of indigenization and began reconciling themselves to their new responsibilities of citizenship. But the issue of Arab identity, which of necessity has been played down, continues to be relevant to the Arabs.

Meanwhile, Hadramaut became part of the new People’s Republic of South Yemen in 1967, which was renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1970, and became the first Arab state to espouse Marxism. On May 22, 1990, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen joined the Arab Republic of Yemen (North Yemen) to become the Republic of Yemen, and Marxism was discarded. Although it would be difficult to attempt to ascribe a role in these recent development to the Southeast Asian Arabs, they definitely played a part, directly and indirectly, in creating the historical circumstances that enabled the above scenario to unfold.

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