The spread and localization of Buddhism and Islam into Southeast Asia

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The spread of religion first began through contact with neighbouring countries which gradually expand throughout the years. Buddhism and Islam are one of the most widespread religions across Southeast Asian countries like Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Trade merchants and imperial support of the religion played as major factors which facilitated and localised the spread of Buddhism and Islam within various countries. However, there were limitations present which hindered the development of each religion in Southeast Asia as introduction of newer religions and changes within imperial power which would have affected their progression to become fully localised pre-1800s.

After the death of Buddha around the 5th century, divisions within the religion began to grow due to differences in the interpretation of Buddha’s teaching thus resulted in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism (Bowker 2007, 140-141). Till this day, Theravada Buddhism persists predominant in Southeast Asia. Theravada Buddhism focuses their beliefs on the personal liberation whilst Mahayana Buddhism regards itself on the teaching of compassion for every living being (Berzin 2010). The spread of Buddhism, mainly Theravada, first began around early 3rd century BCE when Buddhist emissaries were sent to Indonesia and Burma by Indian emperor Asoka (Gosling 2002, 84-85). During and after his reign, his constant advocacy had sustained the faith’s position throughout Southeast Asia, influencing his children to introduce Buddhism into Sri Lanka during the first and second century CE (Gosling 2002, 82) which spread across to Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam (Swearer 1997, 90). This was further developed due to the mass influx of Indian merc...

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...ry CE when Muslim merchants, accompanied by missionary Sufis, from India and Arabia arrived through the Indian Ocean trade route for business (Johnston 2002, 291). However, it wasn’t until the 13th century when Islam began to spread across Southeast Asia from Sumatra through to Java until reaching Borneo and Philippines in the 16th century (Houben 2003, 153). Trade was not the only purpose indicated from Muslim merchants as Sufis brought about the localization of Islamic organisations for Islamic teachings which would appeal to locals and their rulers for valuable networks (Johnston 2002, 291). This presence of Islam was recorded by Moroccan traveller Marco Polo in the late 13th century which indicated the advancement of Islam localisation where citizens of Perlak, Sumatra and the Pasai king, Sultan Al-Malikus Saleh were already converted as Muslims (Mutalib 2008).
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