The history of The Malays, a race of peoples inhabiting the Malay peninsula and parts of Southeast Asia is not very ancient. Most studies link the development of the Malays to several waves of movement down the Malay peninsula from Yunnan in China, with the date 2000 B.C. marking the arrival of the modern Malays. Yet, there are several definitions, cultural and political, by which the Malays are defined and redefined as a community.
Influences from various parts of the world—South Asia, China, the Middle East (Islam) and the West–have been instrumental in shaping Malay culture and identity. Early kingdoms, mostly Hindu or Buddhist in character, and later empires came into being at the beginning of the Christian era.
With the arrival of Parameswara from present-day Indonesia another era begins, made infinitely significant with the conversion of the Malays into Islam. Various kingdoms rose and fall, and the present sultanates began to take shape. The important of these, in historical and cultural terms, were the kingdoms of Malacca and Patani.
With the destruction of the Malacca Sultanate by the Portuguese, and following them the establishment of a foothold in Malacca by the Dutch and their successors, the British, who spread their influence to the rest of the Malay peninsula, yet another major cultural shift took place. The colonial era had begun. In a sense traditional Malay history ends at this point.
The Malays belong to the broader Malayo-Polynesian group of races, the origins of which have been traced to Yunnan in China through the Proto-Malays and Deutero-Malays.
According to anthropologists these early aboriginal groups, now collectively known as Orang Asli (meanining original or indigenous people), consisting of some eighteen groups, but officially classified into Negrito, Senoi and Proto-Malay, first reached the peninsula around 2000 B.C. In the peninsula their numbers are small, making up in total around 120,000 or 0.5 percent of Malaysia’s total population.
Sub-groups of the Malayo-Polynesian race live in modern-day Southeast Asia and in the Polynesian islands, linked by a common base language manifested in many sub-languages and dialects, as well as certain basic beliefs and ritual practices. Both the languages and the beliefs are shared with those of the aboriginal peoples of the region.
From earliest times diverse conditions in different localities as well as influences from the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East, China and the West have served to considerably shape and reshape their cultures, so that each group has developed its own religious and social identity. The Malays now constitute the largest group of people in the Malay peninsula and in certain neighbouring territories on and off the island of Sumatra.
As far as Malaysia is concerned, many of those today identified as Malays have, in fact, come from these sub-groups, such as the Buginese, the Achehnese, the Javanese or the Minangkabau. Alternatively, the Malays are the product of a mixture of Malays and one or more of these sub-groups, many of which still maintain their racial identities as well as customs. The most prominent of these are the Minangkabau of Negeri Sembilan and the Javanese in Johore.
The term Malay in such situations is no more than a convenient label to refer to such communities, and is not always acceptable to the communities themselves. Apart from the ethnic links the religion of Islam is a major qualifying factor for one to be considered a Malay.
The history of the peninsula since about the 15th century, as well as recent cultural, social and political developments in Malaysia have, additionally, resulted in many non-Malays, particularly the Tamil- or Malayali-speaking Indian Muslims as well as converts from other religions into Islam being regarded as Malays. Non-Muslim groups, such as the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak, who also belong to the broader Malay-Polynesian races, are strictly speaking not considered to be Malays under this definition. To encompass all such peoples as well as the Malays a new and broader term, “Bumiputera,” came into use in the early 1970′s. Taken from the Sanskrit, this term literally means “Son-of-the Soil.”
Consequently in the context of Malay culture, the term “Malay” has two distinct applications:
(a) The Malay race as such, that is a broad term indicating ethnicity, and
(b) The Malay race as defined by the Malaysian constitution.
The Constitution, in fact, allows at the far extreme, converts to Islam to be defined as “Malay”, thus obliterating, as least on the popular level, the distinction between race and Islam. While some members of these latter groups may speak the Malay language and observe some of the social customs of the Malays, most of them retain their own languages and cultural practices, and have not been able to accept a wide range of traditional Malay beliefs.
The Malays have an animistic and Hindu heritage, strong influences of both being still evident in many of the traditional beliefs, customs and rituals, as well as in manifestations of artistic expression. Traditional practices and customary law (adat) remain important in ceremonial situations. The two best known systems of adat are the Adat Temenggong and the Adat Perpatih, the latter observed amongst the Minangkabau in Sumatra as well as, in the case of Malaysia, in the state of Negeri Sembilan.
The early history of the Malays remains obscure. The main centre of Malay power appears to have been on the island of Sumatra, where Srivijaya, a powerful kingdom was based with its capital at Palembang. The name Srivijaya is Sanskrit in origin and the culture of the population was Hindu-based. By the 9th century Srivijaya dominated the Malay Peninsula, and in the 13th century a separate kingdom, that of Tumasek was established on the island later renamed Singapore. In the 14th century Srivijaya as well as Tumasik were conquered by a Javanese empire, and the dispossessed ruler of Tumasik then founded a Malay kingdom in Malacca. With the conquest of Malacca by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the fugitive Malay Sultan founded the kingdom of Johor. (Rhiau-Johor). In due course other sultanates came to be established on the peninsula.
Islam reached the Malay archipelago in the 13th century, gaining its first foothold in the northern tip of Sumatra. Earliest evidence for Islam in the Malay peninsula comes in the form of the 14th century Trengganu stone. However, the extent of Islam in Trengganu at this early date has not been adequately established. Parameswara, the Hindu founder and first ruler of Malacca, was converted into Islam in the 15th century. From that date the Malay population of the peninsula was converted from Hinduism and Buddhism to Islam, and by the 17th century Islam had become the dominant religion of the peninsula. The Malays are Sunni Muslims belonging to the School of Shafii.
The impact of the various religious traditions of the Malays may be seen in their everyday beliefs and practices as well as in their festivals.