Chapter 2, Part 4
Centuries after the introduction of Islam by Muhammad to the people of Mecca and Hijaz (Medina), the new religion spread quickly from the Arabian peninsula to North Africa and the Iberian peninsula to the west, along with Persia, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent to the east. However, unlike the military campaigns carried out by erstwhile Muslim rulers to expand the Islamic sphere of influence, the religion was introduced to the Malay Archipelago (a broad term to describe what is today Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei) by traders carrying commodities instead of swords.
The northern part of the island of Sumatra provided a convenient stopover for Arab, Persian and Indian traders before continuing their journey eastward to buy spices at important trading ports on the island, as well as in Java, Sulawesi, and even the Moluccas (Maluku) – the Spice Islands themselves. Therefore the ports in northern Sumatra were natural entrepôts for Islam to later spread in the sprawling archipelago. They have been dubbed the ‘Veranda of Mecca’ ever since.
In the 13th century, Samudra Pasai was established by Merah Silu, a local king who converted to Islam and took the title Malikussaleh (Malik al-Salih), and became the first Islamic kingdom recorded in Indonesian history. An important trading port for gold, pepper, and spices from the far-flung corners of the archipelago, word of mouth about Samudra Pasai’s wealth spread well beyond its borders. The 13th-century Venetian explorer, Marco Polo; the 14th-century Berber traveler from Tangier (in present-day Morocco), Ibn Battuta; and the 15th-century admiral of the Ming dynasty, Zheng He, were among the most notable people ever to set foot in Samudra Pasai. In spite of being a sultanate, Samudra Pasai was once ruled by Nahrasiyah Malikul Zahir, a sultana (female sultan) in the 15th century.
In the early 16th century, Samudra Pasai was on a steady decline, and a challenge by the Portuguese who captured Malacca across the strait further weakened the sultanate. On the other hand, a new Islamic kingdom emerged to the west of Samudra Pasai. In what is today the city of Banda Aceh, Ali Mughayat Syah established the kingdom of Aceh Darussalam, also known as the Aceh Sultanate, which would last for almost four centuries, enduring confrontation with rival kingdoms as well as European powers.
The eighth sultan, Alauddin Mansyur Syah, threatened by the Portuguese who had conquered Malacca, strengthened his naval forces and appointed Keumalahayati as his admiral – the first female admiral in the East. Not only that, from 1641 until 1699 the sultanate was ruled by four successive sultanas, a rarity among other sultanates and Islamic monarchies in the world. However the sultanas’ rule of Aceh came to an end when the mufti (head religious scholar) of Mecca issued an edict barring women from assuming the role of a king or sultan.
In modern-day Indonesia, Aceh is known as a long-restive province whose residents are staunchly conservative, popularly believed to use marijuana in their cooking, and a region that suffered tremendously in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.
After Indonesia gained independence from the Dutch, the Acehnese clerics were disappointed when Muslim-majority Indonesia opted to use quasi-secular principles instead of Islamic law (also known as sharia) as the foundation of the new nation. A home-grown movement joined other Islamist insurgencies during the early years of the nascent republic, although it receded after the province was granted a special status in the late 1950s. In the 1970s new conflicts broke out over natural resources. Natural gas fields were discovered and in the years that followed the Acehnese felt that they didn’t get a fair share of the profits which mostly went to the central government in Jakarta. This led to the creation of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) whose focus was on breaking away from Indonesia, rather than imposing sharia law. The leaders of GAM fled to Sweden and continued to organize the movement from Stockholm.
Decades of insurgency effectively made Aceh a militarized zone, with atrocities carried out by both sides while civilians suffered the most. In 1998 the unthinkable happened: the fall of Suharto from power. After ruling Indonesia for 32 years, the 77-year-old despot succumbed to the demand of the people following the 1997/98 Asian economic crisis in which Indonesia was the hardest-hit country. After seeing the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, many predicted that Indonesia would also cease to exist and dissolve into smaller states. However, a decision to change one of the world’s most centralized political systems into one of its most decentralized in a very short period of time helped the country remain united. This allowed more autonomy for regions like Aceh.
Despite allowing the local government to implement sharia law and receive foreign direct investment, the military presence in Aceh escalated and the province was declared a military operation zone. The conflict continued until 2004.
On Boxing Day 2004, a 9.1-magnitude earthquake struck off the northern coast of Sumatra and sent a deadly tsunami rippling across the Indian Ocean, killing more than 230,000 people in 14 countries. Images and videos of the seconds the tsunami hit first came from places like Malaysia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. No images or news came from Aceh in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Communication lines and roads were totally cut off, while airports were severely damaged. Aceh was isolated. It was only a few days later, once the first video of the utter devastation in Banda Aceh emerged, that everyone realized the sheer scale of the destruction.
Cars were swept away in black waves along with debris, dead bodies, trees and buildings in a high, crushing speed. People sought refuge at Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, the main mosque as well as the city’s landmark. Shortly after, donations and relief efforts poured in, not only from other parts of Indonesia but also from around the world. The people of Aceh, long isolated from the rest of Indonesia by the bloody conflict, suddenly embraced aid workers, foreign military personnel, government agencies, NGOs, as well as local and international media on their own turf.
Brokered by Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish prime minister, negotiations were conducted between the Indonesian government and GAM, resulting in the signing of a peace agreement in Helsinki. Both sides did not want to be perceived as the one slowing down the reconciliation efforts which would affect the tsunami victims, and this helped the speedy talks to reach lasting peace in Aceh. Reconstruction began in earnest and only within a few years’ time the infrastructure throughout the province, especially in the capital, was rebuilt to an even better condition than it was prior to the disaster.
Aceh rose from the ashes like a phoenix and peace is now the new norm. As part of the peace agreement, Aceh is allowed to implement sharia law – the only province in Indonesia allowed to do so – which proved to cause new tensions in the province. There are many interpretations of Islam, but the clerics in Aceh seem eager to move in the same direction as those in Brunei and the Malaysian state of Kelantan: toward an even deeper, and often worrying, conservatism.
Despite having a female mayor, banners of several aspects of sharia law which seem bizarre to many other Indonesians are scattered all across Banda Aceh. One particularly large banner near the grand mosque warns unmarried people from opposite sexes not to ride the same motorbike. In Indonesia, the ojek (a kind of motorbike taxi) is a popular means of transport, and several startup companies focusing on online ojek reservation services emerged, providing people with better access to the cheap and reliable transport option. Male ojek drivers taking female passengers and vice versa is a common sight in Jakarta and other cities across the nation, with sexual harassment an extreme rarity. One can only wonder, albeit cautiously, which direction Aceh is heading next.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.