Religion in Asia emerged, with the increasing refinement of civilisation from the deep ancient Animist cultural backdrop, which followed the rise of human beings as they wandered into all the areas on earth, seeking out new opportunities.


The Malaysian peninsula has been host to humans for some forty thousand years and the first waves of what are now Malayan people began to arrive from China at around 2500 BC bearing their traditional animist and folklore practices with them.


The first of the major formalised religions to penetrate into the peninsula were the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Indian influenced cultures, which spread over most of Southeast Asia bringing with them the advanced civilisation skills that would come to dominate the region.


The earliest known of these kingdoms was Langkasuka, at around the second century AD, in the lands straddling southern Thailand and the northern peninsula, founded by the Hindu King, Merong Mahawangsa, said to have been a descendant of Alexander the Great.


The kingdom of Gannga Negara, occupying the lands of the southern peninsula, was later established by one of his sons. Another small Hindu Kingdom, Pan Pan also existed in the area of Malaysia’s eastern coast.


The influence of the Hindu Kingdom of Funan, which also features in the histories of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar also held sway over the peninsula during its heyday as these early kingdoms jostled for supremacy, and it was during this time that Buddhism began to vie with Hinduism for the religious loyalties of the time.


As Funan collapsed, the Hindu Kingdom of Kedah, following the Mahawansa bloodline was established and by the seventh century was itself subsumed by the Buddhist Empire of Srivijaya, which occupied Cambodia, southern Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, and its natural power bases in Sumatra and Java. Srivjaya was a highly advanced civilisation, which built impressive monuments, the finest of which is the truly magnificent Borobudur temple in Java.


It was from this legacy of building culture that Jayavarman II emerged, later finding fame as the founder of the Hindu Khmer Empire in Angkor, Cambodia, who brought with him the art of monumental building, for which his empire is so famous. 


Meanwhile, Srivijaya eventually in turn fell to the Majapahit Empire, which went on to rule over Malaysia, most of Indonesia and the Philippines, practicing both Hinduism and Buddhism in tandem.


During the predominance of the early Hindu and Buddhist cultures, the influence of Arab traders was significant, and Islam had already found a home among the Cham peoples of southern Vietnam and a measure of influence on Srivijaya and later Majapahit, but it was into the vacuum left by the later decline of Majapahit that led to its spread throughout Malaysia and Indonesia, from which time Islam rose to become the dominant force in Malaysia by the 15th century.


Paradoxically, it was also Arab traders who first brought knowledge of Christianity to Malaysia, through the port of Malacca, but it was only during the later European conquests that it began to establish a physical presence, with examples of early churches in Malacca now an important component of the UNESCO World Heritage site. 


The British later acquired Penang, Malacca and Singapore, and from these bases, eventually took control of all Malaysia, during which various Christian denominations acquired a foothold. Consequently, Christianity remains a major minority religion in Malaysia today, practiced by around 9% of the population. 


Hinduism, which had played such a major part in Malaysia’s early era, had begun to virtually disappear with the widespread conversion to Islam, but the influx of migrant Indian workers which accompanied British occupation has left the legacy of a sizeable Indian population in Malaysia who still practice Hinduism today.


A small community of Sikhs also arrived in Malaysia at the behest of the British, to act as a police force, and today, their descendants still retain their traditions.


In modern Malaysia, a significant proportion of Han Chinese citizens are woven into the cultural fabric of Malaysian society, who arrived in successive waves from the 15th century, but again, most numerously as workers for the British during colonial times, with a further influx following the Chinese Civil War which preceded the communist takeover of their homeland in 1949.


The Chinese ethnic citizens of Malaysia mainly practice Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity as well as ancient Chinese animist folk religions though, through marriage, many have now also become Muslim.


Freedom of worship is enshrined in the Malaysian constitution, though under the law, those of the majority Malay descent, presently comprising around 60% of the population, are obliged to be Muslims and subject to the Sharia courts which operate exclusively outside the jurisdiction of the civil secular courts, and have considerable authority over the behaviour and dress codes of Malays.


Whilst other religions are generally free to practice, Islam is unquestionably the dominant influence and restrictions on other faiths are common, most notably obvious in the case of any activity by another faith deemed to be aimed at conversion of Muslims, which is strictly and precisely forbidden by law.


The version of Islam practiced in Malaysia is that of the Shafi’I Sunni tradition, with Shia Islam notably being banned in the country.


From ancient times, the naturalistic beliefs enshrined in animism and shamanism have dominated the cultural landscape of Borneo and still do to this day, despite the enormous pressures frequently applied by the proselytisers of competing globalised religious brands.


Communion with the spirits of natural phenomena such as trees, animal and birds, rivers, rocks and mountains is an intrinsic way of life crucial to the many tribes inhabiting the ancient forests of Borneo, traditions which stretch beyond time.


Each tribe has its own individual patterns of ritual behaviours according to its needs, with agricultural cycles and the interacting forces upon which they depend commonly an important feature for the attention of village shamans, who oversee sacrifices, placate evil or angry spirits, interpret birdsong and other omens.


Although this way of life has served its people perfectly well for countless thousands of years, the beliefs and the environment with which the Shamans interact is dwindling as commercial interests destroy their habitat and force different world views upon the peoples.


In pragmatic deference to prevailing powers, many native groups have deftly adopted the inclusion of other deities in their pantheons to appease the waves of cultural incursions, happy enough to accept figures like Jesus within their belief frameworks to satisfy the notion that they have been ‘converted’, whilst retaining the fundamentals of their cherished culture.


Conversely, the strong prevalence of animism throughout Southeast Asia has in turn influenced the practices of all the foreign imported beliefs that ply their trade here, which have themselves variously incorporated elements of local observance.


Between them, Islam and Christianity continue to harry the indigenous peoples into accepting their values, and vie with one another for dominance. Christianity is the most prominent religion in Sarawak, whilst Islam claims the majority in Sabah, having purposely brought in immigrants from the Philippines, Indonesia and Pakistan to ensure their control.


Although freedom of religion is ostensibly guaranteed in the Malaysian constitution, in practice almost all the governors of Sabah and Sarawak have been Muslim. In addition to the latent biases to office, and wider opportunities in general, despite the great antiquity of its presence, the practice of animism is not included as a recognised belief in Malaysian national statistics.


Although indigenous animism still thrives and, indeed, is a major cultural feature for tourists, it is nowadays the seductions of the gods of money and portable technologies that draw the young away from their traditional communities and most threaten their long and venerable history.


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