Trade and the Transmission of Faith

Trade and the Transmission of Faith

What can history teach us about the relationship between trade and the transmission of faith? Quite a lot it would seem. The answers to two further questions will help unpack some key lessons for missional business in 21st Asia.

Q 1: How did Islam arrive in East Asia? Ans: Muslim Traders.

Exactly how Islam came to East Asian communities is not known but scholars agree that a “direct relationship between trade and the spread of Islam is undeniable.” The maritime history of the Indian Ocean suggests that there were Muslim sailors working on ships plying the trade routes around the archipelago as early as the eighth century. As trade increased and connections with ports and peoples were strengthened, so the Muslim presence grew. In their book, Spice Journeys: Taste and Trade in the Islamic World, de Guise and Sutarwala write that “Islam and hospitality go together like coffee and cardamon. Islam and trade have also been inextricably bound since the time of the Prophet Muhammad.” Islam spread to the region, not to begin with by the intentional efforts of Islamic missionaries, but through merchants. 

It’s fair to say that Islam was embraced in Southeast Asia not least because of the significant commercial benefits it offered. So “historians generally agree that proselytisation was closely linked to trade, which in this period was dominated by Muslims from India.” 

And Indian Muslims, especially those from Gujarat, had been influential in Malacca – a key city – from the thirteenth century onwards, playing a pivotal role in Malacca’s emergence not just as an important trading centre but in its eventual rise to become what historians have described as “the greatest Islamic empire of Southeast Asia” and a conduit for Muslim influence throughout the archipelago. 

So what? Well, this historical sketch provides an example of how key trading routes and relationships are highly influential in the transmission of a faith – in this case Islam. And notice too that it was linked with a key trading location – the city of Malacca. In the 21st century we should be looking at where are the key trading networks, routes, relationships and locations, and thinking strategically and missionally about how these can be used for the glory of God. 


Q 2: Why did Islam expand in East Asia? Ans: European Christian Traders


A key factor in the expansion of Islam across Southeast Asia was the coming of Western European Christian powers. 


Seeking access to the lucrative spice trade and the other natural resources, and with the aim of controlling the trade routes, the first of those powers arrived in the early sixteenth century, when the Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511. Then came the Spanish who arrived in the Philippines in 1565, conquering the port of Manila in 1571. The Dutch entered the spice trade by securing an agreement in 1600 with the chief of Ambonia, and then in 1640 capturing the fort at Malacca from the Portuguese. The Dutch ultimately lost control of the spice trade to the British who, in the eighteenth century, took control of Penang in 1786 and Singapore in 1819 and from there extended British rule to the interior of the Malay Peninsula.


With these successive waves of colonial power dominating Southeast Asia it might be thought that Islam’s expansion would have been halted, its influence curbed. The reality, however, was quite the reverse: “Islam was actually motivated and aided in its spread and penetration by the arrival of Western Christian powers from Europe.” Any thought that those European powers might have encouraged the growth of Christianity needs to reckon with this stark summary of the Portuguese:

The Portuguese have been described… as swarming into Asia in a spirit of open brigandage. And although priests and monks multiplied in their dominions, they were ineffectual missionaries because of the misdeeds of traders and freebooters.

Not all the European traders had such a dismal record and there is evidence of positive Christian witness by Christian merchants who reached East Asia in the early 16th century. For instance, a Frenchman, Lois of Varheme, met two Nestorian merchants en route to Java, Borneo and the Molluccan islands in 1506 in Burma. But the majority of European traders were not a good witness for the gospel. 


The historical record gives pause for thought on how we engage in missional business in 21st century East Asia. If, as with so many of the Christian traders of the 16th and 17th centuries, there is nothing distinctively Christian about our lifestyle, conduct and business practice, then the watching world is right to wonder if the gospel is worth considering at all and if it really makes the difference we say it does. Whether we are in missional business or not, the world around us needs to see as well as hear the gospel from our lives. That is as true today as it was in 16th century Malacca. For those prepared to put radical discipleship into the heart of business, the doors are open all over East Asia.