Nowadays when the words Islam and Muslims are mentioned, most tend to associate the terms with horrific things such as terrorism, warfare, ISIS, and religious extremists. However, this is only a fraction of the whole Islamic world. And Islam and Muslim communities have been a part of Thailand for centuries—their influences evident all over the country.
Siam established commercial ties with Muslim countries as early as the Sukhothai Period. Through trading routes goods such as ceramics were traded, as well as teachings, cultures, lifestyles, and vocabularies. Some Persian words even found their way into Thai language.
In the Ayutthaya Period, traders from Malay, Java, Persia, Arabia, and Turkey flourished. Some integrated with the society and nobility, particularly Sheikh Ahmad Qomi, a Persian merchant who lived in the Kingdom for 26 years. He was the ancestor of the illustrious Bunnag family. With his trading skills and advanced knowledge, he assisted greatly in enhancing Siam Government’s commercial activities and was recognised and appointed as the Chao Krom Tha Khwa (Lord of the Right Pier) to supervise traders from the West—including Indians, Persians, and Europeans. He was then promoted as Phraya Sheik Ahmad Ratchasetthi (Minister of the Harbour Department) as well as Chularatchamontri (Minister of Islamic Affairs) to oversee all Shiites in Siam.
Continuing the serve the Siamese kings, Sheikh Ahmad’s descendants became even more powerful in the early Rattanakosin Period because of the monarchs’ favours and the marriages with the royal family. Chuang Bunnag, or Somdej Chao Phraya Borom Maha Sri Suriyawongse, was Samuha Kalahom (Minister of Defence) during the reign of King Rama IV, and served as the regent during the early years of King Rama V’s reign. Like many Muslims, his later generations serve in the government and remain highly influential in politics, economics, and the military.
Still presided by Chularatchamontri, Islamic affairs these days are coordinated by the Central Islamic Council of Thailand (CICOT), consisting of five councillors appointed by the King. This body links the government and Islamic communities, where education, the construction of mosques, pilgrimages to Mecca is assisted.
Currently, Muslims in Thailand—from various ethnicities—make up about 5-6 percent of the population and only one-fifth of them live in the four southernmost provinces. Most Muslims in Thailand assimilate well, and mosques can be seen as far as the northern region, where Muslim Haw Chinese live. Those from the south, descending from Malay, Javanese, and Acehnese origins, speak Yawee language and maintain a strong ‘Malay’ cultural identity in their beliefs, clothes, food, art and music.
In Bangkok there are a small number of Hanafi and Shiites around the Thonburi area, and in the Kudee Cheen area along the Chao Phraya River, a mosque was built near Buddhist temples, a Catholic church, and Chinese shrines. This multi-cultural community exemplifies freedom in religious choices and practices as well as peaceful and respectful co-habitation. Thais strongly believe that every religion and culture is a main force and factor in maintaining national security.
Most Muslims in Central Thailand are more progressive and open to integrative ideas for assimilation, as they are more tolerant and don’t follow the taboos of their southern counterparts. By contrast the on-going, sometimes violent, insurgency in Southern Thailand stems from the long historical struggle between a number of separatist groups and the government. Some paint this as a religious-based conflict, especially with the attacks upon Buddhist monks and laypeople. However, it’s more about ethnic identity of the Malay-Pattani culture, rather than Islam. Military rule tended to repress the Muslims in the South, where Thai authorities like to blame them as scapegoat for all the troubles.
Negative portrayals of Muslims perpetuate the notion that Islam is against progress and advancement. However, Islamic heritage has contributed much to civilization and scientific development. We have benefitted from its legacies by using Arabic numerals, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, physics, chemistry, mechanics, geography, papermaking, and advances in industry. Without these scientific foundations, where would we be? And speaking of science, multitudes of medical tourists from the Middle East seek all sorts of treatments in Thailand’s renowned hospitals.
In addition, Muslim influences in the Thai cuisine repertoire have given us our famous Mussamun curry, whose name came from the word musulman, or “Muslim” in French. Finally there’s the most popular pastime of all—coffee-drinking! The next time you sip a cup of qahwah (Arabic for coffee), you will appreciate that it was first drunk in the Sufi shrines of Yemen in the 15th century.
Although Islam and its influences have been in Thailand for centuries, we barely know much about these friends and neighbours of ours. So we should not come to any bold conclusions too soon, especially towards something we may not fully understand. As Albert Einstein said, “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”