Throughout the bustle of its cities, where monks are part of the daily crowds and the expanses of lush countryside are interspersed with golden temples, those who decide to travel to Burmaare often struck by images of Buddhism. As the country’s predominant religion, it is woven through the fabric of life – but in such an ethnically and culturally diverse country as Burma, that same fabric of life is made up of many other traditions and religions. One that is not much written about is the role of Islam, which has had a significant presence in Burmese history and continues to do so today. To learn a little more about the history and traditions of Burmese Islam, read on.
The Beginnings of Islam in Burma
The Ayeyarwady River delta is known to historians of the region as the cradle of the first Burmese empire, which was established in 1055 by King Anawrahta. Alongside the unification of the country as a Buddhist kingdom, there were well-established Muslim communities in the same area, comprising settlers who intermarried with the Bamar and other local ethnic groups. These first settlers came from Persia and, while trying to reach China, began to travel to Burma, with some opting to settle there; their numbers were added to over the centuries by seamen and merchants, soldiers, refugees, and prisoners of war. The chronicles of the Bagan period record stories of certain Muslim individuals playing important roles in the history of that period. Most notable are the Shwe Byin brothers, who served the king as warriors and secret agents. Despite being later executed they were believed to have become Nats or deity-like spirits after their deaths – the spirit palace built in their honour, Taung Byone, is still the site of an annual festival.
Development of Modern Burmese Islam
In the 17th century and onwards, Burmese Muslims played an important role in the trading ports along the country’s coast, controlling trade and building mosques that also served as temples for local Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese communities. These coastal towns and villages continue to this day. Elsewhere in the country, Muslims – who had long made up portions of the various armies that had been warring over parts of the country – became part of the social makeup of new communities and cities; in 1857, several quarters of the newly-founded Mandalay, and space to build mosques, were provided for Muslim citizens. Later still, the Indian diaspora under British rule meant a significant increase in the numbers of Muslims who would travel to Burma and settle there.
Islam Here Today
The official government figure for Muslims in the population is 4%, while Muslim leaders put the figure as high as 20%. As with the country in general, the cultural and ethnic makeup of the Muslim population is very diverse, made up of many different communities with different roots, and different ways of connecting to other local religions and customs. Those who travel to Burma with open eyes and mind will see a variety of ways in which these communities contribute to this fascinating country’s social and cultural life.