The Ottoman-Malay Connections

The connections of the Turks, who originated in the steppes of Central Asia, with Southeast Asia are based on very significant values and solid relationships. The locations of their lands have several features in common: both are surrounded by three seas and semi-islands; however, their climates differ greatly and they are located far from each other. Notwithstanding these factors, two nations have strong cultural, religious, and historical relationships. The Ottomans played a great role in the Malay Archipelago in spreading Islam and helped the Malay people defend themselves against European colonialism and the ensuing negative (in the sense of anti-Islamic) influences.

The Turk-Malay relationship can be divided into three distinct historical stages: the beginning of the thirteenth century, the pan-Islamic era of Sultan Abdulhamid II, and after the Ottoman Empire was replaced by the Republic of Turkey.

The first stage began with the coming of the Rumis. After the great period of Islamization in Southeast Asia during the thirteenth century,[1] Islam acquired strong political power in several part of the Malay world. In terms of establishing Islam in the land, India was an influential country. It was followed by the Moghul-Turkish rule in this stage. In the course of this Pax Turcica, Sunni Islam spread in the Indian sub-continent, particularly in the areas of modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, toward the Malay world via merchants, traders, Sufism, sheikhs, murids and dervishes.[2] An account by a French historian indicates this significant Turkish connection and role in the Malay world: “A great number of the Asian Turk, called Rumis, some of whom made themselves masters of some ports, as Meliques Az, who made a considerable settlement at Diu, where he was a long time troublesome to the Portuguese.” [3]

Hurgronje identifies these Rumis as Ottoman Turks on the grounds that the Ottoman Sultan was traditionally known in Southeast Asia as “Raja Rum.”[4] Historians have speculated that these Turks might have been the people of Selçuk Empire (1040-1157). The Ottoman Sultan immediately sent naval and military aid to the Malays when the Portuguese attacked Malacca in 1511. After Malacca fell, the centre of Islam in the Malay world shifted to Aceh. The Ottomans continued to do what they could to protect the Malay world until the beginning of the twentieth century.[5] The Acehnese offered an annual tribute as a token for protection, but the Ottoman Sultans always refused to accept it.[6] In mid-1850, this traditional Turkish protection was reconfirmed in two fermans issued by Sultan Abdulmejid and the region’s independence was preserved against European penetration for over three hundred years starting from 16th century The Sultan of Aceh sent Abd ar-Rahman to Istanbul to seek the Sultan’s help when the Dutch made a last attempt to conquer Aceh in 1868. As a result, Mithat Pasha urged that the Ottoman fleet be dispatched to Sumatra.[7]

The second stage that of Sultan Abdulhamid’ s pan-Islamic policy opened a new relationship between the two peoples, because it was a constant source of worry for the Dutch and British colonial powers in Southeast Asia. Holland’s increasing penetration into Malay world in the 1890s caused the Malays to seek assistance and at least moral guidance from Istanbul.[8] The Ottoman Sultan, whom the Malays and Indonesians viewed as “Allah’s Shadow on Earth”[9] sent Muḥammad Kamil Bey as his Consul General to Batavia (1897-1899). This official reawakened the connection between the Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian Muslims. In addition, one of his most important roles in Batavia was to foster closer links between the Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern presses, such as the Arabic-language publications al-Malumat of Constantinople, Thamarat al-funun of Beirut, and several Egyptian newspapers—all of which complained about the injustices and oppression visited upon the Muslims by the Dutch.[10] These efforts bore some fruit, as seen in the mutinies in Southeast Asia. Religious passions began to be aroused in those Muslims who sincerely believed that the Europeans were trying to undermine their beliefs.

Britain’s war against the Ottoman Empire, as well as despotic Dutch colonialism, encouraged the region’s Muslims to attack the colonial powers wherever and whenever they could.[11] One important element of Sultan Abdulhamid II’s pan-Islam policy was reflected in the Singapore Mutiny of 1915, when Indian and Malay Muslims refused to obey the British order to deploy to the Middle East in order to fight the Turks.[12] As a result, 530 were arrested in connection with the ensuing conflicts, 47 were sentenced to death, 64 were exiled for life, 73 were exiled for lesser terms, 12 were imprisoned for rigorous terms, and 16 to shorter terms. The executions were considered barbaric.[13] Notwithstanding these executions, the mutiny was a potentially serious threat to the British colonial government.[14]

The third stage, which started after the caliphate was abolished, did not sever the strong connection between the two worlds. Undeniably, the main attraction for this relationship had always been the institution of caliphate as represented by the Ottoman Sultan in his capacity as the symbol of Muslim unity. Hitherto, the vision of Ottoman magnitude power, and glory and the all-powerful Caliph continued to exist among the Indian, Indonesian, and Malay Muslims. The masses of the Malay, as well as their political and intellectual leaders, looked to the Ottomans for inspiration and sympathized with them during the Turkish-Russian war of 1877, the First World War, the Turkish National Independence War, the Balkans wars and in many other events.[15]

As with the other Sultans of Johor, there was a unique connection between Istanbul and Johor. This was made especially clear when Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor, a new type of relationship had already started. Ruqayyah Hanım, a member of the Ottoman Sultan’s harem, was presented as an honorary gift to the Sultan. She married Ungku Abdul Majid after their arrival at Johor, and the couple had three sons, one of whom was Ungku Abdul Hamid, the father of Ungku Abdul Aziz, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya. Upon her husband’s death, Ruqayyah Hanım married Dato’ Jaafar. Seven children resulted from this union, one of whom, Dato’ Onn, founded UMNO; his son Tun Hussein was the third Prima Minister of Malaysia. After her second husband died, Ruqayyah Hanım married to Abdullah al-Attas, a well-known Yemeni Arab trader whose sole son, Ali al-Attas, had three sons, all of whom became leading personalities in their respective fields: Hussein Alatas (d. 2007) was an outstanding Malay sociologist and a founding member of the Malaysian People’s Movement Party; Naquib al-Attas (b. 1931) is a prominent Muslim Malay Sufi philosopher and scholar, as well as the founder and director of International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) and finally the current prime-minister of Malaysia Dato’ Sri Haji Mohd Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak (b. 1953) is also from the same family tree.

In sum, the Ottoman-Malay relationship is not a weak tie; rather, it is a very strong relationship rooted in both people’s respect of religious, cultural, and family-oriented relationships. Notwithstanding the great distance that separates them, they are united by their shared Islamic values.


Written by: Associate Prof. Dr Saim Kayadibi, Kulliyyah of Economics and Management Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM)



[1] Sayyid Qudratullah Fatimi, Islam Comes to Malaysia (Singapore: Malaysian Sociological Research Institute, 1963), 4.

[2] Mehmet Özay, Islamic Identity and Development Studies of the Islamic Periphery (Kuala Lumpur: Forum, 1990), 24.

[3] Sayyid Qudratullah Fatimi, ibid., 81.

[4] Snouck Hurgronje, The Achehnese, vol. 1 (Leyden: Brill, 1906), 208

[5] Anthony Reid, The Contest for North Sumatra, Atjeh, The Netherlands and Britain, 1858-1898 (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1969), qf. Mehmet Özay, ibid., 25.

[6] Hurgronje, ibid., 208-210.

[7] Anthony Reid, “Indonesian Diplomacy: A Documentary Study of Atjehnese Foreign Policy in the Reign of Sultan Mahmud, 1870-1874,” Journal of the Malay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (JAMBRAS) vol. 42, part 2, (1969), 121.

[8] Selim Deringil, Legitimacy Structures in the Ottoman State: The Reign of Abdulhamid II (1876-1909), International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 23, No. 3 (Aug. 1991), 350 (345-359).

[9] Anthony Reid, “Nineteenth Century Pan-Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia,” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 26, No. 2 (Feb. 1967), 267 (267-283).

[10] Reid, Nineteenth, ibid., 281 (267-283).

[11] A.J. Stockwell, “Imperial Security and Moslem Militancy, with Special Reference to the Hertogh Riots inSingapore (December 1950),” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 17, No. 2 (Sep. 1986), 331 (322-335).

[12] R.W.E. Harper and Harry Miller, Singapore Mutiny (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 25.

[13] Nicholas Tarling, “‘The merest pustule.’ The Singapore Mutiny of 1915,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society LV, 2 (1982), 50.

[14] Nadzan Haron, “Colonial Defence and British Approach to the Problems in Malaya 1874-1918,” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 24, No. 2 (May 1990), 293 (275-295).

[15] Zainal Abidin bin Ahmad Pendeta Za’ba, “A History of Malay Literature XIV: Modern Developments,” Journal of the Malay Branch of the Royal Society (December 1939), 151-152, qf. Mehmet Özay, ibid., 27.


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