Certain parties in Australia today with a pernicious agenda try to portray Islam as inherently violent.
History in the littoral Indian Ocean proves differently. It is European powers that resorted to terror and violence, coveting the lands and resources belonging to native populations.
Arab and Persian Muslim ships were foremost in the long distance Indian Ocean trade for 800 years.
In the 7th century CE Muslims had developed the sea route to China. The first maps depicting parts of northern Australia were drawn by Arabs who visited Australia from the 9th century onwards (also suggested by 900 year-old Kilwa coins found in Arnhem Land).
Historical accounts suggest trading relations were relatively peaceful between independent city-states without a single power trying to eliminate all others from the Indian Ocean trade.
The manner in which Arab, Persian and Indian Muslims traded gained the respect of indigenous merchants, which facilitated the widespread peaceful adoption of Islam. This thriving trade was witnessed by chroniclers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta.
Muslims can justifiably feel proud of the conduct of these early Muslims who respected the peoples and cultures with whom they interacted. This approach accords with Qur’anic teachings that we are all children of Adam and not to initiate hostilities:
“Fight in the way of God against those who fight you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggressors.” (Quran, 2:190). Further, Quran, 6:51 presents the principle that all life is sacred: “do not kill the person, which God has forbidden, except to achieve justice.”
This enviable situation abruptly changed from the first incursion of Europeans, not interested in competitive trade, but in totally dominating it.
Vasco D Gama was the first European to take the Cape of Good Hope route to India in 1498. In the very first visit to Mombasa port, the Portuguese ships with heavy cannons resorted to piracy, looting unarmed merchant ships.
There had been little reason previously for Arab ships to be so armed.
Other Portuguese followed and Alfonso D’Albuquerque among others from 1507 onwards brutally subdued Muslim ports in east Africa (Kilwa Sultanate), Bengal, Qalhat, Muscat and Malacca. In Qalhat he destroyed the city and cut off the ears and noses of all surviving prisoners.
Portuguese took territory all the way to China. Other European powers attracted to the Roman model of military conquest and usurpation of indigenous wealth, successfully challenged Portuguese primacy and developed their own hegemony.
Peter Fitzsimons’ book “Batavia” records that the Dutch colonial governor-general Coen, cornered the Indonesian spice trade by massacring 44 Banda native chiefs, forcing their families to watch their painful deaths and quartering of their bodies by Japanese samurai mercenaries: “By the end of the Dutch campaign … the entire native population had been all but wiped out, with just a thousand surviving … only kept alive so they could be used as forced labour on the nutmeg groves.”
Muslims from the Indonesian archipelago had warm relations with Aboriginal communities of northern Australia prior to arrival of the Europeans.
This involved mainly seasonal fishing trips though evidence for long-term relationships is indicated by the adoption of Islamic elements in some native practices, intermarriages, and Aboriginal visits to Ambon.
This peaceful exchange was stopped by the new ‘owners’ of Australia. The British arrived and not acknowledging that Aboriginals were humans declared Australia Terra Nullius. This led to the often violent taking of Aboriginal lands and savage ‘clearances’ of Aboriginal communities.
It would be a wonderful aspiration for Australians today to take the high road in their mutual relations between ethnicities in the manner of the early Muslim traders, and work towards ensuring that Australia, as well as the wider littoral Indian Ocean countries, are developed as peaceful havens in a world of increasing discord.
Dr Daud Batchelor, an Australian Muslim, was Associate Fellow until December 2015 at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies Malaysia.
He holds an MA in Islamic and Other Civilisations and a Diploma in Islamic Studies from the International Islamic University Malaysia, PhD from University of Malaya, MSc from the University of London, and MEngSc in environmental management from Griffith University.