Arab travel to Southeast Asia (the region encompassing present-day Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore) started from at least the 9th century A.D. and continues to the present day.1 Most of the pioneer Arabs came from Hadhramaut, a region in Yemen. 2 They came as traders and as Islamic religious teachers.3 In 1380, Sheikh Karim al Makhdum, an Arab missionary, constructed a mosque in Sulu, which remains today as the oldest mosque in the Philippines.4 Although Arab and Indian Muslims had visited the region earlier, large scale conversions of the native populations of Indonesia and Malaya did not happen until the 13th century.5 Today Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country.
Intermarriage with local women was common, with Arab immigrants marrying into Filipino, Indonesian or Malay Muslim families.6 "Having a common religion, many Arabs choose to marry the Malays." said Syed Abdullah, president of the Arab Association in Singapore. "The Arabs now speak Malay and practise Malay culture in the way they dress, the food they eat and their way of life."7 An Indonesian Arab told visiting NYU Professor Michael Gilsenan that all the wives in his branch of the family were Javanese.8 According to Dr. H. Otley Beyer, noted American anthropologist, the racial ancestry of Filipinos is 2 percent Arab.9
The histories of Arabs in the different countries of the Malay world (Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia) are inextricably linked, with Arab re-migration within the region. For example, Arabs moved from Indonesia to Singapore and from Malaysia to the Philippines. The Sultanate of Sulu was established in 1450 in the Philippines by Hashim Abubakar, son of an Arab from Hadramaut and a princess from Johore (part of present day Malaysia).10
For various reasons, some Arab descendants chose to abandon a distinct identity and assimilate into native society. In Indonesia, where some Arabs collaborated with the Dutch colonialists, having an Arab identity became politically incorrect in the post-Colonial era and in some cases was a cause for scorn from the locals.11 Although Arabs did not encounter the same issues in Malaysia and Singapore due to different historical dynamics, some Arab descendants have chosen to identify as Malay to gain educational and other privileges specific to bumiputra (natives). The number of Arabs in census counts have declined over the years for this reason.12
However, distinct Arab communities still exist in Southeast Asia. Siti Hamidah Bahashwan, a Singapore Arab-Malay, feels cultural differences are still evident. "My father is Arab but my mother's side is Malay, and when we have our regular family gatherings, I can see the difference in personality. The Arab side of my family tends to be more bold and confrontational."13