Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Iranian & Persian in Malaysia

The Persian people are defined by the use of the Persian language as their mother tongue. However, the term Persian has also a supra-ethnic significance and has been historically referred to a part of Iranian peoples. The origin of the Persian people is traced to the ancient Indo-Europeans (Aryans). The Persians were originally part of a people known as the Aryans. The Aryans were cattle herders from the grasslands of central Asia. At about 2000 B. C., the Persians began to separate from the other Aryans. Finally, they settled on a plain between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, in modern day Iran, or "the land of the Aryans", who arrived in parts of Greater Iran circa 2000-1500 BCE. Starting around 550 BCE, from the region of Persis in southern Iran, encompassing the present Fars province, the ancient Persians spread their language and culture to other parts of the Iranian plateau through conquest and assimilated local Iranic and non-Iranic groups over time. This process of assimilation continued in the face of Greek, Arab, Mongol and Turkic invasions and continued right up to Islamic times.

Persian(Farsi) Language
Persian (Farsi) is the national language of Iran. Persian is one of the world's oldest languages, a well-recognized tongue as early as the 6th century B.C., it is an Indo-European language or particularly Irano-Aryan. This dialect was spoken in the province of Fars so its name derived from that. Three forms of Persian is identified by scholars: old, middle, and modern.

Old Persian, the language of the great Persian Empire, was utilized until the 3rd century BC. Old Persian extended from the Mediterranean to the Indus River in India. Cuneiform inscriptions of Darius used this language.

Middle Persian or Pahlavi, started in the 2nd century B.C., was written with a variation of Assyrian alphabet what can be seen in the Sassanian rock carvings. Middle Persian was used up to 9th century AD

With the Islamic conquest of the 7th century, Arabic script was modified to a non-semitic language. This modification resulted in an alphabet similar to Arabic, with a number of additional characters to accommodate special sounds, but they are altogether two different languages.

Modern Persian is spoken by over 40 million people in Iran and another 5 million in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan it is known as Dari. A variety of Persian called Tajik is spoken in the Tajikistan, and is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Other dialects found in Iran are; Baluchi spoken in Sistan and Baluchestan, and Gilaki spoken in Gilan, northern Iran.

Persian language ( فارسی or پارسی, Parsi) is an Iranian language within the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages. It is widely spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and to some extent in Iraq, Bahrain, and Oman. New Persian, which usually is called also by the names of Farsi, Parsi, Dari or Parsi-ye-Dari (Dari Persian), can be classified linguistically as a continuation of Middle Persian, the official religious and literary language of Sassanian Iran, itself a continuation of Old Persian, the language of the Achaemenids. Persian is a pluricentric language and its grammar is similar to that of many contemporary European languages. The Persian language has been a medium for literary and scientific contributions to the eastern half of the Muslim world(wikipedia).

Much of the northwestern subcontinent (present day Eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan) came under the rule of the Persian Achaemenid Empire in c. 520 BCE during the reign of Darius the Great, and remained so for two centuries thereafter.

The Persian Traders in early Malaya
In the early history of Malaysia, the Persian traders like Indian, Arabic, and Chinese traders come to Kedah, Malacca; and later on Penang, Singapore. But we do know whether there is still any early Persian people still remain in Malaysia,if there is any if they were Persian Muslim,they may have assimilated to local Malay community; if they are Christian, Jews, or Bahai; they may have migrated or moved to other places. However Persian cultural influence was extensive to Malay Peninsular and Acheh in Sumatra, especially on language, the Jawi.

Iran's cultural and trade relations with Southeast Asia date back far into the pre-Islamic period. The official diplomatic relations between the two regions, exemplified by the exchange of non-permanent missions rather than by permanent extraterritorial embassies, become traceable only during the Safavid period (1501-1722). There is evidence, at least, for Persians in Malacca for the early 16th century (Ferrier, p. 423, based on assertions by the early 16th-century travelers Ludovico de Varthema and Tome‚ Pires).

According to Kedah Annals(Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa), an ancient Malay literature that chronicles the bloodline of Merong Mahawangsa and the foundation of the Kedah, a state in Malaysia. Though there are historical accuracies, there are many incredible assertions. The era covered by the text ranged from the opening of Kedah by Merong Mahawangsa, allegedly a descendant of Alexander the Great of Macedonia till the acceptance of Islam. Merong Mahawangsa was a Hindu and there were nine Hindu rulers before Phra Ong Mahawangsa converted to Islam in 1136 and took the name Sultan Mudzafar Shah. The annal also describes Chola's attack on Kedah. The descendants of Phra Ong Mahawangsa is still ruling Kedah able to trace their lineage from Merong Mahawangsa. Kadaram (Kedah Kingdom 630-1136) was founded by Maharaja Derbar Raja of Gemeron(or now Bandar-Abbas (Persian: بندرعباس), Persia around 630 CE. The Persian-Hinduism dynasty ended with Phra Ong Mahawangsa converted to Islam and the Sultanate of Kedah continue to rule until today.

The Srivijayan Empire
The foreigners, mainly Chinese, Indian, Arab and Persian, who came to trade in the Malay Peninsula, stayed mainly in these coastal communities. Their accounts of their travels and of the trade carried out in the region constitute much of the foreign sources about the Srivijayan empire, there being only about six or seven indigenous inscriptions about that empire. As J.N. Miksic has observed, "There is no evidence that foreigners penetrated inland, but Greeks and other foreigners certainly resided in the coastal emporia" (1979: 14)

I Ching,a Chinese monk was abroad a Persian ship in 671 CE, just a few years after the end of Sassanian Empire. The discovery of two silver coins of Abbasid Dynasty(750-1258 CE)at the Merbok estuary near the city state of Tan-Tan in the Malay Peninsular(Wheatley, 1964). This indicated the Persian traders and their vessels while en-route to China,may have visited the ancient kingdom in Malaya.

Some of the early Persian traders may be Jews or Armenian from Persia (today Iran & Iraq). Some are the Persian Jew and Armenian traders who had stayed in West coast India,who played important role in the spices road from the Far East to Middle East, and Europe.

(i)Early Nestorian Christian
Early Christian presence in the Malay archipelago may be traced to Nestorians from as early as the 7th century and to Persian and Nestorian traders in Malacca prior to the Portuguese conquest in 1511. There is literary evidence that there was a trading community of these Christians on the Malay Peninsula either in Kedah or modern day Klang(source:

(ii) The Jew from Persia
From the eighth century B.C.E., when the Assyrian ruler Tiglath-Pileser deported 13,150 Israelites to Persia (according to the conqueror himself), to modern times, Jews have been at the forefront of international trade. The subsequent Babylonian exile added many thousands of Judahite families to the Persian/Babylonian milieu. Persia became the pivotal point from which trade between the eastern and the western worlds evolved. The Jews were the common denominator between those worlds.

Many Jews assumed Babylonian names, as is inevitably the case in a Diaspora. Nonetheless, eight per cent of the clients of the banking families can be identified as Jews from their names alone. This percentage corres-ponds roughly to the proportion of Jews among the official population, which, before the influx of the deportees from Jerusalem and Judah, amounted to over six per cent of the total. The Aramaic form of many other names and sugges-tive facts indicate that the actual percentage was far higher.

The trail of Jewish sea-faring traders of the Roman period leads us as far as the southwest coast of India where Jews are said to have disembarked in the year 72 C.E. at Cranganore, an ancient seaport north of Cochin. The Jews adopted the local tongue, Malayalam, except for services, which continued to be conducted in Hebrew and Aramaic.

The Cochin Jews were mainly spice traders, and the few Jewish families who are left still carry on a trade in cardamon, pepper, ginger, turmeric and other spices, just as they did in the early days of the Common Era. This Persian Jews from India, or Cochin Jews were active traders along the coast of Strait of Malacca.

(iii)The Armenian from Persia
The Armenians are one of the most scattered races in the world. Whether enticed by better prospects elsewhere or forced to flee by conquest, they have put down roots in many new lands. When conditions for some Armenians long domiciled in Persia became untenable, they looked for new homes, turning towards India and later, Penang and Singapore. the Armenian obsession with commerce that led its traders to come to Indian across the overland route from Persia, through Afghanistan and Tibet in the 12th century. The Armenians became the first merchants to carry back from India spices, muslin and precious stones to Europe and the Middle East. The first reference to Armenians settling down in India is dated to the 16th century, during the reign of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar. Aware of the Armenian merchants’ integrity and shrewd nose for business, Akbar invited them to settle in Agra, the imperial capital. In 1562. he married an Armenian, referred to as Mariam Zamani Begum in Abul Fazal’s Ain-I-Akbari. In Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s deserted capital, there exists a four-room building known as Mariam’s House. Remarkable for its skillful miniatures and its gilding it was built by Akbar for her.

There were Armenian Persian in early Penang, some were from India. Armenian Persian were traders involved in the spice trade and silk trade in the east.

(iv) Islamic Persian traders at Parsai and Malacca

Muslims invaded Iran in the time of Umar (637) and conquered it after several great battles. Yazdegerd III fled from one district to another until a local miller killed him for his purse at Merv in 651. By 674, Muslims had conquered Greater Khorasan (which included modern Iranian Khorasan province and modern Afghanistan, Transoxania, and Pakistan). The Islamic conquest of Persia led to the end of the Sassanid Empire and the eventual decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Persia. After the Islamic conquest of Persia, most of the urban lands of the Sassanid empire with the exception of Caspian provinces and Transoxiana came under Islamic rule. Iran was gradually Islamized after the collapse of the Sassanid empire; however, it was not Arabized. Iranian culture re-emerged with a separate and distinctive character and made an immense contribution to the Islamic civilization. Today, most Iranians are Muslims; 90% belong to the Shi'a branch of Islam, the official state religion.

There must be some Islamic traders who had visited Malaya after 674 AD, and may played a role not only in trade but also propagation of Islamic religion.

The sea routes, known as "spice route" were originally used by merchants and travelers from India and Iran. When Iran was turned into an Islamic state by the Arabs, Arabic merchants then sailed to India, the Malay Archipelago, all of south-East Asia and on to China. Arab and Iranian ships from Jeddah, Aden, Al-Syihr, Suhar, Muscat and Siraf, would arrive at Kedah port between the months of June and November and returned to India between the months of December to May, every year. The secret of a strong wind, which blew six here and another six months was a tightly kept secret by sailors of the East so that it would not reach the ears of Western sailors. Their knowledge on changes in season as well changes in wind direction, sea currents and movement of stars resulted in the production of a special calendar, which was jealously guarded.(source:

Pasai, Sumatra
The Persian influence on Pasai was strong, and it spread the influence to other Malay states. Pasai, also known as Samudera and Samudera-Pasai sometimes called Samudera Darussalam was a Muslim harbour kingdom on the north coast of Sumatra from the 13th to the 15th centuries CE. It was the first Muslim-Malay kingdom in the fourteenth century. Its grandeur was only possible because its position as an important trading centre on the Straits of Malacca. There were constant interchanges between the states in the area. Pasai exported its culture, and most importantly its language, Jawi. Pasai is believed derived from Parsi, Pase or Parsee, immigrants of Parsi-Indian(Indian Zoroastrians from Persia) to the west coast of India namely Gujarat, and later to northern Sumatra of today's Aceh province.

The son of the Parameswara, sultan of Malacca married a daughter of the sultan of Pasai and embraced Islam. There were undeniable interactions between Pasai and Malacca in religious, literary and political fields. Pasai was the place where problems relating to Islam were solved. The Sejarah Melayu was written with the Hikayat Raja Pasai as model. Pasai was held in high esteem in Malacca.

As reported by Tomé Pires, who was in Malacca in 1513, Pasai was a richcountry with a flourishing trade, among the merchants trading in Pasai were Bengalis, Turks, Arabs, Persians, Gujaratis, Indians, Malays, Javanese and Siamese. The capital had more than 20.000 inhabitants. The country produced pepper, silk and gum benzoin. Rice was cultivated only for domestic consumption( Tom Pires, Suma Oriental pg 142).

Arabic script as it is used for the Malay language was developed from the system of writing achieved by adapting Arabic script to the Persian language. In translating Persian literature into Malay the way Arabic script is used shows that it has already been transformed for Persian use. For phonemes not found in the Arabic alphabet new letters were created by adding a dot or dots to the existing Arabic letters. This script is called the Jawi alphabet. An early form of Malay written in the Jawi alphabet, the language became the lingua franca among traders in what is now Indonesia and Malaysia.

Persian influence on Sunni Islam in the Malay Archipelago
Islam does not have a concept of a Separation of church and state and has been the official religion and part of the governments of Iran since the Islamic conquest of Iran circa 640 AD. It took another few hundred years for Shi'a Islam to gather and become a religious and political power in Iran.
The Mongol ruler Ghazan converted to Shi'a Islam in 1310 AD and made it the state religion. Iran's first encompassing Shi'a Islamic state was established under the Safavid Dynasty (1501–1722) by Shah Ismail I. In 1501, the Safavid dynasty established Twelver Shi'a Islam as the official state religion of Iran. The Safavid Dynasty soon became a major political power and promoted the flow of bilateral state contacts.

The Islamic Iranian trader during 14th and after, may be Shi'tes.

In view of Persian and Indian Muslim influence, there are still Shi`ite traces in the Sunnite Islam practiced in latter day Aceh. The commemoration of the `Asyura (Persian: the tenth of Muúarram), the death of Husain, son of `Ali and Fatimah and grandson of the Prophet was celebrated. In Persia and Muslim India this Festival of remembrance is observed in a grand manner. In Aceh this day is called Acura or Asan-Usén (îasan-îusain grandsons of the Prophet) and was celebrated eating a special kind of porridge (consisting of rice, coconut milk, sugar, and pieces of such chopped fruits, as pomegranates), which is called kanji Acura. It is cooked in a great pan for the consumption of the whole village. This occasion is also remembered at several other places elsewhere in Indonesia.

Parsee trader in early Penang
"The Parsees come from Bombay and Surat;some of the higher sort are merchants,the lower order are chiefly shipwrights, and are esteemed excellent workmen.They are remarkably quite, well behaved people;it is much to be wished that their members were augmented,which will certainly be the case if the shipping of this port increases"(source: The Asiatic Annual Register, Vol IX, for the year 1807).

In 1832, along with Malacca and Singapore, Penang became part of the British Straits Settlements. Since Penang Island is situated on the trading route of the Straits of Malacca, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Europeans, including the Dutch and British, were competing to open up the East Indian trading routes. The settlement quickly attracted people of all descents: Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Bugis, Arabs, Armenians, Persians, Siamese, Burmese and Sumatrans. Chinese and Indians were drawn to the Straits Settlement during the second half of the nineteenth century by the booming tin and rubber industries.

The Jewish population, mostly Sephardim, migrated mainly from Baghdad and other communities in the Near East. The new community also included Sephardim from Persia and Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe, searching for both religious freedom and economic opportunity. Some went first to Malaysia, and then on to Singapore when Malaysia did not offer the freedoms and opportunities they had originally sought. The former president of the Jewish community, David Marshall, stayed in Singapore. He was born in 1908 to a Baghdad-Persian Jewish family and studied law in England before he joined the British Army as a volunteer and traveled to Singapore. When the British granted Singapore partial independence in 1955, Marshall was appointed as the first Chief Minister(source: Many of the Jews in Penang, their ancestry is Persian. There were businessman, migrated from Baghdad in the 19th century, joining the community in Penang that consisted of numerous watch dealers. Many of them have now migrated to other countries.

The Iranian students today
A number of Iranians are flocking to Malaysia, attracted by a fellow Islamic country with a relatively low cost of living, instead of pursuing their dreams in traditional exile hubs such as Canada or Sweden.

Wherever they go, the flight of educated Iranians in search of work and study is part of an ongoing "Brain Drain" which is depriving the country of some of its most talented young people.

"Easy visa, high educational standards, freedom, low costs of living and great transportation facilities" are among Malaysia's attractions for Iranian students

Related articels

1. Iranians flock to Muslim Malaysia, not West,
2. Iranian expatriates in Malaysia,
3. Malaysia bars Iranian Nobel laureate Ebadi amid protests,
4. Police fire teargas on 700 Iranians at Wisma UN (Update),
5. Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: Early medieval India and the expansion of Islam, 7th-11th centuries(1996), by André Wink, published by EJ BRILL
7. From Isfahan to Ayutthaya. Contacts between Iran and Siam in the 17th century(2004), by M Ismail Marcinkowski, published by Pustaka Nasional Ltd, Singapore.
8. The Persian Influence Over Ayuthiya (Ayutthaya), - the roots of Iran-Thailand cultural ties date back 400 years to the time when Sheikh Ahmad Qomi, an Iranian scholar, traveled to Ayutthaya and later was appointed to a very high position in the Thais Court.

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