The Bugis and the Sogdians: Two Merchant Peoples in Asia with a Mission

Last night here in Singapore I had the privilege to speak at the graduation of a six-week seminar called School of Transforming Business. Singapore is an epicenter helping fuel the present and future dynamism of Asia’s economies. (See my last post, in part on Singapore  Treat the Stranger With Tender, Loving Care-For You Were One Also ) Just a few minutes away from the venue where I shared is the MRT (Metro Rapid Transit) station called Bugis, a bustling shopping and entertainment  area (photo above). This area has a very colorful history that included at one time a place where transvestite sex workers plied their trade. But the street and area is named after a fascinating seafaring people group, who were some of the most famous merchants (and at times pirates) of the 17th century onwards. Spreading from Sulawesi in Indonesia, the Bugis began coming into Singapore not long after the British arrived in 1819. They made Singapore one of their strongest hubs, gradually acquiring land and settling permanently.

The Bugis are now largely forgotten as a merchant people in Asia, though having a very rich history. They not only engaged in business, but also to some degree spread their Muslim faith throughout Southeast Asia. They were one of many examples in history of a people group that combined merchant activities with the spread of faith. Throughout Asia and much of the world in history, faith and commerce was not as separated as it is today. There were much stronger links and the lines were not as clearly drawn.

Another people group in history known as some of the greatest merchants were the Sogdians who lived in Central Asia. I have written about them before, and though almost forgotten today outside scholarly circles, they deserve much more attention. (See my post Peter Frankopan and the Sogdians) The Sogdians lived and worked along the Silk Roads of Asia, and spread their various religious faiths that included Manichaeism and Christianity. It has become almost a yearly event in the nations of Central Asia as well as China to have archaeological digs uncover more documents that relate to the Sogdians and other peoples along the Silk Roads.

Last night I briefly mentioned the Sogdians in my graduation message. It felt strange in some ways to talk about these forgotten merchants to a group of primarily Singaporeans as well as people of about nine other nations, including China and India. But was it that strange? The Sogdians, and Bugis for that matter, were forerunners of the group last night, people committed not only to make money in their business ventures but also to spread their religious faith to others. These groups were separated by several centuries and in different regions of Asia, but similar in their far-ranging merchant activities.

There are many more stories to uncover in Asia in the first 1500 years after Christ, before the Colonial Empires of the West began their own versions of business and mission. Next on the scene around 1500 would be the Portuguese, with a very strong commitment to spread their own version of the Christian faith along with engaging in commerce and subjagation of the local peoples they would encounter. But that is another story.

I’m glad the Bugis have their own street and area in Singapore. The Sogdians need theirs as well somewhere in Central Asia! Perhaps they already do and I don’t know about it. Because we don’t want to forget these important peoples from previous eras in Asia. 

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